Like Mama - By Howard Schneider 

The big woman’s anger exploded in a loud outburst. “Girl! You're just plain stupid, like all you dumb crack babies. Just 'cause you're five years old don't mean you any smarter than when you were born. All I do is clean up after you. Git outta here. I don’t want to see you one more time today. Now go!”

Celia scrambled off her chair where her spilt milk ran over the edge of the table onto a filthy linoleum floor and scurried out the kitchen door, ducking under the slap Mrs. Hammond aimed at her. She ran as fast as she could down a dimly lit hall to the tiny room she shared with three other foster kids. She grabbed her dolly off her cot, went into a dank closet, and pulled the door shut. Sitting in the dark, rocking the thrift-shop ragdoll in her arms, she started singing a soft lullaby, making up the words and melody as she went.


It was a year later when Candice Kane, a dedicated county social worker, rescued the foster children from the Hammonds and found new homes for them. Celia had the good fortune to be accepted by the Bensons, an African American couple whose six-year old daughter had died of leukemia two years earlier.

“We’ll take good care of this pretty little girl. Don’t you worry one single minute about that,” Mrs. Benson told the social worker, crouching down and enfolding Celia in her ample arms.


Celia’s first day of kindergarten was a disaster. Her lack of social skills and below average intelligence were obvious to the teacher and revealed why the little girl was at such a loss. She sat alone in the corner of the room, trembling with fear and confusion. At Candice Kane's urging, the next day Celia was moved to a special needs class with other kids like her and was taught by an understanding and dedicated teacher. When Miss Kane visited the following week, she was optimistic that everything was going to be okay. Her job was to make sure it was, and she intended to do just that.


Twelve years passed quickly. Patient tutoring each evening by Mr. Benson, who was a high school history teacher, along with Mrs. Benson getting Celia into her church’s youth choir, and Miss Kane’s hawk-like attention to the girl, ensured that Celia did the best she could under the circumstances of her limitations. But in spite of the use of crack cocaine by her mother while pregnant, and neglect during the two years before Celia went into the foster care system, Celia slowly but surely blossomed into an impressive young woman, proving the value of unconditional love and constant emotional support. Everyone involved considered that Celia had attained a level of achievement that reflected her innate capabilities.


But, as sometimes happens in blessed lives, even as good as Celia's situation was, a life-changing event occurred when she tried out for the high school freshman choir. When the director called her in for an audition from where she had been waiting in the hall with a dozen other kids, she was nervous and scared. Mr. Clemson, the director, greeted her without looking up from the form describing each candidate's qualifications, seemingly anxious to get through the auditions as quickly as possible. 

“Miss Bloom, please sing the song on that sheet music there on the stand.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t read music. Can I just sing something I know?”

His frown was a mixture of irritation and curiosity.

 “It says here that you’re in a church choir. How can you sing in a choir if you can’t read notes?”

“After I hear a song once I can sing it.”

“Well, that may be acceptable for some church, but it's not  in my choir. When you learn to sight-read, come back for an audition.”

Celia was devastated by the choir director’s cursory dismissal. Music was a mainstay of her life. The one passion that brought not only joy, but also a feeling of self-worth, a feeling that there was at least one thing she could do as well as the other kids. She left the audition room in tears.


When Miss Kane learned about Celia’s rejection, she took matters into her own hands and called her friend, Lenny Brown. Brown was the director of the city-wide gospel choir and was always on the lookout for talent. He'd made it big in the Chicago jazz and blues scene forty years earlier, and now, even as he approached seventy, was a sought-after keyboard player and teacher. His work with the gospel choir was a labor of love, his payback for the good fortune that had come his way.

Brown looked up when Celia walked through the door to the church basement room the gospel choir rented and waved her over to where he sat at a piano playing chord progressions. The puzzled look on her face caught his attention. 

“Jazz,” he said. “You like the sound?” 

“I’m not sure. It’s different from anything I’ve heard before. I mostly sing church music. I like gospel most of all.”

“Then you’re in the right place,” Brown said in a friendly manner. “Miss Kane said you don’t read music, but that you have a good voice; and a good ear, too. But, before we get to the singing, I’d like to know a little about you. Take off your coat and have a seat.” He got up and pulled a nearby chair closer. We don’t have to be in a hurry.” 

Sitting next to the piano, Celia began speaking in a hesitant voice. “I’m a foster kid. I live with Mr. and Mrs. Benson. I like it there. They’re not like the ones I was with before" She looked down at the floor, the raised her eyes back to Brown. "I’m eighteen-years-old and a freshman at Central High. I’m older than the other freshmen because I had to repeat third grade two times. . .They say I’m a slow learner because something’s wrong with my brain." 

She looked back at the floor, was silent for a few moments, then raised her head and said, "Mr. Benson helps me with homework, so I keep up okay now." 

She looked around the room then said, "I like to sing. It makes me feel good . . . They said my mama was a singer. Maybe that’s why I like to sing . . . My mama died when I was little. I don’t remember her . . . Miss Kane said I should talk to you about your choir. The director didn’t let me into the one at school. He said because I didn't know notes.”

Lenny stared intently at the girl for a long moment, then, breaking the awkward silence, said, “Uh . . . how do you manage in your church choir if you can’t read music?”

The look on her face brightened. “I listen to a song, then I can sing it. It just comes to me,” she replied without hesitation.

“You must have a pretty good ear, then. You memorize the words, too?”

“Yes, sir. My memory for music is good—better than for other things.”

“Well, in that case, why don’t you sing one of the gospel hymns you do at church.”

“We’re working on ‘Down by the Riverside’ for next Sunday. Would that be okay?”

“Yeah, sure. It’s a great old spiritual. Mahalia Jackson recorded it way back in the day. Whenever you’re ready.”

As soon as Celia sang the first line, “Gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside,” Lenny knew he was witnessing something rare. As she continued, he was astonished by what he was hearing: the sound, the purity, the power, as if she were channeling Mahalia herself, maybe just a little bit sweeter, but still strong, thrilling, and uplifting at the same time. But there was something else, too. Just as he had felt a remote familiarity when he first laid eyes on her, he had a similar feeling about her voice. 

Suddenly it came to him. 

“Oh, my God,” he exclaimed after Celia sang the last note. 

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked in a trembling voice before he was able to say anything else.

“Yes, it sure was. In fact, it was a lot more than just okay. You have a wonderful talent. A gift. I’d be happy to have you in the choir. I’ll teach you how to read music, too.”

Her face lit up and she let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Brown. I was hoping you'd accept me. I was worried about not being able to read notes.” 

“Don’t be concerned about that. But . . . there is something else I want to ask you. What do you know about your mother? What was her name?”

“My birth certificate says it’s Florence Washington. But my last name is Bloom, like my father.

When Celia revealed her mother’s name, Lenny was temporarily speechless, overcome with emotion and memories.

After he recovered, he said, “Celia. I knew your mother. Actually, I was the one who discovered her. It was 1985. I heard her do a solo in the Greater Salem Baptist Church. 

“You knew my mother?” Celia asked, her voice wavering.

“Yes, I knew her. She was an amazing singer. A natural. I introduced her to the Chicago blues scene. In no time she was making a name for herself, performing with the best of the local bands. She developed a reputation as a talented vocalist.

“What was she like?”

“She was a wonderful woman. Smart and hard-working. But her career took a nosedive after she fell in with a bad crowd and got into drugs. Nothing I or any of her other friends could do about it.”

“Was she a good person?”

“Yes, she was. The best. A mother you can be proud of. I still miss her,” he added after a moment, unable to disguise the sadness in his voice.

“I miss her too,” Celia said.

“I remember when you were born.,” Brown said. I lost track of you when the agency took you away. You must have been about a year old. By then your father was long gone. Florence died a month or so later.”

After a long silence, and with tears in her eyes, Celia spoke. “Thank you for telling me about her. Knowing who she was makes me want to take up where she left off. Do you think I could?”

“Yes. I think you have what it takes,” he replied.

“Will you help me?” she asked softly.

“It would be an honor . . . and a privilege,” he replied as he wiped away his own tears.


Infection - By Howard Schneider 

The spot on my wrist is a lot worse this morning than it was last night when I went to bed. Then it was just a blister the size of a quarter. Now it’s oozing pus or something What the hell’s going on? This is scary, I said to myself.

“Cherri, doesn’t this look worse than before? Like bigger—and raw?” I asked my wife when she came into the room.

“Donnie! Oh my God. That’s terrible! You gotta see a dermatologist. Call right now.”

I got an appointment for that afternoon. In the meanwhile, I took three aspirin and an antihistamine, smeared the open sore with antibiotic ointment, and headed to the jobsite. I had to install three toilets and a hot water heater before noon. The painters were supposed to get there after lunch. 

My boss wasn’t happy that I had to take time off for the doctor’s appointment since we were scheduled to do a kitchen hookup that afternoon. But when I showed the lesion to him he didn’t object. “Jesus, Don! That looks bad. Where’d you get that? You better get something for it.”

“I got a little scratch two days ago when I cleaned out the blocked sewer in that old four-square in Buckman. Didn’t think anything about it then, no big deal. Must have become infected with something.”


By the time I got to the clinic the lesion was weeping cloudy liquid and had turned purple. The skin around it was red and tender. The dermatologist frowned when she looked at it. “I’ll take a biopsy for culture. We’ll have a diagnosis in a couple of days. Maybe tomorrow. I’ll put a rush on it. As a precaution, I’ll start you on a broad-spectrum antibiotic, an IV injection, then tablets. I want to see you tomorrow.”

“What do you think it is?”, alarmed by the seriousness of the steps she was taking.

“We’ll see what the culture tells us. I’ll need a blood sample for the lab, as well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she replied.

Trusting her expertise, I assumed she knew what was best. After the blood draw and injection, I took the prescription and headed home, not feeling like returning to more kitchen plumbing that day. I filled the script and picked up a six-pack of IPA on the way to my house. By the time I got there, I was feeling punky, and Cherri didn’t like the way I looked. “You’ve got a fever,” she said, after feeling my forehead. I took an antibiotic tablet, two aspirins, drank a beer, then fell asleep on the sofa. 

By the next morning, the lesion looked like a piece of rotten,  hamburger meat, was about the size of saucer, and hurt like hell. I was so weak I could hardly get out of bed. I glanced at the dresser clock, then called out, “Cherri. You gotta take me to the clinic. I don’t feel so good. I have to be there in thirty minutes.”

“I can’t, Donnie. I’m showing a house at 9:30. I really need this sale. You’ll have to use Uber or take a taxi.”

The Uber driver honked twenty minutes later, and I managed to make it to the car on my own, although with great difficulty. “You don’t look so good, mister,” the driver said when I slid into the back seat.

“I don’t feel so good, either,” I said, then gave him the address.


“This way, Mr. Rose,” the nurse said after she called my name. “Dr. Prichard will see you in room three.”

“Dr. Prichard entered the room holding a file and a sheaf of computer printouts, which she put on the counter next to a small sink. She asked a few questions then examined the lesion. “I’m afraid I have disturbing news. The culture confirms a diagnosis of necrotizing fasciitis. That’s consistent with the lab results and a fever. You may have heard of it as flesh-eating disease. The infecting organism is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.”

I wasn’t sure what that terminology meant, but from her demeanor I figured it was pretty damn serious. “Can you cure it?”

“Dr. Pendergast will be here in a few minutes. He’s a surgeon and has experience with this disease.”

“Surgeon?” Don exclaimed. “They gotta cut it out?”

“Yes. It’s resistant to antibiotics. Surgery is the only option. I think we’re catching it early enough. You should be okay.”

“You think?” Or do you know for sure?” 

Before Dr. Prichard could respond, there was as gentle rap on the door, and it eased open. An older, bespectacled man in a smart, double-breasted blue suit and silver tie entered. His neatly trimmed goatee matched a full head of white hair.  He nodded at Dr. Prichard, then said, “Hello, Mr. Rose. I’m Dr. Horace Pendergast. I understand you’ve contracted a case of necrotizing fasciitis. That horrible disease happens to be one of my specialties. I hate it and would like to see it eradicated from the face of the earth. May I take a look?”

Don was immediately put at ease by the courtly gentleman’s bedside manner and held his arm out in front of him. “It’s been only a couple of days and it’s spreading like wildfire. Can you can get rid of it?”

Dr. Pendergast put on a pair of latex gloves and gently probed the lesion with his finger, starting at the center and working his way to the periphery. When Don winced, Dr. Pendergast said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Rose. I don’t mean to cause you pain, but I need to assess the extent of tissue damage. That will determine how much tissue I’ll have to remove. I’ll know better after I open it up.”

“You gonna cut out part of my arm?” I asked, terrified at the prospect of losing a body part.

“As little as necessary. It’s the only way to save the limb. Actually, to save your life,” he replied.

“Oh, my God. How did this happen? Why me?” I asked.

“Tell me everything you did during the few days before this started,” Dr. Pendergast said, taking a seat on the chair next to the examination table.

Like he asked, I told him what I’d done each day. When I got to the time I worked on the basement sewer drain in the Buckman house, Dr. Pendergast held up his hand to stop me in mid-sentence. “What did you do when you got that scratch?” he asked, his eyes boring into mine.

I thought for a moment, then said, “Nothing. I just kept working. It was running late, and I wanted to get out of there. It was just a scratch.”

“There’s our culprit. Our source. What’s the address of that house?”

“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I can find out if you really want to know. They’ll have it at the office.” 

“Good. I’d appreciate it if you would,” Dr. Pendergast replied.


Two months and three surgeries later, I was pronounced cured. Unfortunately, my arm had been amputated at the elbow, but at least I was alive. Dr. Pendergast recommended a prosthesis specialist and there was a good chance I would be back at work in a few months. Modern prostheses were more advance than I had realized, and my workers’ comp paid the full bill.

“It could have been worse,” Cherri reminded me, when a black cloud of depression settled in once in a while.


A month after Don was declared cured, the fire station in Buckman was called to a four-alarm conflagration near Morrison and twelfth, where a stately old four-square was in full blaze by the time they got there. “Nothing to salvage here,” the captain said to the fireman standing next to him. An elegantly dressed, elderly gentleman with a white goatee edged up to the captain and asked, “Is it a total loss?”

“Definitely,” the captain replied, glancing at the old man who asked the question.

The elderly man nodded, then sauntered away, wondering where he might stop for a celebratory drink in that neighborhood.

Man in a Black Tee Shirt - By Howard Schneider 

The nightmarish terror erupted out of nowhere, provoked by a sudden encounter with a stranger who displayed a level of rage that appeared close to exploding in violence. The man's wrath instantly shattered the protective layers of healing I had struggled over the years to construct and for a brief instant reduced me to the defenseless child of my distant past—as if I were about to be beaten unmercifully by the most terrifying man on earth—my drunken father.


This encounter happened today during my lunch break when I was scanning the half-price sale items at one of the used book stores near the law firm where I was employed as a bookkeeper. I was checking out the condition of a hardback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was shoved forward forcefully by a hard slam into my back. Turning to see what had happened, a man my age with rage-filled bloodshot eyes confronted me, his arm positioned as if ready to strike. He was shorter than me, but broader and heavier. His tight, black tee shirt revealed over-developed muscles in his arms, shoulders, neck, and chest, like a testosterone-infused body builder. He held a black gym-bag in his other hand. He glared at me for a brief moment, then growled, "What are you trying to do, buddy, start a fight?"


But I managed to quickly overcome the terrorizing panic that was my automatic reaction and instantly realized the guy was out of control. He was just like my crazed father had been when he would stumble into my bedroom those many years ago in a drunken stupor to take out his disappointment with his failed life by beating me until he exhausted the fury that festered in him. Instead of flinching under this deranged stranger’s hate-filled gaze, I handed him the book I was holding and said, "Have you read Hemingway? He channeled his anger into great prose. Try it, I think you'd like it."


The man's angry stare changed to a questioning look, maybe even a tinge of confusion. 


"Have a nice day," I said as I turned back to the sale table and spotted the Steinbeck I'd been looking for since reading a review of it a few months before. The memory of my father faded as fast as the man in the black muscle shirt disappeared. I even chuckled to myself a little as I made my way to the cashier. Sometimes fiction is so much better than reality.

In Line for Coffee - By Howard Schneider 

There were a dozen people ahead of me but only one barista. As a complicated order echoed around the shop, I accepted the fact it would be a long wait. I took out my phone to check for messages. But before I got to the first one, I heard my name ring out behind me. I turned to see an old friend approaching from the front door, through which she had just entered. “Oh my god! GG4545.”

“What a surprise,” she cried as we embraced in a brief hug. “It’s so good to see you. It’s been ages. How are you? You look great. Didn’t you just have a baby?” 

“It’s good to see you, too,” I said. “And yes, I did. Three weeks ago. A girl. You look good yourself. What have you been up to?”

“Still teaching at the university . . . same old-same old . . . you know how it goes. Oh yeah–congratulations on passing the two-week keep-or-reject test. So, tell me all about her. What’s her name?”

“Well, we pretty much knew she would pass, but it’s a relief to have it behind us. You never know for sure about hard-to-detect defects until the comprehensives are done. We named her after AZ4321’s paternal grandmother, PA65000. She’s as cute as a bug and already walking and talking. I think she’ll be a fast learner.”

“Oh, I just love that name, it’s just lovely,” GG4545 said. Then, after a moment of silence, she said, “Tell me, how was your pregnancy? KK1700 and I are thinking about starting a family, but I’m scared to death. I can’t miss too much work because the competition for tenure slots is fierce. The administration is always looking for any reason to get rid of senior staff so they can hire younger and cheaper replacements.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “To be perfectly honest, my pregnancy was the worst two weeks of my life. This accelerated fetal development does save a lot of time, but it’s rough on our bodies. If you’re anything like me, you’d probably have to take some time off. I did, but my boss is pretty lenient about pregnancy leave. You know how government jobs are. Once you’re in, you’re in for good, unless you really screw up, and I’m not gonna do that.” 

“My friend, VD6644, you remember her, don’t you? Tall brunette, about six-two. She said the same thing—she had a bad time, and to make it even worse, her baby was rejected at the two-week exam and recycled. She said she and her mate, ZX1011, are going to adopt one of those refugee kids from the Sector Elimination Program.”

“I remember meeting her at a party you gave several years ago.” I replied. “Please tell her I said Hello. I hope it works out for them. Those kids do need homes, but it would be a challenge to take one in. Some of those alien creatures are really weird. Speaking of which, there will be a new bunch arriving soon from a planet called Earth. It’s been decided to eliminate that entire sector. The crazy inhabitants of that place contaminated their entire solar system.”

“Isn’t that the planet where the people nearly polluted themselves out of existence?” GG4545 interjected. “And weren’t they always having wars and then spread untreatable virus disease everywhere? Covid-19 or some-such name?

“God, what a bunch of idiots they must be. Their planet’s on the verge of collapsing. If you ask me, I say it’s about time the Galactic Commission took action.”

“Yeah. I agree. But you know what’s so funny about that?” I replied.

“No. What?” she asked.

“That’s where this coffee shop got its start,” I said, pointing at the sign on the back wall.

GG4545 glanced at the sign and read the words out loud. “Starbucks. Serving Seattle’s best coffee for over 200 galactic years.”

“So at least Earth will leave something of value as a legacy,” I said. “It’s just sad that coffee’s the only thing it’ll be remembered for.”

We turned away from staring at the sign when we heard the barista ask, “What’ll it be, ladies. Our special today is caramel-mocha cappuccino with double whipped cream.”





Random Shot - By Howard Schneider 

Lester Burdett sat on his sagging front porch staring out at a barren patch of yard and a red-dirt road beyond. He was confident that sooner or later the hound dog he was waiting for would show up to spread his scent on the leafless chinaberry tree at the edge of his property. A full moon lit up the landscape like near daylight. He lifted a half-empty gallon jug of moonshine and took a long pull. His gut reacted with a warm rush and his head with a welcome dullness. The Springfield rifle passed down from his daddy was ready on his lap. “I’m gonna kill that sumbitch tonight if ever I was,” he said to no one but himself, then took another swig before setting the jug back down on the splintery floor. 

A little later, Old Mister Jackson’s Bluetick coonhound Baldy came trotting along the road making a beeline for Lester’s chinaberry tree. But before Baldy got close enough to lift his leg, Lester spotted him, lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aimed, pulled the trigger. A puff of dirt erupted well behind the hound and the crack of the shot echoed in the humid air. 

Baldy had barely broke into a fast run before Lester got off another round, missing the dog and disappearing into the night. 

“Damn that dog! I’ll get that sumbitch yet,” Lester said to himself as he reached for the jug. 

Elsie Whyte sat rocking in her rickety rocker as close to the kerosene heater as she thought was safe. A faded patchwork quilt covered her lap and a worn bible was enfolded in her raw, chapped hands. The last chorus of the closing number on the Grand Ole Opry was fighting a storm of static on an ancient radio sitting on an upended wooden crate next to her. Suddenly, the rude shack’s door flew open and her husband Roy Bob stumbled in, his rancid body stench preceded by the fog of his whisky-saturated breath. 

“What the hell you doin’ using up the kerosene?” he bellowed.  “I told you to stay in bed when it turns cold. You ain’t got the sense of a damn grasshopper. Don’t you never pay no attention to nothing I say?” He lurched closer and slapped her hard across her face, knocking her sideways off the chair. He glanced at her lying face-down on the smooth-worn pine-board floor, then spun around and went back through the open door. 

“I gotta pee,” he said, his words slurred and strung out by the drink. He stood at the edge of the porch and with difficulty unbuttoned his trousers. But before he could satisfy his urge, a .30-06 slug entered his right eye and exploded out the back of his skull. He collapsed into the tall weeds that had overtaken the sunflowers Elsie had planted the previous spring. Half-unconscious on the floor inside, Elsie didn’t hear the shot. 

Midmorning the next day she found Lester’s body, stiff, cold, and nearly concealed by a jumble of dense green. 

It was three days later when Lester Burdett caught up with Elsie on the rutted road as she walked up the hill that gave rise to the flat fields where their shacks were located, separated one from the other by no more than a hundred yards or so. 

Elsie hadn’t lingered at the cemetery after Roy Bob’s coffin was lowered into the grave since his relatives didn’t have much use for her and didn’t invite her to the visitation at Roy Bob’s cousin Dora Jean’s house. In private, his kinfolk claimed that Elsie wasn’t up to their level: didn’t even attend the Baptist church. But she didn’t care what they thought, since half of them couldn’t even read, let alone admit that Roy Bob had been a sadistic bully and drank more than his share of moonshine for as long as could be remembered. She never would have married him if it had been up to her. When she was fourteen, her father forced her on Roy Bob in trade for a team of mules, and her life had been pure hell from that time on. But although she was free of that monster, she had no way to survive without the income he brought in from farm labor and occasional thievery. She saw the horror of the county poorhouse as her only option and was in a dark mood. 

“Morning, Elsie.” 

“Morning, Lester.” 

“Right nice day,” he offered. 

“Is it? Could be better. Some warmer too . . . but it is nice to have the sun.” 

 “How you gettin’ on?” he asked. 

‘I ain’t sad about Roy Bob, if that’s what you’re wantin’ to know.” 

“I’m surely sorry about what happened,” he said. 

“I hear tell Judge Popper ain’t gonna charge you for nothing. Is that right?” 

“An accident. He said that’s what it was. Won’t be no charge.” 

After a moment, Elsie said, “Well . . . it didn’t do me no harm, cepting I’ll be going to the county poorhouse. But that surely can’t be no worse than livin’ with Roy Bob was.” 

“Can’t you get something by selling your shack and land?” Lester asked. 

“It ain’t mine. Roy Bob left it to Dora Jean. She said I gotta be out next week. He was a mean one if ever there was. Like all them Whytes is. Always have been, always will be. Meanness is in their blood.” 

They walked on in silence. The sweet songs of red-winged blackbirds were the only sounds interrupting the morning stillness. 

Finally, Lester spoke again. “How ‘bout you come live with me. I always did have a hankering for you. I got a little money coming in from my veteran’s pension. And my melon patch earns some. I ain’t gonna drink no more, either. After what happened with Roy Bob. . . .” He paused, then added, “I’d be good to you.” 

She stopped and turned to him. “You want me to marry you?” she asked, unable to hide her surprise. 

“It’d be better than a cot in the county house,” he replied. 

“Well, I’ll be,” she said. After walking on a ways, she glanced back at him and said, “I ain’t gonna be your slave-woman, if that’s what you’re after.” 

“I don’t expect no such thing. I been on my own long enough to know how to take of myself. That ain’t what I want.” 

“Well then. What is it you want?” she asked. 

“Just you, that’s all. Just you.” 

Elsie looked away and smiled, the first in many years, then said, “I’d like to have some chickens, and grow some sunflowers. And a new radio. And you gotta quit shooting at Mister Jackson’s coonhound.” 

“That sounds awful like a bribe,” he said, a grin taking shape on his stubbled face. 

“Well, I suppose it is. But then, there ain’t hardly nuthin’ good that’s free.  Least of all, not me.”

On the Way to Brooklyn, A Christmas Story - By Howard Schneider 

Early afternoon of the day before Christmas, Al Badowski and his wife Phyllis, and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Patty and her little brother Jason, were stuck in traffic on Route 9 a little south of Catskill, New York. They were headed to the City, intending to get to Al’s parents’ house in Brooklyn in time for five o’clock cocktails and then their annual Christmas eve dinner. 

Crawling along at five miles an hour, Phyllis angrily switched from a book CD to an AM traffic station. She was concerned about the worsening weather. Heavy rain was already making the wipers work extra hard. 

They learned that a heating oill truck had turned over about twenty miles ahead and traffic would be blocked for the rest of the day. None of the detours listed were near where they were stuck. 

“Patty, give your phone. My battery’s dead and I need to do a map search,” Phyliss said over her shoulder. 

“Mom, I’m texting. Use Dad’s,” Patty snapped. 

“Your father forgot his. It’s in the pocket of his other coat. Give me yours. I gotta figure out how to get around this mess.” 

A few minutes later Phyllis said, “Take the next right—Malta Avenue. We can bypass the wreck and get back on Route 9 in thirty miles. 

“Where does this take us,” Al asked. 

“Along the east side of a big reservoir. Just leave it to your navigator. I’ll take care of it,” Phyllis answered, trying to lift the mood a bit. 

“Mom! Jenny’s waiting.” 

“Okay, okay,” Phyllis said, passing the phone back to her daughter. 

After Al turned west onto Malta, Patty said, “Mom, what'd you do to the phone? The battery’s dead. I need the charger.” 

“It was already low. You should’ve charged it before we left home,” Phyllis said, rifling through the glove compartment. 

“What am I supposed to do now? I need to use it!” 

Paying no attention to her angry daughter, Phyllis said, “Al . . . where’s the damn charger?” 

Uh . . .  I think it’s in the other car.” 

“How many times have I told you to buy another one of those things so this won’t keep happening?” Phyllis spat back. 

“Sorry, babe. We were so rushed getting out of the house I forgot about it.” 

“Daaad. How can you be such a screw-up? Now I can’t text Jenny. She’s gonna think we had a wreck or something.” 

Al ignored his whining daughter and concentrated on the narrow road. The rain had turned to sleet and was making a mess on the window. And ice was building up on the road. He felt the slipperiness increase as they got closer to the big body of water, and the heavy cloud cover added darkness to the already shortened winter day. The reduced visibility made it difficult for him to stay in his lane. 

Finally, they got to the reservoir and turned south along the shore. Ten minutes later they reached a hilly stretch and started a slight climb. Then when they rounded a sharp curve in the twisting road, they suddenly encountered blinking red lights. Al hit the brakes and came to a sliding halt next to a state trooper parked across the road. He lowered his window when the trooper approached. 

“Better slow down, sir, it’s icing up fast. This road’s closed up ahead. Landslide’s blocked both lanes. You’ll have to go back the way you came.” 

“Is there any way around it? We've got to be in New York City soon. And Route 9's closed." 

“There is a back road over that hill,” the trooper said, pointing west. “It rejoins this road on the other side of the landslide. But there may be some snow up there. Ice, too. I wouldn’t recommend it without four-wheel drive or snow-tires.” 

“This Chrysler holds the road real good. We won't have any problems. Where’s the turn-off?” 

“Back about half a mile. Just after a big red house. You gonna try it?” 

“Yeah. We’ve already lost too much time.” 

Al made a U-turn and headed back north, easily finding the road the officer described. It was a narrow blacktop that meandered through a dense forest, quickly increasing elevation. The snowfall became heavier as they climbed; a thick wet layer accumulated on the front window except where the wipers were just able to clear it away. 

They'd been on that road about twenty minutes when Jason, who’d until then been focused on his Game Boy, said, “Mom, I gotta to go to the bathroom.” 

“You have to hold it til we get to a gas station or a McDonald’s.” 

“I can’t. I gotta go now. Can’t we stop for a minute?” 

“There’s no place to pull over,” Al said defiantly. 

Then Phyllis said, “Albert! No other cars are gonna come along here. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Stop and let him out. It'll only take him a minute." 

“All right, but I don’t like it,” Al replied. "Just make it fast. We gotta get out of this mess." He took his foot off the gas and gently applied the brakes. But even as gently as he did, the big car started sliding on a patch of ice, shifting to the right because of to the road’s slope away from the center. No matter what he did, he was unable to keep the forward motion in a straight line; the momentum was too great and the road too slick. Powerless to get the car back under control, it slid off the side, crashed half-way into a rocky snow-covered ditch, and came to a jarring halt. It was at a thirty-degree angle with the left-side tires suspended in mid-air spinning wildly and the underside stuck on the raised berm. 

Phyllis and Patty screamed. Al swore and pounded violently on the steering wheel. Jason burst into tears. 

“Oh, my God!” Phyllis shouted. “What are we gonna do?” 

“Are we gonna die?” Patty cried. 

“Daddy. I gotta pee!” Jason pleaded between sobs. 

“Everybody calm down!” Al yelled. “Phyllis, shut up. Jason! Open the door and do your business. Patty, check your phone again." 

A second later Patty said, “It’s still dead, Dad.” 

Phyllis started to blurt out something but caught herself, her eyes boring into Al. Then, after a moment, she calmly said, “Al—we can’t sit here until the gas runs out. We'll freeze to death. Unless a car comes along soon, you’ll have to go for help." 

“Are you crazy? It’s too far. And it’s too cold.” 

“Al! You have to! You can walk back to the main road and use someone’s phone. It can’t be more than five miles or so." 

“I’m not dressed for a hike like that. I’d never make it.” 

“Get your snow boots and parka out of the trunk. We’ll be okay with the engine and heater running if you start now.” 

“Uh . . . I left the boots and parka at home. There wasn’t room after I got all the food and presents and damn luggage in.” 

“What? Well, you can’t walk five miles in a foot of snow in those stupid loafers and that thin jacket. Oh, my God. We are in trouble, aren’t we?” 

Just then Jason climbed back into the car, shivering from the cold. 

Patty sat with the phone clutched in her clinched fist whimpering. “Mom. We're gonna die, aren’t we?” 

Then, without warning, there was a soft tap on the driver-side window. 

“Thank God,” Phyllis cried out, looking past Al to see who it was. 

Al rubbed away the moisture to reveal a scraggly-bearded old man peering at him and lowered the window. “Hello. Are we glad to see you! We’re in a bit of trouble. Do you have a phone we can use?” 

“No. Never needed one. Looks like you're halfway into that ditch,” the old man said. “Probably hung up on the undercarriage. You need a tow.” 

“Yes, sir. We sure do. Do you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a tow chain or strong rope?” 

“No, but my friend might be able to help. He could probably pull you free." 

“Can he get here soon? Does he have a tow truck or something?” 

“He’s on a break right now, but I’ll call him anyway.” The old man stepped away from the car, looked into the woods bordering the road and whistled a single long note. 

A minute later there was the sound of something crashing through brush and low-hanging tree limbs, followed by puffs of powdery snow erupting in the air. Then a huge form appeared at the edge of the dark woods, still as a statue. Its glowing eyes were focused on the old man. 

In the darkness Al and the others couldn’t tell what it was. Then, apparently in response to some subtle signal, it started coming closer, its identity gradually becoming apparent. It was a gigantic deer, or perhaps an elk, or maybe a moose. It had a magnificent rack of antlers, a thick neck and broad chest. It radiated undeniable strength and power. When it reached the old man it remained unmoving, as if awaiting instructions. 

Leaving the animal where it stood, the old man walked up the road a way, then returned a few minutes later holding a heavy harness which he slipped onto the patiently waiting animal. He mumbled a few words that Albert couldn’t hear, then came back to the car window. “When I signal, hang on tight.” A second later he waved at Al, then yelled something at animal. When the huge beast lunged forward the car sprang up with a jarring jerk and landed squarely on the road with an ear-piercing crunch, leaving a churning trail of snow, ice, and gravel swirling behind. The whole family cheered. 

Al jumped out of the car, ignored the wet cold penetrating his flimsy shoes, and ran to where the old man was undoing the harness. He held his wallet in one hand and several bills in the other. “Here, sir. I want to pay you for your trouble. You saved our lives.” 

The old man glanced at the bills and said, “Keep your money, Al. Your thanks are enough.” 

Al wondered how the old man knew his name, but instead of asking about that, said, “What kind of animal is that? It bigger than a deer, and those antlers are huge.” 

“A Siberian reindeer. Goes by the name Rudolph. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s pretty famous. Anyway, we have to be on our way. Still lots of work to do.” 

With that said, the old man turned toward the woods and whistled two loud blasts. Before Al was back in the driver’s seat and ready to drive off, eight more reindeer had emerged from the forest and made their way to the sled where they formed two columns. Soon the old man had them harnessed. Rudolph was in the lead. In no time the old man was in the sled and tearing past the car. As he sped by, he cried out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 5 - By Howard Schneider 

We froze in place when we heard Dragos shout from the bottom of the stairwell. Gloria stood close beside me. Saying nothing in response to his questions, I told her she’d have to shoot Dragos as well, like she did Lupus a few moments before. That as a vampire, he’d be too powerful for us to overcome and escape. We’d never get past him if he’s alive. 

“Alright,” she said, although I detected a slight hesitancy in her voice and not taking the pistol out of its holster. Then, looking at her more closely, I noticed a spattering of blood droplets on her face and more embedded in her short hair. 

“Gloria,” I said, “you’re covered in blood.” 

Gloria rubbed her hand across her cheek and through her hair, then examined what she’d wiped off. She licked her lips, which were likewise splotched with the wolfs fluids. “Oh no,” she muttered, closing her eyes and shaking her head as if she’d suddenly realized an undeniable reality. Then, in a shaky voice she said, “The wolf must have spewed this on me—when it coughed and gasped at the same time I bent down to check its pulse to make sure it was dead. It was its final deed, its death throes.” 

Not grasping the implication of her situation, I said, “Okay. But right now, you just have to kill Dragos. Then we’ll clean you up and get out of here.” 

But before Gloria could respond to my plea, Dragos, who by this point had come halfway up the stairs, and ignoring me, said, “Welcome to our world, beautiful lady. I see from the change in your eyes, that Lupus infected you with the werewolf virus. How fortunate, to be brought into an existence so much more rewarding than the mundane life you have been trapped in. And you, Stefan, must now choose your path. Vampire, werewolf . . . or death.” 

“You’re insane,” I screamed, then grabbed Gloria’s hand and pulled her back up to the landing. “We’re gonna get you cleaned up and get out of here. Come on, there’s a bathroom down this hallway.! We’ll wash that blood off then find another way out of this madhouse. Hurry.” 

But Gloria resisted my attempt to lead her away from the stairwell and, to my great horror, growled in a low gravelly voice. Then, with animal-like quickness, she lunged forward and bit my hand, sinking her emerging sharp canine fangs deep into the muscle at the base of my thumb. 

Still barely able to speak like a human, she said, albeit it was somewhat difficult to understand her words, “This is the only way we can be together, my dear Stefan.” 

I jerked my hand away from her mouth, which by then was turning into a longish snout dripping saliva, and ran down the hall looking for a way down to the lower level. But instead of another stairwell, I found nothing but a dead-end. With no alternative, I collapsed in a dark corner, terrified and overcome with dread. Then, a short moment later, I saw a beautiful, silver-haired wolf approaching in the dim light. She growled sweetly as she came closer. 

“Is that you, Gloria?” I manage to say, even though it was difficult to enunciate the words. 

“She growled gently, maybe even lovingly, then lay down next to me. 

Feeling the comfort of her soft fur and the rhythm of her deep breathing, I relaxed and thankfully accepted my new life.

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 4 - By Howard Schneider 

Lupus telling me they intended to make me join him and Dragos in their alternate lives, as a vampire like Dragos or a werewolf like Lupus, reinforced my intension to escape their grasp. "I need time to consider your proposal," I said with as much bluster as I could muster. "But first, I desperately need sleep. Leave me now and I'll give you my decision tomorrow." 

Lupus stood, bade me goodnight, and left, closing the thick oak door behind him, the thunk of the ancient lock punctuating its closure. 

An hour or two after I'd fallen asleep, thunderous banging woke me. A few moments later I heard muffled yelling but couldn’t make out the words. Then I heard shuffling steps in the hall outside my room, then silence for a while. But, as I began drifting back to sleep, there was nothing else I could do, I suddenly heard a raucous voice I would have known anywhere—the unmistakable Brooklyn accent of none other than my fiancée Gloria Markovitz. Then I heard what sounded like a scuffle followed by a loud cry, then a loud thump, like a body slamming onto a hard floor. Then silence again. 

"Gloria," I screamed. “Is that you?" 

"Stefan! Where are you?” 

"Upstairs. I'm locked in the first room on the landing. Hurry" 

Gloria’s family, members of a prominent Romanian Jewish business clan, had escaped nineteenth century Pogroms against jews by emigrating from Bucharest to New York, settling and prospering in Brooklyn where they as others of similar circumstance did. Gloria, the eldest and dazzlingly precocious daughter of Saul and Anna Markovitz, for some mysterious reason held an unquenchable desire to seek justice whenever possible, so after a degree in Criminal Justice from New York University she enrolled in NYPD's police academy. After an impressive five years as a Brooklyn police officer, she was promoted to detective. A year later she was selected for an exchange program with the Bucharest Police Department, partly because she was fluent in Romanian, but mainly because of her outstanding record. She’d met Stefan through his coverage of Bucharest crime syndicates, the investigation of which Gloria was assisting the local police force. It was as close to "love at first sight" as that trite saying would allow. Their wedding was set for the coming summer. 

After Gloria picked the lock and rushed through the doorway, I quickly recovered my surprise at her arrival and said, "Gloria. What are you doing here? How'd you find me? Do you know anything about this place? You shouldn't have come. We're in great danger." 

Gloria glanced around the room, then said, "Stefan. Calm down. Your editor called—he was worried he hadn't heard from you. He said he'd learned that there were concerns about this castle he'd sent you to. I figured I'd better check on you. So, what's going on? Why are you locked in this room? And what do you mean by great danger?" 

"My twin brother's a vampire and my older brother is a werewolf. They're gonna make me join them. I can choose which one to be. Then we're gonna seize control of the Romanian mafia. From Uncle Erik." 

Now Gloria had encountered her share of mentally unstable or drug-crazed characters on her Brooklyn police beats and easily recognized the ravings of a deluded person when so confronted. Taking Stefan’s hand in hers, she led him to the chair by the window, sat him down, and then took the other one. "Stefan," she said calmly, "who told you these things? Is there someone here besides that old guy who tried to block my way in? Has someone drugged you? Who locked you in this room?" 

"Gloria!" I said louder than I should of, not considering that Dragos or Lupus might hear. "I'm not crazy. I have a twin brother, and an older one too. They live here. There're related to the Dracula family. So am I. Dragos is a vampire. Lupus in a werewolf. We've got to get out of here. They'll come for me in the morning and turn me into one of them." 

Gloria was growing increasingly concerned as Stefan continued raving about vampire and werewolf brothers. "Stefan," she interrupted, "someone must have drugged you. You're delusional. But we still have to leave this place, to get you back to safety. Put on your shoes and come with me." 

Gloria’s take-charge demeanor and firm command calmed me. I realized she wouldn’t believe the truth about my brothers, so I put on my shoes and jacket and retrieved my travel case from the wardrobe. "Okay, Let's go." Then,  thinking more clearly, I asked her how she’d gotten to the castle? How we would get back to Bucharest? 

"I drove in a BPD patrol car. It’s in the village. I walked here. Can you make it that far?" 

"Do I have a choice?" 

But just as we started to open the door to leave, without warning it suddenly crashed open and the massive wolf rushed into the room. Halting in front of us, its hackles raised, it growled menacingly. Its yellow eyes fixed on mine for a brief moment, then shifted to Gloria, who had reflexively taken a few steps back. At that same moment, the wolf lowered his body as if preparing to pounce, and his mouth opened wider, revealing glistening, razors-like teeth. Then it catapulted forward, Gloria’s throat the obvious target. 

But Gloria, having upon several occasions confronted vicious dogs used for protection by vicious New York gang bangers, was not to be so easily dispatched. She quickly stepped aside, pulled out her 38 revolver and fired. The first shot entered Lupus’s head through his left ear and the second pierced his heart, entering his chest cavity between ribs six and seven. The wolf hit the floor and was soon surrounded by pooling blood. 

“Gloria! I screamed without thinking. “You killed my brother!” Then I came to my senses and realized what had just transpired. That she’s had no alternative. Lupus would have killed her. It was self-defense. “We have to get out of here,” I shouted. “Dragos will have heard the shots.” 

“What do you mean, your brother?” Gloria said, ignoring my mention of Dragos and kneeling next to the body to feel for a pulse in the wolf’s neck. Then she abruptly jumped back and cried out,” Stefan! It’s changing. Look, it’s becoming human. Oh my God. What is this thing?” 

I came closer and saw the body of my brother emerging from its canine form. “Now you understand what I was telling you. My brother Lupus was a werewolf. Thank God, you killed him. I’ll tell you more later. But now, we have to leave.” 

I grabbed Gloria’s hand and pulled her though the open doorway and to the stairs to the lower floor. But when we started down, a loud voice exploded from the bottom of the stairway. “Stefan! Stop. Who is that woman? What were those shots? Where is Lupus?”

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 3 - By Howard Schneider 

Episode Three 

Exhausted by the difficult journey, confused by discovering a twin brother, and shocked by learning what he was, I desperately needed time to come to terms with my predicament—to figure out how to escape the clutches of this evil family and return to my simple life as a journalist in Bucharest. I rose from the chair again and said, " It's late and I need sleep. We'll have to continue this conversation tomorrow. I must bid you good night." The dog-beast half-hidden behind Dragos followed my every move with his glowing eyes. 

"Stay," Dragos said in a quiet voice, glancing at the dog. Then he called back the servant. "Darko, show Stefan to his room," he instructed the expressionless old man who'd slipped past the doorway curtain and stepped around the two men still blocking my way out. 

The stone-walled room Darko led me to had a single small window overlooking a courtyard thirty feet below and provided no possibility for escape. For now, I was trapped, although still determined to find a way to get away. I couldn't let myself become ensnared by what must be the work of the devil himself. 

When I glanced around the spacious room, I saw a large oil painting of four men of varying ages gathered around an ancient headstone. The writing etched into the weathered surface was still clearly visible: 

Vasilios Lupo 

1258 - 1327 

The following words were incised below the dates: 

Family Power Revenge 

In Life And In Death 

When I approached the painting closer, I recognized one of the two younger men as Dragos. The other one appeared to be slightly older, a little heavier, and darker-complected: a thick black beard obscured the lower half of his face. The two older men bore strong family resemblances, one looking to be in his middle years, the other much advanced in age. Who were they? My father? My Grandfather? 

But my conjecturing quickly gave way to the exhaustion I'd felt earlier, and I turned toward the bed. But then I heard soft scratching at the door. "Who's there?" I queried hesitantly. 

For a few seconds there was no answer, but then more scratching. Unable to stifle my curiosity, I opened the door a small crack, positioning my foot to prevent it from being pushed open further. "Who's there?" I repeated, peering through the narrow opening. 

I saw no one, and there was no response to my probing. But then, like an blast of dynamite, the door knocked me aside and the black beast charged into the room. It quickly scanned the room, then leaped onto a large wingback chair next to the window. As I rose from the stone floor to where I'd been thrown, I was stunned to see the beast transforming into a full-grown man. His black pelt was turning into dark-complexioned skin, his facial features were becoming human, his long, hair-covered dog legs were changing into normal arms and legs. Within a single minute, he was fully human, although unclothed. From the intensity of his yellow-tinged eyes and the extent and color of his facial hair, I knew at once he was the young  man in the oil painting with the thick black beard. 

Before I had my wits about me and able to say anything, he said, "There's a robe in that wardrobe cabinet over there. Please be so kind as to bring it to me. I wouldn't want my au natural condition to impose on upon your modesty. Unfortunately, this transformation process, even as physiologically efficient as it is, is still sufficiently primitive in that it is unable to accommodate clothing, not even a simple undergarment. But I have taken the precaution to have stored appropriate attire in every room in this monstrous castles—there's just no way to know for sure where I might emerge from a shedding." 

My shock must have been obvious to the man, sitting calmly in the chair and watching me scramble to my feet. He smiled and said, "You have nothing to worry about, no harm will come to you. Please, sit down, there." He pointed toward another chair, then continued. "I have much to tell you, brother. And yes, as I assume you have now surmised, I am your other brother, older by two years." 

Finally, I recovered enough to speak. "What are you? I don't understand what's going on." 

He nodded his head as if letting me know he understood my confusion and panic, then said, "No. I wouldn't expect you to. After all, most people don't encounter a vampire twin brother and an older brother who's a lycanthrope every day, do they." 

"A what?" I exclaimed. 

"A wolfen," Stefan, "You know, a werewolf." 

'Oh my god," I cried. I'd heard his words but was having difficulty comprehending their meaning. "How can this be? It's impossible." 

"Calm yourself, Stefan, and I'll make clear how it's not only possible, but how you too can live, even thrive, in two completely different worlds. And I'm sure you'll be happy to know that you will be able to decide which of these two alternate universe you prefer—to be like Dragos . . . or like me."

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 2 - By Howard Schneider 

The cold meats and hard cheese brought by a servant restored my strength, the roaring fire warmed me, and the smooth red wine he poured calmed my mood. But these offerings did nothing to clear the confusion clouding my mind, and the man sitting across from me, watching my every move, likewise provided nothing in the way of clarification—just  silence as he watched my every move. But then, after the servant took away the trolly, again with no obvious order from the man, he finally spoke. 

"Welcome, brother. We have waited long for this moment. Even though we believed you would eventually come to us by your own accord, our patience ran thin, so we took action to bring you home. Back into the fold of your family." 

What he was saying was complete nonsense to me, but at the same time I was shocked by his words—and by what I saw. The horror of it, the truth of what I beheld—longish canine teeth that glistened between his full reddish lips as he uttered the words telling me who I was. The staggering realization that he was a vampire, and that he claimed to be my brother. 

Before I could overcome my disbelief and gather my senses to respond, he forged ahead. "Obviously, this revelation is difficult for you to comprehend since you have no idea of what I speak. But listen to what I have to say before you draw conclusions." 

Interrupting his words, I sprang from the chair and turned toward the curtain-covered doorway, determined to escape this chamber of horror. 

"Sit down!" he screamed with an authority that froze me in place. In that same instant a huge, black wolf-like dog vaulted forward from where it had been concealed behind the man's chair. Shaken by the power of the man's declaration and the ferocity of the snarling beast, I submitted to his command. When I sat back down, the man who looked like me resumed his calm narrative. "We are identical twins, me older by only a few minutes. I was also more vigorous and larger than you were. According to family tradition, a weaker twin must be drowned in the Black River, allowing the survivor a greater chance to thrive and carry forward the family name. But our mother, being a woman of strong character but with little respect for tradition, family or otherwise, defied that custom and instructed her chambermaid to take you to a safe place. The maid took you to her elder brother in the village to raise you as his own. Years later, when our father died, possibly poisoned by his self-willed wife, and as I was approaching early manhood, she told me I had a twin brother and that one day we must be united—that you must return to our family to assume your rightful place as a Lupo, and that it was my responsibility to see that accomplished. So, brother, that is why you are here. It was through my influence, albeit several steps removed 

I was dumbfounded by this revelation, shaken to my core. For this was a tale I would be incapable of believing were it not for our identical appearances—when I looked at him, I saw myself—although that resemblance quickly vanished when he spoke and revealed his two grotesque teeth. I shuddered when the cause of their reddish stain dawned on me. Remaining silent for a long moment in response to this sinister tale of family intrigue, I gradually came to comprehend the dreadfulness of the situation I had been cast into. I accepted that the monster sitting across from me—my twin brother—was a vampire, one of the dreaded Dracula clan. Monsters of mythic folk tales no sensible person claimed to believe, although deep in their being knew the truth of their existence. After all, this was Romania. But more than that, we were in a special part of Romania, in the much-feared and mysterious Carpathian Mountains, a place unlike any other in the entire world. 

Finally, I recovered my wits sufficiently to reply. "What do you want from me? Why am I here?" 

"I understand your distress, dear brother. No doubt this revelation is a great shock to you. But with time, you will see it was the right thing for me to do. But before I proceed, let me formally introduce myself. I am Dragos Lupo, not only your twin brother, one of three sons of Harnag Lupo, but one of only three living members of your immediate family. Our mother died shortly after giving birth to the two of us, and father, two years ago. But father's younger brother, our uncle Erik, occasionally visits this castle since it is officially listed as his primary residence. But it's far easier for him to control his vast world of criminal business and corrupt politics from his estate in Bucharest. As you have obviously noted, I myself am a vampire, following in the proud tradition of our esteemed cousin, Count Vlad Dracula. Uncle Erik chose not to follow in his path, in my opinion, much to his loss. The powers to be gained from vampirism are well worth the minor inconveniences to which we must adjust. You will meet our older brother in due time." 

"You must be insane," I cried, jumping up from the chair. "I want out of  here. I don't care who you are, brother or not. I don't want anything to do with you or another brother, or Uncle Erik Lupo or, either. I'm leaving now." I started toward the exit to the hall but stopped short when two men stepped from behind the black curtain draping the doorway to block my way. To my surprise, they were none other than the two reporters originally dispatched by my editor to investigate the Lupo empire. Their arms hung motionless at their sides, their faces were devoid of expression, and they said nothing. They stared at me with cold eyes as if I were a perfect stranger. 

"Brother!" Dragos shouted, then, cajolingly and softly, said, "Stefan, as you were christened by the villager who raised you. Come. Sit. Hear me out." 

Having no choice, I returned to the chair and the black beast returned to its spot behind Dragos. 

After the silent servant refilled my glass, Dragos continued. "As to why I brought you here, the answer is straight forward. You will join our elite family, enjoy the benefits of Dracula's magnificent transformation, and help me dethrone Uncle Erik and assume control of his vast criminal empire—an empire which against family tradition he seized upon our father's death—the empire which should be mine since the eldest son, our older brother, is in no way capable of controlling." 

I was astounded by his plan and overwhelmed by the preposterousness of the situation I'd found myself in. I was also confused and unsure as how to respond. After a moment, I said, "You said say there is a third son? That we have another brother? And if he's older, shouldn't he be the inheritor of the empire of which you speak?" 

Dragos was silent for a while, then said, "Yes. Our older brother, Lupus. Lupus Lupo, the rightful heir to the Lupu empire. He is a very special kind of man, although one not one  inclined to assume oversee all that should be ours. As I said before, you will meet him when the time is right."