Merely Players

This is a vampire story; vampire stories are extremely difficult to sell, and after sixteen rejections, I've accepted that this story isn't edgy or unique enough to stand out amongst all the rest.

To be honest, I don't find it that engaging myself. I kept trying to sell it for the sake of the ending. The ending attempts to answer the question, "Why are we fascinated by vampires?" So if that question interests you, just skip to the end of the story (to the paragraph that begins, How does it feel?).

For those of you interested in places, the setting is the old Proctor's theater in Schenectady, New York (I grew up across the river from Schenectady).

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"Trespassers," the stage manager told Sergeant Belinda Drue.

She nodded: "Trespassers" was code for "vampires." The stage manager didn't want to sound judgmental.

She wrote, "Vampires" in her notebook and looked from the manager to the stage crew.

"They threw someone over the railing," said a sound operator and pointed to the balcony.

A grip broke in excitedly: "They must have drunk his blood first. He rose up off the floor, not a scratch on him."

Belinda had witnessed such false resurrections. They evoked ill-disciplined awe, even from those who knew better. The grip was instantly ashamed of his excitement; he said quickly, "It was terrible."

She asked the proper questions: "How many?" "Where did they go?" "Who called the police?" while her partner, Detective Carlisle, rummaged amongst the props. He came back carrying a cross which he waved it at the crew.

Belinda sighed. Vampires do not respond to crosses any more or less than murderers or lechers or the most insidious of sinners. Respect has to be bred in before it can be called forth.

No one tried to touch the cross. No one looked anything more than bemused.

The stage manager said, "The trespassers--" vampires--"went through there," pointing to the stage door.

The stage door opened into the old arcade, a long corridor with exits at either end. Belinda walked from one set of double doors to the other, glancing down side halls. Whispers and giggles wafted up the dark tunnels--vampires exhibit all the worst elements of overgrown adolescence. She would have known they were there in any case. The sighting was called in at 7 a.m., an hour after sunrise. It was now almost noon; sunlight shone through the glass panes of the arcade doors, patterning the dusty, marble entranceways. Other than the arcade and the theatre, the vampires had no place to go until sunset.

She returned to the theatre. Detective Carlisle was pacing the stage, hands behind his back.

He said, "Does anyone here hate garlic?"

The crew smirked and shrugged their shoulders.

"Ah, Sergeant." Detective Carlisle gave Belinda an avuncular smile. "I've called the captain."

"Why?"

He looked cross. "Vampires, Sergeant. This requires the best of our police force."

She knew better than to take that personally--from him at least. She tried flattery:

"You can handle this--"

"Of course, of course. But Captain Harker ought to know what we're doing."

Detective Carlisle was a product of power politics; Belinda had learned to be careful what she said to him, knowing it would be repeated to a higher up; he must pontificate to those paid to listen.

She sat beside him in the stalls and waited for the captain who didn't like her or trust her and would come if only to make that clear. Detective Carlisle read over his notes. On the stage, the crew shifted scenery--a little to the left, a bit to the right--while the stage manager grumbled directions. The stage transformed from a forest to a drawing room, trees folding over to become stairs, bushes turning their backs to reveal fat, squat tables, still very bush-like.

Captain Harker arrived with three officers. They fanned across the stage while Harker leaned against the back of a seat, listened to Detective Carlisle read his notes--"Trespassers reported 6:55 a.m., Proctors Theatre by Paul Stanny, Manager. Believed to be vampires--" and watched Belinda.

Harker looked like an illustration of a Private Eye: dark, hooded eyes; dark, closely cropped hair. He was lean and sardonic, a wary Bogart.

"--Sergeant Drue reconnoitered--"

"Did you? How long did it take you, Sergeant?"

"Seven minutes."

Harker would test her story. After his questions and Detective Carlisle's commentary, he would go through the stage door (alone; he had a cold fairness that would keep him from involving others until he proved a lie) and walk up and down the arcade, his pocket watch rolling over numbers.

Belinda did not say, "Seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds," but she thought it. She didn't look at Harker. She kept her eyes on the stage that had become a box of blue light.

Detective Carlisle finished his notes and began his commentary: "No control—impossible to prosecute—menace to society—in my day—"

"Ah," Captain Harker said, "those days: no League for Vampire Rights, no protected monsters, no politically correct demons, a kinder, gentler world," not enough irony in his voice to discomfort Detective Carlisle who said, "That's right," earnestly.

Harker raised an eyebrow, then turned as his officers banged through the stage door, herding a band of vampires. The vampires jostled each other and laughed; their changeless faces glittered in the stage lights. The crew retreated, swearing.

Detective Carlisle hopped out his seat: "Now, now, everyone calm down." He rushed down the aisle, leaving Belinda alone with Harker.

"Must be a kick for you," Harker said, watching Detective Carlisle, "to work with so much guilelessness."

Belinda didn't answer. She couldn't fight Harker's insinuations. She had tried at first with cutting jabs. "You think I prefer bullies?" she might have said six months, four months ago, giving him the opportunity to reply--

"Oh, I know I'm not your type--" which Harker wasn't, being A positive just as Detective Carlisle was A negative, neither compatible with her B. Harker was careful to keep his men out of danger: her kind of danger.

She'd been bitten by a vampire, her blood drunk through ragged holes in a vein--"Blue blood: rich blood," people said, half-joking, half-not, wary of possible offense.

No person--human or vampire--should be denigrated; all lifestyles are valuable, all equally privileged. Thus went the League's mantra which no one entirely believed, which no one had ever entirely believed. The attitudes we adopt, the ideological surfaces we wrap ourselves in are never smooth. A thin layer of civilization covers the quirks and prejudices and ideals of our individual characters.

Civilized pressures compelled Harker as much as they did Belinda; he did not say--never said--"How does it feel to feed?" and she never said, "I'm no vampire."

She followed him down the aisle and up the stage steps to where the vampires leaned together, arms around each other shoulders, confident in their camaraderie. Harker took the steps two at a time and strode to face them, his trench coat wafting about his ankles.

"Which of you was changed?"

They grinned at each other. The leader said, "Who says we changed anyone?"

The leader was a tall youth. Dark, spiky hair emphasized his pallor. Seventy, eighty years old, Belinda guessed. You could tell by the eyes, sometimes by the hands.

Harker frowned.

"Dmitri Stoker?" he said, and the vampire leader bowed.

"Correct. A tribute to the master--" for vampires rename themselves after the change.

Harker said, "You turn up at a lot of these occurrences, Mr. Stoker."

"Are you accusing me of something?"

"I'm accusing you of attack upon a non-vampire. You were seen." Harker glanced at the crew.

The excitable grip agreed. "He--" pointing at Dmitri--"pushed the body off the balcony."

"While the others cheered him on," said the stage manager, and his disgust was no counterfeit.

Harker said, "Which one did he push?"

The crew hesitated, muttered. Dmitri laughed and spread his arms.

"I attacked no one. We were performing. A play," Dmitri told the crew. "A drama for your benefit. We all need to perform."

He abandoned his group, strode across the stage. The blue light caught his figure, illuminating like phosphorus the pallid skin. He gave no reflection or shadow; light splashed against the back curtain without break.

"A play on the stage is the epitome of triteness, a failure. But a play off the stage--that is the true talebearer. Frisson, that tingle down the spine, cannot be transmitted across an orchestra pit. It lacks immediacy, the sting of horror--"

"I'm placing you under arrest," Harker said. "Is that enough frisson for you?"

"You can't prove that I changed a human. We're old vampires. We want to be vampires."

'Vampire' is not synonymous with 'victim', said the League for Vampire Rights. Vampires should not be criticized for their non-living choices. To make an arrest, Harker had to prove assault, and new vampires rarely testified against those who changed them.

"None of you died last night?" Harker said, his disbelief as obvious as his contempt.

"Not a one," said Dmitri and grinned.

Belinda slid into the circle. Harker flinched as she passed him, a small motion of the arm and hand, and she wondered if he would stop her in front of Detective Carlisle, the other officers, the stage crew. She expected to feel his hand on her shoulder, pulling her back from the vampires, not for her safety, not for any reasonable motivation except he distrusted her.

He didn't stop her. She examined the vampires, ignoring their eyes: those huge pupils that never contracted, eyes of the dead. She gazed instead at hands and necks. They shuffled uneasily. "Somebody wants a kiss," said one, and they all laughed, skirting the edge of spite.

She spotted the newest kill on her second round. She made herself look at his face: young, dazed, with eyes fresh from sleep. She touched his neck, and he quivered.

"That's quite a sunburn," she said. "How did such an elderly vampire as you get that?"

The group dissolved into chaos. Dmitri snarled and fled from the stage. The other vampires, alarmed by his panic, dashed towards the stage doors, and the police scattered after them. Carlisle caught the new vampire by the elbow: "No, you don't." The new vampire squirmed and began to shout, "Leave me alone. Let me go."

The stampede gave way to silence. Two policemen held Dmitri by his elbows; members of the crew had dropped their props and tools to help hold the other vampires.

"How old are you?" Harker said to the new vampire.

"Old enough to know you don't know anything." The new vampire grinned around the stage, and his friends laughed.

"The crew says you were murdered."

"How would they know? It's not like they tried to rescue me."

Harker hadn't moved during the scuffle; now the final vestiges of motion left him. The folds of his coat hung steady.

"Perhaps," he said and the note of uncertainty disturbed, coming from so grim a man, "perhaps, they feared you'd already changed."

There was Belinda's answer if she'd asked for it, if she'd wanted to hear it. Harker had rescued Belinda before she was changed; she could survive sunlight; she didn't need human blood. Harker knew all this. And yet he surrounded her with restrictions--nothing official, nothing that could be seen head-on, only look away and the walls loomed ever tighter.

"You can't punish me," the new vampire said.

"We can punish him," Harker jerked his chin towards Dmitri who said viciously, "Based on what? The eyewitness accounts of union workers?"

"You're fresh-killed," Harker said to the new vampire. "You were killed here."

Dmitri interrupted, "He came with us. Why else would he be here?"

The stage manager cleared his throat.

"He's an actor," he said. "You came for the tryouts, didn't you? Importance of Being Earnest. You came early to get the mood: Steviski or Stanislawski, method acting . . . whatever. You're an actor."

The new vampire blinked at him. He said, "Yes?"

Dmitri said, "Shut up," and the new vampire gawked at him.

Harker raised a brow.

Dmitri laughed uncomfortably. "We're all actors. What does Shakespeare say? 'Players who strut and fret . . . signifying nothing.' I'm telling you, he came with us."

"We can check his past identity."

"The League will object. Look, he's got a new life now. It doesn't matter what he was before."

"I'm an actor."

"You're not," Dmitri hissed at the new vampire. "Just some theatre wannabe."

The new vampire screamed: "I'm going to be the next Branagh, the next Olivier. You said you understood. You said the change would make me better."

"Shut up, shut up," Dmitri yelled, but the new vampire rushed on, disregarding Harker's startled gaze.

"I felt it. It worked. I could outplay Burton. All that emotion. I had it. Except it didn't last. I'll have to drink to get it back. Your fault--" and he lurched at Dmitri.

Detective Carlisle restrained him. Dmitri, hands raised, made no more protests; he let a policeman propel him off the stage.

Belinda went back to her seat in the stalls. A special transport van would take the vampires to the station. Most of them would be released. Dmitri would be jailed, special confinement. The League for Vampire Rights and their lawyers would descend on the station within the hour.

Detective Carlisle departed with the stage manager who would show him where to park the van. The stage cleared as crew trooped off to help the officers. Harker finished appending Detective Carlisle's notes. The blue stage light splashed his shoulders and the back of his head. The dark hair glistened, illuminating an auburn tone.

"Sergeant Drue," he turned and looked for her amongst the seats. "Your report?"

She met him at the stairs, handed over her notebook with its few notations.

Harker said, without a glance upwards, "Do you think he resisted?" and she knew the question was more personal: Did you resist? Did you try to get away?

Because he knew she hadn't. He'd hammered her with question after question that night, she half-fainting with loss of blood and fatigue. She'd found out later what he'd seen: the vampire at her neck; her passive hands wrapped in the vampire's hair, not even trying to break free.

She said, "He's young."

"Weak-willed."

She forced herself not to react to that, the implication. She'd often wondered if she might have resisted, given more discipline, a stronger sense of purpose.

"I don't know: he believed Stoker--"

"That becoming a vampire would improve his acting? Why would he believe that?"

How does it feel? The question was there behind Harker's hooded eyes and skeptical mouth. She felt a sudden bitter weariness, as if she were being pressed into a cage, her body enclosed by bars.

He had moved below her on the stairs, his eyes flickering across the notebook's pages, and she hardly had to stretch--it was, after all, so easy despite his precautions--to slide her teeth into his neck.

They were not as sharp and long as a real vampire's, yet they were effective. The sensation of his blood overwhelmed her. Her knees buckled. His desires flooded her--his ambition to be captain and now that he was captain, to solve every case because he could, he had the ability; his desire for her intermingled with guilt and sweet terror; his more complicated wishes about a brother who wouldn't speak to him and his father dying from leukemia.

All the love songs and poems and romances come down to this: we want someone to echo our thoughts, to understand us completely, and here was the illusion: this, this is why we covet the vampire's embrace.

Belinda shuddered, remembering. She hadn't wanted the drink to end. She didn't want this drink to end.

She pulled away. Harker cried out; he lifted his hands to his face, sat abruptly on the lowest step. He wept. She stepped away ashamed that she could undermine him so thoughtlessly.

She step back. He grasped her ankle, and she halted, foot raised to the stage. She could hear the crew coming up the stairs from the lower levels where the trucks parked.

She said desperately, "You don't want them to see you."

He went with her across the stage and behind the backdrop. They tripped over rolls of scenery, tumbled against scaffolding, and then they were out in the corridor next to the green room.

Harker ran then, almost double, towards the outside door. He hit it with his shoulder, spinning through into the outside. He stood, gasping, in scattered sunlight. It fell on him through the trees that surrounded the parking lot, marking his wrists and ankles and cheek.

She watched the special van pull away from the theatre, turning right towards the station. She waited for Harker's anger.

"I'm not a vampire," she said finally. "Blood type doesn't matter, and I can't change you. I questioned my doctors. I wanted to make sure of what I am. I'm not a threat."

He said with that uncharacteristic hesitancy, "You could do it again?"

"Yes," she said, but, "It's an illusion, the closeness. It isn't real, only temporary," a frisson that lasts barely beyond the lights.

"Of course," except he didn't believe her; she barely believed herself. The possibility seduced: intimacy without trust, love without effort, understanding with no sacrifice of self--we want so desperately to believe it real and possible.

She and Harker walked to the police car where Detective Carlisle waited, arm draped over the car door as he spouted his opinions to a lingering crew member. Harker and Belinda sat together in the back while Detective Carlisle, still propounding his theories and conclusions, made a gentle U-turn. They didn't hear him, gazing out their respective windows.

They didn't speak, except, "Again?" Harker said and, "Yes," she said and that was all.