Chapter 4 : Knock Knock
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Two bats raced in a blur through the frame on the third floor, wings flapping frantically and wind ruffling the fur on their small bodies. While the browner and fluffier one appeared to be aiming towards the window ahead, the darker one’s objective clearly lay more in catching up with the bat ahead. Several minutes earlier, the runaway had dodged the last of the black bat’s desperate mid-air traps. Frustratingly, it also refused to listen to any sonar messages, no matter how polite.
Just as the two passed through the window, the black bat gained momentum and, straining, slapped a wing in the brown one’s squinting face. At last, further passage was blocked.
A tangle of bat wings collapsed onto the moth eaten carpet below. Furious screeching filled the room.
It was a small room, to say the least. Small and stripped to a bare minimum – an unmade bed in the corner, a table with several pens and a diary, a pile of unopened junkmail surrounded by spots of owl-droppings, a half-open closet accommodating one winter and one summer robe. And, as of recently, there were also two naked, wrestling men.
“Merdric’s?” Jack panted, pushing a frizzy-haired vampire off with disdain. “How are we hidden in a public hostel, huh? You see any brilliant camouflage and deception mechanisms? No, because we are open for the taking!”
Rorp groaned on the floor and sat up reluctantly. “That’s the point.” Massaging his ribs, he got up and shuffled over to the closet. “And you almost led them to my bunker, like an idiot. You think I prefer being here? Your place is boring and depressing. I’d love to be home right now.” He ran his small and thin fingers over the two robes, frowning.
With a sense of distaste, he pulled out the softer, thicker robe and slipped into it.
“I will need that back, it’s my only winter garment. And it was expensive,” Jack announced grudgingly.
Rorp raised an eye-brow, preparing to voice disbelief at anything in the hostel room being described as “expensive”. And yet, his gaze softened. The vampire grabbed the second robe and tossed it to Jack, who was still sprawled naked on the itchy carpet.
Finally dressed, Jack grumpily tossed a pillow towards the end of the bed, clambered onto the mattress and leaned on the wall. “Also, my place isn’t depressing,” he countered finally.
“Are you kidding?” Rorp exclaimed, gesturing widely at the empty walls. His face flooded with a an intense, almost aggressive, smile of disbelief.
“It’s temporary, ok?” Jack explained impatiently.
“You’ve been living here for twenty years,” Rorp stated, the smile trickling away just as quickly and unexpectedly as it had appeared. What remained was a harsh face wrinkled with centuries of worry. He strode over to the mountain of mail and crouching next to it. Idly, he picked up a handful of envelopes and read aloud the pompous labels, one by one.
MOUNTAIN DWELLERS AGAINST SPECEISM
NoNMAgick FReedomS AssoZIAtioN
HOUSE PEST DAILY PROTEST
“Stop signing up for this trash, Jack. I worry,” he concluded.
“You’re just jaded and - and scared, you know that?” Jack contested bitterly from his perch on the bed. “Scared to stand up against injustice and discrimination and those things,”
Jack tried to fight the rush of blood to his pasty face. Sure, it may have started out as overambitious curiosity. But now he lived together with a pile of literature at which even Quibbler readers would raise an eye-brow or two. The unread, brightly colored envelopes flooded his room with the perseverance of spreading crazy-virus. Soon he would wake up wearing tinfoil fang-protectors and a cabbage hat.
Jack lifted an arm demonstratively, trying hard to save face. “Like today: We wouldn’t have to be hiding now if vampires were allowed out past 1 a.m. Wizards can go out whenever they want.”
Rorp snorted. “We’re hiding because we went looking to drink Muggle blood and got caught, not because we ignored the curfew. Deal with it.” He threw aside another envelope with Bettering Banshee Business printed across the still sealed flap. “Vampires don’t need change.”
“Well, then how do you sug-“ Jack began angrily when Rorp interrupted him with a sharp “Shh!”
“What?” Jack whispered, his stomach turning forcefully from fear and hunger in equal measure.
Rorp gestured towards to the window. Crouching like a cat, he tiptoed towards the sagging curtain and hid behind it.
By then, Jack had heard it, too. Knocking on the door three stories below. Confident, strong knocking - the kind that haunts the dreams of anyone who is hiding something, be it an overdue library book or a murderous gang of fugitives.
“Go!” Rorp gesticulated wildly.
“What, no! I’m not talking to them,” Jack protested, sliding lower on the bed and reaching for the blanket.
“Stop being such a wuss, you work here!” Rorp hissed, barring his fangs.
“Lehai will take care of them,” Jack insisted, his voice muffled as he pulled the blanket higher over his head and curled up until he was completely covered but the flowery pattern.
From underneath the useless but reassuring cloth, Jack could hear Rorp’s outraged whispers: “Lehai the gremlin? That lizard was born on that Ministry’s watch list. His entire gremlin family is probably on it.” The floor creaked as Rorp made an angry movement towards the bed. “Get up, now!”
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The impact shook the entire house. All of Merdric’s organic sounds – the dubious scrabbling in the walls, the haunting, distant humming, the clanking of keys and that undefined something in the basement – all had been muted, frozen in half movement. The house was holding its breath.
And then there came the long-awaited shuffling from the attic above, followed by scratching along the insides of the wall.
“Quick, hide! Rorp!” Jack croaked, “Under the bed!”
“Under the bed? I think I’ll just paint the word ‘guilty’ on my face instead, thank you.” Rorp hadn’t moved from the window and was getting more nervous and sarcastic by the second. Through the net of the blanket, Jack observed his friend’s silhouette attempt to strike a nonchalant pose - elbow up and hip leaning against the wall. Then with his hands in his pocket and legs crossed. Cursing, the silhouette tiptoed towards the closet.
Jack exhaled with relief. Rorp was going to turn into a bat and hide in the shadow of the closet if anyone thought to look in. It was a good plan. Not very original. Probably Plan A for all vampires through history, ever, he thought. But still, a plan.
And Jack. He was going to be sleeping. Just a normal worker at a youth hostel.
Clenching the blanket, Jack strained his ears. He could make out Lehai’s hoarse voice coming from downstairs. The gremlin was already in the foyer, his flat feet slapping against on the wooden floor. Then came the heavy, paced thumps of two pairs of boots.
“What can I do for the sirs from the Ministry tonight?” the gremlin crackled politely. Jack imagined Lehai stretching his face into a wide, toothy grin and aiming his reptilian yellow eyes at the towering, dark clad wizards.
Authoritative voiced rumbled incoherently. All Jack could distinguish was the word “vampire” every once in a while. He could always make out the word “vampire”.
Jack closed his eyes and tried to breath.
“Female…blond…Prussian Court…two others,” the voices carried. The steps were getting louder, digging into the fragile, ancient wood of Merdic’s winding stairs.
“Can’t seem to recall seeing any member of the Prussian Court recently, sirs. Or ever in my life, for that matter, if I may say so,” Lehai announced eagerly, panting slightly as his small feet padded five times as fast after the wizards.
Jack’s body began to ache, but he didn’t dare to move even a toe.
The stomping passed his door. A flashing orange light. It was bright enough to shine under Jack’s door and through the fabric of the blanket. Temporarily blinded, Jack listened to the receding steps and to Lehai’s animated chatter. But before Jack could begin to cry with fear, the feet headed right back down the stairs. He wondered if the light had been some sort of vampire-finding spell, and, if so, how it could be so terrible at finding vampires. He even became irritated until he realized that the men he was sure were going to arrest and probe him had passed by and let him be.
When the copper bell of the entrance door finally jingled shut, Jack felt as if he might black out.
“What a dump,” one voice rumbled below his window as the boots squished into the claylike dirt in Merdric’s garden. The low metal gate creaked twice. Finally, Jack dared to take a deep breath.
“Yeah. We’re growing too old for this, eh? Rose making anything good for dinner tonight?” the other replied, already sounding further away.
“Scorp, you know she works late now,” the first admitted, slightly uncomfortably.
“Drinks at the Leaky Cauldron, then?” the other hurridly professed.
“I like how you think, my friend!” the first agreed.
Minutes after the Aurors’ echoing footsteps had faded, Jack was still lying completely still and curled up under his blanket, listening to his own frantic breathing and the irregular, hungry thu-thump in his temples.
When he finally dared to peek out, Jack discovered that Rorp had already scooted back to the pile of letters. He was leaning against the wall with his legs stretched out comfortably in front of him. Visibly entertained, he held one of the numerous weekly activist journals that Jack never got around to reading, despite promising himself he would.
“She got away,” Rorp announced as Jack stiffly slid off the bed.
“The Prussian. Blond, big eyed, big fanged. Surely you remember,” the vampire continued without looking up from the journal.
“How do y-“
“They said so, weren’t you listening?” Rorp inserted impatiently.
“And how can you be sure that she’s from this Prussian Court at all?” Jack insisted, remembering the same large blue eyes boring into his only that morning.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Rorp announced mysteriously.
Jack frowned. Maybe it was a different girl? It must have been. The one that had been pestering him with her mockery and taunting him with her smiles, that couldn’t have been a vampire. Alison -he suddenly remembered her name. That blasted, giggling witch! He was seeing her everywhere, now, like some obsessed lover. Bitterly, he realized that this sort of thing must be what she wanted.
With a loud creak, a wooden panel on the ceiling swung to the side, making Jack jump. In a blur, a cat-sized creature somersaulted downward from the opening. It landed with a quiet slap on the floor.
“Lehai!” Jack exclained, “I’ve told you not to do that, it’s creepy. Why don’t you ever knock, honestly?”
Rorp looked up from the journal briefly. His face darkened and he went back to staring at the page, but his eyes were no longer moving along the lines of text.
The gremlin took several jerky steps towards the center of the room. The moon-light coming from the window illuminated the scaly surface of his double-jointed arm and shoulder.
Lehai’s bright, pointy eyes squinted at Rorp’s figure in the corner. He then turned his oversized head to Jack matter-of-factly and inquired, “Do you have any extra blood? I need it.”
Jack’s eyes widened. Never had the aging gremlin looked more like some demonic lizard cat offspring of the underworld than at that moment.
“Uhm, “ Jack began politely. “Actually, no, Lehai. To be honest, I could use some myself.”
“Do you know where to get some?” the gremlin asked, his bright eyes staring at Jack inquisitively.
“Come!” Lehai gestured with his arm and skipped towards the door.
Jack groaned and got to his feet. This couldn’t be good.
* * *
Over time, Merdic’s lopsided form grew into the city - a quiet, not very greedy patch of moss sticking to the side of a towering, shiny ship - not so much hidden as forgotten.
The three-story Victorian mansion was like one of your favorite dusty holes in the wall where all sort of things disappear to. You know it has a vital function, you just don’t what that function is.
Alongside the other lost bits and pieces, Jack had spent almost two decades in the hole, maintaining his low-profile secret life and accepting his environment with a paradoxical naiveté. He probably should have been wary of the fact that if anything important ever went missing, it would turn up in Merdic’s. But Jack couldn’t imagine that the world would ever find his dusty hole in the wall.
While the Rorp and Jack warily clambered the shaky ladder to the attic, all Jack felt was an increasing sense of annoyance. Only several hours earlier, his night had been going according to plan. Now, there appeared to be no plan at all.
Lehai had already scrambled up one of his secret wall-passages. Being the polite host that he was, the gremlin took the time to hold open the ceiling door as he waited for the vampires to catch up. His reptilian eyes twinkled down at them patiently.
Jack didn’t want to go up there.
The entire attic was quaking. Additionally, the square of light in the ceiling was emitting a frightening chorus of growling, screaming and thumping. Jack didn’t even dare try to imagine what could make so much noise.
“How can we allow that to infiltrate our sanctuary?” a shrill voiced pierced through the stuffy attic.
Reluctantly, Jack poked his head into the opening and blinked. The low-ceilinged attic was lit with six brightly burning clusters of candles along the considerable length of the room. Slowly, things began to seep into focus.
“Is jus’ a young pertty las!” a low rumble countered. Something fell, clattering wood on wood.
The appearance of Jack’s face through the hole in the floor was met with a high-pitched scream that ended all discussion. Mercifully, after the echo in his ears subsided, there was only silence.
The candles crackled, neutral to the tension in the room.
To his surprise, what awaited Jack was not indeed the gang of warring Quidditch fans he had expected to find.Instead, all he saw were three creatures scattered throughout the attic room.
A pair of blood-shot elf-eyes blinked at him in return.
A lonely thump further inside the room attracted Jack’s gaze. His pitch-black eyes were met with a guilty stare from two small, grey pupils. Below them was a mouth with several pointy yellow teeth poking through the coarse lips. Lower still was a voluptuous, grey body loosely covered with animal skin. And below all of that was a tiny wooden stool on which the above mass was balanced uncomfortably but stubbornly. The ogre was looking claustrophobic under the low ceiling, but proud.
Trying not to make any sudden movements, Jack brought the rest of his body through the opening.
In the back of the room, he noticed a centaur. She was lying down, her hooved legs neatly tucked underneath her body. She sighed and flicked a mane of brown hair. “Welcome, vampire.”
Rorp climbed up after Jack and carefully receded into the shadows, after which Lehai slammed the metal door shut.
“I brought vampires, miss,” the gremlin announced. That was when Jack realized that he hadn’t yet seen all the occupants of the room.
“I don’t need vampires, Lehai!” a clear female voice barked from the other end of the attic.
The centaur delicately averted her gaze and glanced towards the floor. Closer to Jack, the elf’s eyes contracted into an angry squint. Only the ogre appeared emotionless. But even he had to shift on the stool uncertainly.
“I need blood. These rats are absolutely abhorrent,” the voice added. Despite the unfamiliar sharp edge, Jack recognized the voice immediately. With a hungry rumble, his stomach flipped violently for the second time that night.
Somewhere to the left of the centaur, the shadows began to move and soon revealed themselves to be a thick blanket. A ghostly face, encircled with a mess of blond waves emerged from the darkness. Piercing blue eyes flashed at the room, spreading their discontent indiscriminately at anything they beheld.
Alison sighed. She poked a naked arm through the folds of the blanket and dropped a bloody rat-carcass onto the coarse wooden floor. It landed with a slap and produced a miserable splatter of dark liquid.
“They will take you hunting,” Lehai explained to her, appearing not to notice the death stares permeating the room.
“Lehai, I’m sorry to interrupt,” the centaur inserted calmly. “When will the meeting start? I must be somewhere in an hour.”
“What meeting?” Jack finally found his voice. “What is this? What are we doing here? Lehai, who is she?”
“Welcome to the thirtieth weekly meeting of The Freedom Brigade.” The gremlin flashed his bright eyes, as impenetrable as always. Then he added offhandedly, “You’ve been receiving my pamphlets.”
The apparent leader of the Freedom Brigade turned to the rest, his scrawny one-foot body radiating cool, reptilian authority. “We must start now. Tonight, we discuss the vampire problem.”
The elf began to nod violently. She plopped down on the floor and whipped out a parchment roll.
“First order of business - Define the vampire problem,” she read proudly.
The centaur cleared her throat delicately from the back of the room. “Let’s skip to risks and benefits.”
“Yes,” the gremlin nodded solemnly. “Jack, sit,” he ordered.
Not knowing what else to do, Jack sat.