Will Greenway/John Morris
Vlassivic drooled as a vampire’s dream on wheels beeped twice and pulled into the shopping mall parking lot. He felt a visceral thrill as he read the blue letters emblazoned on the side— County Bloodmobile. Vlassivic grinned, soon it would be time to make a withdrawal from the plasma bank—
Ben slammed the script to the floor, removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Taylor has to know this is a dog. It’s even bad for a comic. There must be a reason why he shelved the Dark Rider pages for this junk. If the rent wasn’t due, I’d send it back.”
Ben ran a hand through his short black hair and leaned back. A charcoal self-portrait, done in his first life-drawing class, stared at him from above the drafting table. Wire rim glasses dominated a thin face with prominent cheekbones and a pointed chin. He’d even captured the chipped front tooth from his motorcycle accident.
The walls of the ten-by-twelve art-room were covered with old comic pages, posters of his favorite super heroes, and fantasy pinup girls he’d drawn for himself. The full-sized drafting table, art-caddy, pegboard template holder, and photo-reference cabinets formed a maze only a self-absorbed professional would fully appreciate. Up on its shelving system his CD player fell silent and clicked onto the last track of Whos Next.
The air reeked of pen-cleaner and the lingering, mouldy odor of a big-mac he’d discovered rotting in the corner.
His gaze went to his favorite and most profitable pinup. Wavy haired Danette stretched in a classic cheesecake pose, all legs and cleavage. The caricature exaggerated feminine traits to the edge of believability. He could sell twenty inked copies a day to the fan-boys at the comic conventions.
He shook his head. It seemed he related better to Danette than to real girlfriends. None of them understood about the four hours he set aside to improve his craft. That time took precedence over all superfluous experiences— no exceptions. Being a comic artist took total devotion. His prospective girlfriends kept mistaking his commitment to craft for a lack of interest in them. It never worked out.
Too bad I can’t find a girlfriend as easily as I can draw one.
With a huge stack of bills and a yearlong backlog of scripts, he was lucky to see the light of day, much less go girl hunting. When he did finally get out, he felt drained. Nothing he did seemed to matter any more. He put his heart into projects, only to have them shelved or refused by a new editor who denied the existence of his predecessor.
When he first broke into freelancing, he had it made. The publishers paid well and his books were hot. He earned enough that he could afford an apartment close to the beach. He put a down payment on some studio art equipment and a new car. Things went great until the market softened and the company dropped his titles. In the ensuing scramble he fell behind on bills. He’d been playing cat-and-mouse with his creditors ever since. Without his equipment, he would never be able to make the deadlines. A few more late scripts and Ben Herrera’s reputation would be ruined. So would his career in comics.
He picked the script up off the floor. “Damn, Taylor must know I’m desperate. This thing is so awful it’s painful. It’s not even in comic format.” He slid his glasses back on. “Might as well get started.” Ben upended the manila envelope. Three folded sheets, and a time voucher fell on the desk. “Well, at least he sent some roughs.” He felt something else inside and after shaking a little harder a strange looking blue quill plopped out. A note dangled from it, attached with a string.
He detached the note and read: Some of my most productive artists are using these. You’ve missed two deadlines already, three, and your out. To be the best, you must pay a price. —Taylor.
Ben shook his head. “Asshole. Gimme a break, Taylor. This thing is junk.” He tossed the pen into the trash.
Unfolding the sheets he found some passable character reference sketches. “Thank god for small miracles.” He picked up the script again. “I’m lucky it’s only twelve pages.” Ben ripped a post-it note off a pad and wrote— ‘Vlassivic story gets precedence’. He stuck it on the wall next to reminders to get the cleaning, call Jim, and pay the overdue rent extension.
Grabbing the reference sheets, he clipped them to the table top. He took the stereo remote and clicked the third CD in the stack and waited until the familiar wail of Joe Satriani’s guitar filled the room.
It took fifteen minutes to rough out the pencil for the splash page, marking in Vlassivic’s silhouette and the scene’s bystanders. Two more hours to find references for the cars and buildings and draft them in. Time for ink, his favorite part. The crisp black lines gave the picture depth and made everything lifelike.
Opening a pot of ink, he dipped his best quill. As the tip neared the page, the phone rang. Ben jumped and the nib dug hard into the bristol board.
Growling, he snatched up the phone. “Yo.” He examined the mangled quill and frowned. “Whazzup Taylor? Dark Rider inks— next week?! You said to do the vampire first, that’s what I’m doing.” Ben left out the fact he thought the writing sucked. He rummaged through his nib collection. “Dark Rider pencils came yesterday, I sent six pages back to Jim— tell him to get an anatomy book, will you?” Ben tossed the points into the cart finding none usable. “What? Hey, I’m already breaking my ass, I can’t do Jim’s work for him, too. You want me to finish breakdowns, I’ll take contract rates. Huh— of course I want the job. Aw man— yeah, they’ll get done, I promise. Yeah. Later.” He slammed the phone down. “Dick— why doesn’t he just ask me to slit my wrist and get it over with!”
Shaking his head he forced himself calm and renewed his search for a good nib. He slammed the last drawer closed. I don’t have time to go to the art store. Guess, I’ll have to— wait a minute— He hurried out of the art-room and crossed the clothes-strewn apartment to the coat-rack where his jacket hung. Mid-afternoon sunlight shone through the front window. A chesty blonde jogger in a sweat-soaked leotard bounced down the sidewalk.
“Get an athletic bra, babe, you can’t defy gravity like Danette.” He reached into the jacket pocket; nothing but lint. “Shit, I thought I left one in there.” He sighed and glanced back to the trash can visible through the art-room doorway. “What the hell, I’m desperate.”
Back at the table he dipped the blue pen, and slid the nib down a pencil line.
Ben frowned, tapped the handle, dipped and tried again. Still nothing. He checked the quill slats and the reservoir. Both looked fine.
He held it to the light. “Who made this junk?” He examined the handle, all he found was a tiny white inscription. ‘For best results, add 1 part blood to ten parts ink.’
“Gimme a break— blood? Taylor, it’s bad enough you treat me like a slave, but I refuse to believe in voodoo.” He put the pen in the holder. “I’ll do some corrections, before going to the art store.”
Grabbing some ‘fix-it’ pages, a bottle of whiteout and an Exacto-knife he went to work. His gaze kept wandering back to the pen. What difference could blood make?
As he cut a panel out of the bristol, the knife slipped. He yelped. Ben sucked the sliced thumb for a second, then examined the small gash. He looked at the pen and then back to his bloody thumb. With a shrug, he grabbed a half-full canister of ink and let several drops of crimson mingle with the soot-black mixture.
“This is stupid.” He went into the kitchen, put a Band-Aid on his thumb, grabbed a Pepsi from the refrigerator and came back. Better not test it on my deadline stuff. This could ruin it. He fished around in his drawers for a sketch to experiment on. “Here we go.” He pulled out a finished pencil of Danette. A fan-boy had asked for it at a convention but never returned to pick it up.
Dipping the pen he lowered the nib to the page. A perfect dark line streaked along behind the quill’s arc.
“Oh baby, that’s fine.” He turned up the stereo. The rapid fire strains of Queen’s Stone Cold Crazy rattled the windows.
Ben worked swiftly. “This is beautiful.” The drawing took shape with amazing speed, the hatching and shadows executed without effort. His heart pounded. Parts of Danette appeared to jut from the page like a 3-d fold out. Her elfin face pushed up out of the bristol like a bas-relief.
His hands grew sweaty and his stomach knotted. “This is awesome.” Looking at the Band-Aid-covered thumb, he frowned. Blood.
The pen trembled as the nib swept down to describe large upturned breasts. As he finished the shading, the paper appeared to bulge. Ben rubbed his eyes. The CD clicked and Freddy Mercury machine gunned into his remix of Stone Cold Crazy.
Here come the Law, gonna break down the door, gonna carry me away once more…
“Fred, you might not be the only one who’s gonna get carried away…” He blinked, trying to shake the illusion of the swellings in the paper.
He touched the paper between the ink lines. Flat.
I’m losing it.
Ben finished connecting his lines and doing touch up shading. She looked ready to step right off the page.
A breathy sigh made him look around. He ignored it. A few more touches, thickening the eyelashes, adding some characteristic swirls to the hair. Another sigh. Grabbing the remote, he muted the stereo.
Silence. What the hell?
Danette— fan-boy fantasy or not, he’d never done a better inking job. The anatomy looked right. He’d simply exaggerated the hips and breasts. Her wavy hair looked real enough to caress.
Still touches to do. He added lines to enhance the appearance of tensed and draped cloth, earrings, a bracelet on the wrist, patterns on the belt and more folds in the fabric. A moan made him freeze mid stroke. Quiet again. He finished the line.
“Oooh…” Definitely a feminine coo.
Jabbing the pen in the holder, he jumped up from the table. In the doorway, he took deep breaths, trying to slow his racing heart. Had he been working too hard? Damn that turned out nice.
He resisted the urge to look and walked into the kitchen. Have to take a breather. Get my head together. Leaning against the refrigerator, he gulped down half a Pepsi and finally nerved himself to go back and see the results.
Ben stared at the rendering. He took a sip of Pepsi, feeling the cold fluid fizz in his gut. This could turn enough at an auction to catch me up on my bills! His chest ached at the thought of having to sell it.
A cold throbbing in his thumb made him look down. Condensation from the Pepsi had soaked through the Band-Aid. He switched hands and wiped the moisture on his shirt.
The sticky plastic caught the material and tore off.
“Ow—!” He shook his hand. Droplets of blood arced through the air. “Oh no!” A half inch blob had scored a direct hit on his masterpiece. A wave of dizziness made him catch hold of the table. “Damn it!” He had no choice, now, but to wait for it to dry and then white it out. Cursing and sucking his thumb he retreated to the kitchen.
A shriek from the art room made him drop the canister of Band-Aids. The box clattered at his feet.
“Oh my gawd!” a breathy female voice drawled. “I’m Jessica Rabbit with even bigger tits.”
That put him in motion. He dashed across the living-room only to freeze in the art-room doorway.
A nine inch high Danette sat on the lip of drawing table. She looked like a perfect flesh and blood rendition of his fantasy caricature. The once blood scarred bristol page looked pristine, as though untouched by pencil or pen.
Ben stepped back out of the room and took a breath. He touched the wall and then felt his face. Nothing around him had fuzzy edges like in a dream. He peeked into the room again. Danette was still there.
The tiny woman spied him. “There you are. What the hell are these?” Using both hands she hefted the jutting mounds that were the size of large grapes. “Where did you learn your anatomy, Juggs magazine?”
“Uh,” He gripped the doorknob, fighting the impulse to run. This can’t be real.
“And these— they aren’t high heels, they’re torture devices. Women wear shoes, not stilts! I almost killed myself on this slanted desk. And the dress!” She snapped the skin tight fabric. “Ben, a girl has to breathe. It fits like it was drawn on.”
“Danette?” His voice cracked.
“That’s your moniker. I would have preferred Samantha or Renee.”
“Samantha?” he repeated.
She folded her arms. “Boy, this is a sizzlin conversation.”
Ben felt the blood trickling down his hand. “Damn.” He stuck the thumb in his mouth to keep from staining the carpet.
Danette shook her head. “Where’s your blanket Linus?”
“Cut it iffa knife,” he mumbled around his thumb. “Er ru real?”
“Real as you.” Shaking her head she undid her shoes and dropped them to the floor. Danette leaped off the table to his chair and fell over backward. “Ufff, the center of gravity in this shape is all wrong.” She stood. “Let me see your thumb.”
Ben felt mesmerized. I’m having a discussion with a drawing. He forced down the urge to panic. Even if she was real, what kind of threat could a nine-inch woman pose?
He stared at her. There were highlights and reflections in her flesh and glossy hair he’d never detailed. Ben noted fabric patterns impossible to render without color in the gauzy violet gown stretched over her voluptuous figure.
“Well?” She folded her arms.
Drying the thumb on his shirt he held it out. At least this way I can see if she feels real.
Danette’s hands wrapped around his thumb. A tingle danced up his arm as her warm flesh pressed against his. She examined the slice. “A clear case of clumsimus exactomus.” She put her lips to the welling drop of blood and slurped hungrily.
“Hey!” He snatched his hand back.
Danette toppled off the chair. Without thinking, he caught the small figure in midair. She gasped and made a squeaking sound.
She weighed more than he imagined, close to a half pound. He felt her heart beating.
Danette groaned. “Whoa, loosen your grip, Tiger.”
Ben turned his hand palm up and relaxed. “Sorry.” She kneeled on his palm. “Thanks.” She kissed the tips of his fingers. “These are for quick reflexes.” She took hold of his uninjured thumb with both hands and bit hard.
“That’s for knocking me off in the first place.”
“What were you trying to do?”
She put hands on flaring hips. “You want me to grow, don’t you?”
“You’d have a hard time explaining a nine inch girl friend.” She grinned, mouth still stained with blood. “If we’re going to be together I have to be bigger.”
“You’re a drawing, not a person.”
She frowned. “Don’t call me a drawing unless you want me to bite you again. I’m as real as you are; a heuristic vitamorph. Using a polyvitic fuel I take on a configuration from a reference template, like a drawing.” She jumped off his hand onto the chair and leaned against the seat back.
“Fuel— you mean blood, don’t you— like a vampire.”
“A vampire?” She chuckled. “Get real. Let’s put it simply. You’re a talented artist who’s lonely and overworked. I’m a hungry shape-acquiring vitamorph. Let the possibilities sink in. Whatever your imagination can conjure, I’ll become, simply add—”
“Blood.” Ben’s throat tightened.
“Right.” She wiped her mouth. “Okay, so it’s creepy.” She shrugged. “I’m what you need. What woman could understand an artist better than one who originated in his imagination? I can draw and ink. Being related to art, I sling a mean line. I can keep you company and help with art chores. That editor, Taylor, is sucking the life out of you. At least when I take your blood you’ll get something worthwhile in return.” She smiled.
“How do you know all this?”
“You put your heart and soul in your work don’t you?”
“Part of you goes into everything you create. You made me. How could I not know.”
“And I can re-create you in any way I want?”
“Tiger, you got the blood, I got the bod.”
A thrill tingled through him. “How do you get bigger?”
“When sketching me you simply use perspective and object reference to establish my final size. I start small and grow as I feed.”
The possibilities boggled. “How do I change you?”
She smiled. “I go back to the pen. You redraw me, then add—”
“I remember.” He sucked his thumb. “You’ve got quite a fixation.”
“It takes a lot of energy to be someone else’s fantasy.”
Ben took the pen from its holder. “How do you get in here?”
“Give it to me.”
Ben handed her the pen. For her it was like holding a log. “Hey, sport, next time— take it easy on the accessories, okay?”
She thrust the pen overhead, tip pointing at the ceiling. Her jaw unhinged and in one swift gulp the pen vanished down her throat. She made a gargling sound.
“What, I don’t—”
Danette’s body shimmered and she waved good-bye. Her head lengthened and became pointed. Healthy tan flesh darkened and crumpled like a paper as it collapsed inward. In moments, she transformed back into the strange blue quill.
Ben picked up the pen with a trembling hand. The plastic-like material felt hot. You got the blood. I got the bod. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Should he risk it? She was a vampire, simply the fangless variety. Given the chance, Danette might suck all the blood from his body. But, she could also be the perfect partner.
She’s either a dream come true or a bloodthirsty nightmare.
Ben put the pen in the holder, grabbed his belt pouch and headed for the art store and some real quills.
* * *
The week dragged on. He ground painfully through the vampire
story. The pencils were tight and inks crisp but the product fell below his standards. He tried to improve the dead-horse script but knew it was a lost cause. Taylor annoyed him with pointed inquiries into the Dark Rider inks. The man was a schizo. He insisted the vampire story come first but the only thing he was interested in was the other project.
Every night Ben stared at the pen enshrined at the top of his art caddy. He couldn’t get up the nerve to either put it in the garbage or take the obvious risk posed by the djinni in the bottle.
* * *
He clamped the phone down on the receiver and hit his head on the table. Asshole. Jim freaks out and I’m the one that gets the finish-it-or-walk ultimatum. I don’t get some money soon they’re going to come in here and take all my equipment. His throat tightened. I can’t ink twenty of Jim’s breakdown pages in a week. I’d have to be two people…
His gaze fastened on the blue quill nestled in its holder. Being related to art, I sling a mean line… But could he trust her?
Do or die. Ben sharpened his pencil, grabbed some boxes of comics and started shopping for his new art partner.
He took hours to decide. Knowing this drawing would soon share space with him, Ben was far more discerning than he might otherwise be. Taping two boards into a ‘double-splash page’ gave room to draw the figure accurately. He worked carefully, paying strict attention to shape and proportion. At 3:00 A.M. Danette’s raw form was complete.
Ben worked through the morning, completely focused on his best work ever. After noon he nodded off only to awake a few hours later and start again. Using an old photo he roughed himself and a doorway into the picture for a scale reference.
At midnight, he held up the finished pencils. The paper looked transparent in places where he’d erased and redrawn. He rubbed his eyes, exhausted mentally and physically. He put the page down and reached for the quill. His hand shook.
Too sleepy. Finish in the morning.
Ben stumbled into his bedroom and collapsed. He turned over twice and consciousness vanished.
* * *
Currents of fog eddied around him. He stood on darkened wharf, the surroundings indistinct like an old 30’s gangster movie. The chill air smelled of salt and exhaust fumes.
Didn’t I draw something like this for a detective story?
He heard high heels clicking on the wood. “Suitably dark and foreboding, wouldn’t you say, Lover?”
Ben spun. The lithe image he’d spent a day drawing stared back. The woman protruded from the background, more real than everything else. A dazzling fantasy with an Elizabeth Taylor face, a Miss Universe body, and clothes from a fashion designer’s dream.
He swallowed. “Wow.”
“You outdid yourself, Lover, that’s sure. Of course, you know nothing in life is free.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“Irrelevant. Are you willing to make sacrifices for your profession? For me?”
His brow furrowed. “I already have.”
“You must make significant reparations for the greatest gains. You want me and my skills—” She held out her hands, palms up. “You have to pay in blood.”
“How much blood?”
She put a hand against his cheek and her lips brushed his forehead. “It’s worth it. I will share in your work, in your love, in everything. We’ll achieve your goals together, and I’ll always stand by you. You pay a heavy price to your employers for small reward and loyalty that is as changeable as the wind. Pay my price and you have my unwavering allegiance.”
His mind burned. Danette’s price might kill him. Without her help Taylor would fire him. Can I live without art..?
“Good choice.” She ran a hand down his arm. Danette took his wrist, raised it to her mouth and bit down. He screamed…
* * *
Ben startled awake. Thank God, it was only a dream. I wave of dizziness made him fall back. His mouth tasted like sand and his heart labored. Blinking, he fought back to a sitting position.
So tired. His arm felt numb, he must have slept on it. He turned it over and found a ring of healed over lacerations.
A cold shiver raced through him. The experience had been something more than a dream. He hobbled around the apartment, making short trips, too weak to stay up for long. A shower and a few cans of Pepsi helped to vitalize him a little. She must have sucked a third of my blood.
He went and sat down in front of his partner-to-be. Danette’s drawing looked lifelike even without being inked. I paid the damned price. I hope it’s worth it. He grabbed the quill, and went to work. Even with the pen’s magic, it would take a day. He took breaks every hour. In his weakened state, he couldn’t stay focused.
Ben felt himself growing weaker, as if the drawing sucked at his life force.
So tired. Only a few more lines. He inked the highlights on her lips, hints of reflections on moist shiny carmine. When there were only a few lines left the energy seemed to leave him faster.
Focus. Outlining a sweeping curve down a silky cheek caused a burning in his stomach. He steadied his hand. Only two more. The tip quivered at the bridge of her nose then sliced down arrow straight before dipping to suggest the hint of a septum. The world grayed.
He fought for consciousness. One line left. The wavy bangs dancing across her forehead were done save a small patch of raw graphite screaming for ink.
Hand shaking he dipped again…
Ben awoke, forehead aching. He’d nose dived against the drawing board, drained from the effort. His body felt like a slab of lead.
Danette in all her black and white perfection posed like a queen ready to rule an empire.
No turning back. Ripping the Band-Aid off his thumb he grabbed the Exacto-knife, gritted his teeth, and sliced open the wound.
He watched in fascination as droplets of blood spattered on the beautiful rendering.
Come on, it has to work. The globules coalesced into crimson rivulets streaking down Danette’s slender torso. Work— damn it— work. The streams trickled to the bottom of the page and pooled against the board edge. Tears burned on his cheeks. Danette.
The dizziness struck like a hammer. He slumped against the desk too weak to catch himself. A jolt of pain sizzled through him.
Underneath him, something squirmed. With great effort Ben
moved himself enough to free the figure. He collapsed back onto the board.
Little hands pressed his arm. “You look terrible. Shouldn’t have tried to make me so big.” Danette caught her breath. “You’re bleeding. Can’t let that go to waste.” A tingle rushed through his hand. Sucking sounds…
He came aware later. Strong enough to let the yard high Danette coax him into the bedroom. Ben roused to see afternoon sun pouring through the bedroom window. A piercing ache between his eyes throbbed with every heartbeat. He looked at the sliced thumb. The wound had healed over like the one on his wrist.
Dizzy and weak, his first thought was for Danette, and his second was for Taylor’s deadline. Ben staggered into the drawing room.
Humming merrily with a quill in her hand, a fairy-sized Danette labored over his Dark Rider pages. She sat on a couch cushion placed on top of his swivel chair seat. Cranked to its topmost position the seat barely gave her access to his elevated drafting table. She’d stripped off most of the clothing he’d drawn for her. Even with blotches of ink staining her hands and face, Danette looked fantastic.
The inks on two other pages lay on the desk nearby. He rubbed his eyes, and studied the concise inking job. Line flourish, tone balance, character consistency. Everything looked letter perfect.
“This is great, Danette!”
“Glad you like it, Lover.” She grinned at him violet eyes flashing. “Hope you’re feeling better. I’ve really worked up an appetite…”
* * *
He fed Danette three times a day. She bit painlessly into the artery on the back of his thumb. When she finished, the wound healed. So far, Danette’s thirst was tolerable. She grew quickly though and the larger she became the more blood Danette required.
Ben ate and drank copiously to maintain his strength. Danette worked hard, looked beautiful, made him laugh and did everything possible to make their symbiosis more bearable. She was smart, sassy, and direct, a person he could live with forever— if she didn’t drain the life from him first.
Working together they met their first deadline with hours to spare. Even rushed, the work was excellent. Taylor never admitted he’d put Ben in an impossible position.
Danette continued to grow for a month. Ben soon regretted drawing a vitamorph 72 inches tall. Every beautiful inch required food. If Danette didn’t get enough blood she became snappy and irritable. Providing her with the necessary amount was life-threatening.
Desperately searching for a solution Ben found she could subsist on beef and pork blood. He later learned that the symbiotic tie could not be broken so easily. Danette needed at least a half-pint of his plasma a week or she became lethargic and her artistic ability decayed.
* * *
Ben unlocked the front door and walked in. “Yo, Dani. Stopped by the art store, got some more ink and quills.”
Danette bounced out of the art room, tossed a tag-rag on the coffee table, and gave him a hug and a kiss. “Great! I finished inking those pencils you did. I think we’re ahead enough to take the evening off. Can you think of anything to do?” She struck a pose right off a fan-boy pinup poster.
“Something does come to mind.” He pulled her to him and planted a series of kisses from the base of her neck up to her ear lobe. As she pressed against him, he marveled at how well their relationship had worked out.
Ben poked a finger into her side and tickled her. “Come on, you sex starved, blood sucking, little vixen, don’t get me started— yet.” He stepped back and looked her in the eyes. “Taylor dumped two more jobs on us this afternoon.”
Ben began to stroke his chin. “I’ve been thinking—”
“Uh oh— strain any brain cells?” She grinned.
“No this is serious.”
Danette sobered. “What’s on your mind, Lover?”
“Are there any more of you? Vitamorphs I mean.”
She narrowed her eyes. “A few. What are you getting at?”
“I’ve been thinking about Taylor’s note. I certain I’m not the only one he’s reaming. I bet he’s sent those special quills to other artists. The independent comics are starting to hold their own against the big houses. I say we turn the tables on Taylor and steal his stable of artists. They have our kind of talent. We could all make good. That is if you have influence with your brothers and sisters and we can find them.”
“I do and we can.” Danette pursed her lips as she considered the idea. After a few moments she smiled. “What we need to do is to have a little dinner party.”
* * *
With Danette on his arm, Ben met Taylor in front of Jeanne’s New England style A-frame house on the top of parkside hill. Eucalyptus trees swayed in an brisk ocean breeze, and the air smelled of a brewing storm.
The editor greeted them, smiling with meaty lips. Taylor had put on considerable weight since Ben last met him. His coat barely reached across his bulging paunch. He wore what must be a toupee to cover up the large bald spot on his head.
Ben introduced Danette to his boss. She greeted the man cooly. Together they climbed the steps through Jeanne’s elaborate rock and cactus garden. Even that short climb winded the fat man and he unbuttoned his blazer. A glint of something red flashed in pocket as the wind flipped the loose clothing.
Taylor reached for the door bell and paused. “What’s this all about, Ben? Why are we here?”
“A little get together to celebrate how well things have been going with the comics.”
Taylor pressed the button. The door chime sounded out the death march. The editor shook his head. “Cute.”
The door opened. Even though the wood no longer stood in the way, it appeared an emerald green wall had taken its place.
Taylor’s gaze traveled up the form until it fixed on broad ape-like face and slit blue eyes. He stepped back and raised an eyebrow. He glanced at Ben. “Now I bet that took a lot of energy.”
Ben’s chest tightened. He’d expected the man to be terrified. He saw the perplexed look on Danette’s face as well.
Corded muscles rippled as the green creature reached out a massive hand and snared Taylor’s coat.
The editor scowled. “Wrinkle my jacket and you’ll spend the rest of your days in black and white.”
The behemoth paused and looked at Ben. He shrugged in response. What did he mean by that? It sounded ominous. “Go in Taylor.”
A half-smile on his features the editor went in flanked by the jade monster that made the ground shake as it walked. Ben and Danette followed. Something was wrong. Taylor seemed too cool and collected. He must know something we don’t.
He looked at Danette. The vitamorph wasn’t smiling, she stayed intent on Taylor. Her eyes were narrowed and her jaw set.
They stopped in Jeanne’s living area. A fire burned in huge stone fireplace decorated to look like a thirteenth century hearth. The rest of the room and even parts of the ceiling were a shrine to comic and underground art. Track lighting illuminated reproductions of some of the classic origin pages in comics history. Figurines and every other form of convention memorabilia decorated every nonessential surface. The room smelled of incense and the lingering traces of pen cleaner.
Lounging together on a huge bean-bag couch were the rest of Ben’s four cohorts and their vitamorphs. Jeanne who looked like a pudgy Darrell Hanna with glasses, the bleached blond mouse-meek Gary, beach boy Steve, and Brad all decked in his biker leathers. Their vitamorphs, much like Danette, had figures, faces, and clothes one could only find in a fantasy. None of the three vitamorphs looked happy. Determination and hunger glinted in their eyes. Hands linked tightly with their creators they looked ready to take any action the situation called for.
They all owed Taylor a payback.
Taylor’s gaze swept the room. “How quaint, and all of you together.” He glanced back at the huge green monster. “So this must be Rene all dressed up for a slug fest.” He folded his arms and focused on Ben. “I’ll tell you right now. It won’t work.”
Ben’s heart beat faster. “What makes you think so?”
“I’m the editor.”
Jeanne stood, she wobbled a little. She brushed kinky blonde hair out of her eyes and marched up to Taylor. All the artists were pale from the energy it took to make their green bouncer, but Jeanne looked white as a sheet. “Pen is mightier than the sword I suppose?” Her voice sounded hoarse. She stamped her foot. “Rene, punctuate this editor’s sentence!”
Ben’s stomach tightened. Taylor was too confident. “No wait!”
The Hulk ignored Ben. Growling, he loomed over Taylor. Hands that looked able to rip a bus in half gripped the editor’s shoulders.
“Puerile.” Taylor snorted. His voice echoed. “Perplexed, the jade behemoth let go.“
The huge vitamorph snatched his hands back as though burned. The creature snarled and reached again. Craig, the other male vitamorph, came to his feet— ready to assist. Though he wasn’t a hulk, he’d been drawn burly enough to give any linebacker pause.
Ben clenched his hands into fists. Things were far worse than he thought. He’d thought that Taylor had found the vitamorph pens. What if he made them.
Taylor’s voice rang out. “As daylight approached, the Hulk reverted to his alter-ego.“
The huge vitamorph dwindled and turned flesh-colored, looking like a broad-shouldered Tom Selleck. He groaned and Jeanne rushed to him. The vitamorph dropped to his knees as though drained of all his strength.
Taylor grinned. He appeared swell. His face flushed and his gray eyes glinted.
The other artists rose. Their vitamorphs came with them. Even the females looked able to rip a normal man to shreds.
Craig started forward. Taylor pointed a finger at him. “I wouldn’t.” He turned and glared at Ben. “Don’t you losers get it? You’re only the artists. I’m the editor. Give me a hard time and I’ll redline your asses right out of existence.” He scanned the small assemblage. “You think I’d give you pencil pushing geeks that much power without having a way to control you? Get real. I write comics. I know how your puny minds work.”
Ben felt Danette shiver, her grip on his wrist tightened. “He’s a parasite, Ben. A rotten little parasite.”
Taylor glared at them. He pointed a finger a Danette. “Watch it, Honey, unless you want to be the next Divine look alike.”
Danette gritted her teeth. She looked at the other vitamorphs. “No, a real parasite. A disgusting tick bloated with our blood. He’s not going to kill us.” She narrowed her eyes. “He needs us. Without the blood we take in for him he’ll shrivel up like an old prune.”
“Interesting theory,” Taylor’s gaze pinned each vitamorph. “So are you all going to die of starvation to get rid of me? I don’t think so. You’ll crawl back into your studios and work. Imagine what INS would do to you illegal aliens. You have no identity— no existence, you’re nothing. And you,” he pointed at the artists. “You bozos have been harboring them. I can make life hell. You’ll take what I dish out— and like it.”
The artists had all frozen. Faces drained of color and hands trembled with anger.
Ben’s chest felt locked in a vise. What to do? They couldn’t let themselves become virtual slaves to this slob. Identity. How did Taylor have an identity? Unless—
Ben’s gaze fastened on the glint of red he saw inside the man’s coat. Could Taylor be so stupid? Then again, he had an ego the size of a continent. The typical foible of a comic villain. If he was right, that’s exactly what this creature was.
He didn’t know what being redlined would feel like but he doubted it would be pleasant. Still, anything would be better than a life spent day-to-day giving up his life’s-blood to this vampire.
Chance it. He leaped.
The fat man was caught off balance and the two tumbled to the floor. Ben ripped the red pen out of Taylor’s coat pocket and leaped away. Ben’s chest felt tight. What should he do with it.
“You little shit,” Taylor snarled. “Give that back.” He started to stand up.
Danette slammed a foot into his butt like a kicker punting a field goal. Taylor squealed sprawling onto his face. He sloshed like a bag full of liquid.
The editor rolled over as Danette descended on him. “You bitch!” he screamed.
The female vitamorph howled in mid-move. She dwindled and colored. In an instant, she looked like a Chihuahua.
“Dani!” Ben felt punched in the stomach.
The other vitamorphs froze in mid-stride. The other artists had also stopped in shock.
Huffing, Taylor climbed to his feet. “Unless you want to become some well described form of slime— back off.”
Taylor glared at Ben. “Give me the pen or look like a chimpanzee. Now.”
What to do. If he returned it they’d all be doomed. He backed up and felt the heat of the fireplace behind him.
His jaw tightened. “You want the pen, Taylor? Go get it.” He tossed it in the open flames.
A look of stark terror made Taylor’s face go ashen. “No!” He plunged across the living room toward the hearth.
Jeanne still holding her fallen vitamorph, thrust a chunky calf into the editor’s path.
Taylor stumbled and hit the floor with a mushy thud. He bounced and jostled like a balloon half filled with water. He shrieked and writhed, trying to crawl toward the pen melting in the hot coals.
A charred smell filled the room. Ben gagged. His stomach lurched as he saw Taylor’s melted face glare up at him. The editor pointed with a hand that dripped away and formed a flesh-colored puddle on the carpet. “You’re an insect, Herrera,” the creature wheezed. “An insignificant bug! You’ll die like one…“
Pains cascaded through his body. It felt as if he were being compressed. His skin darkened and long hairs thrust from his flesh. His fingers merged into one another. The room seemed to grow around him and dozens of mirrored reflections appeared in his vision.
He tried to scream but nothing but a gurgle came out.
No, no, no…
Foam beads crunched in Ben’s ear. His face was pressed into slick black vinyl. His head ached as if he’d fought fifteen rounds and lost.
“You’re awake,” he heard Jeanne say. The female artist’s voice sounded thin. “I was beginning to think I might have to take you to the hospital.”
Ben rubbed his face. “I—” The horror of being compressed smaller and smaller came back in a rush. “Oh god.” He shuddered.
Jeanne pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose. She held up a small space between her fingers. “This close to permanent bugs-ville.” She glanced at the fireplace. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get the smell out of here.” Jeanne grimaced. “That greasy smear on my carpet will probably never come out.” She shrugged. “So what. It was worth it. We’re finally free of that tyrant.”
Ben blinked. His heart sped. He sat up and looked around. “Danette?”
Jeanne put a long blue quill in his hand. “Back to scratch. None of us are really sure if the magic still works. The others went home to test it.” She sighed. “I’m not sure it’s worth the price even if it does.”
Ben felt dizzy. He stood with difficulty.
Jeanne escorted him to the stone porch and the two of them watched the sunrise.
He’d broken the circle. The blood habit was gone. He glanced at Jeanne. He found it difficult to accept finding another woman remotely as alluring as Danette. What was better than your own self-made ideal?
Ben held the vitamorph in his hand. He could feel her essence in the plastic-like material. He’d succeeded in life without the Danette’s help.
The question was whether he wanted to.
Hell, it’s just a little blood. His life poured out to give form to another.
At least it was his choice.
He rubbed the pen between his hands. He had the blood, Danette would have the bod…