hunting adolf hitler:
a celebrity supernatural #6
for phillip allen and ric nalette
with many thanks for your unwitting inspiration
y2k, artificial intelligence, online gaming, vampires, ghouls, gargoyles and william shakespeare all compete in this mad mash-up of a nazi hunt taken to the furthest extremes of human experience…
when dr. john watson – immortalized by conan doyle much to his regret - realizes that the only way to save humanity is to unleash a ten-thousand year old demon, he turns to his friend and fellow vampire william shakespeare, for help. but shakespeare’s solution – a game within a game – seems like too much of a gamble, even as an army of ghouls and gargoyles descend upon london…
this story is a work of fiction. any resemblance to real persons, places or events is purely coincidental and/or a work of the author’s imagination.
first of all, the war was over. long over. all the trails were cold, all the rat lines long sealed. the rats themselves, most of them, long dead. so i wasn't exactly surprised when martin arrived that cold thursday afternoon, just as i was putting my second sugar into my tea. he took one look around the office, the threadbare office that had so long ago ceased official funding, that no one remembered the source of its unofficial funding. i was fortunate i continued to draw a salary, and i suspected it was that, rather than any report of mine, that had drawn the attention of the powers-that-be, thus resulting in martin's dispatch.
"martin," i said, looking up from my hot-plate as he opened the door. "just in time for tea."
"hello, old man." at least he had the grace to look abashed, as he slunk around the dusty door-frame and streaked glass, and settled, without being asked, into the sagging leather chair on the other side of my desk.
he gestured to me as i stared, taken aback, not just at the visit, but at the air about him. something was up - all my hackles were raised. "won't you sit?" he gestured across the desk.
i hesitated. there was only one reason i could think of for martin's unannounced visit. martin did everything by the book, by the schedule. it's what made him the perfect civil servant, the perfect bureaucrat. it's what made me rely on him for absolutely anything and everything.
that, and i had no choice. there wasn't anyone else left. i screwed my courage to the sticking place, squeezed a quarter wedge of lemon into my tea, and took refuge behind my desk. "i wasn't expecting you," i said. there was no point beating around the bush. if he was going to tell me to pack my things, hand over my files, empty the desks and the drawers and turn off the lights and lock the doors forever, he was going to work for it.
martin spread his hands. he had the grace to look even more embarrassed. at least i assumed it was embarrassment. "your last report caused quite a stir."
i waved my hand dismissively just before i picked up my tea. "that's what it always does. until something else causes an even bigger stir, and then mine is swept under the rug, once again. no one wishes to entertain increasingly inconvenient truths."
"one never wishes to entertain inconvenient truths, john." martin said this kindly, almost lovingly. and why not? we've been friends a very long time.
"is that what i'm doing?"
"i beg your pardon?" martin looked confused.
"isn't that why you're here?" i leaned back against the creaking wood of my own chair, scanning the walls of the dim, high-ceilinged room where i spent the better part of the last half of the current century. maps, edges curling and brown, were pinned to every inch of the walls; desks that hadn't been occupied in three decades sagged beneath the weight of dusty files that hadn't been opened in nearly that long. the hunt went cold a long time ago.
"why i'm here..." martin trailed off. "you think i'm here to shut you down, john?" he shook his head, leaned forward and slapped his hand on the surface of my desk. "far to the contrary...you couldn't be further off the truth, old man. i'm not here to shut you down - i'm here to tell you it's time to wake...well, you know."
for quite a long moment i stared at martin, uncertain that i had actually heard him correctly. "wake her? wake her now?"
"you don't agree? even after your last report?"
i sat back, dumbfounded. now? i remember thinking. now? "that...that was only to be considered an option after all others had been exhausted."
"isn't that where we are? haven't all other options long been exhausted?" martin’s eyes were as guileless as they'd been the day he came to my laboratory the first time, and suggested that i might be ideal for the work of finding the fugitive adolf hitler.
"i don't understand. what about... what about funds? perhaps there'd be more options if there were more funds."
"you'll have all the funds you need."
"if i... if i do as you suggest."
"exactly. all the stops will be pulled, old man, all the skids greased. everyone's aware of the risks -"
"and who, exactly, is 'everyone?'"
i wasn't reassured that martin squirmed, just a bit. "let's just say...the people who understand."
"as opposed to the people who don't?"
"as opposed to the people who don't know."
"who don't know...?"
"that vampires exist, for one thing, john." martin said this even more gently. "that doctor frankenstein and doctor watson have more in common and are more alike than most people realize. and that the great sherlock holmes and his sidekick were really..."
i held up my hand. i didn't need to be reminded about sherlock holmes – that drug-addicted figment of an overwrought conan-doyle’s tortured imagination. holmes was an insult, a mockery, of everything i was or had ever been, for that matter. i should never have allowed that two-bit hack to use anything of myself in those wretched stories. i loathed the very thought of them. "what do you want me to do?"
"haven't i been clear? wake lilith. use her to find hitler – or whatever you think it is that hitler’s become."
"and when lilith finds hitler?" i said that because i wasn’t sure what hitler had become. the world of possibilities continued to expand the more i contemplated.
martin hesitated, and the shadow of doubt crossed his face. "use your discretion, old chap. because that's what everyone's really counting on." he rose to his feet, shrugged his rumpled burberry over his shoulders. "and i do mean everyone...from her majesty on down."
"and after? what happens then? when she’s flush with feeding for the first time in six hundred years and angry as puke? then what? is everyone relying on my discretion then?"
martin looked at me then, really looked at me, and this time, i thought i saw something like pity in his expression. "of course not, john. we're relying on you to kill her."
i waited until martin left to finish my tea. by then it was stone cold, but i didn't care. i lost my taste - my need - for warmth a long time ago. and, of course, i was too stunned by what martin had to say. the idea of unleashing lilith had been bandied about at the beginning, but no one ever took the suggestion seriously.
no one really thought awakening a vampire more than ten thousand years old was a good idea.
least of all another vampire like me.
did martin know? i assume he did - sooner or later it had to occur to him that i was no more the grandson of the late great doctor john watson than he was: i was the gentleman in question himself.
now i hope, gentle reader, if you will forgive me the conceit, that you will not stop reading at this point, that you will not close your book in despair with a shake of your head and a sneer of your lip. this is not another tale about a blood-sucking vampire - well, yes, in some respects, yes, it is - but i'm not like that. none of us as a rule go around ripping into the throats of innocent mortals - none of us worthy of the name "vampire."
and surely, in this age of transfusions and blood donations and intravenous delivery systems, you don't truly believe that any self-respecting vampire would bite into a human neck given a choice? have you any idea how tough a living human’s hide really is? have you any idea what a god-awful mess all that spurting arterial blood makes?
but i hope you understand that of course we need to feed, like any other creature.
you do understand that, right?
good. because feeding on innocents isn't the way it is with me, or any of my kin. not that there are many left.
the pogroms, the scourges, the witch hunts that raged through europe, long before an infant hitler saw his first sunrise, ensured that most of our kind were gone. and then hitler and his minions did all they could to eradicate those of us who remained.
that's why it seemed reasonable - even in the beginning, before hitler managed to escape so neatly through our nets, to suggest we rouse the one remaining vampire to whom all living vampires can trace their lineage. after more than six hundred years of rest, they reasoned, she should be ravenous enough to hunt down anything. and angry enough at hitler to find him.
the only problem was that, once unleashed, no one knew how to control her.
set free, without a homeland, without an anchor, lilith would ravage through the world, feasting on whatever took her pleasure. given that it was fair to say she was singlehandedly responsible for the creation of every demon-woman myth in every culture around the globe, i was quite sure the world – even at the dawn of the twenty-first century of the common era, as they style it nowadays – wasn’t ready for her reappearance.
i waited until i was sure the building was almost empty, but not as late as my usual wont. consequently i was noticed by a couple of late-lingering employees, but i didn’t care. there were rumors of a grey man haunting the old offices in the basement. every so often it was good to let everyone know they were true.
and besides, i wouldn’t be in the basement much longer. the unspoken part of martin’s visit was clear.
i made my way through london’s busy streets, the rush and bustle different only in color, pace and smell from the rush and bustle of days past. lost in my thoughts, i heedlessly traced my steps, wandering wherever my restless feet chose to take me while all around me, the shadows thickened into black.
almost fifty years had gone by while the trail went cold and turned to dust, while the other agents turned to other pursuits, retired, or died. for me, of course, it was a blink. but for the others…
it was all my fault it had come to this. it was my project, my responsibility.
at some point i found myself sitting by the serpentine. the hour was late, but not so late anyone would question my presence on the bench beneath the lamp. i hunched my coat around my shoulders, turned up my collar to a pretended chill. i tucked my arms around myself and bent my head, staring at my feet.
to give up was to admit defeat. but to wake lilith was to bring about… what? i wondered. with no clear idea of where hitler was, or what he had become, with no strategy in place, how could i unleash such a creature on an unsuspecting world? a world that believed such creatures could ever be anything more than the creations of their computing machines?
but what was the alternative? to attempt to confront him – or whatever terrible thing he’d become – myself?
my mind veered, into places i never let it go. i felt my pulse start to race, as cold sweat gathered like pearls on my forehead. with a gasp i forced myself to open my eyes, stare at the clear swath of water before me. i had renounced all that, given it all up so long ago i no longer even smelled human flesh. i was…not like lilith. i wouldn’t risk becoming like her, to suit the whims of martin’s masters.
from behind a sultry layer of low-lying clouds, i could feel the full moon. i’m hungry, i thought. of course i was. i couldn’t really remember the last time i was home, let alone the last time i fed.
i got up from my bench and began to walk. at some point, i happened to look up. high above the street, tucked beneath a down-spout, a pair of red eyes blinked back.
shocked, i stopped, and peered more closely, wondering if it were possibly simply a trick of the light, a reflection of the traffic lights off glass. but it wasn’t. to my complete and utter dismay, what could only be a gargoyle stared back at me.
the last infestation had been over a hundred and fifty years ago, when there were far more vampires in london – not to mention fewer nooks and crannies for them to breed – than there are now. i made a mental note to tell martin and hurried home.
god bless mrs. hudson. she’s kept the home-fires burning and the lamps on through two world wars, even when i don’t come home for weeks on end. it was close to midnight when i staggered up the worn marble steps, inserted my antique key into its antique lock and stepped inside the foyer of my modest apartments on b- street.
you may, gentle reader, assume for the sake of convenience that i still reside on baker street, though i was forced to abandon those digs long before conan doyle put his peculiar stamp on my life and compatriots. and so, for the sake of convenience, you may assume that all is just as he described, and that the mrs. hudson who waits for me, drowsing, by the fire, is just a namesake of the mrs. hudson who tended us so graciously all those years ago.
or you may accept she’s the same lady, and that she’s a vampire, too.
“john,” she said, when i stepped into the parlor, “i was thinking you might be home this evening.”
“i’m so glad not to disappoint, my dear.” i bent over her hand, kissed the back. we had long since crossed and re-crossed boundaries to which even conan doyle had dared not allude, and our relationship had settled, as it must, into one that at times felt nearly brotherly.
nearly. mrs. hudson had her undeniable charms.
“you must be hungry.” she rose to her feet without waiting for my answer and crossed to the sideboard, where my supply of serum was kept, always ready.
i sank into my leather armchair with a sigh, and listened for the pop of the cork, the clink of the decanter against the glass, the whisper of the syrupy liquid as it filled the glass. there is a balm in gilead. the line from the old hymn ran through my mind as the coppery scent of the serum perfumed the space.
there is a balm in gilead…there is, there is, there is.
my fingers trembled undeniably as they closed around the crystal stem.
“bottoms up,” mrs. hudson whispered.
i downed it one swift gulp. i was famished; i should never have let myself go so long without food. i felt the liquid roll down my throat, down my gullet, all the way to my stomach, where it exploded into a slow burn, expanding in a slow steady tide into all the empty spaces.
it’s the closest a vampire comes to orgasm. when i could, i opened my eyes. mrs. hudson was watching me from the other side of the fire. “another?”
i shook my head, set the glass on the small table beside my chair and took a deep breath. “they want me to wake lilith.”
the next sound i heard was the sound of the decanter shattering.
by the time we licked up the mess – there was no sense wasting it – the grandfather clock in the hall was chiming three. mrs. hudson sank back on her haunches, her chin slick and shimmering in the light of the dying fire. she licked the last of the serum from her lips, and cocked her head at me. “i think we both needed that.”
i sat back, feeling immeasurably better than i realized i had in a long time. i closed my eyes and leaned against the bookcase. “i think you’re right.” but when i opened my eyes, she was staring at me with a troubled expression.
“you’re going to do it, aren’t you, john?”
“i don’t believe i have any other choice – i don’t believe we have any other choice.”
“we?” she gathered her skirts modestly around her knees, tucking the antique fabric beneath her. from somewhere inside her bosom, she withdrew a dainty lace-trimmed handkerchief, with which she began to dab at her face. sometimes i wondered why she clung to the conventions of such a long-ago age, but then i remembered that mrs. hudson was even older than i was. she’d been wearing skirts to her ankles longer than i had been alive.
“we…us…all of us.” i threw a log into the fire, reached for the andiron and poked the fire back to life.
“human, vampire – if what i suspect is true, we don’t have any other choice.” i looked back at her over my shoulder. “we truly don’t have any other choice.”
“it’s that bad?”
for a long moment i stared at her. “no,” i said at last. “it’s worse.”
her expression didn’t change. “john.” her tone was mildly rebuking, accusatory, even. “you know, conan doyle would never have been able to exploit you the way he did if you weren’t at times so…”
i rose to my feet. “melodramatic, i believe is the word you like to use.” i extended my hand, helped her to her feet. shattered glass crunched under our shoes. we vampire have a tendency to cling to the past in ways humans can’t begin to understand, but at that moment i was very glad we were in possession of that most amazing convenience most recently termed a “dyson.”
bits of glass clung to our clothing, to her hair so that she glittered in the reddish light. i reached down, traced a faint line of serum from the corner of her mouth down her chin. she raised her chin. “there has to be another way.”
“no,” i shook my head. “even if i were to go myself…the situation has simply gone beyond my –“
“what about me? what if i went with you?”
“to south america?” my eyebrows flew up. “my dear, you haven’t been out of this city in a century. and now you’re proposing to take a seven thousand mile jaunt? really, mrs. hudson.” i chucked her under the chin. “now who’s being melodramatic?”
“i don’t understand...hitler was human, not vampire. even if he’s become a ghoul – “
“no…” i cut her off more sharply than i meant, and the shock registered on her face. “this is far worse than anything we’ve ever imagined. mrs. hudson, martha….if only he’d become a ghoul.”
what’s worse than a ghoul?
that depends on who you ask.
i’m quite sure for most of humanity, the idea of ending one’s life as a shambling, drooling, mindless animated blob of rotting flesh is quite terrifying. but for those of us charged with rooting out this particular scourge, the idea that hitler might’ve morphed into a ghoul would’ve been greeted with welcome ears and open arms.
after all, at that point we could’ve simply dispatched him with a single bullet through his head or a slice through his neck.
i watched the sun rise over london while mrs. hudson swept up the glass.
“we could go,” she said, just before she left me alone. “we could. we did it more than once, you know we did – after all, it was us that tracked down the ripper.”
i took a deep breath and turned from the window to face her. “my dear mrs. hudson, for the very last time – neither of us has left london in more than a hundred years. you know as well as i do…” i broke off. she knew perfectly well what was at stake. “it’s not worth it. and by the time i arrived in argentina, it’s more than likely i’d be too…unhinged …to be of much use to anyone.”
“you don’t know that.”
“i think this newfound faith in my abilities has more to do with your wish i not wake lilith than that you truly think i could stop –the enemy.” i couldn’t keep thinking of him – of it – as merely “hitler.” one name was probably no longer sufficient. another quote ran through my head, this time from the new testament: my name is legion. that’s what the demon told jesus, before it was cast into a herd of pigs and stampeded off a cliff. i doubted i’d get so lucky.
in one neat leap she was beside me, shoulders squared, brows knit. i was forced to look directly down, reminding me what a small woman she was, physically at least. “you’ve always underestimated yourself, john.” she took a breath, looked as if she might say more, but instead she pressed her lips together and shook her head. “besides, aren’t you going to have to accompany lilith, wherever she goes?”
of course i was. that was the reality i was dancing around all this time.
i stood at the window longer than i probably should have, given how long it’s been since i’d had even the slightest taste of fresh blood. but i was too rooted into place, too stunned by what martin’s suggestion really meant.
it was to be the end of me, too. they might be relying on me to kill lilith.
but they were also relying on lilith to kill me.
dust was thick on the surfaces of my desk when i finally went to my study. i remembered then, the last time i was here – i’d come to bring a copy of my report – my final report, as it was apparently going to be. there would be no record, no account – official or unofficial – of anything concerning lilith.
i turned the leaves of the calendar, until i stared at the current date. november 9, 1999.
in the world of humans, rumors of an apocalyptic potential swirled as the end of the year approached. they thought it had to do with their computing machines.
we vampire are more subtle.
i sat down behind my desk, turned on the lamp and opened the file. the soft golden light illuminated the onion skin, the sheets nearly transparent, covered in my antique scrawl, in the code they’d given me a long time ago.
i scanned the report. the words themselves meant almost nothing in their current combination, unless one understood the code. but to anyone who did, my words were more than clear.
in the mountains of south america, in the jungles of the amazon, something ancient was awake.
ancient, and now sentient, in a way it never had been before. but still, and now perhaps even more so, neither vampire nor human.
the aztecs called it “mictlantecuhtli” and believed it reigned over the land of their dead. they worshipped it with ritual cannibalism.
the inca called it “supay.” they worshipped it with ritual dancing, which ended with the dancers casting themselves into enormous fire-pits.
the spanish conquistadors called it “devil,” and didn’t mention it, lest they be charged with consorting with demons.
nowadays people call it legend, or myth, and in more recent times, an increasingly vocal group of theorists have suggested it originated in outer space. but no one thinks it’s alive and well – and real – today.
i suspect it truly is alien – brought here as an unfortunate and unwilling traveler on a meteor, perhaps the very one that killed the dinosaurs. somehow it made a home in south america, burrowing deep into the mountains, rooting itself into the rich amazonian ooze. i also believe it didn’t become truly dangerous until it encountered the planet’s most intrepid life form: humans.
whether the fugitive hitler went to south america with the intention of seeking it out, i have no idea and i doubt that question could ever be answered definitively. i was quite sure it sought him out. i suspected somewhere in the jungles of columbia, where the trail went cold.
i sat at my desk for a long time, watching a sliver of pale sunlight work its way across the room. even if – when – i roused lilith, what then? all the stops would be pulled, all the skids greased. that’s what martin said, but i wasn’t sure what martin meant.
i’m not sure martin really understood the thing that separates us vampire from you humans. humans are rooted in time; vampires are rooted in space. there was a time in the not so distant past when we were understood to be the spirit of a place, an incarnation of another reality, another dimension, the evidence of things hoped for, the essence of things unseen.
that was until humans learned to fear us. and what humans fear, they kill.
fortunately vampires are remarkably difficult to kill, rather like human infants who can survive all manner of indignities from disease to being dropped on their heads.
unless you’re doing it deliberately. and what humans do deliberately, they do well.
hunted to nearly extinction, we were.
until it occurred to humans there were worse things than vampires. like other humans – sickened and twisted into things more inhuman than almost anything a vampire could become.
it was already dusk when i bathed, changed my clothes and put on my hat. mrs. hudson was nowhere to be seen, probably sleeping off the glut of serum we’d imbibed the night before.
it made me feel sluggish myself, but i had a call to make.
i made my way across the thronged streets of london, a light rain falling on my cheeks. i could smell dinner when i arrived at martin’s house, a neat semi-detached with a front garden and a gate.
welsh rarebit was on the menu.
standing on the entrance stoop, i could smell the ribbons of scent curling around the cracks in the doorframe. i shut my eyes, inhaled. there was a time when i spent far more time among humans than i do now. there was a time i imagined i was genuinely welcomed beneath their roofs.
i know better now.
i hesitated, gathered my wits, straightened my tie, and knocked.
after a few minutes the door was opened by a young girl who appeared to me to be in her early teens who stared up at me with the kind of alarm usually reserved for monsters in movies. i had no idea martin had children. “good evening,” i said. “is your father home?”
she nodded, eyes wide, chin trembling.
“will you tell him dr. watson is here? dr. john watson? from the home office?”
she vanished down the hall, leaving me standing on the stoop, helpless to cross the threshold.
“what the devil are you doing here?” hissed martin, after i’d been properly invited in and introduced and ushered into a side parlor his wife referred to as “the library.” i looked around and didn’t see any books.
“i have questions,” i replied.
“then why didn’t you telephone the way you always do?”
“i didn’t go into the office today. i have all i need at home. except, of course, a telephone.”
martin took a deep breath and let it out. “what is it?”
“i have questions and concerns –“
“damn it, john, need i point out to you that while you dither the situation is becoming even worse? i mean, assuming you believe your own report, that is.”
that stung. i recoiled, visibly. “what are you suggesting?”
martin rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. “isn’t it obvious? on the one hand, you’re pushing panic buttons. but on the other, when you’ve been told to pull all the stops, to do everything you possibly can to stop this…this threat from spreading…you…” he paused, gathered himself up. “you dither.” he paused again, cocked his head as if considering what to say next. “and that’s not like you, john. at least, not the john i’ve known for – what’s it now? forty years?”
“thirty nine next spring.” i said this faintly. not that anyone was counting.
martin took another deep breath. “i’m sorry, old man. look, come and sit. we’ll have brandy – tell me your concerns…i’ll do my best –“
unexpectedly the door flew open and a young man of about the same age as the girl, fourteen, skidded into the room. “is it true,” he was in the midst of saying, “dr. watson’s here – the doctor watson –“
the words stopped in his throat when he saw me. he straightened, his face drained of color.
“leave us alone, julian,” said martin. he crossed the room, took the boy by the shoulder, and twisted him around, forcing him out the door and shutting it at the same time. then he twisted the lock.
“there. now – as to your questions?”
“well, first of all,” i said, “i saw a gargoyle the other evening – not far from the serpentine, as i recall. you might want to check into that. but my most pressing questions are about lilith. after i wake her, then what? i don’t speak any of the languages i imagine she knows. and what, exactly, am i expected to do with her? escort her to the airport? the harbor? these skids, as you call them, to be greased – exactly how, and exactly with what, will they be greased? and when?”
“i think by the time you get home, old man, you’ll find that more than enough funds will have been added to your account,” replied martin. he swirled the ice in his old-fashioned glass, and took a quick sip. “and as for everything else – well, i suppose we were rather expecting that you would—well, handle all that.”
“handle all that?” i repeated, not sure i was hearing correctly. “all that? are you aware of what all that will entail? i don’t just need a translator – i’m going to need clothing and lodging and guides – someone to take her wherever she says she wants to go–“
martin cleared his throat and took another sip of his whiskey. “as i was saying, old man…we were expecting you’d be the one to take care of all the details. and we were rather expecting that you’d be the one to escort her wherever – well, wherever she needs to go.”
and that’s when it occurred to me that martin, despite our long association, despite the files, despite all he was supposed to know about our kind, knew absolutely nothing at all. “that’s not possible,” i said, as cold and flat as the soda in my glass. “i haven’t been away from london in more than a hundred and fifty years…it’s simply…”
“high time you saw a bit of the world, then, old chap. after all, who best to cope with all the particulars of all her …. appetites?”
“and what about my own… appetites, as you call them?” i met his eyes and stared into them, bringing the force of centuries to bear. for a species who only until recently achieved the biblical three-score and ten with any certainty, humans are always remarkably sure of themselves. “don’t you understand how difficult it is to rip myself from the fabric of this place? any more than you can rip yourself from the fabric of this time?”
i could see he was taken aback. “surely…surely…but you have left – there was all that ripper business in the states -?”
“and that was very nearly my undoing.” i shuddered to myself, remembering the voyage back to london, strapped, for my own safety into a leather trunk in the hold, helpless while conan doyle made free reign of my condition and created his monstrous chimera.
“but it is possible for you to leave-?”
“for a short period. a very short period. no more than three-quarters of a moon cycle, from waxing to waning gibbous. but even so…it is the most dangerous thing a vampire can do.”
“so you have… three weeks, more or less?”
“less,” i said. “a week, on either side of the full moon.” at least, that was as much time as i was willing to risk. and the problem was that i had no idea where she – where we – should go. i was assuming we’d begin in south america. but what if the thing that hitler had become had managed to do the nearly certain? leap across continents and oceans via that new and damnable invention, the internet? what then were we supposed to do? lilith was already unhinged – a monster in both time and space, in every sense of the term. and i had absolutely no intention of becoming so.
i recoiled at the very thought of the word. unhinged. it was truly the very worst fate, short of immolation, that could befall a vampire.
why, you’re wondering? (this is new to you, isn’t it, gentle reader? well, take it as evidence that much of the vampire nonsense you’ve been fed is complete claptrap, and we’ll move on with the story.)
as i have alluded, the primary difference between my kind and yours, gentle reader, is that you humans are rooted in time. you’re born in a particular year, and you die in hopefully distant one, but the length of your life, the time period of your life is circumscribed by, at most, perhaps a few more than a hundred years.
but within that speck of time that belongs to you, you’re free to roam three dimensional space as far and as wide and as much as you please. some of you become equally unhinged in your traveling – that’s when you get an edmund hilary or a roald amundsen or whatever lunatic soul led the first troupe of you out of sub-saharan africa. but i digress.
when a vampire becomes unhinged, uprooted from his own particular space, he – or she – becomes a dracula. an ivan the terrible, or a catherine the great (oh, yes – believe me.) or a lilith.
in short, a vampire whose appetites are no longer bound by any sense of love or loyalty or kinship. yes, of course we feed upon the energy of the place in which we’re born, and any and all that inhabit it, but pray tell me, gentle reader, which of you does not?
your kind feeds upon the entire planet.
the scum we vampire eradicate are little less than the froth that forms on a rotting corpse.
it would be impossible for us to keep up. at any given time there’re hundreds of millions of you – if not billions, gnawing like termites, breeding like roaches.
we vampire are at least judicious in who we make.
and please spare me your fussiness about what happens…birth of every kind is messy. including this one, as i can see as i scan back through my notes.
i left martin’s house, shaken and with a deepening sense of dread. i glanced up at the night sky. the clouds, so low of late, had dissipated at some point during our conversation, and now a silver sickle of a moon hung high over big ben.
without thinking, my footsteps led me to the abbey. or at least what remained of it.
it was little more than a crookedly-paved courtyard, a few ivy-covered arches, and a few moss-covered plaques.
but the grate in the ground was exactly the same as the one in the fuzzy old photograph in its yellowing file.
she’d been placed here by dracula himself, after those two mountebanks, conan doyle and bram stoker brought him here in a coffin shaped box partially filled with his native soil, an innovative, if ultimately ineffective solution. vlad the impaler was the only one who’d managed to subdue her in anyway.
but it cost eastern europe its wampyri, its soul, its unifying force, and the region slowly disintegrated into one of the world’s sewers that it’s become. not that conan doyle or bram stoker gave a fig about that – and why should they? they knew in their bones they’d never be alive to answer for the consequences of their disastrous expeditions and explorations.
no human ever is.
and you wonder why we feel entitled to hunt you with such impunity.
in virtual despair, i leaned against rough stone column, placed my cheek directly on the surface of the cold, damp rock. and that’s when i saw it, a stone mason’s mark … chiseled in the stone … and under it , for all the world to see, so painfully carved, it might have been done by a child, wil m f.
it stood for, i believed, the latin inscription “wil me fecit.” will made me. a common enough mark for the time the column was constructed, though not usually so cheekily, so visibly placed. i had no idea who the antique will might be, but i imagine he earned himself a beating for so painstakingly leaving his mark.
it was under this column i earned myself far more than a beating. i stepped away from the column, staring all around in the dim, uncertain light.
how was it possible that the very place of my own making was the same place in which lilith had been bound?
i was aware the location was in the same district, of course. but i had no idea of its modern address, which is how, of course, it was communicated to me by martin et al. in the year of my making, however, london had a church on every street corner, or that’s how it seemed, especially on feast days or special occasions when they’d all ring their bells at once. and this was no district i ever frequented, until seduced here by my vampire maker.
at least that’s how i’ve always seen it.
i stared at the stone mason’s mark as the memories overwhelmed me, of the wet and the hot and the coppery metallic smell as our tongues intertwined before his teeth tore into my willing throat, and i remembered how i thought, “oh, the irony, the irony, to be taken beneath this column, that will made, this column, while another will makes me.”
i stayed there longer than i intended, thinking of my maker, thinking of lilith. it’d been more than two hundred years since i’d seen him, a little over four hundred since my own making. how was it possible that they’d happen to inter lilith in the very church my maker used to frequent?
was such a monstrous coincidence possible?
or could it possibly mean something more?
it had never occurred to me that my own maker might’ve been involved in the damnable business.
but i’d been in america, after that ripper business.
who knew exactly what had happened, or who, exactly, had been there?
nothing remained of the story. not even bram stoker’s lurid and overblown tale contained a morsel of the truth, except the fact of dracula’s voyage to england. was it possible my maker had had a hand in the business? true, he was one of the oldest vampires in england, but he very seldom came to london, not since he’d buried himself in the warwickshire countryside almost 400 years ago.
i paced the quiet streets, considering if i should seek him out. i just wasn’t sure how a barbarian turned glover turned actor turned play-write turned whatever he was doing to occupy himself at the moment could help. and if he had been involved with her capture, he’d be more of a hindrance, anyway, i ultimately concluded, with a pang of disappointment.
i missed him, i realized. once this damnable business was over – if it could be over - it was long past time for at least a visit.
dawn was breaking over london when i finally returned home, to find mrs. hudson waiting in the library, a glass already poured, another crystal decanter filled with serum nearby on a silver salver.
“you’ve been to see her, haven’t you?”
mrs. hudson spoke before i could reach for the light.
“how did you know?”
“you brought something of her with you…like a bad smell.” mrs. hudson’s skirts rustled as she moved in the graying light, her eyes the opalescent green of every vampire’s at dusk and dawn.
was that a hint of resentment i detected in my faithful housekeeper’s voice? i sighed. we vampire are by nature territorial. the idea of another vampire – another female vampire occupying what was to mrs. hudson’s mind her city – was naturally upsetting. “i realize this is difficult for you, my dear. but you do realize we have no choice, don’t you?”
mrs. hudson’s sigh was her only answer. “will you eat?”
i took the goblet from her outstretched hand. i drank the rich, sweet coppery serum down, and licked the glass inside for good measure, but while it satisfied my hunger, it didn’t satisfy my thirst. “i want to hunt,” i said, as i handed the goblet back to her.
her eyes flashed emerald. “when?”
“tonight. after two. nothing good ever happens after two.”
she smiled at that, a phrase we’d come up right around the time of the ripper murders. her teeth were white against her silvery skin, her lips taut across her canines. “oh, john,” she answered with a husky laugh. “i thought you’d never ask.”
she left me alone then, to make her own preparations.
a hunt is always a messy affair, and my dear mrs. hudson is nothing if not fastidious. i was going to need the added nourishment. we were going to need the added nourishment. if things got as bad as they potentially could become, i might have to call on mrs. hudson for help. i might have to call on every vampire i knew.
it was one thing to contemplate waking a ten thousand year old vampire from a coma like sleep. it was another to contemplate spending days, if not weeks, in her company.
hopefully she’d remember i’d had nothing to do with the sordid affair of her captivity– both mrs. hudson and i were fortunately on the other side of the atlantic, solving another set of serial murders.
hopefully lilith would remember that.
it occurred to me then that it would probably be a wise precaution to wear some sort of protective gear. kevlar, perhaps, something fireproof and bullet proof. not that either of those were lilith’s primary weapons, or the ones she was ever most likely to use initially. chain mail was effective, but heavy. i made a notation on a notepad to give to martin.
and speaking of stopping her from ripping my own throat out, she was going to need food.
immediately. and she was not likely to want to swill serum, no matter how much like blood it tasted.
even though the united kingdom had stopped executions as a means of punishment, there had to be a low-life or two lurking in the solitary confinements as guests of the state undeniably guilty of something particularly heinous. if he could be from her original country of origin – which was believed by most to be modern day ethiopia, that would be a plus, although some suggested lilith’s true origins were in india or possibly indonesia. short of waking her up and asking her, there was no way to know. i made a note. perhaps we could provide her a selection.
she would need more than one. maybe even as many as one for each century she’d been asleep – that would bring it to six. at least.
the records weren’t clear about the last time she’d fed. so the reality was that it was quite possible i’d be dealing with a ten thousand year old vampire who quite possibly hadn’t fed – at least to her satiation point - in well over six hundred years.
i spent the remainder of the day in my study making notations, checking time-tables, and otherwise attempting to foresee as many details as possible before attempting to compose something coherent to send to martin et al. as the daylight behind the blackout curtains began to fade, i painstaking pecked out a letter on my typewriting machine so that i could post it before mrs. hudson and i began our evening excursions.
i took a long time with the letter, mulling over every phrase, every paragraph. i was, after all, laying out the most logical and rational plan i could devise for what was indisputably the most irrational and illogical of objectives. not to mention unbelievable.
no one who ever read this would ever admit to having even seen it. even to each other.
and so there was no room for error. i had one chance, and one chance only to get it right. it was good practice, i told myself, as i once more read over my prose. once i roused lilith and we took off hunting hitler, or whatever it could be determined he had become, i wasn’t going to get more than one chance to get that right, too.
i was putting the final flourish on my signature when the study door opened and a woman i didn’t recognize stepped over the threshold. “are you ready, john?” she asked, in mrs. hudson’s voice.
i saw then that mrs. hudson had outdone herself in anticipation of the night’s activities. no longer dressed as the victorian lady she preferred, or the 1950’s housewife she sometimes favored, mrs. hudson had managed to transform herself into what i can only describe as a modern day barbarian.
her hair, normally a neat chignon at the nape of her neck, now rose in jagged spikes along the crest of her head. a row of silver earrings lined one ear, metal studs glinted above one eye and a single ring poked through her lip. she was wearing the ubiquitous denim uniform of this entire human generation, topped with a black leather jacket and finished with black leather boots. shiny black leather boots.
“mrs. hudson,” i said faintly, shocked and undeniably alarmed. “what have you done to yourself?”
she stretched her lips over her engorged canines in that hideous resemblance of a human smile. it made me think twice about turning my back on her, that night or any other.
“oh, come now, john,” she said, in exactly the way mrs. hudson would, “it’s been more than a hundred years since we allowed ourselves this kind of fun.”
we dragged ourselves home as a red sun was rising over the rooftops of our quiet street. a vampire in full blood-bloat is not a pretty sight, even to another vampire, and bears, to human eyes, at least, a closer resemblance to the character jabba the hutt than anything even remotely human. we crawled our way down the alley which ran between the rows of houses, seeking to avoid even the most casual notice by our neighbors.
mrs. hudson bid me a barely coherent goodnight, before retiring to the bowels of the basement to digest, possibly for days. i had not the luxury. i waited only until enough of the day had faded, and i was able to bathe and change my clothes before venturing out into the streets once more.
on the way to my office, i stopped at my bank. it was there that based on the reaction of the tellers and other assistants i remembered how significantly fresh blood alters a vampire’s appearance. i glanced down at my hands as i signed the required documents and noticed how plump and fresh my skin had become, how dewy the veins pulsing with nourishment.
i feigned a need to stroke my face, and was rewarded by a beard with the suppleness of mink and the thickness of beaver. i noticed the assistants glancing in my direction, whispering behind their hands. it is in just this state that humans and vampires are most attracted to each other, and the one in which, an unhinged vampire poses the greatest threat to every living human around him. or her.
fortunately, i was not unhinged. not yet. i signed what was required, produced the ancient key, and followed the lovely young man down the hall toward the oldest of the bank’s vaults. he pressed his hand against mine a bit harder than necessary when he shook it. “your grandfather, dr. watson,” he stammered. “such a fan – such a fan.”
“as am i, old boy,” i murmured back. “as i am.”
then i flashed my fangs at him and he took off down the corridor, his face ghastly white.
i had no time for awe-struck mortals.
the deposit box hadn’t been opened in more than three hundred years, not since the contents were relocated here, after the great fire of london in 1666. i retrieved everything that was in it: map, amulets and keys. and then i left, with a greater heaviness in my heart and a deeper foreboding in my soul than i had ever experienced in all the centuries since my death.
i was half afraid of what i might find when i made my way into my office, but all was as i left it. i checked the balances in my bank account, and just as martin said, the skids had indeed been greased. with a heavy sigh, i began to gather the few things that i – we – would need. after all, i could hardly plan to bring lilith here.
of all places.
i was sorting through my desk for a final time when martin knocked, then entered. “i received your letter,” he said, without even the hint of a greeting. “i’ll need a few days to pull everything together – have you decided, yet, exactly when?”
“it has to be as soon as the preparations are ready. it’s the tenth of november. if what i suspect is in fact true, we have barely seven weeks before the world goes dark.”
martin shook his head. “it all sounds so far-fetched, and yet…”
“and yet i read in today’s papers that even her majesty’s government is sounding less than confident about the – what are they calling it? the “y2k conversion?” if that’s in the papers, someone has noticed something’s up.”
martin stared back at me blankly. he wasn’t at liberty to tell me everything; i understood that and respected his boundaries to the extent i could. “i’ll do what i can to speed things up. and then when… when, exactly, do you plan to wake her?”
“ideally six days before the full moon. which is in…four days.”
i thought i saw a shudder pass over martin’s face, and his mushroom-colored face seemed to pale by several shades. i realized then what i suspected to be true – he’d been chosen to assist me, and that everything i’d requested for my own safety he required for his. i thought of martin’s children, young julian and the girl, growing up without their father. he died bravely, my dears, waking a demon. i tried to imagine mrs. martin saying that, and failed.
but the only answer martin gave me was to tap on the door and say, as he left, “i’ll get right on that list of yours.”
two days passed, while i struggled to formulate a strategy. but the truth of it was that i had no idea exactly what to do to find hitler, or even to explain to lilith what, exactly, we might require of her. “find” and “kill” seemed too basic even for a ten-thousand year old demon, but beyond that…my imagination ran into a blank wall.
the problem was that while i understood what was at stake, i had no idea what to do about it. i pondered and paced and pondered some more. i even flirted with the idea of using up a precious day and taking a train down to warwickshire, to consult with my maker. but even he, wise as he might be in the ways of how to contain lilith again once unleashed, was as unlikely to know what to do about hitler and the thing he’d become as i was.
on the third day, late in the afternoon, the study opened unexpectedly, and a visibly disturbed mrs. hudson stepped over the threshold. “i’m so sorry to disturb you, doctor,” she said, “but there’s a young man and a young lady at the door insisting they need to see you. a very young man and a very young lady, as a matter of fact.”
“how very young?” i frowned.
“children.” mrs. hudson looked confused. this was so far outside of anything that normally transpired she was clearly all out of sorts.
“did they give their names?” i asked.
“emma and julian martin.”
“the devil you say.” i simply couldn’t help myself. i jumped to my feet, and, ignoring lilith, gestured to mrs. hudson to lead the way back down the corridor to the foyer.
there, in the graying light of the fading afternoon, martin’s two children stood, looking for all the world like a modern day hansel and gretel on the doorstep of the witch. they wore anoraks and backpacks, and it was clear to me they’d come directly from school. i wondered where martin and his wife thought they were.
“master julian,” i said, “miss martin. to what do we owe the pleasure of your most unexpected company?”
if they’d announced an ability to make the lame walk and the blind see, i don’t believe i could’ve been more surprised. the boy raised his chin and gestured to his sister. “we know who you’re looking for, and we know where he is.”
“the devil you say,” i said, for the second time in five minutes. but i couldn’t help myself. i’m not usually on the receiving end of information i believe to be impossible. i cleared my throat and glanced at mrs. hudson. “perhaps you’ll bring us some tea, mrs. hudson, while i listen to this – these most…most extraordinary claims.”
at that the boy nudged the girl. “i told you he’d listen,” he said in a stage whisper.
“of course, i’ll listen,” i replied. “and then i’ll send you back to your father for a proper caning if this is a prank.”
“not at all, sir,” said the girl, speaking up for the first time. her voice was clear and bell-like, it echoed in the dark and dusty corners of the house. i gazed down at her guileless blue eyes, which swept over me and then settled on my face. “you look different from when you came to the house.”
“i was… quite under the weather the last time you saw me, miss martin.” i paused. i couldn’t remember the last time i had been in the company of young humans.
“you looked like something dead,” said the boy.
“julian,” hissed the girl.
i choose to ignore them both. “won’t you come this way?” i said, heading toward the library. i ushered them inside, bid them take a seat. before i shut the door, i spoke to mrs. hudson. “tea, my dear? if you don’t mind?” as she glided down the corridor toward the kitchen, i shut the door behind her. “now, children.” i smiled, hopefully in a friendly, not terrifying way. “perhaps you’ll be so good as to share with me all you think you know.”
“you tell him, emma,” said the boy, julian. “it was you that found him.”
“you were the one who figured out what the game was about.”
“i don’t understand.” i sat down. “we’re talking about a game?”
“it’s not a real game,” answered julian.
“you know,” i began, “what i truly don’t understand is why you’re not having this discussion with your father.”
at that they exchanged expressions truly guilty. “we can’t tell him,” answered emma after a short silence. “he doesn’t know we have the game.”
“it came in the post,” said julian. “it was damaged, and so although it was addressed to him, we took it.”
i raised my eyebrows. “i think both of you had better begin at the very beginning. somehow i think this is quite a long story.” neither of them answered. “isn’t it?”
finally emma shrugged. “like julian said, the package was damaged. it came in a plastic wrap – we could see through it, all the way into what was under the shredded packaging.”
“we could see it was a game,” said julian. “a computer game.”
“so even though it was addressed to your father, you decided to appropriate it, because after all, what would your father want with a game?”
again the exchange of guilty glances, followed by equally guilty shrugs. i wondered how martin had managed to instill such a sense of integrity and filial responsibility in his children but their next remarks made me rethink the whole idea.
“we know he’s not what he says he is, that he doesn’t work for the ministry he says he does.” said julian. “we’ve known for a long time our house is wired, the phones are tapped.”
“he doesn’t know we know,” said emma. “at least, not yet.”
at that i crossed and uncrossed my legs. i had no idea what martin may have told his children his occupation to be. “what makes you so –“
“well, first of all, he knows absolutely nothing about any kind of farming. horticulture, permaculture, aquaculture… nothing,” said julian, leaning forward. “we figured that part out a long time ago.”
“but i’m the one who found the...extra lines and the other…equipment,” said emma. “i was doing a science project in fourth form and happened to be home one holiday and started poking around in the cellar. that’s when i found – everything.”
“and you neglected to tell your father?”
“no,” said julian.
“we didn’t tell him,” put in emma. “we tapped in.”
at that moment the door opened and mrs. hudson wheeled in the tea cart. for a few moments, we were blessedly involved with the intricacies of tea, while i tried to calm my whirling thoughts. the idea that martin’s children had managed to infiltrate martin’s most private communications with such impunity…i didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“we didn’t know what he really was, until then, of course,” said julian, accepting his cup.
“does-does your father know you’re capable of such things,” i managed, as mrs. hudson handed me my own cup and saucer, the smoky scent of lapsang soochong curling up from the steamy surface of the tea.
“of course not,” they said in unison.
“he’s on a need-to-know basis,” continued emma.
“we only tell him what he needs to know,” said julian.
no wonder humanity has no chance of redemption, i thought, staring at them in both horror and a kind of admiration i’d never felt for a human child, even mine. i almost pitied martin. almost. i leaned forward. “very well then, children.” i swallowed hard, met their eyes in turn. this was a completely unexpected turn of events but we vampire are more than adept at rising to an occasion. “why don’t you tell me what i need to know?”
“it isn’t an ordinary game,” said julian. “that was the first thing we noticed.”
“after we played it, of course,” added emma.
“does this game have a name?” i asked.
“yes,” said emma. “but we didn’t understand the significance until we started paying attention to father’s telephone conversations. up until that point, hardly anyone called his private line. but all of a sudden, about six months ago, everything…lit up.”
about six months ago was the time i filed my report. so it had caused a stir. “go on, please? the name of the game -?”
“is ‘calling card,’” finished julian.
the hair on the back of my neck went up. “and just what sort of game is this extraordinary game?”
“it’s a nazi hunt,” replied emma. “but it doesn’t take place here, or in germany, or in europe at all.”
a chill went down my spine as julian continued, “it’s set in south america.”
“so you’re here to tell me you think hitler is in south america?” i shrugged. “that, alas, is news to no-“
“wait,” interrupted emma. “we don’t think he’s in south america. we don’t think he’s anywhere… geographical.”
i cocked my head, narrowed my eyes, even as something like a fist closed around my gut.
“but what i think is even more important for you to understand,” said julian, leaning forward and speaking very slowly, “we don’t believe he’s limited to this game…we think he’s more like a-a virus …and he can potentially insert himself into anything, anywhere.”
“at least,” said emma, “that’s what we think.”
i felt as if i’d been punched in the gut. this was the answer. but i had to be sure. i took a very careful sip, then set my cup and saucer down. “i need you to explain how you reached that conclusion.”
“the character of hitler is in the game,” she answered. “which isn’t so surprising, except the game is set in south america, after the end of world war two.”
“it’s what they call alternate history,” added julian.
“the point of the game is to stop him from launching a nuclear attack on the united states,” continued emma. “but what makes the game different is that the character – the avatar – changes in ways characters just… just don’t. he behaves in a way that’s completely and utterly random. we’ve played the game probably ten thousand times, if not more. each. and in every single game this character engages in completely different courses of action so that his behavior is entirely and utterly unpredictable.”
“you just never know when he’s going to turn up,” said julian, when his sister paused to take a breath.
“you’re walking down a street – there he is. you enter a cave, it’s him. you enter a hotel to grab a few hours’ sleep – he’s the innkeeper. it’s simply not possible that anyone could’ve written code that is… is so…. random.”
“and his appearance and his physical health changes.” emma said this with great gravity.
“and that’s significant… how?”
“game characters don’t age. game characters don’t get sick – not unless it has some bearing on the game, of course. but in the six months we’ve had the game, every time he shows up, he looks different, he says different things. he doesn’t just shout stock phrases, he talks to you… in a way that’s… weird. and sometimes he’s sallow and seems like he can hardly move. sometimes he limps and uses a cane, sometimes he doesn’t.”
“these are disguises, part of the game?” asked mrs. hudson to my surprise.
“no,” said emma. “because if you play the game long enough, sometimes you see his beard grow in.”
automatically my hand went to my own face, where my beard had not grown a tick since i transitioned. there was something chilling about that all too human detail, something so small and yet so…real. for the first time in a long time, i realized just how cold i really was.
“what did you say the name of the game was,” i asked, softly.
“calling card,” they answered, in unison. julian thrust an object in a clear plastic bag toward me.
i turned it over in my hands, not opening it, feeling as if i was holding something that could burn me, sting me, if i touched it with my bare flesh. it was completely innocuous in appearance – a flat disk, about three and a half inches square, and a broken black plastic case with a torn, brightly colored paper wrapper. no wonder the children had gone for it. i needed to speak to martin. this was a completely unexpected turn of events, and yet, considering who and what i was dealing with, perhaps not so much.
whatever the alien intelligence had been, if i was correct that it had merged with the personality of a human hitler, it was now, presumably, prey to all of hitler’s weaknesses.
and that might, just, be the saving of us all.
“thank you, children,” i said. “mrs. hudson, perhaps you’ll show master julian and miss martin to the door? i’m sure they have better places to be.”
“oh, no,” said julian. “you’re not shuffling us away so you can call father.”
“he’ll be of no use to you in this anyway,” said emma.
i realized then what it was that had eluded me about the children all this time. they were twins. and they were much, much older than i thought they were.
i had them pegged as twelve and fourteen, perhaps thirteen and fifteen.
but now i saw with startling clarity that they were older, maybe in their late teens, early twenties, even. they weren’t children to other humans. only a vampire like me – like the rest of us – would find them childlike in their vulnerability.
but the fact they were twins meant that they had somehow developed that peculiar ability sometimes manifested by multiples of almost a double brain. one human brain can be ferociously disturbing. two that acted – at least much of the time – as one was even more so.
perhaps it was what we needed.
we’d listened to them this long. in for a penny, in for a pound, i thought. “all right, children, tell me why. tell me why your father with all his connections to every level of government would be of no use?”
“because we know who father knows – i told you we’ve been tapping his wiretap. and he doesn’t know anyone who can help you – but we do.”
from her chair by the tea cart, mrs. hudson asked, “how is that possible?”
“because we know gamers – people who play games like this practically for a living. and we know the one who might be able to help.” julian pointed to the package in my hand. “he’s already hacked the game –“
“not the whole game,” emma interrupted. “just the first few bits of it.”
“but that’s the one we think is what this one –this ‘calling card’ – is pointing to; the one we think will be the real problem,” finished julian.
“we know father wouldn’t pay attention to us,” emma said. “our parents don’t approve of our friends. especially this one.”
“and why is that?” asked mrs. hudson.
“i guess you could say…some of what he does…is… well…” julian broke off and exchanged looks with his sister.
“illegal?” i supplied. “criminal? against the law?” oh, yes, the pieces were all fitting together.
martin’s rogue twins liked operating under the radar. and they intended to do all they could to maintain their own peculiar status quo as long as they could. not that i could blame them. it’s what we vampire spend most of our time doing, after all.
the crimson that briefly colored their faces told me all i needed to know about their friend. but something else they said intrigued me far more. “what do you mean… the one we think is the real problem? what does that mean?”
“there’s a new game that’s going to be released at midnight on december 31. the last six months to a year – it’s been hyped all over the internet. it’s been called unhackable – but we have a friend who figured out a way in – well, far enough in to find out that it begins with a nuclear attack on the united states.” emma paused to take a breath. “from south america.”
i must’ve made a sound, because mrs. hudson looked at me with a questioning expression. what had they called it? a virus? that’s what the thing, what hitler had become and that’s how he – it – would gain the entry it was looking for.
stupid, stupid humans, i wanted to scream. they spend all their time fortifying their miserable huts and never once stop to realize the world of ideas is much more dangerous. “i need to talk to your friend.” i said this without inflection, flatly. it wasn’t a question, or a request.
the twins exchanged another one of their looks, then shrugged. “we can send him a message now, if you want us to,” replied julian. “he never answers his telephone but he does return calls.”
“i don’t have a telephone,” i said.
“that’s all right,” said emma, without hesitation. “we do.” she whipped a device out of her backpack worthy of mr. bond. “just a second.” she got up, and went to stand by the window, and after just a few seconds i heard her speaking into it. “dr. faustus, call us. you know where. and call us soon – it’s important. really important.”
she walked back over to her brother. “we’ll leave now, dr. watson – um, ma’am.” she paused. “mrs. hudson.”
“how soon will – dr. faustus call you back?” i asked. dr. faustus, indeed. i had a vision of a skinny, anemic looking lad in black leather with a face full of painful piercings.
as if on cue, the device in her hand began to trill. but instead of answering it, emma looked at julian. “it’s mum,” she said, with an unreadable expression. “you know she wants to know if we’ll be home for tea.”
“what if faustus calls,” he answered. “you know she’ll hate it if we have to rush out in the middle.”
“he’s not going to call us back during tea,” replied emma. “we never hear from him til after dark.”
that made me look up. to my knowledge, there were no other vampires in london or its neighboring environs any longer, victims, most of them – to man’s inhumanity to anything man can’t understand.
“does this doctor faustus have a real name?” i asked. doctor faustus, indeed. i wondered if they even understood the original faust was a story about a man who made a deal with the devil.
“none he’s ever told us,” answered emma. “he’s not even in london – he’s in the country somewhere – warwick, isn’t?”
i sat back, a chime sounding in my gut.
it is a truth not often acknowledged that a master of anything, particularly an apparent prodigy - is frequently a vampire. who else has the time to indulge in the oceans of practice true mastery requires? up until the present century, only the slightest percentage of humanity had the leisure time to pursue even the most puerile of intellectual pursuits. do you really believe leonardo happened to be a genius in so many areas because of some happy accident of genetics? really?
but i digress.
“go home and have your tea,” i said. “and come back immediately – no matter the hour, whenever you hear from this… doctor faustus.”
and i watched them leave with a morass of troubled feelings spreading outward from my gut.
i picked up my cup and brought it to my lips but barely tasted the cold tea. was it possible my own dear maker was their doctor faustus? how many other vampire resided in warwickshire, after all? as i stared at the closed door, it occurred to me i had no idea. he could’ve made a hundred, a thousand in the time since i’d last seen him.
or he could’ve spent his time keeping pace with the technology of storytelling.
“what is this game?” mrs. hudson demanded, as soon as she returned from ushering our visitors to the door.
i sighed. “you know the computing machines humans have developed? these machines run what they call “programs.” the game is a computer program, designed to run on a computing machine.” i paused, still uncertain as to her comprehension. “and from what the children tell me, i believe that somehow the intelligence that was hitler and the intelligence that is alien, have somehow crossed lines that humans have never imagined even could be crossed.”
“it’s just a game, though,” said mrs. hudson. “this one, and the other they mentioned …i don’t understand how it’s a threat to anyone but the children who chose to play it. and even then…”
“oh, mrs. hudson, you’ve no idea. they described it as a virus, and that’s exactly what it is. the game is like an infection, an infestation. it will get into any computer that’s connected to the human internet. and when it reaches the internet…it will control the world.” i drew a deep breath. “unless someone stops it.”
from far away, the doorbell rang. we both looked up, then at each other. it had been a long time since we’d received so many visitors. “would you be so kind, mrs. hudson?” could it be the children were back already?
but in a few minutes, mrs. hudson returned. “mr. martin, sir.”
i was glad the library was dim. it would be easier to keep my voice neutral. as she led him in, he noticed the abandoned tea cups and his gaze flickered over to my desk, to my own cup, to the plastic bag with the game disk in it.
“martin,” i said. “just in time for tea. mrs. hudson, another cup?”
“not at all, old chap – uh, no, thanks, mrs. hudson, ma’am.” he said this with a wave of one hand and the tip of a non- existent cap in mrs. hudson’s direction. “i’m late for my own tea – the missus will have a fit.” he glanced at the extra cup, but if he wondered who my previous guest might’ve been, he said nothing. “i stopped in because i’ve heard nothing from you. how are… how are the preparations going?”
i drew a deep breath. “i believe i…i believe they’re going…well.” i didn’t like lying to martin, and i didn’t like withholding information, but until i understood more about the game – the games, really, because there were two of them – and a bit more about this doctor faustus and his potential ability to help, i didn’t want to say anything.
“oh?” he cocked his head and looked as if he’d like to ask questions, lots of them, but the device in his breast pocket, or maybe his burberry’s, began to trill. “damn, i’m late. all right, john, as long as you feel things are going…all right.”
i nodded. all right, indeed. i wondered how martin would feel when he inevitably learned of his children’s involvement. i wondered if he would see it as a betrayal, or if he could possibly be proud. “i’ll be in touch in another day or so, martin. i’m… i’m as confident as i can be that everything’s … everything’s unfolding exactly as it should.”
i was wishing i really were as confident as i told martin i was as the hours dragged on to midnight. i was beginning to consider it might not be a bad idea to have a telephone installed, when mrs. hudson interrupted my thoughts. “if there’s nothing else, john…” her voice trailed off into a question.
i shook my head, trying not to feel bitter. “i doubt we’ll hear from the children now – it’s just gone twelve. good night, my dear. enjoy.” i picked up a pen and bent my head, pretending to be busy. i’m fairly sure she wasn’t fooled.
i heard her shut the door behind herself, her ghostly footsteps fading down the hall, leaving me alone in the light of my lone desk lamp. i considered visiting the children. at this hour, a cab would get me across london in less than forty minutes, give or take.
but what would that solve?
still, i could feel something pulling at me, calling me out, into the night. i put on my hat and coat, and stepped out into the night.
the streets of our neighborhood were quiet, most of the windows long dark. we were surrounded by respectable people, mrs. hudson and i, people who never looked too long or too closely out their windows, especially after dark.
outside it was even stronger. an hour’s walk and then another and i recognized where i was heading.
something was calling me to lilith’s crypt.
i remembered then what mrs. hudson had said, the last time i’d gone there. i can smell her.
sealed inside iron and lead, that shouldn’t be possible.
i hadn’t smelled anything but i’d been distracted, after all.
was it possible lilith was somehow breaking out of her crypt?
with a troubled heart, i quickened my pace, moving like a wraith through the back streets and alleys, walking as quickly as i could to the abbey, where lilith lay – hopefully – beneath her grate.
the moon had set, the hour was late. i was going to have to make my home through the underground if i waited too much longer, but something was definitely calling me – demanding me. if that’s lilith, i thought, and dared not follow the thread further. surely, surely not.
we were assuming lilith would be willing to attack hitler, to attack the thing he had become.
what if she weren’t?
what if she joined forces with it? was it possible we were going to unleash something worse upon the world than it already was about to deal with.
all around me, london slept, innocent as a lamb.
i reached the abbey and skidded to a halt. in the moonlight, a long dark figure bent over the grate, one hand outstretched over the space. “what do you think – “i began, but the words stopped in my throat as he rose to his feet and straightened, turning to face me in one swift motion.
the moonlight gleamed on his bald head, glittered in the silver piercings that lined one eyebrow, one ear. the rest of him was dressed in black.
i stepped forward, hand outstretched. “doctor faustus, i presume?”
i’ll spare you, gentle reader, the details of our reunion. as with so many things, the differences between vampire and human are most often misunderstood and condemned. but when we came to ourselves, we found ourselves walking, hand in hand, along the docks that lined the thames.
“why didn’t you reach out to me, will?” i asked, at last. “if you knew…”
“but i didn’t know,” he replied. the moonlight glittered on his silver rings, reflected off his broad forehead. “the twins brought the game to me just a few weeks ago…up until that point, i was trying to hack apocalypse just because they said it couldn’t be done.”
that made me laugh. “you haven’t changed,” i said.
“of course not,” he answered. “what vampire ever does?”
it felt good to laugh with him, over nothing. we walked on, pretending that the world hadn’t changed. but as the sky began to turn to gray, and i saw that we were close to my office. “may i show you something,” i asked.
“of course,” will replied.
in my office i flicked on the overhead lights, and i saw, for the first time, how definitively he’d altered himself. as dear and familiar as his face, i realized even i might’ve walked right by him in a crowd. that was his intention, i realized. a pang went through me. pray my face never became so familiar to the common human that i need such alterations make.
i watched him roam the perimeter, stopping here and there to examine a map, open a dusty folder, moving with the same sure-footed grace that had caught my eye at the globe. at last he looked at me. “you’ve devoted decades to this.” it was a statement, not a question.
i nodded. “he’s tipped his hand with that ‘calling card’ of his. i’m hoping that’s how we find a way in.” i paused. “actually i’m hoping you can find a way in.”
will laughed, looking as if it was in spite of himself. “me…me and lilith, if i understand the twins correctly.”
“well…yes. you and lilith…” i paused. “is that possible? if hitler’s managed to invade the game…or become the game…is it possible…?”
“of course it’s possible, john.” it was his turn to hesitate. “you know…all that about there being more ‘twixt heaven and earth…”
“yes, yes – who could forget it,” i replied. “it’s one of your more famous lines.”
“you know,” he said, returning to his perambulation around the room, “no one’s more surprised about all that than me.”
i said nothing. i remembered a distinctly grumpy 18th century, when his works were largely dismissed. but nothing would be gained by reminding him he’d ever been anything considered less than the center of the western canon at this point. in fact, at this point, there was very little i wasn’t willing to do if he’d asked it of me.
“you know i’m here to help you, john,” he said quietly. “i’m just not sure lilith is going to be as glad to see me as you were.”
“you were part of it, weren’t you?” i snapped. “i knew it.”
his gaze flicked over me. “every vampire in england was part of it, john. surely you realized that. no one vampire could ever have been enough to subdue lilith. dracula wasn’t the only one lost, you know. or maybe you didn’t.” he paused, and for a split second, i thought perhaps my maker was disturbed with me.
“i was in america.”
“that ripper business,” he said.
“it was my fault he got away,” i said. “i had to finish it.”
“i’m not sure it was wise to do what you did, john,” he said. “perhaps if you’d waited…”
“if i’d waited more of our kind would’ve been lost forever.” i took a deep breath. “i know everyone was disappointed with me… but i didn’t think i had a choice.” just like now, i thought, but didn’t say. a chime of foreboding rang in my gut. i had to expect lilith would remember my maker’s involvement. was it even wise to wake her while he was in london?
but if my maker read my emotions, he only asked, “the twins gave you the game disk?”
“they did.” i took a deep breath. “they say hitler’s in the game. what do you say?”
“i say i’ve never seen a game character function the way that hitler character does,” will replied. “there’s a randomness built into the code unlike anything i’ve ever seen – or invented. when they first showed it to me, i suspected it was some sort of virus or worm, but while it seems to share some characteristics, it isn’t exactly either. in fact, i don’t quite know what to call it.”
“i can tell you what the indigenous tribes of south america called it.”
will narrowed his eyes. “south america? what does south america have to do with it?”
“that’s where we believe hitler went after world war ii. there’s too much evidence that suggests he escaped his bunker about a week before germany surrendered, made it out of europe on a u-boat, and got as far as south america.” i paused. “the trail goes cold in columbia –“
“that’s where the attack comes from,” will interrupted. “from some small village outside medellin.”
for the space of heart beat i stared at him. “our intelligence - the trail goes cold in medellin.”
“but what do the indigenous tribes of south america have to do with hitler?”
i took a deep breath. even explaining to another vampire could be difficult. mrs. hudson simply laughed outright. martin just stared. i opened a file on my desk and pointed to the map on the wall behind my chair. “this is what i’ve spent the last almost four decades doing – ever since i discovered the existence of this… thing.”
“i don’t know what else to call it.” i shrugged. “i’ve not your gift with words. i’ve come to believe it truly did come from outer space – maybe on the same meteor that killed the dinosaurs.” i pointed to the map. “the red pins mark the places where this thing was worshiped or, in some cases, is still worshipped today. the blue pins are where there are unexplained mutilations and deaths of humans and livestock. as you can see the areas overlap.” i glanced over my shoulder. “and as you can see – there’s a pattern.”
“it’s spreading out from a center – from several centers, in fact…” i felt him come to stand behind me. “sweet jesu christ,” he swore softly, in the old way. “it is a virus…” he broke off once more. “why hitler?”
i turned to face him. “are you serious, will? they’re still congratulating themselves on having beaten him – he’s considered the most horrific tyrant of the twentieth century. maybe ever.”
“all right,” he said. “i need that disk.”
“you’ll have to come home with me, then. but i’ve no way to access it – i don’t even have a telephone…”
“we know, old boy.” he patted my cheek and then my shoulder. “believe me, we all know.” he patted the pocket of his leather jacket. “fortunately, i do.”
the sun was still too high above the horizon to risk the streets, and so we took the low road that threaded through the underground stations and ancient tunnels mostly long forgotten. on the way, we held hands but didn’t speak, and i wondered if he shared the thoughts gnawing their way through my brain like a rat in a corn crib.
how was it possible to transfer a human consciousness into a computing machine game?
assuming one doesn’t have access to some sort of alien consciousness to assist?
we turned a corner and will threw an arm in front of me. he took a deep sniff and then he whispered, directly into my ear: “can’t you smell that? ghouls?”
i opened my mouth to protest and immediately shut it as the distinct aroma of ghoul flesh rushed in.
“i don’t hear anything,” he said, again directly into my ear. “i don’t think they’re active.”
“thank god,” i muttered.
“forward,” he replied, pushing me in the middle of my back. “slowly.”
they were packed like sardines, standing face down, hunched shoulders, feet perpetually moving back and forth in place. they weren’t active, that much was obvious, for we pushed through with the ease of knife cutting through cheese.
it seemed as though it took hours.
when at last, we emerged, we headed as if by silent agreement up and out. the sun had gone behind the buildings but i was horrified to realize where we were: piccadilly circus. the streets were deep wells of shadows. we would be fine but i wondered how long before whoever had created those ghouls decided to unleash them. and for what purpose?
gasping, the stench of putrefying flesh imbedded in my pores, i sank down on the first bench we came to.
at once will was beside me. “are you all right?”
“i have to tell martin,” i muttered as i pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and buried my nose in its freshly starched scent. “that… that horde… it has to be eradicated…incinerated… someone has to find out who created it…”
will shook my shoulder. “john – i think that’s part of the game.”
“what game – the ones the twins have?”
“no, the one that’s going to be unleashed on new year’s eve, ten minutes after midnight… the one called apocalypse. the nuclear attack is just the beginning – the world goes dark, ghouls rise and eat the flesh of the living…that’s why we need to disrupt the game…”
“i still have to tell martin,” i interrupted, sounding angrier than i intended. “they can get rid of that horde long before new year’s. he can send –“
“what if that’s not the only one?” in the fading light, will’s eyes glittered green. he leaned forward, shook my forearm. “there’s almost certainly a horde like that under every city on every continent. maybe more than one. but at least, i reckon they won’t move… not until the game begins. but we’ve no time at all to waste.” he’d slipped back into the warwickshire speech of his long ago human youth. he was far more upset than he appeared. without another word, he was off the bench and hurrying down the street.
something had changed, i realized, as i hastened to keep up. my maker moved through the crowded streets with a renewed purpose. as we reached my street, i finally was able to grasp his forearm long enough to slow him down. “what is it, will? what’s -?”
“i saw it back there… everything that can be imagined – that’s been imagined – there’s something about this game – something in this game that is capable of making things real – tangible - in a way even we haven’t yet begun to realize.” he paused, then shook his head impatiently. “that’s the best way i can put it now. i need to get in touch with the twins.”
“we need their help?” i frowned, still not comprehending.
he looked at me and then up, at the sky, at the roofs of the houses around us. he pulled me close, and whispered into my ear. “look up, john, under the eaves. don’t you see them? almost every house… every building… there’s at least one.”
confused, not sure what he was saying, i looked up, in the direction he indicated. in the shadowy twilight i saw the great winged beasts, now he pointed them out, darker shadows clustered in the shadows with eyes that glittered red. “sweet jesu christe,” i breathed. “we need all the help we can get.”
it was after eight by the time the children – the twins – arrived. i was dismayed to learn exactly how far off i’d been in terms of their ages: they were 23.
they arrived with portable computing machines.
in less time i would’ve thought possible, they were connected to the internet, fingers poised over keyboards, faces turned expectantly to their doctor faustus.
“we need everything about lilith ever written,” he said.
“ever written?” i interrupted, even as the two young humans bent their heads over their screens and their fingers began to fly. “is that even possible…?”
“we’ll be able to find most, i think,” julian said, without looking up.
“and then what?” i asked.
will and the twins exchanged quick glances. “i will,” he said softly, “endeavor to…to translate her…to upload her…into the game.”
i frowned. “but…but… but how?”
“well,” he replied. “we do have the game – calling card. while they find what i need, i’m going to dissect the code.” he held up the game disk. “we’ll find the way in, i promise you.” he glanced at the twins, then back at me. “we have to. the world ends if we don’t.”
“how long is this going to take?”
will shrugged. “i’m not sure. we have – six weeks.”
“we’re going to have to tell your father,” i said, in the direction of the twins, even though both were staring at their screens, appearing almost unaware of anything going on around them.
“only if you think there’s something to tell,” replied emma, with a quick look in my direction.
i opened my mouth, but all three were gazing at their computer screens, their eyes locked on whatever images held them transfixed. i thought about the ghouls, a hideous army waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public should the worst come to pass. i had to tell martin, i thought. if not about his children, i at least had to inform about that.
“i have to tell martin about the ghouls,” i said, bending low and speaking almost directly into will’s ear. there was no need to upset the twins, but i could see that my next move must be to tell martin about the threat shivering under the streets. “what else…what else can you tell me about the other game?” i asked will, bending low and speaking into his ear. “the apocalypse game? if the ghouls under the streets and the gargoyles in the eaves are real… what else are we facing?”
he paused, and looked up, meeting my eyes directly. “i meant what i said before - every nightmare we ever imagined, human or vampire, i believe.” he took a deep breath. “if it’s been imagined, or if it can be imagined, i believe it will all come to pass, if the game succeeds.”
by the following day, i knew i’d better contact martin. leaving will and the twins to their machinations, i took myself and my trepidations to martin’s house. but this time there was no need to ring the bell.
he’d already invited me in.
“what the devil…” martin began, when i entered the room his wife called the library, the room without any books. his glass of bad whiskey and the same flat soda water he’d served me spilled over his desk as he jumped to his feet. “what the devil are you doing here, john? and how the hell did you get in?”
i sighed. there are more than a few things best left to human imagination. “that hardly matters now, martin, does it? i have news – a – a progress report of sorts, i suppose one could say. since i –i’ve been working from home, i thought i’d better come round and tell you all about it.” i paused. his face was still gray. “you know how i feel about telephones.”
he heaved a great sigh, but his color didn’t improve. “we’ve been a bit distracted here, old man.
sorry…i…you took me quite aback, that’s all. i was…thinking about…other things.”
for a split second a vision of the twins’ faces – emma’s overlaid over julian’s and then vice versa – clouded my entire field of sight. “your children…” i said. i swallowed hard. “you…you’re concerned?” what i no longer remember about being human is how absolutely squirrelly a parent becomes when one perceives its progeny to be in jeopardy – even if they were above the age of majority.
“more than concerned,” he said, through tight lips. he filled his glass with whiskey and took a quick drink, then another. “we haven’t heard from them in more than a day…they left to go back to school and we haven’t heard from them since. my wife’s insisting we call the police, but i’ve put the word out through channels – i’m hoping they can turn up something. because it’s true… our twins -they seem to have simply vanished. they never even arrived at the train station to buy their tickets yesterday morning.” he ran his hand over the top of his head, shook his head and finished what was left in his glass.
jesu christe, i thought. absorbed in their tasks, enthralled in the sway of their doctor faustus, they’d completely forgotten to check in with their parents. this was nothing new in the annals of vampire-human interactions, or even parent-child interactions, but of course, if it was to martin, it was a complication i didn’t need. “surely…surely…” i cleared my throat. “surely they’ve done this sort of thing before?”
martin heaved a deep breath. “until they were 18, i had them followed. it went against all the regs, but you know, old chap – well, if you can’t call in a few favors now and again, what’s it all for? but now… now they’re at university and…” he poured more whiskey into his glass.
jesu christe, i thought. damn those children. they’d have to call their parents the moment i returned. what they decided to tell those parents i was going to leave up to them. no matter how frantic martin was, i doubted he’d be happy to hear they were at the moment keeping company with two of the oldest vampires in england, william shakespeare and mrs. hudson.
i was spared the duty of answering by a quick tap and then a turn of the doorknob. “geoffrey,” i heard a woman saying, “are you-you’re talking to someone? is there new-“
“sophie!” martin’s arthritic legs took him across the room faster than they should’ve. he blocked the door from opening with his entire body, then leaned out and spoke, softly but still enough so i could hear, “no, sophie, no… just an expected guest…no, no, darling. he won’t want tea.”
he shut the door in the face of her questions, then turned back to me. “well? well? have you found a way to stop hitler?”
“yes,” i said, after just a moment’s hesitation. “yes, i believe we have.” after all, if we were wrong, i was almost certain humanity was doomed. better to be confident, i decided, in the face of looming disaster than dither.
hope warred with worry in the lines around martin’s eyes. “jolly good, old man – just in the nick of time, too, what?”
i nodded. “i-i expect a break-through any day now, any moment, really.”
he looked at me then, as if he really saw me. “interesting…so when, exactly, do you expect to wake lil-?”
i cleared my throat. “possibly not until…not until closer to the date.” i paused, then said in a rush, “we…i…think it could be worse than we originally anticipated. it’s come to my attention there’s a horde of ghouls under piccadilly. and quite possibly more, all over the city – quite possibly in cities all over the world.”
martin cocked his head. “what are you talking about, john? this is the first i’ve heard of … ghouls.”
“i’m telling you it’s there. i stumbled across it on my way home the other afternoon, when i wanted to leave before dusk. and not only that – there’s a growing infestation of gargoyles as well – there’s apparently one on every building in london, if not more. if they spread to the suburbs there’ll be a public outcry.”
“i’m not doubting you, john, it’s just…” he paused and peered at me as if seeing me for the first time. “what’s going on, exactly? it sounds to me as if you’ve revised your entire timetable. what’s happened?”
“i’ve just come to understand the nature of hitler’s attack and the platform from which he – it – they- intend to launch it.”
martin narrowed his eyes. “go on.”
“it’s a game, a computer game called apocalypse. the planned release is one minute past midnight on january 1. the hitler virus is encoded in the game. i believe it intends to wipe out the world power grid, along with anything – and everything – else that it can-”
“don’t you need help with that?” martin interrupted. “this is a bit out of your league, isn’t it?”
“no,” i said immediately. “i have the situation quite well in hand. i’ve-i’ve been able to put together the people i need. you’ll hear from me if …if i require anything but… well, the skids were greased, after all, martin. i told you there’d be more options if there were ever more funds.”
i took my leave, then, not willing to hear any more of martin’s thoughts. he was distracted, poor chap, and it occurred to me, as i made my way under a fitful moon, how narrowly i’d missed the whole jig. it’s those damnable twins, i thought, as i traced my way to lilith’s crypt. if they hadn’t intercepted the game, martin and i may have had opportunities we would never know now.
clouds lay low and threatening over the city, intermittently obscuring the moon altogether. i happened to glance up.
a pair of red eyes glinted back.
i paused, squinted up into the shadows as a chill went down my spine. the clouds shifted, the moonlight strengthened and i realized what was coiled like a waiting serpent between the downspout and the roof. a gargoyle. a thunderbird. a flying monkey.
will’s right, i thought, and i quickened my pace.
i arrived home to find will ensconced behind my desk staring into the screen of the computing machine he called his “laptop” with a bemused expression. “ah, there you are, john,” he said, beckoning to me as i entered. “come say hello to my little friend.” he laughed at my obvious bewilderment, then beckoned again. “come. have a look at my new avatar.”
i stared over his shoulder, into the screen, at a character with shoulder length hair and overly large pectoral muscles. “i don’t understand. this looks… like …you.” or at least, the version of himself i used to know – the one without piercings or black leather.
he flashed a quick smile. “that’s correct.”
“but –“i was confused. he’d explained how an avatar of lilith would serve as her gateway into the game. but why would he create one that resembled himself?
he took a deep breath. “there’s been a weakness in our plan all along – something i haven’t wanted to make as clear as perhaps i should have. the one thing we need, the bridge we have to cross…lilith has to want to enter the game. if she refuses…” will paused.
“she can’t refuse.”
he nodded. “so i’ve decided to go into the game myself.”
“you? but –“
“it’s the only way. she’ll follow me … i know she will…who do you think lured her into the crypt? if nothing else, she’ll follow me for my blood.”
“and then what? how are you going to divert her attention?”
will hesitated, then shrugged. “i’m working on that.”
i crossed my arms over my chest and leaned on my desk, staring down at him in dismay. “this sounds like complete madness- not to mention the impossible. lilith’s a demon – but you…you, how in the name of mary –“ another old oath slipped out – “you’re a vampire – you’ve form and flesh-”
“john.” he interrupted the torrent of my words with a hand on my arm. “john, hasn’t it ever occurred to you to wonder why there aren’t any vampires as old as lilith? why i’m the oldest vampire you know?”
i frowned, completely confused. “i-i don’t understand…”
“i know that, dear boy. you’re too young, and all the others you know are too young. but soon mrs. hudson will begin to feel it… she’s well over a thousand – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.”
“what’s bound to happen?” i was beyond confused at this point, staring at my maker as if he’d suddenly begun to speak another language altogether.
“we fray.” he held up his hand. “after twenty-five, twenty-six hundred years, even fresh blood isn’t enough to hold the dust of our atoms together. “it hasn’t happened to you, yet – god knows in europe’s witch hunts few of us lived long enough to realize what would happen.” he paused.
“you…you’re saying we’re not immortal? not…forever?” i sank down into the chair beside the desk, the one most often used to hold files or books, the one no ever sat in, least of all me, and thus was hard and uncomfortable.
he met my gaze with his. “nothing is.” then he nodded at his computing machine. “except the internet.”
i raised my brows. “what are you talking about, the internet? will, pardon me, but have you gone mad?”
“john.” he shook his head and gazed at me fondly, lovingly. “look.” he tapped my forearm with his hand.
i looked down. in the yellow light of the electrical lamp, i saw it. his finger-tips, his fingernails, were, as he said, frayed, the flesh lacerated like old leather. in one place, i could see a finger-bone poking up and almost through. “jesu christe,” i breathed.
he removed his hand. “now, do you understand?”
“no,” i shook my head. “i may be over four hundred years old, but i don’t understand – not really. i’m willing to trust you, however.”
because after all, i thought, as i watched him leave the room, calling for the twins, what choice did i really have?
mrs. hudson found me on the roof. “they’re calling for you, sir,” she said. “i believe they’re ready to reveal their strategy.” she must’ve heard my sigh, because she moved a few paces closer. “john? are you all right?”
i tightened my grip on the iron railing that encircled the ancient widow’s walk. “i’m not sure exactly what i am, mrs. hudson. i-i…this was my project, my… life… for decades and now… now, in just a matter of days, it seems the entire process has been…usurped.”
“usurped? she made a sort of clucking sound with her tongue and came to stand beside me with a swish of her skirts. “oh, come, john…usurped is such a strong word…usurped?” in the light of the waxing moon, her face was a pale and white as bone.
“perhaps it is,” i said softly. “but whether i am or not, i have no idea what doctor faustus and his damnable twins are about – i have no idea if what they’re about to propose is even possible, let alone feasible. i’ve no idea if we can test it…if…”
“you won’t know any of those things if you don’t go down and listen to them,” she said softly.
i could think of no reply but to do as she suggested.
i found them in the library, clustered around their computing machines. the twins looked tired, dark smudges beneath their eyes, skin pale, with that grayish tinge with which i was all too aware.
they had indeed made a deal with a devil. i wondered if they were aware their doctor faustus was feeding on them. then i decided they were too intelligent not to realize it, and too far gone to care.
as one they looked up when we entered. “well?” i asked. “we’re ready to – to move forward?”
will beckoned to a chair. “please. have a seat. you, too, martha, my dear. we’re just about ready to show you… well, as much as we can.”
i exchanged glances with mrs. hudson. “what does that mean?”
“it means we’ve a plan,” replied julian. “we’ve yet to execute it.”
“please,” said will. “sit. and i’ll explain.” he turned his computing machine around so that the screen faced me and picked up a small device. “you’ll be able to follow along here.”
bright bursts of explosions filled the screen, followed by small figures running in all directions, some burning, some bleeding. the figures and the landscape had an odd three-dimensional quality that even television and films lacked.
“what on earth…” began mrs. hudson, her voice trailing off as she peered at the screen more closely.
“what you’re watching there is part of the opening of the apocalypse game,” will said. “it’s a small bit of the code i managed to hack. but as you probably notice, it has a very different look from anything you might’ve seen-“
“anything you might’ve seen,” i interrupted. “mrs. hudson and i don’t even own a television.”
the twins gaped and will shook his head. “as i was saying, there’s a very different look to this game than anything i’ve ever seen before.”
“or us,” chimed in the twins.
“even the first game?” i asked. “even the one you intercepted?”
“calling card?” replied emma. “no,” she shook her head. “the only part of that that looks in anyway at all like this – is the character of hitler.”
“but that’s the piece i believe i can piggyback into, so to speak,” said will.
“i don’t understand,” i said. “how do you possibly intend –“
“the play’s the thing,” will answered softly. “by inserting myself – and lilith – as characters into the game of course, as part of the odessa plan.”
“odessa?” i wrinkled my forehead and cocked my head. odessa was the secret organization founded at the end of the third reich with the intention of preserving enough of it to ensure the possibility of a fourth reich.
“it existed in history,” said emma. “it grew out of the third reich – hitler was part of its creation.”
“and it’s part of calling card – so we have code,” added julian.
“enough code,” said will. “i hope.”
i sat back and listened. much of what they said made almost no sense to me. but the one profound part of their plan involved the same sticking place to which i’d come, over and over. we needed lilith’s agreement.
i heard and considered and calculated and calibrated. and in the end, when they all paused for breath, and looked at me expectantly, i could only say, “but it all comes down to one thing. lilith’s consent. lilith’s participation and cooperation. and nothing you’ve shown me guarantees us of that.” i took a deep breath. “i’m afraid that after listening to all this, one thing above everything is clear to me. i’m not the one you need to convince.”
we sent the twins home while we considered what to do next.
“we’ve no choice,” said mrs. hudson, more times than i wanted to count. “we must wake lilith.”
then she’d purse her lips and look displeased.
at some point, will and i looked at each other and shrugged. there was simply no other way.
“i’ll contact martin,” i said. “we’ll have to have a … a feeding lined up.” i looked at mrs. hudson, who was busying herself with tidying up the detritus of scraps of paper and empty coffee and tea cups this invasion had collected under the chairs and on the shelves and tables. “does this mean we can count on your help, my dear?”
“there’s no one left to help, is there?” with a sigh and an aggrieved air, she marched out of the room, carrying the waste-bin in one hand and a tray of empty cups in another.
“she never liked this lilith business, did she?” asked will, when her footsteps had safely faded out of hearing.
“it’s never exactly sat well with either of us to have a ten-thousand year old demon vampire sequestered beneath our feet, all done while we were conveniently out of town, and across an ocean.”
“ah,” he said, with a raise of one brow. “i had nothing to do with that manipulation, just so you know.”
“so it was a manipulation?” i shook my head and swallowed a curse, then held up my hand. “don’t say anything more. there’s no going back. we’ll have a hard enough time going forward, even if you really can do everything you say.”
“john, are you doubting me?” he pressed a hand to his chest. “doubt thou that the sun be fire…”
“this all sounds like impossible magic to me, will. you’ll have to forgive me. i’ve no idea how you managed to keep up. it’s not that i don’t believe you- i absolutely want to. i just…so much of what you suggest, of what you propose to do…i just don’t understand-”
“it’s amazing what the prospect of turning to dust can galvanize one to do.” he took a deep breath, then glanced out the side of the blackout curtain. “it’s at least an hour to dawn. come, let’s walk awhile. will you?”
silently we left the house, and silently, as if by unspoken agreement, we turned our faces in the same direction. all around us, the city moved and breathed, a coiled, sleeping beast, with lights that flashed and blinked like eyes.
christmas was upon us, that holiday of fraught cheer, and in almost every window or doorstep, some evidence of it waved or blinked or blew in the bitter wind. a pellet of moisture stung my face, too needle-sharp to be snow.
on an empty street corner, under the glare of a traffic light, will paused and said, “did it ever occur to you, john, that english was the first internet?”
i frowned. “i’m sorry, i don’t follow?”
“it was the first language that went around the world; the first language to subsume and be subsumed by every other language with which it came into contact. there is scarce a corner of the world now, where at least some words of english that if they aren’t spoken, they are at least recognized and understood.”
i glanced around and pulled my collar wishing i’d heeded mrs. hudson’s admonition to take what we now called a scarf. like most of us vampires, will could take forever to make his point. “leaving aside the whole lilith question, i still don’t understand why you believe it’s possible to translate – pardon me- to upload your consciousness into the internet. no matter how proficient in english you might be.”
at that he looked at me and laughed, that hearty deep laugh that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside his chest, to rise out of the center of his heart, the one i’d noticed that first day from my place in the pit. “oh, my dear john.” he shook his head, clapped his hand on my shoulder, cuffed my cheek almost paternally. “you’ve always managed to make me laugh no matter how dire the situation might seem. no, my dear john, you have it wrong. it’s not how much english is in me, so to speak – it’s how much of me is in english.” he gestured and we began to walk once more.
“i got the idea after reading an article about something called artificial intelligence, and a company that was offering to preserve a human’s personality upon death by uploading the answers to a series of questions into a computer program which would then enable loved ones and friends to have access to whatever aspects of personality and consciousness could be captured in the program’s algorithms.” he gave me a quick glance. “i admit it made as much sense to me as it does to you at the time i first read about it.” he took a deep breath as we turned the corner.
the sky above us was still dark, but i could smell morning in the air. it was time we turned back. he let me lead him in the direction of home, as he continued, “i had begun to explore gaming – the way a person’s character expressed itself in a game was especially interesting to me, because of all the possibilities it both presented and precluded. but this marriage of language and consciousness – it had never occurred to me, even though, in retrospect, it was in front of me all along.”
“whatever are you talking about?” i was beginning to wonder if more than my beloved maker’s fingertips were fraying.
“the gospel of john of course.” he stopped on the pavement, and in the approaching dawn, his eyes flashed green. “’in the beginning was the word.’”
in the beginning was the word. i trailed after him, still trying to keep up, literally as well as figuratively. “the word- will, i don’t understand. i’m sorry. i just don’t.”
he sighed and put his arm around my shoulder. “there’s more of me in the english language than any other writer,” he said. “that’s not boasting. it’s true.”
and it was true, gentle reader, it is, in fact, indeed true. no one has made more of a single handed contribution to the development of idiomatic english than my own dear maker. no one.
“so you think,” i began slowly, wrinkling my brow, “that given how much of your work – your words – have been integrated into the language itself, you believe that somehow this – this artificial intelligence program is capable of capturing your – your self -?”
“no,” he interrupted. “i don’t believe. i know. calling card supplied the last bit of code i needed. the program is ready to run – i only need to push the button, so to speak.”
“and what happens?” i asked.
“i-i’m uploaded,” he replied. “into the internet, into the game.”
we had reached my own front stoop. “and then what happens,” i asked, still confused beyond measure. “what happens to you?”
he paused to remove one black leather glove, then held up his hand. i gasped. i had never seen anything like it. in the light of the moon, it was nearly translucent, each finger bone clearly outlined. “even the twins can scarcely supply enough, dear boy,” he said, so softly i almost didn’t hear. “even the twins.”
i had no answer for that. it had never occurred to me that vampires, too, were subject to a lifespan, no matter how much longer it might be.
i unlocked the front door, and stood aside to let him pass, wraith-thin, before me. i wondered how much of him was held together by all the leather.
he headed down the hall, disappearing in the direction of the library. i paused, looking up at the moon, white as a bone in the graying sky. and for the first time, i wondered if it were possible for the same thing to happen to lilith.
i shouldn’t have been surprised when martin came to call. i was, however, very surprised to realize that at some point, his children had decided to inform him of their participation in operation odessa, as they and their doctor faustus had taken to calling it.
but the rest of it…the worst of it… in martin’s estimation at least, he only suspected and had come to me to confirm. that was the reason for his visit, as he made perfectly clear once the door to my office was closed, interrupting my question about the horde of ghouls under piccadilly.
“how could you do this – this monstrous thing?” he demanded, lips thin, chin jutting out, fists clenched by his sides.
i stepped behind my desk, putting the wide mahogany expanse between us. “i’m not sure what you think i’ve done,” i began.
“you’ve taken my twins,” he said through clenched teeth. “taken my children, our babies… do you know what my wife will think once she knows…?”
“perhaps there’s no need for her to know,” i tried again, but he cut me off.
“no need – no need for a mother to know her children have become unnatural… unsanctified…blood-sucking demons?”
“i rather think i resent all that,” i said, faintly.
“who gives a damn what you think, you insufferable monster?” at that he leapt at me, and i was forced to put him gently as possible into a chair.
“i’m so sorry, martin, i’m so very sorry you’re upset about this…this turn of events, but i assure you –“ he struggled and i was forced to subdue him further. “i assure you nothing of it was my doing. your twins made a pact with their doctor faustus long before they ever met me.”
at that he moaned and closed his eyes, rolling his head back against the back of the chair. i let him go, feeling all the fight drain out of him as he went limp. i stood back, feeling sorry for him, but still smarting under the sting of his insults. i was surprised to realize how hurt i was, but i suppose i thought our long association had changed martin’s view of vampire.
i saw now that it did not.
“are they here?” he asked, eyes still closed.
“yes,” i replied, retiring once more behind my desk. “martin, i don’t believe we could do this without them. they’re quite an extraordinary pair, you know. you should be very proud. they’re doing this with full knowledge and consent.”
“they’re turning themselves into monsters,” he cried. he shook his head, looked down, and had the grace to look abashed. “i’m sure you don’t see it that way.”
i took a deep breath. “i’m sure it came as great shock for you and mrs. martin.”
“why didn’t you tell me they were involved?”
“they asked me not to, martin. it’s not the first time i – i haven’t shared everything about my sources.”
his only answer was another sigh. “how much longer? how much time will it take?”
“we have until new year’s eve, although we intend to…to launch a week or so before.” depending on how long will could hold himself together, i thought. depending on what it took to convince lilith to participate.
“that’s not what i meant.” his eyes bore into mine.
i raised my brows, then took a deep breath. he meant the twins. “well…that all depends… in how far along they are in….in their transformation process.”
“what’s that mean?”
“it depends how much blood the maker takes at any given time…the more he draws the faster the process is accomplished. but it is possible to extend the process out over a course of a nearly human lifetime – at some point they’ll stop aging and…”
“what do you mean, nearly human lifetime?”
“thirty, forty years.”
“they’re only twenty-three,” he howled.
i drew a deep breath, uncertain how to respond. to martin, this clearly felt like a death sentence. didn’t he understand his twins would live forever? or for so long it would begin to feel that way, especially when dealing with hysterical humans?
i hoped i wouldn’t have to break it to him that given that their maker and mine was about to disappear into the mists of the internet, it was likely their transformation would be completed in less time than our project.
in light of absolute ignorance of anything else, i said the only thing i could think of. “perhaps some tea, martin,” i said, ringing the bell for mrs. hudson.
as i feared, our timetable was affected by will’s rapidly deteriorating condition. and so it was, we found ourselves gathered on a cold december evening, as the last full moon of the year rose above the rooftops.
a few errant snowflakes blew into the courtyard. the hour was close to midnight, the full moon floated above us like a skull. martin’s security team lined the perimeter, and as if from far away, i heard the engines of the vans running, the vans that contained what we hoped would suffice for lilith’s first meal. the twins had arrived with will, and been promptly ordered back to a car by their father.
“well?” i muttered. “shall we?”
will took a deep breath, and bent to the ornate antique lock that was the last layer of protection against lilith in her crypt. he held out his hand and i placed in it one of the keys i’d retrieved from the deposit box. it opened surprisingly easily for a lock one hundred and eleven years old.
it was exactly that long since she’d been interred, i thought, as i watched will descend into the crypt, flashlight held high. “are you coming?” i heard him call, softly.
for the first time i bent my head and went down the moss-covered cobblestones of the shallow steps.
the ceiling was low, moisture dripped from above and down the walls. her crypt was not so much a coffin as a rock enclosure, only half-hewn from the wall. lichens and mushrooms had grown thick on it over the years.
the air was thick and foul, despite the grate. i sniffed, remembering what mrs. hudson had said, the first time my wanderings brought me here. i can smell her.
how, i thought. how was that possible? and was that what i smelled? that slightly sweet scent?
will made another impatient sound, and jostled my arm. “pay attention, will you? now’s no time to go off daydreaming.”
i shook myself, wondering if that might somehow be the influence of lilith, even beneath the stone, even beneath the spell. i fumbled in my pocket and withdrew the other keys as well as the amulet the opener of the final lock was instructed to wear.
that was going to be me. i put the amulet around my neck as will swiftly turned the locks of the second and third locks. he handed the fourth to me, then peeled a thick layer of moss away from the top of the stone, revealing a lock embedded into the stone itself. “there you are, my lad,” he whispered, his warwickshire accent as thick as the moss. “god save you.”
he crossed himself and backed away, up the steps, dropping the flashlight on the floor of the crypt as he went.
my heart sank. it was all up to me. with shaking hands and trembling heart, i inserted the final key into the stone lock and twisted it. to my dismay it turned, slid, and clicked. without any further effort, the lid opened with a groan of rusted hinges.
i stepped back, holding up the amulet, and nearly tripped over the flashlight. i managed to right myself. i took a deep breath and held it, keeping the amulet well between me and the now gaping crypt.
“john,” will called from just above. “are you all right? is the crypt open?”
“it-it is,” i answered, as loudly as i dared. i picked up the flashlight and crept cautiously forward. the crypt lay before me, an open black maw from which nothing but a smell emanated. i clutched the amulet in one hand and the flashlight in the other. i trained the beam into the crypt and my mouth dropped open.
i stared down, hardly able to believe what i was seeing. i swept the beam of the flashlight up and down, confirming what my initial glance had told me.
lilith, the ten-thousand year old demon, the mother of us all, had frayed – as will described it - into dust. the cloth used to wrap her in was in better condition. even her bones were mostly gone. i held the light over what remained of her skull and saw the enlarged canines. she had starved, i realized. they had put her in the crypt without feeding her.
my heart sank, and i could feel the air leave my lungs as if someone had punched my solar plexus.
all these years, i thought, all these years i had thought her my literal ace in the hole. if i’d roused her sooner, might she have had a chance?
“great god,” muttered will, practically in my ear.
i turned to stare at him. “now what are we to do?”
martin took one look in the empty crypt and turned to us, fury, frustration and fear all warring on his face. “now what,” he hissed, although there was no need to whisper. “now what?”
i took a deep breath, though the air below the ground was dank and close and smelled faintly of something dry and dusty – the source of the odor, no doubt, that had tickled mrs. hudson’s delicate nose. “we’ll move on to plan b.”
“what ‘plan b?” demanded martin. despite the chill, sweat trickled down his face, and he smelled very human. “we have no plan b.”
“then we’ll come up with one,” will said.
martin swung his gaze on will. “you leave my twins out of it.”
but before he could answer, or i could even draw a breath, we heard the voices of those very twins screaming, “dad – dr. faust- father –!” and the rapid, sudden burst of what could only be gun fire.
“what the devil,” cried martin, as he ran up the steps, almost straight into the arms of a small horde of ghouls that were shambling out of the shadows. will and i bounded up the steps, and thrust him behind us, as we reached for the throats of the nearest ghouls and ripped them out.
ghouls have no interest in vampire flesh, there are some who believe ghouls can’t even see vampires, which makes us very effective at killing them. the problem, of course, is that there are always more ghouls than vampires, at least initially, and humans, when present, have a tendency to take out guns and start shooting.
and vampires are just as vulnerable to bullets as anything else that moves.
so when the security team started shooting, will and i very rapidly got out, retrieving those very twins in the process. “call your mother,” said will to the twins, as soon as we were safely out of range of both ghouls and men. “call her and tell her you’re both all right but you’re going to be busy over the next few days.” he broke off, then muttered to me under his breath, “time’s running out.”
a shadow crossed the moon, a huge winged form that silently sailed over london, a pointed tail lashing behind it.
“what’s that?” gasped julian, or maybe emma.
“anything that can be imagined…” will muttered. “we are very much running out of time.”
was it my imagination running amok, or were there more pairs of red eyes clustered under every eave?
we arrived home to find a very weary looking mrs. hudson mopping up what looked like the remains of two or three ghouls. “here you are,” she said. “just in time to help me get these into the garden – no sense wasting perfectly good compost.”
“ugh, won’t it smell?” asked emma, as she stepped aside, one hand clapped firmly over her nose and mouth.
“oh, a day or two, perhaps,” replied mrs. hudson. “hardly long enough for the neighbors to notice.” then she looked at me. “john, is this going to become a problem?”
“only in the short term, my dear. only in the short term.” i retired to my study, leaving will and the twins to do mrs. hudson’s bidding. these were bad signs – ghouls erupting from the sewers, gargoyles clustering in the eaves, dragons flying across the moon. humans have been putting stock in rivers running red and infestations of pestilence in various forms but are generally unable to see the real signs that portended disaster.
for the dead travel fast. a chill swept through as the words ran through my mind. that wasn’t one of will’s, i didn’t think. though maybe it should have been.
i sank into my chair, closed my eyes, and tried to envision a plan b.
“it’s very clear to us,” began emma, when we gathered that evening in the library, “that what must be avoided at all costs is allowing the hitler virus to reach the internet – the game is a portal and we believe there’s a possibility it can be stopped, if we can strike before –“ she paused and looked at her brother. “before –“
“well, before the beginning of the game,” julian supplied.
will cocked his head and looked at the twins. “i’m not sure i follow.”
“you said yourself the game was unhackable, even for you. but you did manage to get the opening bits – you did see the very beginning – the attack on the us.” julian leaned forward. “you got into enough of it, we think.”
“calling card ends with a plan to attack the us,” said emma. “what if we wrote our game – a game that bridges the time between when calling card ends and the attack begins? they won’t expect that…and what if we write out the attack? or neutralize it some way?”
“you mean…in the game?” i asked, struggling to keep up.
“in the game and in reality. once this thing hits the internet – once it moves beyond the gamers who will act as its unwitting portals – it will be as if an atomic bomb hit the us. my guess is the first thing it will do is move to control all power and all resources – from electricity to water to – well, to money. the banking system is completely vulnerable. they’ve never comprehended anything like this.”
“a true blitz,” i muttered.
“and along with that, will come ghouls and gargoyles and dragons and all sorts of things…that humanity is not at all prepared to recognize exist, let alone deal with,” said will softly.
“there won’t be enough of us to do much of anything, will there?” said mrs. hudson, wrinkling her brow.
“no,” replied will. “no, there haven’t been enough of us for a very long time.”
“well, what do you think?” asked emma.
“let me try to understand,” i said. “what you’re proposing is that we – you…” i waved my hand at the will and the twins, “create a game that isn’t so much a game but is essentially a defense against the attack? is that what i’m understanding?”
“yes,” said will. “not a play within a play, but a game between two games.” he looked at emma. “am i right?”
“we know calling card has been distributed worldwide,” said julian. “they’ve been hyping apocalypse for months.”
“if we could get ours together by christmas we could perhaps get it in enough –“
“christmas is ten – no, eleven days away, miss martin,” i said. “will that be enough time?”
“it’s as much time as we have,” replied will. “so it will have to be. mrs. hudson, i ordered in some provisions for the twins…would you be so kind as to show them the kitchen and perhaps…”
“i’ve already started their supper.” she got up with a flourish and a pleased expression. it had been nearly a century, i think, since we entertained. i wondered how rusty her cooking might be.
the twins, obviously, shared the same thought. “you-you know how to cook, ma’am?” asked julian.
“of course, i do, child,” mrs. hudson sniffed. “i was cooking for kings and dukes and earls long before any of your ancestors moved to london.” she looked from one to the other and smiled.
“come. i think you’ll agree my mulled woolly lamb is just the thing for a cold december night.”
“wooly lamb?” asked emma, with a worried look.
“it’s a drink, my dear,” said will. “apples and ale. try it. you’ll enjoy it, i’m sure.”
when the door shut on mrs. hudson and the twins, he turned to me with a worried expression of his own. “i can’t do this alone, john.”
“won’t the twins…”
“the twins, yes – they’ll help me write it, write the code. but in the game – in the story…” he paused and shook his head. “i can’t do it alone.”
“what are you asking me? surely you’re not suggesting i…”
“well, maybe not you.” he hesitated, then smiled. “i was thinking more of that almost-you… that alter ego you seem to find so appalling, but who has nearly as many words in the english language devoted to him as there is to anything i’ve ever written.”
i sat back. “surely you’re not suggesting…” i could hardly believe my ears. lilith was dangerous, but sherlock holmes… the character of sherlock holmes was… unhinged. there was simply no other way to describe it. for all his vaunted brilliance he was a drug addict, a man lost in the labyrinthine maze of his own mind, the furthest thing from myself i ever wanted to be. “what about lilith? what about all the words written about her? you said the other day you had her avatar nearly done.”
“i haven’t written lilith out. it doesn’t make her less a wild card, of course, and it doesn’t mean she won’t recognize me, but…it does give me some authorial control, i suppose one could say.” he leaned forward, and took my hand between his leather gloves. “i’m going to need your help, john. i’m going to need to know what you know about the alien creature, about hitler, and how they’ve married themselves into this one foul thing. and the way you think, the way you see things… lilith and i will both need access to that vision. but someone needs to carry that knowledge into the game, so to speak. someone like you. it doesn’t have to be you, but, enough like you to be…”
“of help,” i supplied.
“will you allow it? will you let me write holmes into the game?”
“isn’t there anyone else? how about a superhero… superman, spider man? captain america?”
“that’s not a bad idea,” he laughed. “but…it’s not just how well known or popular a character is. it’s how many images, how many words, exist to feed into the algorithm that creates the avatars. i can certainly write in a superhero or two. but i don’t want to face this without you.”
“and if the game succeeds, will? what happens then?”
“i’m free to roam the byways and the highways of that brave new world that has such creatures in it. i suspect if you ever decide to venture there yourself you’ll find me. i’ll make sure of it. how’s that, for a deal?”
“what about the twins?”
“they’re going to need you and mrs. hudson more than ever if the game succeeds. i suspect if …if simply allowed to run its natural course their transformation should be complete by about thirty. a ripe age, and a good one, i think.”
i sincerely hoped their parents thought so.
“the world needs more vampires, john,” he said. “you and mrs. hudson haven’t been keeping up.”
i raised my hands and opened my mouth to answer, when the door opened, and mrs. hudson stuck her head inside. “i’m so sorry to interrupt, but – well, there appear to be a gaggle of gargoyles flying about the eaves, john. i brought up a cross bow from the cellar but it’s been centuries since i fired one of these things. i’ve got a pack of bolts - would one of you gentleman care to come have a go?”
in the end, of course i said yes. how was i ever going to refuse my maker anything, after all, especially when it was becoming clearer by the hour that he was literally fading away into dust before our eyes?
poor emma and julian were beside themselves, wiping away tears as they worked, at first surreptitiously, and then openly.
martin, upon hearing that we had a viable plan b, was forced to turn his attention to the attacks of ghouls and gargoyles that were increasing exponentially every evening. mrs. hudson kept us all fed, although her medieval tastes meant the twins were sometimes flummoxed by her food. “why does she put cinnamon on the meat?” i overheard one whisper to the other.
“mrs. hudson learned to cook back when meat was often close to spoiling by the time it was consumed. cinnamon was a spice strong enough to conceal any nasty flavors,” i explained, resolving to convey the message as gently as i could to mrs. hudson. no cinnamon on the meat.
we decided to hit the switch, so to speak, on boxing day.
i watched them build the game, supplying information as requested in no order i could discern. i watched it spring from their keyboards onto their screens, characters and scenery emerging out of clicks. even mrs. hudson watched when she could, fascinated.
when she and i weren’t fending off gargoyles and ghouls that is.
the worst attack came on christmas day. i should’ve suspected it, should’ve been prepared for it, but of course we weren’t. we were too engaged in working on the game, of course.
“i don’t understand,” said mrs. hudson, as we took up our positions on the roof. “what is all this… why now?”
“it’s the calling card,” i said, gritting my teeth and firing the crossbow. it had been centuries since i’d touched one myself but, much like riding a bicycle, i found it came back to me all too well.
an exhausted martin appeared at dawn, just as we were about to rest for a few hours. “i had to know if the twins are all right,” he said. “i’ve been below piccadilly all night. if they’re asleep, don’t wake them.”
“i told you about that horde weeks ago,” i replied. “and yes, they’re asleep. they work better during the day, we’ve noticed.”
he made a face that might’ve been a sneer, and opened his mouth, as if he were going to say something, then seemed to think otherwise, and closed it. then he said, “how much longer?”
“not much – we’re working as fast as we can. we hope to be done by… well, we expect to begin the initial uploads tomorrow. tomorrow night.”
“good,” he said, as he took his leave. “because i don’t think london can survive another night like last night.”
“what does that mean?” i asked, leaning close.
“i’m not really at liberty to tell you,” he answered. “but let me just say… well, you’re not going to hear anything about this, or read anything, or see anything – but – well, we lost more than two thousand troops last night, under the streets. and the damage to st paul’s – that’s going to be attributed to falling space debris. but… well… like i said. you’ll hear nothing of the truth of it.”
i closed the door on martin with a heavy heart and went to find my maker. that’s how it happened that i found what was left of him, collapsed over his keyboard, the screen still flickering with phantom images.
the rest was up to us…to me, really.
i was the one who decided when it was time to press the final button, as it were. i was the one who called for the upload to begin. i was the one martin called to congratulate when it became apparent by a quarter past midnight on the first of january of the year 2000, that our strategy was going to succeed.
i was the one who arranged for the contrivance which carried my maker – our maker – home to warwickshire, to stratford.
i was devastated, i won’t deny it.
it had never occurred to me that he could be lost to me, to us. he had seemed immortal; i thought we all were.
we stood side by side, the three of us, wearing black, as the small box was interred with the casket which supposedly held the bones of william shakespeare lo these nearly four hundred years.
i stared at the inscription, worn thin and hard to read with the passage of so much time. good friend, for jesu sake forebear to dig the dust enclosed here…
now, at least, his dust really did repose there.
“he’s not lost to us entirely, you know,” said emma, as we started down the aisle, toward the outside and the car waiting to take us back to london. it had required calling in a few favors from martin, but it was the least he could do, i’d decided.
“what do you mean?” i asked.
“he’s part of the game – if you learn to play it, you can find him there,” answered julian.
“because you know, the thing of it is…” emma’s voice trailed off and she exchanged a nervous glance with her brother.
“that thing that hitler’s become…” julian continued. “we’re not sure…we don’t think…we don’t think we can ever be sure it’s really… completely gone.” they exchanged glances.
i sat back, staring at them in shock as the driver started the engine, struck dumb with dismay as he eased out of the carpark and into the street. “i’m not sure i’m going to be able to master the skills required,” i said, with a sigh.
the twins smiled back at me, and this time, their canines were unmistakably pronounced in the way of a transitioning vampire’s. i still wasn’t sure how i would break the news to martin that his children wouldn’t be human much longer. not that they appeared to care.
“now, dr. watson,” said emma. “we’ll just have to hope we’ll have all the time we need.”