16. LA TETE DE MORT – Shakespeare in the Bark

Clearly, what assailed Adam was more than mere starving and sickness, and neither could it be aptly summarized as “a sickness of the mind.” It was his continued coming-into-being, the jumbled thoughts.

The blinds in Alice’s penthouse were shut tight and the television’s volume was kept down low, the better to evade suspicion. Until Dracula and Alice’s arrival at this domicile, the foursome inside—Robert, Adam, Trials, and the still-tiny Bistritz—was to stay put, stay hidden, rest up, and gather strength, insofar as was possible considering the stress.

Alice’s penthouse was rudimentary, and she seemed to have gone out of her way to make it supremely dull. True, in the corner there was a flowerpot of mushrooms that were blue and moaning softly, but those were too wonderful to have been her doing, and best avoided. Aside from the windows and their off-white blinds, the walls were bare as sin and truth. Before the television was a simple wooden chair—and, well, that suited Robert, for wherever there was a TV with a chair facing it, he adapted straightaway.

Adam, who instead laid on the floor, had not adapted at all. The ride here, not to mention his raging hungeration, had made him languid and dreary. Just one vial and one bird’s worth of blood had not curbed his appetite; after an hour more, perhaps, he would have to suffer the awkwardness of using his friends to feed. Clearly, however, what assailed him was more than mere starving and sickness, and neither could it be aptly summarized as “a sickness of the mind.” It was his continued coming-into-being, the jumbled thoughts.

As the televised news whizzed by in dazzling 40,000K detail, in colors across the spectrum of visible light and even including infrared, ultraviolet and radio waves, and with sound quality that was passable, Robert watched and tried to keep focused, seeing this as his watchdog-like duty. Trials had long since retreated to the kitchen and, whatever she had found in Alice’s pantry to eat, her noshing of wet food had become forgettable background noise not unlike the ambient squelching of Galapagos mud under tides. Adam was not watching the news either; when Robert had last torn his face from the screen and turned to him, he was in recline like the man of the Sistine Chapel, with Bistritz perched on his finger as lightly as a butterfly. He had looked not quite idle and not quite philosophical.

“Now for local news,” said news anchor Charles Doggedson, and Robert redoubled his attention. “Our top news story for today: LIVING CONTRABAND! A precocious black cat has been spotted wandering around the Upper East End Side.”

Robert was speechless, except for this word: “Whuh?”

“Though the cat appears to not be a werewolf, police say don’t be alarmed, don’t touch it, and don’t kick it, though the temptation may be great.” He added a jovial smile. “Chief Barkley assures us that the cat will soon be caught and vaccinated or, if it will not comply, taken by firing squad.”

No longer speechless but very nearly breathless, Robert huffed, “Adam! Are you getting this?” He plopped to his feet, turned to Adam—and saw only the Adam-sized vacuum where an Adam should have been.

The program interrupted his panic. “Breaking news: monster criminals on the run!

“Aw, no!”

Robert’s first assumption was that Adam was one of the criminals therein mentioned, but this was disproven when photos of Jaw and Dracula flashed onto the screen. His second assumption was that Adam had left in a foolhardy attempt to find Dracula and bring him back to the penthouse, perhaps even with Trials as a sidekick, or with that woman Alice as a sidekick. Since the news had just broken, this did not match up with the timeline, but it seemed valid enough, and gave him a shred of peace without substance.

He looked in the corner of the television screen, where a clock made its home…and its numbers proved that since the last time he’d checked, the sun had risen, cheered the sky, hit its apex, and more than begun its steep descent—for he had switched the news on in dark morning, and ended up in waning afternoon!

“Am I really that old?” he asked himself in a whisper. “As I watched the TV, was I intermittently…dozing?”

“Eek eek eek!” said a familiar, if newly tiny, voice from above. It was Bistritz, who alone had not abandoned him, hanging from the ceiling with his claws in the stucco. That phrase, roughly translated, meant, “You were napping for quite a while, Robert! Adam and Trials left, and I wasn’t sure if I should stop them!”

That explained something, but it did not give Robert a guidepost for what to do next. He made a sigh of irritation, and of deep resignation, for the fact that he should be left out and kept in, however unintentionally, while others scour the werewolf nation. He returned to his seat—only he switched the television off, pivoted the chair, and faced the door, watching for answers.

***

In the waning afternoon of July 31st, 3001, a time shot through with solar glitter that had yellowed slightly with the march of a day’s time, Brown House officials rushed to one of New York D.C.’s innumerable parks to establish a podium, from which would be issued a public announcement of the gravest importance.

Centuries prior, before the merging of the continent’s two most popular and populous cities, this place had been called Washington Square Park. Though times, tastes, and the entire geographic location of this park had changed, the name had not, since “Washington Square Bark” does not make any sense, except as regards the bark of the trees. The antique Washington Square Arch that had served as its towering stone emblem since 1889 remained standing, and had even been lovingly touched up with gold leaf and copper tubing.

The park had become a repository for all artifacts and memorials related to George Washington, the first president of that ancient nation once called the United States of America. History is an ever-rolling stone that gathers much moss and many politicians; all those monuments became confusing clutter after a while, and so, for the sake of maximally convenient tourist attractions, it was all consolidated. Every square meter of the park held either a Washington portrait, a Washington fountain, a Washington bronze statue pointing majestically into another Washington statue’s face, a Washington placemat, or, in the center, the one and only Washington Monument, which took up most of the space.

Today the Brown House’s podium stood under the arch, with the Washington Monument like a giant’s white pencil high above them both. This public announcement was speedily planned and speedilier conducted, yet attendance was high; werewolves thronged and licked their chops, thirsty for reassuring platitudes from their president.

Then a rotorless helicopter touched down with a gust of authoritative wind. World President Igor stepped out, to instant, high applause. He was followed by First Lady Helen in a bright yellow power suit, some wereguy in a cowboy hat, and a clown car’s worth of black-garbed guards.

Attached to the podium was a parasol, the better to hide Igor from the smiting sun; to make this attachment less suspicious and conspicuous, Brown House agents had introduced various objects with parasols attached to them to the global market through the decades. Rare was the household whose countertop did not include an umbrella attachment. But we are not here to discuss market trends…we witness this scene to watch an orator at work.

“People,” said Igor, “it is true that there are two criminals on the loose: Jaw, a crazed war veteran and zoo animal, and Vladimir Dracula, a warlord transient who has been on the run for centuries. It is true also that our city is under lockdown until these two wrongdoers have been captured. But there is no reason for alarm. There is no finer world police department than the World Police Department, and they are working tirelessly to capture these threats. Not only that” —here he nearly chuckled— “but they have a little help from my friends. Let’s give a warm welcome to Helen, my lovely wife, and…”

He had forgotten the other werewolf’s name, but that was okay, for renewed applause drowned out the tail end of his speech. He ducked back into the rotorless helicopter as a sea of camera shutters fought to snag his image (none of them clicking or flashing, being futuristic; I am not certain cameras even had shutters). Helen stepped into his place, showing off her pearly, pointy whites. The werewolf cowpoke stood by her side, heavy-browed.

“Hello, everyone,” said Helen. “I’d like to start not with worry, but with celebration. The Fourth of July is coming up, after all.” She threw her arms wide, almost into her companion’s face. “This year marks A Hundred Years of Igor! The park behind me is a vital reminder of the first president of the venerable nation whose land we now tread upon: George Washington. What makes a great leader? Courage? Honesty? Valor? A combination of these things, possibly? Yes. That’s what character is: a combination of all the best things.

“Washington stepped down after two four-year terms, despite popular demand. My husband, following in his footsteps, is only just ending his generous first term, with plans to begin a second—unless our Extend The Presidential Term To Five Hundred Years bill passes, in which case his term is basically as good as forever!” A roar of agreement in the crowd bubbled…and burst! “Yes,” Helen cried, “we have the best of both worlds: humility and benevolent tyranny! Give it up for my hubby!”

And they did; the sound and sheer force of it reverberated for many blocks, and, had so many werewolves clapped in a city of weaker constitution—in, say, 21st-century D.C.—the damage would have resembled a small earthquake.

Then, when they had dwindled as near to silence as a joyous crowd could go, Helen said, “Let’s talk business…specifically the business of hunting vampires and cryptids. The wolfman beside me’s been doing it his whole life—is that right?”

He of the cowboy hat nodded gruffly and took the mic he was handed. “My father, and his father before him, and his father before him, and maybe a few ladies in there,” he recollected, “they all passed down this monster-huntin’ life to me. Dan Van Helsing’s Monster Hotline is pleased as punch to be workin’ with the Brown House…and, lemme add, for the past few months now we’ve been educatin’ the House on vampire protection, monster weakness 101, the works. Those unfortunate sons o’ ghouls don’t stand a chance.” And Dan received abundant applause.

There was little more to share; citizens were merely advised to remain calm and proceed as normal, except with regards to city limits, which were not to be approached unless while wearing an insulated hazmat suit. If something was not currently relevant to the populace, the Brown House was not about to say it. Jaw and Dracula were public knowledge, but what use had anyone for fears of, say, fish-men, or renegade agents, or sandy solar vampires? Those innocent sods did not even know that the Fourth of July would mark First Contact!

Soon the talk ended, and the guards were sucked into Igor’s rotorless helicopter, which began to lift off. Dan and Helen stayed on the ground—where the crowd would not let them leave without a handshake or several.

Helen greeted guests with a relentless smile. Her smile did not even break when, as she crossed one wrist over the other to shake two hands at once, she turned to Dan and whisper-barked, “Dan! The real work starts now. We’re sweeping this city. And if you can get ahold of Alice—”

“With all due respect,” said Dan with a tip of the brim, “there’s no need for the ‘we.’”

A third voice said, “Can you tip it again?” Dan did tip his hat again; a camera clicked.

“Leave it to me, Helen. We’ll see if I can’t handle it.”

Perhaps Helen would have appreciated Dan’s cocksome valiance had she been a politician and nothing more, without that title “The Strongest Werewolfwoman in the World.” As it was, she groaned. There was no chance to say more; microphones were thrust in the muzzles of both, and they began to belt out one-second sound bytes for social media.

After many, many minutes, the din was done, and only a morsel of the werewolf citizenry remained hungering for Dan’s hand. Only Dan’s, seeing as Helen, a skilled public figure, had long since slipped away without the people noticing. That left Dan to accept thanks, compliments, and other hollow sentiments.

Another firm clasp and shake. “Mr. Helsing, sir, I can’t thank you enough. How’s the weather?”

“Why in tarnation would you ask me that?”

“Mr. Dan!” Another firm clasp and shake. “Mr. Dan, oh, I’m so glad to see you like this! Oh, Mr. Dan…” The wolf used the back of Dan’s hand as a sweat wipe. But this was no fainting superfan…this was someone drenched in the sweat of fear.

“Now, what are you doin’?” said Dan, ticked off.

“Sorry, it’s just…” The panicker pointed a shaky hand into the deep, dark trees of Washington Square Park (the hand was Dan’s; this werewolf was seriously nervous). “Th-there’s a phantom in the park!”

Dan’s mood turned on a dime. “Gee, really? That fast?” He whistled. “We’re in business, boys.”

Tearing his hand from the citizen’s grip, he rustled through his pockets. As you might guess, the pockets of all Brown House officials and employees were powerful deep, and his were no exception. He knew all the objects by touch and weight; the laser pistol, the holy water pistol, a needle of silver, a needle of gold, the X-shaped pieces from a party snack mix…

Without a goodbye and with hands rumbling in his pockets, Dan walked briskly into the heart of the park. That shade trees could grow so large here, and fan their leaves out so broad above the heads of werewolves and Washingtons, was a miracle that gave the park a dusklike ambiance even in daytime. There was no helping the gloom, as the electric lanterns hanging from random tree limbs and statue arms would remain unlit for a while longer, and the lights placed on fountains had shorted.

He stalked around between the exhibits, seeing nothing unusual—just people strolling about, acting as naturally as if there were no public danger whatsoever, despite the public announcement they had just heard. The Brown House considered this nonchalance a strength. And also, of course, some had not comprehended the announcement, being werewolfinized animals; Dan spotted a couple of werewolves crouched heavy on a bough, probably squirrels or birds. But no, it was nothing unusual.

Then a sound like a whip raced through, and a meter away, a wolf collapsed.

Dan’s ears and eyes pricked (“pricked” eyes means small pupils). He ripped out his spectral goggles, thunked them over his sockets; the world became fuzzy and green, and should have revealed any invisible wolves or sharks in the vicinity. But as he swung his head around, he could not discern any clever shapes. Breathing deeply, he pocketed the goggles again, and resigned himself to natural senses for the supernatural hunt.

All he heard, however, were the shuffles of werewolf feet.

“No problem,” he muttered, and he justled his pockets; this would be his test bed for a new monster-hunting strategy. After all, both Jaw and Dracula were werewolves—and why not the whole lot of them?

***

This park was a dangerous place for rejects, as Adam would soon learn.

Adam, an hour prior, had been driven from the penthouse by nothing but hunger…an unbelievable hunger that merged with a muddled mind until he was convinced that hunger had cleaved his consciousness twoscorefold. In delirium had he pieced a disguise together using Alice’s hall closet: boots, a trench coat with a massive hat, and, perhaps most essential, the domino mask, supremely face-concealing. He’d had the presence of mind to consume some “DRINK ME” so that he might at least approach a werewolf’s height, and to ransack Alice’s cabinets for a spare mini-moon which skated lazily ‘round his aching head. The average werewolf of NYDC lacked the presence of mind to give him more than a sneer and a “nice outfit.”

So he had been quite fortunate! The first minutes were euphoria of the kind that comes with a state of flow. Adam, on seeming autopilot, had gone through sidestreets pricking the necks of passersby, always striking with a papyrus strip as quick and thin as a whip, knocking out a werewolf at just enough of a distance to evade suspicion.

The more blood he consumed, the greater his awareness—and, mayhaps ironically, the greater his unease. The neon lights blaring already on storefronts and the radiant moon of his own head spoke of this city’s sheer alien nature; looking down he cognized that these sidewalks, being conveyor belts, incessantly moved. Most of those werewolves cramped into a standing line with him, in front and behind, were entranced by the lights and sounds streaming from their hands, which cradled holograms—a word Adam did not even begin to know. The truly terrifying realization was that no street was just a street, and every human here was still as good as his killer.

It was an easy matter to prick another neck and suck more blood, and strive to sate what was yet to be sated, yet Adam could no longer do it. The enormity of this world came upon him, and he went dreadfully still.

Good thing the sidewalk carried him straight into Washington Square Park, where he could gather his bearings in welcome shade.

“I have never felt more alive,” he soliloquized, leaning uncouthly against a painting, “and never more dead! Not only am I lost and cursed with this bottomless hunger…I have yet to shake off this blasted headache!

“But this well suits me,” added Adam, “for a tree is some semblance of my old reality; surely it will calm me.

“Never!” Adam interjected. “How can I be calm again? Hunger of the flesh may pass, but hunger of the soul? A soul not only torn in two by loss of loving Eve, but torn to final shreds by my own dim wits—consarn me, why did I come out here, why could I wait for blood no longer? How can Dracula ever take me back, now that I have disobeyed?”

A mellow Adam contributed, “Nonsense; you are a team member to the end. To err is human, to forgive—”

But Adam waved this off. “Pah! He may be able to forgive, but all men have limits. Dracula is no god!”

A distant voice said, “Hey, cool! Theatre in the park!”

Most uncautious! Adam, in his divided yet intermingled tonguing, had attracted the attention of a distant werewolf. He did not, however, take notice; he only went on blathering.

“I am a pretender to the end,” he crooned, and as he looked to the sky above, his mask caught a shred of reddening sun, and threatened to ignite his golden eyes. “I pretend that nothing is wrong and my host sees right through; I pretend that all I crave is blood, but flesh wants flesh, and I have been too long denied.

“Lo, this misadventure is not for you, man; there is a world to save, maybe even two worlds! Be you not selfish?”

He fell to his knees on the grass and cried, “Selfish! Yes, I pity the days when I wasn’t!

At this line, the tiny crowd that had assembled before him began humble applause. They were all grinning—a sight he had never expected to see. Cheering him on! How ludicrous…like a crowd of clowns they were. To say Adam was bewildered as his eyes flitted from face to face would be an understatement. Their applause gave rise to an emotion of a height he had never thought attainable: outrage of the highest degree. He felt they had intruded.

Fie on thee, I say!” —and the red papyrus like spider’s limbs nearly shredded his coat, his arms thrown out like claws, his eyes the cinders of a furnace! The cries of fright were instant, all too familiar—how quickly sympathies can turn, how marvelous the alchemy—and they scattered as birds from the gunshot.

This was the very moment when the more substantial crowd at Washington Square Park, cheered by Helen’s speech, applauded at magnitude five. Adam experienced their roar and the snarl within himself as one and the same, one amalgam completing the other; for the first moment all day, he felt whole.

When it all died down, when the wrappings wilted with the passing of his fury and retracted up his arms, Adam found himself perfectly alone…himself, that is, and his twoscore trains of thought. He pulled the ragged trench coat closer around himself. The mini-moon swept by his face; he shut his eyes to it, the better to suss out his own thoughts, if such a thing ever could be done.

He became the drifting phantom of the park, walking slowly from shade to shade. A fanciful part of himself wondered if he might live here. Every few minutes, he left a quiet spike in a werewolf’s neck, unheedful of whether they might hit grass to muffle the fall. So selves-centered had he become that in his mind the police could not exist, let alone monster hunters.

It was in this pit-deep melancholy that Dan came into his path. He stepped in front of Adam with the simple boldness natural to these city werewolves. This and the general nature of Adam’s funk are the reasons he did not immediately see Dan for who he was, despite the familiar hat and smoky voice from a commercial he had once seen and despised.

“Howdy,” said Dan with a winning smile. “The name’s Van Helsing. Do I know you?”

Before Adam responded, before he could move at all, Dan trapped him—with a handshake that flew to his leather-gloved palm like a slap, captured it, tugged it forward, and squeezed as if mistreating a crustacean. It was painful, abnormally so, even beyond the squeeze; there was something tiny in Dan’s hand that stabbed straight through the glove and plunged into Adam’s palm. The mummy’s heartbeat quickened, his breath came short; thoughts of the present, memories of the past, fears of just what was transpiring within their clasped hands—this was the maelstrom of Adam’s mind, stirred dreadfully by what felt like his fated end.

Dan kept his tone leisurely, self-sure. “Heard tell there’s monsters in these parts. You heard anything about that? A phantom, they’re sayin’. Well, I’m a monster hunter, y’see—y’ may have heard o’ me—and I got ways of findin’ out. I can tell already” (here he tightened his grip; Adam gritted his teeth) “that you’ve passed my first test. A spectral being wouldn’t be feelin’ much pain about now, seein’ as they don’t bleed. Now, the second component of the test is for vampirisim, where I suspect you’ll have a harder time. In my hand and yours, y’see, is a needle of silver.”

Adam’s mind, racing ahead, conjured an image of their hands unclasping to release blood-tinged steam, its awful wisps the proof of vampire’s bane. No wonder the pain was driven so deep! Adam, drenched in sweat, did not react, and resigned himself to this moment—if he should be prey, let him be prey.

Dan removed his hand. His palm, face-up, revealed only blood. As did the glove, now stained. Evidently, silver was not a weakness Adam and Dracula shared; had Dan placed on that needle’s head a drop of holy water, however, the outcome would have been different.

Mr. Van Helsing now looked perplexed. “Hm. Well…you still look suspicious, so—” And with such speed that he interrupted himself, he snared Adam’s wrists and twisted his body around, the better to handcuff.

And Adam let himself be wrestled with and marched on a path out of the park, for the pieces of his mind were cooperating, and a few different plans were assembling within him. They would kill him, perhaps, but his position in the enemy’s hands could scarcely have been any worse.

Dan pushed him down a holostone path with his wrists in one hand and a laser pistol in the other. This he kept steady against Adam’s neck.

“So my life will have some resolution,” said Adam. “This is perfect, in a way. Was your other great ancestor Mary Shelley?”

This revelation did not blindside Dan. It merely reminded him of what he already suspected: Frankenstein’s Monster was not only alive and well, but likely lurking in this very metropolis, in his very grip.

Two things happened in the same instant: Adam bucked with superhuman strength, and Dan hammered a light-bolt into his neck. The laser hit first. Nothing in Adam’s arsenal was faster than light. Clearly he had not learned his lesson from Walter Whipple’s demise.

But to say light defeats light is to speak a falsehood. Actually, light intensifies light; nor can absolute blackness or the lesser light of the moon vanquish it, for a candle is not put out by the night. This is why a standard bullet, even one from a 19th-century flintlock, would have done Dan far more good in this moment. While Adam felt a burning sensation in his laser-struck neck, it did not stop him—it hurried him on. He thrust himself out of Dan’s grip, turned upon his oppressor, and improvised a speech a thousand years in coming!

Or in all probability he would have, had the Washington-studded fountain paces away not stirred, its meagre waters shaking audibly, and then let loose a ghostly great white shark, a brute far too large to have been sensibly contained therein! Quite a sight he was, caught in a shimmering state between visibilitude and transparence; quite a meal Dan would make when the jaws shut trap-like around him! Jaw arced through the air and, like an arrow many times larger than its target (and with a wide-open mouth also), jammed into the earth that surrounded Dan, his tail shooting up like a spike.

Adam watched, feeling snubbed.

Then the werewolf Dracula hoisted his dripping self out of the same small fountain, and he called out softly, “Try not to kill him, now…”

Scarcely could Adam recollect himself when a stranger’s voice from beyond a few concealing trees said, “Hey, cool! Battle in the park!”

“Wait,” said that voice’s companion, “isn’t that a shark, and a war veteran?”

There was a gasp. “Call 9-1-1! Arp!”

“Oh dear,” mumbled Dracula. “We are really bad at this ‘secrecy’ thing, huh.”

It was time for their reunited party to fly. Dracula threw himself from the fountain, threw his hand onto Adam’s back, and with a revolving shove threw the both of them onto the wall that was Jaw’s back. The image of Jaw and all who held onto him disappeared with a flicker—and suddenly Dan was there, freed and looking oddly foolish, aiming two anti-ghost rifles straight up, having aimed for Jaw’s uvula.

But Dan, tenacious Dan, would not lose his cool so easily. If anything, this meeting had made his victory more certain. He pocketed his guns, raised a wristmmunicator, and said, “Get me some rotorless helicopters around Washington Square. I found our guys. Over.”

He had neglected one detail, however: Jaw had soared straight down, into earth.

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Author: Joi

I write, I draw, I do it all

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