A/N: I never dreamed it was going to take me this long to finish this story, and I spent a lot of time second-guessing what I'd written and trying to improve it. But I think I'm finally ready to put it behind me. The story came from an idea originally pitched to me by Harry2, so this one's for him. Hope I've done it justice!
§ § § - October 27, 2007
With Halloween the talk of the island's children—including the triplets, who had picked up the concept from April Harding and Kevin Knight—Leslie shouldn't have been surprised at the fantasy of one of their guests this last weekend in October. "Ms. Claudia Barneveld," Roarke introduced her, "coming to us from Kirksville, Missouri, where she works as a nurse. She is twenty-seven years old and single, and is hoping that her most cherished fantasy can be fulfilled this weekend."
"And that would be what?" Leslie prompted. She went through so much mail that she seldom remembered individual guests or fantasies anymore; even though she was usually the one who scheduled them, she did this several months in advance.
"To meet a vampire," Roarke said simply.
His voice was low and filled with several not-so-positive emotions, one of which Leslie thought sounded like disapproval. "That tone of voice tells me there's more to it than that," she said.
He nodded, eyes on Claudia Barneveld as the slim brunette stepped onto the grass and took in her surroundings with wide eyes and an equally broad smile. "All her life, she has been deeply fascinated by vampires, and reads everything about them that she can find. It has been her greatest wish, she says, to meet the real Count Dracula, face to face…" He hesitated, glancing at his daughter for the first time. "To get to know him in the flesh."
Something about the way he looked when he said that made Leslie decide to forgo further questions for the time being. Roarke greeted his weekend guests and Leslie smiled at them, but she already had about a dozen questions for her father.
‡ ‡ ‡
Claudia Barneveld was in a state of what Leslie thought of as "controlled excitement" when she arrived at the main house less than an hour later. She had changed from the smart brown-and-tan silk dress she'd worn on the plane to a pair of white shorts and a colorful tank top, and there were simple, thin gold chains around her neck and one wrist. "Okay, I'm ready," she said as soon as she'd stepped into the study. "Take me to the count."
Leslie gulped back a laugh, and one side of Roarke's mouth twitched; they exchanged glances that made Leslie have to stifle another giggle. "Forgive me if it seems as though I'm delaying, Ms. Barneveld," Roarke said, still standing from where he'd arisen when Claudia walked in, "but I'd like to ask you a few questions first, if you don't mind. Please have a seat; may we get you anything?"
Claudia shook her head, but settled in the leather chair beside the one Leslie occupied and crossed one leg over the other. "Well, all right," she said, watching Roarke resume his own seat. "What about?"
"Your fantasy," said Roarke. "Specifically, precisely why you have this particular fantasy, and why you wish to have it granted."
Claudia shrugged. "I've always loved vampires," she said. "Ever since I can remember. There's just something…I don't know, romantic about them, I guess. They…" She frowned, for the first time becoming more serious. "They seem like tragic figures. Trapped in an everlasting hell that wasn't even of their own making."
"I see," Roarke murmured, watching her carefully. Leslie wondered what was running through his mind right then.
"It all started with Dracula," Claudia said with a half-sheepish grin. "I watched the classic black-and-whites with my older brother—he was going through a phase at the time. He had a thing about creepy creatures…vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves and what-have-you. Anyway, he used to rope me into watching all those old horror movies with him, and most of it repelled me, but there was something about Dracula that stuck with me. Even though he was supposed to be evil, I felt sorry for him."
Roarke nodded. "I see," he said again, but his face was uncharacteristically serious. "So…if you were to meet the count, what exactly would you do?"
Claudia eyed him curiously. "Why? D'you mean he's here now?"
Roarke frowned; Leslie, seeing him searching for the precise wording he wanted, took the chance to air a memory that had resurfaced since they'd returned from the plane dock. "To tell the truth, I remember showing him your letter when it came here a few months ago and both of us being a little confused. You carried on like Count Dracula was some sort of…I don't know, like a rock star you've admired since your childhood. Are you planning to get his autograph or something?"
Roarke awarded her a bemused smile but turned to Claudia. "I may not have put it in just those terms, but that is the gist of what I am asking."
Claudia sat up straight in her chair and folded her arms over her chest, glaring. "Mr. Roarke, you're supposed to be able to make any fantasy come true. I just want to meet Count Dracula. If that's too much to ask, then refund me my money and I'll take the next plane out."
She and Roarke stared each other down while Leslie waited, tense, wondering if Roarke too was hiding something; then Roarke relaxed, just visibly. "I have no intention of denying you your fantasy," he said, his tone calm but steely. "However, I do need some specifics before I can do so, and thus far I have very few."
"You act like I've got some kind of hidden agenda," Claudia said indignantly.
Roarke parried without pause, "Do you?"
"Of course not," she shot back. "I want to meet Count Dracula. What on earth could possibly be the problem with that?"
Roarke still didn't look convinced, but he acquiesced. "Very well, Ms. Barneveld, I shall grant your fantasy." He returned to the desk and sat down once more before speaking again. "Unfortunately, as I'm sure you're aware, you will have to wait until this evening to do so. Since you therefore have the rest of the day at your disposal, you might like to sample some of our attractions."
Claudia grinned. "I read the website a couple nights ago while I was packing for this trip. Can't wait to rent a moped and get down to the amusement park. Uh…" She paused, having stood up to leave. "What time can I expect to meet him?"
Roarke's brows quirked, but he merely replied, "If you go to the luau this evening, you should see him there."
"How will I know him?" she wanted to know. "I mean…will he be dressed like he is in the movies, or has he adjusted for modern-day fashions, or what?"
"You'll know him," Roarke assured her, smiling ever so faintly. "You'll know him, I assure you."
Claudia waited a couple of beats, till it became clear that Roarke would offer nothing more; then she shrugged. "Okay, then, tonight at the luau. Well, guess I'll see about that moped. Thanks, Mr. Roarke and Mrs. Enstad."
Once she was gone, Leslie shifted in her chair so that she faced Roarke fully. "Okay, Father…what's the story? What makes you think there's more to this than she's letting on?"
Roarke shook his head, looking grave. "I don't think she has disclosed her true intentions with regard to her fantasy, and as a result she could be facing grave peril. I am very worried about her…and our other guest."
"What other guest?" Leslie asked. "Why didn't you tell me about it?"
"Because, Leslie," Roarke said in a kindly tone, "our guest, too, is a vampire; and of necessity, he had to come here at night, as I'm sure you realize. He arrived on yesterday's final charter, after you and Christian had taken the children home."
Leslie nodded. "But who is it, then?"
Roarke settled back in his chair and pulled his suit jacket a little more closely around him. "His name is Jesse Stormwater; he left Carpathia many, many years ago and changed his name from the original Carpathian word to its direct English translation. His first name is also a cognate of his birth name. And he has a fantasy as well."
She waited, but he only smiled distantly, and she rolled her eyes. "You're gonna make me ask, of course. Okay, okay, then—what's his fantasy? Geez, now I know how Tattoo must have felt."
Roarke laughed at that, and she grinned back, inwardly relieved at the relaxation of the somber mood in the room. "Mr. Stormwater has expressed deep dissatisfaction with his existence. He became a vampire some decades before he was forced to leave Carpathia; he settled in a remote region of the American West, and has had to move several times over the years as that part of the country was gradually discovered and developed. Currently he resides in what he calls a very backwater section of northern Montana. But the enforced isolation in which he lives has become greatly disturbing to him; he is, as he puts it, 'tired of the undead life', and his fantasy is nothing more nor less than to no longer be a vampire."
Leslie's lower jaw gradually sank a few inches as she processed this idea; finally she looked at Roarke with a frown. "But there's no way to cure being a vampire, is there? The only thing that will end that state of being is a stake in the heart, or being exposed to sunlight, if I have my assorted creature-defense tales right. And that completely destroys the vampire. So it's either be a bloodsucker, or die."
Roarke's brows flew up again at the word bloodsucker, and he warned playfully, "I should caution you against the use of that word around Mr. Stormwater. To call a vampire a bloodsucker is as pejorative as any offensive racial term you may have ever heard. Or, to put it in a more contemporary way, it's as if you were to refer to one of J.K. Rowling's characters as a Mudblood."
"My apologies," Leslie said, tucking her chin under and eyeing him from beneath her bangs; he grinned, and she laughed in response before sobering again. "You didn't tell him you could actually grant his fantasy, though, did you?"
Roarke sighed gently and gazed into space. "I warned him that it's very unlikely that I can do anything for him, yes. I have done some research, and there may, just may, be a way to cure the state of being a vampire—but it's extremely difficult. It has been suggested that a vampire is possessed by a demon, once he has become a vampire; and in order to free said vampire from that state of existence, one must attempt to convince the demon to restore the vampire's soul."
"Which puts this in Mephistopheles' realm," Leslie put in.
"Unfortunately, yes. And as you are well aware, once Mephistopheles has a soul in his possession, nothing and no one can ever again retrieve it."
"But is Mephistopheles himself the demon in question?" Leslie asked, tilting her head aside in enormous curiosity. "I mean—remember when that little minion of his tried to get your soul for Mephistopheles by possessing Camille's son Craig and kidnapping Tobias? It's pretty obvious that Mephistopheles doesn't work alone. So what's to stop you from reasoning with the demon that has possession of Mr. Stormwater, rather than having to deal with Mephistopheles himself?"
Roarke studied her, impressed. "Very good thinking, my child! No, it's not Mephistopheles himself who has final say over Mr. Stormwater's state of being. But that makes it no easier to negotiate for the restoration of the soul. Vampiric demons are, in my experience, reclusive, elusive and extraordinarily possessive." He reclined in the chair, his gaze going unfocused again. "However, Mr. Stormwater's predicament is only one of my concerns. I am afraid that Ms. Barneveld, upon meeting him, will focus solely on the fact that he is a vampire—and I also fear that she may have ulterior motives."
"Of what kind?" Leslie asked.
"I can't say," he admitted, frowning. "I'm not clear on that just yet. My only certainty is that I have strong misgivings about Ms. Barneveld's unstated intentions. She herself may or may not be aware of those intentions, but I know she has them, whatever they may be." He came back to the moment and smiled at her. "In the meantime, why don't we go to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith at their bungalow; their patience will not last forever."