Key West, itself, is stunningly beautiful, especially in the older or outlying parts of town. Old style, whitewashed houses half-swallowed by creeping, tropical trees. Quaint, unique shops and bustling, busy docks. Lovely views of the Gulf, topped off by he most excellent of Sunsets, night after night.
But then they take the central heart of the old area -- not far from where President Truman used to hang his Winter hat, for !@#$s sake -- and turn it into a bar crawl headquarters for college kids.
The bars are what the casual tourist tends to notice, first: loud and noisy drinking establishments catering to the triple act of the just-turned-21 set, the Retired-in-Florida contingent, and the queer-as-!@#$ contingent -- of which most tourists can claim at least one. Some are just holes in the wall, hoping their location will get them noticed, but some are world famous, such as Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, the Flying Monkeys, Rick's Cafe, and the ever-fabulous Bourbon St. Pub, where the drag queen gets dropped in the high heel on New Years' Eve.
(And Sloppy Joe's, of course, but more on that later)
Around those bars are ridiculously-overpriced boutiques stocking the classy, the classless, and the occasionally fabulous, along with t-shirt shop after t-shirt shop, hawking almost identical wares. As with the bars and boutiques, the shirt shops cater to the big three as well: tees proudly bragging "I got Duval-faced on !@#$ Street" are displayed next to pictures of the previous President, asking "Miss me, yet?" and unicorns proclaiming "I'm so Gay I !@#$ rainbows."
There were more, less pleasant shirts for the retired-in-Florida contingent, including one where the President was photoshopped into a rather ugly Caucasian, with the legend: "Here he is as a White Man. Still hate him? Well, you're not a racist!" However, following recent, tragic events, these have mysteriously -- perhaps tastefully -- disappeared.
By day, the street hustles and bustles with tourists seeking good photographic opportunities, fine dining, and as much Key Lime pie as they can handle, with occasional drunk marring the landscape. By night, the sidewalks are littered with amateur alcoholics, plastered college kids, and old, tempered hands looking for young tush, or maybe just another drink. Sloshed mobs of cruise ship riff-raff make their way to and from the docks before the gangplanks go up, and inebriated tourists accidentally break into others' hotel rooms when they can't find their own.
Faced with the detritus of a culture that paradoxically condemns yet elevates drinking too much, the cops have their hands extremely full. As such, they only make arrests where needed, and try to calm things down where they can. The drunk tank still isn't large enough to handle all the people they could bust, most weekends, and the party atmosphere masks more serious crimes that go on all the time.
(Like the strange case of the man with the cigarettes stuffed up his behind from the other night -- the strangest case of near-fatal tobacco poisoning on record for Florida.)
It's at times like this, late late at night, when the bars are still open and the crowds still bustling with would-be Duval crawlers, that Miller comes out to play.
He doesn't come to Key West all the time, of course. Various situations and circumstances -- some more well-known than others -- make this trip a special, once or twice yearly event for him. That and coming here too many times would probably lead to staying for days at a time, which might lead to a longer residence, with all the logistical and culinary problems that would cause.
And all the rules that might break.
So he comes, maybe twice a year at most, just for a night each time, if only to get the melancholy and longing out of his system for a few months at least. And he always takes his fill of Duval Street, so he can see -- and truly understand -- that the Key he once lived in and loved is no longer what it was. He marvels at the shirt stores, the shoppes openly catering to homosexuals, the movie theater that's now a general store...
And Sloppy Joe's, of course: perhaps the quintessential Duval Street bar. It's sprawling, noisy, and pretending to history it really can't claim, anymore, though it definitely tries. He always ends his evening there, right before they close at Four in the morning, which gives him more than enough time to attend to his special needs and see about getting home.
Before then, however, there's less noisy places. In particular, there's Captain Tony's, over on Greene. It's a much smaller and less raucous establishment, which is happy to tell all passersby that it was the site of the original Sloppy Joe's, back before a dollar a week rent increased led the bar's owners -- and patrons -- to pick the place up, stool by stool, and move it to Duval Street.
Miller walks in and smiles, feeling as though he's home, after a fashion. He sits at the bar as soon as someone vacates, and orders a simple Scotch and Soda. Just another young, handsome, full-faced and clean shaven young man amongst thousands, with only an impressive head of black hair and piercing, dark eyes to call attention to him.
A few of the women notice him. A few men, too. He won't do anything to act on the attraction, though. Not here, not now -- later, and elsewhere, he will deal with his needs.
Like he learned in the wilderness, what now seems untold ages ago: you don't !@#$ where you eat. It's a good rule -- sensible and practical -- and he's done his best to live by it since then.
But then, someone brushes past him as she sits down, three stools away, and the rules change, yet again.
At first, Miller doesn't believe what he's seeing. Blonde hair, fine features, small mouth with a big smile. If he didn't know any better, it might be his third wife, whom he met right here, in this very bar, all those years ago.
He thinks back, remembering how she paid the bartender what was then an exorbitant amount of money to be introduced him, later saying it was the best money she'd ever spent. But then, later still, after the affairs and the introduction of a new lover, she said it was the worst.
(All things turn to !@#$ in the end -- !@#$ and dirt.)
She looks up from her drink and notices him staring. He tries to look like he wasn't. She smiles and looks down and away, and then back. He looks back, too.
"Hi," she says.
"Hello," he replies.
"Come here often?" she asks, sucking the cherry off her swizzle stick.
"Not often, no."
"I was going to say. I think I would have remembered seeing you."
She laughs. He smiles. The guy sitting to the left of her pays up and gets going. Miller picks up his drink and hustles over before someone else can get there, and succeeds brilliantly.
"Hello again!" she says.
"You know, this is going to sound like a horrible line, but I'm really glad you're here."
She laughs and smiles at that line, not realizing it's the same line he's used before, hundreds of times, in bars all over the world.
She has no idea that she's doomed, either. They never do.
* * *
Her name is Ashley (a funny coincidence, there) and they talk for hours. Maybe longer than they should. They have many drinks, and he's both amazed and somewhat worried by how much she can put down and remain somewhat lucid.
This will make certain things more challenging, possibly more dangerous. Also more enjoyable, when he's done and basking in the heat of a successful hunt.
They play a good game, there at the bar. She gives as good as she gets, alternating between seeming to want a certain something and being not so sure. For a while he's not entirely certain she's going to come willingly, and while he could force the issue, he'd rather not.
Another rule, one he's not willing to break. Not here, anyway.
But sooner or later, the talk comes around to one direction -- away from the bar. The notion of going somewhere else is launched, and she seems perfectly amenable to it. There's been mention made before of the nearby hotel where he's supposedly staying, and that seems a likely place as any.
She's still a little shy to the prospect, but not for long. Something about how he's had his hand on her thigh for the last hour. How his face has been less than a foot away from hers for the last two. Any resistance she might have had melts away by the time he's brought up the hotel room more concretely, and then they're up and moving for the door, somewhat hand in hand.
They don't go directly back to the hotel, though. He says he's leading her there, but he's not. He's taking her further down the street, over to an alley he knows all too well.
The sort of place that something very fast and brutal could take place in, and no one would know until they found the body.
Of course, she has no idea where they're going. She's just a tourist, here, herself. She has no concept of the streets, or their layouts, or the stark geometry of murder in the night.
He does, though. This is what he came here, for. He could kill anyone, anywhere he likes, but when he's in Key West he always looks for someone who looks like one of his wives.
And this one? This Ashley? It's like she came from central casting -- like the gods of blood and murder just cattle-prodded her into his waiting path.
He smiles at his luck, listening to her blather on about the weird things that happened to her, yesterday, and how pretty the way is, even at night, and oh look at those drunks...
When they get to the alley, he reassures her it's just down this shortcut. She smiles and comes along, either too stupid to realize this is something she should be worried about or too drunk to care. Their footsteps echo off the walls as they walk into shadows, and he slowly draws her near.
Then he's on her, gently at first. Kissing her. Letting her kiss him back. She giggles and sways under him, enjoying this, and he lets her kiss his neck, his chest.
He bares his fangs, then, ready to swoop down for the bite. One quick movement and she'll be helpless. And then all he has to do is find someplace else to leave her, so that the police won't connect this alley to her untimely death--
"Excuse me," he hears someone say. Someone with a familiar voice.
He turns to look over his right shoulder, stunned that he didn't hear the other person coming, and then gets punched in the jaw.
The blow is powerful -- staggeringly so. If he'd been mortal it would have killed him, as the force of it knocks his skull not quite 240 degrees on its axis. Suddenly seeing the wall behind his body, he stumbles and falls, the pain and shock making him unable to do anything more than lie there and twitch as he tries to turn his head back around, again.
After a minute's agony he manages to get it partway back to normal. Enough that, if he looks to the right as far as his eyes will allow, he sees Ashley and a man standing over him, looking down at him as though he were some kind of insect to be squashed underfoot.
"Can I go now?" Ashley asks, but her voice is different. Changed. Deeper.
"You sure can, Gosheven," the man says. His voice is familiar, but for some reason Miller can't place his face. Something is keeping his mind just on the edge of recognition, just like it's keeping him from reading the large, round button he's wearing on his shirt.
"So, are we !@#$ing even?" Ashley asks, changing her form. Gone is the well-dressed, lovely woman who looked like his third wife. Instead, a pudgy, Native American man is standing there, wearing jeans too small for his frame and a t-shirt that insists he's so gay he !@#$s rainbows.
"We're... getting there," the man replies: "Consider yourself on call, still, but this takes a major chunk out of what you owe."
"Well, okay, then," the shapeshifter says, ever so flouncy: "If you'll excuse me, I'm off to see the ladies."
Off he saunters, leaving Miller alone in a dark alley with a man who punches like a bull stomps.
"Didn't quite see this coming, did you?" the man asks, and then, almost faster than Miller can see, pulls out a long, wooden stake and shoves it into his breastbone.
Things go black after that.
* * *
When things go light again, it's some time later. It's definitely during the day, though no Sunlight is shining anywhere near him. He's chained spread-eagle to a tall, stone wall, and in a room with a concrete floor, bare ceiling, and a strong, metal door.
There's also a chair, with a lamp with a naked bulb on one side of it and a squirming, squealing bag on the other. And on the chair is the man from the alley, holding a bloody, wooden stake -- the same one that was just in his chest.
His free hand is looking through Miller's wallet, chuckling at what he finds there.
"Miller H. Barnes, huh?" he says, holding up the Florida drivers license: "Were you trying to be clever or cute?"
"I don't know what you mean," Miller says, hoping he can somehow bluff his way out of this.
"Oh, I !@#$ing think you do, Ernesto," the man says, leaning forward and dropping the wallet on the floor: "That's what they call you in Cuba, these days, isn't it? All your happy commie bloodsucker friends?"
Oh !@#$, Miller thinks: He knows. He knows.
"That's right," the man says, seeming to know Miller's thoughts: "I know all, Ernest. All the girls, all those years, both here and in Havana. Except you don't have to be !@#$ing careful in Cuba, do you?"
Miller gasps, and the man nods and leans back, turning the stake over and over in his hands: "This goes a lot easier for you the less bull!@#$ you try and tell me, Ernest. Right answers get you fed. Bad answers... well, it's been a while since I've had to interrogate a !@#$ing vampire, but some things you never forget."
He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a book of matches. Smiles evilly.
"Who... who are you?" Miller -- that is, Ernest -- says, realizing he's beaten.
"Who the !@#$ do you think, !@#$face?" the man asks, standing up and taking the button off. There's a moment of mental confusion, and then Ernest realizes who it is.
"You," he stutters.
"Me," SPYGOD says, getting up in Ernest's face: "I'm reactivating your slack, bloodsucking !@#$, Ernest. We have about fifteen days to save the world, and I need all the !@#$ing help I can get."
Ernest grits his teeth, resolved to not cry. He fails. Badly.