Lenny exhaled with a loud “oomph” as his opponent’s foot caught him square in the ribs, hard enough to lift him off of the ground and slam him into the stucco wall four feet to his left.
“Lenny? Lenny? Oh my goodness, can you hear me?”
Lenny groaned and managed a wan smile for the woman who’d given him a sound thrashing. “I’m fine. It was my fault for letting my mind wander.”
“Yes, it most certainly was,” Shirley Feeney said, as she
sat back on her heels and looked down at him disapprovingly—a look she used to
reserve for him when he and Squiggy had relayed to her a hygienically
challenging or sexually disturbing anecdote.
Back in the good old days, he thought ruefully, when he had been only an
ice cream sales man and a
Before the awful truth. Before the death. Deaths, he corrected himself, as a vision of Rhonda’s pretty face flashed before his eyes.
“The wool gathering? I could have really hurt you, you know.” Her pale face showed concern, but the dark circles and newly etched lines told a sadder story. “What’s wrong?” Shirley’s face paled slightly. “Has Carmine…?”
Lenny shook his head violently, and then regretted the action as he felt a quick flash of nausea and the room swirled around him. “No. None of my operatives have seen him or heard of him.”
“How would they?”
He opened his mouth to lie, then reconsidered, given the woman he was speaking to. The days of protecting Shirley from the truth and her destiny were over, he realized. All he could do at this point was to train her as best he could and hope for the best. “They quietly monitor police precincts to see if people are reported missing.”
“And…?” she prodded, her eyes looking at him with an unwavering gaze that would have stared a lesser man down.
“And morgues. To see if anyone turns up...”
“We prefer the word exsanguinated, but it’s the same thing. There haven’t been any reports of unusual activity. On either side.”
Shirley let out a deep breath. “That’s good. I don’t know if I’m ready…”
“You will have to deal with him at some point. You realize that, don’t you?”
She clenched her jaw and nodded curtly at him before looking away. “So,” she said, her voice suddenly lighter, as she still faced the wall, “what is so all important that you lost your train of thought in the middle of a training session?”
Lenny rose to his feet slowly, groaning as he leaned against the wall for support. “I was trying to figure out a way to ask you for a favor.”
“What happened to just plain old asking?”
“Well, it’s kind of important.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” she said too quickly. “Stronger than ever. I think I could take on two or three vampires at a time if they burst through that door right now.”
“I’m sure you could, although you wouldn’t, would you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Shirley, vampires can only come into a home if they’re invited. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
She faced him again, her cheeks flushed a bit—from embarrassment or the exertions of exercise, he couldn’t tell. “Lenny, when have you ever seen me just invited anyone in? I haven’t forgotten everything you’ve told me. I know not to invite strangers into …”
Lenny groaned inwardly. Carmine’s apartment. That’s what she’d started to say. “I’m sorry.”
Shirley shook her head, her eyes bright. “Don’t be. There’s no need, is there? It’s not his anymore.”
“No. It’s not. It’s a safe place for everyone.” As safe as anyplace could be, he thought to himself. The first thing he had done upon his release from the hospital had been to quietly purchase the apartment building on Laurel Vista. One call to the Council’s banker in Zurich to access his trust, and then two calls to his attorney to set up a dummy corporation to keep everything outwardly normal; and he was a property owner in less than a week. Carmine’s old apartment had been turned into their training area, an idea he both praised and cursed himself for having. Shirley had to confront her feelings for her lost love and push past them. It was a win/win scenario. Or so he kept telling himself.
“What do you need?”
“Are you okay? I mean, really okay?” At her nod, he continued, “How would you feel about being on your own tonight?”
She grinned. “Lenny, the past few weeks have proved that I can take care of myself, haven’t they?”
“Yes. As your Watcher, I can unequivocally say that your improvement has surpassed my expectations exponentially.”
“I still can’t get used to you using all those big words,” she murmured.
“But,” he continued, ignoring her interruption, “as your friend, I need to know if you’re up to being on your own tomorrow night.” Lenny looked at her face carefully, trying to scan it for any glimmer of discomfort or deception. He smiled when he saw evidence of neither.
“I’ll be okay. What’s so important?”
Lenny stood up straighter. “I want to take Laverne out. On a date, a real date, with me.”
Lenny released the breath he hadn’t realized that he’d been holding. “You’re okay with that?”
“I’m more than okay. You two need to give yourselves a chance, and you can’t do that while you’re both babysitting me. I’m going to be just fine. I might even go out.”
“Uh… I was sort of hoping that you’d keep an eye on Squiggy.”
“No problem. I don’t like going to the movies alone, anyhow.” He must have given he must have given her a strange look, because she quickly said, “There’s a revival movie house down on Fairfax Avenue that is showing ‘Dracula’ with Bela Lugosi.”
“You’re going to a horror movie?”
“No,” she said with a grim smile. “Three months ago, it was a horror movie. Now it’s a comedy and I think that Squiggy and I could both use a good laugh, don’t you?”
The restaurant was dim. A cozy sort of dim, not the total darkness that makes one squint painfully at the menu. It was also not one of those “places to be seen” eateries, with large dining areas that made the celebrity patrons a sideshow to the lesser clientele. No, the place Lenny had brought her was small, intimate, and out of the way. A place that only a handful of people would know about as they jealously guarded the secret of fantastic cuisine. Or, the sort of place you’d take someone who you were ashamed of.
Right now, Laverne didn’t know what to think. The man who sat across from the table from her was familiar—should have been familiar, but he was proving himself to be anything but. This was becoming one of the most uncomfortable evenings that Laverne DeFazio had ever spent in her long—too long, she thought-- career of dating.
Laverne gulped her wine nervously, as she tried to figure out when things had gone off track. Probably from the moment she’d opened her front door earlier that evening, she thought. The man on the other side looked nothing like the Lenny, that she’d come to expect. Gone were the greased back hair, loud Hawaiian shirt, and motorcycle boots. Lenny’s hair had grown longer than she’d ever seen it before during his long hospital stay, and hung long around his face grazing the neatly trimmed beard that he now sported. A dark pullover sweater and tweed trousers had replaced the tacky shirt and the ever-present jeans. The effect was classy, intellectual, and hinted of very old money. All in all, none of the things that she’d ever associated with Lenny Kosnowski.
“Is your food okay?” he asked after she took her first bite.
Laverne nodded. “Yeah, it’s great”
He smiled at her slyly and his blue eyes seemed to be laughing. “No brains this time?”
She blushed at the memory of their disastrous night at La Fondue. A question surfaced in her mind. “Do you speak French?”
Lenny nodded, as he reached for his wine.
“And you just sat back and let me order cow brains?”
“I didn’t have any idea that you were ordering that. You just pointed at the menu and said ‘Gimme the twelve dollar baby’. I thought you were pointing at the veal. Honest.”
“And when the waiter brought it out from the kitchen?”
Lenny rolled his eyes at her. “I was too disgusted by the leathery lamb chops on my plate to even look at what was on yours. Trust me, the crepe paper was the tastiest part of my dinner.”
Laverne started to laugh, but the uncertainty of the moment chilled her. “Are you making fun of me?”
He looked at her in surprise. “No! Laverne, La Fondue was awful! The food was over cooked, and the waiter was a jerk! I was embarrassed that I brought you there.”
“Then why did you?”
He shrugged. “How many times did I get to take you out to a place that you wanted to go? When Squiggy got stood up, I thought I’d take a shot. I had a great time in spite of the rotten food, the snooty waiter, and the eventual running for our lives.”
She smiled in spite of herself. “I like this better.”
“Me too. The food’s good, and the staff treats everybody well.”
“You’ve been here before?”
He suddenly looked uncomfortable. “A few times,” he hedged.
Dummy, she chided herself. Lenny’s kept a lot of secrets over the last several years. What he did when she wasn’t around wasn’t any of her business. It’s not like she hadn’t been actively dating around. “It’s nice. I like it here.”
He looked very relieved. I’m glad, Vernie. I just wanted tonight to go really well. I have a lot to make up for, and I know it.
“Yeah, you do,” she said a little more harshly than she meant to. “But that’s not all tonight’s about. I want to get to know you. The real you.”
He shrugged. “You do. I’m serious,” he said at her snort of derision. “You know the important things, if not all the facts.”
“I’d like to hear some of those facts.”
“Why is it so important?”
Laverne rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Because I’m tired of replaying every conversation we’ve ever had in my head and over-thinking it. You know everything about me Len, probably more than I could even guess at. It’s not exactly fair.”
“Nothing is fair, Laverne. That’s just how life is,” he said as he drained his glass and motioned for the waiter. “May we have another bottle of the Cabernet? I think it’s going to be a long night…”
Lenny turned his attention back to her and flashed her a quick smile that seemed too jaded and suave to belong on his face. “Let’s play twenty questions, Laverne.”
“Oh, I have more than twenty, don’t worry about that. Question number one: How long have you been Shirley’s Watcher?”
“Since she was in high school.”
“You were just a kid!”
“Yes, and no. I’m two years older than the rest of you.”
“The same. June tenth if you want to buy me something pretty.”
“And you’ve been watching Shirley since then; and driving a truck for Shotz all of those years? How the heck did you squeeze in being in the Army Reserves?”
“Well… I was driving a truck, but I wasn’t really in the reserves. That was part of my cover.” At her look he elaborated. “How else could I explain being away one weekend a month and two weeks every year?”
“What were you doing then when you were away?”
“Going back to England and training with the council.”
“You’ve been flying back and forth to England all these years?”
“If I could have brought you back something, I would have.”
“Aww… Wait a second. How about that time when you hurt your thumb training with a rifle and were all bandaged up?”
“Well, I was holding a rifle when I hurt my thumb, so it wasn’t a total lie.”
“A Brochach demon nearly bit my thumb off during a raid on a nest in Glasgow. I had to have most of it stitched back together. See the scars?”
Laverne looked at the minute silvery marks on the side of Lenny’s right thumb and impulsively kissed it like she would a baby’s boo-boo. She then blushed at the implication and looked away, as she felt her cheeks redden. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
He grinned Lenny’s old goofy grin. “Don’t be. I wish you’d been in the surgical ward with me that day. A kiss from you,” he said as he looked at her pointedly, “is better than four hours of surgery any day.”
“There was a lot of nerve damage,” he explained. “Don’t get upset. If I’d been just a regular field agent instead of under cover, they would have just amputated my thumb. Being Shirley’s watcher worked in my favor.”
Laverne took a quick gulp of her wine, as she let the implication of Lenny’s words sink in. This is real, she had to remind herself again. Monsters are real and people die…
She looked up and tried to smile. She didn’t know what her face was doing, but she guessed it wasn’t very pretty.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking chagrined. “I shouldn’t be flippant about stuff like that.”
“It’s okay.” She said quickly.
Lenny shook his head. “No. It’s not. People in my line of work get sort of a gallows humor about it all. I guess it helps us get up the next morning and keep fighting the good fight. That and lots of scotch,” he said as he frowned slightly at the glass of red in his hand.
“I mean it. It’s okay. I get it. I just have a hard time believing that you were doing all these crazy and dangerous things and that none of us knew it. Doesn’t exactly make me feel like a rocket scientist,” she mumbled against the rim of her wine glass.
“Don’t feel bad. It wasn’t just me; we had a whole team of people trying to keep you, Squiggy, and Shirley in the dark.”
“Great. We were a project. Thanks, Len. I feel a lot better now.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. You should feel proud. You all really kept the Watcher’s Council on their toes.”
“Really. You guys weren’t exactly easy to fool, especially Squiggy.”
She sputtered on her drink. “You’re kidding.”
Lenny shook his head. “He’s one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever met in my entire life. Really,” he persisted.
“I think that’s a nice way of saying things.”
He grinned in response. “A big portion of a Watcher’s job is misdirecting the public’s attention from the Slayer and otherworldly events. Y’know, like how a magician gets the audience to focus their attention on his right hand while his left one is pulling the rabbit out of the secret compartment in the table.”
“So that’s how they do it…” Laverne shook her head to focus on the subject at hand. “I don’t get it.”
Lenny shook his head. “People don’t want to know about the strange and the bizarre. They want nice, safe answers. There are no monsters under your bed, there’s no such thing as ghosts. A guy died from a freak neck hemorrhage…”
Laverne wrinkled her nose in disgust. “You’re kidding.”
He glanced away, then nodded quickly before saying, “Okay, a little with the last one. But, most people want a sane and rational explanation for the bizarre. Hell, usually they meet you halfway.” Lenny flashed her a quick grin. “Squiggy is different. He could usually see through the answers that most people want to hear. I learned that pretty early in the game with him.”
“So, Squiggy’s a genius?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far... Let’s just say he doesn’t take anything at face value. Every time I had to lie to him, I always had to make sure that my tracks were covered. More so than with anyone else. Not a lot gets past him, Laverne.”
“So you lied to Squiggy most of all?” Laverne winced at the judgmental tone that had crept into her voice.
Lenny blinked before answering. “Well, he’s my roommate—and my best friend. The latter part has never been a lie, Laverne. He’s been a much better friend to me than I’ve been to him,” he said before taking a sip from his wine glass.
“Even when he pushed you out of your apartment window back in Milwaukee and you broke your leg?”
“Well… Okay, I wasn’t overly fond of him that week.”
“Overly fond?” Laverne sputtered in disbelief as she willed herself not to let the wine in her mouth exit via her nose. “You tried to run him over in your wheelchair!”
“I was furious with him,” Lenny admitted. “That accident nearly cost me my position as Shirley’s watcher. The council wasn’t too happy that I was basically out of commission for a couple of weeks.”
“They wouldn’t have fired you. Would they?”
He nodded. “We’re all replaceable, Laverne. Watchers know that going in. Our sole mission is protecting our charge and training her, if need be. That’s all.”
“It doesn’t sound like much of a life.”
“It’s a very worthwhile endeavor,” he said.
Neither the words or the accent sounded like the Lenny that she knew. “I’m not saying that it isn’t. It just doesn’t seem to be fair, that’s all. You’ve had to give up most of your life for someone else; someone who might or might not be something special.
“Shirley is special, Laverne. She’d be special even if she wasn’t the slayer.”
Laverne grinned in spite of herself, and felt some relief as the conversation drifted back to the normal and safe. “You don’t have to tell me that, she’s my best friend. It’s just so hard to think of you giving up everything you could have been.”
“What do you mean?”
Laverne blinked in surprise. “I mean, look at you, she said as she gestured at him, “You’re not like us, Len,” she said as her voice thickened slightly. “You’re smart, you’re educated, and you’re… Oh my god, you’re classy. I can’t believe I said that,” she murmured to no on in particular. “A guy like you can write his own ticket in life, and do whatever he wants. He doesn’t have to drive a beer truck, or sell ice cream, or live in a third floor walk up apartment.”
He lifted his left eyebrow and let out a walrus-like guffaw that was one hundred percent Knapp Street Lenny. “No, a Watcher can spend his entire exciting life translating millennia-old texts filled with forgotten languages just on the off chance that some slayer at some point in time could glean something useful from that information and stave off Armageddon for another few years. Think of it, Laverne. I lifetime of hanging out in libraries and wearing tweed suits,” he said as he looked down at his pants leg and frowned slightly.
“What if you weren’t a Watcher?” Laverne asked, and immediately regretted the vision of a suited and successful Lenny—complete with a beautiful and classy woman who looked nothing like her on his arm.
Lenny smiled, a seemingly practiced reflex that didn’t show any really happiness. “I never had the option of saying no, Laverne. It’s what my family does. It’s what they’ve done for generations.”
“Your family?” she asked before the realization hit her like a ton of bricks. “Oh my God. I guess I just didn’t realize until now that everything you’ve told me has been a lie, hasn’t it, Len? What a dummy I am…”
“Laverne, I couldn’t tell you everything,” Lenny said quickly, as panic began to flicker in his blue eyes. “I couldn’t tell anybody everything. I still don’t know if I can…”
She heard his words dimly in the background, but they mattered to her as much as the buzzing of gnats on a hot afternoon. Her mind was drawn back to a moment years earlier, her palm stinging as she slapped his face, the hot tears running down her cheeks, and his surprisingly strong embrace. Laverne looked him in the eye with a red-rimmed glare as tears threatened to overtake her again. “That day,” she began hoarsely, “you told me about your mother running out on you when you was five; that never happened, did it?”
“Laverne…” he began as he reached across the table for her hand.
She jerked her hand away before he could touch her, and screw with her further. “Why did you tell me that? I wasn’t your assignment. You didn’t have to tell me that lie, Len.”
“You needed someone to talk to.”
Her breath caught and a quiet sob escaped her. “I didn’t need to hear lies that day, Lenny.”
“I needed someone to talk to,” he said as his voice rose in volume, causing the other patrons to turn and look at them.
Laverne tried to squelch her surprise as Lenny coldly stared back at the other patrons, until everyone was apparently fascinated by their own plates and gave them once again the illusion of privacy in a public place.
“Laverne,” he whispered harshly, as he grabbed her wrist in an almost painful grasp, “I did lose my mother when I was five. I would never lie about that to you,” he said, his eyes holding onto her stronger than his hand ever could. “I just changed some of the details.”
“Details?” she said as her voice echoed hollowly in her own head. “She left in a Cadillac instead of a bus? Was that the sort of detail you changed to make someone like me understand better?” she asked as he flinched as if struck.
“No,” he said as he looked past her, as if seeing the unseen at a great distance. “She died, Laverne. My mother died when I was five.”
“I want to say how sorry I am.” she said in a voice of gravel, “I just don’t know if I believe you, Lenny. I just don’t know what to think or believe anymore.” She shook her head sadly. “Nothing has been real, has it?”
“The things that count were real Laverne,” Lenny said. “My feelings for you have always been real.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know…” She laughed harshly, not a pretty sound to even her ears, but it was still better than crying. “Wasn’t I just your slayer’s friend, part of the package?”
He stared at her, crestfallen. “How can you ask me that?”
The tears took her over. “I’m asking, because I don’t believe anything anymore, Lenny! I’m sorry, I thought I could do this, but I can’t. I’m sorry…” she sobbed as she rose from the table.
He was on his feet in a flash, throwing a handful of bills on the table. “Laverne wait… Laverne! Damn it, would you wait a second?” he growled at her as he caught her arm by the coat-check room.
“Let me go!”
He pulled her close and hissed into her ear. “At least let me get you safely to my car. You still believe that nobody is safe after sunset, don’t you? You at least believe in your own mortality?”
She looked into his eyes, the coldness and the anger so foreign to her. “Fine,” she mumbled before turning and walking through the door. The sooner they were on the road, the sooner this night would be over.
They drove in silence back to Burbank. Laverne glanced around the interior of the rented Chrysler until her eyes met those of the driver. Once again, she wished she was with the nice guy who drove a battered ice cream truck.
The cold eyes wavered a bit. “Laverne, I’m sorry.”
She sighed. “I know you are. I’m sorry too, but I…I can’t deal with the lies, Len. So much has happened, so much that I know you’ll never tell me about. I just don’t know if I can do it,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t even blame you. I know you have your council and your slayer to protect.” She shrugged. “ I know that there are more games going on than a dummy like me can even count.
“You’re not dumb, Laverne. I never thought you were.”
She looked at him in amazement. “How can‘t you see me that way? You’re educated, Len. You’ve got class. You only hung out with us because it was your job. I get it, and it’s okay,” she said as she willed herself to believe her words. “Just don’t pretend that it’s something that it’s not; and don’t lie to me anymore.”
Lenny shook his head, and then glanced in the rearview mirror before pulling the car over on the right side of the road and turning off the ignition. He looked at her, his eyes as innocent as they had been at fourteen—or sixteen, whatever he had been. “I never lied to you about my feelings, Laverne. I’m sorry that you think I used you”-- he swallowed heavily-- “maybe I did. I needed to talk to you about your mother, but I also needed to talk about mine.”
Pity twisted her heart. “Len, don’t…”
“I was five,” he began, “I didn’t make that part up. We were staying in a safe house in New Jersey while my father did research for the council in New York. It was night when they found us.”
“Vampires. My father’s research was a threat to them. There was s security detail for protection, but they weren’t well prepared. One of them was named Patrick and he taught me how to make paper airplanes. He was probably younger than I am now…” Lenny shook his head briskly before continuing. “They turned her, Vernie. The vampires turned my mother right in front of me,” he finished in an almost whisper.
Laverne’s stomach lurched, and she was instantly grateful that they’d left the restaurant before finishing dinner. “Oh God…”
Lenny continued, his eyes fixed straight ahead. “It was awful. I saw her die—the person who was my mother—and then…” He shook his head and coughed, his eyes suspiciously brighter before he continued, “I thought I was mistaken at first when I saw her get up—like it was a prank, until I saw her eyes. They were different. I was too young to know how vampires destroy their victim’s souls and take them over, but I knew that wasn’t my mother anymore.”
“She was reaching for me, Laverne. She was going to turn me, too,” he said as his voice trembled. “That’s when the council’s back-up team burst through the doors.” Lenny let out a deep breath and finally looked her in the eye. “I don’t remember much after that. I woke up a day or so later in the hospital. My father was in the same room with me, he’d been injured during the rescue mission, and was in a back brace.” Lenny frowned. “He still has a hard time walking because of it.”
Laverne touched his arm gently and ached to hold him, comfort him any way she could. “He saved your life.”
“He couldn’t save her, though. And he’s never gotten over it.”
“I’m so sorry, Len.”
He reached out to her and softly stroked her cheek. “That’s why I couldn’t tell you the truth back then, Laverne. Not the whole truth,” he said with a catch in his voice. “But, I did lose my mother that day. I lost her twice.”
“Can we take this slow?” Laverne asked in a timid tone she barely recognized as her own.
Lenny barked a short, harsh laugh. “Well considering what a fun time our first real date was, I will understand if you never want to go out again.”
Laverne smiled softly at him. “Never is a strong word, Len. I just think that I need to get to know you better.”
“You…” he started.
“Know the important stuff, I know. But I want to know more.”
“Even after tonight?”
“I’m still standing, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, Laverne. You are,” he said before pulling her close to him and gently kissing her lips.