~ 1 ~
The adventure began for Mr. Maule in the fading daylight of a long June evening in Chicago, with the racket made by a terrified vampire pounding on his door.
The intrusion caught Maule at an awkward time, snug in his high apartment, with his vision focused on a glowing screen, his attention deeply absorbed in the material he was trying to learn. Just the sheer noise was jarring, apart from whatever might be the reason for it. More than nine hundred feet above Michigan Avenue, the soothing quiet that Maule preferred was the rule rather than the exception.
Even through the thickness of hidden armor reinforcing the wooden panels of the door, Mr. Maule could tell that his caller, alternating blows of an inhumanly powerful fist with pushes on the doorchime button, was, like Mr. Maule himself, one of the blood-drinking nosferatu. The delicacy of Mr. Maule's own vampirish sensesallowed him to hear the murmured pleading through the solid barrier, and he recognized the voice.
The sole other occupant of the interestingly decorated living room where Maule was sitting was a breathing youth, only a few weeks past his nineteenth birthday. Young Andy Keogh had no idea that vampires were real, and so far he was paying no attention to the racket. Lank hair of sandy color, parted in the middle, framed a blue-eyed, sharp-chinned, clean-shaven face, at the moment vacuous with concentration. Wearing baggy jeans and a lurid T-shirt, Andy slumped in his chair, toes clenched in scruffy sandals, fingers poised like nervous claws above a keyboard. He seemed oblivious to the discomforts of this position, which allowed him to see both the large monitor screen of a very late model desktop Macintosh, and the even larger screen of a new television. The two machines were wired together, and at the moment the magic casements of both screens stood open on the enchanted seas of cyberspace, displaying complementary images.
The youth's ears were not blessed with anything like the sensitivity of Mr. Matthew Maule's, a deficiency having nothing to do with the fact that one of Andy's lobes was pierced with a bright narrow ring, a mutilation that irritated Maule, though so far he had been too polite to mention it. So the young man could hardly have heard the voice out in the public corridor, pleading for sanctuary. But the pounding on the door and the repeated chime were loud enough to force their way into his consciousness, even half-entranced as he was.
"Someone's at the door, Uncle Matt." The words were uttered dreamily, and with no sense of urgency. A mighty spell was on the youth, but it was no doing of Mr. Maule's--not directly anyway. What gripped Andywas the self-induced enchantment of the creative artist, brought on by what the glowing screens were telling him--which was considerably more than they were telling Mr. Maule.
Annoyed at being interrupted in what he considered his important studies, the man addressed as Uncle Matt rose from his chair.
"Indeed, someone is. I shall return in a moment." Maule's deep voice measured out the English words with only a trace of middle-European accent. He noted as he got to his feet that the room was growing dim, the midsummer sun having at last fallen below the northwestern horizon, and he opened draperies and switched on a single lamp in passing as he moved lithely toward the door. He was sharp-featured, dark-haired, moderately tall, informally but elegantly dressed. A casual observer would probably have put his age at forty.
The room had an unusual number of bookshelves, but enough wall space had been reserved to display several examples of European Renaissance painting. There was also a crossed pair of wooden spears, vaguely resembling harpoons, as decoration.
On reaching the front door Maule made no move to open it, but instead pressed a switch nearby on the wall, and studied the image that sprang instantly to life in the adjoining screen.
"What is it, Dickon? Who is that with you?" He kept his voice very low, knowing that at least one of those outside could hear it, even without the amplification afforded by the intercom.
Out in the hallway stood two figures, the one nearest to the door pausing with right fist upraised to pound again. Dickon's posture might have been described as menacing, but his face was anything but. Dickon was agray-haired vampire, of a little below average size for adult male humanity. Like Maule and the great majority of their kind, he showed no obvious grotesqueries of fangs or pallor. Closed-circuit video accurately displayed Dickon's Caucasian coloring, cheeks slightly red as if from healthy exercise. He could easily pass unnoticed in a Chicago crowd. In his left hand he gripped the neck of what appeared to be a simple cloth laundry bag. Below that effortless grip the fabric was bulging unevenly, straining with some substantial load.
Dickon's companion was shorter, thinner, and even less remarkable in appearance. His tousled hair was such a mousy gray as to suggest invisibility, and the hue of his skin was not much different. His contracted posture and the quick, darting movements of his eyes expressed deep, quiet fear. Both men were dressed in clothing so dull and drab it almost defied description.
Dickon slowly lowered his raised fist. Gazing beseechingly up into the camera's eye above the door, he poured out anguished words in a language older than any form of English. "I pray you, Lord Tepes, allow me to come in. Let us both in!"
The response of the master of the house came in the same tongue, and it was icy. "No one in this dwelling answers to that name. You are assaulting the door of Mr. Matthew Maule."
"Mr. Maule, then. Please!" Dickon had switched to modern English, which he spoke with something of a mid-Atlantic accent, in tones that unintentionally suggested the late Boris Karloff. Recently paying more attention to television than had been his wont, Maule had become something of a closet fan of vintage Hollywood monster movies. He had found it a seductive wayof wasting time when he really ought to have been studying.
Dickon was babbling on. Something had upset him so badly that he was virtually incoherent. Knowing the elder vampire as he did, Maule was not particularly surprised; Boris Karloff could have terrified Dickon without half trying.
Now the vampire outside the door was saying: "My associate here is Mr. Tamarack, and he is every bit as harmless as he looks. We beg you! It is a matter of life and death."
Studying the video image of Mr. Tamarack, Maule felt ninety-nine percent certain that Dickon's companion was no vampire. Considering the company that Tamarack was in, Maule would have been willing to wager he was not your ordinary breather either; but perhaps that was irrelevant. Certainly the fellow gave no impression of menace.
Still Maule hesitated, his long, pale, sharp-nailed fingers drumming briefly on the wall beside the screen. Dickon had never been invited into Maule's house, not into this one anyway, and in the case of a vampire the invitation once extended tended to become permanent. Maule would have preferred to keep the importunate one out on the doorstep while they talked, but he thought Dickon in his present mood would not stand for that. Driving him away would probably require a serious effort, and might create more of a problem than letting him in. Living nine hundred feet above the middle of a huge city had advantages, particularly when one could fly; but there were drawbacks to dwelling in any apartment, including the fact that invariably some neighbors were nearby.
Maule sighed, a habit that had outlasted by centuries his biological need to breathe. To the supplicants on his doorstep he declared: "Very well, then. But I warn you that the young man you will see here is a--distant relative of mine, and to be respected as such. He is perfectly mundane. You will both conduct yourselves accordingly."
"Of course, Mr. Maule, of course!" Dickon was almost slobbering in his gratitude.
Mr. Tamarack still said nothing. If his fear had been much relieved by being granted sanctuary, he gave no sign of it. Possibly he had not even understood the English words. Quietness and unobtrusiveness seemed to be Tamarack's game, as if he might be willing to disappear from the universe altogether if that were possible. Also he was now swaying on his feet, as if on his last legs, though whether his condition was due to drugs, illness, injury, or simple exhaustion was more than Maule cared to try to determine at the moment.
The door opened briefly and quickly closed again, all three men now inside. Dickon, enormously reassured just by having been allowed to cross the threshold, was already peering with curiosity from the small entry into the living room.
His whisper was almost inaudible, even to Maule. "What is he doing?"
Young Andy Keogh's face was still turned away from the men in the entryway, toward the two glowing screens. He was totally absorbed in his craft, hands on the computer keyboard, and at a distance of fifteen feet or so he could not have heard the tiny whisper anyway. But Maule's response was just as quiet.
"Among other things, my relative is helping me prepare to establish a web site. He should be departingsoon--probably within the hour. Then we will talk."
"Web site." Dickon echoed the words without inflection, without any suggestion that he understood them. It was as if the only web sites he had ever heard of were those occupied by spiders. Much the same would have been true of Mr. Maule until quite recently. As for the silent Mr. Tamarack, if he had ever heard the phrase before, he gave no sign.
Young Andy barely looked up from his keyboard and his screens as Dickon and his silent companion, the former still lugging the weighty laundry bag, were conducted past him through the living room and on down the short hal...