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The Phantom of the Niebelungen

by Geoff Hart

On those rare occasions I want culture, I buy yoghurt. Art museums? Forget about it. Stuck-up snots, and you’d need a stethoscope to find a pulse. Book readings? Not likely. About the only blood flowing is when the author cuts her finger—and it’s always a her. Music? Ah… now that’s another story entirely. For the right music... Take Wagner, for one. It’s not that I like opera, you understand... I like the class of patron it attracts: emotionally uncontrolled types who know how to feel, not think.

I’d been scanning that cultural desert, the Arts section, for weeks, and today was finally the day—an announcement of the Metropolitan Opera reprise of last year's triumphal performance of the Ring Cycle. There’d been rumors for much longer, of course, but the director was a secrecy freak, and there’d been no way to confirm anything. I could hardly contain myself. It was like hearing your favorite restaurant was reopening after renovations. When the moment finally arrived, I was quivering all over with anticipation.

The Cycle begins with Das Rheingold. Anticipation notwithstanding, listening to the CD to prepare for the big day put me out like a light and kept me there until the alarm clock dragged me back into the day. So: Das Rheingold. Episode one of four is a tale about the Rhine gold, though the only gold I ever noticed in the story—when I was paying attention to the story, that is—is the magical golden ring the Dwarf Albrecht forges in the hope he’ll acquire power over the gods. Fortunately for Wagner, the best laid plans of Dwarves and men never work out that smoothly, as some author once noted; had they done so, it would have been a one-opera cycle, and I’d be spending more time hunting and less time dozing by the stereo.

Much though I despise the music and the singing and the general running about and beating of breasts, it must be said the old German had an attractive take on life: the Ring cycle's a brooding and cynical commentary on how we mortals interact with and try to control the divine. Interesting notion, control, but those are deeper waters than I’m comfortable swimming in. What matters is that a very delightful, very rare class of person really gets Wagner, and I live for the moment their control breaks and they surrender to the music. You might say I make my living from repressed emotions, and if you want to call me a psychologist, guilty as charged—though between you and me, they’d drum me out of the profession in an instant. I help too many people and don’t charge anything for my services.

I was out taking the air that night after the performance, keenly alert after spending—God, was it really three hours?—marinating in the emotions permeating the opera house, appetite whetted to the point where I was past ready to dine. There’d been so many to choose from, but the one who most caught my fancy I was guessing was a banker in his late 50s. The scent of lilac lay heavy on the night air and heavy rain earlier that evening had washed away most of the smog, but what filled my tingling nostrils was the knot of emotions coiling within that tightly disciplined mind, crammed so full of statistics and Revenue Ministry regulations.

Right about now, you’ve probably coughed politely to yourself, muttered something about mixed metaphors, and wondered where I’m going with this. Relax already. The metaphors remain happily unmixed, even if I’m taking liberties with the language. Think of it this way: Ever been in a commuter bus Monday night while the day shift heads home after a rough day, wrinkled your nostrils, and wondered why anyone wastes their time showering in the morning? Ever been in a locker room when the team’s been playing their hearts out and still losing? Ever smelled the clenched sphincters of a bunch of religious extremists picketing the latest porno film? Yeah, like that. Even you can smell other people’s emotions if you try; you just haven’t really tried yet.

Me? I’m the Guerlain of emotions. I can smell things you didn’t even know existed unless you read psych journals for the fun of it. (And if you do? Get a life already.) The more complex and disturbed the mix of emotions, the more delightful. My highbrow friends stand in awe of my discerning wine palate, but they’d shun me like a skunk at a wedding if they suspected for one moment that my palate depended on how recently they’d refreshed their underarm deodorant. As “telepathy” goes, it’s limited, but I get by just fine, thanks for asking.

So my banker strode briskly on through the night, and I followed behind him, savoring the subtle blend of his thoughts, freighted delicately with lilac. Nouvelle cuisine, perhaps, but no less delicious for all that. I began following a little more closely now, salivating. I let a deeper part of my consciousness emerge and lock onto the subtext of his thoughts, tasting the faintest residues of a deep fear the Wagner had conjured forth, the key to unlocking that which I hungered after. As that part of me responded ever more strongly, I felt the first stirring of the physical changes. In the neon light from a shop window, my reflection in the armored glass had grown distinctly hunched and my face ever so slightly lupine.

So the guy had a problem with werewolves? Honestly, the people we trust with our money!

After a time, my prey turned into a tree-lined drive. By now, we’d left the theater district and come to the ritzy part of town, and a long stretch of manicured lawn fronted a distinguished old home. I paused, gauging distances, then chose my moment. Striking my best operatic pose, I pointed my muzzle at the moon and howled. The quarter moon was waning, spoiling the effect if you’re a purist, but it wasn’t the important element of our shared reality. The banker turned, eyes wide, and I sprang towards him, savoring the delirious acceleration from my powerful new muscles. With a sob of fear, he spun on his heel and ran, surprisingly fast for a man of his age and economic class. I pursued, panting harshly as I closed the distance, and he looked over his shoulder at the last possible instant. As he turned, he tripped and fell, a scream keening up into the night as I reared up over him, silhouetted artistically against the moon, fangs bared and gleaming in the pale light, claws hooked and poised to tear and rend, and...

All right, I confess. I have a low taste in melodrama, perhaps another reason why I find Wagner the best music to hunt by.

I felt his release wash over him. Have you ever seen a fox catch a rabbit in one of those PBS nature documentaries, and heard the rabbit scream? You have if the filmmaker’s been at all honest with you. Now I’m no wildlife expert any more than I’m a shrink, but I’ve always believed the rabbit screams so it won’t feel the pain as the fox devours it. Call it an educated guess. The same principle applies in the martial arts: in karate, you scream when you punch. The mystics claim this ensures you'll hold nothing back of the mental energy they claim is so important to the blow. Me, I’m guessing that it just helps you ignore the pain of whacking your soft hands into some poor defenceless board or brick, but I wouldn’t know—I don’t fight with boards and bricks. But what I’m getting at is how the same principle applies in primal scream therapy, and I’m about as primal a therapist as you’re ever going to meet. So my dinner screamed, and all those delightful, painful, pathogenic stresses he’d locked up so tightly in his finely tuned mind boiled up and fled through the gateway that sound opened.

Not much escaped me. We shared his cherished image of a carefully ordered mind and life, and the smothering fear of how my rending him into itty-bitty little pieces would eradicate that order. I fed him back the image of my fangs locking onto his throat, of my claws scattering his bowels and an overpriced pre-opera dinner across the manicured lawn, and I fed gluttonously on the despair and horror. Charged with that energy, I lowered his slack but otherwise undamaged form to the ground and fled into the night, alive in the same way someone blasted on crack must be. Mind you, I’ve never used the stuff myself, and not from any misplaced sense of virtue; I’ve just found a better drug.

I ran for most of an hour, high on stolen emotions, coming back to myself only as I returned to my own neighborhood, tuxedo hanging in rags. I slept so deeply I never even heard the paper girl making her morning delivery. But the next morning, as I sipped black coffee strong enough to stand a spoon in, I saw my story. The way they told it, a senior accountant at some Bank Street firm (my "banker") claimed to have been followed home from the opera house and attacked by a werewolf. The writer, with tongue firmly in cheek, noted dryly how the accountant had consumed a bottle of vintage wine before attending a particularly atmospheric opera. I grinned. The accountant would recover swiftly, apart from a torn muscle sustained during the pursuit. I was pleased he’d sustained no additional injury, though it wouldn’t have bothered me much or for long had his injuries been more severe. It's the nature of the predator–prey relationship, and you can't change who you are.

The police were mystified the man had been left uninjured, with no money or other valuables taken. One officer, off the record, opined that “the poor sap must've been under too much stress at work, spring being the silly season for accountants”. An uncommonly perceptive guy for a cop, and so much for that particular stereotype. I turned to the Sports pages next, doing a little research. I manage to live modestly well by placing careful bets on local sporting events; it’s a distinct advantage to know the pre-game mental states of the players and bookies when you need to beat the point spread. I could’ve lived much better than modestly, but I’d smelled a bookie’s hunger enough to know what would happen if I attracted their attention.

A couple weeks later, I’d begun to feel the hunger again, but the second installment in the Ring cycle was about to begin. I made the arrangements for a new tux, purchased a ticket over the phone, and settled back to wait.

***

Episode two: Die Walkure. Wagner’s done picking on short people, and has moved on to feminists, including the eponymous Valkyrie, Brunhilde. Said chickie disobeys her father and falls for a mortal, Odin only knows why. Politically correct this ain’t. In the legend, Valkyries are tough, independent, modern bitches, the warrior women who fly fallen warriors to Valhalla, and the notion that one might give it all up for a sensitive new-age guy? Just don’t go there, at least not with any women in the room. There’s more gloomy Nordic stuff, but the point is, I’d be sitting with a different crowd this time, and I had a particular sort of craving. You know how some nights, nothing but a pizza and old episodes of The Twilight Zone will do? Or maybe it’s imperial rolls and old episodes of M*A*S*H, bouillabaisse and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, or moussaka and the Odyssey in front of the fireplace. Tonight, I was hunting Valkyrie.

Sitting in the cheap seats until the singing finally ended was like waiting for a restaurant's kitchen to open—after you’ve been fasting all day and just finished your annual colonoscopy, so you’re about as empty as empty gets. Amidst the savory stew in that enclosed space, one particular set of emotions had caught my attention. I thumbed my iPod's volume higher until I'd tuned out the worst of the singing, and spent the next hour locking in on her, trying not to drool (it ruins the tux) and making sure she was alone. When the performance let out, she left by herself, lost in thought, and I had no difficulty following her.

She was Black, and from what I could tell, her particular horror was being mugged and ravished by a hugely unkempt white man. That appealed so much to my sense of irony that I let the transformation begin without bothering to check whether anyone else was around; it wasn't a particularly dramatic change, since all I needed to do was lengthen my hair and my legs, grow a bit of a belly, let a few days’ growth of beard emerge, and snatch a wickedly sharp knife from the night air. As we walked and I slowly closed the gap between us, the quality of the neighborhood deteriorated. When she moved into a suitable gap between the street lamps, I surged after her, moving about as subtly as the morning garbage truck when the driver knows everyone’s still sleeping. She heard my feet pounding the pavement, saw and mistook the nature of the lust on my face, and turned to flee, knees gone weak.

I’ve got to tell you, that fear response is delicious—the same thing that paralyzes a bird when it meets the eyes of a snake, and cold blood or no, the snake gets off on it too. I caught hold of her and pulled her into a convenient alleyway. There, I fed her mind what she wanted, vaguely repulsed by the whole thing. I suppose if you called me a voyeur, I’d be hard pressed to deny it, but let’s be clear about this; I’m a very specific type of voyeur. It’s not the sex or the violence that brings me here; it’s the emotions they release. Her terror was something wholly different from the accountant's, and fled her much more slowly. I savored her, and it was more satisfying than the gluttony with which I’d devoured the accountant.

When I was done, I turned and strode away down the alley, full of the strength of the gods, Dwarvish ring or no Dwarvish ring. When the mugger came at me out of a doorway, the jagged stump of a bottle slashing for my gut, I slapped his arm aside with one hand and seized his elbow with the other. Then I closed my grip until he screamed, his agony a lagniappe dessert, and released him only once he’d lost consciousness and my fingers had nearly met in the middle. Don't be too quick to congratulate me; this was no vigilante justice, a concept I personally find distasteful. I simply don’t like being attacked. A man’s got a right to his personal space, y’know. Don’t make a big deal of it.

The next day, it took a little more searching to find the news story. After all, prominent white male accountants rate considerably higher in the newspaper hierarchy than single working mothers who go without food to afford an occasional evening of opera. The same guy who’d covered the previous attack, and the several others that had preceded it over the years, hypothesized "an epidemic psychosis stalking the city", and recommended that "culture vultures with overactive imaginations" avoid Wagner for the next few weeks. His words, not mine—there are worse literary sins than mixing your metaphors. I turned to the Sports pages again, as the balloon payment on my condo was coming due and a few extra bucks wouldn't hurt.

***

Another few weeks passed, and it was time for the third of the Ring cycle to take the stage. The hunting had grown lean lately, so I reserved myself a ticket, then downloaded a few gig of songs for my iPod. I ran a few errands, placed a few bets, strolled around a bit, then made my way to the opera house in plenty of time to scope out the buffet.

Something odd hung in the air that particular night, as out of place as Old Spice in the girls’ locker room; it was like an aftertaste to the stew of odors circulating in the opera house's closed air, as if a chef had added curry to the spaghetti sauce instead of basil.

Act three was Siegfried, and this time Wagner takes a shot at the animal lovers. It just occurred to me: maybe the reason this opera is so popular is that over the course of four episodes, it manages to offend everyone? Kinda like South Park for the overeducated? But back to the opera. In Siegfried, the guy who gets star billing on the marquee hunts down and slays a giant dragon. As you might expect, the room was filled with vicarious heroes, and the mixture of testosterone and Axe aftershave was a powerful, if nauseating, stimulant. As the singers stalked about the stage, thrashing the boards, I turned up the volume and listened to John Gray explaining why Leo Buscaglia was from Venus, or something like that. By the end of the evening, I was starting to feel just a tad edgy, and resolved to stay out of the talking books section of iTunes from now on.

By then, I’d selected my victim, a thin young fellow with a disciplined mind softened only slightly by the reefer he’d smoked during the intermission. A bright guy with a rich variety of tightly closed doors that promised an abundance of controlled emotions to feed on. I guess the ambiance had gotten to me, 'cause I stalked him with brutal efficiency. Maybe it was all that testosterone; maybe it was that damned Axe he was wearing. Whatever it was, I got just the slightest bit careless.

My dinner was one of those role-playing gamers you’ve probably read about, and he believed implicitly in dragons, creatures of the night, and all kinds of stuff real adults know is horseshit. I transformed faster than was comfortable, driven hard by impatience, and my steps must’ve grown clumsy before I adjusted to my new bulk. So he heard me, and turned on his heel with surprising grace. His eyes widened as he saw me rearing above him, yard-long fangs gleaming in the streetlights and claws that would have shredded Toledo steel clashing like castanets, and as the barriers came down in his mind, I staggered back as if he'd hit me with Excalibur: the young fool was actually preparing to attack me!

I forgot for just the briefest moment how much of my transformation is psychological rather than physical. As I shifted gears—let’s be honest, I stripped the whole damned gearbox downshifting—he stepped inside the reach of my “claws” and delivered two blows to my midsection so fast I was only able to count them by the number of times I felt ribs crack. I fell to the ground, the transformation ebbing as I lost my focus in an unfamiliar wash of pain. Things would have been pretty dire for me if he hadn’t made the mistake of feeling elated at his victory. I can understand the reaction; by rights, what he’d seen should’ve run him through a Cuisinart instead of dropping me like a poleaxed peasant. But his elation flooded into me, and I fed that energy into the broken ribs. Then I got back on my feet and slipped into that easy empathy that would drive the change again. His grin faded as I loomed up over him once more, but fortified by his previous success, he stepped back into some kind of martial arts stance and waited, mind going blank with concentration.

Great. I’d inadvertently picked Jet Li for my victim. As I mulled that over, beginning to seriously consider giving up and seeking easier prey, he took matters into his own hands. I heard his kiai! just as he spun into a roundhouse kick and knocked me flying against a lamp post. This time, he'd caught me in the diaphragm and it was all I could do to retain consciousness long enough to draw another breath. But his elation swelled like an orgasm, and that energy sustained me. I rose once again, unsteadily, but having learned my lesson, I found my own center first while he prepared for what should have been the coup de grace. As he gathered himself for the explosive release of energy in that final blow, I flowed into his mind more deeply than before, sucking in every last ounce of that release. Overconfident, he danced into some elaborate kata he’d probably learned from Hollywood, and this time, I met him midway.

I’m not trying to justify what happened; it just happened. Maybe I was a little pissed at the broken ribs, maybe I was giddy from lack of oxygen and getting into the whole dragon thing too much, and maybe it was just the testosterone. I met his attack a little bit too directly, and he rebounded and hit the pavement like a sack of potatoes dropped from an airplane. That abruptly, nothing remained to feed on.

This wasn’t supposed to be the way it happened. Dinner wasn’t supposed to fight back, or at least not enough to get hurt. I slunk away into the night, hunger only partially satisfied. I would need to feed again far sooner than usual, and I felt like a junkie seeking some sordid kind of fix.

The furor over the kid’s death took long enough to die down I was forced to resort to some fairly objectionable means to sustain myself. I remember an old comic book about a geriatric vampire working at a blood bank to pay for his special fanged dentures and making periodic withdrawals without anyone noticing. Me, I sought out the Metro loonie bin, where the emotional energy was so intense it could recharge my batteries within minutes. Problem was, once I’d finished feeding, I was in no fit state to do much of anything but hide in my room until my personal reality conformed more closely to the social norm. The nonconformity bothered me less than the indigestion; eating at the asylum was the gastronomic equivalent of binging at McDonald’s, without any such thing as psychic Pepto-Bismol to deal with the aftermath.

***

By the time it was once more safe to hunt my preferred prey, the Ring cycle had moved into the last week of Act Four. Die Gotterdammerung, “the twilight of the gods”, is Wagner’s attempt to offend the religious folk. In it, all the gods and heros die and the world ends, thank you very much and please turn out the lights when you exit the theater. The sort of plot that brought all the nihilists out of the woodworks, though I was past caring. I needed good food, and I needed it now. I selected a female victim this time, someone with a professorial sort of feel. I don’t ordinarily have much in the way of preferences concerning my victim’s sex, but I do fancy myself an equal-opportunity predator, and several of my last prey had been male.

By the time the show let out, I knew every song on A Night at the Opera by heart, but at least I was in control of myself. I stashed my iPod and followed the professor slowly, savoring the moment, this time making sure everything was perfect before I pounced. University girl feared someone exactly like myself, a sort of psychic vampire, so I didn't have to change at all, other than to acquire some props. In hindsight, that should have sent me fleeing for the safety of the loonie bin cafeteria, but emotion overruled logic this time, for which I blame Freddie Mercury. I cleared my throat, and raised my cape in billows about me as she turned. If only I’d had some dry ice, the mood would have been perfect. But things went sour immediately.

“Good evening,” she said, nary a tremor in her voice. “I’d begun to doubt your existence.”

Excuse me?” I replied, thrown off balance. I no longer sensed any fear, and the exhiliration that took its place was like drinking from what you expected to be a glass of apple juice and tasting Coke instead—the old battery acid stuff, not the new pap. It made my teeth hurt, figuratively speaking. I rallied, trying to regain control of the situation before it went completely to hell. “Lady, don’t you realize that I’m going to kill you and suck out your soul?”

She laughed, clearly relieved. “Please. I’ve been following you since you started haunting the opera house last year. You’ve only killed one person, and I’d bet that was purely accidental. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong...?”

I frowned, now totally off my stride. “No, you’re not wrong. Damn. You’ve got me at a bit of a disadvantage.”

“So it would appear. But don’t worry, I'm not planning to turn you in. I just want to study you.”

Study me? What the devil for?”

“Your existence confirms certain hypotheses about the nature of human emotion. Something I’ve been trying to prove in the lab, without much luck, for several years now. My postdoc funding’s running low, but this—this’d mean tenure for sure!”

This woman wasn’t the least bit scared of me; quite the contrary, I was beginning to fear her. If she turned me into some sort of lab rat, I’d be in the Enquirer and the Star right next to the UFO aliens and Princess Di’s ghost, and so much for gourmet dining ever again. The gun she pulled from her purse came almost as an anticlimax, though it took my mind off my other problems most wonderfully. I raised my arms reluctantly, then felt the intense intellectual curiosity she’d held in check until that moment beginning to seep around the edges of her control. I fed gratefully on that, unbeknownst to her, as she blathered on about what this meant for her career, how she’d put some Miller fellow in his place at last, and which journal would publish her first. When I'd fed enough, I lowered my arms.

“Keep ’em up. I won’t hesitate to use this,” she gestured with the gun. “I’ve had some Reserves training, so I'm reasonably confident I can down you without any permanent damage.”

“I believe you,” I replied, advancing on her calmly, arms extended. She fired once, twice, but with the energy I’d tapped—and with more pouring out every second as her fear bubbled up—it was a simple matter to send the bullets away into the night. I gathered her into my arms, tasting her fear ever more keenly, and made with the Bela Lugosi shtick. But as I savored her growing panic, waiting for it to burst past the last of her crumbling control and fill me, a siren erupted in the next street over. I’d forgotten the gunshots! I turned at once to flee, pushing her away from me and cursing the psychosus interruptus, but I did not dare risk a confrontation with the police. Perceptive guys, yes; sympathetic guys, not so much.

Before I could run, she seized my arm and stepped in front of me to block my flight. I could see the excited flush in her face, and a faint sheen of sweat. “Running won’t help. If you run, I’ll be van Helsing to your Dracula, Ahab to your great white whale... I can offer you a better alternative.” The gun had vanished, and with all strength gone from my limbs, she tucked my arm firmly under hers and held on as if we were nothing more than a couple out for a stroll. She began walking in the direction we’d already been headed, and I followed numbly.

The police cruiser rounded the corner in a flat skid, siren piercing my ears, but the cops spotted nothing out of the ordinary and sped on past us, accelerating. Once they were safely out of sight, I extricated my arm from her sweaty grasp and stopped walking. “You mentioned an alternative?”

She smiled, and I could smell her relief. “Yes. Join me at the university. My funding’s a shambles, but I never managed to spend my budget for a research assistant. And they won't let me spend it on anything really practical, like food. You’re uniquely qualified to help me in my work.”

“Which is?”

“The psychology of emotion. I run student volunteers through a bunch of tests and measure their electromagnetic responses, but I’ve always felt I’ve been missing something—it’s like they’re too damned controlled, and not a one of them knows how to let go and really feel. So I don’t get the signal strength I need. I’ve a notion you could help me with that.”

I neglected to point out that trying to explain emotions in terms of electromagnetics was like blaming urban crime on Democrats. “Yes, I probably could. But what’s in it for me?”

“Apart from the stipend? Well, for one thing, a steady and diverse diet. You’ll never want for nourishment if you hang around the campus. And the labwork is just an appetizer... you ought to see what students go through around exam time.” Her smile broadened, and there was something cold in it that I liked. “Plus, if you think these opera buffs are juicy bundles of stress, you’re going to love thesis defences and board of governors meetings.” She laughed. “This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, Louis.”

“Frank.” I laughed back at her, my apprehension easing slightly, and put my arm protectively around her waist. “Nothing pretentious about Bogie. You have to respect that.”

She slipped her arm around my waist and squeezed. “We’re going to have some interesting times ahead, Frank.”

The fat lady had sung, and the opera was over. But something else was starting here, and I had the feeling I was going to like it a whole lot better than Wagner.

Author's notes

Pace those who love the heartthrob vampire shtick, the thing about a monster is that they're monstrous, no matter how cute and cuddly they may look with their "Nancy-boy hair gel". (Hellooo, Angel. <g>) Frank is probably my least-pleasant protagonist to date, and I'm not sure I want to write about anyone less pleasant. There's a novel about the further adventures of Frank trying to escape this short story, and I'm thus far successfully repressing it.

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