Home » Midnight Clown by Guido Eekhaut

HORLA FICTION (November 2018)

 

Midnight Clown

by Guido Eekhaut

NOBODY wants to encounter a clown at midnight in an empty alley. The same can be said of a vampire. The clown, because he is out of place and thus threatening, and the vampire because he does fit in – but you don’t. Anyway, the whole thing always ends with blood on the pavement.

The vampire said nothing. His lips ware sewn together with strong black silk twine. He would starve, but not right away. The day before he had bitten someone. His victim would already be dead, but not for long. Vampires can’t have children. They have no natural progeny. But they feel the urge to continue their species. By means of converts. With blood. Their blood, infected with some rare but extremely virulent virus. Whomever they bite becomes their progeny.

Vampires are not my friends. I am a dentist. It’s a noble but underrated profession. People are afraid of me. Vampires, on the other hand, hate me. I don’t go about it carefully. I cut out their incisors, root and all, and then they starve. Unless they use a knife or a needle or any sharp implement to bleed their victims. Which, for a vampire, is shameful. The most proud will die, even if it takes them years, rather than demean themselves to ordinary slithering of throats, for which their clan expels them.

So they hate me.

The vampire in the alley was on his way to a slow death and could merely growl. He was tied up, some meters high, against a drainpipe. He could not loosen the twine that held his lips together, nor could he untangle the rope that bound his hands. No-one would help him. The other vampires had punished him, and humans would not come to the aid of a vampire.

He knew what he was in for. Three, maybe four years of agony. Slow dehydration. He would go mad halfway. Finally his empty hulk would be washed away by the rain.

Thus vampires punished other vampires.

I set off again, with the monster’s glare in my back. You never turn your back to them, except in this particular case.

People passed me in the broad street. They sported colourful masks, colourful clothes. Carnival. Somewhere in a small town – or perhaps a village – with a view on the Andes. Nameless. Who wants to give a name to small towns like these? If you’re nameless, you avoid attracting vampires. Except they were here anyway, somewhere, in the shadows, avoiding the fires the inhabitants had lit. Later, these fires dead, the vampires would feed.

Unless I found them first.

Jean-Christophe walked towards me. He was colourfully attired as well, defying the night. I wore my usual clothes: black linen pants and jacquet, white shirt, low boots of snake leather. He carried a bottle without a label. “Master,” he said. “A sip?”

He actually was French. Jean-Christophe Valtat with his full name, a proper writer, of books. That’s all I needed to know about him. He already resided in the village when I arrived, in a white house against a hill. He had it painted white because it reminded him of Greenland, where he had lived for some time.

A man in a clown suit passed by, with a retinue of young girls, defiantly shoeless. Music from a trio with violins and trumpet drifted behind them.

“A merry bunch,” JC said.

“They are,” I said. “This evening.”

He nodded, still watching the girls.

“They’re minors,” I reminded him. “Children.”

“It does not matter here,” he carelessly said. “I know of people who married their niece or their next door girl. Married, after a fashion. There wasn’t even a ceremony. And the girls were obviously underage.” He looked me in the face. “They don’t live as long as we do.”

I was familiar with the argument. It was common enough even in Paris, amongst sensible people. Jean Millemont, my most subtle master, kept two young girls in his house, and nobody pointed the finger at him. Later, when they would be of age, they would go their own way. Sufficiently prepared for the world at large. It did bother me, though. Children are not supposed to do adult things.

But let’s concentrate on the vampires. Who promulgate their own ethics.

“You’re a dreamer,” JC said. “You ought to live in the real world.”

As if he knew what the real world had in store for us. He who lived in a white house, had never met a vampire, could not sustain a permanent relation with an adult woman.

I considered all these festive, loud people around me. “They will keep us awake all night,” I said.

But I meant to say something entirely different.

“We will not sleep,” JC said, ignoring my unspoken words. “At least not tonight. Tonight the vampires will go hungry.”

“There’s the dark alleys,” I said. “And drunken people falling asleep.”

“The taste of blood with a high alcohol content is not very attractive to vampires,” JC said, displaying an expertise he had acquired from books. A group with banners passed us by. “On the other hand, it is always open season.” He drank deeply from the bottle.

 

The day after. The heat kept me inside. I worked on some letters, under the draft of the slow ventilator. I lit my third cigarette. The smoke kept the insects away. Breakfast had also been my lunch: a cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits with jam. Since arriving here, I had lost fourteen pounds.

Gustavo, who managed the house, stayed out of the sun, as I did. He checked provisions and wrote a list of things to buy later that day. Like the other villagers he was still sleepy at this hour. His wife had pushed him out of bed, since I expected him to show up. He also did the laundry and cooked my dinner. He made sure the house was locked up in the evening. In exchange I paid him handsomely and made sure the vampires did not bother his family.

They had no children.

Not any more.

“The vampire,” he said, without introduction. He stood behind me, in my room.

“What vampire?”

“In the alley. The punished one.”

“O,” I said. The whole village knew about that. They usually knew more than I did. Certainly they knew the things nobody talked about.

“The people who live in the alley want him out of the way.”

“He will disappear by himself,” I said, without irony. I kept my back to him.“That may take years,” he said.

Time passed slowly here. What is a year in a country like this, where mountains formed a hundred million years ago and the first humans arrived tens of thousands of years ago?

“They want to use the alley,” he insisted.

“He is punished,” I said, not looking at him.

“This is not our business, señor. It has nothing to do with the people from the area, who are now too afraid to use the alley.”

I wanted to tell him: the vampire is helpless and no longer poses any danger. But to them he was still a menace. And you don’t interfere with the business of vampires. This one didn’t hang there by coincidence.

“They don’t want him there,” Gustavo said.

I sighed. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, and turned away.

“When…?”

Damn insolent of him! “As soon as possible,” I said, again without looking at him.

 

It was around seven in the afternoon and the sun was disappearing behind the mountains. The light failed slowly, but too fast for me. The vampire with the sewn lips looked at me, full of hate. And hunger. So soon already.

I was safe. None of his kind would pass in the alley.

He wore a suit of dark blue velours, white socks, no shoes, grey silken shirt. The colours faded in the disappearing light. He smelled of ash from an old fire. He smelled of another world.

I had asked Gustavo for a ladder. Somebody had left it at the end of the alley.

In the distance I could hear men and women making love.

My options were few. His hands were firmly bound. I was in no danger, even when releasing him from the drainpipe.

And then?

What would I do with him?He would not go back to his kind. I had some vague assumption about the sort of transgression he had committed, which had led to his punishment. He would not go back to his kind.

Killing him would not be difficult. The classical method sufficed: a wooden stake through the chest. Quick and efficient. Then there would be the body, which I could throw on one of the fires.

And yet it would not be all that easy.

The ones that fell in my hands, lost their teeth. Eventually they would die because of my treatment. I had no reservations as to their fate. We will never be able to exterminate them, but we can keep them under control.

It is only a matter of eliminating their progeny.

But they were destined to disappear, as a species. In the end. They know as much. They know that people like me will be responsible for their extinction.

Even here, in the arsehole of civilisation.

I climbed the ladder. When I reached him, he turned his head towards me and hissed through his lips. There was still some fight in him.

Then he turned his head away. He looked intensely at something in the alley. The hateful expression on his face changed into something else. Fear, maybe.

I glanced down. In the alley, a few paces from the ladder, stood the clown.

“Still hanging there,” Gustavo ascertained.

“An unexpected complication,” I said.

Gustavo did not insist. He appreciated my otherness. I was a stranger and as such was allowed my peculiarities.

I would not be able to explain. The clown had arrived too soon. It was not yet midnight. He stood there, looking up at us, the vampire and me, as if appreciating an abstract work of art.

Nobody knows what clowns think, once they wear their make-up. Maybe we were in fact an abstract work of art to them.

Nevertheless, the situation had suddenly changed.

Even if the clown is too early, and appears well in advance of midnight, you’re in trouble.

I dismounted the ladder and by the time I reached the bottom he was gone again, as always. He never acted out of character: appearing, observing, and disappearing. By itself that was more than enough.

I left the ladder at the end of the alley and hurried home.

Gustavo was early that morning, which was not his habit. I knew why he was early. People had been looking in the alley already.

“I’ll try again soon,” I promised.

“Maybe it is too difficult,” he said, as if considering another option.

“It is not too difficult,” I said.

“Can señor Valtat not do it?”

“Leave him out of it,” I said.

Señor Valtat! As if he is a saint!

Gustavo shook his head. He brought me breakfast, and then he disappeared again. He would return later that day. The neighbourhood would know that I would try again.

I saw JC at noon, under the awning of a bar in the centre of the village, where men drank their coffee. “So you didn’t go through with it,” he said.

“An unexpected complication,” I said.

“What you need,” he said, “is a hunting party. We trap a few of them, and you pull their teeth. You’ll feel better at once.”

I was wondering why that particular vampire, in the alley, had been punished. What transgression could have been so severe, in the eyes of his kind, to have him condemned to such a terrible fate? I had a few ideas, but how close was I to the truth?

There was nobody who could provide me with an answer.

I was offered another coffee. The village appreciated my services as a dentist. I had two sets of instruments, and kept them rigorously separate. Everybody knew that. Everybody counted on that.

I returned to my flat, where the curtains moved in the hot breeze. I smelled burnt earth, the wood fires of the bread ovens, the cow manure on the fields. I lay down on the bed. It was too hot to write. Too hot to think.

He rested in the shadow of the staircase. I noticed him when I opened my eyes. I had probably dozed off, but just for ten minutes or so.

I sat up on the bed. “Aristide,” I said, using his human name. The only name he wanted to hear from a man. “Is this not too early for you?”

“There are shadows,” he said. “The hotter the sun, the deeper the shadows. The less people in the streets.”

I said nothing. Which seemed for the best.

“Tonight, you encountered the brother we punished.”

The vampire in the alley.

Encountered?

“Why were you with him?”

“I wanted to remove him,” I said. Let’s see what you will do about that. Punish me? What sort of punishment do you have in store for me?

“We left him there with a specific intention. We have no need to explain our motives. Certainly not to humans.”

“Children live in the neighbourhood.”

“Human children,” he said. “Human children who later become human adults. Adults like you.”

“They do not need to be confronted with this horror,” I said. “Not at their age. Let them be children. Let them remain innocent for a while further.”

He was a vampire. Concepts like children and innocence where alien to him. We are but food to them. We are but prey. They are also intrigued by us, mainly because of our stubborn fascination with the future. It is an equally alien concept to them.

“We are vexed because you impose us with your feelings,” he said. He sounded impatient, but not threatening. He had never any need for threats.

“I do worse things to your kind than impose feelings,” I said.

He eyed me darkly, as if I was a new species of insect. “But you didn’t,” he said.

“Didn’t what?”

“You left him there. You did not remove him. We wonder why you changed your mind.”

“En unexpected complication,” I said. I would have to take a patent on that sentence.

Gloom had descended over him. He was a gloomy creature. His motives where strange to me. Except for his hate. That’s the one emotion they share with us.

“Nothing is unexpected,” he said.

I opened my mouth for an intelligent riposte, but he had already disappeared, in that sudden and alarming way of his kind.

 

That night I found two vampires. One had already fed. That made him slow. I got hold of him in a dead-end alley, where he awaited me, back against a wall, dagger in hand, blood from his latest victim on his lips. I broke his legs with my staff, held him to the ground, ripped his fangs out, and left him like that.

The other was hungry and only had my carotid in mind. My usual tactic would imperil me. So I thrust my staff through is heart. His treacherous, inhuman heart. He was dead at once – in the way of people, not of vampires.

I hurried towards my flat. I expected Aristide, expressing sorrow over my diligence, but he did not show up. His absence disturbed me. I preferred predictability. But he did not come.

I waited an hour, while outside in the streets and in the markets people continued the festivities. They needed a whole month for their carnival. After a while, convinced I would not be sleeping that night, I walked out again. I drank rum in a tavern, beer in another. Twice I saw a clown, but it was one of the villagers who had painted his face white.

I woke in the morning, in the wrong bed, with the wrong woman who luckily appeared of age. I left some money with her and hurried back to my flat. Gustavo was absent. I made coffee and ate some biscuits with jam. The wife of the local notary came by and I extracted her tooth. She flirted with me and I flirted with her, but nothing more happened.

At some point she said: “You must have been a melancholic child.”

That surprised me. I had left my childhood far behind me, in a country of shadows. Where all children had been melancholic, because such was our nature.

“And you lost one of your parents early.”

I nodded. “My mother. When I was four. I was raised by my aunt and uncle. In a large house. My uncle was a publisher. He owned a newspaper and a book publishing company. Many writers visited us, in his house. He had an extensive library.” I remembered the smell of the books. Whenever I smell the vampires, I am reminded of these books.

“There are almost no books here,” she said. She meant: in the village. “It is very difficult to be melancholic here.” She spoke with some difficulty, because of the tooth I had extracted. “Did you have friends? Many friends?”

I could not remember any friends. A large house, in the country, but mostly empty. My uncle and aunt had no children of their own. My father seldom visited. I had no brothers or sisters. My world was small. It was also large, because of the books.

“All alone by yourself? Did you not have a…?”

She spoke out loud what I feared most.

I made her a cup of coffee. She wanted to see me again, she said. The notary was a boring man, an older man. He had no imagination. He had no passion.

“You have passion,” she said.

She left, after I had given her some pills against the pain.

I dozed off. She appeared again, in my dream. She repeated the question. The one I dreaded.

Did you not have an imaginary friend?

 

Gustavo held on. “They want to get rid of it,” he said. “It can’t hang there forever.”

I knew his arguments by now. Meanwhile, the vampire had become an unperson. No longer an he, but an it.

“Why do they want me to do it?” I inquired.

But I knew the answer. “Because you’re the dentist,” he said. Exactly the answer I expected. Why not the notary or the tailor? Why not the carpenter?

Because they were local people.

I was the outsider. I was the vampire’s personal enemy. They would not condemn the village for anything I did.

This was the price I had to pay. I remained here, wrote my letters which I never posted, and extracted the teeth of those who trusted me. The price for all that was my relation to the vampires. If I wanted to hunt them, for my personal reasons, I had to clear up the mess. Even the vampires’ mess.

It was not a difficult thing, really. Climbing the ladder and taking away the body and burning it in the fire after I had pierced its heart with my staff. No big deal. But I was the one who had to do it.

I walked into the village. The stores were open and would close only when it got too hot. Cocoa leaves were sold rolled up, like cigars. Potatoes were small and sweet. Meat was scarce but for a chicken now and then. Eggs on the other hand were plentiful. A quack sold powders against gout and headache. He probably had a powder for any ailment. But he could not heal the soul.

I kept an eye on the deep shadows of alleys, doorways, recesses, and under bushes. Myths about vampires abound. Some are true. Others are disturbing. An old woman wanted to read my palm. I declined, but handed her a coin. My future is my business.

I ate a tortilla with a cup of coffee on a terrace next to the police station. I drank a beer and then walked back to my flat, where I did some writing. The unsent letters piled up in the cupboard. One day I would mail them. But not yet. I would certainly not take them with me, when I left this place.

Then I went out again.

JC intercepted me. He carried a book. With him walked a girl, hardly fourteen even if she tried hard to look older. She wore sandals, which he probably had bought for her. “This is the man that keeps our streets safe,” he said. To me, not to her, and in French, so she would not understand.

“The streets are never safe,” I said.

“It is a matter of numbers,” he said. “Mathematics, really. Two vampires this time, as I had understood?”

I didn’t know where he got his information. I made sure the bodies had disappeared. But nothing in this village happened unnoticed.

“That other thing,” he said. “You should outsource it.”

“I’ll deal with that other thing,” I said. He was pretentious, on purpose.

“If needed, I can do it,” he proposed.

“It may be dangerous.”

“O, danger! He is tied up. He can’t open his mouth.”

“But still…”

“So you’ll do it? Tonight?”

We were both strangers to this village, but he had been here longer than I. He had already been accepted by the locals. An intellectual and an aristocrat, who did not have to work to stay alive. And still he was accepted. Which I had found remarkable from the start. Valtat, the obscure author of obscure books. But here he was, almost invisible for the population.

 

The ladder was there again, as if someone, Gustavo perhaps, had read my mind. Maybe he knew my mind better than I did myself. I set up the ladder next to where the vampire hung. He wriggled as if hoping for a fraying rope. It would fray, but by then he would be too weak to survive the fall.

His lips were white. The holes made by the needle were whiter still. My position was uncomfortable, but I managed to pierce his heart with my staff. I tied a rope under his arm and let him down. He was light.

I dragged him through the alley. There was an empty field with fires burning. The few people around them evaded me. I threw the body on the fire. It went up in dull flames at once. I walked away.

The clown waited for me by the door that lead to my flat. I stopped a few paces from him.

“Is it time?” I inquired.

He nodded.

“Even if there are still a lot of vampires around?”

He nodded again. I had known him for a long time so I knew what to expect from him, and what not. He seldom spoke.

“I’m still young. I can go on for a while still,” I continued. But that’s also what I also told him several years ago.

He was wearing that ridiculous suit again. And the wig. His face was white, his nose red. His absurdly large shoes. The whole accoutrement. People would stare at him if they could see him. But they can’t see him. Only I can.

“It is time,” he said. Which is what he told me years ago as well.

So I ignored him. I could afford to ignore him, after having dealt with the vampire in the alley.

But it was time to move on. Leave this village, even move to another continent. He would follow me, surely, and there would also be vampires. But I would have gained some time.

 

Guido Eekhaut writes crime novels, speculative and literary fantasy and Young Adult SF books. He has published something like 45 books and more than a hundred stories. His crime novel Absinthe won the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 (in its original Dutch version) and was published in the US in 2018, to be followed by a second book in the summer of 2019. He has worked in finance, social relations and as a journalist and interviewer for magazines and newspapers. His websites can be found here guidoeekhaut.squarespace.com and also here thegrid.ai/eekhaut 

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