amworth

THREE

‘THE LAST VORDENBURG’

“This is nicer than your place,” Gallowglass said. She was sprawled out on a crimson chesterfield, arms hanging over the back of the sofa, her cap tipped back.

“Our place, I think,” St. Cyprian said, sitting nearby, “given that you’ve been staying there, rent-free, for close to three years now.” Vordenburg had invited them back to his flat, which had proven to be close to hand. Suspiciously close, one might have thought, if one were of a suspicious frame of mind, which St. Cyprian was resolutely trying not to be, given the fact that Vordenburg had saved his life.

“How can I pay rent, if you don’t pay me?” she shot back.

“One assumes you would simply steal the appropriate amount from my wallet, as you do any time you find yourself in need of funds,” St. Cyprian replied. Vordenburg’s flat was small, but decorated lavishly, as if the owner wished to hide the fact that he was living on a pittance. Aside from the furniture, and the thick Persian rugs scattered across the hardwood floors, there were the heavy, handcrafted bookshelves which lined two walls. These were sagging from the weight of the books stacked haphazardly on them.

St. Cyprian recognized a few of the titles there…Magia Posthuma, Phlegon de Mirabilius, and Harenberg’s Philosophicae et Christianae Cogitationes de Vampiris. There was also a much-thumbed copy of Calmet’s Traite sur les Apparitions des Espirits et sur les Vampires, ou les Revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, which his fingers itched to flip through, though he’d read it before. It was quite the library, though narrowly focused.

Vordenburg was in the kitchen, brewing a pot of coffee. As he set the pot to percolating, he stepped out of the kitchen and leaned against the door frame. “I had heard that the War saw a new Royal Occultist take up his duties,” he said, without preamble.

St. Cyprian frowned. “Know a lot about it, then?”

Vordenburg smiled genially. “Some. My family performed much the same function for the Habsburgs, when they ruled my native Styria. The British are not the only empire to employ our sort. The Vordenburgs have ever protected the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire before it, from the depredations of the Pit.”

St. Cyprian sat back. He’d met more than a few of his counterparts from across the Channel, and not always under the friendliest of circumstances. The French, the Germans, the Russians…they all had their own pet sorcerers and consulting occultists. “Though I do wonder why you’re on my patch, old thing,” he said, after a moment. “Normally, visiting professional peers send a telegram, at least, to let the local expert, so to speak, know when they’re coming on business.”

“Regrettably, I am not here on business, so much as I am in exile,” Vordenburg said. He gestured airily. “My beloved Styria is no more, ruined by the War and divvied up by the victors.” His voice turned bitter. “That which I once fought for is now gone. I have become a vagabond, wandering from one berth to the next, with only my greater purpose to sustain me.” He motioned to the books. “I have been in Piccadilly for some few months now. Before that, I was in Paris, and before that, Florence.” As he gestured, St. Cyprian caught sight of a crucifix tattooed on his inner wrist, extending down from the base of his palm.

“And that purpose is?”

“Is it not obvious, Mr. St. Cyprian?” Vordenburg swept a hand out. “I kill vampires. With Styria’s decline, I have…broadened my scope. Once taken up, the sword cannot be so easily put down.” He smiled sadly. “I flatter myself to think that there is yet need for a man such as myself in this fallen world.” He shrugged. “So, I hunt the vyrdulak and worse things besides, wherever they choose to rise up.”

“Call me Charles, please,” St. Cyprian said. Despite his initial suspicion, he was warming to Vordenburg. For all that they’d fought on opposite sides in the War, they were on the same side now, against something more monstrous than an overly-ambitious Kaiser.

Vordenburg smiled briefly, obviously pleased. St. Cyprian wondered if he’d expected a different reaction. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t made any effort to announce himself when he’d arrived in London. Then, perhaps it was as simple as the fact that the empire Vordenburg had served was no longer in existence. The Baron obviously considered himself a free agent, these days. Gallowglass coughed, interrupting his train of thought.

“And this is Ms. Gallowglass, my apprentice, whom you’ve already met.” St. Cyprian gestured to Gallowglass.

“Assistant,” Gallowglass said, automatically. She smiled thinly at Vordenburg, who inclined his head. Her smile went flat and sharp. “You don’t have an assistant, do you?” she asked. Vordenburg laughed.

“My family dispensed with the practice. Ours is a sacred trust, handed down from parent to child, be they son, daughter, mother or father. Alas, I have no children as yet, and thus…I am alone.” His smile faded. “Perhaps it is better that way.”

The pot whistled, signalLing that the coffee was brewed. Vordenburg turned crisply on his heel and went to retrieve it. St. Cyprian looked at Gallowglass, and then said, “One can only assume, then, that you were on that roof for the same reasons we were, what?”

“Indeed,” Vordenburg said. “I have an acquaintance—a surgeon—who works at Charing Cross Hospital. He often alerts me to—ah—curious cases, such as this one. He mentioned the strange marks, the loss of blood, and I came to the obvious conclusions. As you yourself did, I presume.”

“Yes,” St. Cyprian said. “Definitely a vampire.”

“You have dealt with the undead before, then, Mr. St. Cyprian?” Vordenburg asked, as he poured the coffee. The heady aroma of a North African blend soaked the air as he filled the cups.

“More than our fair share, I often think,” St. Cyprian said, looking around the crowded flat. “There was that business in Huddersfield a year ago, and the year before that we had a decidedly unpleasant train journey to Constantinople, where we mixed it up with a peculiar band of blood-drinking miscreants looking to claim—well, that’s neither here nor there.”

“Ah, that was you,” Vordenburg said, with a wide smile.  “I had heard about that. I was in Paris, at the time, investigating a case of sanguinary possession. They were in quite a tizzy – that is the word, yes? – about it.”

“They?”

“The vampires,” Vordenburg said. “Well, the ones in Paris, at any rate. There’s a certain theatre, in the Temple du Boulevard, where the filthy creatures congregate at times. The place was set on fire once, but like true pests, they always come back.” His smile dimmed. “Some are worse pests than others, however.”

“Like our friend tonight?”

“Yes.” Vordenburg sat back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “He’s a Karnstein, of course. Few of his kind from my native land are not. The whole family tree was rotten from the beginning, and my family has put paid to errant branches more than once.” He set his cup aside and steepled his fingers. “This one is not so clever as the others, for which we may be thankful. He is dangerous though, even in his weakened condition. Less a parasite now, than a panther. He must be hunted accordingly.”

“And you’d know all about hunting panthers then,” Gallowglass said, slurping her coffee. There was a look in her eye that St. Cyprian found slightly disturbing. A glint of interest that foretold unladylike conduct. Vordenburg didn’t appear to notice, and St. Cyprian wondered briefly if he should warn the man. He decided against it; Gallowglass would never forgive him, and frankly he’d rather face their vampire armed with a tooth-pick than incur her wrath.

“I have hunted my share of beasts,” Vordenburg said. “I have the scars to prove it.” He looked at Gallowglass. “I’m sure you could say the same.” Gallowglass’ smile was like a flash of light on the edge of a knife.

“Yes, yes, we’re all battle-scarred veterans of the demi-monde here,” St. Cyprian interjected. “Right now, I’m only concerned about one beast in particular, and that’s our Coventry Street mauler. You seem to know an awful lot about the blighter. And you said earlier that you recognised that signet ring? ” He pointed to the thin finger, wrapped in a blood-soaked handkerchief, that sat on the occasional table between them. The ring in question had still been on the vampire’s finger, when St. Cyprian had fished the clammy digit out of his coat.

“Yes, it is a love token,” Vordenburg said. He held the ring up to the light. “This is the crest of the Dolingens of Gratz. The ring was thought lost, but according to legend was given by the Countess Dolingen to her demon lover before her death.” He cleared his throat and said, “Countess Dolingen of Graz in Styria sought and found death, 1801. The inscription from her tomb.” He bounced the ring on his palm.

“And you know this demon lover’s name, I expect,” St. Cyprian said. “You called him Lothar, earlier, on the roof.”

“I have a suspicion. I believe he is Lothar the Wolf, Count of the March, one of the first to bear the name Karnstein, though he was not the originator of that diseased family. Mircalla was his descendant, and others besides. He was fecund in life and in death.”

“And why is this Lothar here, rather than Styria, where he belongs?”

“He is here for much the same reason I am. What is Styria now? We are the flotsam and jetsam of war, Mr. St. Cyprian.” Vordenburg spread his hands and smiled sadly.

“You sound very sure of your theory,” St. Cyprian said. He set his cup aside.

“The Wolf of Styria and I have done this dance before.” Vordenburg’s face took on a grim cast as he spoke. “I hunted him across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from Graz to Klausenburg. During the war, I tracked him to a certain ruin, and thought him destroyed by an artillery strike. I should have known better. As to why he has come to England, well—you yourself saw what the continent was like. Vampires are very much like men; when there is upheaval, the old orders are often swept away by the new. He has made many enemies, our wolf, and not all of them are human.”

“I suppose it worked for that Wallachian chap,” St. Cyprian said.

“Indeed,” Vordenburg said. “And I intend to serve Lothar as your predecessor’s predecessor served the Wallachian. Tomorrow, at cock crow. I shall not allow the beast to defile this city for one night more.” The gaze he leveled at St. Cyprian was halfway between challenging and beseeching.

St. Cyprian smiled and pulled out his pocket watch. He flipped it open and said, “Well, that leaves us a few hours to find his lair, what? Have any idea on how to go about that, then?”

Vordenburg sat back, frowning. “Regrettably, no.”

“Ha, well, lucky for you we happened along then, eh?” St. Cyprian snapped the pocket watch closed. “I’ll need a telephone, a pencil, a steno pad, and another cup of coffee.”

Vordenburg blinked. “What?”

“I’ve got a knack for ratiocination, old thing, if I do say so myself,” St. Cyprian said, tapping the side of his head.

“And he does. At length,” Gallowglass said.

“Hush, you,” St. Cyprian said. “One of the perks of the office is that I have a number of—ah—contacts, you might call them. Vampires—especially foreign ones—are bad juju, and prone to stirring the waters, so to speak. Rather like a shark invading a reef. There’s bound to be someone who knows something, somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding out who and what.” He paused. “This Lothar…is he the type of Johnny who needs a good nap in his native soil?”

Vordenburg nodded. “A weakness the Karnsteins share with many of their pestiferous kind.” His face brightened. “He cannot be far from here.” When St. Cyprian looked at him, he continued, “His first attacks were weak—he was little more than a hungry ghost. Like as not, the artillery strike I thought—I hoped—had killed him, only wounded him. He would not be able to travel far, for prey. Too, this country of yours will be new territory for him, and he will be wary of going far from his lair. Vampires are like the great cats of the veldt, in many ways…incredibly dangerous, but also incredibly fearful of the unknown.”

“Weak? He seemed plenty strong to me,” Gallowglass said, unconsciously rubbing the spot on her shirt where the thrown tile had struck her.

“He is strong…now.” Vordenburg scratched his chin, thinking. “That makes finding him all the more imperative. Now that he has regained his strength, he will seek to flee, to find some quiet village to hide in, and gain his bearings.” He frowned. “I still cannot fathom how he got here. Who would have been mad enough to invite such a beast into your country?”

“Invite?” Gallowglass asked.

“Vampires require invitation to enter more than simply residences, in England. One of my predecessors saw to that. We had enough of the beasts of our own to contend with. We didn’t need any foreign monsters coming over and lowering the tone,” St. Cyprian said, scratching his chin. “That’s why that Wallachian chap had to hire an English solicitor, back in Queen Victoria’s day. He needed an Englishman to invite him onto our soil. Lothar might have pulled the same trick…”

“Not if he was hurt.” Vordenburg shook his head. “No, someone dug him out of that ruin, and brought him here. Perhaps at his discretion, perhaps not.” He hunched forward. “I was so certain that shell had torn him apart. The one true victory I had been able to salvage out of the great stew of the War.” He clenched his fists and pounded on his knees. “We must find him. We must!”

“And we will,” St. Cyprian said. “One way or another, Lothar Karnstein goes back to his grave tonight. You have my promise, as Royal Occultist.” He held out his hand, and, after a moment, Vordenburg took it.  Satisfied, St. Cyprian rubbed his hands together. “Now…about that telephone.”

For the next two hours, St. Cyprian called every contact he’d made in his tenure as Royal Occultist—policemen, merchant seamen, cigarette girls and socialists, following the thin strands of a trail through the telephone wires. He contacted everyone who was anyone in the Piccadilly picture, including several occultists, a few of note, many not.

One of the former was Otto Deaker. Deaker was a dealer in rare books and erotic bric-a-brac with a shop in the squalid precincts of Clare Market. He also made forgeries of a unique nature. Half of the unpleasantly batrachian idols floating about among the occult libraries of their green and pleasant land had been crafted by Deaker, rather than long dead Polynesians or Assyrians. He was a man with his ear to the ground, and no loyalties that couldn’t be bought.

He was awake, despite the time of night. St. Cyprian wasn’t entirely certain that Deaker ever slept. The man’s voice sounded as scratchy and rusty as ever, when he answered, and it only took a few moments for St. Cyprian to extract the final piece of the puzzle he’d been carefully assembling since he’d sat down at the telephone. He finished writing down the address he’d been given, and dropped the phone into its cradle.

As he knocked back the remainder of his now turgid coffee, he turned to face the others. They’d been speaking quietly the entire time, and he caught the conversation mid-flow.

“What is that, a Steyr-Hahn? Nine millimetre?” Gallowglass asked, gesturing to the pistol Vordenburg held. Vordenburg smiled and slid the gun’s ammunition clip into place. An array of weapons sat on the floor at his feet, and Gallowglass was picking through them with unladylike glee. She hefted a cavalry sabre and slashed at the air.

“Yes,” Vordenburg said, “with bullets blessed by a curate of my acquaintance. And is that a Webley I see, hanging under your arm?”

“Webley-Fosbery, innit?” Gallowglass said, pulling the pistol and cracking it open. “Automatic, yeah? And recoil operated.” She handed it to him, and Vordenburg made a show of examining it. Rather too much of one, St. Cyprian mused, but he kept that thought to himself. Gallowglass didn’t seem to mind, after all.

“If you two are quite finished comparing artillery pieces, I have an address.” He tore the paper from the pad and stood. “A house in Seven Dials. Home to one Gavin Turnbull, a soppy little hashish-eater and former member of the Order of the Cosmic Ram, the Order of Thoth-Ra and a host of other clubs of dubious reputation. Currently the mind behind an illicit and unnamed gathering of like-minded sots, whose main goal seems to be the imbibing, inhaling or ingestion of esoteric substances. Including vampire blood,” St. Cyprian said, waving the paper in the air. “They call themselves the Order of the Purple Light, though God only knows what that’s in reference to.”

“Sounds like they got more than they bargained for,” Gallowglass said.

“It sounds like we need to pay them a visit,” Vordenburg growled. He hefted his katana with a flourish. “To Seven Dials!”

TO BE CONTINUED…

♦♦♦

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