I shall never forget the first time I laid these now tired old eyes on our visitor.
It was a dark and stormy night. I was lounging, rather comfortably, next to our warm radiator listening to the rain beat against the window. Chester, as usual, was curled up in his favourite armchair. Even now, after all these years, it was still large enough compared to his stature and build that it threatened to engulf him. He was engrossed in a book he’d read so many times by now that the binding was falling apart, and I would have duct taped the sad cover back together again had he not yelled at me about adhesive deterioration and chemical damage and goodness only knows what else the last time I had tried that little number. I had refrained from pointing out that Chester’s obsessive reading and re-reading habits did far more damage to his books than adhesive could ever hope to accomplish.
I saw a fork of lightning flash outside, and mere moments later a peal of thunder shook the sky. I looked back to Chester. He turned the page, unfazed. Utterly lost to the world.
“Chester,” I said, trying to break him as gently as possible from his reverie, “Hey, Chester.”
“Hm,” He acknowledged noncommittally. His thin lips pursed in mild irritation. I saw his eyes continue to scan the pages even as I continued.
“Why don’t we see a movie, Chester?”
His head finally snapped away from where it had been firmly planted in the pages, and he stared me down with harsh green eyes. "What?"
“I said, let’s see a movie, Chester.”
“Are you thick?” he said, with his usual charm; “At this time of night? In this weather? Exactly what movie, pray tell, would even be worth the effort?”
“I hear they’re screening the old Dracula in town. The one with Bela Lugosi.”
Chester gave me a look so dry it could have evaporated coconut water.
“First of all, Harold, we’re broke. Second of all, we’re broke. Third of all, ha ha.”
His sarcasm was palpable.
I didn’t really want to go out, of course. I was happy by my radiator, gently nodding off to the sound of rain and thunder and the feverish turning of pages across the room. But now that Chester had reentered reality and deigned to talk to me, he seemed in the mood to argue, and I know better than to deny him that.
“It could be good research.” I offered.
“Research?” he practically screeched, “Research?! You know as well as I do that those old vampire movies are all hogwash.”
“Hogwash,” I repeated weightily, “That’s some strong vocabulary there, Chester. Would you go so far as to say they’re nonsense? Flim-flam? Balderdash, even?”
“Harold, they’re bull-“
Another clap of thunder from the torrent outside censored the rest of what Chester said. Before I could comment on what an excellent sense of timing this storm had, he narrowed his eyes at me.
“This,” he insisted, lifting his copy of The Mark of the Vampire and shaking it at me so emphatically I feared that it would disintegrate in his hands, “Is research.”
“Okay,” I conceded, “It will be fun, then.”
“That’s what I said, Chester. Fun. Have you heard of it?”
“What part of that is fun for you, Harold? Going out in a storm? Sitting through a ridiculous film that practically spits in the face of any true facts about the vampiric breed? Leaving our home, ourselves, vulnerable, at the mercy of any manner of creatures of the night? If we go out at night without being properly armed, we could be attacked. Killed, Harold. Or worse, turned.”
Chester had always had, shall we say, a flair for the dramatic. It had led him into trouble many a time. As his oldest, and most long-suffering friend, it had led me into trouble plenty, as well. As a matter of fact, it had led us both to our current occupation.
Chester might have been exaggerating the peril of the situation slightly, but about one thing he was absolutely correct: we really did run the risk of attack by vampires, as well as many other terrifying creatures thought by much of the world to be myths. Chester - more through overactive imagination than any true insight, I still maintain - had always believed in them. Blame it on being named after G. K. Chesterton, but he was always in search of a deeper conspiracy to everything. He also had a nose for trouble, and a knack for dragging me headlong into it with him.
Which is how we had ended up treading on the toes of actual, in-the-flesh vampire hunters.
Long story short, Chester would not allow something as trivial as mortal peril to hinder his research - not even when it was staring him dead in the face, in the form of a business end of a rifle. We are, I suppose, fortunate that we were forced into working for a small undercover agency that day, instead of being gunned down by their trigger-happy envoys. Especially since Chester’s interference had cost them their valuable target.
Vampire hunting is not a lucrative job, by any means. Our employers don’t run a large business, after all, and keeping everything hush-hush requires a good deal of their overall income. In addition, hunters are meant to gain most of their salary from commission - a set bonus for every servant of the damned brought in, dead or alive. All in all, our above-average hunters - anyone who brings down an enemy once every month or two - can live as a reasonably comfortable, if inconsistent, middle class. So far, Chester and I have scored a big fat goose egg. It was a good thing for us both that I have my job with the local newspaper to hold us down, but he wasn’t exaggerating much when he said we were broke. We could have seen a movie, but we would have to sacrifice replacing the blown light bulb and probably skimp on a few groceries in order to do so. And chocolate cupcakes with cream in the center are a staple of my diet that I flatly refuse to give up under any circumstances. Chester owes me at least that much, for all he’s put me through.
A sudden, booming clatter broke me out of my reverie. Chester’s eyes and mine snapped to meet each other across the room.
It wasn’t thunder.
It had come from inside our apartment complex. Just outside our door.
Chester slowly unfolded from his armchair, and even from clear across the room I swear I could see the hairs raise on the back of his neck.
“Sh,” Chester mouthed at me, “Don’t move.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” I whispered back. He shot me a dirty look.
Slowly, measuring each step as though the floor might collapse from under him at any moment, Chester approached the door. He gingerly straightened himself up, aligning his eye with the peephole. Whatever he saw through it must have left him thoroughly stunned, because he stayed perfectly frozen in place for at least half a minute.
“Chester?” I ventured, to check if he was still alive. In response, only his hand moved, lifting behind him to give me an impatient shooing motion. Shut up and stay still, it commanded. He didn’t have to tell me twice.
Still, my curiosity - and, increasingly, my worry for Chester’s health - eventually overcame me. I lifted myself reluctantly off the floor, more than a little put out to have to leave the radiator’s soothing warmth. As gently as I know how, I padded up to the door behind my petrified friend. I’m not sure if he heard me or if he just sensed my presence, but when I was just over his shoulder, he responded.
“Harold,” he said under his breath, “You’re not going to believe this.”
He slid away to the side then, his movements still stiff, and allowed me passage to the door. With a great deal of trepidation, I approached and leaned in to the tiny glass fish-eye of the peephole.
Chester was right. What I saw on the other side of the door, distorted though it was by the magnification, I could neither believe nor comprehend. It defied all explanation. I found myself just as paralysed as Chester had been, trying to wrap my mind around the existence of the thing in our hallway.
“Chester.” I attempted, swallowing thickly.
“Ah, so you see it too.” Chester replied, and I heard just as much dread as relief in his voice.
“Yes. I see it too. That’s-“
We both went silent after that. The air was as dead as- Well, presumably, as dead as whatever was in that menacing wooden box.
Chester moved first, shouldering me out of the way with surprising force, considering that he was built like a sapling. Without much choice in the matter, I stumbled to the side. The door made a follow-up attack on my shoulder as Chester swung it madly open.
“Harold, get out here and help me!” he hissed, practically before he had even set foot out of our apartment himself.
“Ouch.” I protested meekly, rubbing my injured arm. Nevertheless, I tailed behind my excitable friend as he darted into the hallway and circled around to the other side of the coffin. He gave it a once-over. Then a twice-over. Then he crouched down into a squat, grabbing the corners of it as best he could.
“Well? Grab the other end!” he insisted.
“But Chester-“ I protested.
“Do it!” he snapped, “Quickly, before anyone else comes out here!”
I hadn’t thought of that. With a nervous glance up and down the hall, and to the doors of our neighbours, I followed suit. Chester gave the signal, and we lifted. It was lighter than I expected, but still extremely cumbersome. There was definitely something, or someone, in it. I was surprised when we managed to stumble back through the door without dropping it.
“Set it down!” Chester ordered once we were out of the entryway and had the available floorspace to do so. I was gentle with the release, he was not, and the coffin clattered unevenly to the ground.
“Well,” Chester said, wiping his brow and dusting off the shoulders of his shirt haughtily as if he had had every intention to dump the coffin in a way that made more noise than a freight train, “Well go on Harold, open it.”
Me? He wants me to open it?
“Why do I have to do it?” I vocalised.
“Because,” Chester retorted, “Because.” His eyes darted frantically away and back to mine. “Because, Harold, I am going to hold the stake.”
And so confidently declaring, he whipped around - nearly tripping over his own feet in his indignant haste - and crossed the room to the old wardrobe that had long strained to hold his assortment of hunting equipment. He rustled around in it with an expert hand, restraining the other supplies from tumbling out with the other, and returned with a lethally pointed whitethorn branch. He adjusted his grip nervously, rolling his fingers along the wood, and licked his lips as he knelt next to the casket.
“Alright,” He whispered, “On the count of three.”
He inhaled to begin the count.
“Is it on ‘three’ or on ‘go?’” I rushed in, before he could start. He swallowed the word he had just been about to say and, judging by how far his eyes bulged out of his head, nearly choked on it.
“Three, Harold. I never say ‘go’. It’s always ‘three.’”
“Ah. Right.” I agreed. “On three then.”
Chester sucked in a breath, then teased it out slowly. His unsteady grip on the stake tightened.
“One.” Chester declared with finality. I leaned down and wrapped my fingers around the coffin lid, and suddenly forgot how to breathe.
“Two.” Chester said, clearly doing much better with respiration than I was.
I flung the lid off the coffin. It was unattached, not hinged, and went skittering over the floor with a racket that suggested we might soon be getting a few irritated “quiet down” floor thumps from our downstairs neighbours, if we weren’t already long due for one. Chester stood so swiftly and smoothly that it looked like he was levitating, stake raised dramatically above his head. He gave a broken, high-pitched yowl as means of a mighty battle cry, and-
And then he stayed his hand.
We both looked down, dumbfounded, at the thing in the casket.
It was a vampire, that was certain. Even I couldn’t have denied it. The skin was so pale it was nearly translucent, and a faint branching pattern of blue veins was visible beneath the surface, if you looked hard enough. The creature’s lips and the skin under their eyes were tinted sickly cool colours, and the beds of their milky-hued fingernails were bruised purple and black. In a caricature of movie vampirism that I might have found funny under any other circumstances, their pitch-dark hair formed a perfect widow’s peak on their brow.
And then, of course, there was the bite. Again, so shockingly clichéd that it would have been amusing had I not been seeing it so viscerally in front of me, in the alleged safety of my own home, it took the form of two perfect puncture marks on the side of the neck. It was fresh, too. Reddish black streams of dried blood caked the vampire’s neck; and the area around the wound, most especially the outlines of the fractals of veins that led from it, was still irritated and red in the remaining fallout of a living, functional immune system. An enormous purple and navy map of stratified bruising engulfed almost the entire neck.
But that was not what had shocked us. What gave Chester and me pause was the fact that the body was terribly undersized for the rickety, dirt-filled coffin where it lay. The vampire was a child. They couldn’t have been more than fifteen, and they were slim and frail.
Chester’s hand, still as stone up until now, suddenly began to fall. I grabbed his wrist, mid-strike, before he could plunge the stake into the vampire’s chest.
“Chester!” I chastised in a low whisper, scared suddenly that any noise might wake and spook the little fellow, “It’s a child.”
“It’s a vampire, Harold,” Chester retorted, though he was whispering too, and his tone wavered slightly with what I thought might have been lack of conviction. He licked his lips nervously.
“It’s a vampire. Vampires make more vampires, vampires kill people. Every second we let this thing continue to live, it’s a threat to our lives. Not to mention the lives of everyone else out there!”
He gesticulated, here, to the window. I followed his hand briefly to look out at the darkness outside, and the rain that continued to lash the window.
“I don’t think there are many people out there now,” I said, and hurried to finish my sentence as Chester reared himself to butt in, “And besides, doesn’t he look cold?”
Chester looked at me like I had gone mad, and I wondered if that was the same expression I had been giving him all these years. I don’t think I could ever have managed to screw my face up into the Picasso-like configuration he had arranged his features into, but silently resolved to check in the mirror later.
“Doesn’t he look- he’s a corpse, Harold, of course he’s cold! Our job is to make sure he stays that way! Permanently!”
Chester’s voice had steadily risen, both in pitch and in volume, over the course of this little tirade, and when he finally projected the final word it was so forceful and shrill that we both stopped still for a moment. Our eyes flicked to the tiny creature in the coffin. It didn’t move, or stir, or show any signs of wakefulness whatsoever. I was both impressed and envious of its apparent ability to sleep through my friend’s outbursts. What I wouldn’t give to have that talent.
I felt Chester’s eyes return to me, glaring daggers into my temple. I was about to return his gaze, when suddenly I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before. There was a little white square on the child’s chest.
“Chester,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on it. He slowly followed my line of sight back to the open coffin. As he did so, I finally raised my left hand - the right one was still holding firmly onto Chester’s wrist to ensure no one would be stabbed tonight - and, gingerly, I leveraged the stake out of his hand. He resisted at first, but reluctantly loosened his grip. Once I had it, I tossed the implement away, letting it skitter across the floor and come to rest in the far corner of the apartment.
“What is that?” Chester asked, his curiosity finally overcoming his lethal insistance. Reassured, I let go of his wrist. He knelt down, slower than molasses, but once he found himself so close to the sleeping creature he seemed to think better of it.
“Harold,” he said instead, “Come look at this.”
Why do I have to do it?
I did as he bade, an knelt down on the floor opposite him. He pointed at the white square, which I could now see was a folded piece of paper, pinned to the lapel of the child’s dirty and ill-fitted black blazer.
“Take it.” said Chester under his breath. I was rather proud of how little my hands trembled as I reached out towards the vampire. I almost flinched away the first time my skin grazed the fabric of his jacket, crusted with a patch of dried mud, but I forged bravely onward as Chester observed judgementally from the sidelines.
“Hurry!” He whispered urgently. I shot him what I hoped was a warning look, before returning to my task.
With the same tenderness I might use to handle a butterfly or a silkworm’s thread, I unhooked the safety pin and slowly, slowly, slid it out of place. I handed it to Chester, who I figured could at least contribute his services as a handbag if I were doing the really dangerous work.
With the paper now freed, I grasped a corner of it between my thumb and forefinger and lifted it off the creature’s chest. The body remained as motionless as a statue and I, for my part, heaved a sigh of relief as I rose to my feet again. Chester followed, leering eagerly over the coffin to examine the paper I now held in my hand.
Still fighting a terrible case of nerves, I unfolded it. It was a note, handwritten. Just a single sentence, scrawled in black ink. It wasn’t English.
“Well,” Chester said impatiently, “You’re the language expert. What does it say?”
I am far from a language expert. The foster father that Chester and I both lived with for most of our adolescence, Robert Monroe, is far more a language expert than I am. I was just fortunate enough to have picked up a conversational level of Romanian from some of his books and tapes, as well as some rudimentary French, the pronunciation of which I still don’t have any passable grasp on.
“It’s Romanian,” I admitted, “A dialect, but I can still read it.”
“And?” Chester urged, “What does it say?”
“It says, ‘Take good care of my baby.’”
Chester’s pause was audible. I looked up at him, trying to see by his eyes what program might be trying to boot up in that deranged mind of his. He was a total blank. Eventually, he spoke.
“Take care of,” he intoned deliberately, “Or take care of?”
I resisted the urge to smack him across the ear.
“They are not asking us to kill the child, Chester!”
He sighed. “Too much to hope for, I suppose.”
“What do we do?” I asked. I regretted the words as soon as they had fallen from my mouth. Chester glared meaningfully across the room, to the stake I had wrested from him and thrown away.
“You know my plan.” He said. “Do you have any better ideas?”
I swallowed. I couldn’t believe I was about to say this.
“We could,” I suggested, “We could. We could.”
Chester raised an eyebrow at me.
“We could, keep him.” I finished weakly.
Both of Chester’s eyebrows were raised now, and they shot so far up his forehead that it looked like they were trying to levitate off his face entirely.
“Hear me out,” I pleaded, cutting Chester off before he could lift his jaw off the floor to tell me how far off my rocker I was, “He’s a baby, Chester. It’s not like he can hurt anyone. And someone clearly cared about him, and trusted us to keep him safe. We were dropped on someone’s door too once, don’t you remember?”
Chester was scowling at me now. I swallowed nervously.
“First of all,” he intoned in a low purr, “We were not left on someone’s door. Mr. Monroe took you in because he was your godfather and wouldn’t let an orphanage take you, and he and Mrs. Monroe adopted me on purpose. Second of all, anyone who leaves a vampire with vampire hunters is either a nutcase, or wants the thing to be killed. Third of all, need I remind you, we get paid to off these things, not to keep them as pets! Besides, Harold, what would you even feed it, hm? Unless you’re willing to make a donation yourself.”
He looked at me snidely. I swallowed. Truth be told, I hadn’t thought about needing to feed the vampire, but there was no way I’d let Chester know that.
“We can get him animal blood,” I suggested weakly, “From the butcher shop.”
Chester scoffed. “And what will you tell the butcher when you’re in there every week asking for blood? That’s just slightly suspicious, isn’t it?”
“It’s worth a try.” I practically begged. All I knew in that moment was that I couldn’t let Chester kill a child, no matter its species, nor could I leave him to die. It was my responsibility to save this poor creature, however I could.
Perhaps as if sensing my concern, the newly-made vampire suddenly stirred in his coffin. It was so slight, and the sound of it was so soft - just the mildest shifting of his clothes against the dirt that dusted the bottom of his coffin - but both Chester and I nearly jumped out of our skin. We both froze for what felt like hours, but I know if I were to count my frantic heartbeats it would only have been a minute or two at most. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chester’s posture change. His green eyes lit up with a dull, but definite, spark of curiosity and he leaned in towards the coffin.
“Harold.” he said, so quietly he was barely more than mouthing the word. Then, at a snail’s pace, he gradually took a knee next to the wooden casket. He peered even closer, then lifted a trembling hand to point towards the vampire’s head. Somewhat reluctantly, I knelt down as well, and followed the imaginary line that extended from the tip of his index finger.
He was pointing at the vampire’s mouth. His lips had parted slightly when he stirred, it seemed, and exposed a glimpse of his teeth.
“What am I looking at?” I whispered.
“His fangs, Harold.” Chester replied, as though that alone was supposed to mean something to me.
“Yes, I see them.” I said, “He’s a vampire. He has fangs.”
“It’s not that he has them, it’s where he has them!” Chester hissed in exasperation, “Look, they’re not where human canines would be. They’re the incisors. The front two teeth, Harold!”
“So what?” I asked, still perplexed.
“So, that means he’s an old-world vampire!” Chester spat excitedly, as if that was supposed to mean something to me, “That’s rare, Harold. It’s valuable. We barely have any information about them. And it’s theorised that their physiology is closely linked to all modern variants. In other words, the more information we have about them, the more we have about all vampires!”
“Chester, get to the point please.” I begged.
“The point is that you might actually have a good idea here, Harold. A dead vampire is valuable, but information is even more valuable.”
“So we’re going to keep him?” I asked, daring to hope that in some convoluted way, twisted by the labyrinth of Chester’s brain, I might actually have reached him in there.
“Yes. Keep him, and study him.”
The way Chester said “study” made me uneasy, and brought to mind every mad scientist who had ever tented their fingers in an old black-and-white movie. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. If Chester was going to let this little fellow live, that was progress, as far as I was concerned.
“But keeping him alive will be your responsibility,” Chester warned, “And keeping us alive will be mine.”
“Sounds fair.” I acquiesced. Chester looked down at the tiny body again, and I followed suit. His skin looked almost grey now, like stone, and the black-bruise colours that blotted his eyes and lips and bite wound seemed darker.
“First things first, then.” Chester said. I looked at him, but he didn’t take his eyes off the body. He didn’t even blink. “You’ll have to get him some food.”