The night I turned myself back into a vampire, I went searching for an ounce of Yaksha's blood to serve as an aerobic catalyst. The only place to look, I thought, was the ice-cream truck where Eddie Fender had kept Yaksha's tortured body in cold storage. There I found the blood I needed, frozen beneath a box of Popsicles. But before I scraped it from the floor of the refrigerated compartment, I had a highly unusual conversation with an elderly homeless man with thinning white hair and a grimy face. He was obviously down on his luck. But when I strode up to say hello, he reacted as if he was expecting me.
"You look very nice tonight. But I know you're in a hurry."
"How do you know I'm in a hurry?"
"I know a few things. You want this truck I suppose. I've been guarding it for you."
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't rightly know. I think I've been here since you were last here."
The ice-cream truck should not have been there. The police should have hauled it away a couple of months earlier. Yet not only was the truck parked where it had been when it held Yaksha, the refriger?ator unit was still working, and the homeless man implied he had kept it working for me. That was crucial, because if the blood had melted and rotted, it would have been of no use to me. I wouldn't have been able to turn back into a vampire. I would have possessed no special abilities with which to protect the child.
Now the big question was …
Did the homeless man know that?
He obviously knew something.
The bigger question was how he knew.
With the sun setting and with no better place to go, I return to the street where I met the man. There, to my utter astonishment, I find him sitting near the spot where the ice-cream truck had been parked. It is gone but the man has not changed. In fact, he is drinking a carton of milk as he was the last time we met. He looks up as I approach and his eyes sparkle in the dull yellow light of the street lamps. He doesn't rise, though. He is an old man and getting up is hard on his knees. I remember I had to help him up the last time. He flashes me a warm smile.
"Why if it isn't you again," he says. "I thought you might come back."
"Have you been waiting for me?" I ask.
"Sure. I don't mind waiting around. Don't have a lot to do these days, you know."
I crouch by his side. "What do you do when you're not waiting for me?"
He is shy. "Oh, I just move around, pick up an odd job here and there, help out where I can."
I smile. "Well, you sure helped me last time."
He is pleased. "That's good. But you're a bright girl. You know how to help yourself." He stops. "Hey, would you like to play a game of cards?"
I raise an eyebrow. "Poker?"
He brushes his hand. "No. That's too hard a game for an old fella like me. You have to think too much. How about a game of twenty-one? I'll be the house. I'll play by house rules. I'll hit on every sixteen and give you a tip every now and then if you need it. As long as you promise to tip me if you win in the end. How does that sound? You know how to play twenty-one?"
I sit cross-legged in front of him. "I am a born gambler. Do you have cards?"
He reaches in his old coat pocket and pulls out a pack. "Do I have cards? These are fresh from a high roller's blackjack table in Las Vegas. Mind if I shuffle? Those are house rules, you know. Dealer has to shuffle."
"You shuffle. What are we betting?"
He takes a sip of his milk as he opens the pack. "It doesn't matter." Then he laughs and the sound is like music to my ears because it has been so long since I have heard the sound of pure joy. "An old bum like me–I have nothing to lose!"
I laugh with him. "What's your name, old bum?"
He pauses and catches my eye. "Now just one moment. You're the youngster here. You've never told me your name."
I offer my hand. "I'm Sita."
He shakes my hand. "Mike."
"Where are you from, Mike?"
He lets go of my hand and shuffles the cards. He is a pro with them; he obviously can shuffle both sides of the deck with as few as five fingers. Yet a trace of sorrow enters his voice. The tone is not painful, more bittersweet.
"Lots of places, Sita," he says. "You know how it is when you get as old as I am, one place blurs into another. But I try to keep moving, try to keep my hand in. Where are you from?"
He is impressed. "By golly, that's far away! You must have had plenty of adventures between here and India."
"Too many adventures, Mike. But are you going to stop talking and start dealing? I'm getting anx?ious to beat you at what I know is your favorite game."
He acts offended, although he is still smiling.
"Hold on just one second," he says. "We haven't decided what we're wagering. What have you got?"
He nods. "Money is good. How much you got?"
I reach in my back pocket. "Three hundred dollars in cash."
He whistles. "My sweet lord! You carry your bankroll on you. Now I know that ain't smart, no sir."
I flip open my wad of twenties. Got them from an ATM machine down the street.
"I don't mind betting this. What are you bet?ting?"
My question seems to catch him off guard. He asks with a trace of suspicion, "What do you want?"
"Oh. Just a few friendly hints, what you offered. Can you give me some of those? When I win I mean?"
He speaks with mock confidentiality. "You don't need them when you win, girl. You need them when you lose." He begins to deal the cards. "Sure, I'll help you out. Just don't you get too rough on old Mike."
I throw a twenty down. "I'll try to behave myself."
He deals me a fifteen, bust hand. He is looking strong, showing a ten. He peeks at his hole card and grins. By the rules, I know I should hit. But I hate chasing a strong hand with so little room to maneu?ver. He waits for me to make a decision, a sly grin on his old lips.
"Going to risk it?" he asks, teasing me.
"Sure." I scratch the ground between us. "Hit me."
I get a seven. Twenty-two. Bust. I'm twenty down.
He deals another hand. I get eleven, and he shows a six, the weakest card he can show. By most house rules I am allowed to double down at this point. But I ask if it is OK to be sure. He nods, pleased to hit me again. I don't know what hell do if he gets in my debt. I lay another twenty beside my turned-over cards and he deals me a card.
"A nine," I mutter. "Twenty. I'm sitting pretty."
"You are pretty, Sita," he says as he flips over his cards, showing a five, a total of eleven. He draws and gets a ten, twenty-one, beating me by one again. My forty belongs to him.
"Damn," I mutter.
I lose the next six hands. Every decision I make is wrong, yet I am playing by the book. The published rules say I should win about half the hands. Yet I don't think he is cheating me, even though he seems to take great pleasure in taking my money. He already has two hundred bucks, two-thirds of my bankroll. If I don't win soon I'll have to walk.
On the ninth hand he deals me a natural. Black?jack.
He is showing only a seven. I have finally won.
He offers me a twenty. The amount I bet.
"You want it?" he asks, and there is a gleam in his eye.
"You were going to give me a tip," I say.
"But you won. Fate favored you, Sita, you didn't have to do anything. When a winning hand is coming around, it's going to come no matter what." He gathers the cards together. He is down to the bottom of the deck; he has to shuffle again. He comments on the fact, as an aside. "You know if this was a casino and I had myself a shoe, I could deal as many as six decks without shuffling. What do you think of that?"
I go completely numb.
But it will be dark angels that force him and his mother to flee to the mirror in the sky, where shoes move without feet and the emerald circle is seen in the morning light.
Lake Tahoe, I remember suddenly, was called "the mirror in the sky" by the original Indians who lived in the area, because they had to hike up the mountain to reach it, and then, it was such a large, clear lake, it looked to them like a perfect mirror reflecting the sky. Also, there is a small but gor?geous cove in the lake called Emerald Bay. Finally, there are casinos nearby that have special shoes for playing twenty-one. As we are playing twenty-one right now, only without one of those shoes that moves without feet.
Kalika had a book on Lake Tahoe.
Mike stares at me. "Want to play another hand?"
I slowly shake my head. "It's not necessary, thank you."
He nods as he reads my expression. "I guess you'll be on your way now. I'm sorry to see you go."
I gaze into his bright eyes. "Are you sorry, Mike?"
He shrugs. "I know you have a job to do. I don't want to interfere with that none. It's just that I like it when you stop by, you know. It reminds me of when I was young."
"I'm older than I look. You must know that."
He gives me a wistful expression. "Well, I sup?pose I do. But I have to say you're still a youngster to me."
I lean forward and hug him, and feel his bony ribs, his dirty clothes, and his love. A powerful feeling sweeps over me, as if I have finally found a member of a family I never knew existed. But the hug can last only so long. He is right–I have a job to do. Letting go, I climb to my feet. The thought of leaving him is painful. I have to ask the next question even though I know he will not give me a straight answer.
"Will you be here when I return?"
He scratches his head and takes a sip from his milk carton. For a moment he appears slightly bewildered. He quickly counts the money he has won and stuffs it in his coat pocket. Then he coughs and looks up and down and street to see if anyone is listening. Finally he looks at me again.
"I'm sorry, Sita, I don't rightly know. I'm always moving around, like I said, trying to keep my hand in. But I hope I see you again." He pauses. "I like your spirit."
I lean over and kiss his forehead.
"I like your spirit, Mike. Be here for me again. Please?"
He flashes a faint smile. "I'll see what I can do."