Philip was missing.
Philip is missing, flashed through the head of his mother. Philip, Philip! – no answer. He had been missing before, sometimes for hours until he was found sleeping tucked away under blankets in improbable places. This time it was different. He had been seen last by Julia running into the garden. Earlier, he had been at the breakfast table, taken his medication and entertained the family with some Spiderman escapades and other curiosities of the Marvel Universe. Was he playing a prank and waiting to be discovered under the bed or behind the shower curtain? Every corner of the house and garden had been searched without any luck. Still everyone expected to hear any moment the familiar hoarse but booming little voice shouting Made you look for me !.
Philip’s mother was about to call for help when Ellen motioned her to put down the phone, nodding at a small object. It was the box that contained the tablets which Philip’s doctor had prescribed for him yesterday. Ellen pointed at the small print at the front of the box which read: Attention! Do not take, if you live in Johnson City, Tennessee, and your initials are P.H.. Else, you risk experiencing shortness of breath and/or displacement in space and time.
‘Now we know’, said Ellen in a matter-of-fact voice.
‘He may be meeting with his beloved dinosaurs as we are speaking’, suggested Julia.
All was pitch black. This must be a dream, thought Philip. A moment back he had been at the playground in the neighbor’s garden, pitting Spiderman against the Incredible Hulk, and glimpsing into the rich light of a warm late fall morning. Am I blinking? As far as blinks go, this is a long one. And why is it so cold all of a sudden?
Philip’s eyes started to adjust to the dark. He perceived the faint silhouette of what seemed to be large pine tree. The ground felt soft under his feet. It could be a lawn – had he fallen asleep in some park by day and was waking up now in the middle of the night? Not that he could remember. Suddenly he stepped on some gravel. ‘This is a path through the park’ thought Philip and moved on. The hooting of a tawny owl reminded him of his last trip to Rocky Springs, the old abandoned village in the woods, when, in the midst of the moldered ruins, he and his family lost their sense of time. They had to feel their way back to the parking lot in the darkness of a new moon night, and surrounded by the muffled concert of a late-October forest alive with strange and fearsome noises of uncertain origin.
Philip paused for a moment, startled by another, much stranger sound that made his hair stand on ends. Was this a noise or was it a voice? He seemed to hear his own name, called by an ever so faintly audible, far-away and somewhat shrill, high-pitched organ that faded out slowly. Was someone trying to rescue him? Or was there an evil demon mocking him in his state of confusion and helplessness? Philip listened again. All was quiet.
The police had arrived, and an officer took notes. ‘You are sure he’s not at the neighbors?’ ‘He is not’, sobbed Philip’s mom. His father ran frantically up and down, waving his hands in the air.
‘Does he have a hiding place in the attic?’, the officer asked.
‘That’s where we looked first. It’s – his medication!’ The officer looked confused.
‘Does he have an invisibility problem? Those can be nasty.’
‘He’s often heard, but not seen’, volunteered Julia.’ Now there’s no trace of him either way.’
When Philip’s mom produced the pillbox, Ellen came from the office. ‘I did some internet search on Fugalin’, she said. ‘Some problems with SSTTS have been reported which stands for Sudden Spatio-Temporal Translation Symptom. A husband claims he saw his wife dissolve into nothingness from one moment to the other while they were having dinner together. A minute before, she had taken Fugalin. The neighborhood was scanned for two weeks with sniffing dogs and infrared detection devices. No success. Two months later, a postcard arrived from Saudi-Arabia. It turned out that the vanished wife had been transported in an instant from Johnson City to a suburb of Medinah. Unfortunately, she also had been boosted one week into the future. To send mail not only into to another continent, but also into the past had required a major intervention from the side of the Arabian government. The displaced woman moved back to Johnson City, but remained separated by one week from her spouse, until finally, she materialized again at the breakfast table of her home. The whole affair had some effect on her mental health. Her confused account of her journey back in time involved a small green being and the transportation in an egg-shaped spaceship.’
‘It must have been a Martian’, Julia added.
A faint sweeping noise seemed to grow in strength. Philip felt his heart pounding. A gust of icy wind joined the uncanny sound to give him a sensation of some shapeless but terrifying menace in rapid approach. He started running when suddenly he was stopped by a hundred cold hands pushing him back. Falling down he realized that he had run into a bush wet with morning dew. He looked up and saw a bizarre flickering motion sharply cut out against the dark sky and still darker than the sky. ‘Black lightning’, flushed through his head. Inadvertently, he expected thunder, but there was just the whirl of the icy wind, for a moment intensified to a roar, but then receding.
Philip took a deep breath. He got up and ran along the walkway as fast as he could. It slowly started to dawn, and the grey light of the early morning made appear solitary stone statues that looked at him with empty yet threatening eyes. Then he saw, to his great relief, a wide open gate straight ahead of him. There was a way out of this garden of terrors, after all. He ran through the gate but found to his horror that he was unable to escape, as he was pulled back into the park by what seemed to be an invisible rubber band. The more he struggled to get away, the greater his distance from the gate behind him, the stronger the mysterious force that held him captive. Philip understood: he was imprisoned in the park.
He looked around. A spacious landscape with old trees, some them fallen, with ponds and hedges stretched out before him under the cloudy sky of a late fall morning. The lawn was unkempt. Paths overgrown with weed and moss created an impression of neglect or abandon. ‘This would be a good time to wake up’, thought Philip. ’Besides, the school bus must come any moment’. But he felt as awake and alert as ever. In front of him was the statue of an imposing warrior who leaned on his cote of arms showing the head of a dragon freshly cut off from its body, and still bleeding. Philip shivered when all of a sudden he heard a clear high-pitched voice calling his name. From the back of the statue emerged a little green man with a smile on his face and strikingly handsome features.
‘May I introduce myself? I’m the Credible Hulk’ – ‘The Credible Hulk?’
If anyone knew the ins and outs of Marvel Universe, it was Philip. Well, the creature’s skin was hulk-green, for sure, but that was about the only thing the curious little fellow shared with the infamous supervillain.
‘Wait a moment’, said Philip, Are you a distant relative of the Incredible Hulk?’
‘Don’t even mention that brute’, said the elf.’ How come everyone knows about that dark spot of the Marvel Universe, and nobody knows about me? Does anger count so much than happiness?’
Philip got interested. The little man winked him an eye. ‘Most of the time, I’m just a person like everyone else. But sometimes I cross a threshold of exuberant joy, and then I become the Credible Hulk. I shrink and turn green and grow supernatural powers to support the weak and help the afflicted and to perform random acts of kindness. I pride myself of being one of the good forces of the Marvel Universe. I’m specialized on people who get lost in space and time. Whenever I turn green I check my computer account for new cases of this awful misfortune, and this is how I found you earlier today.
‘Lost in space and time?’, wondered Philip.
‘Yes, its your new medication, a very unpleasant side effect. I deal all the time with these cases. Once every week somebody vanishes in some outlandish place in the past or future. Luckily, when this happens, Marvel Universe receives an electromagnetic signal with the information about the victims whereabouts in space and time, the so-called displacement echo. Once I catch it, I use my special gift to move the involuntary traveler back to his home and into his present. I’ll have you out of here in some hours. Well, maybe days..’
‘Where am I, and what time is this?’
‘ This place is Transylvania, and the year is 2010.’
‘So I’m ten years old all of a sudden? I always wanted to travel to Transylvania to do research on the…on the… Say – could it be that we are on the premises of a Transylvanian count?’
‘Well, yes. I know what you think. But it’s not true that they are vampires. At the end of the eighties, the last Romanian vampire was caught and slain after he had terrorized the whole country for decades. Now all Transylvanian counts are regular tax-paying citizens of Romania.
‘That’s all fine. But how do we get away from here?.’
‘ My time-space capsule is waiting at the southeast side of this park. It’s a quarter of an hour walk.’
‘ You think, we can get out of this park? I tried to leave but there was some strange force holding me back. It was like being tied to the gate by a rubber band you can neither touch nor see.’
‘I know what you are talking about. We may indeed have a small problem here. This is how vampires… I mean how Transylvanian counts use to screen off their properties. I tried myself to leave this place, but..’
‘Are you telling me that you couldn’t get out either?’
‘Precisely. Yesterday night, after my landing, I started to search for you but didn’t find you anywhere. So I thought that you might have left the park, and I wanted to do the same, when I found that something was holding me back. Then I tried to use my capsule, but it seemed to be tied to the ground by the same force that keeps us from passing through the gates. I’m afraid the whole place is surrounded by an invisible shield that lets you in and then holds you captive.
‘So we are trapped?’
There followed an uneasy silence.
‘Don’t worry. Let’s first have breakfast in my capsule, and then we’ll see a bit more clearly’.
They walked over the lawn which was fresh with morning dew. In a distance the contours of an enormous castle appeared, sharply edged into the grey morning sky. It was surrounded by a gloomy ring of dark pine trees, and its massive windowless walls were almost entirely black. A mighty central tower, topped by a circle of jagged embrasures was like an exclamation mark giving emphasis to the somber message that this bastion was prepared to brave the siege of any invader, however powerful.
‘That castle won’t be an easy price’, observed Philip.
‘No need to take it over by force. We’ll just knock at the entrance gate, introduce ourselves politely as two space-time travelers wanting to return home and ask for the count. We’ll suggest to him to suspend his invisible shield so we can travel home. As easy as that.’
Philip didn’t respond. He quietly questioned some of the assumptions made by his optimistic companion. They stopped at a green egg-shaped object the size of a small car.
‘My capsule’, nodded the Credible Hulk an invited Philip to crawl in. It felt quite cozy, and Philip felt instantly better. From a back compartment, the captain of the space-time ship produced two cups of cocoa, various cheese sandwiches, and large quantities of cereal.
‘May I ask who you are when you are not the Credible Hulk?’
‘Then my name is Jacob, and I live in Johnson City, Tennessee.’
‘In Johnson City! That’s where I am from.’
‘I know’, winked the Hulk.
‘Now comes a surprise’, he said. ‘What has six letters, three of them g’s? Eggnog!’ The warm eggnog felt marvelous and immediately restored Philip’s vital spirits.
‘What are we waiting for ?’, he cried. ‘Let’s go and talk to the master of the mansion.’
Two iron dragonheads grew out of the huge entrance gate, each of them holding a heavy iron ring in its snout. Philip felt slightly weak in his knees, and a swarm of butterflies was fluttering in his stomach. Was this the best time of the day to bother the count? Maybe it was to early, and he was not done with his morning paper? Maybe the news were bad, making it prudent to shift the visit to the afternoon when their impact had faded out? While Philip pondered these matters, he was struck by a thundering sound, shattering into a hundred echoes. The Credible Hulk had used one of the knockers. Philip’s impulse was to run away while it was still time.
All remained quiet inside. ‘This is a large place’, said the Credible Hulk. ‘Whoever lives here doesn’t bother to walk half a mile to the door to welcome some stranger. They want visitors to come in and make themselves a home’. To Philip’s horror, he started to pull on the iron knocker with all his force. And indeed, the entrance was unlocked. They both cringed under the bloodcurdling screech of the door in its hinges when it slowly opened.
The two intruders entered a hall that would have dwarfed the largest grizzly bear on his hind legs. The rusty armors of medieval knights gazed at them, enormous antlers graced the walls, with long threads of cobweb hanging from prong to prong.
‘Do you think it’s a good idea to go on?’, whispered Philip. ‘Maybe we should leave a written note and go back to the capsule’.
‘I’ve dealt with similar cases before. Once you’ve got going, you must go on.’
‘Maybe nobody lives here?’ Although, considering the overall situation of the visitors, this could not be seriously wished for, at that moment it appeared to Philip as the more desirable option.
They walked on a creaking floor through a dark and chilly hallway. The Credible Hulk had the courage to shout, but his ‘Hello?’ came out rather like a shy question than a confident call for assistance. Going up a stately staircase, they found themselves watched by the eyes of grim-faced noblemen looking at them from wall portraits. ‘Don’t pay attention’, said the Credible Hulk and nudged Philip swiftly by the large picture of what seemed to be a medieval knight in full armor, but with his helmet removed. A dreadful, yet fascinating figure stared at the onlookers. Although the whole appearance gave the impression of strength, the haggard face betrayed a gravely ill person, with pale yellowish skin stretched thinly over sharply defined cheek bones. The mouth was half-open and revealed strangely non-human, small and sharp rodent teeth. But the most ghastly feature of the portrait were the knight’s bloodshot eyes which seemed to throw daggers at them. It was as if the painter had captured his model in a sudden fit of rage, a rage so intense that the wooden rectangle of the frame appeared too weak to contain it. A title was engraved in the lower edge of the frame, it read” Bloodimir III.
‘He wants to jump at us’, cried Philip.
‘Just go on’, urged the Credible Hulk, and the two started to run upwards.
‘His eyes are following us!’ Philip was terrified.
There could be little doubt. The eyes of the awful ancestor had moved with the visitors and were shooting blood-red arrows at their present place, the head of the stairway. They both were arrested. ‘It’s an illusion’, decided the Hulk. ‘Those ancient painters had their ways to make their portraits seem alive. Nothing to worry about. Let’s see what lies ahead.’
They went on exploring the second floor. Cracked and unpolished windows opened the view at a stern and bleak landscape. Beyond the park, dark pine forests stretched in all directions of the compass, merging at the horizon into a mountain range whose sharply cut, bizarre profile resembled staggering rows of shark teeth.
They looked into various apartments, among them an old dusty library. All seemed to be uninhabited and untouched by any effort at maintenance. ‘Not much of a chance to find anyone up here’, the Hulk sighed.
‘I think we should leave this place now’, proposed Philip.
‘And what then? Running against the invisible wall? I won’t leave this cuddly home until we’ve tried everything. I have retrieved victims of space-time displacement from the interior of Egyptian pyramids in the late Ptolemaic era, from a desert island, from an air-filled shell twenty-thousand leagues under the sea, and once I rescued an elderly woman of Detroit from a planet full of meat-eating dinosaurs. There’s no reason why I should not get you back from Transylvania.’
They both did not enjoy the thought of going down the staircase. ‘Run by the unsavory fellow and look the other way’, commanded the Hulk. From the lowest step, Philip glimpsed at the portrait and shuddered.
Exploring the spacious entrance hall, they found themselves at the head of a narrow spiral staircase. ‘Maybe we will meet the count in his wine cellar.’ ‘Or his torture chamber.’ Philip was skeptical.
The air became stale and damp as they climbed down the winding steps. They found themselves in a dimly lit aisle the end of which was illuminated by an eerie bluish light. Walking closer, they realized that the source of mysterious glow was a room whose door was cracked open. They were not prepared for what they saw when glancing into the room. The light came from about twenty large computer screens mounted on cubicles that were arranged in a rectangular pattern. In each cubicle a person was working; they all sat on low, uncomfortable stools, crouching over their keyboards and turning their backs to the visitors. The spooky scene was completely silent.
They slipped inside with great reluctance. The Hulk cleared his throat. Nobody moved. Courageously, the Hulk tapped the shoulder of one of the ghostly workers. He showed no reaction but remained completely still, his eyes glued to the screen. Repeated and intensified tapping, even a slight shaking of his shoulder did not yield any more of a response. Philip gazed at his screen. It showed a mind-boggling jumble of numbers and symbols, of spiraling curves and warped surfaces entangled with each other in bewildering twists and turns. Philip got dizzy and had to look away. Then he heard the voice of the Hulk, announcing: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Could I have your attention for a moment? We are two space-time travelers stranded at this place and in dire need of help. It seems that we encounter a slight problem when we try to leave, related to some force that confines us to the castle and its environment. Would somebody be so kind to advise us how we could find our way out?’ Not a single head turned.
‘Are they alive?’, whispered Philip. They were operating their keyboards but appeared to be in a deep trance, unaware of the world around them.
The Hulk gave a nod towards the door, and both left the odd laboratory. ‘Not too sociable, these guys’, he said.
‘This might be a center for crazy scientists’, Philip surmised.
‘Well, the good news is that we are not totally alone in this castle. We found some human beings; with a bit of luck we’ll go on meeting some humans that speak to us.’
Philip felt a firm grip around his wrist. Like out of nowhere, a figure had emerged. Someone pushed Philip and the Hulk gently into a dark corner, put his finger at his lips und gave them a sign to crouch down. ‘Get out of here! Try everything you can to get out!’, he urged them with a muted but agitated voice. ‘Find some way out of these walls before it gets dark!’
Philip and the Hulk looked at him with amazement.
‘Let me introduce myself: My name is Hong Xing, and I’m…I’m a…well, an assistant of the lord of this castle, Count Zappendustra. I won’t have the time to give a lot of explanation. The heart of the matter is this: You are trapped on the estate of the last Transylvanian vampire. He comes alive when the sun goes down and sleeps during the day, but he monitors almost everything here with hidden cameras, and if I don’t return to my workplace within five minutes, he will get suspicious. So I’ll have to be brief. We all have to work on problems of theoretical physics, day and night, except for some short breaks. The count enslaves and abuses whomever he can catch on his territory as a research assistant. His victims are assigned grueling scientific tasks that drain out of them the very essence of their lives until they become as soulless and mechanical as the computers that they are forced to work without end. Just last week one of us died of complications due to an unsolvable problem.’
‘How dreadful!’, said Philip.
‘Do everything you can to avoid becoming the research assistants number twenty-one and twenty-two. Possibly, the count already senses your presence around here. I won’t pretend I can give you any sensible advice. You must get away, but don’t ask me how. If I knew, I would be off and not slowly go crazy under this drudgery.’
‘What about the invisible shield around this place?’ The Hulk stayed perfectly calm and reasonable.
‘What about it? It’s there, and it serves its purpose, disastrously. It’s the work of the count’s worst enemy, Dr. Hexapus, who was caught in these walls for some time as the very first research assistant. It didn’t take long till the count that he had captured an ingenious mad scientist. But it was too late – Dr. Hexapus left one night and sealed the whole property with the shield that you came to experience. It’s perfectly impenetrable from inside. Even the count cannot pass through it.’
‘The count is trapped too?’
‘I have to leave..’ Hong started to tremble.’Yes, he is trapped too.’
‘Can anything break the spell?’
‘No..yes..’, hasted Hong with a flat, panting voice. ‘Impaling doesn’t do anything. We tried that three times, and he survived with not as much as a scratch. I really have to go now, or I feel his wrath tonight. Yes, in theory, there’s a way to end this calamity. But no chance it will ever happen: The count has to laugh- he has to give a deep, heartfelt, happy laugh. Then he turns into a normal person, the shield collapses, and we all are free. Don’t get your hopes up. No one can even imagine him laughing. That evil grin on his face when he spots an error in our calculations is what comes closest. One of us had the unlucky idea to confront him with a cross. He had a fit of vicious, unhealthy laughter and wore the cross as an ornament for a week or so – I must go.’
He vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.
‘Quick’, said the Hulk. ‘We have no time to spare.’
They raced up the spiral staircase and ran to the entrance door, trying to make as little noise as possible.
The door was shut. They joined their forces and pushed with all their might. ‘Locked!’
‘Perhaps we can slip through a window?’
‘They are all barred.’
‘Let’s go into that library!’, said Philip. ‘There must be a floor plan. Some map that shows hidden exit ways.’
The grisly portrait on the staircase wall gleamed ferociously, as if it had awaited their return. They scurried up the steps and entered the library.
The size of the collection was quite impressive, with each of the many shelves densely packed and bending under the load of heavy volumes. Some books, covered with dust and cobwebs, had probably not been touched in a generation. Among them was a history of the house of Zappendustra in ten thick folios. Other parts of the library were clearly in use. Philip noticed that all issues of the magazines ‘Nature’, ‘Science’, and ‘Physical Review’ were present, modern textbooks of physics and mathematics were placed beside a comprehensive encyclopedia of alchemy. One large volume, studded with reading marks, had been taken from the shelves.
‘The great book of vampire jokes’, read Philip
‘He is trying to laugh’, murmured the Hulk.
Philip skimmed through the pages. ‘What tourist attraction does Dracula never leave out when he visits New York? The Vampire State building.’
‘Reasonably funny’, said the Hulk ‘But it wouldn’t make anyone shake with a bout of redeeming, life-changing laughter.’
‘How can you tell that a vampire is lazy?’
‘He uses leeches. I knew that one. It’s quite alright. Fine for a chuckle among vampires. But not a spell-breaker either.’
Philip immersed himself into a series of dignified historical volumes, entitled ‘The Lives and Deeds of the Great Vampires from Nosferatu to Donald Rumsfeld’ that exerted its eerie fascination on him. The Hulk delved into a monograph on fluorescence spectroscopy.
‘Look at this!’ Philip pointed at an open book that lay on the top of a huge writing desk. The pages were covered with handwriting in black ink, all letters high and slender, and leaning towards the left at a meticulously measured angle. Philip read out loud: ‘Monday, the 30th of October 2010 - this must be his diary!’. ‘Another year has nearly passed.’, continued the Hulk. ‘I feel his presence. Tomorrow he will strike. Will I be strong enough? Is it all an illusion? I think of last year and I see in my mind the giant condor that circled my towers all day but never descended on me. Will you fly away again, Dr. Hexapus? Or will you dare to face me this time? Will you return to dust under the force of my spells? Or will I perish forever?’
‘He is preparing to meet his fate at the hands of his worst enemy. Did not the prisoner who talked to us…’
‘Yes, did not Hong Xing mention the mighty wizard Dr. Hexapus?’
‘Of course. He was the one who sealed the estate of the count.’
‘And it looks like the count is expecting him to return..’
‘But that’s today!’
They heard steps. The sound of slowly but firmly approaching steps echoed in the long hollow of the hallway.
‘The count!’, cried Philip with a muffled voice.
‘Or the magician.’
‘What shall we do? Hide behind bookshelves?’
‘If it’s the magician’, whispered the Hulk, ’we could join his cause. Three is better than one. Maybe he’ll feel stronger together with us.’
‘Will he really? He may be a pretty unsociable character.’
‘Well..’ A sudden breeze blew open the library door. The full length of the hallway extended before Philip and the Hulk. There was nobody.
‘No one. How is that possible?’
‘And look: somebody lighted torches all along the hallway.’ The steps continued, growing slowly fainter.
‘The spook is starting. This is like being trapped in the castle of a bloodthirsty Transylvanian count on Halloween night.’
‘Good comparison’, agreed Philip.
‘It’s safe to assume that the count will enter his library. We are not safe here. Let’s try to hide somewhere in the cellar.’
They tiptoed noiselessly along the corridor, tightly pressed against the wall which was but dimly lit by the flickering torches. The staircase came in sight.
‘The portrait!’, exclaimed the Hulk.
Where the portrait had been was now an empty frame.
‘He isn’t any more part of the picture.’
‘He can’t be far away. Let’s stay up here. We’ll be easy prey for him on the staircase.’ Philip’s heart was pounding.
‘The must be rooms with fireplaces. Maybe we can escape through a chimney.’
The Hulk glimpsed through a door left ajar that led into a spacious chamber. ‘Look, there’s an open window!’
They both had the same idea. Would it be possible to leave the castle through the window and to climb down clinging to the ivy that covered the outside walls?
A gush of icy wind blew into their faces. The shutters clattered. The view out of the window into the black nothing of the Transylvanian night was rather uninviting. The castle walls were high, steep and bare.
‘Not all that much ivy to hold on to.’
‘It wouldn’t have been the solution’, the Hulk added. ‘Ivy has a way of turning brittle around this time of the year. A trained wallclimber once warned me of ivy..’
What was that? A sharp swishing sound emerged from the darkness, and for an instant the contours of an enormous wing appeared. Instinctively, the friends ducked for cover and cowered under the window sill.
‘Did you see that wing?’
‘It wasn’t the wing of a big raptor. There were no feathers.’
‘No. It was skin stretched over thin, spidery bones. Like the wing of a ..’
‘Yes, of course. A bat. That’s the way of vampires. They transform themselves into giant bloodsucking bats.’
Suddenly, Philip remembered his unsettling early morning encounter with a strange flying entity in the park. He shuddered at the thought that it had been none other than the count whose rage at the invasion of his property he would have felt in unimaginably awful ways had he been noticed.
‘So he will..’
‘He will return through the window into this room when his evening flight is over.’
‘Then let’s find a hiding place! Quick!’
The swishing of the wings became louder. A shapeless mass, black against the black sky, was moving towards the castle at great speed. For a second, the friends were paralyzed with fear. Then the Hulk cried:
‘The curtain! Behind the curtain!’
A second window in the chamber was covered with heavy draperies, reaching down to the floor. Philip and the Hulk arrived at their hiding place in a long jump and remained completely still, not daring too breathe.
They had found their den not a moment too early. Unable too see through the thick cloth, they were startled by a loud thumping noise, like that of a massive bird landing on a smooth surface.
Then there were steps. The same steps that had frightened them earlier, only much closer and approaching inexorably. The sound of a deep snarling voice made them tremble.
‘Dr. Hexapus, I presume? I came to acknowledge your great talent, now you give me reason to admire your genius. I was wrong. You darted sideways, once more.. I imagined you coming in the form of a poisonous fog enveloping the castle, or as an ugly albino. Now you mock me by hiding behind a curtain, as a plain mortal might do. Very humorous. Well, I’m not in the joking spirit tonight my friend. I’m set to fight it out with you tonight, once and for all. Are you?’
The curtain was pulled back in a brash move.
The friends looked into an entirely frightful face with yellowish teeth and brown–grey thinning hair. A tall emaciated figure, wearing a blood-red pullover, gazed at them with gleaming eyes through a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles.
‘Sir..’, stammered the Hulk, ’Sir count…Mylord… we are lost in space and time. We come as friends and mean no harm. We landed on your..your beautiful estate by accident…I mean, no bad accident, more a lucky coincidence, we enjoy our stay..so far. ..it’s charming, quite a little paradise..’. The Hulk rambled uncontrollably and started to sweat, then pulled himself together and finished bravely: ‘Sir, we hope for your help and hospitality.’
The count raised his eyebrows. He looked from the speaker to Philip who had turned as green as the Hulk. He made a step backwards and stared at the two shaking little boys who held hands. He moved his head slowly to one side and squinted. His lower jaw dropped and then started to tremble. The count emitted a sequence of unnatural gurgling cough-like sounds, increasing in frequency, and then – started to laugh. Surprise, relief and amusement lay mixed in this laughter which began as a thin trickle, disbelieving and unsure of itself, and than grew in firmness and confidence until it became a rumbling, rolling, thundering cannonade. It was a manifestation of a mighty force that had been dormant for decades and now erupted into a feast of salvation and self-assertion.
‘I’m laughing’, snorted the count, ‘I’m laughing and you made it happen! The spell is broken, the spook is over!’ He danced up and down the room in happy exuberance and skipped in a circle. From somewhere, bells were ringing. ‘Glorious!’, cried the count,’Oh, glorious, glorious’. Philip and the Hulk looked at each other, shrugging their shoulders in bewilderment. Then they found themselves hugged over and over.
Suddenly, the count looked like a boy contriving a prank. He put a finger to his lips, winked an eye at the friends and motioned them to follow him quietly. He led them down into the entrance hall and further down the spiral staircase that still seemed creepy to them in spite of the transformation they just had witnessed.
They entered the computer room where the twenty research associates sat in complete silence, each one in his own cubicle. Nobody had noticed the entrance of the count and his followers. Prowling, the count approached the cubicle closest to the door and looked at the computer screen which showed an ongoing game of solitaire. It was the place of Hong Xing. The count rubbed his hands together, then grabbed the associate harshly by the left shoulder. ‘Hong Xing!’ In a sudden shock, his victim shot up from his seat, staring speechlessly at the count. ‘Just refresh my memory. Did I assign to you playing solitaire as your task for today?’, said the count slowly, relishing every syllable. ‘No, Sir’. Hong Xing looked down. ‘But what do I find you doing here with the valuable time I’m granting you?’
‘Playing solitude, Sir.’
‘Which leaves me no alternative..’
Hong Xing sobbed.
Hong Xing sobbed more.
‘..relieve you from all your duties and set you free! And all the others as well. Let’s celebrate, my friends!’
And celebrating they did.
The next day was spent with some repair work to ready the Hulk’s space-time capsule for the flight back into the Tennessee present. The count proved to be a kind and efficient helper. In return, Philip and the Hulk assisted him shipping all his blood reserves to the local hospital. The friends spent one more night in the castle. The count let them sleep in the imperial suite of the castle. He tucked them in and told them a good night tale. ‘Put a vampire in the story!’, said Philip. The count did, with a giggle.
The next morning, he received an offer for a faculty position at the Transylvania State University. He was invited to become the chair of the department for Physics and Vampirology. He accepted at once. Later, he waved good-bye to the friends, when their capsule lifted off into the Transylvanian sky, unhindered by the magic shield that existed no longer.
Philip woke up and rubbed his eyes. It was not morning anymore. ‘I must have slept for quite a while’, he thought. ‘And what a dream! The castle, the count..It’s a pity, in a way, that those things only happen in dreams or in movies.’
He felt a piece of sturdy cardboard stuck in a pocket of his shorts. It was a postcard, showing a fearsome, grey medieval castle at sunset. He read:
‘My dear Philip! I understand that you have to go on with your life and return to your home. We will not meet again, because you live in your present, and I in mine, and that you should be stranded again in the future of Transylvania is not all too likely. But I will never forget what you and your friend did as you delivered me from my misery by making me laugh, and I will never think of you without a smile. I know, you will keep me in mind too, and you will remember the most magical defense against the vampires that you will meet in your later life. No impaling may help against them, no drowning and no thwarting with the cross. There may be no remedy but walking into the walls that keep them confined and bursting these walls from inside by the force of laughter. Your Professor Dr. Zappendustra.’
Philip looked up, confused. Then he heard the voices of his parents and his sisters.
Bio: Frank Hagelberg is a computational physicist at East Tennessee State University. Born, raised and trained in Germany, he moved to America in 1990 and taught at SUNY Albany and Jackson State University prior to his present position. He is married and has three children: Ellen, Julia and – Philip. His interests are music, literature, philosophy as well as theoretical and applied vampirology.