SHADES OF GRAY
Bound by chains of silver, the vampire had slept for a hundred years, locked in a world of pain and hunger until the seductive scent of one woman's blood recalled him to ravenous life.
Unnerved by the sight of the carnival's captive "vampire", she stumbled from the tend and into the arms of the most striking man she had ever seen. Mesmerized by his supernatural embrace, she believed him when he swore all he desired to drink were her kisses.
Lost in darkness, Grigori found new sustenance in the light of Marisa's love, a new purpose in his life, for only he could protect her from the evil that stalked the night. Now, hungering for her bittersweet caress, he vowed to show her that not all of the undead were monsters, and that, somewhere between the black and white of damnation and desire lay infinite SHADES OF GRAY.
The Roskovich Carnival was the smallest, seediest looking excuse for a circus Marisa Richards had ever seen. Its main claim to fame was their boast that, inside the largest of their three rather shabby-looking tents, they had the body of a genuine Transylvanian vampire.
Marisa paid the wizened ticket-taker six-fifty and then, by-passing the usual carnival rides and games, entered the large blue and white striped side-show tent along with the other hardy souls who had ventured out in the rain on a cool and windy Halloween evening.
She wandered from one attraction to the other, pausing to look at the bearded lady, at a two-headed man who was so obviously a fake it was laughable. Moving on, she saw a sad-faced giant clad in a leopard-skin costume that reminded her of Fred Flintstone. There was a morose-looking dwarf, a man who had skin like that of a reptile, a diminutive woman who was covered from head to foot with psychedelic tattoos.
The air was thick with the scent of rain-damp clothing, cotton candy and buttered popcorn, mustard and onions. A vendor wearing a yellow apron was calling, "Get your hot dogs! Get 'em while they're hot!"
Marisa stopped when she came to a smaller tent set up within the larger one. A hand-lettered sign read -
COUNT ALEXI KRISTOV
Oldest Vampire in Existence.
Marisa felt a sudden chill skitter down her spine as she stepped into the small tent. Good special effects, she mused. She glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see some sort of fan, but saw nothing.
And then she saw the coffin. It was the old-fashioned kind, bigger at the top than the bottom. Dull black in color, it rested on a raised wooden dais in the center of the sawdust-strewn floor. The closed lid was covered with a large spray of fake, blood-red roses.
There were perhaps a dozen other people in the tent. They stood in a loose semi-circle around the casket, talking in hushed whispers. A little girl tugged on her mother's hand, begging to go on a pony ride. Two teenaged boys stood together, teasing a pretty teenage girl by making jokes about the undead and creatures of the night.
The crowd fell silent as a tall, cadaver-thin man dressed in a dark brown suit and old-fashioned cravat entered the tent and took his place at the head of the coffin. He stood there, his pale hands folded, his expression somber, while the lights dimmed.
"Welcome," the man said, executing a courtly bow. "I am Silvano."
His voice was heavily accented, though Marisa could not place it. Hungarian, perhaps, or Russian?
"What you are about to see may shock you, but, be assured, it is quite real. Hundreds of years ago, Count Alexi Kristov was a ruthless monster, a scourge that decimated many small villages in my native Romania. In his time, he preyed on my family, devouring them one by one until my ancestors were almost completely destroyed."
Marisa took a step forward, drawn in by the man's words. She had never been one to believe in ghosts or goblins. She wasn't afraid of the dark. She didn't believe in witches or warlocks or vampires.
But something in this man's voice, his words, made her believe. She felt the hair raise along her arms as Silvano took a deep breath and began to speak again.
"Over a hundred years ago, one of my ancestors discovered the Count's resting place. He rendered the vampire helpless by binding him with silver chains."
Very slowly, Silvano removed the plastic roses from the top of the coffin. He hesitated, for dramatic effect, Marisa surmised, and then, with a flourish, lifted the lid, which was lined with white satin.
"Though he looks dead," Silvano went on, his tone somber, "I can assure you that Count Alexi Kristov is very much alive. A century without nourishment has rendered him helpless and virtually powerless."
Silvano extended his hand in invitation. "Please, do not be afraid to come forward for a closer look. There is no danger."
Marisa hung back until everyone else had taken a good look at the Count and then, on legs that suddenly felt like limp spaghetti, she climbed the two steps up to the dais and looked down into the casket.
The bed of the coffin was lined with the same white satin that lined the lid. A silver cross, perhaps a foot tall, was secured to the foot of the coffin. Similar crosses were placed on either side of the vampire's head.
The vampire, attired in an old-fashioned shiny black suit, was laid out with his arms at his sides. She thought it odd that his hands were tightly clenched. A thick silver chain was wrapped around his body from his chest to his ankles. His skin, which was almost as white as the satin beneath him, was drawn paper-thin over his skull-like head. Pale brown lashes lay against his sunken cheeks. His hair was long and limp, the color a dull reddish-brown.
He definitely looked dead. A long time dead.
Feeling Silvano's gaze, Marisa looked up. "Why didn't your ancestors kill him?"
"They felt death would be too merciful."
"This..." Silvano gestured at the vampire. "How can I explain it? He is very much alive. Without human blood to sustain him, he is in constant torment." A smile that was not really a smile twisted Silvano's thin lips. "He cannot escape the chains. The crosses render him powerless. His soul is trapped within this body. This dead body."
Marisa shivered as she looked at the vampire again. Almost, Silvano had her believing the vampire was real. But, of course, it was just some extremely skinny man and some impressive stage make-up.
She stared at the vampire's chest, silently counting the seconds. One minute passed. Two. The man never took a breath. Three minutes. Four.
A cold chill ran up her spine. Maybe it really was a corpse.
Silvano turned away as a pretty girl wearing a short red skirt, a white off-the-shoulder blouse, black net stockings and ballerina slippers called his name.
Marisa watched Silvano leave the tent with the girl. Glancing around, she saw that everyone else had left, too.
Heart pounding with trepidation, she realized she was alone with the vampire. She stared at the body. Maybe it wasn't alive at all. Maybe it was made of wax, like the figures at the Movieland Wax Museum.
She laughed with relief. That was it, of course. Why hadn't she thought of that before? It was just an elaborate hoax.
She glanced over her shoulder. There was no one in sight. Feeling foolish, she ran her fingertips over the links of the chains. They felt real, solid. A small fortune in silver.
And then, unable to resist the temptation, she touched the vampire's hand.
It wasn't made of wax. The skin was cold. Smooth and dry, it reminded her of ancient parchment. She gasped as the papery skin grew warm beneath her fingertips. And then, very slowly, the skeletal fingers on the vampire's left hand uncurled and spread out to lay flat against the smooth satin lining.
With a shriek, Marisa jumped away from the coffin. She tripped as she stumbled backward, cried out as she tumbled down the steps. She scraped her leg on the rough wood, landed in the sawdust on her hands and knees.
Shaken, she glanced over her shoulder, at worst expecting to see the vampire climbing out of the coffin, its fangs bared in a hideous grin, at best expecting to see an ordinary man sitting up, laughing uproariously because he had scared her out of ten years of her life.
But all was quiet within the tent.
Marisa scrambled to her feet, wincing as she did so. Looking down, she saw blood dripping from a shallow laceration just above her right ankle.
Pulling a handkerchief from her purse, she mopped up the blood, then, with a grimace, she tossed the hanky in a trash can and hurried out of the tent.
* * *
Blood. Warm and sweet and fresh. The scent of it filled the air, teasing his nostrils, tantalizing his senses, awakening a thirst that had lain dormant for a hundred years.
The woman's blood.
His hand tingled as he remembering the touch of her hand, her fingers warm and soft, the throb of her pulse beckoning him.
He fought through layers of blackness, a century of darkness, all his senses honed in on the irresistible scent of the woman's blood.
He flexed his hands, his shoulders, licked his lips as the Hunger roared to life.
With an effort, he opened his eyes. A cry of outrage rumbled deep in his throat when he saw the crosses. Three of them, all silver.
With the return of awareness came pain - the pain of the silver chains that bound him, the raging Hunger that had not been fed for a hundred years.
Ignoring the pain and the Hunger, he reached deep inside himself, calling on the strength of a thousand years...
* * *
Marisa came awake with the sound of her own screams ringing in her ears. Breathing heavily, she switched on the bedside lamp and glanced around, relieved to find herself safe at home, in her own bed.
Her hand went to her neck, her fingers anxiously probing the skin beneath her left ear. There didn't seem to be any bite marks. There was no blood.
"A dream," she murmured, "it was only a dream."
But it had seemed so real. The creature bending over the bed, his gray eyes glowing an unholy red in the darkness, his hands like claws as they clamped over her shoulders to hold her in place, his long reddish-brown hair brushing against her cheek as he leaned over her, his fangs poised at her throat.
So real, she thought, so real.
Leaving the light on, she drew the covers up to her chin, afraid to close her eyes, afraid to go back to sleep for fear the nightmare would find her again.