Dead Man's Party

I.

"A Halloween party?" Josef asked Beth, with a disbelieving look at Mick. "Are you joking?" They should have known Beth hadn't invited both of them over for drinks without an ulterior motive.

Mick noted the set of the little blonde's shoulders and shrugged. He knew that look. "Josef, she could teach you a thing or two about stubborn. You might as well go with the flow."

"—and you're both coming," Beth continued. "We just have to figure out costumes."

"Beth, I—" Mick let his dismay show.

"You'd make a great Sam Spade," Beth said. "Trench coat, fedora…you can even pop the collar on the coat. It's a natural."

Josef giggled. "That's right, schweet-heart," he growled in his best imitation Bogart, ignoring the exasperated look from his friend.

"You're not helping," Mick said, then smiled nastily. "So, Beth, you must have some ideas for Josef."

"Wait a minute—I don't do Halloween costumes." Josef looked distinctly nervous, and Mick's smile became broader and more genuine. This, he thought, ought to be good.

"I have given it some thought," she admitted. "I'm assuming vampire is right out?"

"Let's see—Bela Lugosi cape, plastic fangs, bad accent, bad hair style? Umm, no. That is so not going to happen."

"Okay, well, how about Mephistopheles? Some little horns, and you'd look quite devilish in a goatee, Josef," Beth said.

"And it's so you," Mick put in. It was, he had to admit, always fun to watch Beth go bulldog—on someone else.

Josef shot him a look that would have incinerated a lesser man. He snapped his fingers. "So sorry, I just remembered. Can't make it. Big charity function I have to attend. Black tie gala…you know how it goes."

Beth smirked and shook her head. "I checked with your secretary. Nice try."

"My secretary told you my schedule? Damn. I liked her."

Beth settled back on the couch and sipped her coffee. "So. No devil suit. You could come as a sultan, and bring Simone—or some of the rest of your harem—as harem girls."

"Hmm. Intriguing idea, although why you persist in this delusion that I am somehow possessed of a harem…"

"What else would you call the freshie wing?" Beth asked, her eyes beginning to blaze.

Josef smirked. "A pantry?"

"That's disgusting," Beth replied. "And I don't believe you."

Mick settled back in his seat to watch the fireworks display, hiding a smile in his drink. Josef, though, ever the master de-fuser, folded—like a cheap suit, Mick thought, or at least one from a lesser designer.

"You've been talking to my girls again, haven't you?" The ancient vampire threw up his hands. "Beth, give me credit for a little—" and he paused for effect—"creativity. If I'm forced to attend this shindig, I'm perfectly capable of orchestrating my own attire, thank you. And by the way, who else do you have dragooned into what I can only describe an as an exercise in extreme irony?"

Beth shrugged. "Not a large group. Some friends, co-workers from Buzzwire. Sam for one, and Steve. I tried to call Ryder, but I guess he's not back from that sabbatical yet?"

"No," Josef said, "but he tells me the nights in Rio are particularly bracing this time of year."

Mick was looking vaguely alarmed. "Beth—any other 'special' guests I should know about?"

"Special? Oh, you mean—well, I did call Logan Griffin. I didn't think he'd want to come, but he said he would, and already had a costume."

Josef and Mick looked at each other, both raising their eyebrows, and said in unison, "Lando Calrissian."

"How on earth did you know?"

Mick shook his head. "Long story."

"I'm not sure how Logan being a Star Wars fan falls into that 'secret vamp business' area, but whatever," Beth said, then turned her attention back to Josef. "So, Josef, are you going to be here?"

"Help me out, dad," Mick added. "Say yes."

"I am not your sire," Josef responded automatically, "and I'll consider it—if that charity event I intend to have organized falls through." He set his empty glass down with a precise click on the coffee table, and stood fluidly, turning to go. Once he was facing away from them, his smile vanished, and his gaze seemed suddenly to see far beyond the confines of Beth's small apartment. All Souls Day, he thought, and the memories rose up to engulf him. He paused, standing still long enough for Mick and Beth to exchange puzzled looks at his sudden stillness. When he spoke, it was low, almost inaudible. "I just don't know, Beth," he said. "It's been a very long time since I attended a Halloween party."

II.

All Hallows Eve, 1639, Ireland

A hard wind was blowing, and the scattered clouds were speeding out of the east to dim the light of the waning moon periodically. The traveler slowed his horse reluctantly during the times of greater dark. While his own vision was unimpeded, he feared to lame his horse when he still had a good distance to cover, and he tightened his cloak around his shoulders. The gesture was unnecessary; he would have been just as comfortable without the garment hampering his movements. But the habits ingrained in him of mimicking human behavior and customs were too strong, and even in this forsaken wilderness he would not recklessly abrogate the rules of survival by masquerade. He pulled his broad-brimmed hat down more firmly, and urged his horse forward, still wondering about the wisdom of the course of action he'd chosen. He could always turn back, he supposed. That inn he'd passed by a few miles ago…in his youth it had been known for pretty and accommodating tavern wenches. And he was in need of a drink. He could put this visit off a day. Or, in fact, forever.

He'd been warned that it was a bad idea. "Take care," his sire had told him, "that in seeking to lay old ghosts, you do not raise new ones to take their places." But he was stubborn, insisting on his abilities to master his heart. Still, he wondered what he would find. And as much as the pounding beat of hooves, his thoughts carried him onward over fields ever more familiar.

Cresting a hill, he saw the faint lights glimmering in the windows of the old manor house when he was yet a mile away, and the house itself only a dark blur in the trees that surrounded it. Reining in his horse, he stopped a moment, giving himself one last chance to turn away, one last opportunity to sink forever into the night, and let his old life die. Then he touched his heels to the horse's flanks, and together they galloped forward into the green valley of his childhood.

Now, on this last approach, the east wind at his back shifted, and whipped his cloak out so that it flew like wings around him, making his shape menacing and monstrous even as he kicked his feet free of the stirrups and swung out of the saddle to the rough pavement of the dooryard. He dropped the reins, knowing the horse would stand, awaiting his return.

The door stood open, despite the chill of the wind. It would seem that someone here still kept the old Samhain customs. The stranger smiled. If the spirits were welcome into the house this night, they could not turn him away.

Nonetheless, he paused in the doorway that was barely tall enough to admit him without stooping. "Hello the house," he called out, voice ringing through the dimness as he assessed the scene before him.

The family were drawn up before the fire, blocks of peat smoldering fitfully on the hearth. An aged man sat at the warmest corner. Directly in front of the fireplace, a stout middle-aged man was standing, feet spraddled in a self-satisfied, possessive stance, pipe in his mouth. A youngster of about twelve, red-haired and pugnacious looked up to see who was there, and his various siblings grouped nearby. The lady of the house, slender, worn, her fading hair neatly tucked away under a lace-trimmed cap, held her youngest babe in her arms. Two other women, younger, hovered close to the children, their faces tired even in the gentle flare of the firelight. And head bowed, a missal in his hands, a young priest muttered prayers, not even looking up at the intrusion. The traveler sensed a few others in the room, and dismissed them. Servants held no interest for him—he was here to see the family.

The master of the house eyed the stranger in the doorway suspiciously. Even at first glance, this man, cloaked and muffled against the keening wind outside, cast a menacing air about him. Something seemed off, yet oddly familiar, like a long-lost echo from the past. Still, it was custom on this night, of all nights in the year, to refuse entry to none, lest the wandering spirit of friend or relation be turned away and offended.

"Stranger," he said formally, "ye're welcome here, an ye mean no harm, but would ye be after stating your name and your business, ere ye cross this threshold?"

Deep in the muffling folds of the scarf across his face, the stranger smiled. The old ways of speaking came back to him easily, like a door opening on a long-locked room. A bit dusty, a bit stale from disuse, but still there.

"You know me well, Patrick Michael O'Hara Constantine," he said, rolling out the syllables slowly, relishing the quick shock on the man's face. "Do you really need to hear my name? If you know my name, then you know my business here. And since when would you refuse the house to any on Samhain night? Your father would never have been so rude." Even the old man started, then, looking up from his reverie by the fire.

"I know that voice of old," he said, voice quavering. "Patrick, who is here?"

Patrick Constantine took a step forward, pulling his pipe from his mouth into his fist, his face flushing. "Who are you?" he demanded, although his voice was barely more than a whisper. He watched as the stranger slowly doffed his hat, casting it towards an unseen corner. There was something familiar in the gesture, and behind him, Patrick heard his wife rise to her feet, gasping at the bright head the stranger had uncovered.

When the scarf followed, and his face was revealed for all to see, there was a collective intake of air. Patrick paled, and crossed himself. "Jesus, Mary, and—"

"Joseph," his wife finished for him, in a voice like a prayer. "How can this be?"

Josef looked at her more closely, the gray-streaked auburn of her hair, what little of it he could see, the face lined with care and pain, her hands bony and showing the first spots of age. His mind faltered, just a bit. It was one thing to see his younger brother grown portly and pompous, but Patrick had always had a tendency in that direction. Now, in this aging, unfamiliar face, Josef was suddenly seeing the phantom of a laughing young girl.

"Siobhan?" he said, doubt creeping into his voice.

She thrust the babe in her arms away to one of the younger women. "Fifteen years," she said, wondering, as she drew closer, "fifteen years since we had word of you dead in the fighting, and here you stand looking not a day older and handsome as the devil himself."

"In a way, the word you had was right," Josef said gently, as Siobhan laid a hand tentatively on his chest. He smiled down at her, and would have continued, but Patrick cut in, voice rough with fear.

"If ye died, Joseph, fifteen years gone, what are ye now? A ghost? A cursed spirit?" Patrick demanded. Around him, the children clustered, looking curiously at this stranger they'd only heard of before. There was a strange excitement in their eyes, Josef thought. He'd not had much to do with children, these many years, since he was young and his own siblings were nuisances on the edge of his perceptions. That these children were kin to him, he found difficult to comprehend.

Josef's head snapped up, and he stared blandly at Patrick. "Cursed? Perhaps so. When a dead man crosses your threshold on Samhain night, what do you expect him to be, brother?"

Patrick looked a bit afraid, and then glanced swiftly at the old man by the fire, and again over at the youngest of his children. "And whose death would you be here to presage, then?" he asked.

That raised a grim laugh from the visitor, and looking down again, he put one hand over the woman's where it rested against him. "I'm a bit solid for a banshee, am I not, Siobhan?"

"Solid," she agreed, "but cold, Joseph, so very cold."

He glanced down again, stroking her lined cheek softly with the back of his fingers. "Cold, yes," he said, quirking one corner of his mouth into a crooked smile, one that she remembered well, "but never my heart, love, never my heart."

Her smile, he thought, her true smile, had not changed, and at last he was able to see past the surface to the woman he had known, the girl he had once loved. He should have known there would be many ghosts tonight, but he had not expected one of them to be the memory of himself and Siobhan, walking the glowing green and sunlit fields of the countryside. It was so clear, and so strong he could almost smell the fresh clean scent of the clover, and feel the warmth of the misty Irish sun.

He paused, caught in the meshes of an unexpected trap. And knowing from the expression in her eyes, that in this fleeting moment, for her too the years between had vanished with the sight of his ageless face, the touch of his undead hand.

And consequently, they were both slightly startled when Patrick reached out and pulled her roughly away, the children scattering around them. Josef saw, too clearly, the resigned flicker in her eyes, read the history in an instant of his brother's common way with his wife. He snarled at his brother, pale fire in his eyes, his fangs just beginning to show, but before he could put his anger into either words or action, a wavering voice from the hearthside arrested his reaction.

"Are ye home then, Joseph?" the old man said. "To stay this time, and cease the wandering ways that have eaten your youth?"

"A visit, Father, only a visit."

"Hmmph." He paused in thought a moment, then said, "My eyes have grown weak, damn them. Come and kneel before me and let me look at you." His voice held traces of his old commanding tone, and it was habit as much as anything else that brought Josef to him, sinking gracefully to the flagstones.

The old man leaned forward, resting one hand heavily on Josef's shoulder, raising the other to his son's face. When he first touched the skin, he pulled back momentarily, his gnarled fingers curling into a claw. Then he reached forward again, and with a surprising delicacy of touch, traced Josef's features. Seemingly satisfied, he leaned back, plucking at the woolen shawl that covered his shrunken shoulders. "Tis true, then, Joseph." After a little silence, he spoke again. "Ye come to me walking and talking—" and he reached out to cuff Josef's shoulder, as he had always done, although his strength was a ghost of what Josef remembered, "—and solid as ye ever were. But ye're no a living man, are ye boy?" he asked, his voice cracking with more than age. He had thought the sorrow, the pain he'd suffered at the untimely death of his oldest son, the finest of his boys, long past, but this, this was hard.

"You've the right of it, Father," Josef said softly. "Nevertheless, here I am."

His father's voice came out thick, as though the words were difficult to say. "And have ye seen your mother, lad? She's been gone these seven years, come spring. Have ye met her, beyond?"

Josef could no longer meet his father's eyes. "No," he said, "I have not."

"Ah, well," the old man sighed. "I'd not think it, with ye being cursed to wander this earth, and her most like being safe among the saints and angels, good woman that she was."

Josef nodded. "That's likely so, Father." He gazed in the old man's face, then, in search of some benediction, but it was not to be seen. He would have to be satisfied with this tentative acceptance, with the superstitions attached to this night that allowed them to speak with him without dread. As a youth, he'd thought the old ways foolish, but then, in those days he'd had no idea a spirit might actually wish to return. Or might do so.

Somewhere off in the other part of the house, someone banged a door shut, and the brief connection between them was broken, and Josef stood again. The old man looked up blindly. "Patrick!" he snapped. "Where are your manners, boy? Offer your brother a drink, or a meal."

Patrick frowned at having his mastery questioned. The old man had given up the running of the estate to him years ago, content to sit by the fire and dream. "Ye've come a bit late for evening meat," he said, nodding toward the table, empty now save for one pewter plate and goblet, set out for any ghostly guests. "But what we have ye are welcome to partake."

"Meat is of little interest to me," Josef said, "but if you could find a wee dram of whiskey, I'd take it, and gladly."

Patrick started to speak to one of the silent sisters who still hovered behind him in the circle of the firelight, but his wife turned to him with a proud light in her eye. "I am mistress of this house, and it is my place to offer the uisge baugh to our guest." And she glided away to the heavy sideboard on the far side of the table, reaching down a cut glass decanter filled with amber liquid that caught the light of the fire in a warm glow. Filling the pewter goblet from the table, she brought it to Josef, with a smile. "Will ye no sit down, Joseph? Take your ease at our fireside."

He sat in the place she indicated, and accepted the whiskey. "I am ever pleased to take the water of life from your hand, Siobhan," he said gravely, thinking wryly of the little flask in his breast pocket. A few drops of blood tipped in would make the drink so much finer, so much more to his taste. But he doubted it was a wise thing to do, just now.

Siobhan took a seat beside him, with a swift glance at her husband, who was staring into the fire, a discontented look on his florid face. "Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this, Joseph," she said quickly and very low, "but I—I've dreamed of you. For all these years, looking just as you look tonight. And in my dreams, you came back to take me away." Her face flamed red, and she shifted so he saw only her profile. "Joseph, have you come to take me away tonight?"

He automatically reached for her, but stopped himself. "Siobhan machree," he said, "you are my brother's wife—and even the dead have honor." He paused, "Besides, what of your children? Would you leave them behind?"

Her head sagged, and her shoulders, and she rose and moved away, without another word, while Josef cursed himself silently.

He sat then, and watched his family, these mortals he barely recognized, who thought they knew him so well. The priest, he finally saw, was his youngest brother, Sean. When last he'd been in this house, Sean had been perhaps ten or eleven years old, and he remembered the boy following him like an adoring puppy. Now, he was changed, and when he looked up from his prayers, it was with undisguised hostility. Josef smiled at him, and sipped his drink, and wished himself far away. The time passed, quietly, no one saying much. His sisters, Katherine and Margaret, smiled shyly at him, a time or two, until abruptly ordered to take the children and put them to bed. Then they came to kiss his cheek in leavetaking, and whisper softly in his ear that they, at least, were glad to see their brother.

At length, the rising wind banged a loose shutter against a window frame, and the young priest started up. "Patrick," he said, "tis past midnight." He cast a venomous glare at Josef. "The Feast of All Saints has begun. There is no more welcome here for spirits, revenants, or whatever evil ye may be. Get ye gone, brother, back to the hell from whence ye crawled." He rose to his feet in righteous ire, and clutched at the silver crucifix hanging around his neck, stark against his black soutane.

Josef, careful for so long this night to move slowly, to be as human as he could, lost his patience. Faster than they could follow, he was standing over the priest. "Have a care, little brother," he breathed into the smaller man's face. "Some nightmares are stronger than your faith." And he closed his own hand over the crucifix, smiling despite the pain of the silver against his palm.

Sean paled, but to his credit, stood his ground. Looking steadily into Josef's face, he said quietly, "It is time for you to be on your way, Joseph. You have seen what you came to see."

Josef nodded. "And more besides," he said. Looking over to Patrick, he gestured at the long table. "Keep setting my place, brother. I might decide to make this a yearly visit."

Patrick tightened his mouth, his eyes like flint glittering in the flushed red of his face. "I keep the old customs, Joseph. Even for you," he bit out.

The vampire acknowledged this with a faint smirk. "I'll count on your hospitality, Patrick," he said, then softened as he moved to bid farewell to his sister-in-law. "Siobhan, I'm sorry for your dreams, sorry I came back—too late." Bending down, he took her hand, so changed from what he'd known, and laid a kiss on it, lighter than a whisper. He heard the soft hiss of her breath, and smelled the sudden salt of the tears rising in her eyes. He knew in that moment he would not soon pass this way again, perhaps not until all this company had safely passed beyond the power to touch him. Speaking to a grave, caressing a tombstone would be easier than looking into eyes that had known him, had loved him, in the days when his undead heart still beat, when it was still possible for him to be more than an observer of mortal life.

Later, Josef rode through the sheltering night, away from ghosts, away from the past. The wind was growing harsher, but he did not come out of his reverie until, crossing a stony ford, his horse stumbled, hooves sliding on the loose, wet blackness of the rocks. A memory from his long ago schooldays floated into his head, a tutor patiently translating, "No man steps into the same river twice." He looked back, once, towards his birthplace, then down at the water, swirling fetlock deep where the horse moved steadily against the current. Samhain was over, and it was time for the ghosts to depart. Josef smiled, and urged his horse on, out of the river and forward into the night.