amworth

FOUR

‘SHADOWS IN SEVEN DIALS’

Barely more than two decades prior, Seven Dials had been more popularly known as St. Giles Rookery, and had been one of the worst slums that London had to offer. The area had become a byword for squalor and depravity, and had hosted more than its fair share of occult-types—palm readers, clairvoyants, herbalists and the like had occupied, and indeed, likely still did occupy, the crooked lanes and hidden storefronts of the area.

There were also Bolsheviks, Anarchists and Mafioso crowding each other in the garrets, taverns and side-streets. Too, more than one esoteric society had settled roots into the coiling streets, including Theosophists, Freemasons and the ever-present Swedenborgians.

“Hearts just as pure and fair, may beat in Belgrave Square, as in the lowly air of Seven Dials,” St. Cyprian murmured, as he climbed out of the Crossley. He looked at the others, as they got out. “Iolanthe, W.S. Gilbert.”

“I did not picture the Royal Occultist as being a man with a taste for musical theatre,” Vordenburg said, smiling slightly. “I prefer opera, myself.”

“Yes, well, no accounting for taste,” St. Cyprian said blithely. He looked up at the house. Like many of the buildings in this particular cul-de-sac, it was a remnant of a better time, marred by the grime of industry and poverty. Badly boarded over windows glared out at the dark street like the narrowed eyes of a hungry predator, and while there was noise and music and life at the opposite end of the cul-de-sac, there was none here. It was as if something had drained all of the vitality out of the surrounding buildings.

Overhead, the still dark sky had grown darker still. Storm clouds crowded out the stars, and the air tasted of damp. As they left the Crossley, rain began to fall in fat dollops, striking the pavement with audible smacks. Thunder rumbled, somewhere deep in the dark above.

“We’re being watched,” Gallowglass said.

St. Cyprian glanced behind him, towards the set of flats across the street. Curtains shifted in some of the windows, as if hastily jerked closed. “Just curious neighbours, I expect. They’re probably wondering if we’re here to join the Order in whatever tomfoolery it gets up to at night. Or else they’re wondering why a Teutonic gentleman with a boar-spear, two swords and small arsenal of pistols is standing in the street, staring pensively at this house.”

Vordenburg grunted. “I have two pistols. That is hardly an arsenal.” He lifted his spear. It’s haft was made of ash wood and the blade was iron, lined with silver. Perfect for pinning vampires to the ground, St. Cyprian suspected. “These are necessary tools of my trade.” Vordenburg sighted down the shaft of the spear. “In days of old, knights rode into battle carrying more than just sword and lance. Why should I do any different?”

“We’re hardly knights, old thing,” St. Cyprian said, checking over his Webley. It hadn’t done much good the first time around, but he’d taken the precaution of loading the pistol with bullets made from melted down church bells this time, rather than silver. Whatever blessings were left in them might give their sanguinary foe a bit more bother. He also had the silvery charm he’d employed at the hospital, just in case. Hopefully, between them, it would be enough.

Vordenburg looked at him. “You might not be, but I was knighted by the Emperor of Austria himself.” He cocked his head towards the house. “Shall we? The night wanes.”

“After you,” St. Cyprian said. “But once we’ve made our first impressions, let me do the talking, what?” Vordenburg hefted his spear and, without hesitation, kicked the front door open. The sound of splintering wood was loud in the stultifying quiet of the cul-de-sac.

Gallowglass laughed, and drew her revolver as Vordenburg stalked into the house. “Cor, he ain’t half subtle,” she said, as she followed him. St. Cyprian rolled his eyes and went after her. If the vampire was in residence, he would definitely know that they had arrived. Then, there likely hadn’t been much hope of that to begin with.

“Still, whatever gets us out of the rain,” he muttered, as he went inside.

The house was quiet. Wallpaper was peeling in sheets from the cracked plaster, and rats scuttled away as Vordenburg led them inside. There was a sickly sweet smell in the air, clinging to the corners and cobwebs. Vordenburg pointed silently towards the lounge. St. Cyprian nodded. There was a light there, though it was not a bright one.

The smell was stronger in the lounge, and St. Cyprian identified it at last—opium and blood. It painted the atmosphere, and he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to press against his mouth and nose. Gallowglass cursed. “Bloody nora, look at ‘em,” she hissed.

The Order of the Purple Light, or what was left of them, were laying scattered about on thin pallets. Most had wounds of some kind on their throats and exposed forearms. Some of the wounds were little more than rat bites. Others were ragged, terrible things which glistened unpleasantly in the light of the old-fashioned gas lamp which hung from a hook mounted on the wall. There was an ornate hookah sat in the centre of the rough circle of pallets, with hoses and pipes for each of the dead men. It had long since gone cold, possibly earlier in the night, or perhaps even the night before, but the smell still lingered. The Order’s passing had not been pleasant, but it had, seemingly, been painless.

“Well, this is a rum-do and no mistake,” St. Cyprian said, looking around. There’d be no questioning Turnbull or his associates now, it seemed. He shook his head, appalled at the carnage. How many more lives were going to be claimed, before they ran the creature to ground? He shivered, not wanting to think about it. He and Gallowglass had faced vampires before, but never one with such a penchant for casual slaughter.

“Bandages,” Vordenburg murmured, as he nudged a limp arm with the toe of his boot. “He’s been feeding on them, while they slumbered in a drugged haze. Probably for several days, at least. Keeping them alive, until he was strong enough to hunt on his own.”

“They had no idea what they brought into the country, I’d wager. They might have thought your Wolf dead, and no danger to them.” He examined the bodies. There was no way to tell which one was Turnbull. They were all desiccated by blood loss, as well as ravaged by drug-use and decadent living. The Order hadn’t been the most hygienic of secret societies, that was for sure.

“Thought wrong, didn’t they?” Gallowglass said. She sank down and began rifling through the dead men’s pockets. St. Cyprian nudged her.

“Stop that,” he said. The storm was growing in strength. The rain was rattling the windows, and he could hear water dripping, somewhere above.

“Why? They don’t need it,” Gallowglass said, pulling out a tarnished pocket watch and popping it open. “How much do you think this is worth?”

“Nothing to you. Put it back,” St. Cyprian said. “It’s dashed disrespectful, and more than a bit ghoulish.” His voice echoed through the room. “Not that I’m in the business of mourning utter pillocks like this bunch. The nerve of them, inviting something like this over the threshold into Blighty. Well, he’s spared them the gallows at least.”

He heard a soft rustle, but saw nothing. The darkness remained impenetrable, save for the flickering reflection of the watery lights of Seven Dials glimmering through the ragged curtains of the room’s single bay window. The light illuminated the detritus of the Order’s activities—papers and books lay everywhere. There were map books, grimoires, and account books piled up haphazardly in the corners, and loose pages tacked to the walls or scattered about on the floor in heaps and stacks. From a quick glance, he could tell that importing vampires was the least of Gavin Turnbull’s sins. Not that it mattered now.

“He’s here somewhere,” Vordenburg muttered. He looked around warily. “I can smell him. And some of these men have only been dead for a few hours.”

“I can feel it as well,” St. Cyprian said. He turned in a slow circle, pistol extended. He felt like a mouse being played with by an increasingly bored cat. “What I don’t understand is why here? Why not some little village somewhere, out in the country? Someplace no one would notice, not until it was too late. Instead, he came here, to the greatest metropolis in the world, to crouch at its heart.” He shook his head. “Maybe it’s true what they say…all roads really do lead to London.”He heard the noise again. A skittering, rustling sound, like rats scampering about in the dark, and he wished again that he’d brought a torch.

The floorboards at his feet exploded upwards, pelting him with splinter and chunks of damp, rotted wood. He staggered, momentarily blind, and threw up his hands to protect himself. Something foul surged up around him, and enveloped him. It was at once a screaming skeleton, a vast, bloated bat and a cruelly smiling man, clad in tattered, archaic finery. Hands, or perhaps claws, seized him by the throat, and he was dragged down, down into the dark below. Vertigo claimed him as he was swung about, and he found himself upside down, staring into a face that seemed at once ghostly and hideously solid.

The Wolf of Styria smiled. “Good evening,” he gurgled. “Welcome to my home. I would look favourably upon the return of my ring, if you have it.”

“Rather think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, old boy,” St. Cyprian wheezed. “I rather doubt it’s your name on the lease, what?” He stuffed his hand in his coat, seeking the silver disk he’d employed at the hospital. His fingers found it and he gripped it tight.

“Not my true name, no,” Lothar Karnstein said, his lips curling into an unpleasant smile. “I hope you do not mind my abrupt invitation, but…I wanted to speak to you alone. Without the interference of that puling infant, Vordenburg.”

“Bit harsh, eh?” St. Cyprian asked. He pulled the disk out of his pocket, hoping that Lothar wouldn’t notice. “I’d hardly call him an infant.”

“Every man living is an infant to me,” Lothar said. “But you are a power here, yes? Like the good Baron upstairs, you are a court magician, yes?”

“I’ve got some authority, I will admit,” St. Cyprian said. He could hear Vordenburg and Gallowglass moving around above them, calling for him, trying to spot him in the dark. He readied the disk. He would only get one shot with it. And if he missed, Lothar would wring his neck as quickly as he had Boothroyd’s.

“Good. I would discuss the terms of my…residency with you.” Lothar’s grin threatened to split his head in two. “I require a home. This will do, until the birthing pangs of this new era have settled and I can return to my ancestral demesne.”

“Hate to say it, old thing, but I doubt your claim will be honoured,” St. Cyprian said, smiling weakly. “Not really our sort, are you?”

Lothar’s grin faded. His grip on St. Cyprian’s collar tightened, and the latter heard the cloth begin to tear. “You will see that it is,” Lothar hissed, shaking him slightly. “You will vouchsafe my invitation. I am of royal blood, no less than your own king, and I demand right of residence. I will not be driven from this island like a dog.”

“Like you were from Styria, eh?” St. Cyprian said.

Fangs flashed as Lothar snarled. St. Cyprian seized his moment. He pressed the disk against the vampire’s cheek, and a sudden effluvium filled the air. Greasy smoke hissed from the point of contact, and Lothar shrieked and sent St. Cyprian flying.

He fell into the dark and smashed down onto something hard and wooden. A wave of pain radiated outward from the point of impact. Glass rattled as he slid down onto a cold, wet stone floor. Wine bottles rolled past him as he fell onto his back with a groan. He’d lost his grip on the disk, and there was no way to find it in time.

“I was not driven from Styria,” Lothar rumbled. His voice wafted from the darkness like a foul odour. “I was kidnapped. Torn from the bosom of my native soil, where I slumbered weak and weary, and dragged all unsuspecting across the waters to this isle by petty conjurers, looking to harvest my blood and bone for their mindless orgies. But when seeking to make the wolf’s pelt into a coat, one must first make sure that the wolf is truly dead. I was not, and it was easy enough to mesmerise them, and sup from them until my strength was returned to me.”

Above St. Cyprian, something horrible scuttled across the underside of the floor. As he scrambled to his feet, the vampire dropped towards him. Lothar’s shape bulged and twisted hideously, becoming bat-like and monstrous. Leather wings enfolded St. Cyprian, and talons tore rents in his waistcoat, scattering the medallions he habitually kept in his pockets across the floor. Then, there was a loud cry and Vordenburg dropped from the hole above.

As he fell, the Baron thrust his spear down, as if to pin the vampire to the floor like an insect. Lothar moved quickly, snatching the head of the spear in midair. There was a burst of foul smelling steam, and the vampire’s face writhed in pain. He yanked the spear to the side, and Vordenburg with it. The Baron hit the ground hard and the spear clattered from his grip.

He was up on his feet a moment later, his sabre hissing from its sheath in a blow that narrowly missed lopping off the top of Lothar’s skull, as the vampire lunged for him. The creature slammed into him and drove him backwards into a wine rack with bone-rattling force. Wood splintered and popped. St. Cyprian hoped it was wood, at any rate.

He leaped for the spear, and scooped it up as Lothar erupted from the wreckage of the rack, eyes blazing like twin lanterns. The vampire came at him, and he braced the spear, hoping to spit the creature. The spear point vanished into the swirling shape, and the cellar echoed with an ear-splitting howl. The haft snapped a second later, shattered by pale fingers. Lothar tore the spear point from his chest and caught St. Cyprian by the throat, whirling him up into the air and sending him to the ground.

The vampire lifted the broken spear like a dagger and leaped onto St. Cyprian. “I offer you peace, and you demand war,” Lothar snarled. “Will the madness of your kind never cease?” His fingers slithered through St. Cyprian’s hair and the vampire bounced his head off of the floor. “I shall dash your crooked brains out, and see if your woman is amenable to my offer instead.” He raised the spear, ready to plunge it into St. Cyprian’s skull.

“Not bloody likely, mate.”

Lothar spun, and the close confines of the cellar rocked with the loud roar of Gallowglass’ Webley-Fosbery. The automatic revolver emptied its cylinder, and the vampire was thrown back. Gallowglass crouched on the steps that led back up to the first floor. She ejected the spent cartridges and began to quickly reload.

“You took your sweet time,” St. Cyprian wheezed as he rolled to his feet. His head ached and his vision was blurry. He recovered his Webley and scanned the darkness. Lothar had vanished.

“Well, I weren’t going to jump down into a bloody hole like the Baron, was I? Took me ages to find the cellar door,” Gallowglass said, peering around her. “Where’d he go?”

“Who? Vordenburg?”

“No, the bugger who was trying to puncture your melon,” Gallowglass said, as she snapped the reloaded Webley back together. “I can’t see him, and this cellar isn’t that big.”

“No, it isn’t. Keep me covered while I check on the good Baron,” St. Cyprian said as he stumbled towards the rack that Vordenburg had been shoved through. He found the Styrian lying dazed amongst the broken shelves and shattered bottles, his face a mask of blood. He groaned as St. Cyprian pulled him into a sitting position. His nose had been broken, and bits of glass and wood were stuck in his scalp and arms. But he blinked and shook his head as St. Cyprian snapped his fingers before his eyes. “Focus, Palman old bean. We’re in a bit of botheration.”

“Such a quaint word for the danger you find yourself in, sorcerer.” Lothar’s voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once. It seemed to seep out of the very stones. “Botheration…I like this word. I shall use it, I think, in days to come.” Cloth rustled, but St. Cyprian couldn’t see anything save broken shelves and shattered bottles. “I am strong now. I have glutted myself on the blood of Englishmen, and I have found it good. I shall stay here, I think. Not in this house, but in this city of sighs and woes. Already, I have found a suitable resting place, thanks to the efforts of my…hosts. I shall prowl its foggy streets until the great cities across the Channel forget me, and then I will go back and take what I am owed.”

“You are owed nothing but a messy death, beast,” Vordenburg coughed. He shoved aside St. Cyprian’s helping hand. He hefted his sabre and used its blade to push himself to his feet. “And I am privileged to deliver it to you.”

A booming laugh split the air. “Audacity has always been the last refuge of your line, Vordenburg.” St. Cyprian looked around. A thick mist was rising from the flagstones of the cellar. He heard a hiss of sound, and glanced over his shoulder. Mist was seeping from the wall behind he and Vordenburg, and as he watched, a cruelly grinning face formed within it. Then, two hands plunged out of the haze, reaching for Vordenburg.

St. Cyprian shouted and shoved back from the wall. His Webley spat fire. The mist dispersed around the bullets, and Lothar’s snarl echoed in his ears. Vordenburg flung himself forward at St. Cyprian’s shout, and whirled, the tip of his sabre drawing sparks from the stone wall. With his free hand he drew one of his pistols and fired, tracking the black shape which undulated away from them like an eel slipping through the water. Gallowglass joined him, the bark of her weapon louder than either of theirs.

The cellar echoed with the thunder of gunfire, and Lothar was upon them, all teeth and claws and flapping darkness. Then, there was a flash of silver, and the vampire shrieked. The frenzied darkness boiled up out of the cellar, through the hole in the floor, and was gone, leaving only the echoes of flapping wings to mark its presence. Vordenburg stared up after it, silver-edged katana in one hand, sabre in the other. He whirled for the stairs a moment later. “Quickly! We must catch him!”

St. Cyprian and Gallowglass hurried after him. But even as they reached the ground floor, they heard the sound of shattering glass, and saw something hurtle out into the rain-soaked night. The flapping shape was briefly illuminated by a snarl of lighting and then it was gone. Vordenburg cursed and made as if to pursue, but stopped as St. Cyprian grabbed him. “No use, old chap. He’s faster than Mercury.” Rain blew in through the shattered window, and thunder rumbled, shaking the house.

“We cannot let him escape! He is hurt—weak—now is the time to destroy him!”

“Certainly, but you heard him. He’s already established a bolthole with the help of these poor fools, before he dispensed with them,” St. Cyprian said. “That’s where he’ll be heading. It’s almost morning, storm or no.” He dropped to his haunches, among the scattered papers and books, scanning them for any clue. “There must be something here that can tell us where. If the Order found it for him, they must have bought it, or arranged for it, or…” He trailed off as he caught sight of something likely.

Vordenburg looked about frantically, as if the dead bodies of the Order of the Purple Light might sit up to answer him. “But where is it? There are thousands of papers, dozens of books…which one could it be?” he asked, as he gingerly probed his busted nose. He winced and let his hand drop.

“Highgate,” St. Cyprian said, holding up a map torn out of a London travel guide. It had been marked up with an unsteady hand. “On the back—that’s a plot number. It looks like they made arrangements to inter someone, or something. Like, say, a coffin?” He shrugged. “It’s a long shot, but it’s close.” Vordenburg snatched it out of his hand and glared at the crumpled paper. A moment later, he laughed.

“A cemetery? Of course! Where else would a grave-worm go to hide?”

“Ms. Gallowglass, get the Crossley warmed up,” St. Cyprian said, quickly. “The Baron and I shall ensure that the Wolf cannot return to his lair here. And then we must make all haste for Highgate. Our sanguinary Styrian won’t waste any time seeking sanctuary, and we will be there to greet him.”

There was a telephone in the lounge, and, St. Cyprian’s suspicions to the contrary, it still worked. Acting quickly, he rang the police while Vordenburg quickly fashioned makeshift stakes from the shattered bits of furniture laying about. When he’d finished, the Styrian rammed a splintered shaft of wood home into the heart of each of the corpses scattered about on the floor. Then, taking a firm grip on his katana, he sliced off the head of each corpse.

“Sorry old man, should have thought to bring garlic,” St. Cyprian said, by way of apology, as he dropped the phone back onto its cradle. “I’ve alerted the Yard, as well as Special Branch, that we have our dodgy tourist on the hop. Trout and Cuff will meet us at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery with as many constables as they can gather.”

“No need for apologies. I am prepared,” Vordenburg said, pulling a flat wallet out of the inside of his coat. He opened it to reveal communion wafers, wrapped in wax paper. Moving briskly, he broke one into pieces, and placed a chunk into the mouth of each severed head. St. Cyprian thought it was unlikely that Vordenburg’s precautions were necessary, but one could never truly tell with vampires. Lothar Karnstein was a case in point.

The vampire had ambushed them twice. In one case, it had been opportunistic. In the second, he thought it had been planned. Lothar had waited for them to arrive, rather than fleeing to his bolt hole immediately. He’d known they would find him; indeed, he’d counted on it, if what he’d said was true. When St. Cyprian mentioned his suspicions to Vordenburg, the Baron nodded.

“Yes, that is his method. The Karnsteins were ever ones to curry favor with those they think might be of use to them. Lothar was granted sanctuary once, by the Russian Okhrana, when my father sought to bring him to bay.” He grimaced. “He butchered Cossacks and Buryats for them, until that mad Khlysty monk, Rasputin, set the Tsar’s heart against him. It is no surprise that he would try the same tactic here.”

“He seemed rather surprised that I said no,” St. Cyprian said.

“Lothar is not one to suffer challenges lightly. It is why he has ever hunted alone,” Vordenburg said. He cleaned his blade and sheathed it.

“Thankfully,” St. Cyprian said, rubbing his throat. “Still, there is every likelihood that he will be waiting for us to follow him.” He thought of empty police helmets and Boothroyd’s body, sliding down the roof, and felt queasy. How many more men would die tonight, if they confronted the beast in the thinning minutes before dawn? How much more savage might the creature be, in his desperation? He glanced at the phone. He could call Trout and Cuff off. There was still time.

“He will,” Vordenburg said. “But this time, we will not be taken unawares by him. We came here seeking information, and we have found it, my friend.” He reached out and grasped St. Cyprian’s shoulder. “Now, we will put an end to him.”

“Yes, well, one can but hope,” St. Cyprian said, awkwardly disentangling himself from Vordenburg’s grip. “Tally ho, and off we go, and all that rot.”

♦♦♦

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