by Robert McCammon
“What I am throwing at you,” said the man with the jewel-encrusted cigarette holder between his teeth and the Gauloise burning down, “is the risk of becoming a millionaire.” He removed the cigarette holder, smiled, and shrugged. “Of course that is what I already am, many times over once again, but another million does not pain, ja?”
The man on the other side of the desk in this office with its ruby-red carpet and its window overlooking the morning traffic on Melrose Avenue wanted to recoil from the thick Turkish tobacco smoke attacking him off that French cigarette. It was like being under siege by waves of sweaty Ottoman warriors. He was a Chesterfield man himself. His own smoke was burning politely—and Americanly—in its white marble ashtray beside his right hand.
“Pitching,” he said. His name was Bosh Zimmerman, head of Big Z Productions, and this office was his heaven and his hell.
“Pitching, not throwing. Your language.”
“Oh, razbira se. I speak six languages.”
Zimmerman had to reach for his cigarette. The diamond ring on his little finger caught a shard of late September sun from the window and bloomed like a klieg light. “You should brush up on your English, then,” he said, followed by an inhalation and a puff.
“I always brush,” said the man. He showed his teeth. “Perfect.”
There was a moment of silence. The phone on Zimmerman’s desk rang. And rang. And rang. “Eva!” he called toward the closed door, but—oh yes—his secretary had gone out on her own cigarette break when she’d allowed this person into the office. He pressed the blinking red button and picked up the receiver. “Big Z Productions.”
The man smoked his Gauloise and listened, his head cocked slightly to one side, and a small smile tugging at a corner of his mouth.
“Hi, Jack, how’s my favorite? Oh yeah…I know that’s been the problem. No, no, I’ve got it knocked. Right. Take care of it as soon as…yeah sure, sooner than that. Promise on my father’s grave. You know me. Man of his word. All good, no worries here. Right! Later!” He hung up and sat staring at his visitor with dull eyes in a jowl-droopy face.
“I am assuming,” said the visitor in a tone of reverence, “that you just were speaking with Mister Jack Nicholson?”
“Jack DeLuca, my bookie. Now lookie…I mean, look…sir…let’s get to your point. What are you wanting?”
“Ah. The spear tip, ja. I am venturing a spectacle, fiftyish-fiftyish.”
Bosh Zimmerman thought Why me, why me alla time? Who in the world was this guy? He had the name all right, Eva had announced the guy, but this office was no stranger to flakes and nutcakes drifting in and pitching ideas. But after all, some of the ideas were pretty good and they could be stolen. He smoked his Chester and gave the guy another appraisal: maybe in his late thirties but hard to tell for sure; long black hair down to the shoulders; a face not exactly handsome and not exactly unhandsome but kind of cadaverous with those sunken cheeks; beetle-black eyebrows that met over the thin sharp nose; dressed in a cranberry-colored suit with a pale blue vest and a red-striped shirt with a white ascot tucked down around the throat.
Euro trash? He thought this was the sort of customer who hung around the Riviera latching onto rich old women. Champagne in the morning and whoopee in the evening. Oh brother, let’s get this over with!
“I have made,” said the man before Zimmerman could plow ahead, “how you say…a deposit of largeness yesterday at the California Federal Bank. Soon as I arrived here, all is in order.”
“Hm. That so?”
“I just said it, did I not?”
Zimmerman—a wide-body is what they called a man his size now—was just about ready to oust this refugee from a bad foreign flick, but he narrowed his eyes to call the bluff. “I happen to know a guy at CalFed. Mind if I give him a ring?”
“I don’t care if you present him jewelry.”
“A phone call. Let me check your creden…let me check on you before we go any further. Okay?”
“Si, very okay.”
“Eva!” he shouted, but she was still out. He made the call. “Ralph, I’ve got a fella in my office by the name of Er—”
“Erik with a ‘k’,” the man reminded him as another smoky wave of warriors advanced across the desk.
“Erik with a ‘k’ Van Helsing. You have a customer by that name?” He paused to relay the question Ralph had posed. “What branch?”
“The Wilshire, big building.”
Zimmerman waited. When the information came back he swallowed hard, placed the receiver into its cradle, breathed deeply of the sweet aroma of a French cigarette, and thought that this, the 23rd of September in the year 1981, was his lucky day. He got his mouth working to form the words. “You deposited one million, seven hundred thousand dollars in the bank yesterday afternoon?”
“I enjoyed a lunch first,” said Erik Van Helsing. “You know the McDonald’s?”
Zimmerman thought he might have made a noise like gulp gulp gulp but he wasn’t certain of it. He straightened himself up in his chair because he realized he’d been slouching forward like a bear ready to tear some Euro trash meat from a bone. “Mister Van Helsing,” he said with a newfound smile that felt as if his face might crack, so unaccustomed was it to the effort, “what can I do to…for you?”
“I want to make a spectacle.”
“A spectacle for the television set.”
“Difficult to explain. Jezik le vezan. Oh, pardon. Well, I try.”
“Please do, and start at the beginning. EVA!” She came in at this thunderous summons and stood blonde, wide-eyed, and trembly at the door thinking the police might have to be summoned. “Hold my calls!” he commanded. And then to Van Helsing when the door had closed again. “Go ahead, please. I’m all ears.”
“Not so very big,” Van Helsing replied. “Big ears, big nose, attractive to many females.”
“Yes, right. Okay. So I’m listening…sir,” he added, addressing not necessarily the man but the bankroll.
“I am here,” said Van Helsing, “on the advising of Mister Morton Shevanowsky. I was told to—”
“Hold it, hold it, hold it!” Zimmerman held up both big palms, one hand with the Chester still burning down. “I’m sorry…you said Morton Shevanowsky?”
“I did say.”
“I thought he was dead.”
“Nee, very much the living. We had dining last night at the room of Russia. Ah…the Russian Room,” he corrected. “But I shall say that Mister Shevanowsky is much a man of great age. Though a man of great smartings and of kindnesses. He made me a loaning of his car. It is a very fine Maserati, zoom zoom!”
“That old bas—gentleman always did have a fantastic car collection. But my God! I haven’t heard Shevanowsky’s name for years! That last picture he did…1969, I think…Cry Me A Coffin…finished him off.”
“I recall. Very popular in Crimea.”
Zimmerman couldn’t help it. “Did I just hear a snare drum hit?”
“I heard nothing,” said Van Helsing, his expression blank.
“That flick…the scene with the baby and the pitchfork was just too much.”
Van Helsing shrugged. “Everyone could know it was not real, the pitchfork. But I was in amazing of his work long before. I shall never forget, at the sixteenth age…watching Bulgarian Girls’ Prison. Against the wishes of my family, but there have you. And then King Of Crab Island. Ah, the memorials!”
“Uh huh. That was Shevanowsky’s Euro exile after the vice squad caught him with a fourteen-year-old chickadee. But let me ask you…what business are you in? I mean…obviously, you’ve done pretty well for yourself, right?”
“My family,” Van Helsing said, with a small forward motion of his head as if bowing before a revered ancestor. “My great of the great grandfather made invention of what is now called the thumbtack.”
“Thumbtack,” said Zimmerman, his voice more hollow than hearty. “Um…okay.”
“Thumbtack with painted top,” Van Helsing continued. “Different colors, very popular in my country.”
“And what is your country?”
“The world,” came the reply, with a disarming and nearly dazzling smile that showed all those perfect well-brushed teeth.
When Zimmerman had taken the last pull from his cigarette and crushed it out in the ashtray, he cleared his throat to get down to business. “So Shevanowsky sent you to me, okay…got that. And what is it you’re wanting to do?”
“A television spectacle,” said Van Helsing. “Myself against the vampire.”
“Vampire.” Another hollow tone, floated out into Van Helsing’s world.
“That is correct. I am thinking, while there in Geneva, that I am missing something. Importance, you see. Ja? I am thinking…my name. My name is to be of importance.”
“You’re talking about the Dracula movie, right?”
“And the book before such. My name, there upon the paper. I am thinking…thinking…thinking…yes, and suddenly I have it! I shall do the filming of a spectacle, starring myself. Van Helsing against the vampires of the world. You see?”
“I’m following,” said Zimmerman. His eyes had turned dull again, the money excitement faded. “Let me just say, the TV studios are not going for that in the foreseeable future. They want family dramas, cops, doctors, comedy, and happy. Anyway, that kind of thing’s been done. Ever heard of Kolchak: The Night Stalker?”
“Never have I.”
“Well, it’s been done. And done, and anyway people are tired of the vampire shtick and all that junk. That’s wayyyyyy old. The movie studios are buying teenage slasher properties but the TV people wouldn’t touch any of that. Oh, now I know why Shevanowsky sent you here. He was always into the old Europe stuff.” Zimmerman gave a grimace of what he considered sympathy. “I feel sorry for that guy. He was flying straight and had a decent career until he got hooked up with the unholy three. Jonathan Lynch, Fatty Harbucks, and Orlon Kronsteen. You wouldn’t know those names, but they ruined a lot of talented people.”
“I am sorry to hear so, but I am saying that Mister Shevanowsky is not ruined, and far from such a fate.”
Zimmerman didn’t know what else to say. He thought they’d come to the end of the road, big Euro trash bucks or not, but maybe there was one more step to be made. “You’ve got a script? A treatment of some kind?” When Van Helsing looked puzzled, Zimmerman added, “Anything written down on paper?”
“Ah. No paper. All here.” Van Helsing tapped his forehead with the end of his cigarette holder. “I am thinking you are not gathering what I say. This is not to be written down, ever. No scripting. We go and we do, real.”
“Real,” Zimmerman repeated. “What…vampires are real?”
“We make them so,” said Van Helsing. And paused to let that sink its fangs. “It is done like real. I hunt the vampire, like real. Like my name. We go to the vampire hide place, we strike…sometime they strike first…but in the end, it is Van Helsing who is pobjednik. Oh…forgive. The victor.”
“What, you’re talking about actors, right? People dressed up like vampires so you can go in and put stakes in their hearts or whatever?”
“Myself with my team. We build this. We go ’round the world, hunting the vampire. And hunting the king vampire. Who he is? Or she is, if a queen. Where? London? Amsterdam? Cairo? Hollywood? Where? And you see we make all it look real…nothing written, everything happen as it happen. Even make camera look different…film look like real, all light or dark real, everything such. And person watching…they are there…week to week…hunting…and with us in the drevni caves and castle dungeons…in the underground Berlin, and in Italy mountains. Go place to place, a spectacle. We do this, and it is my name that make it real. So there is your million, sitting here.” And with that, Erik Van Helsing gave a smile that made him appear more than a little cock-eyed.
“It sounds,” Crazy, Zimmerman thought, “verrrrrry expensive.”
“I am made from money. Nothing to spend it to, since leaving Grand Prix race.”
“Are you even an actor?”
“Never have I been. But real needs no acting! We go and we do!”
“Erik, even the more realest looking thing on film needs a script and a director. It sounds to me like you’re talking about a documentary type thing. Oh!” Zimmerman nodded. “Uh huh. Shevanowsky wants to direct, right? What is he now, a hundred and twenty years old? And so what do you need me for, anyway?” He hated to say that, but it was true. “Make it with your own money and go see the world, which is what I think it really is…a travelogue with…” He stopped. “A travelogue,” he said quietly, “with vampires. Hm.”
“Yes,” Van Helsing answered.
“This team of yours. Have you put it together yet?”
“Waiting for green lamp.”
“I guess…it could be like a family drama, in a way. The Draculas of Dallas. No, no, I’m kidding! Just tossing it around. You need a hot girl in your team. No…two. One with the glasses and the smarts and the other a little bit…you know…flouncy. Bitchy, even. That make sense to you?”
“Listening,” said Van Helsing. “Also hearing.”
“The muscle guy…the gizmo guy…two girls…you…maybe a professor who got his kid or his wife turned into a vampire. Jeez…this is starting to sound like Mission: Impossible. Which was a big hit for many seasons,” Zimmerman explained before his visitor could get the wrong idea. He leaned back in his chair, suddenly feeling some very good vibes. “This could have legs. Could be managed into a drama, conflicts among the team…romantic tangles…and the vampires, of course.” He grinned stupidly and knew it was stupid. “The main thrust of the show.”
“Then you help us. Mister Shevanowsky and me. We film test on Saturday night.”
Zimmerman’s smile snagged and hung on his lower lip.
“Mister Shevanowsky gives you list of what is needed.” Van Helsing reached into his jacket, brought out an envelope, and pushed it across the desk. “Read, read, take looksee.”
Zimmerman opened the envelope and looked at the writing crabbed across the paper. Fountain pen with ink splotches, just the master director’s style. A directive for three Arriflex 16 cameras and crew, two boom mike setups, recording gear, flashlights and flares—for God’s sake!—eight actors, two makeup artists, costumer and…
“Two hundred candles?” he asked, flabberjawed. “And candelabras to hold them all? You do know this is Wednesday? This can’t be done by Saturday!”
“There are hoops to jump through! Legalities and permits! I mean…things don’t move so fast here, Erik. We need at least a week to get all this together. And anyway…you’ve got to find a location.”
“Found already. Mister Shevanowsky gives me three choices: abandoned nata…nata…I can’t say that word, but it’s indoor swimming pool. Anyway, that in Garden Grove. Second, old high school not used in Compton. Third, Whistler Hotel in—”
“In Pinon Hills!” Zimmerman gave a snort. “Sure, he’d suggest that place! It’s where the vice squad caught him with the young chickie!”
“We decide Whistler Hotel,” Van Helsing said calmly. “Mister Shevanowsky already called real estate person who owns property, Mister Boothby. I sign documents at Russian Room saying I pay five thousand for use and I pay all monies if one gets hurt, floor falls in or roof comes down.”
“You are nuts,” Zimmerman said, before he could contain himself. “The Whistler closed up over ten years ago! Half burned down in a wildfire, is what I heard. There is no way a fire marshal is going to let anybody burn two hundred candles and light flares in that tinderbox! And what the hell are the candles for, anyway?”
“Atmosphere for the real. Mister Shevanowsky says a fire marshal will be present. He also says it must be done this way. And so it shall be. Tehty ja tehty!”
“No way, no way. Never happen. No freaking way.”
A pale hand drew a checkbook from another pocket within Van Helsing’s jacket. A pen followed. Click went the ballpoint.
“What is the amount,” he said, the pen poised for action, “that I should address to you?”
* * *
Rewind thirteen hours.
In the multi-colored neon glow of the Hollywood night, Erik Van Helsing waited outside the Russian Room for the great man. Yes, great. He had always thought so, since seeing the first of Morton Shevanowsky’s 1940s noir films, Caged Detective. Had seen it in 1963 on a small television set in the back of a barber shop where he went to play cards with Mister Balogh the barber and his friends, and Erik fifteen years old but already adept at spending money. And Caged Detective all marred with static and the station fading in and out with so much wavelength jamming between there and here. Yet the stark black-and-white images with the sharp, sudden, and shadowy violence had caused Erik that day to wonder if he might ever meet the man who had such a vision to make that film…and the other noir films afterward, like Devil In A Sweater and Run, Killer, Run, and then the later movies like Bulgarian Girls’ Prison. Not forgetting the action-packed spaghetti western Dance, Said The Crow On The Seventh Day with its scene of the locomotive driving across the bodies of the captured Confederate soldiers. So much magic there.
Erik paced back and forth in front of the restaurant. His cab from the Holiday Inn in Century City had long gone. The two valet boys kept watching him: had they never seen anyone in such a sunshine yellow suit before? Carefully chosen for this trip to sunny California. Perhaps it was the red ascot, very bright and purposeful to gain attention, for without attention what was the worth of a person?
Mister Shevanowsky was thirty minutes late, but time to a great man must be a thing to be kneaded and molded, like clay. No worries.
Fifteen or so minutes after that, he saw the sea-green Maserati Bora—1974, he figured, because he knew his cars—turn off La Cienega Boulevard and growl to a stop under the red awning where the valet boys waited, and he knew this must be Mister Shevanowsky, his future.
It had taken nearly two years for this moment, as Van Helsing walked toward the car and the valet boys were hustling around to open the Bora’s door. A first idea for this spectacle in Geneva, further refinement of the idea in Copenhagen, and finally from Baku a letter sent to the production company that had financed Cry Me A Coffin. Then followed a long wait of several months, but at last a letter had arrived to his Monte Carlo apartment bearing a Hollywood return address. And so their relationship by mail had begun, and here was Mister Shevanowsky, the great man him—
“Help me! I can’t get out!”
Was it a voice, or a thin whine of wind? It had been aimed at the nearest valet boy, because the great man could not get out of his Maserati under his own power. There was a flurry of motion, a tugging, a kick of spindly legs, and a frail figure in a brown suit was pulled out of the car like the unfolding of an ancient piece of parchment. When he was on his feet—unsteadily so—the slim slice of old humanity reached back into the car for a metal walking-cane, which he planted upon the ground as if to hold himself upon an earth spinning much too rapidly for either comfort or balance.
“Thank you, my boy, thank you!” he breathed, another high-pitched windy sound. “Please take care of my car,” was delivered to the valet who slid behind the wheel. Then the great but shrunken and hunch-backed Morton Shevanowky looked across at Erik Van Helsing, and he said with a grin on a face like a dried apple, “Erik!” Of course recognizing him from the photograph sent seven months ago. He stretched out a spidery hand. “Come give me a hug.”
Erik did, as the roar of the Maserati being gunned killed all possible speech and hearing for the moment. The great man was all wrinkles and bones and smelled of mothballs barely disguised by an overly-sweet scented cologne, but he had a healthy mass of white hair equally as long as Erik’s. As the Maserati was driven to the parking lot in the back, its owner cranked his neck and peered up at Erik with glassy brown eyes. “After all this time! All this time!” Spoken as if father had been reunited with a long lost son.
“Yes sir,” said Erik, who realized that indeed the great director was holding onto him to keep from falling. “All this much time.”
Erik helped the old man through a pair of big oak doors. They were shown to a table in a place painted in blacks and reds with lots of cushions and velvets and candles burning in multiple free-standing candelabras. A huge sparkling electric light chandelier hung from the ceiling but it was mostly for show, as the illumination was purposefully dimmed for atmosphere. Shevanowsky had to be helped into a high-backed chair by both Erik and the maitre d, who was dressed in a tsarist green military uniform like an extra from War and Peace. The metal cane was hung nearby on a rack made to resemble elk antlers.
“Oh, my,” said Morton Shevanowsky. He was working his knuckles as if to get the blood flowing after his grip had been sapped by the steering wheel. “I fear I am now too old for fast cars, especially if they’re constructed for thin Italian playboys.”
“A beautiful car, that one is. A ’74, ja?”
“Correct, and very astute of you.” The waiter, who might have also been astute but was at the moment simply austere, arrived with a drink menu. “Your best vodka, a double on the rocks,” said the director. “Erik, may I suggest the same?” The waiter strode off in his hiphigh boots with their order.
“How I have looked forward to this!” said Shevanowsky. “Meeting you…and the idea! It is wonderful! Just won—” He had to stop to cough, and the cough begat another and another and another until he mashed a handkerchief against his mouth and Erik patted him on the back to hear clear the problem. “Pardon,” said the great man when he’d recovered after a moment in which the maitre d strolled over to check the patient. “Sometimes the air does not agree with me.”
“Smoggy in this city, I think.”
“Yes, it can be. Well now.” Shevanowsky’s sunken eyes appeared to be struggling to focus. “I am so flattered that you chose me to do this work. After all these years, you remember my films. What an honor, to have a young man like yourself come halfway around the world to—” He hesitated, the handkerchief ready, and though he shivered a few times the threat of further distress passed. “To use my talents,” he finished. “You must know I haven’t helmed a film—that’s what they call it here, helmed—since…oh, I can’t recall. What was the last one?”
“Cry Me A Coffin.”
“Oh no! There was one after that, much later. It was…called…” He sat frozen in thought. For a few seconds Erik feared the great director had ceased to breathe. And then a sputtered explosion: “Castle Of The Puppet Master!”
“I am thinking,” Erik said with a gentle smile,”it was perhaps something you had planned to do?”
“No, no…I remember…or…well…oh, here are our drinks! Nostrovia!”
“Prieka,” said Erik, and they drank.
When his glass returned to the table, Shevanowsky cocked his white-haired head to one side. “I am eighty-six years of age, Erik. Time has caught up with me. I have not worked in so long. But I have dreamed of working again…of making one last…statement, I shall call it. And when I received your first letter and read what you wanted to do, and your name so vital to the story…such a famous name…written across history, in a fashion…then I knew…yes, yes, a thousand times yes…this is what I must—” He suddenly stiffened and drew in a frightful lung of air that made a noise like a rapidly-expanding balloon, so loud that the startled patrons at the next table nearly dropped their forks into their golubtsy. “What I must do,” he finished, his voice somewhat deflated but firm all the same.
The waiter came with tasselled menus. From his jacket Shevanowsky brought out a pair of glasses with lenses thick enough to give him six eyes. After a period of study he ordered the borscht and a small portion of beluga caviar. Erik decided on the Olivier salad and the kotleti. When the waiter had gone again, the great director removed his glasses and said, “I am eighty-seven years of age, Erik. Time has caught up with me. I have not worked in so long. But I…”
Erik let Shevanowsky finish exactly—almost exactly—what he’d recited a few moments before, and then he said, “Yes, sir.”
“My cars!” Passion was aflame in the voice. “Oh, you should come to my house and see them! After the shoot, we do that. I have three Porsches, a 1925 Silver Ghost and of course the Maserati. I used to have others. I sold my ’57 Gullwing at auction last year in Arizona. No…Texas…no, Arizona is right. I was sorry to let her go, but I have bills to pay and I do keep two servants to help me. Run my errands and such. And speaking of errands…I have three names in mind. Perry Cooke at Brighthouse Produc…no, wait…Perry passed away in…1978, I think it was. All right, then…Walter Berg at Viceroy Pic…oh, my mind is slipping. Walter…poor Walter…is in a retirement home in Glendale. Well…Bosh Zimmerman at Big Z Productions…I believe he’s still working. I’ve never met the gentleman, but he put together a wonderful television series I’ve been watching, Dial Emergency. Doctors and policemen, together in one show. Yes. Bosh Zimmerman. Big Z Productions on Santa Monica Boule…no, not there, I think. Well, look him up in the phone book. But don’t call. Go there. You may have to wait but if you call you’ll never get in. Mention my name. You made the deposit today?”
“Tell him. He’ll want to verify it, so all the better. That will get him interested. Here is the paperwork as I promised.” He reached into his coat and had a little difficulty bringing out two envelopes, but when they were out he pushed them across to Erik. “One is from David Boothby. Terms of the rental and some legal goulash. You need to sign and I’ll have a messenger take it to him tomorrow. You brought the check?” He waited for Erik to nod. “The other is for Walter Berg…I mean…Bosh Zimmerman. Detailing what we need for the shoot. If he balks, tell him I insist on Saturday night and I also insist on the Whistler Hotel.” He and Erik had agreed on the location in a previous exchange of letters, and though Erik knew nothing about the place he trusted the great man’s judgment. “He might say the Whistler is too dangerous to film in, but tell him we will have a fire marshal present. And it’s no more dangerous than the Palmetto Natatorium and the Robert Smalls High School. Anyway, I know the place. Two hours from the city. We won’t be bothered. Used to go there on weekends, back in my day. They had a gambling casino on the lower level, and oh boy was that the cat’s meow.”
Erik had no idea what that meant, but he simply smiled and nodded, took out his pen, and signed everything where it needed to be signed, and then made out a check for five thousand dollars to Boothby Real Estate in Pinon Hills.
The rest of their dinner was spent in conversation ranging from Shevanowsky’s movies to Van Helsing’s brief investment in Grand Prix racing, as well as his other ventures around the world—among them a noodle factory in Shanghai, a perfumery in Geneva, and a line of ski equipment in Paris.
“Searching for a purpose,” said the great director as he paused in his consumption of caviar. “Is that correct?”
“Never have I thought of it so,” came the answer after a moment of reflection. “But…ja…I imagine it to be.”
“Your famous name. Your purpose. You will see.”
For some reason, Erik considered that this was the most wonderful thing ever spoken to him.
The dinner was nearly done when the ancient gentleman suffered another attack of coughing, this time severe enough to bring both waiter and maitre d over to express if not heartfelt comfort then an offer to call an ambulance, but Shevanowsky waved them off and got himself under control. “Pardon,” Shevanowsky croaked to Erik. “I do have some small little health problems. I am about to turn eighty-nine years of age. My doctor warns me not to do, eat or drink everything that life is no good without. My cars! You should see my cars!”
“Yes, sir. I shall hope to.”
“Cars,” Shevanowsky repeated, and seemed to drift off for a time into a blank-faced reverie. Then, coming back to the moment: “Ah! I have an idea. You take the Maserati. I’ll have them call a cab for me.”
“I couldn’t, sir! Though…it is a beautiful vehicle.”
“Yours as long as you want it. Enjoy it and pick me up Saturday night, we’ll drive up together. Anyway, I’ll drop in on my doctor on the way home. He gives me pills.”
“Your doctor, sir? This late?”
“Pills,” Shevanowsky said. “What I pay Jerome Kovacks I am entitled to knock at his door any hour of the night. Old man like me. Waiter!” he called, his voice still thin and raspy. “Check, please!”
Outside, Erik had said he wanted to wait for the cab with the great man but Shevanowsky leaned on his metal cane and said, “Go on, take the car! Built for slim playboys like you, use it while you can. Plenty of clubs around here, spend your money. Enjoy!” And with that he gave Erik a little push with the tip of his cane and in so doing staggered and nearly fell but for one of the valet boys catching him.
“Go,” said Shevanowsky. “I shall see you on Saturday. Remember, it’s a two-hour drive.”
The Maserati came around, trembling with power. Before Erik got behind the wheel he said to Shevanowsky, “Break leg”, because he’d heard it was a lucky saying here in Hollywood. At that moment the great man was bent over like a thin gnarled tree, both hands supporting his frail body on the cane, and staring off into the distance along La Cienega as if watching the ghosts moving back and forth in the world that used to be.
Erik decided he might indeed find a nice music club and have a drink or two to celebrate the occasion, for it was much too early for a slim playboy like himself to return to the Holiday Inn.
He cast a last glance at the director of his future and drove away, with all that power underneath him.
* * *
Fast forward to Saturday night.
“A beautiful machine,” Erik said, “but she drinks petrol and is very costly, ja?”
“Oh yes,” Shevanowsky replied, sunken down in the passenger seat. “All beautiful things are costly, are they not?”
“Agreed.” They were on their way north on Interstate 15. The amber highway lights glinted off the Maserati’s hood. There were many big trucks moving north as well as some crazy drivers who got up close to the Maserati to gun their engines as if they wanted to race, but Erik was principled and capable behind the wheel and he cared not for a contest of speed which the Bora was certain to win.
“A pleasant night,” said the great man. “I am very excited about this, Erik. How I’ve looked forward to it!”
Erik nodded. They were running late. When Erik had arrived at Shevanowsky’s white stone mansion on Cicero Circle in Beverly Hills, he had been greeted at the front door by a tall, slim woman in a dark blue business suit. She appeared to be nearly as old as the director, and she wore a black wig that was very obviously a wig. She had told him Mister Shevanowsky was a little late in getting ready, and he should wait in the parlor. The wait—in a spacious room with stained-glass windows and framed photographs and movie posters on the walls—had stretched into nearly an hour before the woman had appeared again to say that Mister Shevanowsky apologized for the delay and would like for him to be escorted to the garage to see the cars. The garage, connected to the house by a covered walkway paved with fieldstones, was immaculate and the four cars in pristine condition, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost being a magnificent beast that Erik thought must be worth at least three or four million dollars in American money.
The woman, who had never given her name, left him alone.
He had so far enjoyed his visit to Hollywood, and had gone to all the tourist places: the Walk of Fame, Mann’s Chinese Theater, the LaBrea tar pits, the Hollywood sign, the Bowl, over to Santa Monica and to Venice Beach to watch the skaters, out to Malibu to watch the surfers, and had taken the Beverly Hills tour bus. He had discovered the Playboy Club near his Holiday Inn in Century City but had been a bit disappointed, as he found himself overdressed in the tuxedo he’d brought. And no one there wore an ascot, which he’d expected almost all the Hollywood playboys would be wearing. No matter. A fine singer named Mel Torme had entertained, and then a drummer named Buddy Rich had played with the house band.
At last the great director, wearing a shiny gray suit and black tie and a dark red beret perched upon his snowy crest, had entered the garage—walking slowly, picking his way forward with the cane. “My boy, my boy!” he said, with his grimace of a smile. “How do you like them?”
“Wonderful.” And they had talked about the history of the cars for a few minutes until Shevanowsky had said with a measure of both sadness and disdain, “I detest that I cannot move very quickly, even with Lauretta helping me dress. I wished to look my best tonight. It is time. Will you help me to the car?”
Erik had folded Shevanowsky—who weighed as much as a dried leaf on the Balkan breeze—into the Maserati, and they were off.
A little over two hours later, as Shevanowsky grunted and shifted back and forth with what might have been pain in the car’s curved seat, Erik followed the man’s direction along a narrow road that rose up with forest on both sides and not a light in view. “Not much further,” was Shevanowsky’s comment. “The road will be on the right and Boothby will have unlocked the gate. If he hasn’t, we’ll know it by everyone standing around twiddling their thumbs.”
But indeed the iron gate was unlocked, and again the road kept ascending in the midst of dense woods. It curved and curved, and suddenly there were flashlights moving around, revealing several parked cars, two white panel trucks, and people unloading things.
“There is the Whistler,” said Shevanowsky, in a soft tone of what Erik thought might have been yearning.
It was a place. What more could be said for it? As Erik pulled the Maserati up past the panel trucks, he had the impression of a huge set of black and jagged teeth rising from the woods. Perhaps there was a roof somewhere. There were dark squares of windows, but people were inside shining their flashlights around, and the beams snagged on edges of broken glass. What looked to be a single remaining turret went up into the overhang of trees and might have become a growth of the trees itself. A few chimneys were wrapped up with vines. Part of the hotel looked as if it had melted.
“Wow,” said Erik: in Latvian, Croatian, and Romanian, the same.
“Yes. Wow,” said the director. He gave a long, heavy sigh. “This was a happy place of my youth. A hideaway, far from the pressures. For many of us it was. Young Hollywood. Oh me, I shall become sappy in a few minutes. Will you help me out?”
“Good Christ!” said the wide-bodied outline of a man when Erik and Shevanowsky were out of the car. A bull’s-eye lantern stung their eyes. “How do you expect to shoot anything in a place like this? It’s worse than I thought!”
“Who is that?”
“Bosh Zimmerman. Morton Shevanowsky, I presume?”
“The one. The only.”
“Okay, I know your work and I have to say I thought you were dead. Niceties aside, this is impossible! I’ve already been in there…the place is wreckage! Holes in the floor that would swallow a truck! What’s left of the roof about to cave in any second. I swear to God this is the worst place I’ve ever seen in my life and there can not be any filming here tonight!”
In the silence that followed this, a symphony of crickets and other insects chirped and whirred in the woods. Shevanowsky’s voice was quiet but silken: “But wouldn’t you say, sir, that it is a perfect hiding place for vampires?”
“Oh, come on! We can do better on a sound stage! At least we’d have the modern convenience of electric light!”
“The candles and the flares are here? If so, what more is needed for the real effect young Van Helsing desires? You wouldn’t expect a vampiric vault to have electric lighting, would you? Neither would the audience.”
“We’re not shooting for an audience. This is a test. We could’ve shot this in a warehouse.”
“Test shoot for a test audience. I know what I want, sir.”
“Well, I’m not sending any crew, actor, makeup artist or toilet-paper runner into that hole! Hear me?”
“Erik,” said the great man with a slow turning of his head, “would you remind me how much was your check to Mister Zimmerman for this one night of activity?”
“Jesus!” Zimmerman said, nearly a groan. “Okay, don’t go there.”
“Let us all agree to do our test shoot as quickly as possible, without complications, insults or threats, and we can send everyone home happy…especially Erik and myself. I think we can wrap this by one o’clock. Your task now, sir, is to get the actors into makeup and costume and everything else readied that needs to be, while Erik and I find a suitable…” He sought the right word and came up with “Vault. You did secure the three Arriflex cameras as I asked?”
“I could only get two on short notice.”
“I am dismayed…but two will do, and thank you for your efforts.”
At that, Zimmerman turned and strode off without another word, following his lantern across the broken ground.
“My heart,” said Shevanowsky. He clutched at his chest. “Oh my…”
“Are you not well?” Erik had a moment of panic: if Shevanowsky suffered a heart attack way out here he might be dead before they reached a hospital.
“My heart…beating very hard. I haven’t had a go-round with a producer since…I can’t remember when. Oh, mercy…that takes me back, I can tell you. Let me stand here and breathe. May I lean against you?”
“Yes, sir, of course,” Erik answered, and he stood firm while the old man—who had shown with remarkable energy what he used to be made of in his young Hollywood days—regained his strength.
“Let us go now,” Shevanowsky said at last, straightening up as much as a shrunken hunchbacked antique of a man could manage, “and find our own little piece of Hell…in a manner of speaking.”
On their way toward the cavernous entrance, they were approached again by Zimmerman and his agitated lantern. “How about coming over here to the makeup people and telling them what you want? I don’t know from vampires.”
One of the panel trucks was open at the rear and rigged with lanterns and a stand of wooden steps. Within, two tables and a few folding chairs were set up with makeup kits at the ready. The artists were a young woman in a denim jacket and red slacks with spiky black hair and seventeen studs in each ear and a lanky guy with shoulder-length brown hair and an unruly beard that could have nested a squall of bluejays. Erik carefully helped Shevanowsky up the steps and waited while the director looked over the available materials. “White faces,” he said. “Dark around the eyes. Gaunt is what we’re after. You have the fake eyes? The glass things?”
“Some contact lenses,” the girl said.
“Red, if you have those.”
“And another thing,” said Zimmerman at the bottom of the steps. “Our costumer called me just before I left. Her boyfriend’s sick and she can’t make it. It was too late to call in anybody else. What I wouldn’t give for a phone I could carry in my pocket, make life a lot simpler!”
“Hm.” Shevanowsky was still examining the little vials and jars. “We’ll need blood for the vampire mouths.”
“We’ve brought the stuff,” said the beard, motioning toward a plastic jug of red-dyed corn syrup on the floor. “Enough to stage a massacre.”
“Very good. As to the absent costumer,” said Shevanowsky, turning his attention to Zimmerman, “we’ll go with what the actors are wearing. Maybe dirty them up. Tear up some cloth if we need to. They won’t mind, they’re being paid. Now excuse us, Erik and I need to find the proper room.”
“Hey, dude,” the beard said to Shevanowsky, “this place has got a vibe. I like it, man.”
“Yeah,” the girl added. “Gnarly, in a cool way.”
“People of a kindred spirit,” Shevanowsky said with satisfaction, and then he reached out to Erik to descend the stairs again with his cane searching for added stability.
“Didn’t you bring a light?” Zimmerman asked. “Go over to the other truck and get a flashlight. Wait a minute…take this thing, the cone’s bigger.” Erik accepted the bull’s-eye lantern. “They’re ready to set up the candles wherever you want ’em. So where’s this fire marshal who’s supposed to be here?”
“Obviously not arrived yet. Perhaps his boyfriend has taken ill?”
“Remind me to laugh next week.” Zimmerman looked at Erik with maybe a last supplication to give up on this thing as too dangerous, but then he aimed his gaze at the ground and gave a sweeping motion toward the Whistler. “So go,” he said, all his protests worn down to the size of a nice fat check.
Erik and Shevanowsky crossed barren ground. They went up a set of stone steps blackened by flame. The porch—a huge thing, littered with burnt objects—sagged to one side. They followed the light into the dark, Shevanowsky once more holding onto Erik for support. Within, Erik looked up and could see stars and a half-moon beyond a tangle of branches.
“Watch your step over to the left,” said a man with a flashlight. “Big hole in the floor.”
They went on, Erik moving the light back and forth. He imagined he could smell the acrid smoke of the fire that had consumed at least half of this hotel. No…there stood a young man and a pretty too-thin girl smoking a very small cigarette. The man said something and the girl giggled.
“Youth,” said the director as he and Erik walked on. “They missed all the fun, they just don’t know it.”
They came upon what appeared to be gambling tables…or once were, because they were splintered and overturned. A piano was a shell of its former self. The light made out scrawls of graffiti and obscene drawings upon the walls. Draperies hung like dirty rags. Erik’s lantern found a wide staircase ascending into further darkness, but here was someone gingerly coming down the stairs with their own flashlight.
“Up, we shall go?” Erik asked.
“No. Down. I’m looking for a door to the basement. Should be a concrete or stone floor down there, we needn’t fret about anyone falling through. Come over this way.”
After a few minutes of further exploration an opening was discovered though the door had been torn off its hinges. Erik thought the staircase looked unsteady…but here again, two people were coming up behind their lights.
“Big space down there,” said a handsome young man who Erik thought could play the lead in any of what the Americans called the soapy operas. An equally attractive young woman was clinging to his arm. “Spooky,” she said. “And it smells sick. Whose idea was this?”
“You should go to makeup,” said Shevanowsky, and the two actors passed by. “Let me take this slowly,” he told Erik.
In the basement the floor was indeed concrete and except for piles of broken furniture, more burnt objects and an odor that was as sick as described, it appeared to be what Shevanowsky had hoped to find. The light probed, found a corner in one direction, found thick oaken beams overhead, found in another direction only dark. “Ah!” Shevanowsky tapped his cane on the floor. “Here we are! Our vault. We must clear some of this debris away, but I think…well, what do you think?”
“The director is yourself.”
“Yes, but you’re the star.”
“The smell is bad.”
“But the vibe—as the young gentleman said—is good. Perfect, even. I believe all these professionals being paid professional wages can stand the odor of a dead hotel for a few hours. Agreed?”
“Yes,” Erik decided. And Mister Shevanowsky was right…it was perfect.
“Very well, let’s take those stairs again and God have pity on an old man’s legs.”
It took a while to get everything set up: the candles alight in the candelabras, the booms and the recording equipment readied, the cameramen with the handheld Arriflexes, the six male and two female actors in their ghastly white makeup and red contacts, their mouths and chins smeared with the fake gore, and the two makeup artists standing by for touch-ups, a box of flares brought down and put aside, all the Hollywood trimmings. Someone had supplied a few of the folding metal chairs. The machine was about to start rolling.
“So where is the damned fire marshal?” Zimmerman asked as the last of the candles were being lit. The basement now looked like the interior of an old medieval castle, yet still the space was so huge the light didn’t reach all corners. “Are you listening? I think we’re breaking some laws here.”
“Hush,” Shevanowsky said. With Erik’s help, he was pacing off distances.
“Oh my God oh my God oh Christ!”
Zimmerman and about six others had almost jumped out of their shoes.
Erik saw that it was the young actress who’d been smoking the marihaune. She had been off to the left where the dark was thicker, obviously just roaming around at the edge of it, and now she was pointing at something over there past where the circle of candelabras was set up. “What is that?” She was nearly shrieking it. “Right there! What is that?”
“What is what, darling?” Shevanowsky asked quietly. “What’s your trouble?”
“There! Something dead on the floor!”
Erik let go of the director and went to take a look. The beard was beside him and Zimmerman peered over his shoulder. The spiky-haired makeup girl said, “Gag a maggot.”
It might have once been a good-sized dog. Chunks of brown-haired carcass lay scattered about. Bones were exposed, the ribcage lying there like a strange piece of abstract art. The head lay about four feet away from the stump of the neck. The yellowed teeth were bared. On the concrete was a large black stain. The pieces looked—as Erik immediately thought—shrivelled.
“I almost stepped on it!” the girl wailed.
“Someone calm her down,” Shevanowsky directed, to no one in particular. “An animal ate an animal. It does happen. Do we want to shoot this tonight, or do we not?”
“No!” said Zimmerman. “Listen, Van Helsing…Erik…this doesn’t feel right. I mean it. Something is—”
“Proceeding as planned,” Shevanowsky interrupted. He drew himself up as tall as he could, but he was still shrunken. “This is supposed to be a frightful place. It ain’t Disneyland, people! Well, let me have a look.” He hobbled over to view the carcass, which was now the focal point of many flashlights. “Ghastly. But long deceased, I think, and no threat to anyone here. Ah! What is that?”
A flashlight aimed where he was pointing his cane. The beam fell upon what appeared to be a square of metal in the floor about twenty feet from the remains. Erik and the others could clearly see that the metal had a handle. “I believe,” said Shevanowsky, “that the Whistler has been hiding a secret all these years. Erik, help me over there.”
It took Erik and another man to lift the metal, which came up with a skreech. From below roiled a scent of dark earth, mold, and a disagreeable miasma. A light revealed a metal-runged ladder and a dirt floor maybe ten feet down.
“A sub-basement,” said Shevanowsky, peering into the pit. “Hm. That’s where we should be shooting.”
“Not on my mother’s life!” Zimmerman had nearly shouted it.
“Someone bring a flare,” the director said, as the others crowded around. “Ignite that for me, please,” he instructed when one of the crew brought it. The flare was struck, it sizzled, spat green sparks and then a green glow. “Drop it down,” Shevanowsky said. It was done. The flare lay in the dirt, flaring.
“Anyone see anything else in there?” he asked.
No one did. “An empty hole,” said Zimmerman. “And nobody’s climbing down to see, either! How about we get on with this?”
“Indeed.” Shevanowsky tapped Erik’s shoulder with the cane. “Now we come to your starring moment, my boy. I have the title for this series. Vampire Hunter. Short and sweet. All right, then, let’s get to work.”
The metal hatch was banged shut, loud enough to wake the dead.
In the next span of time the director told the actors where he wanted them to come out of the dark…over near the metal hatch would do, and no one step on the mess. The frightened girl refused to go over there, so he allowed her to sit down and compose herself.
“Take one,” said Shevanowsky. “Erik, I want you to start here, where I’m standing, and walk toward camera number one. That one there. I want you to talk while you’re walking. Speak clearly and slowly. You decide what to say. Someone give him a crucifix.”
“A what?” Zimmerman asked.
“Crucifix. Give him one.”
“What do you mean? That wasn’t on the list you gave me!”
“Yes it was.”
“No, it was not.”
“I’m not going to argue with you. Everyone in their right mind knows a vampire hunter needs a crucifix. Oh dear…perhaps it wasn’t on the list. I can’t recall. But have you never seen a vampire movie? And you call yourself a producer! Well, we’ll improvise. Someone find him two broken boards or something.”
“Amateur hour,” one of the actors muttered, but the director let it go.
Erik began to walk with the two boards held up to form a crucifix. “Wait,” said Shevanowsky, who had settled into a chair. “I hear a jingling. The car keys in your pocket.”
“Oh. Ja.” He gave them to the director, and then he returned to the original place and started again.
The whole world seemed to be the camera lens before his face. He had no idea what to say, but he began anyway: “I am Erik Van Helsing. Of my name you know. I am a world citi…citizen of the world…”
“Keep rolling,” said Shevanowsky.
“I am a citizen of the world.” He felt sweat at the back of his neck. This acting was more difficult than he had imagined. He had an itch on his upper lip. “For years…for many years…for generations…my family…my family had pursued an ancient evil. We have…pursued them…around the world…and…now…”
It happened very suddenly.
Something came over him. It was the thought I am a Van Helsing. And: I am a man with a purpose. And then he realized he’d spoken it, and his voice was somehow different. This thing that was happening grew stronger; he could feel it inside him, stronger and stronger, and thus his voice was stronger and stronger, and suddenly he was not speaking to just the camera but to the world and to a world unaware, because this thing that was happening was real…very real…and he believed.
“I am here…in the land of California, not far from the safety of your homes…not far from the children you love and wish to protect…to tell you that your homes are not safe…your children are not safe…no one is safe…while the vampire haunts the world. And ja…you may think the vampire exists in legend only, and that legend is old and dusty and no one cares anymore, but you see…you see…that is what they wish you to think. They wish you to drift and dream and go about your lives as if there is no danger. They wish you to laugh at the thought. And I am here to be telling you…to warn you…that you may die with laughing. Yet when the unholy ones come for you, death would be a blessing. Yes. I am a Van Helsing, and I am a man with a purpose…to hunt and destroy the vampire…around the world…and where we shall go together I do not know, but together we shall be strong and brave and we shall be invinci—”
Because he, as all the others as well, had heard the skreech of the metal hatch coming up.
There was a frozen moment.
The space between the screams and the flashlights being clicked on and aimed by trembling hands into the dark beyond the ring of candelabras was not long…but then again, it seemed an eternity.
The shaky beams revealed something—things—tearing the actors to pieces. Cloth, flesh and real gore flew into the air. It was a blur of motion, a thing that seemed to be one entity yet had many heads, arms and legs, and as Erik watched in stunned and solidified horror he saw the actors being whittled down as if a grinning creature made out of sawblades spun wildly in their midst. The bodies were torn asunder in a matter of seconds, heads and appendages spinning away, torsos split open, organs falling out, legs flailing. Suddenly the great director was running toward the massacre—actually running—and the hideous entity that was both one creature and many fell upon him.
Who was the first to scream among the survivors? Himself? Zimmerman? The beard or the makeup girl? Whoever…it was such a scream it shredded the throat.
And then…then…Morton Shevanowsky was lifted high upon the arms that clasped him. He said in a voice that was no longer weak and frail, “Him“, and they threw his body like a spear at Bosh Zimmerman.
When he hit the producer and drove him to the floor, the great director opened his mouth wide…wide…impossibly wide…and Erik saw the fangs slide out like those of a rattlesnake. Shevanowsky’s fangs sank into Zimmerman’s face and tore away the cheek to the bone. A second bite of flesh took the eye and the rest of that side of the face. Zimmerman screamed and thrashed but it was hopeless because the next blurred movement of an old sick man tore Zimmerman’s left arm from his body. Shevanowsky shoved his mouth upon the stump, and his body shivered with demonic ecstacy.
Two of the candelabras were knocked over, the candles rolling across the concrete. The things were surging around Erik. They moved so fast, it was hard to make out exactly what they were but his fevered brain registered human figures mostly in rags, pallid things, male and female, wiry and thin, their eyes white pools of nothing. And the white eyes of one who looked to be a teenaged girl with long, dirty blonde hair found him, and when she grinned and showed her fangs in the obscene black-tongued mouth he wet his pants and fled for his life.
Somewhere he had lost the boards, but of what use was such? There was a shrieking jumble of the remaining crew entangled with each other on the stairs. As Erik tried to fight his way up two claws with filthy fingernails grabbed the head of the makeup girl beside him and tore the spiky-haired scalp off to the bloody skull. The girl gave a gurgling cry and suddenly her head was gone and hot blood spurted into Erik’s face. He fought upward. Something grabbed the back of his coat. He twisted and twisted and kicked and kicked and his coat was torn off him so hard his arms were nearly wrenched from their sockets, but for the moment he was free. The beard’s face was in his own, but the beard had no face, just a mass of dripping red meat with a beard hanging off.
He got to the top with two of the other crew. When he collided with one the man went down and a wraith leaped upon the unfortunate soul like a malignant toad upon a lilypad, though in the next instant the lilypad exploded, claws going at the flesh like razor-edged pistons.
Erik Van Helsing ran.
He stumbled at the bottom of the steps, nearly fell, ran toward the Maserati. But then…what good was the fast car, with the keys in the vampire’s pocket?
Morton Shevanowsky. Vampire. But he had eaten borscht and caviar! How was it possible?
Vampire. And so much worse than the books and the films. He had a crazed thought that even Dracula would’ve fled from these things.
He ran past the useless Maserati and the other vehicles. He dared not look back, for to see anything coming after him might freeze his legs. He ran into the woods. Thicket tore at his bloodied face. They could smell him! he thought. No matter…there was nothing to do now but to run, to try to flag down a car or find a house or…something…just to survive until dawn but oh God oh Jesus dawn was so far away.
He was going downhill into a gully. Halfway down he tripped over a root and fell, and then he rolled and rolled through leaves and weeds. As he lay half-stunned and half-insane he heard someone coming and he started to get up but by the weak light of the half moon he saw it was the remaining member of the crew, a large-sized individual in jeans and a plaid shirt who was likewise trying to escape with all his skin and his head still on.
He had no time to waste. Pain shot through his ribs as he stood up, but it was nothing compared to what was behind him. And perhaps gaining.
Erik ran again, faster and harder even with the pain. And then he started up a hill and came out of the woods and there was the main highway, as narrow and desolate as it was. He began running once more in the direction he and Shevanowsky—vampire!—had come from Hollywood. After a few minutes the pain in his side was hobbling him and his breath was almost gone, and then his head swam and suddenly he was lying in a ditch on his back staring up at the merciless night.
He was not crazy. Not traks. Almost. But not yet.
Oh my God, he thought. What shall I do? Where shall I go…and who will believe me when I tell this tale?
And then: I am a Van Helsing. I am a man with a purpose.
He realized he had found his future.
To go into the world and tell them. Tell them all. Not only that, but to fight the vampire. Yes. Like real. To put together a team, to find the king or the queen…wherever, London, Amsterdam, Cairo…Hollywood. It could be done. No. It must be done. He felt himself tremble with a power he had never known he’d possessed. It was the commandment of his blood. A Van Helsing, no longer a playboy, a wastrel, a fool among men…but a man of purpose and honor…of rightness.
It must be done. And who to do this, but himself?
He got up and started again, running for a while and walking for a while. Then his heart leaped, because…yes…there…the headlights! A car was coming, distant yet, but soon.
Erik stood in the center of the road, waving his arms.
Something hit him so hard he almost swallowed his tongue and his spine was nearly broken. Every ounce of air shrieked out of his lungs.
Through a blood-red haze he saw the hideous blonde-haired girl thing crouched over him, he was in the weeds in another ditch and above the ringing in his ears he heard the car drone past.
She sank her claws into his cheeks. Below the empty white eyes was a wide and horrific grin that promised a festival of pain.
And then she was thrown off him as if by a whirlwind of bricks.
“No,” said a mangled voice. It had sounded more like Nog. “Not this one.”
Morton Shevanowsky was in the picture once again.
But a different creature, all together.
He was a thick bloated thing like a walking slug. His clothes had stretched to the bursting point, the suit jacket and director’s beret gone, the bloody shirt strained at the buttons. The flesh of his body rolled in obscene waves. His face, all the wrinkles smoothed out, was a mask of Bosh Zimmerman’s gore, and it had spattered up his forehead into his snowy hair.
The girl crawled to him on her knees and began to kiss his shoes. He lifted her by the nape of her neck with one hand and threw her into a thicket, where she curled up and made a whining noise like a hurt animal.
Shevanowsky was one second bending over Erik; the next he was right in Erik’s face.
“My boy, my boy,” spoke the misshapen, swollen mouth. “What am I to do with you?”
No answer from a statue turned into stone by terror.
“Did you leave that dog out?” Shevanowsky’s voice directed at the girl was the sound of ugly thunder. “Almost wrecked everything. I’ll find out who did it. Ohhhhh yes.”
Erik’s mouth suddenly moved. “I…saw you…eating. The borscht…and the…”
“Caviar. Both were my favorites in the other life. And the vodka, how I loved it. Now: sickening. I had trouble in that place. All those rich smells of flesh and blood. You had to leave before I threw up in the gutter. Pardon me.” He reached up and popped out one glass eye and then the other…pop pop…and the blank white orbs stared down upon a Van Helsing. “Now I can see better.” Currents of blood rolled behind his face. “I should have been an actor. Better than many I worked with, I can say.” He smiled, a horror all by itself. “Vampire hunter. Well, here you are and here I am. Who is hunting whom?”
“I cannot…I don’t know what—”
“To think? To believe? Believe this: when you wrote me, I realized…how delicious it would be to bring a Van Helsing into the tribe. We are of Vog Seth, the Seer. So shall you be, Erik Van Helsing. The Whistler is my castle. I am the master, and you will be my puppet. Oh it is to laugh! Don’t you think it’s funny, just a little bit?”
Before an answer could be given, the head thrust forward, the mouth opened, the fangs slid out and went into Erik’s throat, and though Shevanowsky was full to bursting there was always room for a midnight snack and…besides…not much would be taken, this first time. In three nights, the young man would view the world quite differently, and quite more clearly than in the old life.
Erik’s eyes had widened with further shock. Now they closed, and he slept.
“I got that last one,” said the bloated creature that two weeks ago had been the real estate agent David Boothby. He came across the road, a satisfied white-eyed and bloodied slug.
“Kill or save?”
Shevanowsky stood up to his full, impressive height. “Good. We have too many to feed as it is. Dogs and cattle, cattle and dogs…pah!” Wait for the signal, he’d told them. A flare. That was to get ready. Then wait for the flare to burn out, and—
The rest is history.
But there was a mess at the Whistler. He had promised them a blood feast, they and he hadn’t fed on the human breed in so long and he was a vampire of his word. But it was a mess all the same. The police might come. Probably would. Let them. But there were too many loose ends in this production, this masterpiece of planning and—in a way—fanciful revenge.
He lifted his engorged face and stared moon-eyed at the moon.
“I smell something in the air, David,” he said. He rubbed his chest where his heart used to be, now cold clay. “Something is coming. Very soon. Something is coming that will change our city. Our world. I feel it, do you not?”
“I smell the desert.”
“Not that. I smell power. Immense, crushing power. That’s why I don’t mind about the mess. Soon it will not matter. Something…some one, I believe…is coming the like we’ve never seen before. Possibly to unite the tribes. Wouldn’t that be a happy ending? Or let us say…a glorious beginning, all for the children of the night.”
“Praise,” said David.
“Praise,” answered the great director, and the girl whispered it too like the soft hiss of a rising wind.
“I’ll know who left that dog out,” he vowed, staring at the girl. She shrank back into the weeds. “Pick him up.”
She did. She slung Erik Van Helsing over one shoulder like a sack of yesterday’s laundry, and the three figures crossed the road and disappeared into the woods.