amworth

TWO

‘ROOFTOP DEVILTRY’

Night was falling as the Crossley prowled through the electric shadows of Piccadilly Circus. Incandescent light bulbs flickered, advocating the benefits of Bovril and Schweppes Ginger Ale to the occupants of the crowded streets. Loud music pierced on the cool evening air, echoing into Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street from the well-lit interiors of nightclubs and restaurants.

“Remember that business two years ago, with that Strix bint?” Gallowglass murmured as she watched the Circus spread out around them. “Why do the vampire-types always come here? Think they’re like moths – attracted to all the lights?”

St. Cyprian smiled. “Perhaps. Maybe old Thibault De Castries was right when he said that cities were the new dark forest of man’s fear.” Gallowglass looked at him blankly. St. Cyprian frowned. “De Castries? Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities?” Then, almost pleadingly, “I saw you take a copy into your room.”

“Is that what that was? I was using it to prop up my liquor cabinet.”

“You don’t have a liquor cabinet,” St. Cyprian said. He blinked. “Are you talking about that crate you have hidden under your bed?” He shook his head. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.” He looked at her. “Also, don’t use the books for that sort of thing. They don’t like it.”

The streets were crowded with lorries, automobiles and omnibuses as they negotiated the curve of the roundabout and perambulated through the circuitous confines of the Circus. The pavement too was packed with pedestrians, hurrying here and there, seeking the balmy embrace of nightclubs, theatres and pubs. As he steered the Crossley towards a likely parking spot, he kept an eye out for Boothroyd.

The inspector was waiting for them on Coventry Street, surrounded by a bevy of uniformed constables. He raised a hand as St. Cyprian brought the Crossley to a halt. “What ho, Inspector. Jolly good evening for a vampire-hunt, what?” St. Cyprian said as he climbed out of the motor car.

Boothroyd looked surreptitiously at the nearest laughing group of pedestrians. “Sir, if you could keep your voice down,” he murmured, gesturing plaintively to a group of revelers. “We don’t want to start a panic. The newspapers are already screaming about vampires.”

St. Cyprian smiled. He’d paused to glance at a copy of the Times before they’d left Cheyne Walk. The headline was practically screaming the word ‘vampire’ albeit with as subtlety as twenty-four-point type could muster. Someone had spilled the beans about the attacks, and the less high-minded muckrakers had scented blood. It was no wonder that the Ministry had turned the mess over to him. They had an allergy to public notice. Then, the undead weren’t really their line. The Ministry boffins had little experience with such things. “Relax, old thing,” he said, clapping Boothroyd on the arm. “The more the newspapers scream bloody murder, the less likely the polis are to take it seriously.”

“So we can hope,” Boothroyd murmured. He pulled his coat tighter about himself as one of the nearby neon signs buzzed and sparked. “This is your show then, sir. What should we do?”

“Spread out. Post your men as close to Coventry Street as possible, with a few others mingling along the turning, and in the Circus proper. If these are our vampire’s chosen hunting grounds, he–or she–will be out and about soon enough. There have been no reported attacks today, which could mean the beast hasn’t fed. Eyes open, and be careful. If you encounter the thing, don’t confront it,” St. Cyprian said.

“That’s our job innit,” Gallowglass said.

St. Cyprian shook Boothroyd’s hand and gestured for Gallowglass to follow him. They moved into the crowd of evening entertainment seekers that were beginning to fill up the junction. Gallowglass held the Gladstone close, and St. Cyprian kept one hand in his coat pocket, around the shape of his trusty Webley Bulldog. He’d carried the small revolver since his time in the trenches, and even though it wasn’t likely to be effective, it gave him some comfort. He’d even had Gallowglass make sure it was loaded with silver bullets.

He kept his gaze on the crowd as they moved, looking for all the usual signs–eyebrows that met in the middle, too pale skin, black gums, predatory leers, out of fashion evening wear. He counted reflections in display windows, and sniffed for the merest whiff of mildew or grave mold. He’d rarely had trouble identifying vampires before; usually, they were boiling out of some hidden crypt or other like aggravated ants, all parchment flesh, bulging eyes and gnashing fangs. Not your subtle sort, the average English vampire.

In truth, vampire hunting was a dirty business, and best left to those who wanted to do it. He’d considered placing a call to the Westenra Fund, but had decided against it. The dispatch of the undead was their unofficial remit and had been since Queen Victoria had almost gotten nipped by a frisky Wallachian.

The founding members of the fund had, with the assistance of the then Royal Occultist, Edwin Drood, put paid to the foreign rapscallion but not before the latter had claimed the life and soul of the young woman for whom the organization was named. The survivors of that heroic endeavor had pooled their fortunes and created the Westenra Fund, to scour the British Isles for any sign of the undead and put paid to them, with all due prejudice.

He was on fairly good terms with the head of the fund, the current Lord Godalming, but he had strong reservations about how they carried out their mission. Godalming and his bunch were good at what they did, but they had little sense of proportion, and ‘finesse’ was a dirty word where most of their operatives were concerned, and one in particular. They would think little of setting fire to half of Piccadilly Circus, if that was what it took to get the job done.

Not that he was opposed to a good fire himself, but even he had his limits. No, it was best to keep them out of it as long as possible. He had no doubt that they were keeping their beady eyes on the situation, but he hoped his presence would be enough to dissuade them from poking their noses in. If he could solve the problem quickly, all the better.

The scream rose up and over the hubbub of the evening, jerking him out of his reverie. It was a woman’s cry, and St. Cyprian was moving before he consciously registered it. He began to shove his way through the crowd, trailed closely by Gallowglass. He heard the shrill note of a police whistle, and saw that Boothroyd and his men were moving in the same direction. The first scream was followed by a second – a man’s this time.

“That didn’t come from Coventry Street,” Gallowglass said.

“No, it didn’t,” St. Cyprian said. He pointed. “Regent Street; looks like our fellow has decided to widen his hunting ground. Boothroyd,” he called, and gestured. The inspector nodded and moved in the direction he’d indicated, one hand on his hat. “Come on Ms. Gallowglass, the game’s afoot!”

“I thought we decided you weren’t going to say that anymore,” Gallowglass grumbled, lugging the Gladstone.

“Sorry, caught up in the moment,” St. Cyprian said. More police whistles blew, and he heard voices yell. In the glare of electric signs, he saw two bodies crumpled in the middle of the street, and several stalled motor cars, including one with a canvas roof that had been torn apart. It was easy enough to guess what had happened–the vampire had graduated to larger prey. Rather than attacking a lone pedestrian, he’d gone after a motor car.

A black shape, all insectile angles and malignant poise, crouched over the bodies like a panther guarding its prey. Its features were impossible to discern despite the web of lights which surrounded it. A loud, rasping hiss escaped from it, momentarily drowning out the sounds of the junction. Then, with a rustle of musty garments, it was in motion.

The black shape bounded across the street, springing from the top of an auto to scramble up the side of an omnibus, causing it to rock slightly on its wheels. Men and women screamed and shouted as the vampire crawled onto the top of the vehicle and flung itself towards the closest roof-edge. “After it! Don’t let it escape,” St. Cyprian said. He and Gallowglass darted across the street, ignoring the shouts of outraged motorists. Boothroyd and his men followed, the latter blowing their whistles for all they were worth.

As they reached the building that the vampire had vanished across the top of, Boothroyd said, “I’ve sent my lads to watch the turnings. If the bugger tries to shimmy down a drainpipe, they’ll catch him.”

“Good man,” St. Cyprian said. “They’re all armed, as I suggested?”

“Silver, like you said,” Boothroyd said. “We had plenty left after that damned business in Warwickshire a few months ago.” He held up his revolver. “I made sure to pick lads as knew which end to point at the enemy, as well.”

“Good thinking.” St. Cyprian looked around. Regent Street had been hit hard in the last zeppelin raid of 1917, and it showed. Beneath the glare of the neon lights which inundated the area around Piccadilly Circus, boarded windows and blackened bricks told the tale of long overdue refurbishment. This building was no different. It had been a rather good restaurant before the War, he recalled. Now it was a sooty hulk, fit only for tramps, rats and, apparently, vampires. He didn’t care for the idea of confronting the beast in its lair, but if they didn’t finish it off now, it would up stakes for safer hunting grounds.

“Eyes open, ears perked, lady and gentlemen,” St. Cyprian said, as two of Boothroyd’s men pried the boards off of the door. When they had finished, the thick smell of damp and neglect wafted out through the open doorway. St. Cyprian led the way.

There was a thick carpet of rot and dust on the floor. In the light which slithered in from the cracks between the boards which covered the windows, he could just make out what might have been footprints—a tramp, perhaps, looking for a quiet place to sleep, or perhaps something more sinister. There was no telling how long those footprints had been there, and no time to attempt to study them.

Gallowglass extracted the electric torch from the Gladstone and passed it to St. Cyprian, who waved it across the room. Tables had been upended and piled haphazardly against one wall, and towers of stacked chairs leaned like drowsy sentries nearby. Great patches of water damage crawled up the plaster, and there was a hole in the ceiling, showing the shadowy reaches of the next floor up. There was a hole in the roof, covered by a tarp, and moonlight slipped around its edges and drizzled down.

A floorboard squealed, somewhere upstairs. The sound was as loud as a gunshot, in the sudden hush after their arrival. St. Cyprian shone the light towards the back of the room. “If I recall correctly, there’s a stairway somewhere back there,” he said. “Come on.” He led the little group towards the back, flinching with every creak and groan that rose from the battered structure. It wasn’t unusual, even now, for such buildings to simply give up the ghost and collapse.

They found the stairs through the doors at the back of the room, its steps covered in fallen plaster and burnt wood. Boothroyd dispatched two of his men to check out the kitchen and the back door. The constables moved briskly. St. Cyprian wondered whether they fully grasped the truth of their quarry. Then he wondered whether they would be of any help at all, if they did. He pushed the thought out of his mind as he led the diminished group up towards the second floor.

The stairs creaked under them as they climbed. The building was still. The darkness was almost suffocating. He wondered if the beast were waiting for them above, or whether it had already made its escape. Neither option was pleasant. If the creature had gone to ground, it might be almost impossible to root out, and in the meantime, there would be more attacks. And if it were waiting for them, well…that implied a level of cunning he wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

When they reached the landing, the last trio of Boothroyd’s constables peeled off, to search the floor. St. Cyprian pointed up, letting the light of the torch follow the narrow stairs as they continued up. “There’s bound to be access to the roof up in the attic. If our nocturnal imbiber hasn’t gone down, then he may very well still be up there, prowling amongst the chimney pots.”

Boothroyd made a show of checking his revolver’s ammunition cylinder. “Then that’s for us, if you’re willing, sir. My lads will give a blow of the whistle, if they find the blighter, and they’ll come running, if I blow mine.”

“I hope they’ll settle for a gunshot,” St. Cyprian said. Boothroyd laughed. St. Cyprian started up the stairs towards the attic space. It wasn’t a long climb, thankfully. The attic was empty, save for trash and mold, and there was almost no need to look for a hatch, given the state of the roof. Nonetheless, they found it, and, one by one, climbed out into the night air. They were only three stories up, but even so, Piccadilly swirled below them like a river of lights and persistent, if muted, sound.

Gallowglass scampered up the slope of the roof. She’d left the Gladstone in the attic, St. Cyprian knew, in order to keep her hands free, much as he had done with the electric torch. While it was annoying not to have the bag close to hand, it was probably a wise decision. The slates of the roof had taken a beating in the War, and years of neglect hadn’t made it any safer.

St. Cyprian gestured and Boothroyd followed Gallowglass, huffing slightly as the slates rattled beneath his weight. St. Cyprian came last, scrambling up the incline of the roof to reach the apex, where a veritable forest of chimneys awaited him, stretching back away from them, down Regent and Coventry streets. There weren’t many places to hide, but then, vampires could do a lot with very little. He knew of one that had hidden in the knothole of a tree, and another that had flattened itself to cling to the roof of a train car. The permutations of vampiric physiology were infinite and varied.

He looked about, trying to peer through the thick shadows that clung to every brick and slate. Gallowglass had already slunk out of sight, hunting their quarry. He knew from past experience that there was no point in attempting to stop her; best to let her get on with it. They would know if she ran across it, one way or another. “See anything, Inspector?”

“No sign of it, sir,” Boothroyd whispered. He sounded nervous. St. Cyprian didn’t blame him. The Inspector whipped around a moment later, as the sound of a whistle pierced the air. It shrilled once, and then was gone. Boothroyd cursed and began to clamber back towards the roof hatch. “It doubled back on us,” he said.

St. Cyprian scrabbled after him, the slates shifting unpleasantly beneath his feet as he skirted the edge of the hole in the roof. He stopped, as he caught a glimpse of gunfire through the hole. The sound of it reached him a moment later. It was followed by a scream, also cut short. St. Cyprian turned. “Inspector—wait!”

Boothroyd was halfway to the hatch when he turned. “What?” he snarled.

“I fear we shall not have to go to meet our quarry—he is coming to us!”

Even as the words left his mouth, something black hurtled upwards through the hole, the force of its passage nearly toppling him from his perch. It moved too quickly for him to get a clear look at it, but he was immediately reminded of the creature spotted in the Drayton churchyard. It hurtled upwards, spiraling up into the night sky, where it vanished. He stared upwards, trying to spot it, but it was impossible. Boothroyd climbed back towards him, face pale. “What was that thing? Was that it?” he shouted.

“I’m afraid so,” St. Cyprian said, grimly. “It looks like our vampire is a bit nastier than I hoped, Inspector.”

“My men…”

As if in answer to his question, several police helmets thudded to the roof between them from above, startling Boothroyd, who slid back with a curse. The helmets were cracked and stained with something dark and wet, and they clattered as they rolled away to tumble down into the depths of the building through the hole. A sound like laughter slithered through the air, coming from everywhere and nowhere. St. Cyprian heard the whip-crack of great wings, and knew that the vampire had dropped the helmets as some ghastly jest.

“There’s nothing you can do for them now, I fear,” St. Cyprian said, looking back up at the sky where something circled. He cursed internally. He’d underestimated the creature, and now innocent men were dead. Abruptly, the dark shape plunged down towards them, arrow quick. St. Cyprian threw himself forward, and knocked Boothroyd out of the way. They crashed into the side of a chimney as the vampire slammed down onto the roof, scattering slate tiles and casting a plume of dust into the air.

“Stay down,” Gallowglass snarled. St. Cyprian looked up and saw her perched on the chimney, her Webley-Fosbery in hand. She took careful aim and fired, emptying the weapon into the cloud of dust, as he jerked Boothroyd off of his feet, and out of the line of fire. St. Cyprian and Boothroyd turned, their own pistols extended to fire. Before either man could pull the trigger, a chunk of tile flew out of the thinning dust and smashed against Gallowglass pitching her back off of the chimney. St. Cyprian gave a shout and swung around, as he heard her strike the roof and roll away down the slope.

“Sir, look out–” Boothroyd began, as he grabbed the back of St. Cyprian’s coat. The latter whirled about, but not in time. There came a deep chuckle and Boothroyd gave a strangled squawk as a pair of hands, like two large, pale spiders, emerged from the dark behind him and fastened about the back of his head and throat. Before St. Cyprian could react, there was a sound like a chicken bone being cracked, and Boothroyd’s limp body fell to the roof and rolled down its slope.

A tall shape moved out of the dark and into the light cast up from below by the signs of Piccadilly. The vampire was a large man, built broad and clad in an archaic uniform coat. Moldy lace was bunched at his throat, and a cloud of flies buzzed about his head like an infernal halo. The wind shifted, and the smell of him enveloped St. Cyprian. It was a choking, butcher block odor, like raw meat left to spoil in the sun. Heavy riding boots clumped across the tiles as the vampire approached. He smiled, revealing a mouthful of thin, curved fangs.

“Well,” St. Cyprian croaked, his mouth dry, his eyes watering from the stink. He extended his Webley and tried not to look at the dark stain on the roof that marked Boothroyd’s departure. He hadn’t known the policeman well, but no one deserved to die so ingloriously. “Aren’t we a fancy chap?”

The vampire moved like black lighting, barely there one moment, an afterimage the next. He undulated across the roof, seemingly moving without twitching so much as a muscle. His contorted features grew larger and larger as he came, as if he were swelling with malevolence. Eyes like lamps blazed in a pale, scarred face, and the thin, bony fingers stretched out impossibly far to curl in the folds of St. Cyprian’s lapel.

The Webley in his hand barked, and the vampire shrieked even as it swung him around and slammed him into a chimney. Rough brick gouged his back through the material of his coat. He jerked his head to the side as fangs snapped together mere inches from his jugular. He stuffed the Webley against the creature’s mouldering waistcoat and pulled the trigger until the pistol clicked dry. The monster’s foul scent enveloped him, and he was released. Off balance, he staggered forward, coughing and the loose tiles beneath his feet shifted. He had just enough time to curse, before he fell through the roof.

“Hold on!”

A hand, strong and wiry, caught his, and held fast. He looked up, as he was hauled up out of the hole, and saw a man, somewhat older than him, with lank blonde hair, and a long, narrow face, holding a slim, curved Japanese katana in his free hand. The blade was extended in the direction of the vampire, but its wielder’s attention was wholly on pulling St. Cyprian back up onto the roof.

The creature’s pale features were twisted into an expression of unholy rage as it glared at the newcomer with obvious loathing. “Vordenburg. Even here you trouble me,” the monster gurgled, in a voice like crumbling brick. The vampire lunged, arms outstretched, fingers spread.

“Look out,” St. Cyprian shouted. His rescuer whirled and the katana flashed. There came a hissing screech that put St. Cyprian’s teeth on edge, and he felt something sticky and foul smelling spatter his coat. He reached up and pulled a still-twitching finger from his shoulder. It had a large, bulky signet ring still on it.

A moment later he heard the crack-crack-crack of Gallowglass’s revolver and saw her slim shape moving across the slope of the roof. “The coppers are all dead,” she said hoarsely. “It killed them quicker than spite.”

“Are you hurt?” St. Cyprian coughed.

“Bit banged up, but I’ll live,” Gallowglass said, rubbing the smudge on her chest which marked where the tile had caught her. “What about you? And who’s he?” she asked, gesturing with her smoking pistol towards the man who’d saved him.

“Introductions, I think, can wait until we are on the ground,” the newcomer said. Though he’d spoken in English, he bore a slight accent—Austrian, St. Cyprian thought, though he wasn’t sure. “Lothar has fled, in any event, and there is no profit to be had standing up here.” He cleaned his sword on the edge of his sleeve and slid it into the sheath belted about his waist. He had a pistol holstered opposite the katana, and a second, smaller revolver holstered beneath his arm. He wore no coat, but had a black tie flapping loose about his unbuttoned collar. He looked as if he had dashed straight from the Savoy, and belted the weapons on over his formal attire.

The group quickly made their way back down to the street, accompanied by the shrilling of police whistles. The rest of Boothroyd’s men were waiting for them below, and it took some time for St. Cyprian to exert his authority over the frightened and angry policemen. Several glared at the newcomer with suspicion, openly noting that his weaponry and his accent marked him as the obvious culprit.

After a heated exchange, Boothroyd’s superiors were rung, and a bevy of mackintosh clad inspectors soon arrived, even as their fallen comrade’s body was packed into an ambulance. More calls were made, and words exchanged, until at last St. Cyprian and his comrades were free to retire from the field.

St. Cyprian hurried towards Gallowglass and his rescuer, where they waited by the Crossley. “Is it sorted, then?” Gallowglass asked, as St. Cyprian reached them.

“As well as can be expected. Trout isn’t the most imaginative sort, but he and Cuff know the score. They were involved in that Myrdstone business, a few years back. They aren’t happy, though.” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “Nor should they be. I as good as got poor Boothroyd killed, though they were kind enough not to say it.”

“If he was on Lothar’s trail, and was any sort of policeman, he would have died regardless,” the newcomer said, softly. “Maybe not tonight, but eventually. That creature is old, and vicious. He thinks nothing of killing those who might interfere with his activities.”

“That’s the second time you’ve said the name ‘Lothar’, and we’ve yet to learn yours,” St. Cyprian said. He gestured to the ground. “We’re on the ground, now. So…?”

The blonde man smiled thinly. “Forgive me for the lack of social niceties earlier. Heights do not agree with me, these days.” He clicked his heels and bowed shallowly. “Baron Palman Vordenburg, formerly of Graz, currently of…Piccadilly, I suppose. I am at your service.”

TO BE CONTINUED…

♦♦♦

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