Shades of Gray - By Amanda Ashley

Chapter One
The Roskovich Carnival was the smallest, seediest looking excuse for a circus Marisa Richards had ever seen. The owner's main claim to fame was his boast that, inside the largest of its three rather shabby-looking tents, he had the body of a genuine Transylvanian vampire.

Marisa paid the wizened ticket-taker six-fifty and then, bypassing the usual carnival rides and games, entered the large blue-and-white-striped sideshow tent along with the other hardy souls who had ventured out in the rain on this cool and windy Halloween evening.

She wandered from one attraction to the other, pausing to look at the bearded lady, at a two-headed man who was so obviously a fake it was laughable. Moving on, she saw a sad-faced giant clad in a leopard-skin costume that reminded her of Fred Flintstone. There was a morose-looking dwarf, a man who had skin like that of a reptile, a diminutive woman who was covered from head to foot with psychedelic tattoos.

The air was thick with the scent of rain-damp clothing, cotton candy and buttered popcorn, mustard and onions. A vendor wearing a yellow apron was calling, "Get your hot dogs! Get 'em while they're hot!"

Marisa stopped when she came to a smaller tent set up within the big one. A hand-lettered sign read



Marisa felt a sudden chill skitter down her spine as she stepped into the small tent. Good special effects, she mused. She glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see some sort of fan, but saw nothing.

And then she saw the coffin. It was the old-fashioned kind, bigger at the top than at the bottom. Dull black in color, it rested on a raised wooden dais in the center of the sawdust-strewn floor. The closed lid was covered with a large spray of fake, bloodred roses.

There were perhaps a dozen other people in the tent. They stood in a loose semicircle around the casket, talking in hushed whispers. A little girl tugged on her mother's hand, begging to go on a pony ride. Two teenage boys stood together, teasing a pretty teenage girl by making jokes about the undead and creatures of the night.

The crowd fell silent as a tall, cadaver-thin man dressed in a dark brown suit and old-fashioned cravat entered the tent and took his place at the head of the coffin. He stood there, his pale hands folded, his expression somber, while the lights dimmed.

"Welcome," the man said, executing a courtly bow. "I am Silvano."

He spoke with a heavy accent, though Marisa could not place it. Hungarian, perhaps, or Russian?

"What you are about to see may shock you, but, be assured, it is quite real. Hundreds of years ago, Count Alexi Kristov was a ruthless monster, a scourge who decimated many small villages in my native Romania. In his time, he preyed on my family, devouring them one by one until my ancestors were almost completely destroyed."

Marisa took a step forward, drawn in by the man's words. She had never been one to believe in ghosts or goblins. She wasn't afraid of the dark. She didn't believe in witches or warlocks or vampires.

But something in this man's voice, his words, made her believe. She felt the hair rise along her arms as Silvano took a deep breath and began to speak again.

"Over a hundred years ago, one of my ancestors discovered the count's resting place. He rendered the vampire helpless by binding him with silver chains."

Very slowly, Silvano removed the plastic roses from the top of the coffin. He hesitated, for dramatic effect, Marisa surmised, and then, with a flourish, lifted the lid, which was lined with white satin.

"Though he looks dead," Silvano went on, his tone somber, "I can assure you that Count Alexi Kristov is very much alive. A century without nourishment has rendered him helpless and virtually powerless."

Silvano extended his hand in invitation. "Please, do not be afraid to come forward for a closer look. There is no danger."

Marisa hung back until everyone else had taken a good look at the count, and then, on legs that suddenly felt like limp spaghetti, she climbed the two steps up to the dais and looked down into the casket.

The bed of the coffin was lined with the same white satin that lined the lid. A silver cross, perhaps a foot tall, was secured to the foot of the coffin. Similar crosses were placed on either side of the vampire's head.

The vampire, attired in an old-fashioned shiny black suit,