James R. Lane
Short Story - Born to be Mild
BORN TO BE MILD
©2009 by James R. Lane
All Rights Reserved.
The full moon was rising, and while Lewis Gramm could not yet see it, he could feel its ancient pull building deep in his bones. Gramm's spirits were rising, too, since this was the one night a month when he allowed himself a special indulgence, an indulgence both thrilling and exquisitely lethal.
It was Lewis Gramm's night to run.
The new millennium was well past fresh, and despite the chaotic roller-coaster economy high-tech businesses and dot-com fortunes were once again springing up everywhere like weeds in a neglected ball field. Gramm was the CEO of a small, very lucrative networking consulting company located high in an elderly bank building, itself perched on the edge of the bay in far more elderly St. Augustine, Florida.
Gramm's money, however, hadn't blossomed overnight like so many of his contemporaries. He had carefully grown and protected his assets over many years, many businesses and in many countries. Most of those assets, though, were kept well hidden, since questions some of the assets would inevitably raise would be difficult to explain.
Lewis Gramm wasn't his original name, it wasn't even his only current name; it was merely the name that went with his present role.
Most of the building’s businesspeople, as well as their employees, had already left for home, but since Gramm was the entire staff as well as the owner of his consulting firm, he often put in long hours. But not tonight. In leaving he even managed to slide past a local Realtor notorious for closing her office at six o'clock sharp, as she was heading out the front door of the antiquated building early that Friday evening.
"Lewis!" Mary Connerly called in surprise when he breezed by her matronly form as she approached the automated front doors. "What's the rush? You're always so…so neat and punctual; I can't imagine you being late for an appointment!"
Gramm tossed a wolfish grin over his shoulder but didn't break his loping stride as he said, "I've got to pick up Tiffany at the Jacksonville International Airport around midnight, and I've got a world of things to do before then. Ciao!"
"Ciao, indeed, you hunk of a yuppie twit," the woman muttered sourly, but not before Gramm was already half-way down the sidewalk. The handsome young man always seemed to be in prime physical condition, she absently noted, but this was the first time she'd ever seen him actually moving at anything above a casual, even languid pace. "If I lost some weight, and were about twenty years younger---" Connerly stepped out into the evening's warm, humid Florida air and cursed. "Crap. I still wouldn't stand a chance in Hell of landing him." She brushed a wayward wisp of bleached hair out of her eyes and added, "And after a few weeks of his neatnick perfectionism, not to mention smelling that Brut cologne he wears all the time, I'd probably be ready to kill him."
While Mary Connerly was just beginning to frump her way down the street Gramm had already rounded the corner at the end of the block. Moments later he opened the door of his stylish BMW X5 SUV, which had been patiently awaiting its master's arrival (as it always did) in a reserved slot in the nearest of the city's three municipal parking lots. After tossing his trendy magnesium brief case on the passenger seat and awakening the powerful engine to a feral snarl, Gramm waited a carefully timed minute to allow it to warm up and settle down before putting the truck into gear. He treated his truck as carefully as he did everything else in his precise, orderly life.
It had not always been thus, but then he had not always been the person he was at this point in time, either.
Moments later Gramm was clear of the parking lot, his metallic black SUV cruising with muted yet macho authority down a maze of narrow, tree-lined streets as he headed inland and away from the coastal town's confines. A short while later found him driving west toward the rural farm and scrub timberland that still comprised a substantial portion of the northeast Florida area, the powerful stereo in the truck blaring out a digitally-enhanced CD version of Steppenwolf's ancient yet timeless rock tune "Born To Be Wild". Much of the rush hour traffic had already dispersed, most of it heading either north or south to the dense subdivisions that seemed to sprout out of the coastal flatlands like mushrooms on a morning lawn.
But Gramm wasn't going home just yet, not before he partook of the one real treat he allowed himself each month.
Not before he ran.
Moonlit darkness was beginning to settle over the countryside by the time Gramm was far enough out of town to suit his purposes, and moments later he braked the big SUV, then turned into a dirt driveway that ended at a pipe gate no more than fifty feet off the road. Gramm touched a button on the built-in HomeLink radio transmitter, and a hidden battery-powered motor quickly pivoted the gate out of the way. After pulling the vehicle through the opening and clear of the gate's swinging path, he touched the transmitter button again and the gate closed and locked behind him. The BMW had full-time four-wheel-drive, so Gramm needed do nothing to ready the SUV for its short trip down the rutted, oftentimes muddy road, and less than five minutes later Gramm was deep in the pine and oak woods, far from any prying eyes. He stopped at a small clearing, switched off the engine, and his face suddenly lit up with a wolfish grin like that of a delighted, mischievous child.
It was time. To run.
Bruce Arnold was a bum. Never mind that the politically correct crowd and the bleeding heart social workers considered him to be an "unfortunate homeless man"---Arnold was nothing more or less than a bum. He was even somewhat proud of that antiquated title. Although he was several years shy of his fiftieth birthday, his physical appearance seemed well matched to the seediness of the label. Bruce Arnold looked like a bum.
Born into a family that really didn't want him, Arnold had grown up soured on life in general, and he never really applied himself in school. Once he was old enough to be legally kicked out of the house his mother---unwed at the moments of conception, his birth and his eighteenth birthday, and anxious to be shed of the constant drain on her sanity and meager financial resources---literally locked him out and told him to fend for himself.
This wasn't, however, as cruel as it first seemed, since the young man had been more-or-less providing for his own needs for years. Stealing, fencing and dealing small-time drugs made him enough money to buy the things he couldn't get from his mother, and he'd kept himself well-supplied in cigarettes and beer since he reached his teens.
Yet, Bruce Arnold wasn't a genuinely bad man; merely a worthless one. Numerous brushes with the law and failed social service agencies had kept him moving on to the proverbial next town down the road every few months, and that endless string of towns and the months they represented in time turned into years, which turned into decades…of being a bum.
And so as the seasons advanced toward fall Bruce Arnold made his annual migration south, pausing for a time to sample the warm, laid-back and bum-friendly climate of St. Augustine, Florida. There, safely outside the annoyingly patrolled city limits, he unrolled his tattered polyfoam mattress in a well-used palmetto thicket near a small concrete bridge that would provide shelter against the occasional thunderstorm. It was the only kind of "home" he'd known for many years, and he could usually snag a ride into town every few days to mooch a hot meal and a bath at the local charity soup kitchen. Then he'd go hold a “homeless---please help” sign on a busy corner or loiter at the day labor office and work a few hours at some menial job, buy a bottle of rotgut whiskey or a jug of cheap wine and a few basic supplies and hitch a ride back to his woodland abode.
Arnold's abused body was beginning to show signs of pending failure. He had a chronic wet cough, some unsightly lumps and splotches on his skin that were most likely cancerous, and more often than not his urine was colored with red strings from an increasingly cranky prostate. He had hemorrhoids, bunions and bad teeth, too.
Down deep in his sometimes-foggy brain Arnold knew his days were numbered, and that his number would soon be up. Still, he wasn't quite yet ready to call it quits. More and more he found himself carefully limiting his booze and smoking fewer cigarettes, and that particular evening he was still stone cold sober, having just returned "home" from a profitable day's mooching. He had two rumpled twenty dollar bills in a back pants pocket, a fresh pack of Camel regulars in the other back pocket, four quarts of malt liquor, a full bottle of ABC-brand bourbon, a six-pack of Diet Cokes, a loaf of whole wheat bread, a couple of cans of Spam, a bag of Doritos and a tattered old paperback book in a couple of plastic grocery sacks. Bruce Arnold was set for the weekend.
Some distance away Lewis Gramm had finished the preparations for his run, and after a parting glance at his beloved BMW he began loping down a nearby logging trail, one of thousands that crisscrossed the rural northeast Florida pine scrublands. It was going to be a fine night to run, Gramm thought with a toothy grin as he began stretching and warming his muscles.
Just like it had been countless times before.
Bruce Arnold had just finished taking a dump and the first of several nighttime leaks at his impromptu outhouse---an old fallen pine log well downwind from his camp---and was ambling back through the bright moonlit shadows when he suddenly had a strange chill. "Damn!" he muttered, stopping momentarily to rub his weathered arms and the back of his wrinkled neck. "Felt like a rat run 'cross my grave." He looked around mostly from reflex, not really expecting to see anything.
Ten feet away he saw two smoldering red eyes peering at him from the shadow of large palmetto frond. The eyes seemed to float about two feet above the ground.
"Shit!" the man yelled and jumped back, and had he not just emptied his bowels he would have filled his tattered, cheese-crusted boxer shorts with it, too. The eyes blinked slowly, and for some strange reason the blink allowed Arnold to catch a faint glimpse of the face that held the eyes. He immediately regretting doing that, however, because as soon as he did he felt his never-quite-empty bladder spasm painfully and a trickle of warmth skittered down his left leg. The eyes, he suddenly realized, belonged to the biggest black wolf he'd ever seen---in fact, the only black wolf he'd ever seen---and then the monstrous creature slowly advanced toward him from beneath the palmettos.
Arnold didn't waste time getting his lanky legs into motion, and considering his age and dubious physical condition he actually moved off through the woods at a respectable pace. Years of running from robbery victims, angry cops and others who wished him ill had schooled him well in the art of "beating feet", and it didn't take long before the man had broken free of the underbrush to begin frantically pounding down one of the numerous logging trails, the black wolf flowing effortlessly along in his wake.
Even though Arnold was certainly no marathon runner, it still took a good couple of minutes before adrenalin could no longer overcome his fatigue, and wheezing like a dying bagpipe he suddenly began to falter. He'd chanced but one quick look back at the silent nightmare following him, and he was puzzled why the huge animal had not simply pounced on him at the start. It was obviously more than capable of outrunning a tired old bum, the man reasoned despite his terror, yet it seemed to be carefully pacing itself so as not to end matters too soon. Too soon for what? Arnold thought, his mind racing far faster than his failing legs. What in God's name IS that thing?
Eventually the man could go no farther. His legs simply quit responding and his tobacco-scarred lungs suddenly rebelled, throwing him into a tubercular coughing spasm that deposited him in a lumpy heap at the side of the logging road. And still the black wolf didn't pounce, didn't slash, didn't kill.
In time the gasping bum got over his coughing spell. Why didn't it attack? he wondered as he wiped his rheumy eyes and got his first good look at the huge black beast that had literally run him to ground. That's when Arnold noted that the wolf was apparently hunch-backed, something that made a strange situation even more bizarre. A portion of the man's tired brain knew that huge black wolves weren't native to sub-tropical Florida, and anyway, weren't wolves' eyes supposed to be yellow? But before he could contemplate those imponderables the beast's faintly glowing red eyes began blazing like hot coals being stoked, and some gut feeling, some primal instinct, told Arnold that the beast was finally preparing to strike.
Of course, seeing the gleam of its huge, impossibly white teeth in the moonlight as the black lips skinned back in a soft, guttural snarl may have given the man some clue to its intentions, too.
Slowly, wire-tight tension in its every move, the red-eyed ebon monster approached to within six feet of the doomed man. Arnold didn't even have a loose branch within reach, not that an improvised club would have done any good, he knew, against such an apparition. The man could even hear its harsh panting over his own wheezing, and he cringed uselessly back in the dirt as the hellish beast prepared to spring---
A tinny, polyphonic rendition of the old Duran Duran rock tune, Hungry Like The Wolf suddenly filled the air, and if Arnold had possessed a cell phone he would have automatically reached for it.
The melodious ring-tone tune was totally out-of-place in the spooky moonlit setting and high drama of the moment, and the effect it had on the demonic wolf was even more inconceivable. "Shit!" the frightened man distinctly heard the creature say in a low, rasping tone---
---And it stopped its advance, an obvious sigh escaping its midnight-furred form. The creature seemed disgusted and backed up a few steps, and then like something from a digitally animated special-effects movie scene its form quickly softened, blurred and began to flow, growing taller and more massive, finally standing erect on its hind legs before its form sharpened, solidified and became---
---An even more-terrifying black-furred monster, unmistakably male, but a monster that was wearing a small black nylon backpack which he quickly shed, then reached a gnarly, hideously-clawed hand into the pack's depths and retrieved a trendy translucent-blue Nokia cell phone. The monster used a finger-claw to flip it open, then carefully touched a claw-tip to one of the buttons on the key pad. After a moment of squinting a glowing-coal eye at the short text message on its tiny luminescent screen, he carefully folded it and replaced the device in the backpack, settling it comfortably between his massive shoulders and refastening the straps.
And then the beast directed his attention to the terrified yet totally confused man lying almost at his taloned feet. "Y'know, this sucks," the creature griped in a distinctly southern drawl. "The one night a month I allow myself a little pleasure, a well-earned tasty treat---and, god damn it all, I go and run myself clean out of time. Fuck!"
The monster stood at least eight feet tall, and looked like a sleek, classic version of a movie werewolf. Deep in his soul Arnold was convinced that this werewolf was no movie fake; despite such creatures supposedly being nothing more than legends, this nightmare was all too real. And then an errant breeze brought Arnold the scent of something totally unexpected. A werewolf smelling like Brut cologne? Arnold thought, momentarily puzzled. Shouldn't he smell like a…a dog? "W-ho---what are you?" the man hesitantly asked.
"Give me a break, old man," the monster cynically grumbled, standing with his horrible hands on his almost non-existent hips like a pro football quarterback pondering the next play. "Even someone like you has enough smarts to know what I am."
"You're a real werewolf?"
"Do I have to piss on a tree to convince you," the black apparition snarled in contempt, "or would you like me to go ahead and rip your throat out for shits and giggles?" The creature suddenly grabbed his belly, which had begun rumbling noisily like a human's does when totally empty. "What a bummer," he grumbled. Glaring at Arnold he explained, "I don't have enough time now to kill you, eat the tasty parts and then properly dispose of the rest." He again snatched the small nylon backpack off his broad shoulders, dug frantically inside for a moment, then brought forth a couple of colorfully-wrapped items. "Damned health food bars taste like cardboard," he complained as he quickly unwrapped them, "but at least they quiet the munchies." After wolfing down the two nutrient bars he dutifully returned the wrappers to the backpack.
As he reseated the petite backpack he noticed the man fumbling with something around his neck. "Don't waste your time with that cross," he stated offhandedly. "I've never personally seen it happen, but they're only supposed to work on vampires." The living nightmare leaned down, bringing his horrifying muzzle close to the trembling man's face. The monster’s breath smelled like granola, overlaid with a hint of Scope mouthwash." And don't believe all that crap about how silver is the only thing that hurts us." He barked a laugh and the man wet himself again. "That and a lot of other things are myths we started and perpetuate to keep your kind off-balance. In fact, I wear silver jewelry all the time (the monster flicked his left ear and a tiny silver ankh swung from its ear-piercing wire); it's cheap, low-quality gold that gives me an allergic rash. And shooting me with silver bullets won't do any more damage than pricking my hide with a Martha Stewart designer kitchen knife." He laughed again. "All bullshit. We heal faster than you can hurt us, and until we're ready to bid this life goodbye---we don't die."
Arnold quit trying to display his little silver crucifix. Somehow it just didn't seem worth the trouble.
"Unfortunately I've got to cut this little party short," the werewolf stated as if apologizing to a business prospect. The beast stood erect and ineffectively brushed at his fur. "One of my bigger clients needs some 'handholding', and I’ve still got to get cleaned up before I drive to Jacksonville to pick up my girlfriend at the airport." When Arnold's mouth hung open in surprise the monster added, a surprising bit of humor in his raspy voice, "Yeah, she's a werewolf, too. It’s her ‘time of month’ and we're gonna spend some real quality time together this weekend." Then he laughed that bone-chilling laugh again.
"One thing you need to remember," he suddenly stated in a voice that left no room for doubt. "It won't do you any good to talk about this…this encounter." The black nightmare again bent down to bring his fang-filled muzzle closer. "However," he added in a graveyard voice, "should you open your mouth about it anyway, I'll hunt you down---and I promise you a very slow death." He clacked his teeth together with a suggestive snap. "I've been around a long time, and I know hundreds of ways to make you scream."
With that, the creature once again underwent his movie-magic transformation, returning in seconds to the huge black wolf form---complete with a small nylon backpack. As the werewolf turned and began loping back down the logging road Arnold distinctly heard the monster say, "Ciao!"
In time Arnold muttered, “I never had a pet. I never even wanted a pet---especially a big dog…”
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