THE UMBRELLA MAN
Jacob Steven Mohr
Atty Diedmarr jolted awake in his seat. The train had only hit a bump in the rail, but Atty was immediately on high alert, his heartbeat chattering like gunfire. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and inspected his surroundings. The passenger car was dark and quiet, and the window to his right was smeared with condensation. He rubbed a circle clear with the heel of his hand and peered through. Outside, the dark landscape sped by: large, rolling fields dotted with shapes suggesting haycocks and slumbering cattle. Atty took two deep breaths, and by degrees the rhythm of his pulse slowed from a tattoo to a steady march. He slid the sleeve of his sweater back and checked his watch. The time read three-thirty a.m.
Atty turned and glanced at Lisbeth dozing in the seat beside him. She was sleeping with her head tilted towards the ceiling, her shoulder-length black hair lying in a frayed curtain across her eyes. She was snoring softly, and her mouth hung open. Halfway back in her jaw, the bicuspids on the top row extended half a centimeter past the rest of her teeth and tapered into points, glistening with spit in the dim light.
Atty shook her by the arm. “Lisbeth. C’mon. Wake up.”
“Wahuhah!” Lisbeth woke, like always, as though she was coming out of a coma. “Come on!” she said. “I was having a good dream.”
Atty shushed her, then pointed at his own mouth. “Your fangs,” he told her gently. “You were snoring.”
Lisbeth clapped a hand over her mouth. “But nobody saw, right?” she whispered through her fingers.
Atty swiveled onto his knees and took a quick look around the train car. The rest of the passengers were sound asleep, heads lolling, limp forms swaying with the motion of the train. “I don’t think so,” he said, returning to his seat. “But just to be safe, here.” He produced a white nasal strip from his jeans pocket and passed it to her.
“Thanks.” She laid the strip across the bridge of her nose and smacked her lips distractedly. “Hey, give me a drink, would you?” she said, rubbing her throat. “The air’s real dry in here.”
Atty reached under his seat and slid the weathered satchel onto his lap. Reaching inside, he ran his hand across the cover of the hidebound tome concealed within. The satchel had been his brother Joshua’s, but the book had been passed to him by the author himself: Atty’s grandfather, the first umbrella man—and also Atty’s namesake. The book was titled The Care and Keeping of Neophyte Vampires, by Anton Diedmarr, Sr.
“We’re still pretty far from Atlanta,” Atty said, pausing with his hand still inside the satchel. “Think you can make it on water a little longer?”
Lisbeth shook her head. “Please don’t make me,” she pleaded. “I feel like I haven’t had a proper drink in days. I’m parched. And my skin gets all flaky.”
“It does not,” Atty replied, but he fished the thermos from the bottom of the satchel and sloshed it next to his ear. From the sound, it was only a quarter full. He handed it to Lisbeth. “Drink up.”
“I’ll only have a little,” she promised, but she tipped the end of the thermos towards the ceiling and began taking long, thirsty gulps. Atty watched her closely, noting with some alarm the speed at which she was drinking. After a few moments Lisbeth yanked the thermos from her lips, panting and wild-eyed. “Sorry! Sorry!” she said. Her mouth was stained red in a perfect circle around her lips.
“It’s fine,” Atty said, but when he took the thermos back there was only a trickle left in the bottom. “Just try to save the rest for when we get into Georgia, okay? And wipe your mouth.”
“I’ll try,” she said, drawing the sleeve of her denim jacket across her mouth. The motion shifted the high collar of the jacket slightly against her shoulders, exposing the side of her neck where two puncture marks bloomed red on her pale skin. The wound looked recent, but Atty knew it was actually three months old and would never heal.
“Look, don’t worry about it,” Atty told her, tugging the collar up over the mark once more. “We’ll be in Atlanta before you know it, and… wait.”
Something had thumped behind them. The sound was low and quiet, but still distinct above the dull roar of the train passing over the rails. “Did you hear it?” Atty whispered.
“Shut up, I’m listening,” Lisbeth replied. She shut her eyes, pressing her ear to the seat back behind her, her mouth tugged down at the corners. She stayed like this for several seconds, barely breathing, until thump—the noise came again, quieter than before, but still distinct.
Lisbeth sucked in a breath and opened her eyes. “Six rows back, aisle seat,” she said.
“Switch seats with me,” Atty ordered. “Quietly.”
The two traded places as silently as they could in the cramped space, and Atty peered around his seat towards the back of the train car. Sure enough, something glittered at the back of the car. Twin circles flashed for an instant and vanished—light reflecting off someone’s glasses.
“See anything?” Lisbeth whispered.
Atty turned back to face her. “Somebody else is awake on this train,” he said, struggling to control the tremble in his voice.
Lisbeth’s eyebrows shot up. “Are we safe?” she asked.
“I’ll let you know,” he replied, sliding from his seat. There was a small bathroom at the very back of the car, and Atty began walking toward it, moving quietly so as not to rouse the other passengers. It was slow going: the aisle was strewn with bags and purses, and Atty had to place his feet with extreme precision to avoid stumbling or making noise.
At last he picked his way to the back of the car, arriving at the seat where he’d seen the light reflect. He glanced down, and sure enough, there as a man wearing glasses sleeping—or pretending to sleep—in the aisle seat. He was tall and well built, but his face was puffy and covered with acne scars, some of which were as wide as pennies. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt that seemed a size too small thanks to his bulk, but even though he had the hood pulled up, Atty could still see that his head was recently shaved. His bags were piled up in the unoccupied seat next to him, and draped over these was a heavy leather jacket with chains dangling from every pocket. Atty estimated his age at no more than twenty-one, barely four years older than Lisbeth or Atty himself. And as Atty passed, the man’s eyelids twitched slightly, the mark of somebody trying to feign unconsciousness.
Atty frowned at him and proceeded into the bathroom. He slid the folding door closed behind him and put his ear to the wall. After a few moments he heard a rustling sound from outside. He opened the door, and the hooded man had vanished.
Atty swore under his breath and crept back to the man’s empty seat. Kneeling on the aisle seat, he tossed aside the leather jacket and began rifling through the stack of luggage.
“Atty!” Lisbeth’s face peered over the top of her seat. “What are you doing?” she stage-whispered.
“Shh!” he replied, waving her away. Lisbeth mouthed something and gestured emphatically towards the front of the train, but Atty ducked his head and continued his search. As he went on, his worry grew. Each of the bags he’d checked was completely empty.
A flash of metal caught his eye. There, beneath the seat, was one last suitcase, tucked away and nearly hidden beneath the center console. Atty knelt and slid the suitcase out into the aisle. It was heavier than he’d expected, and from that awkward angle moving the thing had taken all his strength. He thumbed open the clasps, but inside were only clothes and dress shoes—nothing to explain such heft. He frowned and slid his hand under a pair of Doc Martins, giving the bottom of the suitcase two knocks with his fist. The sound came back loud and hollow, even muffled by the clothes on top.
Thus encouraged, Atty pushed his hands farther into the suitcase, probing along the rim beneath the folded shirts and socks. At the very back, near the hinge, his fingers discovered an irregularity: a small knob, not even half an inch across, which wobbled slightly when he touched it. He pressed this with his thumb, and was rewarded with a satisfying click. The false bottom of the suitcase sprang open, and Atty barely contained a gasp. Inside, pressed into indentations in the black velvet, was a crucifix, two flasks of holy water, four cloves of garlic inside plastic bags, and a set of five gleaming iron stakes.
Just then the shriek of metal on metal filled the air, and Atty and everything else in the car were thrown forwards with great force. With a prolonged screech, the train slowed, then ground to a halt. Quickly regaining his balance, Atty slammed the suitcase shut and stood just as the lights flickered on in the train car. All around him, the other passengers were awake and making noise. Many of them were standing in the aisle, forming a near-impenetrable barrier between him and Lisbeth.
The low hiss of the public address system filled the air, and the commotion momentarily peaked before the other travellers fell silent. “Passengers,” said a harsh male voice. “This is your conductor speaking. There is no cause for alarm. Unfortunately, the train is experiencing some engine trouble, and will not be able to run until repairs are made. However, a replacement bus service has been notified, and will arrive shortly. Please collect your luggage and exit the train in an orderly fashion to wait for your ride.”
Atty began shoving his way through the throng of passengers, ignoring their protests and cries of pain as he stepped on toes and drove elbows into ribs. When he reached Lisbeth, the passengers were already starting to file out of the train and into the grassy area beside the track. “In answer to your question,” he told her, “no, we’re not safe.”
“No kidding,” she replied. “That guy you saw? He just disappeared up to the front of the train. And I’m pretty sure our conductor was a woman.”
“That’s not the worst of it,” Atty said. And he told her what he’d found inside the hooded man’s suitcase.
Lisbeth’s hands cupped her face in shock. “But it’s just the one guy, right?” she asked. “He shouldn’t be a problem for me if he’s alone.”
Atty shook his head. “It’ll be daylight soon,” he replied, peering worriedly out the window at the sky. “And besides, if he was alone, he’d have made his move here on the train. He probably stopped us here for a reason. There may be others waiting for us outside.”
Lisbeth shuddered, and fell silent for a moment. “Then what’s our move?” she said at last.
Atty reached into his pocket, producing a dollar store prepaid phone. “I think we have to phone a friend,” he said.
August picked up on the second ring. “Hello, Atty,” she said brightly. “I’m surprised you two are awake. How’s the trip going? Are you in Georgia yet?”
“August, we’ve been followed,” Atty said. And he described the man in the hooded sweatshirt right down to his pizza-face and jeans, as well as what he was carrying.
August was silent for a moment. “Are there any others?” she asked in a low voice.
“On the train? No,” Atty replied. “Outside, I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean, outside?”
Atty glanced in every direction before answering. The car was now less than a quarter full. “The train,” he said quietly, “is not exactly moving right now.”
Another pause followed. “How far away are you from Atlanta?” August said at last.
“Two hours out,” Atty replied. “Maybe a little less. No less than one and a half.”
“Stay where you are. I’m coming to get you.”
“How soon can you be here?”
“Fifteen minutes, if I hurry,” came the reply. “Now, listen to me very carefully. Whatever you do, stay on the train. Your attacker—or attackers, as the case may be—they want you out in the open. Inside, you’ll be able to see them coming. The aisles are your friends. Watch the windows, watch the exits. Stay alert, stay together, and stay safe. And if anything moves, kill it. You’re going to be fine. I’m coming for you.”
“Please hurry,” Atty replied, and the line went dead.
“So what’s the plan?” Lisbeth asked.
Atty let out a puff off air through his lips, running one hand through his curls. “We stay put,” he told her. “If our assassin wants a fight, we’ll give him one, but on our turf.”
Lisbeth nodded, but still looked unsure. “And if there’s more of them?”
Atty leaned down and retrieved the oil-black umbrella concealed beneath his seat. The handle of the umbrella was polished brass, and the tip was a steel point and very sharp. And the canopy, which Atty began to stroke uneasily, was woven from the strongest strain of steel-tensile fibers money could buy—one last gift from his grandfather.
“Let me worry about that,” he replied, trying his best to sound confident. But his nerves sang a tune louder and shriller than a train whistle.
The wait was agonizing. Before long, the replacement bus pulled up alongside the train, and the other passengers climbed on board and were driven away. Then they were alone. The silence inside the train car was like thick fog; Atty and Lisbeth stood close beside each other, jumping at the slightest sound. Atty clutched the shaft of the umbrella tightly with his fists, with the crook wedged firmly against his right shoulder, like the stock of a gun. Lisbeth glanced over, noticing how pale his knuckles were.
“Atty,” she said, touching his shoulder.
Atty took one hand off the umbrella to wipe sweat from his brow. “We’re going to be fine,” he said, his voice hoarse. “August is coming to help us.”
“But listen,” Lisbeth said. “If things get bad, I want you to promise me something. Promise me you’ll let me fight.”
Atty shook his head. “Not gonna happen.”
“But he’s unarmed!” Lisbeth protested.
“We don’t know that.”
“We’ve got his stupid suitcase,” Lisbeth said, pointing. The suitcase full of weapons was still lying in the aisle where Atty had left it. “We can take one guy,” she pleaded. “Let me help.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Atty snapped. “He could have weapons in his clothes. Or there could be others. Or he could be some sort of martial arts master. I don’t know. I can’t let you risk your life.”
“You’re risking yours,” Lisbeth pointed out.
“You need to get to Atlanta,” Atty retorted.
Lisbeth shifted nervously. “Look, about that,” she said. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
Atty gaped. “You can’t be serious.”
“But what if they don’t like me?” she cried.
“Like you?” Atty said. “Like you? They’re your family. They’ll love you.”
“I mean, the new me,” she replied. “They don’t know yet. They haven’t seen what… what I’m capable of. All those people I hurt. What if they’re afraid of me?”
Atty fixed her with a hard look. “I want you to listen to me carefully,” he said. “No matter what’s happened to you these past three months, some things don’t change. New Lisbeth, old Lisbeth—your family doesn’t care. They just want you home. Don’t you miss them?” Lisbeth nodded. “Then they miss you. I know I would.”
“But that’s your job,” Lisbeth pointed out.
“You’re right, it is a job,” Atty replied. “And I had to apply for it.”
Lisbeth smiled, her eyes brimming at the corners. “Thanks,” she said.
Then she paused, looking over Atty’s shoulder at something just outside his field of vision. “Atty,” she said, pointing. “Look.”
Atty’s head whipped around. “I don’t see…”
“His suitcase,” she whispered. “Atty, his suitcase is gone.”
That’s when Pizza-Face broke down the bathroom door.
Almost too late, Atty hit the switch on the umbrella’s handle, exploding the canopy outwards like an unfolding wing. The man took three rapid steps down the aisle and threw some sort of liquid directly at them, shouting in Latin. Atty raised the umbrella just in time to block most of the holy water, but a few drops sailed overhead and landed on Lisbeth’s face and shoulders. The smell of burning flesh filled the air, and Lisbeth let out a scream and fell to the ground, tearing at her face. The hooded man approached with lightning speed, light from the window flashing off the ten-inch iron stake clenched in his fist.
Atty looked at the man’s eyes. The hood had fallen back, and his face was fully exposed. Atty could see the stubbly dome of his scalp, the veins and tendons in his corded neck, the rough surface of his pepperoni skin, the grim, hard line of his drawn lips. But what drew Atty’s stare were his eyes. They were wide and glassy behind the lenses of his glasses, black, like a shark’s eyes, blazing with anger and something else besides. Deep, seething hatred. It was the hatred that surprised Atty the most. It was as though the assassin wished the blade in his fist was not there, that he could cut out his target’s heart himself. That he could tear Lisbeth limb from limb, not with a weapon, but with his own hands, his own serrated flesh.
The man moved the stake to his right hand and raised it above his head, aiming the point at Atty’s face. At the last possible second, Atty jerked the umbrella up just as the stake started its descent. There was a thump as the blade struck home, lodged in the thick Kevlar, the point jabbing straight through, inches from Atty’s nose. The strength of the blow drove the crook of the umbrella deep into Atty’s shoulder and forced him back, sliding nearly two feet backwards on his sneakered heels—the attack was that powerful.
Ignoring the pain, Atty swung the umbrella sideways, yanking the weapon from the man’s grasp. The stake flew into the seats to the left of them, clattering against the window before falling to the floor, out of sight. He surged forward, intending to drive the umbrella’s steel point straight through the man’s jugular, but the hooded man evaded the attack with surprising agility, hopping nimbly out of range. Now he hesitated, eyeing Atty carefully, knees bent in a combat stance. Atty returned his stare, his chest heaving.
With a flick of his wrist, a second stake appeared in the man’s right hand. This time, Atty caught the attack on the umbrella’s steel tip, but his attacker didn’t let up. He disengaged and struck again, faster this time, and Atty barely deflected the blow. Sparks flew as iron and steel collided, and the man in the hooded sweatshirt attacked again and again. After a series of frantic exchanges, the man feinted left with the stake, then swept his other hand around and seized the edge of the umbrella’s Kevlar canopy. In an instant, he’d shoved the umbrella aside and slipped inside Atty’s guard, slashing with the point of the stake. Atty barely managed to evade the assault, but was still left open for another attack. The man reared back and kicked Atty square in the chest, sending him flying back into the seats behind him. He stumbled to the floor, hitting his head against the corner of a seat, and lay still.
The man grinned and stepped over him, and suddenly found himself face-to-fangs with Lisbeth. Her face was still sizzling from her holy water bath not a minute before, but her eyes were wild and her nostrils were flared and twitching, full of the scent of Atty’s blood. “YOU CRAZY STUPID BASTARD!” she screamed. With one lightning movement, she grabbed the man by the drawstrings of his sweatshirt and drove the elbow of her other arm into the man’s nose. There was a sickening crack as the man’s glasses shattered against his face. He stumbled back, clutching his bleeding face with one hand and slashing wildly with the stake in the other, but Lisbeth evaded each attempt with supernatural speed. She tackled the man off his feet, sending them both crashing to the ground, and the stake flew from the man’s hand and skittered across the floor. Before he could retrieve it, Lisbeth climbed on top of him, straddling his stomach and holding him down with incredible strength. She bent down and put her face right next to his, so close that her fangs could have scraped his skin when she spoke.
“You’d better hope you didn’t kill him,” she hissed, close in his ear. “Because what I’m about to do to you, I really, really want him to see.”
Suddenly, Lisbeth froze. There, quivering not an inch in front of her nose, was the wooden crucifix, light gleaming off the wood finish.
“Back off, kiddo,” the man whispered.
Quivering, Lisbeth did as she was told. She slid off the man’s stomach, taking one crawling step back, then another, her eyes locked on the cross. Keeping the crucifix thrust out at arm’s length, the man sat up and swiveled to a crouch, following behind Lisbeth with leisurely ease as she tried to flee. He retrieved his dropped stake from the ground at his feet and spun it between his fingers. Lisbeth kept retreating until bumped into the back of the train car. She was cornered; there was simply nowhere else to go.
The man knelt beside her, laying the crucifix on her stomach. Lisbeth lay as if paralyzed and made no move to remove it. Her eyes were wide and brimming with tears. Her breath came in heaves. The man smiled grimly and wrapped both hands firmly around the stake, raising it high overhead.
“Deep breaths, freak,” he said, preparing to drive the point through her heart.
Atty regained his senses just as the hooded man knelt over Lisbeth, and panic sent his mind into overdrive. His umbrella was gone, lying open and useless under a seat halfway across the train. There was no way he’d reach her in time. He reached out and groped frantically on the ground around him, feeling for anything, any object he could use as a weapon. Then, his searching hands encountered something long and sharp and hard under the seat behind him, and hope soared in his chest.
His head still throbbing, Atty struggled into a sitting position, blinking away the blood trickling down his forehead. His fingers wrapped around the metal object and lifted it above his head. It was an impossible shot, but he could not permit himself to miss. He breathed out slowly through his nose, steadying his aim, and hurled the object at the hooded man with all his strength.
Lisbeth squeezed her eyes shut just as the stake began to descend towards her heart. But the thrust never came. She heard a crunch above her, and the stake fell to the ground next to her head. A drop of blood, then two, dripped down on her face. She opened her eyes: the hooded man was still kneeling over her, making strange gurgling sounds in his throat as he stared slack-jawed at the iron stake impaling his right hand. There was a steady trickle of blood running down his wrist and dripping from the metal point protruding from his palm. Hands trembling, the man reached up to yank the stake from his hand, but stopped, feeling the steel point of Atty’s umbrella under his chin.
“Don’t move,” Atty ordered, glowering above him.
Slowly, the man put up his hands.
Lisbeth half-dragged, half-carried the man out the door of the train car and hauled him across the grassy space outside to the nearest tree. Atty followed close behind her, holding the damaged umbrella over her head against the rising sun. Lisbeth shoved the man against the trunk of the tree, where he lay groaning but made no move to rise.
“Who are you?” Atty shouted.
“Cole Monox,” was the reply, in the same harsh voice they’d heard over the intercom. “Not that it’ll do you any good.”
“Are you alone, or are there others?” Atty demanded.
Cole shook his head. “I’m alone,” he admitted. “But there are others coming after me. So if you know what’s good for you, you’ll let me go.”
“What’ll you do if we let you free?” Atty said.
“Kill the demonspawn,” Cole snarled. “But I won’t hurt you. I don’t hold grudges. We’re trying to protect humans. Protect them from creatures like her.” And he spat in Lisbeth’s direction.
Atty drew back his foot and drove his heel into the man’s stomach; Cole coughed, spitting a stream of blood from between his swollen lips. “You won’t do that again,” Atty growled.
“Then kill me,” Cole shot back. “That’s what you’re going to do, isn’t it? I can see it in your eyes. I know you want to do it.”
Atty nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “I do. But I’m not going to make that call.” He motioned to Lisbeth, who stepped forward. “She is.”
Cole let out a shriek and clapped his still-bleeding hand over his neck. “I hope you choke on it, you bitch!” he screamed.
Lisbeth wrinkled her nose. “I’m not going to kill you,” she said. “But since we still can’t have you following us…”
With one quick movement, she shot out her hand and pressed her palm to the man’s forehead. Cole shuddered once, and lay still against the tree, his glassy eyes staring balefully at the sky.
Atty gave Lisbeth a curious look. “I didn’t know you could do that,” he said.
“Neither did I,” replied Lisbeth, stunned.
Just then, the sound of leathery wings beat overhead. Atty and Lisbeth looked skyward: above them, an enormous black shape crossed the moon and circled them twice before landing lightly on the grass in front of them. The shape twisted and squirmed for an instant, then condensed and telescoped itself before their eyes until a tall, pale woman stood before them, with her blonde hair flying in an unfelt wind and her dark eyes blazing with unspeakable power.
Atty smiled. “It’s nice to see you again, August,” he said.
Lisbeth gaped in awe. “Will I be able to do that, too?” she asked eagerly.
August nodded. “That, and much more,” she replied, “but not immediately. With proper instruction, you’ll be capable of incredible feats. It’s in your blood.” Lisbeth giggled at this.
August approached them, barely bending the grass beneath her feet where she trod, and stood in front of Atty. She held out her hand, and almost instinctively he handed her the umbrella. “Don’t worry,” August said. “The sun’s rays are still feeble. She won’t burn.” She turned the umbrella over in her hands, examining it from every angle. The tear from the man Cole’s attack fluttered slightly, and August put her slender hand through the hole, rubbing the ruptured Kevlar between her fingers.
“He used cursed iron,” she pronounced at last, handing the umbrella back to Atty. “No normal blade could have penetrated this material. Where is the assassin?”
Atty motioned to Cole’s unconscious form propped against the tree behind them. “There you go.”
“You didn’t kill him?”
Lisbeth shook her head. “I wanted to,” she said. “I really did. But I’ve had enough killing for one lifetime, even an immortal one.”
August sniffed in disgust. “He deserved worse,” she growled. Then her face softened, and she placed a hand on Lisbeth’s shoulder. “I imagine you were scared,” she said.
Lisbeth cocked her head to one side, thinking. Finally she nodded slowly. “I was scared,” she said at last, “but only a little bit. Not nearly as much as I feel like I should have been.”
August smiled. “Of course. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to handle situations like this without any help at all. But until then, you’ll have Atty to protect you.”
Then she directed her gaze back to Atty. “You did well today,” she told him. “In another scenario like this, I should have been glad to have you to defend me as well. I am proud to call you my pupil.” She stretched out her hand and described a mysterious sign on Atty’s forehead with her index finger. “Your trial period is over,” she intoned. “From this day forward, you are a full-fledged umbrella man. You have my congratulations.” Atty beamed. Lisbeth clapped.
“Are you ready to join your family, Lisbeth?” August said.
For a moment, Lisbeth hesitated. Atty reached for her hand and squeezed it, and her face broke into a grin.
“We’re ready,” she answered.
August closed her eyes, and her body began to change again, wriggling and shifting until she assumed her monstrous form once more. The creature turned and spread its wide brown wings, allowing the vampire and human to climb onto its back. “Get a good grip,” it instructed them in a half-screech. “We need to move with some speed. Dawn is approaching.”
The two did as they were told, and August’s massive leather wings beat the air, driving them suddenly airborne. They circled the field once, then wheeled off towards the horizon. Behind them, the sun climbed steadily.
Don’t believe the hype—Jacob Steven Mohr was not raised by wolves. Feral children are capable of many things, but liquid-smooth prose is not one of them. If it was, we’d all be speaking Wolf. Mohr’s work has appeared in Outrageous Fortune Magazine and on the boards of the Browncoat Theater in Wilmington.