amworth

FIVE

‘GRAVE PERIL’

The storm intensified as they drove towards north London, and Highgate Cemetery. The rain pounded against the Crossley’s canvas roof like fists, and the streets were pitch black, despite the hour.

Nonetheless, St. Cyprian spotted Trout, Cuff, and a waiting pack of constables as the Crossley rounded Oakshott Avenue and drew close to the cemetery’s main gate. The policemen were hunched miserably beneath the pressure of the rain. Trout was the first to greet them, his long face twisted into an expression of worry. “Are you sure it’s him, sir?” he said, as he shook St. Cyprian’s hand. “The fellow who did for Tom and the others?”

“Tom?” St. Cyprian asked. He pulled up the collar of his coat to protect his neck from the rain, but to no avail. Lightning cracked, casting weird shadows across the cemetery gate.

“Inspector Boothroyd, I mean, sir,” Trout said. “Thomas was well-liked, you understand. A good man. Good detective.” He frowned and looked away, past the cemetery gates. A murmur of agreement ran through his men, and St. Cyprian nodded.

“He was a good man, Inspector,” he said, softly. He met the eyes of the policemen, one after the next. “They were all good men. And we will do what we can to see that they did not die in vain.” He looked at Trout. “You’re armed, I trust?”

“Yeah, but it didn’t do Boothroyd much good, did it?” Cuff muttered. Trout elbowed him and pulled a revolver out of his coat pocket. Rain water dripped off of the barrel as he proffered it to St. Cyprian, who waved it away.

“We are, sir,” he said.

“Good. This is going to be a bit of a tiger hunt. Only we’re hunting something much more dangerous than any tiger.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but Highgate Cemetery is huge—almost fifteen hectares of ground to cover, and over a hundred thousand plots—a lot of bally hiding places,” Trout said. “There aren’t enough of us to cover the whole thing.”

“No, but we know where he’s supposed to be hiding. You and the others will act as our beaters…you’ll distract him, make him think we’re searching, while we head straight for his lair. Make as much noise as possible, talk, laugh, shout, shine your torches willy-nilly.”

“Laughing might be a problem,” Cuff grunted, pulling his homburg further down on his head. “The rest of it, we can do.”

“But what’s the point of all that then? We might end up spooking him,” Trout said, hesitantly. “If he runs…”

“He won’t,” Vordenburg said. “He does not fear you, or any man alive. But it will make him wary, it will make him stay still.” The policemen looked at the Styrian suspiciously, though whether that was due to his accent or to the blunt way he’d dismissed their ability to put the fear of God into someone, St. Cyprian couldn’t say.

“Hopefully, with you lot wandering about, he’ll sit tight, and we’ll catch him unawares. Even so, stay together, and stay alert,” St. Cyprian interjected quickly. “Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to apprehend the blighter, if you see him. Just shoot him and scarper.”

“How will we know if we see him? We don’t even know what he looks like,” Cuff said.

“He looks like pure evil,” Vordenburg grated. Thunder rumbled, as if to punctuate his statement. “He is the devil himself, in the flesh.”

“Or like a big horrible bat-thing,” Gallowglass said, flapping her arms and making a face.

Trout and Cuff looked at St. Cyprian. “You’ll know him when you see him, gentlemen. He’s not exactly Raffles, running about in disguise,” St. Cyprian said, bluntly. “Shoot, and scarper,” he repeated. He took a breath, and pulled out his pocket watch. He used his thumb to swipe water off the face and said, “An hour or so until dawn, give or take. Though with this storm, I doubt it’ll make much difference.” He looked at Vordenburg, who shook his head. “Right-o, then. Good hunting, everyone.” He closed the watch with a snap.

Carefully, quickly, they entered the cemetery. The police spread out immediately, Cuff leading several men east, towards Swains Lane, while Trout took his men and headed into the Terrace Catacombs. St. Cyprian, Vordenburg and Gallowglass headed into the West Cemetery. The map they’d found in Seven Dials indicated that Turnbull and his unfortunate coterie had purchased a plot in the Circle of Lebanon—a circle of tombs and twisting paths, surmounted by a massive cedar tree which predated the cemetery.

As they passed between the tall, massive obelisks which flanked the ornate stone gateway of the Egyptian Avenue, lightning carved across the sky, illuminating the path beyond, revealing yawning tombs. Statues seemed to move in the fading light of the bolt, and St. Cyprian felt again as he had in Seven Dials—something was watching them. Whether it was Lothar, or some native species of spectre, he couldn’t say. He looked at Gallowglass, who nodded, and he knew that she felt it as well.

Vordenburg, far from being wary, twitched like a hound eager to be on the hunt, blade in one hand, and a pistol in the other. “He is close,” he said.

“Caught a whiff of him again, eh? Well,” St. Cyprian said, “let’s not keep dear old Lothar waiting then, eh?” He hefted his pistol, and gestured. “Apres vous, mes amis.”

Vordenburg, sabre in hand, led the way as they navigated the winding avenue which took them between the tombs and vaults of the Circle. The tombs were a mishmash of styles and forms, Egyptian, Classical and otherwise. The cemetery grounds were full of shrubbery, trees and wild flowers, which grew without regard for propriety or human influence, and the rain made them dance and shiver as if in fear. Small animals scuttled in the underbrush, fleeing their approach. Lightning cast elongated shadows across their path.

Every so often, St. Cyprian heard a hint of sound—voices, muffled by the storm, the crackle of underbrush beneath hob-nailed boots—and knew Trout and the others were doing as he asked.

Vordenburg stopped, before an open tomb. The ancient cedar tree rustled in the rain above them, its branches clearly visible overhead. The Styrian sank to his haunches and touched the step that led up into the tomb. He looked up, into the black aperture of the tomb. “This is the one,” he said.

St. Cyprian checked the ragged map, and nodded slowly. “Indeed it is. Sterling work, old bean. A bloodhound couldn’t have done it better.” He stuffed the map back in his coat and followed Vordenburg into the tomb.

Dust and mud coated the stone floor. There were marks in the dust at the back of the tomb where something heavy might once have sat, but nothing else. Vordenburg cursed and St. Cyprian felt like joining him. He wondered if perhaps Vordenburg didn’t know his foe as well as he’d claimed. Gallowglass, leaning into the tomb, said, “No sign of him—unless he’s hiding in a crack somewhere.”

“I am not.” The voice echoed from all over the avenue. A dark shape dropped down from somewhere above, landing in a puddle with a splash. A moment later, long arms pierced the rain and caught up Gallowglass with a vise-like grip to the back of her neck, even as she whirled to face the threat.

She cursed and sought to pull her revolver, but Lothar was too quick. He caught her wrist and squeezed, eliciting a yelp. Her pistol clattered to the stones. The vampire swung her around, putting her between himself and the others. St. Cyprian reached out and batted aside Vordenburg’s pistol as he made ready to fire.

“I knew you would come. You never had any common sense. No man of your line ever did,” Lothar snarled, peering over Gallowglass’ shoulder. “That you thought I would not move my coffin the moment I arrived, knowing your tenacity, only proves your foolishness. You had your chance earlier, and you failed, Vordenburg. I will not be so merciful again.”

“I—we—knew you would be waiting, beast,” Vordenburg said. “But too, I knew that you would not be able to resist attacking. No beast of your line could. So come then, Wolf of Styria. Come and meet your end.” As he spoke, the Baron holstered his pistol and drew his katana. “Come, grave-worm! Come, leech! Or will you flee again?”

Lothar roared and hurled Gallowglass aside, into one of the open tombs. He lunged, shape twisting and billowing like a hateful cloud as he flowed down the narrow avenue towards his enemy.

Before St. Cyprian could stop him, Vordenburg lunged to meet the vampire, and for a moment, St. Cyprian thought he might succeed in putting the creature down by himself. His blades flashed in the dark, drawing sparks from the surrounding tomb-faces. Lothar clawed at him, tearing his vest and sleeves, drawing blood. Then, with a single, too-swift motion, the vampire caught the Baron beneath his chin and jerked him from his feet.

“You could not beat me in Styria, Vordenburg and you cannot beat me here,” Lothar bellowed, slamming his opponent down against the ground. “I have grown tired of playing with you, hunter,” he continued, kicking Vordenburg’s sabre aside. “I will celebrate my new circumstances by killing you and the sorcerer and his woman, and then I will sup on the lifeblood of this city.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” St. Cyprian said. With Vordenburg out of the line of fire, he seized his moment and pulled the Webley’s trigger. Lothar twitched around at the sound of his voice, and the bullet creased his brow. The vampire slapped a hand to his head and screeched. In the blink of an eye, he was smashing through the curtain of rain, his fingers digging into the front of St. Cyprian’s coat.

“You will say nothing. But you will scream plenty,” Lothar hissed, before swinging him around and hurling him into an upright metal crucifix, jutting from the ground before a tomb. St. Cyprian fell to the ground, body aching. The vampire advanced on him, coat flapping in the rain. “I will leave your body stretched out upon the gate to this necropolis, as warning to all others of your ilk that the Wolf of Styria is not to be trifled with.”

Gallowglass, cap missing, her short-cropped hair plastered to her skull by the rain, slammed into Lothar’s legs, staggering him. He roared and caught a handful of her coat. She wriggled free as he tried to yank her up as he had before, and drove a fist into the side of his knee. There was a sickening pop, and the vampire staggered sideways, dragging his leg. He caught Gallowglass with the back of his fist, and sent her tumbling away.  She hit the ground and did not move again, as thunder rumbled, shaking the stones beneath St. Cyprian’s feet.

St. Cyprian lunged to his feet, his Webley thundering. The revolver was swatted from his hand with bone-numbing force and a second blow flung him backwards. He slammed down and wheezed, trying to suck air into lungs that refused to work. Before Lothar could finish him, however, Vordenburg clambered to his feet, katana in hand. He stumbled forward and, as the vampire turned to grapple with him, he shoved the blade through the creature’s chest. Lothar wailed and his fists came down on Vordenburg’s forearms, forcing the Baron to release his weapon. The vampire wrapped his hands around Vordenburg’s throat and began to throttle him. The monster’s face was twisted into an expression of hideous glee.

St. Cyprian pulled himself to his feet, using the metal cross for support. It rocked beneath his weight, and he realised that it was loose in the ground. He tore it from the ground with a grunt, and, having no other weapon, hefted the metal cross and lunged for Lothar. The vampire didn’t see him until it was too late, and the end of the cross smashed through his back, joining Vordenburg’s katana in his torso.

Lothar shrieked and released Vordenburg. He slapped St. Cyprian away and staggered, clawing uselessly at the cross. Thunder rumbled overhead. Lothar whirled, bloody froth spilling down his chin. His eyes bulged as he took a faltering, but determined step, towards St. Cyprian, who crawled backwards, head still spinning from the force of the vampire’s blow. “I…I will…” he snarled, extending one clawed hand.

Lightning cracked. A bolt of blinding bright white streaked down to hammer into the cross, and for a moment, Lothar was limned by light. Then, the glow faded, and the charred, blackened thing that had been the Wolf of Styria toppled forward, wreathed in smoke. St. Cyprian climbed to his feet, heart hammering in his chest.

Gallowglass had staggered to her feet as well, Vordenburg’s sabre in hand. Blood ran freely down the side of her face from the wound on her scalp. She saw the vampire crumple, and, with a fierce snarl, lifted the blade in both hands, raced forward and brought it down on Lothar’s neck, separating his head from his shoulders.

A scream filled the air, bouncing from tomb to tomb, as whatever darkling force passed for Lothar Karnstein’s soul exploded out of the seared husk, and hurtled upwards, into the swirling black clouds of the storm. The scream rose in pitch, stretching taut, and then faded as quickly as it had come, leaving only desolate silence in its wake.

“What now?” Gallowglass asked, sometime later, as they watched the sun rise from the step of the tomb. The rain had slackened to a drizzle and the storm had passed. St. Cyprian could hear the sound of voices growing louder, as Trout and the others converged on the thin plume of smoke still rising from the remains of Lothar Karnstein. Gallowglass had his head under her foot. The blackened flesh had begun to peel away from the skull. Fleshless jaws, studded with fangs, gaped up at him.

St. Cyprian stubbed out the cigarette he’d been smoking on the top of Lothar’s head, and said, “We’ll inhume what’s left of the blighter in a casket and put him somewhere no one will find him,” St. Cyprian said. He hiked a thumb over his shoulder. “It’s already paid for, after all. And neither the Yard nor Special Branch will mind, I think. Saves them the trouble of dealing with it.” He frowned. “There are certain seals and wards I know which can keep even Lothar Karnstein in his grave.” He looked at Vordenburg. “Unless you had another suggestion? Repatriation to Styria, perhaps?”

Vordenburg shook his head firmly. “No, I think not. Let him rot in English soil. This is as good a place as any.” He looked around. “Let him stay here, and be forgotten.”

“And you?”

Vordenburg pushed himself to his feet. “Before I became involved in this matter, I had been planning to undertake a journey to Northumberland. A town called Hexham. There has been talk of a large wolf in the area…one that supposedly walks on its hind legs, and can pass through solid walls and doors, with little effort.”

“Werewolf,” St. Cyprian murmured, eyebrows raised.

“Ghost-werewolf,” Gallowglass corrected.

“Whatever it is, I have no doubt that you shall dispatch it with commendable brutality, Baron,” St. Cyprian said. He rose as well, and extended his hand. “And if not…”

Vordenburg smiled. “I know who to call…Charles.”

♦♦♦

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