04 Mar Dracula’s Doom
“Dracula’s Doom”Written by Tom Farr Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 30 minutes
Like a dog come running at his master’s whistle, I RSVP’d yes on an invitation to Vernon Copeland’s Halloween party to view his latest acquisition. A lost piece of cinema from the early ’20s, a screen test hitherto undiscovered, et cetera, et cetera. Copeland was a cinephile and an antiquarian as he was also other things of far less reputable standing. His home, a handsome stucco-fronted townhouse spread over five floors in the plutocratic bowels of Knightsbridge, was stuffed to the rafters with artifacts of historical significance. For the past decade or so I’d occupied the post of two-bit private dick in Copeland’s court of boorish profiteers; in reality, this meant I cashed my not inconsiderable checks as a kind of appropriator cum arm-breaker. Professors, antiquaries, rabbis, philatelists and several prominent Members of Parliament were among those notables who had availed themselves of my services. Missions usually consisted of wresting relics, curios and other articles of virtue from individuals or institutions of especial stubbornness—usually by means of violence, blackmail or intimidation on my part. I’d long lost track of the priceless treasures and objets d’art I’d consigned to the sweet oblivion of Copeland’s private collection.
It was about nine o’clock when I showed up at Knightsbridge. I was wearing my brown double-breasted suit, with white shirt, burgundy tie, matching waistcoat, and my best pair of Oxford brogues. I was tired and needed a shave, and the ache in my lumbar had sharpened like it always did when the weather turned cold. Inside, in the huge barren lobby from which a wrought-iron staircase ascended into the shadows of an upper floor, I shrugged off my coat and handed it to a tight-lipped waiter. I didn’t let him take my hat though. I waited and listened to the muted sound of voices and laughter drifting from somewhere deeper within the house. When the waiter returned he nodded and took me with him along a paneled hall that ended in a pair of big double doors. He ushered me into a large drawing room dimly lit by a rustic stone fireplace in which chestnut logs with the bark still on them smoldered lazily. Autumn rain tapped the leaded bay windows. The air was drugged with the mingled smells of cigar smoke and sandalwood.
I scooped several glasses from a circulating tray of dirty martinis and hors d’oeuvres and banished myself to one of a trio of red leather sofas by the fireplace, where a pair of cozy sodium lamps had been switched on for ambience. The bottle of bourbon I’d killed earlier in the evening was hitting me hard now. But at least it made the scoffing mob of socialites and dilettantes a touch more palatable. As usual, none of those snooty assholes so much as acknowledged my presence; our spheres were as immiscible as oil and water. They guzzled their drinks empty and rattled the ice cubes at the waiters, watching each other along their eyes, ready to be smarmy or odious as the situation required.
I stared at the opposite wall, at the most antique of three previously unknown Francisco de Goya paintings that I’d appropriated from the private collection of a reclusive connoisseur in Zagreb. Or had it been Tirana? I was just about buzzed enough to begin doubting my own recollections. Guy who owned the paintings was a real weirdo, though. I remembered that much. Creepy bastard had a subterranean gallery beneath his rambling hillside mansion; a narrow, low-ceilinged room filled with the most grotesque artworks you could possibly imagine. I tossed down the dregs of another martini and flagged down a morose waiter in a white tuxedo jacket who was carrying a fresh tray. The painting drank the red and amber glow of the sodium lamps. It was a dramatic landscape from a dark and ominous palette. A mountain of black clouds loomed over the blasted wasteland of an ancient stone city; a sea of flaming ruins, portal to Gehenna, Pandemonium, the Vestibule of Hell itself. The more I stared the more the clouds took on the aspect of an unimaginably monstrous creature—a knotted mass of scaled reptilian splendor.
I’d killed a couple more martinis and was still staring at the painting, at the yellowish moon which had now taken on the aspect of a fanged and sphincter-like maw, when I spotted Copeland wading towards me carrying a bottle of booze by the neck and chewing on a pipe stem. The antiquary was cataclysmically drunk. He slouched on the sofa beside me and laid the bottle in my lap. ‘You look shitty, Noah. Like you caught the wrong end of a stick half a dozen times over.’
‘Yeah, well, that’d still be half as many times as you.’
He guffawed and told me to have a drink. ‘That’s a thirteen-year-old scotch,’ he said as he ogled in passing the décolletage of a beautiful creature who might have been half-mortal, half-Hellenic goddess. I chugged from the bottle of scotch. Hot on the heels of said beauty was Tertius Brooke, a once critically acclaimed Kentish poet whose bland pastorals now seemed bound for obscurity. Funny how things go, eh? He wrinkled his nose at the sight of me; that was okay, I was more of a Yeats man anyway. Copeland departed with promises of an imminent return, pushing his way through the milling crowd. I chased a handful of painkillers with another body blow from the scotch and glared at the waiter as he gathered up my small collection of empty martini glasses. I sat for a minute, or two, or ten observing with mild disgust the throng of fustian literati. Despite the pills my body still ached: after half a dozen bullets, and a respectable number of brawls and scrapes—not to mention a seaplane crash off the southern coast of Japan where I broke almost everything that a body could break—I suspected it always would. Body casts and neck braces were like socks and shoes to me, pain a stalwart companion; a constant reminder that flesh was a perishable currency forever indebted to death.
I sat with the bottle clasped loosely in my lap. After a while I began to notice a subtle difference in the atmosphere of the room—an undercurrent of anticipation that hummed like a high-voltage wire. I sat up straighter. A slew of decorous waiters floated from the darkness like moths, flitting among the guests and politely ushering them to plush chesterfields and comfortable old wingbacks. Through a shifting haze of cigar and cigarette smoke I saw the waiter who had collected my empty glasses emerge from behind a curtain on the opposite side of the room, pushing a trolley loaded with a box of film canisters and an ancient Bell & Howell screen projector. The room was already dim as the bottom of an aquarium when a bowing waiter with blonde-white hair decided to kill the sodium lamps; immediately, shadows that crouched in the corners thickened and crept forth. Copeland reappeared and settled in beside me. His features were hellish in the flickering orange firelight. When he leaned over to pat my forearm, red patches burned startlingly in his cheeks and his eyes were just glints of fire in the shadowy mask of his face.
‘Behold, Dracula’s Doom,’ he whispered theatrically. He took a deep drag on his pipe, puffed a leisurely swirl of smoke at the ceiling, then added in a more reasonable tone, ‘Or at least a seven-minute test reel of said.’
The room became a cave suffused with silvery light.
The camera aperture splashed against a paler section of wall where a bookcase had stood until recently. On the title card: attributed to Victor Lipovsky; entitled Dracula’s Doom. Below this, a short string of characters that might have been Arabic or Cyrillic. The film had been shot on muddy thirty-five millimeter and its condition was much deteriorated. The frames flickered, arrived in jittering streams; frequent cigarette burns ate inwards from the corners of the screen. Reality dilated and contracted faster and faster until, in a sudden moment of dislocation, I was sucked into the aperture’s shuttering iris—into a grey, craggy, mist-choked landscape that possessed all the sinister gravitas of a classic Hammer Horror film, where the first scene unfolded.
The fog churned and roiled as it wound through the twisted unpaved streets of a village, past small thatch-roofed peasant cottages with their windows shuttered and barred. A ruined castle loomed on the horizon. The building jutted from a steep, forested hillside. The camera swooped over its clustered maze of turrets and towers where bodies had been impaled upon spires and weathervanes, then panned slowly across a massive lancet window showing a stained-glass knight locked in everlasting battle against the most fearsome archetype of all demon-dragons whose awful eyes harbored eons of blackest night. The knight had snapped off his sword not far from the hilt and didn’t appear to be doing too well.
A bat fluttered past, then another, just in case we still hadn’t gotten the hint.
The screen crumpled into darkness and then the darkness reversed to reveal a cavernous hall that rose to a peak buttressed by heavy wooden beams which looked as though they’d been stolen from an old church. Torches flickered in soot-streaked sconces. Heavy drapes lay tumbled in dramatic folds several yards from the tall windows; again, stained-glass all over the place. Moonlight illuminated a pallid figure scraping away at the strings of a rickety violin. The figure swayed from side to side, erupting in short spontaneous bursts of movement the way a spider might.
My innards lurched. I squirmed in my seat and downed a huge gulp of scotch. The violinist’s expression distorted in the rapturous manner of a satiated addict. His black eyeball rolled at the camera, the pupil devouring the white of the eye and filling the screen—filling my skull with night eternal. The room shrank. The whispering crowd became dry leaves rustled by a stiff autumn wind. From the black and infinite void, the chords of a violin skirled an evil symphony, scratching my ears, my brain. Something rose swiftly from the gloom—something like mist, taking on the shape of a man. I could discern nothing of this figure save for the hideous luminescence of its corpse-like complexion, a deathly pale face touched with a blood-on-snow vibrancy. The violin shrieked a dirge. A nails-on-slate, glacially-shifting sound that rocked me like a middleweight’s left hook. The darkness bled and molted vermillion. Hoarse, stricken screams shrilled and died as exhausted sobs. Shrilled, then died. Shrilled. Died. The thin white figure was laughing in the dark—the most sinister laughter I’ve ever heard. The many-voiced cackle of a raven non compos mentis.
Darkness receded, slinked back into the corners of the screen. The dull points of the violinist’s fangs glinted as he seized the corners of his mouth, and pulled—
A cigarette burn bloomed and ate outwards to the corners of my vision as the film spun off the reel. My sense of utter dislocation faded as the regular space-time continuum reasserted itself, reconstituting at the atomic level. Somebody vomited. Somebody else said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ A deathly silence followed. Then the muttered exclamations of the crowd began to run around the room like rats.
The bottle of scotch was empty as a waterhole in a drought. I flagged a waiter for a drink. He nodded shakily and returned with a whiskey neat; I snatched it from him and downed it in a single gulp. My hand trembled. Ice rattled in the empty glass.
‘What the hell was—Jesus, what did you say it was called?’ I did my best to subdue my rattling nerves, throttling back a more visceral reaction to emote at least a thin veneer of calm.
Copeland stared vaguely past me for a second, rubbing a thumb on his jaw. One of his hands clutched his pipe. Slowly, carefully, he packed it with tobacco, held a match to it and puffed a cloud of smoke. ‘Dracula’s Doom,’ he said around the pipe stem. His dark leathery eyes got hard and steady as shards chipped off Botswanan Agate. ‘A lost Russian flick from the era of silent cinema.’
I rubbed my cheek, the thick, coarse stubble going to beard. The violinist’s sinister tune wheedled its way into my thoughts; a deep itch in the pyramidal cells of my hippocampus, a fusillade of neuronal firing. I had another drink in my hand now. My head swam, slow and peaceful as koi fish in a temple pond. ‘What happened to the rest of it?’ I asked finally.
Copeland puffed smoke and said: ‘Presumed destroyed, until most recently. But I believe—’ Then the rest of the guests came in for the kill, the whole lot of them swarming around Copeland like a shoal of piranhas. I found myself pinned down by the verbal crossfire of a tall, hatchet-faced man in a smart tweed hacking jacket that would’ve made Sean Connery jealous, and Tertius Brooke himself, who was in fine form after an evening of getting shit-faced.
I rose as steadily as my punch-drunk body permitted and split the well-heeled crowd like a banana peel. I melted into the background and spent the next two hours courting sweet, ephemeral oblivion by way of a bottle of Suntory single-malt I found in the scullery. I got my coat and went out through the back and sat down at the top of the narrow dark stairs to the servants’ entrance. I took a long pull from the bottle and looked up at the night sky, at the stars strewn in shining continuum from one end of the heavens to the other, sparkling like flashes of light on the facets of a million celestial diamonds. The garden was gloomy; all I could make out were a pair of wrought-iron Victorian-style lanterns glowing on either side of an oak pergola covered with wisteria. The neighboring houses brooded like tombs. I couldn’t stop thinking about Dracula’s Doom. Nor could I shake the sound of that horrid string music, faint strains of it rising like mist from some black well of my brain.
Then it suddenly occurred to me, on a dim level, what Copeland had said after the picture had ended. What the lizard in the back of my mind had been screaming all along. The unsettling realization chilled me, chased prickles across my body and left my guts in the back of my throat. What lingered in my stomach was the sensation you get when you reach the top of a flight of stairs and instead of the top step there’s only empty space.
I sat there in the womblike dark of that cold October night and listened to the muffled hubbub of voices and laughter drifting out through the half-open kitchen door and thought about that. About how there couldn’t have been any music, or in fact any sound at all—because Dracula’s Doom was a silent film.
Still London; Still the ’80s
I met Copeland for an all-expenses lunch in March of ’83 and he laid it all out on the table. A swanky French restaurant just off Park Lane, Le Lièvre D’or was the old man’s preferred lunchtime haunt. Today he’d snagged a booth with an admirable view of short skirts and hosiery: a cavalcade of nubile young interns and paralegals perched on the mahogany stools that flanked the far end of the bar. The slick-haired bartender brought Copeland a bottle of red wine labeled Chateau Clos du Notaire and for me a Crown Royal neat with the whiskey quivering at the rim of the glass. Lunch itself consisted of Scottish langoustines in a buttery samphire condiment, a platter of snails with garlic and parsley, a selection of classic French farmhouse cheeses and a roasted saddle of venison hailing from a country estate in Wales.
I ate and glanced casually at the end of the bar. The food was all right. The whiskey tasted clean and fiery. Copeland sucked snails from their ramshorn shells and set the empty carapaces carefully on the silver platter while he endeavored to explain the importance of some out-with-the-ark camera he’d recently acquired at auction. After a few minutes of this, he fished a leather cigar case out of an inner pocket, lighted one of his monogrammed cigars and set it in the ashtray to smolder. He moved his chin at the case. ‘Please.’
I shook my head. ‘Thanks. But I’ve quit.’
He nodded, shrugged. Then he put the cigar in his mouth and leaned back in his chair with his hands clasped together behind his head. He blew smoke straight upwards and watched it spiral towards the distant ceiling. ‘Dracula’s Doom was one of the earliest attempts to bring Stoker’s infamous Count to the silver screen. It predates F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu by a year or two. Tell me, sir: are you familiar with the filmography of Victor Lipovsky?’
Again, I shook my head.
‘A Russian fellow whose name is at times distorted—some accounts refer to him as Levotsky, others Lavatsky. He cranked out a dozen or so obscure silent films back in the ’10s and ’20s; most of his work is now considered lost.’ Copeland set the smoking cigar down in the ashtray and reached for another snail. ‘It’s thought that Dracula’s Doom was made in Kiev sometime between 1917 and 1919—smack-bang in the middle of the Russian Civil War. Not much freedom back then, either; Soviet filmmaking was very much a state-controlled affair. Rumor says Lipovsky shot his thoroughly unsanctioned vampire flick surreptitiously over a period of just thirteen days. It goes that many of the actors were shell-shocked infantrymen who would later be exiled to remote Siberian penal colonies or confined to psychiatric institutions. Despite being hailed as something of a masterpiece, the film was never widely shown and the reels likely destroyed during the Bolshevik occupation of the city.’
I cut a slice of venison and forked it into my mouth. Pain nibbled at my neck like a prurient lover. I chewed slowly, resisting the urge to swallow a handful of the parti-colored pills in my coat pocket.
‘Oh, so like, Dracula in the Gulag, eh? Sounds interesting.’
‘Something like that.’ Copeland grinned tightly. ‘Naturally, I own an entire vault of vanished motion-picture prints and masters I’m sure many collectors would sacrifice a firstborn to examine. Over the years I’ve managed to obtain copies of Lipovsky’s other works, but Dracula’s Doom has remained . . . elusive.’
‘Until the early ’50s, when what purported itself to be an authentic test print surfaced in Bucharest as part of an estate sale for the late Lascar Vacarescu; a hermit cineaste whose particular interest lay in morbid and silent features: London After Midnight, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, The Monster of Frankenstein—the list goes on. Suffice to say his collection was vast, and incredibly valuable.’
‘Define incredibly valuable for me.’
Copeland produced a fancy gold-nibbed pen and wrote a set of numbers on a nearby napkin. A substantial figure, to be sure.
‘Vacarescu died in 1953. A nasty vehicle rollover in the Carpathian Mountains. No identifiable remains. An estranged son of Asian heritage debuted at the funeral as the heir-apparent and stuck around just long enough to auction off dear old dad’s beloved collection. The test reels of Dracula’s Doom were among a sizeable portion of the Vacarescu estate snapped up by an exceedingly wealthy Hungarian baroness, then subsequently looted during the uprising of ’56; they reappeared over a decade later in 1967 at an exhibition hosted by the National Museum of Film, in Bucharest—alongside what was alleged to be an undiscovered print of the full film.’
Copeland put his cigar back in his mouth. A bouquet of sunlight slanted across his face from the left, calling out the network of deep furrows texturing his cheeks and forehead and showing me clearly how drink had made a soft ruin of his heavy but once quite-handsome features. At the bar, an elegant redhead with eight carats of diamond on her finger went off into a peal of laughter; muted strains of chamber music drifted in from somewhere. Abruptly, a line from Yeats floated through my head: Of what is passed, or passing, or to come. I shivered as though somebody had just walked over my grave.
‘Alas, much of the exhibition was turned to charcoal briquettes by a fire in ’72,’ Copeland continued. ‘Which brings me to the chap who auctioned off the screen test: a Slav by the name of Dimas Sekelsky—a certifiable lunatic who claims his great-grandfather was a psychiatric nurse who played a Dr. Seward in the original film.’
I slugged the last of my whiskey and flagged an urbane waiter with glistening hair to set me up with another.
‘What makes you think this Sekelsky guy is crazy?’ I asked, rubbing my aching neck. I studied Copeland through his haze of cigar smoke. ‘And how’d he get hold of the film, anyway?’
‘Sekelsky is quite the man of mystery. You see, he made a series of claims that his forebear hadn’t simply starred in Dracula’s Doom but that he’d actually helped Lipovsky write the script and sell it to his patron. There’s a character in Dracula’s Doom, a schizophrenic violinist who believes himself to be the Count—allegedly, Lipovsky based this Dracula character on a real-life individual detailed in Sekelsky’s great-grandfather’s journals. Claimed that outside of music the fellow’s interest lay in blood rites and eternal life.
‘Which all sounds far-fetched but possible enough, wouldn’t you agree? Only with Lipovsky dead since 1946 and the cast and crew of Dracula’s Doom seemingly vanished into the aether, Sekelsky’s claims fell on deaf ears. That fire at the National Museum of Film? Well, who do you think was on the books as a consultant before he stabbed the director half to death and tried to torch the place? I’ll give you three guesses and you won’t need the first two.’
I chewed this over, then nodded for Copeland to continue.
‘Sekelsky absconded with several artifacts of incalculable value that remain as yet unaccounted for. Its presumed Dracula’s Doom is among them; according to his cellmate, Sekelsky scarcely stopped babbling about it—the blood-hungry abyss, an open wound in the universe itself, et cetera, et cetera.’
The waiter returned with my drink and went away. I took a good gulp of it and said, ‘Cellmate?’
‘Sekelsky just concluded a hard stretch in Gherla Prison, Romania. Got caught at the Serbian border and nailed for arson, robbery and murder.’ Copeland poured the dregs of his third glass of wine down his throat and refilled the glass to the brim. He lifted another snail from the platter and sucked it from its shell with a short slurp. ‘And by just concluded, I mean to say he tore out a guard’s throat with his teeth and absconded into the wilds of the Continent.’
The old man chewed the snail in a manner that called to mind another, more familiar de Goya painting: a crazed, disheveled and monstrous Saturn chewing the arm off one of his sons. I regarded him silently for a moment, deciding whether or not to mention the . . . I’d have called them night terrors, but that wasn’t exactly the right term for the bizarre hallucinations I experienced most evenings. Truth be told, I hadn’t counted more than three or four hours sleep a night since the party and the screening of Dracula’s Doom. But it was more than just nightmares, wasn’t it? I could almost chalk those up to an amalgam of trauma, sleep deprivation and a dray horse’s dose of drugs and booze. What about the noises? The amateur violinist who had apparently taken up residence in a nearby flat where he or she practiced well into the wee hours of the morning (this despite none of my neighbors having heard anything of the sort). Then there was the cold, mirthless laughter that floated up to my window from the courtyard—the laughter of a castrato or a child, or else someone pretending to be one. There were other sounds, too. Giggling. Slithering. Once, behind the closed bathroom door, I swore I’d heard someone whispering a prayer in a foreign tongue.
I had been turning my thick squat whiskey glass around on the dark wooden tabletop. I swallowed the rest of the drink and said, ‘So, this nutjob Sekelsky is holed up somewhere in deepest, darkest Europe with a lost Russian vampire flick of, uh, incalculable value. And as per custom, here I am: the good ol’ private dick who’s played the part of hired gun so many times before—Jesus, the rest writes itself.’
Copeland sipped his wine and nodded. ‘You know what I want, Noah. And you know how deep my pockets run; as always, you’ll be generously rewarded.’
I knew all right. And I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I got my hands on the old man’s film I might be able to sleep without nightmares again.
Deepest, Darkest Europe
‘May I get you anything else, sir?’
I started and nearly upset my plastic cup of softened ice cubes and flaccid lemon rinds. The cabin windows were roseate, the sky ablaze with orange and purple light burning through layered fields of cirrocumulus clouds. The flight attendant leaned across the sleeping woman on my left to take my empty cup. She was petite and wore a navy two-piece uniform with a dark red scarf around her neck; her lips and nails were a similar shade of red, her young features pancaked under a layer of makeup so thick it might have been poured from a can of varnish.
‘Another one of these, please,’ I said in a slurred voice. Why am I slurring?
‘Sir?’ the attendant graced me with a strained smile.
‘Sorry.’ I felt very drunk and disoriented and thought I might throw up. I took a deep breath to gather a measure of coherency, and said, ‘Can I have another vodka, please?’
To allay any possible concerns, I waited until the attendant had pushed her service trolley further down the aisle before I slammed the last inch of tepid vodka, hair of the dog that bit me. My gorge rose as the plane yawed violently to port and then leveled out and plowed ahead. I slumped against the window, tingling all over and sweating like I was in a sauna—the motion sickness had really worked me over, more so than the effects of the drink.
I closed my eyes and when I opened them, the windows were dusky red and going dark. My neighbor snored gently beside me. The plane shuddered sideways in heavy turbulence and that did it for me. I unbuckled and lurched from my seat, squeezing none-too-gently past my seatmate, whose snoring continued without so much as a hitch.
The nearest facilities were occupied and a couple of women were waiting their turn. I pushed past them and made my way along the aisle to the rear of the plane where, thankfully, the sole lavatory was vacant. I slipped inside and shot the bolt home and dropped to my knees over the toilet, dry-heaving and hugging the edge of the bowl like a childhood pet. The plane shook. My head knocked hard against the plastic wall. I vomited, a gush of acrid bile spilling through a sluice. I clung to the bowl and made animal pleas for mercy. I tried to gather my thoughts, but it was as if my brain had turned to glass and the booze was a sledgehammer; I could feel the shattered pieces rattling in my skull, each reflecting the reflection of another in a dizzying kaleidoscope of images.
‘Oh God,’ I said, and vomited again.
Eventually, sweaty and shivering and weak as a kitten, I pushed myself to my feet and laved cold water over my face at the low plastic basin of the sink. I was in the act of pulling a paper towel from the metal dispenser when the fluorescent strip above the mirror began to flicker rapidly. Then it dimmed and the toilet became red as a darkroom. Between the light’s fierce, staccato flashes, and for an interval of time that lasted far too long, the mirror was full of something dreadful; a surrealist’s impression of someone so tall they’d been forced to double over just to squeeze into the cramped toilet. Their face was ivory-pale. A bloodless wound. A wound in reality itself. Then, an evil chuckle, a sound like dry ice splitting—
Someone cursed and hammered on the door. The deep red shadows drained away and the striplight hummed and blinked coldly overhead. I shut my eyes tight and opened them and wiped the sweat off my face with the back of my hand, still a little dizzy. The acrid taste of vomit lingered. I hawked, spat into the sink and rinsed my mouth with chlorine-flavored tap water.
When I opened the door there was a big reddish man with a prizefighter’s nose and a garden of broken veins in his florid cheeks standing outside. ‘What’s the matter, guy,’ he drawled. ‘You full of bricks or something?’
He had thirty or forty pounds on me, but I didn’t care. I was running on a terrific vodka-buzz and, more importantly, the adrenal response of whatever the hell I’d just seen in the toilet. My bones ached and I was more than a little green around the gills. Didn’t matter. I could still put my fist through this bozo’s face; except I couldn’t, because in the B-side to the current universe I’d leave half his teeth on the floor only to find the Romanian police waiting for me upon arrival. So instead I sucked it up and returned to my seat, where my seatmate still snored slept with her chin on her chest.
* * * * * *
Once the plane had landed, I rented one of the new Mercedes-Benz 380SLs in a compellingly nondescript shade of grey and drove to the address of Copeland’s contact through a countryside that might have been a scene from a Cézanne painting come to life: lush, arsenical-green fields paced the road for improbable distances and were beset by tractors and hay balers; barns, houses, and the occasional church slid past, all set back from the road in neat tactile pastures and all painted the same hard clean uniform white. In the west, late-afternoon sunlight coagulated over the cool blue ridges and folds of a jagged spine of mountains.
Copeland’s contact was a man named Alexandru. He was a thin, lean-jawed chap with enormous hands which he kept folded in his lap most of the time he talked to me. He occupied a rundown yellow-and-white farmhouse that was quietly sinking into the curve of a turgid river. An old wooden wheel languorously turned the water and a satellite dish gleamed atop the crumbling roof, alien as some bizarre deep-sea flora among the split shakes and rotted lathing.
Alexandru sat at a wide wooden trestle table chewing a pastrami sandwich. He was stripped to the waist and awfully, awfully pale, as if he’d gone overboard donating blood to the bank. I sipped a sour local beer he’d fetched for me from somewhere deep inside the gloomy old house. Untrimmed tree branches threw dark bas-relief shadows through windows that desperately need reglazing. Rafters ribbed the ceiling like the ridged palate of a dog’s mouth.
A black .357 revolver lay on the table near my right hand beside a box of shells. I picked it up and examined it. The metal was old and worn, but the serial numbers had been filed off the frame and trigger guard, and when I cocked it and spun the cylinder the empty chamber still lined up under the hammer. Satisfied that the piece was in good condition, I let the hammer back down with my thumb, peeled half a dozen wrinkled banknotes from the rubber-banded roll in my pocket and tossed them on the table where they were crumpled by a big heavy hand. I put the revolver away and returned the wad of notes to my trouser pocket; plenty more where that came from, anyway—Copeland always made sure I traveled flush. I drank another beer while the day drew on strange and silent. An old war film played on the television. Somebody was torturing somebody. Somebody else was being burnt to a crisp. The light on the windows became the ghostly radiance of twilight, then dusk.
Supper was tomato soup warmed on a hotplate and served with crusty bread and several fingers of Țuică, the country’s national drink. After we’d finished eating Alexandru rolled a couple of joints; soon, the pungent odor of marijuana swirled the cloistered air. I began to feel faint and dizzy. My thoughts swam, disjointed, while Alexandru regaled me with Baba Yaga legends and tales of wolf-like vampires called pricolici that rose from the grave to devour the sun and moon. At length, talk turned to the matter at hand. Alexandru rose and disappeared into the kitchen; there followed a series of thuds, a crash and clatter of pots and pans. He returned with an innocuous manila folder and laid it on the table.
The folder was stuffed with goodies: reports, photographs, mimeographed medical notes and procedural documents. Numerous memos between a Dr. Mihail and a Warden Maksim comprised a sheaf of typewritten letters. The medical records were gibberish to a layman’s eyes; likewise, the correspondence between the two apparatchiks proved equally inscrutable.
One such article (presumably translated second-hand from the Romanian) read:
Dr. Emil Mihail
Re: Inmate #1-447783, Inmate #3-874322
Further to your previous letter, I have enclosed statements from Officers [J_______] and [R_______]. Please see also my reply to Questions 13 & 28.
Inmate #3-874322 continues to maintain vital signs with active medical support but remains otherwise unresponsive. Unfortunately, we have as yet been unable to locate the lost hepatic tissue. It is therefore presumed that said matter was consumed during Inmate #1-447783’s attack.
Warden Gregory Maksim
Dozens more like that. It begged the question of why Sekelsky hadn’t been tied to a post and shot. I removed the photos from the folder and spread them in a crescent on the table in front of me. I lifted one and looked at it. Sekelsky had black goat’s eyes framed by a welter of hair; the shadow of a beard just beginning to grow blurred the edges of his face. He wore dirty Army fatigues and muddy boots. I put the photo back on the table and picked up another one, a glossy three-by-five of an iron-haired gent in rimless spectacles and a tweed blazer. I looked at the back of the photo and read: Director Wilhelm von Braun/National Museum of Film, BUH.
At last, a lead. Alexandru confirmed it for me—turned out Herr Director had actually survived Sekelsky’s attack and was still in the museum business to boot. Next stop: Bucharest proper.
That night I dreamt of wolves. Monstrous and slavering, ripped straight from the pages of Stoker’s seminal tale of preternatural horror. Then it was bats. Huge red-eyed fuckers. Despite my nightmares I woke slowly, reluctantly, in the coils of a down sleeping bag. My eyes stared at the high ribbed ceiling, at the cold silver moonlight smeared across the windows. Suddenly I sat upright. Something moved covertly in the room. Something made of shadows. I fumbled for the holster with my left hand and drew the revolver with my right. Too late. The moon flared; a splayed hand emerged from the darkness—a huge, chalk-white spider undulating its legs. The hand crooked its long, spindly fingers and reached for me, drew me down into the fathomless black catacombs of night.
In the morning I recalled a fragment of the dream. Five seconds later it was gone and I was left wondering why I’d fallen asleep with a gun in my fist. No sign of Alexandru, however. I waited a while but he didn’t show. So, I helped myself to a hearty breakfast of bread and cold cuts and departed the farmhouse around 10 a.m. As I jounced the Merc along the deeply rutted trail that led to the main road, my gaze was repeatedly drawn to the rear-view mirror. To the coffee-colored Volkswagen Jetta parked next to the aforementioned building.
I sped towards Bucharest, chewing things over. As for Alexandru? If I was honest I didn’t care a jot for his whereabouts. He’d turn up in the end; I knew from experience that bad pennies always did.
‘Director von Braun is on annual leave,’ the lady at reception informed me with a frosty smile. Her voice was dry and husky, with a note of impatience in it. I thanked her and retreated across the cavernous foyer under a paneled glass ceiling that vaulted to imposing heights. I walked past a poster of Lon Chaney Jr. as the wolfman looming over a supine, buxom figure, and another for H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man, whose bandaged head in half profile recalled the visage of some strange pale djinn. I wandered around, regarding with feigned interest the glass exhibit cases and the writing upon their placards until I spotted a cleaner, a tanned young man who looked a little underfed and a little dirty, trundling his squeaking cartload of mops and brooms towards a distant toilet.
I followed him inside and took a mop from the trolley and wedged it under the door handle. I was three or four inches taller than him and a hell of a lot broader in the shoulders, yet I could see it in his eyes that he was gathering himself to move. I smiled a small, grim smile—ballsy kid for sure. But once I’d greased the rails, so to speak, he positively oozed cooperation.
Apparently Director von Braun had been on annual leave for quite some time; so long, in fact, that his return was no longer expected. Naturally this meant that his mailbox was positively overflowing with important correspondence. And was there, perchance, a forwarding address for any of these epoch-making compositions? Out came the roll of bills. I peeled off a generous amount, and no less than ten minutes later found myself slipping a letter addressed to Herr Director’s private estate into my blazer pocket.
* * * * * *
The von Braun family mansion was situated on the outskirts of Bucharest, an ivy-lashed Queen Anne Victorian restored, if not completely renewed, to a measure of its former splendor. Oak trees loomed against the grey belly of the sky. Water glistened far back beyond their trunks. The house had turrets and towers, dormers, wrap-around balconies and probably a few less windows than Buckingham Palace. I parked fifty feet away on a wooded shoulder where the road ended. I climbed from the Mercedes and leaned against the frame while the engine ticked until the pain in my lower back dulled from a fireworks display to a fistful of sparklers. I checked the action on the .357, holstered it against my left ribs and buttoned my coat over it.
The estate was hemmed in by a twelve-foot wrought-iron fence with spear-like finials and towering stone gateposts shaped like rearing horses. The horses’ manes had crumbled, their chiseled flanks crept by green moss and dead vines. The gates were closed and padlocked but I went in through an iron door set into one of the massive stone uprights; and by went in, I mean I wrenched the door back and forth until the rusted chain securing it snapped. A winding flagstone driveway climbed several hundred feet to the house between tall sculpted hedges that had gone to seed and old weatherworn caryatids that stood like ghosts on their stone blocks. The driveway ended in a wide circle with a sunken garden in its center; this garden was dominated by an ornate three-tiered fountain with a kneeling woman of stone weeping atop its central plinth. The surface of the oblong fountain pool was thick with virid slime and pond scum, clogged with stone water lilies and dead leaves. An eternity of dead leaves.
I walked over to the only car that was parked beyond the garden. It was a black Bentley, rebodied in the classic 1950s style, with a plush red interior and shiny silver louvers big enough to see the engine through. There was dried mud on the Bentley’s plates and more mud splattered above the wheels. I shaded my eyes to look inside. The key was still in the ignition.
I wasn’t surprised to find the heavy wooden double doors slightly ajar. I poked my head through, carefully. A crack of light seeped past the threshold to illuminate several feet of wine-colored carpet and, in the deeper shadows, the foot of a wide old-fashioned staircase. My gut and every other part of me insisted this was an ignis fatuus—a foolish fire of the highest order.
Instead I made for a side entrance; jimmied the lock, natch. Inside, I prowled a network of gloomy corridors barely illuminated by a series of recessed lamps. Far off a thin scraping sound slithered out and lost itself among the silence. The way got darker. I squinted to discern the inchoate forms of suits of armor and moth-eaten pennants, the stuffed and mounted heads of wild boars, wolves and bears. There was a heavy smell of dust and varnish and beyond that a quiet earthy smell which evoked some vague notion of primitive man.
I skirted the lobby and mounted the staircase to the upper floors. At the head of the staircase I followed what seemed to be a mile of green carpet along a shadowy corridor with formidable floor-to-ceiling paneling, upon which hung a series of oil paintings so dark they were almost black. I paused to inspect one of them. It took me a while to make out what it was, but as the image gained clarity I saw that it was a stiffly posed portrait of a guy in a suit. There was something wrong with his head, though; it was deformed, misshapen; his face was too many faces, melded one to the other, and they were fanged faces surmounted by porcine snouts. The small bronze placard underneath the painting read: The Stranger on the Road to Erasmus. Damned thing gave me the willies. I didn’t stop to examine the rest of the series.
The corridor ended in a T-shaped junction. Nothing moved in the dingy hall on the left. On the right, in the opposite direction, a wedge of muddy light seeped past the edge of an almost-closed door. I stood like a statue and listened. Someone was mauling a violin. The sound scratched my cerebrum like a thousand fingernails. I made my way down the hall, thought about drawing the revolver but didn’t. The door opened quietly and I was looking in on the polished wood interior of a brooding study with a tall double-arched bay window and rearing cabinets of antique projectors and film canisters, the labels of which had yellowed to illegibility. A deep leather armchair had been dragged into the middle of the room, and in it was Director von Braun himself, utterly transfixed while Dracula’s Doom flickered on the opposite wall. He was sitting very straight, with his hands grasping the arms of the chair. His eyes were strained wide; they were all iris, and shone madly in the stuttering light.
I went over and stopped the projector. The wall went dark. I wound the film back onto the reel and slid it off the spindle into an unmarked metal canister. Herr Director drooled and whimpered in animal dread. There were trickles of blood at the corners of his eyes and his iron hair had turned completely white, like Harker’s after his visit to Castle Dracula.
Mission accomplished, I was eager to get the hell out of dodge. I left the good Director to the darkness and retraced my steps through the maze of corridors. The way branched and branched again. I took a left and then a right and had paused, unsure of where I was or in which direction I should proceed, when, quite suddenly, a loud smell of wet earth rolled over me. Sekelsky called my name from somewhere nearby. I knew it was him and kept quiet while I unbuttoned my coat. But it was no good, and the revolver was barely in my hand when he dropped me like a bad habit. I rolled onto my back and saw the bastard hefting some sort of studded club which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medieval armory. The revolver jumped and flame spouted from the barrel. Blood spurted from Sekelsky’s forehead. He grinned at me through his matted beard and clubbed my left forearm. I hissed through my teeth as an electric jolt of pain shot through me.
Sekelsky pried the gun from my fist and sent it skating, almost snapping my fingers in the process. A large serrated knife leaped into his hand from somewhere. He leaned in close and the green stench of rancid meat invaded my nostrils, gagging me. ‘Reality is just a door,’ he whispered. ‘After all my searching, all my orisons to the dark, I finally realized that all I needed to do was knock.’ He chuckled, weighing the knife in his hand. Then he went to work on my leg.
My feet drummed a frantic tattoo on the wooden floor. I tried and failed to tamp down a scream. I wanted to put this fucker on his knees and break every bone in his body, but my right leg was a blazing pillar of fire and the rest of my muscles were hardening to bags of cement as if I’d just gone ten rounds with the Motor City Cobra. My vision had composed itself into a tunnel, at the small end of which floated Sekelsky’s face, ghastly pale in contrast to the glistening black blood decanting from his forehead. The agony in my leg flared brighter—I assured myself that pain, like everything else in this strange and cursory world, was inconsequential. That flight of fancy lasted all of a few seconds until I was wrenched back to the reality of my situation. And when, after a time, my consciousness finally decided to call it quits, all that remained was darkness, and nullity, and the dead march of Sekelsky’s disembodied voice echoing in the void.
London, October ’83
I swallowed a palmful of colorful M&Ms and chased them with a vodka on the rocks; if I hadn’t been a hardened drunk before Bucharest, I certainly was now. The clock on the mantle chimed the hour. Above it, a mirror showed a middle-aged man in a wrinkled brown suit, with a tired face full of shadows and a thick white scar across his throat. I stared at myself for a moment longer. Then, with a sweep of my arm, I hurled my empty tumbler at the mirror. Glass flew. A thin sliver sliced my cheek like a razorblade; blood oozed from the cut and crawled down a deep line at the corner of my mouth. Sekelsky’s words came back to me then, as I dabbed at the cut with my handkerchief. Blood is just a metaphor, Noah. The alkahest of the abyss itself. The blackest reaches that hide behind the veil of flesh.
I had another drink or two. Gave it ten more minutes before I lifted my cane off the table, got hold of my briefcase with the other hand, leaned weight on the cane, and stood up. I limped out of the flat and made my way slowly down the hall, jabbing the cane into the burgundy fiber carpet. The lift at the end of the hall was small and mirrored. I rode it down to the lobby, studiously avoiding my reflection in the polished walls for fear of stirring up all manner of things best left alone.
I felt woozy and expansive from a lethal cocktail of booze and pills. Perhaps that’s why, when the lift the doors opened, reality skipped a beat and I found myself climbing the colonnaded steps of Copeland’s front porch. I jabbed at the doorbell until a waiter in a werewolf mask and a white tuxedo admitted me. The cavernous lobby was decorated with faux cobwebs, large rubbery spiders and a coterie of plastic skeletons. Somewhere further inside I could hear the muffled thumping sound of loud music. A valet dressed as a sheet blown loose from a washing line floated over. Had the gentleman driven this evening? No, the gentleman hadn’t—shocker, that, given my current condition.
The werewolf led me to the drawing room. A disco ball strobed, and I spotted Batman, Superman and even a few Star Wars cameos among the dancing guests. I went over to the bar where a couple of zombies were chewing the fat with someone dressed in a grey boiler suit and a smooth plastic William Shatner mask a la John Carpenter’s Halloween. I sat down on a red stool, leaned my cane against the bar and ordered a whiskey sour. The barman was lavishly dressed in a black suit, had his hair slicked with oil and a pair of plastic fangs on full display. The ivory-white paint on his face and neck crept beneath his collar—thankfully, there wasn’t a violin in sight. I signaled Dracula for another drink. He showed me his fangs and stooped beneath the bar. After a while I got up again and inched my way through the crowd until I was back in the hall. Despite my best attempts at senselessness, the pain in my phantom leg was scarcely blunted by its absence.
Maybe an eon or two passed before I found Copeland, chatting with a former Secretary of State at the threshold of the French doors that led into the library. There was a flash of pity in his eyes, coupled with the remote speculation of a lepidopterist studying a speared moth—wondering how it was still alive.
‘Noah, old chap; it’s good to see you back on your feet—’ His mouth ticked in a grimace and his lips worked silently as he realized what he’d said.
I nodded and sipped my whiskey. An instant of silence stretched between us, heavy and all-consuming as a black hole. The erstwhile Secretary of State hurriedly excused himself and fled.
‘Well,’ Copeland said at last, looking anywhere but at my missing leg. ‘I hear you’ve got something for me.’
I showed him my teeth and handed him the briefcase.
His eyes widened. ‘Is it—’
‘The complete article. From beginning to end.’ He didn’t ask me about the gravelly huskiness of my voice, about the nasty scar across my windpipe. I’d brought him Dracula’s Doom as promised. That was all that really mattered.
‘Great Scott,’ he said. He jiggled his pipe between his lips and straightened his jacket. ‘I’ll have Maurice bring your check immediately.’
I killed the last of the whiskey and sucked my gums while Copeland barked orders at a pair of waiters. Then, a little at a time, his voice faded until only silence issued from his mouth. Within moments every sound was hushed or otherwise held in abeyance—the world became a silent film devoid of subtitles. And then I heard it. The clarion moan of a violin drifting through that unearthly hush, echoing from a far more remote locale than Vernon Copeland’s drawing room.
I shut my eyes and when I opened them the hall was dark save for a dim red effulgence polluting the blackness. And something was approaching from within the light. Moving or hovering with alarming speed. So pale. So deeply red. A macerated wound with a bloody radiance leaking from its depths—and a face like a porcelain death mask hovering in the air, a mask with a cruel, rapacious smile playing on its lips. The violin sawed a semitone higher, driving an icy stake through what was left of my mind, my sanity. The bloody light flared scarlet and crimson like rays from a punctured sun. Time burned to ash and the ashes scattered in the void. I shook with crazed laughter as the world came loose of its moorings. A moment later, in a sudden dislocation of memory, I found myself back at Le Lièvre D’or, back in March of the previous year. I forked a slice of venison into my mouth even as Copeland—who, in the B-side to my current psychosis, was screaming uncontrollably, singing a hymn of horror to the face of a ravenous abyss—licked his lips and said, ‘Good God, Noah. If I could lay my hands on the full version of Dracula’s Doom—now that would be a Halloween party for the ages.’
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