“What a splendid table. And what a splendid family to sit at it. Surely this is a guarantee that this shall be a very splendid Christmas.” Dr. George Zabor smiled widely, swirling the cognac in his glass. “Of course, I recognize that not all of us celebrate Christmas, myself included, but it seemed to be as good an occasion as any to bring us all back together.”
“This is ridiculous,” came a voice from the far end of the table. “I came here because the invitation was signed by Leo, and for no other reason.”
“Oh, Joseph...my dear Joseph. Please don't ruin this after I put so much work into it.”
“Paul, I'm warning you—”
“Please, Joseph. My name is George, Joseph. I don't call you Robert anymore, so you really shouldn't call me Paul—please, call me George.”
“If I'm going to do that, I'll also call you Saliano, and Leonide, and—and I'll call you Joseph, too!” Joseph van Ee, né Robert Renault, sniffed, seeing no point in going on. He wasn't going to waste his breath on his adopted brother, if nothing else because his words would change nothing about his demeanor—Dr. Zabor, aka Paul Orloff, Paul Renault, Joseph Steiner, Prince Saliano, Emil Nardo, James Brewster, and Joska Leonide, was unshakable. A showman by compulsion as well as profession, Dr. Zabor was now engaged in a very particular kind of research on the possibilities of turning humans into animals. It was a marked difference from his previous line of research, which concerned the living dead. But it was this research on gorillas that was of pressing concerns at this family dinner, as this research was based on Joseph's own studies of the barriers between animals and humans. “Based on” in this case meaning “plagiarized from.”
“No one ever told me that Leo was stabbed to death in this very house seventeen years ago in 1943,” Joseph rasped. “Amos might have told me, but he was shot in 1941. Lloyd and Elwyn might have known, but they've been dead since 1941 as well. Paula probably knew, but she shot herself last year after that business with her son...”
“We've suffered so many terrible losses, this joined family of ours,” George said with a smile. He looked over his other brothers, Boris and Victor Orloff, as well as the two servants, Merkil and Hichcock, whom he'd discovered were cousins of theirs. Hichcock had once worked for Victor's twin brother Vaughn, before Vaughn's untimely death two years prior. “They say that aliens came down from the skies and raised our brother Vaughn as a ghoul; and did the same to our dear nephew, little Danny Clay, Paula's boy. Inspector Daniel Clay, a brave cop who did our family proud. And that, after what happened to the boy's father, Dr. Javorski.”
“Vaughn should be seated here now,” Victor said, completely ignoring what George had said about Paula Clayton and her son. (After all, why should he care about his younger brother's adopted family?) “A car accident, and one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th Century is torn away from us in an instant. He was a greater roboticist even than Zorka—and he hated being confused with Zorka, so very much. I miss him and his foolishness—why, after he found out that rumor about being descended from Dracula, he became obsessed with wearing that silly vampire cape...”
“Don't forget that Feodor slept in a coffin as well,” George added wistfully. “Dear Vaughn's robotics skills have not left the family, either. Father's grandson by the Frankenhausen family, Dr. Baltasar Orlak, has crafted a great many wondrous machines.”
“Baltasar...isn't he Peter's brother? Young Peter Ulov?” Boris Orloff, who had been called Boroff, Monsieur Colomb, Badenov, and Boris Karlov (no relation to the actor) throughout his artificially-extended life, was now speaking. “There was a KAOS file on him. He was refining Father's invisibility methods, and had worked with Dr. Mabuse. He also had interests in the occult, and in inducing superhuman speed in people. I guess he was influenced by Feodor's ravings about 'atomic supermen,' and that American Flash who's been popping up lately...”
“Shut up,” Victor Orloff, aka Victor Poten, barked suddenly. “I am the father of the future Czar of Russia and I don't need to hear your voice any further. You have created foul half-breed offspring, Boris—with Asiatics, no less. Your first daughter, Anya Karlova, was beautiful—but the second, Tania, was a monster. I can't believe a member of my own family would bed a creature of the Far East.”
“Your racial politics, brother Victor, have always repulsed me. I had hoped you died back in '34 when you tried to destroy the Chinatowns of the United States, but no luck, it seems.”
“Why are you bothered by racial matters, brother Boris, when you worked for that 'Fearless Leader' of yours during your time at KAOS? I identified the 'Leader' as Otto Skorzeny, a Nazi war criminal. I always took you for being a devotee of Hitler.”
“No such luck, my inferior sibling. The Fearless Leader was a messenger boy for Mr. Big, the true head of KAOS at the time. I worked for agencies that would have had severe qualms with the Third Reich. My partner, Natasha, was formally employed by SMERSH, a Soviet organization. They called her 'the Black Widow' even before she went rogue. She certainly never called me 'dahlink.' But we actually did fight humanized animals, a moose and a rodent—that damned cartoon didn't get everything wrong.”
“So you were a Soviet operative, then? That still makes you my enemy, you dolt. The Soviet hierarchy as it stands today does not suit the aims I have for my son. Our ancestral homeland must be restructured if Victor Poten Jr. is to supplant the democracies of the world!”
Boris Orloff rolled his eyes. “I have more important concerns. I have yet to track down the man who created that moose and squirrel: Robert G.V. Moreau.”
George Zabor's eyes lit up at this, and he looked significantly at Joseph van Ee. However, he saw he needed to prod when the psychiatrist refused to talk.
“Not even a complaint about the failings of your prodigal son?”
“The failings you spawned, you jackal!” van Ee shouted. “Robert George van Ee had a destiny. You stole his name and in return you filled his head with crazy thoughts that he was the heir to the Moreau family. And those thoughts came from my notes, which you stole from me! You stole my son, and you stole the legacy of the great Dr. Mirakle. Without Mirakle there would be no Darwin, and I am proud to be his great-grandson.”
“Oh, but you did so well choosing the name George for him. I liked it so much I took it for myself, can't you tell? He and I have had fun working together, turning people into animals and back again. It really is like the Moreau days all over again...”
“Moreau was a monster. He had no interest in science, only his own sick gratification. Turning my son into a disciple of his beliefs is the most evil thing you've done in a long life of evil. You spied for the Nazis during the War in your Nardo guise and that's how they ended up with Gamma 693 and all the other toxins that keep dead Nazis shambling around the Earth as zombies. Now my grandson William tells me that you've been writing to him in boarding school, telling him all about the Orloffs and all the evil things your family has done. Telling him to take the Orloff name for himself. I won't stand for it!”
“I haven't been so insulted since I was offered a contract for Hydra,” Boris said. “The Orloffs have achieved much in our time! True, some of us have been more infamous than others, but recall that my father, Dionysus Orloff, was a colleague of your great-grandfather. Dr. Mirakle donated the apes that Father used in his invisibility experiments. The same longevity drugs which extend my life enabled him to serve as Mirakle's contemporary.”
As talk came up of their ancestry, George's eyes twinkled. This seemed to be the point he wanted to come to.
“Let's take some time,” he said, “and reflect on those who couldn't join us this night. We four, plus the servants, are all that remain of the joined Orloff-Renault-Clayton family.”
“I assume you couldn't reach Baltasar and Peter?” Boris asked.
“I should clarify, yes, we are all that I could reach,” George replied. “Dr. Moreau refused to join us, as did Joseph's son Ward—Ward's son William, aforementioned, is snowed in at boarding school. Boris, you insisted that Katja is still alive, but she's not been seen since her plane was shot down in 1914, so I offer my apologies.”
“What about Polyphema and Riven? Her daughter and son?”
“Polyphema?” Joseph van Ee said. “Paul, surely you don't mean...”
“Polyphema Blood, who was my sister Katja's daughter with her husband Terry, married Amos Bradford Renault.” George spoke slowly. “Triplet brother of Robert Parry Renault, and Leonard Grainger Renault, late of Fog Island.”
“I-I didn't know my sister-in-law was the sister of my adopted brother,” Joseph stammered. “And their children, Phorcys, Thusa, and Madeline, are Orloffs as well.”
“All save Madeline are deceased.”
“What? My nephew and niece are dead?”
“Polyphema's bloodline from Amos is sometimes called 'the Ghost Family,'” George mused. “An associate from my Saliano days, a Priest of Satiin named Degar, called them that. They were taken from this Earth before their deaths...” He seemed unwilling or unable to go any further.
Joseph van Ee seemed shaken, but he didn't want to show it before his brother-rival. “You ask me to speak of family, when mine has been purged. What of yours? Who is among your dead?”
“Perhaps you should reflect on our family, Joseph. Get the grief off your chest.” Joseph didn't speak, but George kept on. “What about Lloyd and Elwyn? Triplets with Paula. Mother gave them the name 'Clayton' even though we ended up with her maiden name of Renault.”
“Lloyd was a good man. Elwyn...Elwyn became a vampire. He threatened his own daughter, Gayle, whom Leo adopted and raised with Karma—Karma, who married Leo after Lloyd died killing Elwyn in 1941. She was with Leo here, on Fog Island, when he met his end, in that revenge scheme of his.” George smiled at the word “revenge.”
“Karma has another husband these days,” George said. “A carny called Ortega. She gave birth to his son last year.”
“Did you bring us here to depress us, Paul?” Joseph asked.
And the doctor laughed.
“Not quite, Robert. I brought you here to Leo's old house because I know that one of you was the one who kicked me off San Sebastian twenty years ago.”
“What?” Joseph exclaimed. “What do you mean?”
“Yes, what do you mean, brother?” Victor Poten asked.
“My sources have told me that it was a member of my own family—perhaps even one of my siblings—who ousted me from my zombie research on San Sebastian. I was hoping to learn which of you it was.”
“It wasn't me,” each of the five said in turn.
“Well, it certainly wasn't Alfred, or Melissa. Neither of them survived past 1912,” George said, his voice growing sour. And without a further word he drew a pistol. “Stop your lying. Which of you did it? Which of you stopped me from learning the secrets of life and death?”
“This is absurd,” Boris Orloff said then. He took out his own gun. “I've been a spy for three decades. I'm older than you but my body is younger. My trigger finger is faster, Paul.”
But George Zabor did not flinch.
“You always were the runt of the family, Paul. I think that's why you were adopted—”
A shot rang out; that mockery was the opening George was waiting for. Orloffs always seemed to end up melodramatic. Himself included, of course.
As Boris Orloff sat dead in his Christmas dinner, George said, “If you know the account of what happened here with Leo and his victims, you'll know that this room is rigged up to flood with water. Victor, you shouldn't have refused Father's offer of the longevity drugs—I know you can't leave that chair of yours. Nor can you, Robert. I control the floodgates...now talk.”
“God damn you, Paul!” Joseph van Ee exclaimed. “It was Feodor...Feodor, who's dead. He died in 1954 during an encounter with that wizard Sar Dubnotal. I gave him the tip that San Sebastian was the heartland of Caribbean voodoo...that it would be perfect for his own zombie experiments. I didn't care what he did as long as he ruined what you were doing. I knew Feodor Orloff—he was calling himself Richard Marlowe at the time—was your brother, even before you did.”
George grinned. “Then I shall send you to the grave with double the happiness, Robert. You are my bitterest rival and now I know you are behind my greatest failure. I hope you are thirsty.”
But George forgot his own awareness of the Orloff family melodrama. Robert Renault, aka Joseph van Ee, was indeed confined to a wheelchair in his old age, but he could still pry Boris Orloff's gun from his dead hand. He did so quickly, and like a viper his finger snapped at the trigger. The bullet ripped straight through George's gut.
He was still undeterred. Laughing hysterically, he shifted his foot, and the room began to fill with water. Opening the metal door behind him, he staggered out into the hallway, and then sealed the aperture. Inside he heard Hichcock and old Merkil, the most physically capable of the surviving four, pounding desperately on the steel. He nearly regretted locking them in but there was no reason why he shouldn't amplify the pleasure of fratricide as much as he could.
“Paul, you damn fool, get us out of here!” Victor bellowed impotently. “I am the father of the future Czar of Russia! I am the killer of democracies! I am—”
He stopped, as his heart started giving out on him. The room still echoed with shouts, coming from the two butlers. But Robert Renault remained silent to the end.
Outside, George Zabor kept on laughing, even as he collapsed. His dark garments were soaked in rich dark streams of blood...Robert, the old bastard, had hit an artery. It was over, for all of them. But it didn't matter. He'd had his revenge.
There was nothing that mattered more to his family than that. Than that final hateful spit into the wind, against all odds—a last laugh, a last great evil, sometimes all just for evil's sake.