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A pudgy vampire with a soiled black cape sat on a coffin across from me sipping a bottle of Hires Root Beer through a soggy straw. His loose fangs kept slipping, and each sip brought a sound somewhere between an asthmatic whistle and terminal pneumonia. He was fascinating, but so were the other four black-caped vampires who surrounded my client in that damp basement. My client, wearing a conservative gray suit and a fixed, uncomfortable smile, used his cigar to keep the vampires at bay, but they weren't to be denied, especially one white-faced woman with long raven hair parted down the middle.
"But Mr. Lugosi," she panted, "When are you going to play a vampire again?"
Lugosi shrugged enormously, playing to his rabid audience. He was almost sixty and looked every bit of it and more. His face was puffy and white, his smile a broad V. He didn't want to be here, but since he was, he couldn't resist the urge to perform.
"Lou-go-she," he corrected the woman, "Bay-lah Lou-go-she, but, my dear, that is of no importance. As to when I will play a vampire again, well, my friends," he sighed, and the well came out "vell," his familiar accent lying like goulash over his words. He took longer to get those last three words out than a doctor with bad news.
"One does what one must to make a living," he went on, with eyes closed to show how the burden of paying the grocer and the milkman had forced him into artistic compromise. "I would luff to do Dracula again, but ..." he pointed to the cracked gray ceiling a few feet above his head, "to do it right. Ah, I know so much more now my friends, so much more."
"Hell," said a short Chinese vampire with a disappointing lack of accent and sympathy, "the only things you've played for five years are mad doctors who get torn up in the last reel."
"Dying," said Lugosi with a shake of his head, "for me is a living."
It was a punch line he had surely delivered before, but it brought no smiles from this group. Lugosi cast a secret look of exasperation at me. They weren't going for his best material, and he wanted to be rescued, but I wasn't ready to leave yet. I gurgled some Pepsi from my bottle, shifted on my coffin, and scooped up a handful of Saltines with my free hand.
We were in the lair of the Dark Knights of Transylvania, not very far below a fake-adobe neighborhood movie theater in Los Angeles in January of 1942. Both the theater and the neighborhood were rotting rapidly around this quintet of black-clad dreamers drooling over the memory of a ten-year-old movie, trying to savor the fantasy of evil immortality while the proof of the bankruptcy of that fantasy stood before them in the decaying form of a worn-out Hungarian actor who had seen better days and better cigars.
If they had bothered to look at me, which they didn't, the Dark Knights of Transylvania would have seen further evidence of the mortality of the human body. In almost forty-five years of being unable to make up my mind about what I planned to be when I grew up, I had picked up a hopelessly flat nose, a face that had been polite to too many punches, two bullet scars (three if you wanted to count the exit wound of one of them), and a large but as yet still finite number of lacerations caused by gun butts, broken bottles, assorted pieces of wood, an unopened jar of Jeris hair tonic, and such worldly weapons as knives and brass knuckles. My brain is barely protected by scar tissue, and my back pops out more often than champagne corks at a Tommy Manville wedding. Such things are more or less visible to the keen eye of even your novice vampire. What couldn't be seen was the fact that I'm a private detective with nothing in the bank but a bad credit rating, nothing in the world but a questionable reputation, and nothing on my mind but hard memories.
I had failed as a Glendale cop and a Warner Brothers security guard and I had only twenty-five bucks and an overdue bill on my office rent to show for nearly half a dozen years as a private investigator. Look at me, vampires. There are some bodies you can't get blood out of.
Amid the orgy of crackers, root beer, and Pepsi, I was trying to do the job I had been hired for by Lugosi. Someone had been playing games with him for over a month, sending messages written in animal blood through the mail saying, "He who mocks the vampire deserves his fate," and "Respect what you represent or suffer for it," or who ever can forget my own favorite, "Dignity or death." It was an old story in Los Angeles. Movie people often found themselves a fan they could do without. Cecil B. DeMille had a guy who even jumped into his dining room once and ruined the cream of turnip soup. The cops locked the guy up, but he escaped and came back to DeMille from time to time like a truly irate critic.
Lugosi's topper had been a hat box delivered to his home one morning. Inside the hat box was a cute little bat with a tiny stake through its heart.
Lugosi had shrugged this off as a sick prank. He'd pulled enough of them himself and had had them pulled on him. But Lugosi had told the tale to a fellow Hungarian over a few drinks, and the Hungarian, who was an extra at Universal, mentioned it to Boris Karloff. Karloff had called me. He was worried about Lugosi. The world was exploding. The Japanese had just hit Pearl Harbor. The Germans were marching through Russia, and everyone was scared as hell. No one else was going to worry about Lugosi, With the world melting outside your window and the front pages a series of horror stories, the bottom had dropped out of the monster movies for a while. Lugosi had hit hard times, according to Karloff. He had lost his car and his home and a lot of his dignity. Lugosi was making a small comeback, but his body and his nerves had taken a hell of a beating.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Peters," Karloff had lisped deeply over the phone. "Bela resents what he sees as my greater success. I assure you it is only a relative success, but I seem to have adjusted much better to the inevitable life of evil into which I have been cast. Actually, I'm quite grateful to be typecast and working steadily. Would it be possible to approach Bela without mentioning me?"
With no client on the books and a stomach that echoed a cry for tacos and an occasional beer, I told him I'd give it a try. The try came the next afternoon when I called Lugosi and made an appointment, being as vague as I could about the reason. Lugosi's house was a small frame one-story with a little grass in front where he was playing quoits with a four-year-old neighbor.
"I'm Peters," I told him. "Toby Peters. I'm a private investigator."
"And you sell your surfaces door-to-door and by telephone?" he had asked with an exaggerated raising of his eyebrows.
"I understand you've had some trouble. Someone playing tricks that might not be funny."
"I'll hide. You find me," the boy interrupted.
"No," glowered Bela, raising the sleeve of his gray cardigan sweater to his face like a cape. The boy was neither frightened nor impressed.
"Claire couldn't find me," said the boy.
"Not now," Lugosi said in mock menace.
"I'm going to the potty and having some cookies," replied the boy, who ran toward the house next door.
"Perhaps," said Lugosi with a small smile, "one should consider a new profession when he cannot frighten impressionable small children."
I made my pitch, something like the one you get from the exterminators who tell you if you don't hire them today, you'll be up to your ass in multiplying roaches by tomorrow afternoon. I told of the dangers of cranks and the troubles I'd seen. I gave him references and my lowest rate, fifteen a day plus expenses. I did everything but tell him if he didn't hire me I couldn't pay for the gas to get me back to my office.
"Mr. Peters," he had said, fishing a cigar from the pocket of his sweater, "the world is at war and I am not a wealthy man. The war will someday end, and the fool who sends dead bats will grow tired and move on to tormenting alley cats."
"Who opened the hat box with the bat?" I tried.
"I did," he said, lighting the cigar. "But I see what you are doing." His smile broadened as he got the cigar going and worked a gray foul cloud into the air over his head. "You are trying to frighten me. But that is my business, frightening people. Both my friend with the bat and you could be much more effective if you hired me."
"Did you tell the police?"
"They thought it was a publicity trick."
I nodded knowingly. The odds were that I had Lugosi hooked. He had already invested time talking to me and listening to my pitch, and he hadn't made up some reason to kiss me off and fade indoors. He might be saying "no," but "maybe" was in view and "yes" only a length behind.
I pushed on. I needed the job. The few hundred I had picked up in a case I worked for Howard Hughes had gone for minimal repairs on my 1934 Buick and to my sister-in-law Ruth. The Buick still needed a paint job. It was—or once had been—a dark green but had taken some scars of its own that I'd patched up with green house paint five shades too light that I'd picked up in the basement of my rooming house. Now the car looked like an ad for moldy pigeon eggs. Children pointed to it in the street and it wasn't worth a damn for following anyone. A blind man could spot the old bomb in a blackout. The money to Ruth had been a secret from my brother Phil, a Los Angeles cop who wouldn't have taken it in spite of his mortgage, his three kids, and a salary that wouldn't keep a Tenth Avenue rummy in Cresta Blanca. If Phil found out about the money, he'd probably show his gratitude by tearing me apart and shoving me up his unpaid-for chimney the way Lugosi's ape had done to the old lady in Murders in the Rue Morgue.
After I spent ten more minutes on nonstop talking and watching Lugosi pollute the San Fernando Valley with his cigar, the boy next door came out to announce that he was going to sit on Lugosi's head.
"Mr. Peters," Lugosi said, clamping the cigar between his teeth and stooping slowly on one knee to accept the leap of the child, "you are hired for one week."
The kid clambered up Lugosi's back, and I reached out to give Lugosi a hand up. He rose with a pant and spoke around his cigar.
"Reach into my back pocket," he said. "Take thirty dollars advance out."
I did and returned the wallet.
"Call me tomorrow," he said, turning with the kid clinging to him.
"You have any gum?" the boy said as I turned my back.
"Perhaps," came back Lugosi's Hungarian accent, which answer both the kid and I knew could easily be turned into a yes.
The next day while I was sitting at my desk listening to the dental drill in the outer office and trying to think of where to start and what to have for lunch, Lugosi had called to report another letter in blood. This one said: "Do not attend the Dark Knights of Transylvania or your next."
Aside from lousy spelling, it was a place to start. Lugosi said he had, in fact, received an invitation in the same mail to attend a "sabbath" ceremony of the Dark Knights on the following night. The invitation had been on a small white card with a black bat embossed at the top.
"So?" he said.
"So, we go to the sabbath and I try to figure out which Dark Knight has been sending you mail."
And that was how I came to be seated on a coffin, trying to listen to a conversation ten feet away while a pudgy vampire sipped, slurped, and crunched in my face.
"Why don't you take your fangs out?" I suggested.
The vampire stopped sipping and put a finger from his right hand up to his mouth to keep the fangs from falling out as he spoke.
"I wouldn't look like a vampire if I took the fangs out," he answered reasonably.
"Right," I said, without adding that at best he looked like Elmer Fudd doing a vampire act.
"The fangs do throw my bite off," he confessed confidentially, leaning toward me.
"I know a dentist who might be able to help you," I said. "Name's Shelly Minck. We share an office downtown in the Farraday Building over on Hoover near Ninth."
Elmer Fudd said he thought he might look Shelly up and proved his good intentions by groping under his cape for a pencil to get the address. Shelly would like this. How many dentists could say they treated a vampire for fang overbite?
"My name is Count Sforzni," Elmer Fudd said, shifting his left hand to his mouth so he could extend his little balloon hand to shake mine. "We didn't meet when you came in because I was upstairs preparing the refreshments."
He nodded at the refreshments at the end of his coffin. They included a dish of straight Saltines, a pitcher of water, a few bottles of tepid soda pop, and a quart of cheap wine.
"We don't usually prepare much," he confided. "Most of the Knights won't eat or drink at meetings. Vampire purists."
"My name's Peters. Your name is really Count Sforzni?"
"Well," he said, between rattling his fangs above the hubbub of conversation nearby. "I'm Count Sforzni here. You know, honorary title. My name upstairs is Sam Billings. This is my theater." He let his eyes float upward to indicate the space over us.
Although the lights had been out in the theater when we came in, I had been able to make out the lobby posters for the current triple feature, Host to a Ghost, Revolt of the Zombies, and Murder in the Red Barn.
"Nice theater," I said, shifting my weight on the hard coffin. I reached back to see whether I had picked up a splinter and tried to catch a bit more of the Lugosi conversation.
"They're real," Billings-Sforzni whispered with what I took for pride.
"The fangs?" I whispered back.
"No," he said, pointing to my rear. "Coffins. I bought them at a funeral supply place. Read about them in Casket and Sunnyside, the undertakers' trade journal. Real bargains. Add to the atmosphere."
The atmosphere of the basement could be described as storefront funeral parlor with pieces of old theater lobby thrown in. Besides three coffins there was a small table with a black cloth over it and six candles burning on it. Three walls were gray and bare with a few movie posters, Dracula, White Zombie, and The Black Cat, covering holes or looking like they were pasted up by a drunk. The fourth wall, the one against which Lugosi had been trapped, was covered by heavy, blood-red, and very worn velvetlike drapes.
"Nice place," I told Billings, whose bald pate was doubly red from shyness or heat in the weird light and the air rapidly turning to atmospheric fog from Lugosi's cigar.
Lugosi caught my eye, a massive false smile on his face, and nodded toward the door in a way that would make it clear even to the Frankenstein monster that he wanted out.
"How many members are there in the Dark Knights?" I asked as innocently as I could, which was not very innocently, considering that I look like the pug who stands behind Edward G. Robinson in Warners gangster movies. You know the guy I mean, the one who never talks, looks like an ex-welterweight, and sticks his chin out every once in a while to show he's earning his living.
"We're a secret, very exclusive organization," Billings said, defensively reaching for a handful of crackers.
"You mean there's just the five of you?" I said with a friendly smile.
He fanged some crackers and gave a small nod to show I had calculated correctly.
One of the four vampires around Lugosi looked over at me. He was tall and dark, the most formidable-looking member of the group. I looked back at him with my innocent brown eyes and a mouth full of warm Pepsi. He turned slowly away.
"Are you interested in joining?" Billings said eagerly.
"I don't know." I shifted my weight on the coffin to reach for the last of the crackers. Billings' hand indicated the impulse to race me for the remnants, but courtesy and the possibility of new blood stayed his chunky grasp.
"These people are the only ones who know about the meetings?"
Billings put down his now-finished Hires, stifled a burp, and said, "We are secret and exclusive."
I turned my head to the group of vampires and Lugosi, whose eyes moved from his tormentors to me to the door.
"Can you tell me who everyone is?" I said, looking casually around and trying not to choke on my cracker.
"Certainly," said Billings. "There's Baroness Zendelia, Sir Malcolm."
"No," I pushed in. "Their real names."
"No," Billings countered, sitting up to his full five foot five. "That is private. Our human identities must remain secret."
Excerpted from Never Cross a Vampire by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1980 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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Posted December 26, 2013