By the time his dinner companion entered the boardwalk bistro situated along the Hudson River, Hugh Oscar was already well into his fourth steak. The vampire scooped up the slab of meat and licked the blood as it drizzled onto his plate. The meat was so rare it might has well have never seen a flame, in fact Hugh was pretty sure it hadn’t and that was how he preferred it.
The man who’d just joined him was middle-aged and dark skinned. His face was not one that had been sculpted for the purposes of conveying pleasure and it didn't do so now. A moment after he’d taken his seat, he hauled an enormous duffle bag onto the table and started spreading folders, papers and a binder wherever there was an empty spot. When he ran out of room, he started to stack.
When he’d finished this, he hooked a pair of reading glasses onto his nose and whipped out a red pen.
“Hoi,” said Hugh, tapping an annoyed fork against the edge of his glass. Getting no response, he follow up with several “hey!”s before a finger snap under the man’s nose achieved its desired effect.
“What?” Benny muttered, not bothering to look up.
“What’s all this?
There was a hollow silence between the two that lasted long enough for Hugh to start to hear the sound of the pub clock ticking across the room. Hugh took a bite of his steak and for a few moments the sound of his chewing drowned out the metronomic ticking. After he swallowed, it was back again, ringing in his ears, waiting for someone to upstage it with speech.
“Are you going to be doing that the whole time?”
“I have to get these papers graded sometime this year,” Benny sighed. “Look. Toby McGuiness, chronic mis-speller.” He held up a paper littered with red marks, taking a second glance before adding a few more. “Then there’s Sarah Bernstein. Great kid, but always writes about twice as much as I asked for. It’s—”
“Wait. Aren’t you a math teacher?”
“Impact and Applications of L'Hôpital's Rule. AP Calculus.” Benny chuckled unpleasantly at the mention of his pet topic.
Hugh squinted at him as if trying to scrutinize some parasite that’d just popped up on his face. He picked up a round bone, what was left of his steak and rolled it around in his mouth. The gesture caught Benny’s attention and the sardonic smile melted from his face.
“How many of those have you had?”
“Have I ever told you about, when I was in high school—”
“You never went to high school,” said Benny to the vampire who had never gone to school at all.
“Yeah,” agreed Hugh. “I meant when I was ‘bout that age. Still running ‘round with the boys back in London.”
“Yeah?” Benny said, absently.
As morbidly curious as he was to hear another tale of Hugh’s sordid past, Sarah’s seven-page eulogy sat, awaiting an appointment with the the red pen. Besides, few things could have surpassed hearing about the time Hugh and his friends had tried to auction off the London police chief's collection of antique top hats. The vampire could save his best cards until after Benny had footed the evening’s bill.
After nearly three years association with the former gangster, Benny had formulated a mental picture of London as a desolate wasteland where the youth of the age were robbed of moral conscience by hard liquor and cheap heroin. And that was assuming they ever had any to begin with.
He checked off the first few paragraphs of the paper. For a few minutes, Hugh stayed silent, but Benny’s refusal to even look up at his orator didn’t stop him from trying to make himself heard.
"I was seventeen," he continued. Having tossed his polished steak bone back onto its plate, he started combing his fangs with a toothpick. When he'd finished, he pinched the stick between his lips and eased back in his chair. "There'd been an increase in arrests the week before and things at the apartment were slow.”
Benny let out a hopeless sigh and gestured the waiter over for a slice of tiramisu. He could stay up a couple hours once he got home, and Hugh went off on his nightly prowl. A few coffees in the morning and he’d be as right as rain.
“It was around two in the afternoon,” Hugh went on. “I was taking a stroll through Hyde Park while having my after-breakfast cigarette and giving the swans their daily kicks, when I spotted her sitting on a bench, staring into one of those tiny mirrors.”
“Who?” asked Benny, who liked to get things straight.
“Just listen,” Hugh dismissed. “I go up to her. ‘It’s you!’ I says. ‘Whose?’ she says. ‘You who picked us up outside the jewelry store last week.’.”
The girl was dressed differently, formal, relative to the last time they’d met but Hugh never forgot a face. Hers was square with a hard jaw, and bright eyes that reflected her thoughts as clearly as un-rippled water. She shut her mirror with a click, looking up at the young man whose long shadow cast over where she sat and started to laugh.
“You were the one who was bleeding,” her dark curls bouncing as she cried out in delight.
“That took a bit,” Hugh smirked. “How often do you offer heist guys rides in your car?”
“I’m sorry, I just wasn’t expecting to see you here.” She got to her feet and threw her arms around him. If her embrace hadn’t been so tight, Hugh would have jumped. “Your head’s looking a little better.”
Hugh gave his forehead a tap. “Old Pill got most of the glass out.”
“He’s the weedy one with the glasses, yeah?” the girl asked, wagging her finger meditatively. “Why haven’t I seen you all around more? I ought to know your face.”
Hugh's face was not an attractive one, but it also wasn't one that would be easily forgotten. He had broad, flat shoulders without the muscular structure that would have made such a build impressive, and a broken nose that sat beneath a thick unibrow.
“If you keep driving around Piccadilly, chauffeuring men in dark masks, we ought to turn up eventually,” he chortled. “Where you off to in that get-up?
The girl picked dispassionately at her clothes. Hugh had hit a Ming vase of a nerve. For her, it had been an unpleasant day on top of an unpleasant week. And upon further introspection, she had concluded the month in general had been pretty unpleasant. The thought of alleviating that unpleasantness onto someone else seemed just what the doctor ordered.
“Uh, it’s just for this job interview my dad dragged me into at the bank. He wants me to work during the summer, can you believe it? I mean it’s isn’t like we need the money. He’s got enough to massacre the Foreign Legion.”
Hugh took the cigarette from between his lips and seated himself beside her on the bench. He hadn't lit it yet, but he liked the taste of the papery wrap in his mouth.
"Tsh!" she concluded, spitting on the pavement. Hugh only just managing to save his shoes from being hit by her mouth projectiles. Not that his shoes were all that nice, but one likes to keep up the pretense.
He sat musing silently for a while. He didn’t like ending a conversation on a bitter note, but he’d run out of topics for the moment. For a while he contemplated sharing the dirty limerick he’d heard Iggy recite the week before. She seemed like the type of girl who’d appreciate it.
But just as he’d made up his mind, he realized that he’d completely forgotten how it went. There was something about using dynamite as a substitute and…
He was snapped out of his thoughts by her clicking shut and reopening her mirror. She was in a despondent mood and probably wouldn’t make a very receptive audience.
“Once you got it all done with, how’s about letting me take you somewhere for us to unwind?” he struck his match and blew a few beckoning smoke rings. The girl turned, pointing her knees at him.
“What’s your name?” she said inquiringly.
“Nicky. Burnet.” She put her mirror away and got up.
She seemed to hesitate for a moment, shooting glances between an inquisitive Hugh and the four brick walls that loomed on her horizon. Suddenly, she reached out and grabbed Hugh by one of his burly arms.
"Screw it. I'm not going in there. Come on." She hooked the strap of her purse on her shoulder and began dragging Hugh along the path. "Where are you taking me?"
As Hugh didn't have anywhere specific in mind, he allowed Nicky to lead on as she seemed to intend anyways. Where they ended up was a little cafe a few blocks off Trafalgar Square where a table by the window gave them a cozy view of all the midday traffic jams. Once they had settled, Hugh became contributive.
"Don't like it? Why do it? That's always been my life's motto."
"I wish. My dad’s gonna kick my ass when I get home,” she said, though speaking with a slight smile on her lips.
"It's worked for me all these years." Hugh shrugged. "You don't seem the kind of bird who'd have trouble asserting herself. So why don't you go and says to your dad, 'Fuck off'." Nicky rolled her eyes, amusedly.
"Or you could always live on your own,” he went on. “Been done before. Look at me. Haven't seen my mum since I was fourteen."
"That's the one of the reasons I’ve been hesitating."
"Not seeing your mum?"
"No, looking at you."
Hugh ignored the jibe. There had been a recklessness and familiarity to it. Like how his friends would speak among one another. It was refreshing, he thought, to meet a comparative stranger who spoke in such a careless way.
"Then look at this." he said, reaching a hand towards her ear. With a flick of the wrist he'd pulled out a silver coin and set it onto the table. Then reaching again he pulled out a ten-pound note and then a few more coins.
"Take a look at your wallet," he urged, flashing a crooked grin. "Swiped it off you while we were at the park. Slipped it back just now. Oh wait, there's one more." He pulled a fiver from her collar and laid it on the table with the rest.
Nicky picked up the bill and examined it, then looked inside her wallet as if she was trying to remember how much she'd left home with that morning. A moment later, she grabbed Hugh by the arm and dug her finger up his sleeve, loosening a few more coins he'd concealed.
"All in the spirit of fun.”
Nicky forced a serious look, but a moment later was doing her best, and failing, not to smile.
"So, are you a bad jewel thief, amateur magician or just a pickpocket?" she asked, haughtily.
"Whatever’ll bring in a tenner the quickest," Hugh shrugged. “We’re jacks-of-all-trades down in the south end.”
"I can count on you for the bill then?”
"I wouldn't go that far.” He coughed.
"Well,” Nicky teased, taking out a card and sliding it over to their waiter. “Maybe just this once I’ll let you slip out of your duty as a gentleman.”
“And may you grow to get used to it,” Hugh added, raising a glass.
“Yes,” Nicky grinned completing the toast. Hugh let a whistle escape from the corner of his mouth.
"You're a Wonder Girl."
"And of course, she didn't notice until later that I’d slipped a couple of fivers from her pocket," Hugh added wistfully.
"I guess some things never change,” Benny sighed hauling himself forward in his seat. He fiddled with his glasses for a moment before putting them back on. “Though with you I don’t think anything ever has.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been pretty lucky.”
“Luck is not the word I’d use to describe it,” he scoffed, making a couple more marks on the paper. “Luck is finding a dollar on a sidewalk.”
“Karma’s a myth.”
“Yes, I think you prove that,” Benny chuckled. “So, anything ever come off between you and Nicky?”
Hugh gave his steak bone a thoughtful prod. “We saw each other a few times here and there after that. She had school most days and the boys and I’d got a business of our own to look after."
"Don't you hate when it rains?" Nicky sighed as the two of them watched the downpour that had birthed from a drizzle in a matter of moments.
"Disgusting." Hugh agreed.
They were back in the same little cafe they'd eaten in the first day, as they'd had become accustomed to doing. Nicky wasn't an overly sentimental type, who would have no doubt tried to weave emotional significance into their choice of eatery. It was just that she was a creature of habit and had no interest in taking the gamble of finding a new place each week. Hugh liked to be somewhat more impulsive, but seldom found it in him to complain about a free meal.
"I forgot my umbrella," Nicky remarked, delicately brushing back her freshly curled hair. She eyed Hugh thoughtfully for a moment and smiled. Catching her gaze, he leaned back defensively in his seat.
"Heck, if you think I'm going hand over my coat just to keep your hair dry."
"Aw..." she pouted her lips, but the gesture was playful and there was plain affection in her eyes. This vanished in a flash as something not far off caught her eye. Her gaze widened, and she clutched at the arm of her seat.
"What are you doing here?!"
Before Hugh could turn to see who, she was addressing, a stout, bearded man with hair graying by the ears, stormed up to their table from the door. Though he'd obviously spotted them the second he entered, Nicky still attempted to shield her face from his gaze.
"Who is this?" the man demanded, pointing accusingly at Hugh. Nicky didn't respond, her expression hardened as she glared in the opposite direction. Hugh looked back and forth between the two of them before intervening.
"I'd like to know too," he said candidly, turning towards the man. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"He's my dad," Nicky spat, somehow managing to provide an answer to both questions at once.
"And what do you do for a living?" the man inquired, addressing Hugh at last. "Musician? Truck driver? Garden gnome?"
"You dated a truck driver?" Hugh burst out into laughter. Nicky groaned and sunk into her chair.
"Don't you try and change the subject! What's your name?" he roared, going back to his first question.
“Oscar,” Nicky added, passionately.
“Oscar,” Hugh agreed, sympathetically imitating her impotent rage.
He found the man less than intimidating, not only because he was significantly shorter, but because he'd stormed into the cafe without so much as a baseball bat, something which Hugh had known to tip the scales on quite a few occasions. Of course, for someone of his stature, a gun might have worked even better, but as he had neither on him, Hugh found himself unshaken.
"And what do you do?"
"A few different things. Mostly I brew dope in the apartment.”
There was an elongated pause. “Was that the best thing to admit?” Nicky asked.
“No, but I did, and I’ll stand by it,” Hugh declared with all the conviction of a newly elected member of parliament.
"That's because most of your lot have got the IQs of mentally deficient turnips," Mr. Burnett hollered. He grabbed his daughter roughly by the arm and yanked her out of her seat. "You're coming home with me."
"Hey! Let go!" Nicky screamed, violently slamming her foot atop his.
He let out a groan and loosened his grip, allowing his daughter to flee recklessly into the rain. By the time he had recovered, Nicky had disappeared, and all the man could do was stare after her, petulantly.
"Is she always like that with you?"
"Now look here. I don't ever want to see you around Nichole again. Is that clear?"
"And I didn't intend on seeing her again after that. His threats were as empty as my bank account of course, but his whole spiel just sort of ruined the mood for me. I mean, when you're with a girl and her father butts his head in, suddenly the thing turns into an affair of the forbidden lovers and whatnot. You can't blame a bloke for not being able to see a girl the same way after that. Course, I've never actually read any of the trash put out by sexually inadequate women, but I'm sure it's soppy."
"Tch, I’d say," Benny muttered under his breath.
"Those were the days before cellphones, so I couldn't call her without her dad picking it up and saying, 'I know it's you!'. Man was a lunatic. I tried to call her three or four times the next week to tell her the whole thing was off, but no luck. Instead, in she pops one night with about a dozen bags and suitcases stuffed under each arm."
The evening had been a quiet one and Hugh had spent a majority of the day lounging. Most of his friends had been released weeks ago and were wandering the streets like they usually did, only to return to the apartment with the day's spoils in the evening. Hugh would typically go out with them, but it was his turn to look after the apartment and the 'delicate operation' going on in the back room. He had been channel surfing for several hours when Nicky entered. It wasn't until she slammed the door shut that he noticed she'd come in.
He had grown accustomed to her presence in the apartment for the last few weeks, and so had most of the members of his troop. After Hugh had given her a spare key, she'd practically become one of the boys, popping over occasionally after school, and telling her father she was studying with friends.
"Hey." Hugh turned towards her, draping his body limply over the back of the couch.
"Mind if I camp out here for a few days... or weeks?"
Hugh gave a small shrug. "Stay as long as you want. The boys like it when you're over. But—”
"I sort of ran away.”
"Yeah, I can see that."
"I won't leech off you guys if that's what you're thinking," Nicky said, setting down her bags and tying her jacket comfortably around her waist. "I'll do my part here and there. You got anything in the fridge? I'm starving." She let herself into the kitchen and started rummaging.
"Leech all you want," Hugh said, turning off the TV and shoving a pile off dirty clothes and wrappers off the opposite end of the couch to clear the space. "As the French say, my home is your home. Something go on between you and the gov?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
"Alright." Hugh shrugged.
Nicky returned from the kitchen and plopped down beside him with a turkey and swiss in hand. She took a huge bite of the sandwich and started masticating. Hugh watched her awkwardly, not knowing whether or not he should speak or let her blow off steam on her own.
"Turn it back on," she urged, stretching out a hand for the remote. Hugh passed it to her. Once it was in reach, she wordlessly snatched it from his hands. She pressed a few random buttons, trying to get the thing to turn on, but without luck. After a few moments of her struggling with it, Hugh took the remote back and the TV flickered on.
For a while, he watched her flip through the channels, mashing on the button with almost homicide vehemence. Before a new program could even appear on he screen, Nicky had already flown by it.
Hugh frowned. He felt something urging him towards her, but he held back, instead reaching for a glass and unscrewing a bottle of scotch. Nicky was prideful. She didn’t want to be pitied. Whatever she was feeling, she could work it out on her own and be better off for it. He raised the glass to his lips just as Nicky swirled towards him, resting a hand on his shoulder and waving her sandwich around like a baton with the other.
"You know the feeling right?” she asked, almost pleadingly. "Of having someone else controlling every aspect of your life?" she scoffed at her own question. "I mean that's why you're here, right? I wish I could have been like you and done this years ago."
"No, I don't actually," Hugh said. "My mother's a big fan of the bottle, bless her soul." He put a hand to his chest, fondly and emptied his glass in a single shot. "And my gov was a car thief." He gave his lips a smack as he poured himself another.
Hugh shrugged. "Well he went and got himself shot when I was six, though he was pretty well off while he was still kicking."
"I guess that just makes me the black sheep of my flock."
"An improvement," Hugh toasted. "Do you know what your dad said to me when I called at your house last week?"
The waiter returned just as Hugh finished his story. Benny waited for him to set the food down and depart again before he spoke.
"That was practically tame for you," he said with an air of near incredulity. "The first time you told a story that wasn't about you doing something illegal. I was expecting things to go horribly wrong at some point."
There was a long and strange silence as Benny picked through the toppings on his desert. Hugh’s attention had seemingly been diverted to something at the other end of the room. He picked up his pen again. It was the perfect time to get in a couple more paragraphs before the vampire dove into another tale.
As he paused to take in another mouthful, Benny let out a resigned breath and put down his fork.
"I have to ask," he said finally. "Did she end up going back to her dad?"
Though the vampire had made the late Mr. Burnett out as a man with his fair load of problems, Benny didn’t have much more faith in her condition with Hugh as her benefactor. He guy had his moments, but a caretaker of troubled teens he most certainly was not. Heck, in his day, he’d probably been the King of troubled teens.
"Yeah. Eventually," Hugh replied, matter-a-factly. "Married and moved to Manchester last time I checked, but that was more than thirty years ago." He gave his lips a wistful pucker. "I wonder how the old girl's doing."
"If she ever saw you again, she'd probably have a heart attack."
Despite a little inevitable paleness, sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks, the vampire only looked around forty. All his friends and acquaintances, assuming they hadn’t long since keeled over from liver disease or lung cancer, might have been old enough to be mistaken for Hugh's parents or even grandparents.
If ever there was a reunion, it was sure to be an awkward one. For the other party, specifically. Hugh himself was seemingly immune to the affliction.
"HA!" the vampire erupted at the thought. "They all think I'm dead." Just then, the waiter came up to the table again and slipped a long slip of paper onto the table. "And they might not be wrong," he ventured to add, his eyes bulging with barely restrained laughter as Benny reached for his receipt.
He watched Benny’s eyes squint dangerously at the slip. There was a long silence Hugh once again found himself itching to break. When Benny’s gaze cruised up again, his expression was vacant and humorless.
“So how are those papers coming along?”