“How long has it been? A century?” asked Otto, spreading out in a wingback chair in a private booth.
“Two, actually,” said Vanessa, perched like an owl on an identical chair opposite his, a table between them serving as a neutral zone. “I think carriages were still in fashion.”
“And what a pleasant two centuries that was,” said Otto with a fang-filled grin.
They sat in Vesuvius, a private club that served the gentlemen and ladies of the night. Members only, of course, for eye-watering prices. A bar where nobody knew your name. It was clad in marble rather than wood panelling, offering no silver service whatsoever. Service came from discreet waiters exceptionally good at not catching an eye. Even for waiters.
Otto accepted a Bloody Mary that wasn’t a metaphor from a waiter looking intensely at the floor, and continued, “So, ignoring politeness, why the bloody hell have you called me here?”
“A lady passing through can’t call on an old friend?”
Otto stared. There’s no one like vampires for an intense stare; they come with the patience of centuries. He was unflinching as he stared at Vanessa’s tall form wearing what Otto presumed was the dress of the modern day. He could actually see her shoulders underneath the black hair. Framing cheekbones so sharp they could cut paper.
“Fine. You always were a sucker of fun.” Vanessa glanced at her feet and sighed. “You know the old letters you wrote me?”
Otto swore in a long dead language. He’d always known he would regret writing such depravity. “I vaguely recall a message here and there.”
This time Vanessa stared. “Well, if you need a refresher, they are on display in the British Museum.”
“What.” Otto sat bolt upright in his chair, taking deep breaths of air he hadn’t needed for centuries. “What the bloody hell are they doing with my letters?”
“They are three hundred years old; public property in the eyes of the law.”
“They’re my bloody embarrassing love letters from my youth, and nobody else was meant to see. Ever.”
“Well, now everyone can.” Vanessa grinned, savouring his discomfort like an aged, vintage wine. “They even sent out flyers to promote it.”
“Even the one about the lobster and the cheese?”
“Pride of place.”
“Even…” Otto trailed off, unable to utter words in such a distinguished locale. Vampires are famed for orgies of the flesh, but they preferred them at home with the curtains drawn.
“My word.” Otto shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Some of the letters were saucy enough to make the Kamasutra look like the Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar.
“Yes, they were your words. Signed with your name and seal at the bottom.”
Otto looked at the signet ring on his finger, and the Victorian suit on his thin frame. The museum would probably want those too. Over his cold, dead body. “Well, we need to get them back?”
“We?” asked Vanessa in mock surprise.
“Being a vampire is all about legacy. That’s the real thing that’s timeless. And the respect on our names is being tarnished.”
“Sounds like your problem. I was never as fussed by your archaic mechanisms.”
“Why meet in sight of the damned museum if you didn’t want to go?”
“I thought it added suitable drama,” asked Vanessa, flashing a fang-filled grin.
Otto groaned. They belonged to a dramatic species. The only surprise was she didn’t bring a backing orchestra to set the mood.
But he did need her. “You know I am being watched?”
“Ah yes. Two strikes, wasn’t it? You just had to have that little snack. So just one, teeny digression and you’re open season for hunters?”
“Yes,” said Otto coolly, resisting the urge to check under the table for a wild-eyed human with a stake. As always, he enjoyed the club’s no wood policy.
“Is that you begging me for my assistance?” asked Vanessa, leaning back and revelling in the moment.
Otto’s eyes flared, but he managed to spit out, “Please?”
“Then let us go.”
They left to the courtyard of the club, a place with no overlooking buildings and a number of discreet exits to the world outside. Otto stretched out, allowing the light wind and moonlight to bathe him in what was, for him, a light bright enough to read by. “Shall we fly?”
“We could take the tube?” asked Vanessa. “Only one stop.”
“Creatures far worse than you can imagine dwell in those pits of despair.” Otto shrugged. “Besides, they’ll never catch on.”
“That’s what you said about wristwatches replacing portable sundials.”
“Time will tell on that one.”
“Only if they nuke themselves back to the dark ages,” said Vanessa pleasantly.
“Come, then,” said Otto stiffly. He had come to quite like the tube once it’d been explained. It was effectively canned food. But he knew Vanessa was afraid of moonburn, so he was happy to force the issue.
They flew in silence. One tended to lose the taste for small talk after a millennium. You can only discuss the moon in so many ways.
Before long, they landed in front of the British Museum. An odd building, to Otto’s traditional tastes. The dome looked like something had laid a giant egg in a stately home.
They didn’t even bother to hide as they transformed. Not at this hour. Anyone who saw them wouldn’t be believed, and vampires didn’t show on pictures.
They walked to the door, a modern, automatic number sandwiched between the great marble pillars, which resembled a Greek temple of knowledge, even down to the empty wine bottles outside.
Otto tried the door, finding it shut, despite the ‘Welcome All’ sign above it.
“That was your plan?” asked Vanessa with a mocking grin.
“Well, the first part,” said Otto with a sniff. “We shall mist in.”
“Mist in and open the door for me.”
“I can’t mist,” said Vanessa, with the same air of someone admitting they didn’t have a sense of humour.
Otto turned to stare at her. “What do you mean you can’t mist? It’s mist.”
“Never got the hang of it.”
“A vampire who can’t mist.” Otto scoffed loud enough to wake a roosting pigeon overhead. “Vlad would roll in his vault if he heard such nonsense.”
“Look, it’s not like you ever mastered calling animals?”
“Completely different,” muttered Otto, but dropped it. He’d never quite got the knack of calling creatures of the night. It was all he could do to stop them biting him.
But transforming into mist was simple. You just had to change your mind. Otto’s body knew it was a human shape. Now it was time for it not to be.
Otto yawned and stretched, then kept on stretching until his very atoms separated. The sheer force of his unshakable belief in his new form flowed out, overriding his body’s objections, rewriting the very blueprint of himself.
New instructions came back. If he was a mist, he didn’t need all this skin, these limbs.
Vanessa watched, grimacing but unable to look away. “It’s disgusting.”
No hair, no muscle. Definitely no fangs.
And then it was finished. Otto sat there, floating happily as a pale-yellow mist. Without waiting for further assistance, or mockery, from Vanessa, he floated through a crack in the window.
If mists could be smug, Otto was extremely smug. Some things never changed, and misting certainly didn’t. It was a practical, everyday approach to most problems.
That thought passed as Otto was caught in a gust and went flying. He was used to flight but not at this speed, or in these confines. Cold metal went whizzing past, with occasional glimpses of light. They went so fast that even as a mist Otto wanted to vomit.
At the fourth such light, he took a chance and transformed back. He exploded into a janitorial closet, fell over a mop, and lay groaning in a huddle on the floor.
For a moment he laid there, trying not to think about the last few moments of his afterlife. Then, sighing, he unfolded himself and stood up. Just. It was hard remembering how legs worked. Clouds had it easy.
After he managed to work out how both hands and doorknobs worked, on the third attempt, Otto staggered into Vanessa in a spacious hallway.
“How did you get in?” asked Otto.
“The window was open. I opened it further and climbed in.”
Otto’s smugness dropped by several degrees. “What the hell happened to me?”
“It was the air conditioning intake, you idiot.”
Otto didn’t know what that was, so he ignored the insult. But he was sure it was a blight on the world. “How did you find me?”
“Could hear your screaming for miles.”
“The Count of Orlok does not scream,” said Otto, straightening up to his full height.
Screaming or not, Vanessa wasn’t the only one to investigate the noise. A bulky man in a blue uniform rounded the corner. Otto didn’t need vampiric senses to tell that the man was hiding packs of biscuits and full sugar cola in his office drawers. He filled both his uniform and the hallway.
Otto surged instinctively forwards into the Vein-Fu attack position, fangs out and arms raised, before Vanessa whispered, “Remember the Temperance Accords.”
Rolling his eyes, Otto changed track. The last thing he needed was another hunter after him, leaving traps everywhere. He dropped his arms with a loud sigh and looked the panicking man in the eyes, fixing him with a full dose of vampiric glamour. “You would like to go to sleep now, and you won’t remember a thing about this in the morning.”
The man lay down on the floor and went to sleep, sucking on his thumb as he used a nearby Ming vase as a pillow. Two suits of Edwardian armour watched over him, which would surely frighten him when he woke.
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” said Vanessa with a grin.
“We may need a drink of him later.” Otto wasn’t sure he believed his own words, but it was better than silence. “Now come on. Let’s hurry.”
“One moment.” Vanessa knelt down to remove a small square from the man’s belt.
“A key card. It will open the doors so you don’t have to go on another little adventure.”
“A card can open doors?” asked Otto, distracted from the mockery by this revelation.
“So oblivious to the modern day.” Vanessa shook her head and, walking across to the main chamber, ran the card through a slot next to the main doors. They opened, revealing an antechamber that could house a cathedral.
“It’s hard,” said Otto. “Nothing used to change. Now you blink and they’ve invented something new. Someone asked if I wanted digital bits of coins the other day.”
“You don’t really get out much, do you?”
“My memoirs aren’t going to complete themselves.”
“The only benefit to that, is that writing it keeps you away from the world.”
Otto paused as Vanessa moved on, slipping a few golden guineas from his wallet into the sleeping guard’s pocket. More to ease Otto’s ever-growing conscience than anything else. Then he continued.
Vanessa grabbed a map brochure from the wall and led the way. Following the chamber, they met the Egyptian section, pausing here and there to appreciate items older than themselves. A rare treat, even in London.
Otto paused at the mummies. He thought he recognised one from a party; post-death, of course.
“Do you want to wake him?” asked Vanessa
“No, he’ll just get his bandages in a twist we didn’t come sooner,” said Otto. He continued walking without a second thought. Rameses had never known how to unwind.
They continued walking down the wide-open halls and Otto couldn’t help but notice a very strong theme running throughout the building. “Silver of the Tsar’s, religious iconology of the Orthodox Church, a history of spear making? Who is booking these, and why do they hate me?”
“Don’t be foolish. It’s just a museum,” said Vanessa. But Otto noticed she walked with her knees clenched and elbows in as if to make as little contact with her surroundings as possible.
“They may as well add garlic,” said Otto darkly, following her as quickly as he could manage with dignity. At the end of the hall sat the literature exhibit, sandwiched between pitchforks of the ages and decorative medieval torches. But they were nearly there.
The automatic door opened into a large hallway that Otto was delighted to see contained carpets. He was less delighted to hear a strong, feminine voice.
“I know you came here for the letters, but you’re not leaving with them.”
In the middle of the room was the worst creature of darkness of all.
A woman wearing sensible glasses on a chain and a helpful nametag saying ‘Summer’ sat on a chair with a novel in one hand and a crossbow in the other.
“Give us the letters and we will not have to murder you,” said Otto with a polite bow, twisting as much glamour as he could into the words.
“Please. Vampires are just oversized mosquitos when it comes down to it.” Summer smiled, and fired something at Otto.
An aluminium arrow protruded from his heart. It would have killed most people, but Otto had bigger concerns. “You ruined this suit, you miserable crone. Do you know what that cost?”
Summer shook her head, the serious bob cut not moving an inch. “Always worried about costs. If you want something to count, I can give you one. The injury to the guard out front makes three strikes.”
Otto paled, as much as a vampire could anyway. Before he could answer, or flee, something dropped from the ceiling. After a thud, they were revealed to be tufts of grass, surrounding the pair in a square, separating them from both Summer and the door.
“Grass?” asked Vanessa with a snort. “You know we’re allergic to garlic, not grass?”
“Consecrated ground,” said Summer with a smug smile. “Lovingly blessed by a priest for your inconvenience.”
“That’s ridiculous. You can’t just move holy ground,” said Otto.
“Try and cross it then.”
Otto didn’t, neither did Vanessa. They both stood waiting for an opportunity to present itself. The chances seemed slim, so they stood in silence except the air conditioning roaring overhead.
After a while, Summer grinned and said, “You may have noticed the window opposite—”
“Well obviously,” said Vanessa.
“It was a rhetorical question!” Summer’s cool façade fell away for the briefest of moments, before snapping back into place. “In six hours, you will have sunlight.”
“I always did hate daylight savings,” muttered Vanessa.
The Librarian had a sense of timing that most vampires would trade a fang for, letting them both cast lingering gazes towards the large, double windows facing them, before she continued, “If you mist into the jar beforehand, you will not be painfully burnt unalive.”
“Seems like a lot of hassle for me?” offered Otto.
“Do you know how hard it is to identify ashes?” Summer smiled. “Although far easier to sweep into a jar.”
“Humans,” said Otto.
“It’s alright if you want to use an hour to decide. I brought a book. But any funny business…” Summer patted the crossbow at her side, and a silver choker around her neck.
But it wasn’t the only avenue out. Not for Otto, anyway. He looked upwards, and then to Vanessa, who nodded grimly.
“I suppose I may as well mist now.”
Otto turned into mist, then floated into the aircon. As he tumbled and battered around the cold metal vents, all he could hear was Summer’s screams of rage through his lack of ears.
The aircon unit let out just at the entrance again, a serendipitous outcome as that was exactly where Otto fancied. Go back underground, nap for long enough for that hunter to die, then resurface with his issue forgotten. Classic vampire behaviour that would be straight out of the textbook if they made such items.
Yet still his hand paused at the door, and not just because of the new-fangled card locks. Vanessa had been helpful, kind and gentle. All in all, un-vampiric behaviour at every turn.
She had helped him when he needed it, so potentially he should help her.
It was a new kind of thought, and it would take some getting used to the idea. To ease himself in, Otto pointed out that it also meant he would be able to rid himself of both the hunter, and the papers.
He left the door and checked the map. Otto wasn’t stupid; he had a powerful intellect. But it was powerful like a locomotive, running on rails and difficult to steer. Thankfully, that awful Librarian had sent him on the right track. The next stop was liberating a potted plant, followed by the British department.
After a rushed crafting session, Otto clanked as he walked. The suit of armour slowed him down, made it hard to hear and, worst of all, ruined his ensemble. This must be what it was like being human.
But walk he did, and he made it to the new exhibit. Eventually.
The door was already open, which was a pleasant surprise. Otto didn’t fancy using the gauntlets for such fiddly items as doorknobs. In the room, Vanessa paced like a caged tiger, looking for an exit. But there was no escape, aside from the air conditioning unit.
Otto paused at the consecrated ground rolls, and whispered a quick prayer to Lilith. then stepped onto the holy ground.
No hissing, no pain, no blinding lights. Otto sighed, despite the lack of lungs, and stepped again. Filling a suit of armour with regular dirt felt like a cheat code, but if the humans were playing games, then so could he.
Another step, another lack of sizzle. It was quite easy. In theory he was standing on top of regular ground, not holy ground. It was a loophole, but so was the roll of grass in the first place.
Through the thick armour, Otto heard clapping. He turned the helmeted head to see Summer a few feet away. “So, you managed to take away your speed and agility. A masterclass in why age doesn’t equal wisdom.”
Otto bridled, clanking furiously as he puffed out his chest. “I made it across, didn’t I?”
“Back into the trap.”
“A trap for whom?” Otto grinned, stepping forwards. Eager to stop this once and for all. He pounded his gauntlet on his breastplate and relished the satisfying clank. “Arrow proof.”
“Good point.” Summer stood up and put her crossbow on the chair, replacing it with a speargun, loaded with what looked, to Otto’s trained eye, like a silver-tipped harpoon. “This is the current trend for hunters. A lot more power, more than enough for that tinpot armour, and no gunpowder to embarrass us to the police.”
“Tinpot?” asked Otto.
“You are wearing ceremonial armour, you ninnyhammer. You’re in the biggest museum in the world and you didn’t stop to read the signs.”
Otto thanked Lilith that the visor covered his face. Unfortunately, he could just see Summer’s smug expression, and the mix of shock and despair on Vanessa’s face.
It was hard to say which one motivated Otto more. But he considered the options. He had spent time in ashes before, but admittedly not on a shelf in some underground lair. A future as a snow globe didn’t sound enticing.
So, he moved forwards, clanking footstep after clanking footstep. Summer took a step back and fired her harpoon. Otto winced and closed his eyes, hearing a resounding thud, but feeling nothing. It must be good armour after all.
Otto opened his eyes to reveal a harpoon and a pile of ashes on the floor at his feet.
He was tumbled from his shock by Summer snatching up her crossbow and shooting a desperate arrow.
The arrow bounced off Otto’s breastplate. Then he closed on her. As she opened her mouth to speak, he punched her in the face with a mailed fist and she dropped to the floor.
In the bad old days, he would have drained her dry, leaving a withered husk for the animals to gnaw her bones. But nowadays he was good, reformed, and wouldn’t conduct such shenanigans.
Well, maybe not that good, he thought as he stole her purse, house keys and phone. But certainly not evil. Just inconveniencing. He found a handful of flyers advertising the collection of love letters, which explained a lot. Especially about the unfriendly exhibits.
Then he turned to the ash pile on the floor that had previously been known as Vanessa. Admittedly, she was a lot less annoying in her current state, but she had helped him. After briefly wondering how long he could leave her in an urn in the Roman department, he decided that perhaps the Librarian would help them after all.
With surprising care, Otto used a flick of an arrow to draw a drop of blood and then rested it on the ashes. There was a poof, a cloud of blue smoke, and then Vanessa’s form reappeared from the ashes. She adjusted her hemline and spat on the floor. “That was awful.”
“The blood.” Vanessa coughed and spluttered. “Did she ever drink water? Ever? Like drinking treacle.”
“I didn’t realise reviews were a part of the resurrection experience.”
“Drier than a salted cracker.”
“You are welcome for the resurrection.” Otto bowed. “But if you don’t mind?”
“Yes, yes.” Vanessa paused at Summer’s unconscious body to tie her shoelaces together and steal her glasses. Then, after Otto kicked the rolled turf out of the way, they walked across to the exhibit.
There they were, the letters held up on little pedestals behind glass, for the world to see. With a tidy, little plaque saying declaring them excellent examples of out-dated vernacular. There was even an interactive screen displaying guests’ reactions.
“People laughing at our letters?” Otto shuddered. “I’d rather be in that mad woman’s jar.”
“Wait,” said Vanessa. They watched a video montage of people saying how deeply moved they were. How it rekindled their marriages, and, for one young couple, how they started dating as they met in front of it on a university field trip. Best of all, how even the historians had no idea what lobsters and cheese meant. It was lost to the ages, presumed to be a very polite metaphor for the bedroom.
If you ignored the horde of bored schoolchildren halfway through the video, there was only one conclusion for Otto. “Are we popular?”
“And inspiring.” Vanessa raised an eyebrow. “So, do you still want to take them?”
Otto used a finger tap to break the glass, then paused. Vampires were rarely popular. It was a pleasant surprise to find people liked him.
Perhaps his legacy could be filling the world with love? That almost sounded like a worthwhile goal. It was possibly the only thing he had achieved for decades, and he managed it without even leaving the house.
And if everyone else was doing it, perhaps it was time to dust off the coffin. “Vanessa?”
Otto coughed despite not having breathed since the dark ages. Some actions are just necessary. “Perhaps you would like to join me at one of the dancing halls?”
“You’re a bit late.”
“Oh, no worries,” said Otto, turning away to hide his disappointment. “I am sure you have plenty of offers.”
“Those closed decades ago, you cretin. How about a coffee overlooking the Thames?”
“Sounds…” Otto searched his vocabulary for the right word. It had been a while. “Pleasant.”
“Did you want to play marbles with Elgin’s set on the way out?”
Otto smiled and took her waiting hand. “It’s a date.”
And with any luck, they could stop by the fish and cheese markets on the way home.
Rick Danforth is a speculative fiction author from Yorkshire, England, where he works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. When not working valiantly at the typeface or in the plot mines, he can normally be found doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a type of involuntary yoga with uncomfortable pyjamas.