The two of them headed through the main hall at the center of the house, where a high ceiling studded with chandeliers was reflected in the polished sheen of the marble floor.
“So, Mr. Van Heusen, I imagine you have enough now to write an article on the Hall and its new tenant. How soon may I expect to see it printed in the Gazette? I’ll want to buy extra copies for my commonplace book, and—oh.”
This last, because the reporter had stopped walking and had fumbled with his duster until he was able to draw out a very large revolver with a very long barrel. He held it out at arm’s length, its muzzle pointed directly at Neville’s face.
“That’s right, monster. You cower before me.”
Apparently the time had come to drop all pretense.
Neville placed one hand on his hip. Used the other to scratch the back of his neck. “If I may—”
“You may not. You made a grave mistake, mummy. You brought me into your home. I guess I fooled you with my cunning ruse. You see, I’m no reporter at all. And my name is not Arnold Van Heusen.”
“Yes, I gathered, it’s—”
“It’s Van Helsing. Arnold Van Helsing. Oh, yes, I can see that name rings some bells. A name for you and all like you to fear.”
“I’ve read Dracula, yes, and—”
“I will not rest,” Van Helsing said, nearly shouting now, “until every foul creature like you has returned to the grave that vomited you forth. Until the world is washed with the blood of the unclean. Until the peace of God’s creation is restored.”
“Really, it might be worth hearing me out, you see—”
But Van Helsing was on a bit of a tear. “I do no murder here but the holiest of work. I am the arm of God and I shall do his bidding. I will strike you down, foul beast, and then I shall burn your house of perdition to the ground. I shall—”
It was Neville’s turn to shout a bit, much as he disliked doing so. “I don’t claim to be an expert on revolvers. Shouldn’t I be able to see the bullets in your gun, though? Because it looks like the chambers are all empty.”
Van Helsing had the strength of character not to break open the revolver then and there to check. Instead he squeezed the trigger. When this failed to generate any noise or smoke or, most importantly, any dead mummies, he squeezed it again and again and again. It was only when his failure was quite clear to both men that he bothered to look to his equipment.
“What did you do? When—when did you tamper with my weapon?” he demanded, his customary growl rising a full octave in pitch.
“Do? Me? Nothing. Hughes? If you would be so kind as to—ah.” A ghostly form, more glimpsed than seen, had risen through the marble floor. A hand as insubstantial as smoke poured six bullets into Neville’s bandaged palm. They clinked together as Neville held them up for inspection. “Silver, of course. Silver bullets. I imagine they were quite tarnished. Hughes, like any good butler, can’t bear to see silver without feeling an immediate urge to polish it.” The bullets he held were indeed immaculately free of corrosion.
“Your ghost? Your ghost took my bullets?”
“Thank you, Hughes. That will be all,” Neville said, but the apparition had already faded back into the aether. “I think,” Neville said, rattling the bullets together in his hand then putting them away in his pocket, “I’ll hold on to these.”
Van Helsing shoved his empty pistol back in its holster. “I don’t need a gun to destroy the unclean!” he announced, and then he threw open his duster. Reggie had, as the reader may remember, noticed how lumpy the garment was, and how many objects it might hide. Said gear was now revealed.
A foot-long crucifix was strapped to Van Helsing’s thigh, and he wore a tiny cross of gold around his neck on a leather thong. A rosary, no doubt blessed by a priest, dangled from his belt. A vial of what could only be holy water was strung up under his armpit, and a tiny bible sat nestled in the duster’s inside pocket. “The power of Christ shall be my sword!”
Neville permitted himself a world-weary sigh. “My dear chap,” he said. “I pre-date all that nonsense.”
Van Helsing looked crestfallen. He looked undone. Then he looked very much like a man trying to run away at speed. He nearly made it to the front door, only to carom into the very large, very hairy body of a werewolf in full transformation.
“No!” Van Helsing shrieked.
“Permit me to guess,” Neville said. “This is your first time trying something like this, isn’t it?”
The monster hunter turned around to look at the mummy with plaintive eyes. “How did you know that?” he asked, in a very quiet voice. “Telepathy? Dark magic?”
“You named yourself after Abraham Van Helsing. I’ve been through my fair share of monster hunters, and many of them did the same thing. Until someone pointed out to them how silly it sounds.”
“Abraham Van Helsing was a great man!”
“And also a fictional character,” Neville pointed out, with no shred of irony. “What’s your real name? Come now, I believe I have you at the disadvantage. Out with it.”
“Brown. Arnold Brown,” the fellow replied. “No one would take me seriously with such a common name. No one thought I was capable of hunting monsters. They all laughed at me down at the 36th Street Young Mens’ Temperance Union. I was going to show them all just how wrong they were. That I could too kill a monster.”
“So this is some kind of rite of passage,” Neville said.
“I just want to make a difference!”
“You want to be a hero,” Neville said. “I am not unsympathetic.”
“You’re an abomination.” One will note the lack of an exclamation mark. The would-be Van Helsing had lost a bit of his fire.
“What I am is a host whose patience has been sorely tried. I am tempted to make you walk home. But it’ll be dark out by now, and I hate to think of you tripping over a tree root and cracking your skull in a ditch on my account. I imagine it would take me all of an afternoon to forgive myself. Reggie will see you home.”
Van Heusen/Van Helsing/Brown turned slowly to look up into the face of the werewolf. “I thought you summoned him to kill me.”
Reggie smiled. When a wolf smiles, everyone knows it. The sheer number of teeth on display are always sure to make an impression. “Who, me? I just wanted,” he growled, the words difficult to understand, “to make sure you didn’t forget your hat.” He held up the battered, ugly thing. Brown took it carefully from his paws.
“Make sure he does get home safely,” Neville told Reggie. “Oh, Mr. Brown, one thing. I’m sure this is the part where you tell me you’ll warn the community about the monster living in their midst. Rouse a mob with pitchforks and torches to storm the Hall. That if I want to keep my secret, my only choice is to kill you.”
“I… I wasn’t going to say that,” Brown protested.
“The thing is,” Neville went on, heedless, “I want you to spread the story of the mummy in Grimbly Hall. I want the word to get around. Most people won’t believe you, but perhaps the right sort will.”
Brown shook his head, uncomprehending. He seemed to be plain out of bluster.
“You see, I didn’t come here simply to play the country squire. I spent far too long down in that tomb to enjoy hiding in anonymity now. I am sure there are others out there, exiles in the land of the living like myself. I intend,” and perhaps he drew himself up to his full height as he said it, “to make this place, this house, a haven for them.”
“A sanctuary for monsters,” Brown tried.
“Exactly. So do, please, tell all your friends about our hospitality.”