LA CHAMBRE GRISE
As the WoofWonald’s blared with color of flame, there stood the Brown House half a mile off, still bright yellow-amber in electric light. There stood the National Mall, grass sentinel, vast and shrubby blanket; there stood apartment buildings of all manner of wealthedness, their median income level far greater, or far lesser, than any single income bracket within.
Jaw barreled out of the WoofWonald’s, dashed into one of the more sordid alleyways, and tossed Dracula’s form onto the irksome ground. For a moment or two, he watched the poor sire flail, skin flaking out from his fur: “Aagh! Pfleblefphbt! Adam! ADAM!”
“He’s not here.”
“VLADIMIR!” Jaw slapped him upside the head. This brought Dracula to his senses, particularly the sense of sight: they were definitely not in a bright burger café.
“Jaw,” he said, panting—for the excitement and the rush of cold night air were still getting to him. “Let me go back. Please, there is still time.”
At that moment wheel-less police cars sped by, past the lip of the alley. Dracula snarled, rearing up on his forearm, but Jaw stopped him. What a horrible state the vampire was in; besides the peeling skin, his fur was leaving, too, in clumps, so that he really could pass for a burn victim. Such was the darkling curse of ultra-sensitive skin.
“Ah…no, you are right,” he said reclining, and soon he was flat on the ground, painfully placid. “I am weaker than them. Not even an armada of tiny bats could save us.”
“Wait…” Jaw’s lips parted, and he raised a finger to them. “Pale skin…army of bats…Transylvanian accent…’Vladimir’—” He cupped a hand around his mouth. “You’re Bela Lugosi! In disguise!”
Dracula almost said, “But that does not make any sense.” It did not make any sense to say that, however, given the circumstances. Instead he replied, “I am no actor, except in that I pretend to be an ordinary citizen. No, I am Dracula himself, gentleman of the night!” He rose to his feet and posed, even holding up one arm as if he still had a cape or cowl. But he had no cowl.
Jaw paused again, expressionless. “Wait, so…vampires vs. werewolves…’cept you’re also a werewolf. Hey,” he said, furrowing his furry brow, “why do I wanna support a vampire world?”
“It is not a ‘vampire world’ I am fighting to make, but a monster world.”
“Wait—no, I meant—I can still sell this—”
“Huh,” said Jaw mildly. “…Huh. I think that’d be cool, pops. I mean, not to get all philosophicky, but…I’m kind of a monster.”
“Exactly! I am glad you said it before I did. Now,” continued the Drac, buoyed on a current of excitement, “if we wish to reunite with our allies (which I hope you do join me in desiring), we will need to access a phone. I believe the phone booth might still exist, but…I have not found one as of yet.” He was beginning to hesitate anew. “On second thought, maybe we could ask—”
Jaw hollered, poking his head out from the alley, “ANY OF YOU CATS KNOW—”
Several werewolves threw their rocks and purses at him. He came back in unglory; ‘round his mini-moon one could practically see the stars and birds twirling about his bruisings.
“I am sorry you had to experience tha—oh!” Dracula interrupted himself with a snap of the fingers. “That is right! They use cell phones! Go again,” he said, waving Jaw on, “ask for a cell phone! And do not call them cats.”
Jaw nodded, brisk and obedient as a timely order of iced tea, and scurried back out. The moment he said “cell” in no particular direction, a werewolf stepped off their moving sidewalk and declared themselves happy to oblige.
Jaw had not expected such a quick return of grace! He gesticulated. “It’ll only be a moment, sir—uh—ma’am—uh—”
“Oh, no problem, I got several. Just keep it.”
The werewolf made what Jaw supposed to be a placating pattycake gesture, laying both paws briefly atop Jaw’s. Then, without apparently having given a thing, the werewolf slotted themself back into the sidewalk line, and returned their gaze to such a holoscreen as perplexed his ancient mind.
Jaw walked back to Dracula, swinging his arms with an abandon that said, “I give up.”
“How was it?” said Dracula.
“Well, ‘cell phone’ is right.”
“Uh…do you…have it?”
“Yeah, but it was so small I either crushed it or dropped it.”
Dracula shifted aboard his two feet. “Perhaps I should get one, and use my heightened vampire senses to deftly wield…”
“Naw, pops, not unless you want folks sending you to the hospital.” He gave a great brown yawn. “Permission to give up?”
Part of Dracula wished to utter a nasty cuss. “Permission granted,” he allowed.
It would not have been a sound idea to use Jaw’s powers to fly to Alice’s abode. Invisible they may become, but moving crazedly through NYDC streets (for they had not the address of the place, nor the slightest intuitive notion of this city’s geography) would leave a streak of misplaced smell throughout the city, one leading suspiciously—like a string to the Minotaur—to the place they sought. So the two combat survivors instead spent the night laying low, in an anxious state that would not allow much sleep.
As they invisibilified and rose to an apartment building’s flat rooftop, they came within sight of the National Mall. Dracula and Jaw began to swap stories of war, an act which came quite naturally to them, like the final flower-blooming of a long and fateful night. Bittersweet laughs, losses of friends, and illusory triumph—and lest they forget the war wounds physical and mental, the hanger-on nightmares of evil and, worse, of uncertainty…
Adam was as good as a ghost. That was not to say he was lost to Dracula; in fact, the pale fiend in lupine form had every hope of finding him, in shape more or less, and that his friend the mummy might at length fight a way out. If Adam had been carted to prison, then Dracula would find that prison—after the alien descent. Time could not be lost there, not even for friends in need. But when I say he was a ghost, I mean that the heavier that werepire’s eyes became, the more powerfully Adam haunted him…fears of Adam’s fate, mingled with the happy times, like swirls of bitter coffee in milk.
And the Brown House was their backdrop, standing tall like a trophy. The sun rose and lit it like a lamp. It was bronze like a treasure unattainable; bronze like an amazing hope. As the sun came up, its beams passing through their invisible forms, Dracula and Jaw remained watchful, silent, vigilant.
Dawn rose to day, and the Brown House oped its doors, and the lawn appeared to have groomed itself. Grass, fresh-cut, like hairs that glisten with the dew of lotion after a turn in the spirited barber’s chair, invited four werewolf feet. Since the house had just opened, the lawn was nigh empty and perfectly unsuspecting; it gave the senior werewolf the feeling that Igor, rather than dismissing him, had forgotten him completely.
He led the way in something between tourist garb and ragged dumpster clothes, keeping his shades, yearning for sunscreen. His fur remained blotchy from prior burns, and even from gentle modern burns, but he and Jaw could work with that. His companion had on his own dumpster fashion, plus a dumpster backpack, into which he had squirreled the trademark helmet that might have otherwise given him away.
They were going to try their luck. As they neared the wide-open doors, felt the pomp of a happily ending story, preemptive relief washed over them. The doorway was edged with guards, so the two visitors stopped. The guards wrinkled their noses at their povertacious trash smell, but they fancied themselves progressive. The four exchanged respectful salutes.
“Good morning, fellow wolves. Officer Pupster here. We’re gonna have to do a pat-down and some anti-vampire stuff before we letcha in, is that alright?”
Jaw nodded, but his companion only cleared his throat, again and again, louder and louder, increasing in gravity, until he could speak—his accent gone French.
“My fellow countrywolves,” he said, “something has gone terribly wrong. There’s been a mix-up. Someone swapped me out with a false Igor!”
Why couldn’t it be true? Their height and weight were just alike, their voices near enough. Everyone alike was werewolf—and alike impostor.
…then a laugh from Pupster, a sneer from her co-worker Gruffly, and the knowledge, now seating itself in Dracula, that they did not believe this bluff for an instant. So he had to play it up! He growled, “Well? Prove I’m not.”
Gruffly dialed something on his wristmmunicator while Pupster pointed at Jaw. “Then who’s that guy?”
Jaw said, “Arp?”
“Nobody. He’s the zoo animal. Surprisingly docile.”
“Yeah, we had a run-in,” sighed Dracula, biting his lip. “Take him away, now,” he added with a shove of the war vet, making a show of impatience. Jaw stood ignored. “And get me to my office. Now.”
“Hello, Mr. President?” said Gruffly into his ‘mmunicator. Some gentle din came from the watch: a background conversation. Even a werewolf vampire could not decipher it, but he could tell that its mood verged on the festive. “Sir, we have a minor situation—”
“SHH!” came the reply like a bomb. Igor whispersnarled, “Not now! Shut this off! Wait until the landing! Arooooo!”
Dracula tried for a second to register the room’s acoustics. Was that a flaw in the ‘mmunicator’s design, or a slight echo backing Igor’s words, indicating a larger space? He filed this hunch away.
He turned to the officers then, with a shake of the head and a couple of nostrilous flares. “To think you would let Dracula worm his way into my Brown House like that, ruining our first meeting with alien life! Gimme that!” He snatched at Gruffly’s wristmmun’, hoping to tear it off, but instead he tugged the entire officer and his hairy hand up to his own sniffer. Undeterred, he stubbornly howlbreathed, “I will find you and put you on trial, sir, you get down here this instant.”
“What? Who is this?”
“THE PRESIDENT.” And he hung up the phone—only, because it was a paw, he threw an entire officer onto the floor and barely noticed. He was fuming now, half-bent, a linebacker whose enemy line stood tantalizingly close! Oh, but he had forgotten part of his alibi. “I sure miss Helen,” he said with a tiny yet evocative sniffle, and he conspicuously pulled out a clump of neck hair. “I have been missing her all night.”
“Aw,” said both the collapsed and the standing officer sympathetically. “How sweet, sir.”
“THAT’S ‘MR. PRESIDENT’ TO YOU!”
A strange object flew into Dracula’s face then.
It was the first attack of the day, if one could call it an attack. Any ordinary werewolf would have accepted the blow—welcomed it, really—even opened their mouth and caught the projectile. But a vampire could never act this way with garlic. No, his gut, his sweatened brow, and his entire being commanded him to swat the thing away, and to hiss as though his vocal cords had combined with his intestines to form an entire snake!
Away went the garlic—and the hairless patches on his hand told a tale of their own. They burned now, the officers could see. Not literally. The skin had been most irritated.
The officers looked at each other, and Dracula stood taxidermy-still (and Jaw stood ignored).
Then Pupster and Gruffly stepped a ways away, keeping one eye on the two visitors. They whisperdebated with one another; the vampire’s sensitive ears could pick up the occasional “Igor” or “no, stupid, that’s Dracula.” He watched them with a mask of anger, feeling simultaneously hopeful and low, as though a lump of wet gruel, theoretically enriching, were sliding sickeningly into the cockles and coccyges of his heart. Either this was when the hard part began, or…
Gruffly attended to Jaw, and Pupster turned to Dracula with a cough. “There might indeed be a mix-up, Mr. President, sir.”
Dracula thrilled, though he knew this may be feint; his heart’s gruel became spicy grits.
She led him through the lobby, grand and many-picture-framed, and into a far tinier door, black, discreet, unlabeled. Just before they bumped into it, a hyperspeed iris scanner lanced Pupster’s eye and the door swished mechanistically open, revealing a sterile corridor of the blandest white steel holochromine. Onward toward the interrogation room.
“Hold on. I can’t believe this, Officer…Pupster,” he said hotly. “I don’t have time for this. The ship lands in, what, five or six hours?”
“That’s right, Mr. President, eight tonight,” said Pupster pleasantly enough.
“But I—” He was forced to stop by his own powerful wince. This corridor was shot straight through with a perilous pungence: essential oil of garlic! “Eurrrgh! I don’t care how long you’ve worked for me, you’re getting sued for this.”
“It’s just a smell—it won’t exactly hurt you. And with all due respect, you said it yourself: take no chances.”
At their door was a more ominous officer by far. He was a SWAT-type, outwardly not unlike those guards Dracula and Adam had faced at Giza, complete with riot shield and laser gun at the ready. But Dracula could see that his belt was far fuller, with a more diverse, targeted array. He could guess what was inside: a nail gun, ready to stake the heart; blasters of holy water and hellfire; plenty of rice, beans, and other dry goods; and whatever ghosts hated. A video camera?
It was this superready officer who bid them welcome, and opened the interrogation room door. Pupster and Dracula were seated at a white table. Besides a small air vent and cameras in every corner, the room was spotless, dentless, and alternate-openingless.
“Mr. President, if you could sit still, sir—”
“The nerve. The sheer nerve. This is the most important night of our lives and—”
“Sir! The faster we get this done—”
“My name is Igor. I’ve never known my birthday, but it was around July 7th, 1921. My favorite color’s purple, but a duller shade of it that resembles the underside of autumn leaves. You might not know that part. Ask Helen.”
“We will, Mr. President. Can you tell me what’s inside your desk?”
Dracula blinked. Was this officer a true junior, one who had not been around when he ransacked Igor’s desk in that office of oval repute? He remembered that desk well. He had quite the memory for the accoutrements of friends—for such sentimental things. But, more than likely, Igor had rearranged or even replaced the objects in his new or rebuilt desk. Dracula’s next words would likely be recognized as a bluff.
“In the corner…right about here,” he said with a pantomime, his hand hovering over an imagined drawer, “there’s a purple velvet box, and if you look inside, there’s a tiny silver cross. They found it around my neck when I was a baby and I’ve never been able to leave it since.”
As Dracula said this, he felt an unexpected choking-up ready to rear its head…but he pushed it back just as it attempted to tighten the throat. He was beginning to remember Igor, and this cross memento seemed, as it never had before, like a little lodestone on his old friend’s weary hands.
“Well, Mr. President,” said Pupster jollily, “you’ve passed the test.”
Dracula felt tricked. “Ha,” he said, a sarcastic laff. “Not that fast.”
“No, I’m serious!”
“No you’re not. Not until you get Helen down here.”
Pupster had frozen.
Something in the air had changed. Nothing physical, nothing scientifically detectable, nothing pheromonal… Dracula sniffed. As if one could sense a paradigm shift!
He asked in his own voice, “What gave it away?”
The walls became solar lamps. Every surface blazed with sheer white light growing in intensity every moment, and just as Pupster slipped out the door, Dracula’s mini-moon, like porcelain, shattered. He shattered, too, sprawling on the floor, all but crumbling, baking in the heat.
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