Night, Cold and the City

     god it's cold tonight.  I stamp my feet again to try to get the blood flowing again, light a cigarette with my last match and try to imagine a warm place, a beach, a roaring campfire, anything to get my mind off how bitterly cold it really is.  A paper blows across the street, and while it's pinned against the trash can I catch a glimpse of headline - RECORD COLD SNAP HITS AREA... before it blows away.  I wonder for the thousandth time just what I'm doing here.  I have friends in warm places - friends who understand me, who'd be glad to see me again.
    maybe next month, I'll pack it all in and go.
    not much traffic tonight.  this block of 42nd usually rocks but tonight even the perverts are hiding from the minus twenty wind chills.  I pull the fake fur collar of my old leather coat up just a little higher and check my watch.  a little past midnight, plenty of time to do what I have to do, grab a bite to eat, and still be home in time to catch the late movie and crash until tomorrow night.
    I look at the grimy storefront window, suddenly glad I can't see my reflection in the dirt.  I know well enough how bad I really look - long bleached blond hair showing an inch of brown roots, pale, too pale skin, the scars of a lifetime or more of running, hiding, living like a gutter rat...I look away in disgust.
    There was a time, long long ago, when women of my special gifts were honored, cherished even, for the pleasures we could bring a man.  They took care of us, kept us warm and fed and happy.  Now I scrape by, eke out a living as best I can doing what I do best.
    I shake my head to clear it.  Things will be better soon.  I'm sure of it.
    The whisper of tires through muddy snow catches my attention.  A big Lincoln turns the corner now, it's sleek blackness slicing through the dark like a knife.  The car slows almost to a crawl as it passes by me,  then taillights flash and I'm at the passenger door already, leaning down, trying to look fresh faced and seductive.
    The window rolls down slowly, releasing a blast of furnace heat over my face.  That, I think, will almost be payment enough, to be inside the warm car.   The driver, an unremarkable middle aged man, slightly balding middle management type.   I see this kind every night, by the hundreds.  Nothing too strange, nothing at all almost.  Just the thrill of the forbidden, the chance to be someone else for twenty minutes before heading back to the frumpy wife and the split level in New Rochelle or out on the Island.
    I smile my winningest smile, ask if he wants a date.  He nods yes, and I slide into the passenger door with years of practiced assurance.  I quote standard prices, don't even bump it up a little the way some of the girls will when they see a newer car or a tie on a john.  I'm just happy to get in out of the cold and the wind.
    He surprises me with a question, then.  Comes out of left field and asks me how long I've been in the life.  That's just what he says too...the life.  I bite my lip to keep from laughing and flip off a sarcastic answer.
    He persists.
    I want to say centuries.  I want to scream that I've been standing on that corner since before he was born, but of course I'm not going to say that so I tell him I've only been in the city for several months...New in town is usually how long I stay anyway.
    So he begins to tell me what a nice city New York used to be...before the Times Square area got so run down, and before drugs and guns and filth took over.  I squirm a little, but really, I'm warm and that always makes me slightly drowsy, so I figure if he wants to tell me his crackpot theories, I'll pretend to be interested.
    Then he asks me if I've heard about The Scourge.
    The Scourge's been the hot topic of the day for the last seven, eight months.  Anytime the hookers of the area sit down in a donut shop for more than five minutes, the subject of The Scourge will come up.
    The Scourge is the serial killer of the moment on the Strip.
    He kills prostitutes.  Slowly.  Painfully.  He records the event on cheap cassette tapes, which he then sends to the Post.  He's killed ten hookers on the Strip in the last year, each one a monument to cruelty and horror.
    He calls himself The New Scourge of God.
    The girls, the papers, the police, they all just call him The Scourge.
    I feel a cold chill run down my back as I slowly turn to look at him.  My fingers go for the door handle, but of course, that's been removed.
    He smiles, a wide shark like grin.  All white teeth and insanity.
    He turns the car off the street, down an alleyway into the dark bowels of the city.  I'm not sure where I am, but I know it's far away from outside help.
    He's ranting now, raving like a man possessed about the sin and the sinner, the flesh and the devil, temptation and expiation.
    He plans to pay for his sins with my blood.
    The straight razor comes out of nowhere.  He probably keeps it close to him all the time, I think.  And as it slashes down toward me, my mind's eye sees a familiar face.
    She was a tiny girl, no more than seventeen years old.  Ninety pounds soaking wet.  Her name was Tina and she said she came from Iowa.  I'd befriended her several weeks before, when she'd shared a corner with me for a while.  Most girls won't let newbies on their turf, but she was no threat to me so I let her hang with me a few times.  She had the usual hard luck story to tell, strict parents, mediocre grades, bored to death in a farm town in the middle of middle America.
    She was The Scourge's last victim.
    I'd almost had her convinced to go home.
    She did go home, but she was so badly mutilated the coroners office had sealed her casket so nobody would open it.  Or at least that was the official gossip.
    I see her face now, as the razor begins its slash.  He's not going for anything vital.  He just wants me to feel pain, enough to disorient me, to incapacitate me.
    No sweat, I tell the memory-Tina in my mind.
    He expects me to scream, to plead, to beg or cry, maybe even to fight him.  All these things have happened in the past and he's used to them.
    I reach out with my left hand and grab the wrist of the hand holding the razor.   I squeeze.   Hard.  And twist.  Harder.
    The sound of his bones breaking like sticks of chalk is very loud in the car.  For a second, time stands still.  His eyes, on me now, seeing me for the first time, seeing me and not just a faceless prostitute, get very wide.   And strangely enough, I see the same look in his eyes that I saw in Tina's, in the alley where I found her, before the police and the coroner got there.
    A look of realization, of acceptance, of knowing that this was the thing he had searched for.
    The look of the dying prey.
    I am too old and weary to toy with him.  Once I would have made his kind beg for death.   But I am too old to enjoy these games anymore.
    I think he's screaming when I tear out his throat with sharp fangs.  I know he will never scream again when I finally lift my mouth from the jagged wound where his carotid used to be.
    The life flows through me, and I feel reborn.  Heat floods into my legs, my back, my fingers.
    For safety's sake, I carve his throat and heart out with the razor.  I leave such a mess that my teeth marks will be overlooked entirely.  I dip my finger in what little blood is left in the carcass and scrawl a note on the car door.
    Please find enclosed one Scourge.  His payment came due.
    It's a worthy joke, and I laugh.

    N     N     N     N

    Two nights later, I sit in the airport.  With the eight hundred forty five dollars I found in The Late Scourge's wallet, I buy a ticket on the red-eye to Miami, Florida.   Time to go somewhere warm, leave this decayed corpse of a city behind.   I wander over to the newsstand while I wait for my flight, scheduled to arrive seventeen minutes past four local time.  The  Miami Herald says sunrise will be seven oh two.
    I smile.  Plenty of time.
    Then I notice the smaller secondary headline on the paper.
    Third Woman Found Dead, it says.
    I sigh, buy a paper, and sit down to read about this one.
    Some nights it seems my work is never done.