The Enigma of the Hanged Countess
“So! This is rather interesting, eh Pendleton?”
I was startled from my reverie by Vail’s unexpected statement. It was a short ride by street hansom from the Rose Noir opera house back to our little flat on South St., hardly twenty minutes in all, but it had seemed an eternity. Vail had gone two weeks without a case, and as a result had fallen into boredom, and foul moods. Like many of those who are cursed with brilliance, he is prone to wild mood swings, going from the bright exuberance and cheerfulness he exhibits while unraveling a mystery to the irritability and depression he displays when bored.
And when he is in one of his moods, life in our apartment is made miserable for me as well.
I had procured tickets to the new Falkovnian operetta Vierteen Failleux in the hope that perhaps an evening’s entertainment might lift my dear friend’s spirits. It proved to be an utter failure. I was scarcely able to persuade him to come, prying him from his violin at the last possible moment, and Vail had groused and complained during every minute thereafter.
Earlier in the day dark storm clouds had gathered, and by the time we had departed for the evening’s entertainment a light sprinkle of rain had begun to fall. By the time we left it had increased to a steady downpour, and our moods were no less tempestuous.
Perhaps it was unwise that I had elected to take him to a theatre; Vail is himself a quite accomplished actor, and consequently is extremely critical of those practitioners of the art who do not meet his exacting standards. He has given out compliments on one or two occasions, but in most instances he is far more likely to hand out critiques and complaints, spotting flaws where other men would not.
Unfortunately for both of us, the operetta turned out to be less than a masterpiece. Vail, already irritated and disagreeable, launched into a seemingly endless barrage of vehement critiques. The plot was contrived, the dialogue clumsy, the lead actress was too shrill, the hero was grossly miscast, the music was grating...
For my part, I thought the show was good. Not wonderful, certainly, but not the abysmal horror that Vail painted, and since I had selected it I felt compelled to defend it. No easy task, especially since there were several points Vail made which I was forced to agree with. The hero was a bit corpulent, after all, and the lead actress was a little shrill...
So we had argued. And I had been forced to concede every point. Vail had ripped the show to shreds and the whole futility (and triviality) of our argument had given me a throbbing headache. Vail was in no better mood than earlier, and I was left angry, frustrated, and irritated.
At last he had (thankfully) lapsed into a moody silence and I had been left to my thoughts. Outside the rain continued its downpour, interspersed by flashes of lightning and distant cracks and rumblings of thunder. The constant staccato of raindrops striking our carriage roof would have made conversation difficult in any case. So irritated was I by his treatment of the operetta that I was oblivious to the fact that we had arrived back at our flat until he spoke. “What?” I asked, somewhat taken aback by the sudden excitement of his tone.
In answer, Vail pointed out the window. “Really Pendleton, sometimes you surprise me. Inspector Lambert has paid us a visit. I should say the matter is of some urgency, and we have already kept him waiting. Perhaps the evening is not a complete loss after all.”
He need hardly have pointed. I had already spotted the dark familiar shape of Lambert’s police wagon, the two horses whickering and prancing nervously in the rain while a young constable wearing a glistening-wet slicker held their reins.
I did not recognize him, a fresh-faced fellow with too-wide eyes and a shock of red hair (which was currently plastered wetly across his face), but apparently Vail did, for as soon as we had disembarked and paid the fare he turned and addressed him.
“Good evening Constable Bearns,” he said loudly, to be heard over the rain. “Lambert is inside, is he?”
Bearns had the wide-eyed look of awe that some of the younger members of the police force have when first confronted with Vail. “Yes, sir,” he stammered, “yes... just inside, sir. Waiting for you, sir.”
“Indeed? Then we should hardly be gentlemen if we kept him waiting longer.”
I gave the young constable a nod as we passed, but he hardly took notice of me at all, so focused was he on Vail.
We found Lambert waiting for us on the bench just inside the hall, Miss Sherington hovering nearby. His face was as drawn and pale as I had ever seen it, as if he had just been exposed to a great shock. This in itself was enough to give pause, for Lambert is a solid fellow, and we have, between the three of us, faced a great many supernatural horrors. He is not the sort of man to fright easily.
He had been sipping from a cup of tea, but as we entered he stood, handing it to Miss Sherington. His hand actually trembled as he handed it over.
“Inspector Lambert,” said Vail warmly, “how good of you to visit. But I see this is hardly a social call.”
“Unfortunately not,” said Lambert. “There has been a murder... a most horrific murder. I came to fetch you at once.” A sudden, unsure look crossed his face. “That is, of course, if you are willing to accompany me. I realize the hour is late...”
Vail was already nodding. “Not at all, Inspector, not at all. We shall be only too happy to accompany you. And the sooner we arrive at the scene the better.” He shot a quick look at me. “Pendleton, you will come?”
“Of course,” I said, perhaps a bit peevishly. Vail’s sudden enthusiasm and cheerfulness was infectious, but I had not forgotten our argument. I still had my umbrella in hand, hardly folded, and I lifted it and shook some of the raindrops off. “I hardly need to fetch my coat, as I have not yet taken it off.”
Lambert looked vastly relieved. “I have a carriage standing by, if you are ready...”
“Of course, of course. Lead on, Inspector, and you may tell us the grisly details on the way.”
* * *
“It is a horrid business, Mr. Vail,” said Lambert, shaking his head. “Most horrid. In all my years, sir, I confess I have never... I hardly know where to start.”
“Start at the beginning,” said Vail calmly. “It is always the best place. You say there has been a murder. Who is the victim?”
Vail was startled. “The Countess of Aalbian? Lately of Borca, fled for political reasons?”
The name was vaguely familiar to me but I could not place it. There had been something or other in the social column of the Mordentshire Times announcing the arrival of the Countess, but I could not remember exactly what. However, I was not surprised by Vail’s familiarity, as he closely follows political affairs in neighboring lands.
Lambert nodded. “The very same. We received the call at 8:30 that there was an emergency at the Chamberfield Hotel. It was a maidservant who found the body, you see, so we aren’t entirely certain of the time of death. No-one heard a sound, but that is understandable, as she had taken the suite of rooms on the uppermost floor-”
“Just a moment,” interjected Vail. “The Countess surely does not travel alone, especially not in her situation. Her fortunes may be much reduced, but I would assume she would have some servants, at least, and perhaps a bodyguard or two.”
Lambert nodded. “She had three maidservants, a steward, and two men-at-arms. And, of course, the Baron de Montebello.”
Vail quirked an eyebrow. “De Montebello?”
“Yes. The Countess had retained his services.”
“Most interesting. An extremely capable man.”
I was surprised by this compliment; Vail is rare with them. I had never heard of the baron before, but I held my silence.
“You know him, then?” asked Lambert.
Vail gave a brief shake of his head. “Only by reputation. Please continue. And omit nothing. The slightest detail may yield some clue to the identity of the killer.”
Lambert was taken aback. “Oh, but Mr. Vail, we already know! That is what is so strange. It was the handiwork of the Hangman Killer, certainly.”
Vail’s eyebrows shot up. “What?” he asked in surprise. “I should hardly think that likely, Inspector. The Hangman last struck in Tempe Falls, more than two weeks journey from here. In order to make the trip in time, he would have to have flown across the continent in a good carriage, traveling both night and day. And since I am fairly certain the Hangman is a vampire or some form of similar undead-”
“One moment, Vail,” I interjected, unable to keep silent. “Who is this ‘Hangman’ you speak of?”
“One of Ray’s cases, Pendleton,” Vail said. “A serial killer who has proven surprisingly clever and resourceful. He is called the Hangman because of the way he leaves the bodies, and because he always leaves petals from Noose Lily flowers behind.”
“You may have read something of it in our own papers, colonel,” explained Lambert, “though the Times has given the killer a different name. ‘Handsome Johnny’, I think.”
Vail shook his head in vague disgust. “‘Hangman’, ‘Handsome Johnny’... such lurid names, all designed to sell papers. The killer himself is still on the loose, though I have every confidence that Ray will catch him.”
I was immediately familiar. There had been a number of killings in Darkon over the past two months, and though that land is a fair distance from our little city, it is not so distant that such a heinous crime as these ‘Johnny’ killings would go unreported. “Handsome Johnny?” I asked. “Here, in Mordentshire?”
“That is Inspector Lambert’s supposition, Pendleton,” said Vail with some asperity. “The possibility exists that he is correct, but I think it better we view the scene-” Vail’s voice trailed off, and he suddenly leaned forward. “Ah, but we have arrived. Splendid.” He reached for the door handle before the carriage had pulled to a stop. “You have not yet had a chance to explain, Inspector, but you may give us the details as we go. There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”
And before either the Inspector or I had a chance to reply, he had leaped down from the carriage and into the rain. Lambert offered me a quick shrug and followed.
Many of my readers will be familiar with the Chamberfield Hotel; it is one of the most splendid sites in our little city. For those who are not I will describe it briefly. It is a large building, nearly five-and-a-half stories in height, done in classic Barovian style. The base is double octagonal in shape, though the building rises in sweeping arches and spires which slant slightly in various directions. The frame and interior of the building is wooden, of course, but the exterior walls are overlaid with off-white mortar, lending the structure a facade of stone. It was designed by the mad architect Leopolski, the last work he completed before his untimely demise, and like all his designs there is not a single ninety-degree angle in all the structure. Consequently, the angles at which the walls and floors join (being slightly off the square) can make the structure seem to ‘lean’ or ‘pitch’ in some areas.
Of course many visitors find this a bit disconcerting, and a few even suggest that the hotel is ‘unnatural’, but Leopolski’s motives in building along such strange lines were anything but dark. He was an ardent naturalist and believed fervently that the way to good health lay in obeying the ‘laws of nature’. As a result he purposely and studiously avoided right angles in his work, for they do not occur in nature. And though some might have found the Chamberfield a bit unsettling, many others flocked to it in hopes that living within more ‘natural’ confines would be beneficial to their health.
I mention all this only because on that stormy night, with scattered flashes of lightning and rain sheeting down, sluicing weirdly from the gables and pitched roofs of the hotel, the strange canted angles of the walls seemed somehow unsettling. Indeed, with the reddish-orange light of gas lanterns spilling faintly through the thick glass windows, the house did seem a bit more... malevolent then it does during the brightness of day. It was not difficult to imagine that the rumors that people whispered about the place - that the house was alive with Leopolski’s vengeful spirit - might have a tinge of truth to them.
Taking my umbrella in hand I stepped down from the carriage and hurried up the steps that led to the front doors. The walkway was covered by an awning, but the rain was pushed by the wind at such an angle that it afforded little protection, and I was drenched by the time I reached the small overhang which shielded the front doors.
There were two torches set into the wall on either side of the already-open door, and a policeman was stationed beneath one of them. He bid me halt until Inspector Lambert came puffing up behind me, and then, at a brisk nod from the Inspector, permitted us both to pass. Vail had apparently passed unchallenged - not surprising, as many members of the police force are acquainted with him.
We found him waiting impatiently for us in the central lobby. There were several policemen stationed at various points around the room, and several other people as well, guests of the hotel, if their clothing was any indication.
I nearly stumbled as I first entered, for the floor, though covered by a lush crimson carpet, was slightly pitched. I should have expected that, but the grade was so slight as to escape casual notice. When I looked closer I saw that it was not entirely one flat plane but rather several joined areas, each of which were pitched to a slightly different angle.
There was a large sitting room to the side, complete with a roaring fireplace. Several gentlemen and ladies in evening dress were there, standing or lounging on chairs and couches that were scattered through the room, and an occasional waiter from the hotel would thread his way through their midst.
I took a closer look at one of the end tables, and was surprised to note that its legs must not be of equal size, for the top was slightly tilted. Apparently not only was the building designed to be off the square, but all the furniture as well.
By the impatient look of them, and the fact that there were several policemen interspersed throughout the room at each of the various exits, I surmised that most of the guests were not there willingly. Vail had noted this as well, apparently, for he complimented Lambert on it.
“We did our best to keep the scene intact,” said Lambert, “made sure the exits were sealed and no-one got in or out, but I fear it was a good thirty minutes before the first patrolman arrived on the scene, and nearly another quarter hour before the area was sealed.”
“Hum!” said Vail, slightly pleased, “well, it was to be expected. Nevertheless, you are to be commended for your swift action. Now, if the scene of the crime has not been too badly trampled by your men, we may begin the process of unraveling the mystery.”
Lambert nodded, uncertain how to take Vail’s backhanded compliment. “Yes... well, we have the maidservant who discovered the body standing by, and of course Baron de Montebello. Most of the other guests and hotel employees seemed to know nothing about the crime - though of course we have gathered them should you wish to conduct interviews. And one of the doormen has an interesting story that may have some bearing...”
Vail shook his head, already heading for the sweeping curve of lushly carpeted stairs that lay beyond the spacious front desk, leading upwards. “We shall hear from them all in time, Inspector, but first I think a look at the room where the body was found would prove enlightening. The longer we delay, the more the scene will be contaminated. You said the Countess had taken the suite of rooms on the uppermost floor?”
“Yes, that’s right. Six rooms, actually. The western wing of the top floor.”
“Then that must be our first stop.”
But Vail halted suddenly at the foot of the stairs, and turned abruptly towards the large mahogany desk to the immediate right.
“You there,” he said to the clerk who straightened immediately. “You are the night clerk, I assume?”
The young man gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir.”
“And you have manned this desk the night through?”
“Since six o’clock,” the clerk answered. Plainly he did not know who Vail was, or
under what authority he acted, but he answered promptly, with perhaps a trace
of nervousness. “When I came on. Sir.”
“Six o’clock,” repeated Vail thoughtfully.
“Actually a little earlier,” said the young man. “Perhaps six minutes before the hour. I was early to work.”
“And the body, Inspector, was found at approximately...?”
“Around eight-thirty, as I said earlier.”
Vail shook his head. “That is when you received the call. I daresay the murder was discovered a bit earlier than that. We shall be generous and say that forty-five minutes elapsed between the time the body was found and when you were summoned. It takes a deal less time than that to reach the nearest police station, even by foot, but perhaps it is wisest to err on the side of caution.” He had not turned his penetrating gaze away from the clerk during this interchange, and now addressed the young man again. “I see that it is impossible to pass the stairs without being seen from here. From the time you began your shift, you never once left this desk?”
The clerk immediately shook his head. “No, sir.”
Vail was surprised. “You answer with great confidence. It is not possible that some momentary errand would have diverted your attention?”
Again the clerk shook his head. “Impossible, sir. My duties are here, and indeed I was warned when hired that should I ever abandon the desk for any reason short of fire that I would immediately lose my position.”
Vail pondered that a moment. “Then, during that time, no-one could pass the stairs and escape your notice. Yes?”
The man’s nod was again immediate and confident. “Absolutely not, sir.”
“But if a large group of people passed through all at once, it is possible that you might overlook one or two?”
“Possibly, sir,” allowed the young man, “but in general there is little traffic through here during my shift. Besides that, it is part of my duties to guard against unregistered guests passing this point. I am good with faces and names, sir, and I think I can say with some certainty that I have never yet allowed an unregistered guest to pass.”
“Then this stairway is the only way to pass to the upper levels of the building? There is not a servant’s entrance to the rear of the building?”
The young man shook his head. “No sir. This is the only way. I don’t know why the building is designed this way, but all who visit the upper levels must pass this way, servant and guest alike.”
“A few of our guests came down earlier in the evening for dinner, but our dining hall closes at seven, and the latest of them had finished by quarter to eight. Mr. Hendle and his wife stayed in the lounge, near the fireplace, and were still there when Miss Johnston came down the stairs around eight o’clock, giving the first alarm that there had been a murder.”
“A maidservant of the Countess,” supplied Inspector Lambert. “The first who discovered the body.”
“I see,” said Vail. “And between the time the last guests had left the dining room and the time the maid came down, no other person passed this point?”
“Well, no sir. Not precisely. The baron did come down to smoke by the fireplace about the time the last guests were departing the dining room.”
“De Montebello?” asked Vail, keenly interested.
“Yes, sir. He was still there at the time the maid came down.”
“And once the alarm was raised?”
The desk clerk shook his head. “She was shrieking as she came down the stairs, and I recall hearing her first scream long before she was in sight. Mr. Hendle leapt up, I recall, and the baron sprinted up the stairs immediately. He met her at the landing, and she was weeping so hysterically that it took several moments for her to communicate what was wrong. Truthfully, I am uncertain whether De Montebello knew what the trouble was, save that it was severe. The moment she made it clear that the Countess was in distress he charged up the stairs, leaving her to wail on the landing, where she was collapsed with sobs.”
“And you did not leave the desk during any of this interchange.”
The young man was taken aback. “Well... yes, sir, I did. I went up onto the landing after de Montebello, and attempted to... well, to understand what Miss Johnston was saying. And afterward comforted her. But as I was on the stair, it was still impossible that anyone could pass by without my seeing.”
“Indeed,” said Vail. “And after that?”
“Well, a few of the guests in the second floor rooms came out, wondering at the girl’s screaming, and I managed to calm her down a bit. De Montebello came back down moments later and announced that the Countess had been murdered, and I dispatched Jameson, the doorman, to fetch the constabulary at once. The police arrived a short time later.”
“Hmm,” said Vail. “Most interesting. I may have further questions for you later, but now I am most interested in seeing the scene of the crime.”
He turned back to the staircase, and peered down at the carpeted, slightly uneven steps. “Useless,” he grunted after a moment. “Too badly trampled by the many constables, policemen, and guests that have stormed up and down it. Ah well, we have an eyewitness account, we shall have to settle for that.”
Nevertheless, Vail did not charge blindly up the stairs; instead he stepped carefully, slowly, his eyes ranging over each step. I recall he paid special attention to the banisters on either side, and twice he halted to peer closely at a spot that had caught his interest before murmuring under his breath and continuing.
We did not, as I had expected, pause on the first landing, but continued upwards. The stairs curved back on themselves beyond this point, so that it was impossible now to see the spacious room we had left below. If anything, Vail’s pace slowed. Yet ‘slow’ is a relative term when speaking of Vail, for he is always energetic when engaged in a case, and we moved along in his wake at a fair pace.
The second landing opened on a hall which curved off jaggedly to the right. A second, smaller set of stairs to the left led upwards.
Vail paused a moment, glancing down the oddly jagged hallway, and Lambert spoke up.
“None of the guests on the second floor claim to have gone up to the third when the cry was raised. The maid, after all, had gone down to the ground floor, and naturally, those that emerged from their rooms followed the sounds of her cries downwards. Many of them are ignorant of exactly what crime has been committed, or who the victim was.”
“What do you see, Pendleton?” Vail asked me.
His sudden question startled me. “Why... I see a set of stairs leading up and down, and an empty hall. Or part of it, in any case. I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
He gave an enigmatic smile. “You have hit on part of it. It is what I do not see that interests me. I stand on the second landing and I can see neither the floor below nor the one above. And of the hall, I can see only the first door.” He turned to the Inspector. “Which belongs to...”
Lambert was at a loss for a moment, and hastily produced a small notebook. He flipped through it. “Er... a gentleman by the name of Rickards, I believe. Yes, 2-A, current occupant Mr. Rickards and wife.”
Vail gave him an approving nod. “Thorough as ever, Inspector.”
I was still a little in the dark. “But what does this mean, that you cannot see the floors above and below?”
“Only that a person standing in either place would not be able to see me.” Vail had started up the smaller staircase leading upwards, and was bent over, scrutinizing every detail, his brow creased in concentration. “We must proceed very carefully from this point, gentlemen. The traffic through this upper staircase will have been markedly lighter. There may yet be a clue remaining which has not been trampled.”
It took nearly another twenty minutes before Vail allowed us to proceed to the upper level. We waited on the landing while he went first up, then back down, then up again. He studied the carpet, the banisters, the walls, even the oddly sloped ceiling, all the while muttering sporadically under his breath as he apparently uncovered clues that were invisible to us.
“Well, gentlemen,” he said at last, stepping down from the top of the stairs and leaning around the corner to become visible to us, “let us proceed.”
The eerily disconcerting nature of Leopolski’s design was no more evident than at the third landing. In stark contrast to the second landing, which we now stood directly above, here there was only one hallway instead of two. The stairs opened on a slightly forward-tilting blank wall, with the final step jagging off to the right, leading into the hallway, which slanted so sharply that only a few feet of it was visible.
“The hall curves all the way round, nearly in a complete circle,” supplied Lambert. “This is the only entrance or exit.”
I nearly stumbled on the last step, so steep was the grade and so strange its angle. I reflected ruefully that Leopolski might well have been a genius, but the practicality of his design left something to be desired.
The hall did not curve so much as jag in a series of odd angles, but the effect was much the same. The first door we came upon had a young policeman posted outside it, and so sudden was the angle of the turn that we were nearly face to face with him before we knew he was there. From the startled expression he wore, the effect must have been the same for him.
“This is the suite that Baron DeMontebello took for himself,” said Lambert by way of explanation. “As there is only one approach to the Countess’s chambers, his thinking was that if he interposed himself here no one would be able to pass.”
Vail look a bit dubious. “Then he kept the door open and remained at it during his entire stay here, yes? But of course we know he did not.”
The next door was on the left side of the hall and smaller, and just beyond and opposite was a pair of double doors, both standing open. Lambert passed the smaller doorway and entered the larger, looking back when he saw Vail had halted.
“One moment, Inspector,” said Vail, indicating the smaller doorway.
“Oh, that is the servants’ quarters,” said Lambert. “Miss Johnston, the maid, was there when she first heard the scream.”
“Yes. She heard the scream and rushed across the hall, only to find her mistress murdered.”
“I see,” said Vail, finally moving forward to the double doors.
They opened on a fair sized drawing room, where another policeman stood. Beyond was another large door, also open, which let into the main room of the suite. I followed Vail in, and gasped in horror.
If not for the awfulness of the scene that greeted us, the sheer awe-inspiring magnificence of the chamber would have been overwhelming. The room was roughly oblong in shape, the walls a slanting series of connected flat surfaces. The farther side of the room had two large and picturesque windows set into a wide, curving wall. To the left was a large fireplace, which was still lit but burned down to a few low flames that did nothing to combat the chill. Overhead the ceiling formed a dome, beautifully painted in the scene of a springtime forest, with support beams arranged in a circular crossing pattern. A beautiful chandelier hung from the center.
I noted all this in passing, for my attention was focused on the mutilated body that hung upside down from the chandelier. The clothing it wore was so soaked in blood it was difficult to tell its original color, and so ripped and torn that it hung from the body in shreds. Great clawing wounds were torn into the corpse, and blood was spattered everywhere. Of the woman’s head there was no sign; it appeared that it had been torn completely off. There was some awful smell in the air - as of burned meat - that made my stomach roil.
Below the body was a still drying pool of blood and ichor, with blue and white flower petals spread randomly across it. In the center of the pool, in the midst of the petals, was some dark cloth thing; I could not tell exactly what it was from the door.
There were signs of violence throughout the room: The great mirror on the left wall was smashed into pieces, the frame hanging askew and shards of silvery glass sparkling on the floor. The sheets and covers of the four-poster bed were torn into strips and spread about the bed, and one of the posts had been snapped off halfway up its length and lay against the wall near the armoire. The left window was smashed open, and the rain that sluiced by from the eaves above sent a light spray through the hole and had formed a small pool of water on the floor there. And on every wall, painted in blood, were grotesque figures that letters from some other language.
Vail stood stock still at the door, an expression of fierce concentration writ on his brow, scanning the room. “Excellent,” he said at last. “I perceive that you have hardly touched anything at all.”
Lambert shook his head. “I know when I am out of my league, Mr. Vail. I ordered the room sealed and came to you at once.”
Vail nodded. “Please stay where you are, gentlemen,” he said, gingerly stepping into the room, carefully avoiding the bloodstains.
He moved to the body first, studying it from every angle without touching it, then scrutinizing the petals. He stooped down to take a look at the dark cloth item, then called me over.
“Carefully, Pendleton,” he cautioned as I approached. “Look here,” he said, pointing at it. “What do you see?”
“Why, it’s a glove,” I said, better able to see it. It was made of some gray leather, and it seemed to me the fingers were a little long.
“And what of the blood?” he asked.
I looked again, but did not see any blood on it. “What blood?”
He nodded. “Exactly. It rests atop a pool of blood, yet there is not one drop on its topside. So it must have been placed here deliberately, after the blood was spilt.”
I pondered this. “What does it mean?”
“Perhaps nothing; perhaps everything. But it strikes me as odd.”
He resumed his investigation, this time touching the body at various points. “Rigor mortis has not yet set in,” he said, lifting one limp arm than letting it dangle. “Here we see two puncture wounds in the palm of the hand. Here again, near the elbow, two more puncture wounds. And on the other arm, inside the mid forearm. And here, on the left clavicle near the shoulder. Perhaps these wounds in some way account for the lack of blood.”
“Lack?” I asked, surprised. “It is everywhere!”
He shook his head. “I see marks on the wall, blood absorbed on the poor woman’s dress, and a fairly small pool on the floor. The body of a standard human female should produce at least half as much again.”
“Than perhaps this ‘Handsome Johnny’ is a vampire after all,” I said.
He did not answer, but turned instead towards the walls and did a slow circuit of the room. To my surprise he gave the obscene markings only a cursory glance, focusing his attention on the floor. When he arrived at the window that had been smashed he suddenly stopped, than stooped down to get a better look at something.
He was frozen there for a long minute, then abruptly moved to the smashed mirror. After a brief inspection he stepped to the fireplace.
“Well,” he said, peering into it, “here is the unfortunate woman’s head.” He lifted the poker from its stand and probed at something in the back of the fireplace. Eventually he managed to fish it out, and a small unrecognizable black oblong rolled onto the bricks. “Of course it is burned beyond recognition, but at least we know why the room smells as it does.”
At this gruesome sight my revulsion got the best of me, and I fled the room seeking air, for it seemed I could bear the awful smell no longer.
I waited out in the hall, trying to recover myself, until Vail and Lambert finally came out.
“Are you alright, Pendleton?” Vail asked.
I nodded. “I needed air,” I said.
“I quite understand.”
“What else did you find?”
“Nothing of any consequence.” He turned to Lambert. “Well, Inspector, you have seen the room. What are your conclusions?”
Lambert looked a little uncomfortable to be put on the spot. “Er… well, we speculate that the vampire entered by the window and surprised the Countess. He fed on her, which accounts for the lack of blood, then hung her body from the ceiling.”
Vail said nothing, so Lambert continued. “Um… he then spread the flowers over her blood and painted the symbols on the walls in some sort of ritualistic… well, in some ritual way.”
“The mirror?” prompted Vail.
“Well, he smashed it in fury,” said Lambert. “That much is obvious. It’s a well known fact that vampires have an aversion to mirrors, for they cannot cast reflections.”
“And the severed head? The glove?”
Lambert looked nonplussed. “Well, that’s… It could be part of the ritual perhaps. Who knows what madness motivates a creature such as this Hangman Killer.”
Vail shook his head. “It was not the Hangman, inspector. I am absolutely certain of that now. Constable Ray corresponded with me about the case, offering me particulars that were not released to the papers. The flower petals the Hangman spreads near the corpse are always arranged in specific astronomical patterns; here the petals were randomly scattered. Too, the Hangman never left any telltale marks on any of his victims to indicate he was a vampire. Yet I counted five separate instances of puncture wounds that fit the classic description of a vampire bite. The Hangman does paint symbols in blood, but always on the south-facing wall, and always the same symbols, which are an ancient form of Nova Vaasan. The symbols that are painted in that stateroom are absolute nonsense, and mean nothing. And in none of the cases where the Hangman struck was the head ever found.” He shook his head again. “No, Inspector, this was not the work of the Hangman, though it was made to look that way.”
Lambert was flustered. “Well then, Mr. Vail, I did ask you here for your opinion. If it wasn’t the Hangman, then who?”
“I am not yet certain. But there are certain inconsistencies with your theory. For one, the attacker did not enter through the window. There was far too little glass on the floor. The window was smashed from within. The glove, too, is particularly odd.” He patted a pouch. “Perhaps when I have a chance to examine it in the laboratory I may give a better educated opinion.”
* * *
Lambert led us next into the servants’ quarters across the hall so that Vail could interview Countess Sforza’s personal retainers. There were only three servants present when we entered: a graying, older gentleman that Lambert introduced as Wim Heinrich, the household steward, and two young ladies, both of whom had been recently crying. Lambert introduced them as Marie Perigon and Myra Johnston, both maidservants of the Countess. Of the two, Marie looked the older and more experienced, and she had her arm around the younger girl in a comforting embrace.
“I was given to understand there were three maidservants in Countess Sforza’s service,” said Vail, “as well as two men-at-arms.”
“Miss Jameson was only recently hired into service,” supplied Marie. “She was sent by the Countess on an errand early this afternoon and has not returned.”
“As for the two men-at-arms,” said Heinrich with a crisp and disapproving Lamordian accent, “they are merely retainers hired by the baron, and answer to him, not the Countess. We have little to do with them.”
Lambert nodded. “Both are with Baron Montebello in his chamber, should you wish to take statements from them.”
Vail and I exchanged a glance; it was impossible to miss the distaste and disapproval in Wim Heinrich’s voice when he had mentioned the baron.
“You don’t approve of Baron de Montebello then?” Vail asked him.
Heinrich shook his head. “He was hired over my protests. The Countess had never been outside Borca before and felt she needed extra protection in these foreign lands. I knew something of the baron’s reputation and tried to warn her away from him, but she would not listen.”
“His reputation?” I asked.
“The man is a common mercenary, selling his services to the highest bidder!” Heinrich said in disgust. “He calls himself a baron. Baron of what? The man is not to be trusted.”
“You blame him for the Countess’s death?” asked Vail.
“He was hired to protect her; she is dead. What else is that? He may not have done the deed himself, but he has at least failed in his duty.”
Vail considered that. “You have served as Sforza’s steward for many years?”
The man held his head high. “Since she was fifteen.”
“And you are familiar with her household items and possessions of value?”
“It is part of my duty sir.”
Vail nodded towards Lambert. “I wonder if you would accompany the Inspector. I have examined the Countess’s chamber, and even now Inspector Lambert’s men are cutting down the body and removing it. It would be most helpful if you were to make a thorough search of the room and inventory all the possessions of the Countess. Should you find anything missing, report it immediately to the inspector.”
Heinrich agreed and left with Lambert, and Vail next turned his attention to the two ladies.
“You must not believe him about the baron, Mr. Vail,” Miss Johnston, the younger of the two maids, said quickly as the door closed behind Heinrich. “He is an old man, and jealous of the Countess’s favor.” Her pale features were intense with conviction.
“You do not share his opinion of the baron, then?” asked Vail.
She shook her head. “Never! Never would the baron place the Countess in jeopardy. He is a kind man, gentle and strong, and he did everything he could to defend her!”
I was surprised by the zeal with which she defended DeMontebello, and apparently Vail was too.
“You do not feel he failed in his duty, then?” he asked.
“The baron is a man of honor, and blameless,” she insisted. “For that doddering old fool to suggest he was somehow to blame for what happened to milady… The man is mad, and speaks ill of his betters. If anyone is to blame for this awful murder, perhaps it is that senile old man himself.” This last was delivered with such vitriol that for a moment Vail looked uncertain how to respond.
“I see,” he said at last, “I… I understand you were the first to find the body.”
She nodded, and unbidden tears sprang to her eyes. “It was… oh, it was terrible sir.”
Vail patted her on the shoulder. “I understand. But I must ask a few questions. I am informed that you were first alerted by a scream.”
“Oh, yes sir,” she put in earnestly. “A terrible shriek.”
“What time was this?”
“Eight o’clock,” said Marie quickly. “I remember the clock had just chimed.”
Vail turned to her. “Then you were both here? You heard the scream as well?”
Marie nodded hesitantly. “Well… I didn’t hear anything, but Myra was sitting closer to the door.”
“I see,” said Vail. “Tell me, Miss Johnston, what did you do when you heard the scream?”
“I rushed out of the room,” the tear-streaked girl said, “and across the hall. I opened the outer door and rushed to the inner, but when I opened the inner doors… Oh, it was terrible!”
Vail nodded. “Of course it was. But I must ask one question more. Were any of the doors open? Even your own?”
She shook her head. “No, not one.”
“As for myself,” said Marie, “I didn’t really know what was going on at first. I saw Myra leap up and dash through the door, and by the time I got up and followed she was already coming out of the Countess’s chamber, weeping uncontrollably. She went running down the stairs screaming murder, and I looked into that awful room… Oh, Mr. Vail, who could do such a terrible thing?”
Myra Johnston had begun to cry again, and Marie tightened her embrace.
Vail’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “I see you have injured yourself recently,” he said, reaching toward Miss Johnston’s arm. The sleeve had ridden up near her shoulder, revealing a small scabbed-over cut at the center of a bruised area.
“It is nothing,” she said, drawing back from his touch as if struck and tugging down her sleeve again. “I… I fell and scraped myself.”
“It is a nasty cut,” said Vail, “and I am well versed in medical ointments. Perhaps if I might take a look at it-“
“I thank you for your kindness, sir,” she said frostily, again drawing away from him, “but I am quite well, and have no need of medicines. Nor do I wish to be prodded in immodest places.”
Vail drew back. “I see.” He stood, and bowed. “I thank you ladies for your time, and apologize for any offense I have offered.”
I was perplexed by the whole exchange, but I shrugged and followed Vail out of the room.
We had nearly closed the door behind us when Marie, the elder of the two, appeared in the doorway.
“Mr. Vail,” she said, closing the door behind herself. “Mr. Vail, I… I would not want you to think ill of Myra. She is in a bad state just now, and in a delicate state of mind. I apologize if she was rude, but she is a good girl at heart.”
“I quite understand,” said Vail.
“As for the baron… well, Myra has been enamored of him for some time. And I believe the baron leads her on. She is a young girl, and impressionable. It is only natural that she should defend him.”
“And your own opinion of the baron?”
She looked a bit unsure. “The baron,” she said at last, “is a very capable man. I do not prefer his company myself, but neither can I fault him in his duties. Of course I do not believe he could have committed this grisly crime, but he is… He is a dangerous man, Mr. Vail, that much I know.”
“Indeed,” said Vail. “I look forward to meeting him.”
* * *
Baron Vinciento de Montebello was a comely young gentleman with raven hair and a darkly handsome face. His body was whipcord slender but well built, and he was immaculately clothed in evening dress, complete with black waistcoat, smartly pressed shirt, black tie, and white gloves.
He had been taking his dinner when we were ushered in, and he stood as we entered.
“Welcome gentlemen,” he said. “I have been expecting you. You are Hector Vail, I presume, and this must be your redoubtable companion, Colonel Oliver Pendleton. I am a great admirer of your work.” His blue eyes glittered with amusement.
Vail inclined his head graciously. “I thank you for the compliment. May I say that I have heard something of your own reputation. You are certainly a man to be respected.”
“You are too kind.” The baron gestured at the nearly empty plate in front of him. “I fear that with all the excitement of the evening I did not have a chance to dine. Will you join me? I can have my man bring you something as well.”
“Not necessary,” said Vail, taking a seat. “Please, continue your meal. I do not wish to interrupt, and have only a few questions.”
The baron flashed that brilliant smile of his again, and sat. I took an instant dislike to him; his arrogance was almost palpable.
“So,” he said, lifting his fork and knife again, “what questions do you have for me?”
“For one I am curious about your welcome. How was it you were expecting us?”
“Ah,” said the baron dismissively, “that is nothing. We are in Mordentshire, are we not? This is your home city. Your reputation, as I said before, is well known throughout all civilized lands. It was a natural assumption to think that a murder as high profile and awful as this one would attract your attention.” He shook his head. “A killer no less infamous than Handsome Johnny himself strikes an innocent woman down. Of course I expected that you would be called. Wine?”
Vail smiled faintly and declined. “Not to offend, but you seem unaffected by this tragedy,” he said, observing the gusto with which the baron seem to fall to his meal.
The baron flashed his smile again. “I am a man of the world, sir. Of course I am sorry to see an innocent woman slain, especially in so brutal a fashion. Does this mean I should starve myself? I have served in several military campaigns and witnessed the horrors of battle. I have seen worse sights than the mutilated body of the Countess, I assure you. Perhaps that has given me a strong stomach.” He lifted a piece of garlic with his fork and popped it into his mouth. “Hmm,” he said, chewing, “I may reverse my opinion when it comes to your onions and garlic. It seems they do not grow right in this country of yours, or perhaps they simply taste better in my native land.”
“What is your native land, if I may be so bold as to ask?” said Vail. “I note that your accent holds tones of Falkovnian, though your name is certainly Borcan.”
“I was sent to school in Lekar as a boy and spent my formative years in that city. My family and estates are in Borca, though I will admit that I have spent so little time in that country that I feel a stranger there.”
“Lekar?” asked Vail. “I wonder that your faith did not cause you trouble in that anti-religious land.”
For a moment the baron was taken back (and so was I). Then he lifted the holy symbol that was hanging round his neck, which I had failed to notice. “What, this? A trinket, nothing more. There is a Church of the Blinding Light near my estates in Borca, and the head priest gave it to me as a gift. I wear it as a novelty.” It was indeed a symbol of that church; a silver emblem graved in the shape and style of a star with a sword in front of it.
“You do not share that faith, then?”
The baron shrugged. “Perhaps it is the effect of my schooling in Falkovnia, but I have no use for religion of any stripe. I put more faith in my sword arm than any false god.”
“Interesting. Yet you wear the symbol.”
“A personal eccentricity.” The baron’s eyes twinkled with amused disdain. “Though I fail to see how this relates to the murder of the Countess.”
“I apologize,” said Vail, “I was merely indulging my curiosity. When did you take service with the Countess?”
“Three months ago.”
“And what exactly were your duties?”
The baron finished his dinner and reached for the glass of wine. “I was hired as a protector for her.”
De Montebello laughed. “I hired bodyguards for her. Aleksei and Gospodin, former comrades in arms from Falkovnia. But I was something more than that. I arranged her travel and lodging, and took other steps to guard her.”
“I see,” said Vail. “Yet the Countess is slain.”
“Of course I failed,” admitted the baron, “and no one is more sorry than I about that. I was fond of the woman, after all, and it does damage my reputation, but I could hardly have been expected to prepare for mad vampires bursting through windows.”
“Indeed,” said Vail, rising. “Well, I do thank you for your time.”
“What, no more questions?” asked the baron, quirking an eyebrow in surprise.
“Not at this time,” said Vail, heading for the door.
De Montebello turned to the mirror and adjusted his tie. His reflection smiled at us as we left. “I do hope you bring this awful murderer to justice,” he said in a nonchalant tone that belied his words. “The Countess was a good woman, and such deeds should not go unpunished.”
“Indeed,” said Vail as we left.
* * *
Over the course of the next few hours Vail made an exhaustive inspection of the Chamberfield inn and conducted many interviews. He located Aleksei and Gospodin, the two men-at arms that de Montebello had hired and spoke with them briefly, though the two spoke only Falkovnian and I could not understand a word of the conversation.
I will not repeat all the interviews that Vail conducted that night, but there were two encounters that seemed of special interest.
The first involved Mr. Rickards of suite 2A, who Lambert had mentioned earlier. Vail had conducted interviews with each of the occupants of the rooms on the second floor, coming to Rickards’ room last.
Rickards, an older man with a receding hairline and worry lines under his eyes, answered to our knock, but only opened the door enough to peer out. “Yes?”
“Mr. Rickards?” asked Vail.
“I am Hector Vail and this is my associate Colonel Pendleton. The gentleman to my right is Inspector Lambert. We are investigating the murder of Countess Sforza, which occurred earlier this evening.”
The man was confused. “What do you want with me?”
“I wonder if we might ask you a few questions.”
Rickards considered a moment, then stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind him. “I don’t know what help I can be, but I’ll answer what I can. I know nothing of the affair, other than overhearing the screaming of that serving girl.”
We were all a little taken back by the man’s action.
“Aren’t you going to invite us in?” asked Lambert.
“Oh, no sir,” said Rickards. “My wife is within. You know of her condition?”
We indicated that we did not.
“She is… not well. I brought her to this hotel in hopes that the natural surroundings would be conducive to a recovery in her health, but I fear she is slipping away from me.” He looked so forlorn that my heart went out to him. “She is not long for this world, I fear. She is sleeping now, and cannot take visitors.”
“What is her illness, if I may ask?” queried Vail, suddenly interested.
“The physicians call it the ‘Creeping Death’. Her skin has gone sallow and great sores have opened all over her body.” He shook his head mournfully. “It brings terrible pain, though that subsides somewhat toward the end. Her breath comes more and more shallowly.”
Vail nodded. “I apologize for taking you from her side in these final hours. Thank you for your help.”
And with that, Mr. Rickards went back into his room. I found this interchange odd, for Vail’s other interviews had been far more extensive.
The other account that was striking to me was given by Jenkin Willoughby, the doorman of the hotel, who described an interesting encounter he had had earlier in the evening.
“It was just after dark, sir,” he explained, “about six thirty or so. My usual post is just outside the front door, under the overhang, and that’s just where I was when it happened.
“Along came a fellow, dressed all in black. He stood well back in the rain, sir, where the light never did fall on his face. Just stood there for several minutes, not moving. Well, I called out to him after a while, suspicious what he was up to, and he answered me back. I asked him what he was about and he answered that he was looking to get out of the downpour. I told him we don’t usually take walk-ins, but that he might want to come in and get a bite to eat.
“Here’s the strange part, sir. He said he couldn’t come in. Well, I asked him why and he answered that he came from a country queer customs, and that it wouldn’t be polite for him to enter unless I invited him in first. Well, Mr. Vail, a shiver ran right through me when he said that, for my own grandmother used to tell me tales of vampires and such, and always told me that they couldn’t enter decent homes unless the people that lived there let them in.
“Right away I was suspicious of the man, standing out in the dark and the rain like that, and when he told me his strange custom I told him he could just walk on, for I wasn’t about to invite him in. I was a little afraid, sir, and I don’t mind admitting it, but after another minute or so a carriage started coming down the street and the man finally turned and left. I was worried he’d return again, but he never did.”
Vail thanked the man for his story, but did not seem as impressed by it as I.
Lambert intercepted us before we left for the evening, a young policeman at his side.
“This is Constable Billings,” he said. “He will escort you home, and with your permission, I’d like to have him at your side through the night.”
“To what purpose?” asked Vail.
“Well,” said Lambert, “I am… uneasy with this murdering fiend being at large. And you are of course indispensable to the case, Mr. Vail. Just by involving you in it I may have put you both in peril. I should be remiss in my duties if I did not afford you some measure of protection.”
Vail was amused. “I rather think we are in little danger, Inspector. To the contrary, if my suspicions are correct, the murderer has a vested interest in seeing us safe and well.”
I thought that was a particularly striking and odd thing for Vail to say. But Lambert was shaking his head.
“Don’t try to refuse help, Mr. Vail. Accept my protection, if for no other reason than to humor me. If nothing else, it will set my mind better at ease.”
“Very well,” said Vail good-naturedly. “Perhaps it is as well to have a man to hand. I will send him to you the moment I have discovered anything.” He looked the young policeman up and down. “I see that you are strong young man, Mr. Billings. I do hope that you can keep out of the way.”
The constable assured us that he would be no trouble.
“Oh,” said Lambert, “one thing more. The steward… Heinrich, I believe his name is. He has inventoried the belongings of the Countess and reports something a bit strange. Nearly all of her jewelry and personal items are missing. More than that, the family heirloom – the Star of Levkarest – was among the missing items.”
“So!” said Vail. “We have a thief as well as a murderer.”
“It is stranger than that,” continued Lambert. “Some of the missing items have no intrinsic value whatever, but were merely dear to the Countess. Why the killer would take them is an utter mystery.”
“Ha!” Vail smile was broad. “Why indeed?”
* * *
“Well, Pendleton, what do you make of it all?”
We were riding back to our flat when Vail spoke. He had been sitting in quiet contemplation for several minutes.
“Frankly, Vail, I don’t know what to think. It is a strange and horrible affair. I do not like this Baron de Montebello; his manner is arrogant and grating, and he certainly behaves like a villain. But I do not see how he could be connected to the murder when it so plainly was the work of a vampire.”
“Was it?” mused Vail. “Was it indeed?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I would think the vampiric evidence was overwhelming.”
“And so it is, Pendleton. Consider: We have the testimony of a doorman who claims to have encountered a mysterious man who will not enter the inn without invitation. This was just prior to the time the murder must have been committed. Then there are the clues left at the scene of the crime: a smashed mirror, several marks on the body that have the look of vampire fangs, a marked lack of blood. All of these are traditional vampiric clues.” He gazed out the window at the nighttime streets. “I have never seen so plain a vampire before, Pendleton, that is all. As for the baron, I would not be so quick to discount his involvement in the murder.”
“Surely you do not believe de Montebello is a vampire?” I asked. “The man is unsettling enough, I admit, but... why, you and I have witnessed him eating garlic, of all things, and others have reported he goes about in daylight.”
“Yes,” said Vail with a grim nod, “and he very ostentatiously primps in front of mirrors. Not to mention the holy symbol he wears about his neck. A bit much, that last.”
“And what is this ‘Star of Levkarest’ Lambert mentioned? I saw your reaction when you heard it was missing, and it must be an important detail.”
“Perhaps,” said Vail. “It is only that the item itself is so striking. It is the most valuable possession the Countess had, yet it was never hers to begin with.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Star is a state treasure of Borca, which was awarded to the Sforza family a generation ago by the Boritsi family itself, as a political reward. The Sforza line was not given formal possession, only the right to keep and protect the heirloom, which still belongs to the state. I was rather surprised to learn that the Countess had retained any right to hold it after being exiled from her country, though as her family has not yet been formally stripped of title perhaps there was no legal standing to take it from her.”
“But what is the thing?” I asked.
“The Star is a very large diamond, carved into a specific shape and mounted on a necklace made of platinum links. It is rumored to have been invested with some measure of holy power by an archpriest of the Eternal Order some years ago. As you may imagine, Pendleton, it has great intrinsic value, but its history makes it priceless. I am certain the Countess did not leave it laying about in plain sight. Strange that the murderer should have found it so easily, eh?”
“Very strange,” I agreed.
“Then there is the false testimony which Miss Johnston offered.”
I sat up at that. “The maidservant lied? Whatever do you mean? I thought her story was quite sincere.”
“I did not say she lied, Pendleton. Only that her story was false. Her sincerity I do not doubt.”
“But what do you mean?”
“The scream, Pendleton. She says that she heard it from across the hall, through three closed doors of solid oak. I submit that it is highly improbable that even the keenest ear would hear anything under those circumstances.”
“But… well, perhaps she does have exceptionally keen hearing.”
Vail shook his head. “I saw no evidence to support that. And the scream theory is impossible in any case.”
“Consider the state of the body, the state of the Countess’s room. Miss Johnston hears a scream, then dashes across the hall. How long could it possibly take her to get through all three doors and into the room? Shall we say two minutes, at the very most?”
I considered. “A deal less than that, I should think.”
He nodded. “Just so. And yet in that short time the murderer mauls his victim, ties a rope to the ankles and hangs it upside down from the chandelier, spreads flowers over the blood – which would not yet have had time to pool, smashes the window, mirror, and bed. And he writes gibberish on every wall in blood.”
I saw what he meant at once. “He couldn’t have had time to do all that.”
“He would not have had time to do any of it. Too, Miss Johnston’s ‘keen ears’ detect no sound of breaking glass, tearing sheets, or splintering furniture. No, Pendleton, there was no scream, though she may have believed there was.”
“Then what did she hear?”
He steepled his fingers and gave me a guarded smile. “The only thing we are certain she heard was the chiming of the clock, sounding the hour. Perhaps that is most telling of all.”
I was confused. “What do you mean, Vail?”
He shook his head. “I have only theories at present, Pendleton. More research is called for before I may offer speculation. This case is very unusual, I must admit. It suffers from too much evidence, rather than too little.” He sat back, and patted the pouch at his side. “Well, we shall see what my laboratory will tell us about this very enigmatic glove.”
* * *
“Good morning, Pendleton,” said Vail brightly when I emerged from my bedchamber. “I trust you slept well?”
I squinted against the rays of the mid-morning sun; the curtains to our window were thrown wide and the light streamed in. “You’re in a fine mood,” I growled. “I suppose you found something out about that glove you brought back, eh?”
I had left him at his laboratory last night, performing his chemical experiments on the glove he had taken from the Countess’s body. Constable Billings, the policeman who had escorted us back, had settled down on the couch to wait out Vail’s investigations. I had offered to bring him a blanket, feeling a bit of pity that he had been assigned the chore of being at hand if Vail needed him, but he had refused. As for Vail, he had been so absorbed in his work that I doubt he noticed when I retired.
He smiled. “Indeed, I discovered a great many interesting things about it. As you can see, I have spent the morning making preparations for the day’s adventure.”
He gestured over to his desk, and I saw that there were several items arrayed atop its surface.
“Wooden and iron stakes,” I noted, “holy symbols, vials of blessed water, garlic… You have reversed your opinion, then? The creature is indeed a vampire?”
Vail smiled enigmatically. “I suspect we will indeed face a vampire sometime during the day. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. I have taken the liberty of ordering up breakfast for you, my dear colonel. We are armed and ready for battle, but you must have your strength.”
I took a seat at the table. “Have you contacted Inspector Lambert?”
“I sent Billings to fetch him. Come, come, colonel. Please eat. They won’t return for another half hour at least. There is plenty of time.”
I picked at my food. “So what did you discover about that mysterious glove?”
“That our opponent is very clever, but not so clever as he supposes himself to be.” He steepled his fingers. “First, and most interesting, I discovered that the victim’s blood was poisoned.”
“Blood?” I asked. “You mean the blood from the corpse?”
“Yes, it had soaked into the bottom of the glove.”
“So the countess was poisoned before she was murdered?”
“Not necessarily. The poison might have been administered during the attack. I found traces of saliva, and speculate that this is how the poison was injected. In any case it was not a fatal poison, only a mild sedative with slight hallucinogenic qualities.”
I chewed thoughtfully a moment. “I admit that is interesting, Vail, but I’m not certain why it’s important. Or why it made you lay out our vampire-hunting equipment.”
“Ah, that relates to my second find. I also discovered a light coating of soot on the topside fingers of the glove, and when I took a sample and analyzed it I found it was a carbon-based coal residue.”
“I cannot see how that would be helpful. Half the kitchens in this city use coal burning stoves.”
“Ah, but this was a very specific type of coal residue. Only coal that had been burned at a very high temperature could have produced it. And it was mixed with another substance. Microscopic particles of sand, melted into bits of glass.”
“A glass-blowing shop, perhaps?” I asked. “There are only four or five of them in the city.”
Vail nodded. “My thought as well. But the third piece of evidence makes it clear.”
“And what was that?” I asked.
“Tiny silver shavings.”
I scratched my head. “Silver shavings?”
“Indeed. And none of the active glass blowing shops have anything to do with silverworking. But there was a shop several years ago, ‘Brown and Mauer’, where both glassblowing and silverworking went on. Mr. Brown, the silversmith, died and Mr. Mauer moved his glassblowing to a different location and expanded. But the building still remains, uninhabited.”
I nodded. “It makes sense. The vampire has laired there, and we will search it out and destroy it.”
Vail shook his head. “I doubt it will be that simple, Pendleton. It rarely is.”
* * *
I had just finished breakfast when Lambert arrived. Constable Billings was not with him but three other young constables were. Briefly Vail outlined his discoveries and instructed us all on the dangers of hunting undead.
“I strongly suspect we have been led to the lair of a vampire,” said Vail at the end, “but remember we have no direct evidence to support this. Therefore, be aware when we enter that there is no way to be certain exactly what we will face. So, exercise extreme caution.”
Properly equipped, we set out on our task. By the time we reached the abandoned storefront it was nearly noon.
The building was drab and non-descript; a gray brick structure with several storefronts set into it. The former shop of ‘Brown and Mauer’ was not the only one that was abandoned; the street on which it lay must once have been a major thoroughfare – it was wide and well-cobbled. But now the only traffic was the occasional passerby.
When we pulled up I saw that Father Edmund was waiting for us on the steps of the building. He was outfitted in his priestly robes, holy symbol in hand.
“Ah, Father Edmund,” said Vail in greeting. “I see you have arrived before us.”
The Father nodded. “I received your message half an hour ago, and hurried to meet you.”
“And we are glad of your presence, sir,” put in Lambert. “There is an evil creature that needs putting back in its grave.”
The Father lifted his holy symbol. “Tyr stands ready to aid us in our good work.”
We all stood back a moment while one of the young policemen worked the lock on the door. Lambert had obtained an official writ of permission to enter, but no-one knew where to find a key to the old shop, so the policeman used a locksmith’s tool.
The lock gave way with an audible click, and a moment later we had entered the building. The windows were grimed over with dirt and filth, but plenty of light found its way through the panes.
The upper floor was empty, save for a few bits of rubbish and some broken furniture, but one of the policemen discovered a trapdoor set into the wooden floor of the back room. He tried it but found it chained closed from the far side.
“We could fetch some axes and chop through it, sir,” offered another of the policemen.
Vail frowned. “The racket we would raise would surely alert the creature, if it lies below us. Perhaps there is a better way. Pendleton, you have my toolkit?”
I produced it and he withdrew an awl and a small hammer. He knelt and put the tip of the awl into the end of the hinge and tapped gently until he had worked the bolt out of the hinge. He repeated the process with each of the other three hinges, until the two doors were no longer affixed to the floor.
“There,” he said at last, standing. “Now, with some effort, we may lift the whole thing clear to get at what is below.”
The policemen managed to get a grip on all the corners and awkwardly lifted it all, sliding it to the side and revealing a set of wooden steps descending into darkness.
“Now we bait the thing in its lair,” said Vail, taking up a torch and passing around others to the rest of us. “We must tread very cautiously now.”
When all assembled had a lit torch in one hand and a weapon in the other we descended the little stair, ready for action. Vail and Lambert led the way, and Father Edmund and I brought up the rear.
The cellar of the place was fairly small, with an earthen floor, a few mouldering casks of brackish water, and over to one corner several newer-looking pieces of furniture. There was an armoire, a chest of drawers, and right in the middle…
“A coffin!” said Lambert, stepping forward.
“’Ware the corners and ceiling!” warned Vail, lifting his torch high. “The thing may not lair in its box. It could fall on us from above!”
The men quickly probed the dark recesses of the room, making certain nothing waited in the shadows to ambush us, but all kept half a gaze on the coffin, wary of what might emerge from it at any moment.
When we had made certain there was nothing else in the room we turned our attention to the coffin.
Vail passed his torch to one of the policemen, and took up hammer and spike. Father Edmund flanked him, holy symbol gripped tightly.
“Ready, Inspector?” Vail asked, as Lambert and another policemen moved to opposite ends of the coffin, making ready to open the lid.
Lambert gave a terse nod, and without a word the two lifted.
The creature within roared with fury and erupted out, leaping for Vail’s throat.
“Back, ye fiend of the eternal pit!” cried Father Edmund, shoving his holy symbol forward fiercely. “The might of Tyr compels you!”
The vampire (if that is what it was) halted in midair as if it had struck some invisible barrier and rebounded back a step. It hissed in anger, and cursed in a language that was foreign to me, but backed a step, then two, and the priest advanced in turn.
It had the figure of a young man, though his features were twisted in rage, with pale skin run through with blue veins. Its clothes were average in every respect, and it wore its hair long. Had I passed the thing on the street I do not think I would have taken it for anything other than a young man, perhaps in bad health.
Step by step Father Edmund backed it, chanting holy verses all the while, until it was forced back into its coffin and lay back. The priest laid the holy symbol on its chest, and the things eyes closed and its features went still, as if the undead creature had been forced to a semblance of true death.
Vail then stepped forward, placed his stake over the thing’s heart, and drove the point home.
There was nothing too exciting about the next few events. The vampire was staked, the head cut off, the mouth filled with garlic, and the body sprinkled with holy water. Father Edmund performed the last rites and the creature was destroyed.
* * *
The rest of our little adventure seemed a bit anticlimactic to me. Destroying the vampire had proven a fairly straightforward matter and hadn’t taken long to accomplish, and Father Edmund left us not long after, with our gratitude for having assisted.
But Vail spent several hours going over the creature’s lair, searching for evidence and further clues. I tried to keep out of the way, and Inspector Lambert stood by in case Vail needed him, though he did dispatch the other constables, instructing them to return to the Chamberfield. Neither of us was certain what Vail was searching for, but after looking through the creature’s belongings he seemed satisfied.
“Well, that’s it then,” said Lambert when at long last Vail finished with his investigations. “I suppose we can declare the whole horrible business ended. We have destroyed the creature once and for all.”
Vail gave him a strange look. “We have destroyed a vampire, certainly. But I hardly think we can declare the matter done. We still have not discovered any motive for the crime.”
“Well, yes,” admitted Lambert. “But the creature is destroyed, and justice has been done. That is the important thing, I’m sure you’ll agree. As to the creature’s motives… well, who can say what inspires such a horrendous crime? Perhaps it was driven by nothing more than spite. As for the details, we may examine the clues and learn what we may, but at the moment I have men stationed at the Chamberfield, and have put the guests there under house arrest. I must return and deliver the news the murderer is dead. As well as lift the orders that the guests be detained further.”
“Hmm,” said Vail, looking through some papers he had found. “Justice must be done, on that we agree. But I wonder if I might ask a favor, Inspector. Return to the Chamberfield as you wish, but wait there for my arrival, and do not lift the house arrest order until then.”
Lambert looked a bit dubious. “I will not lift it, but now that the case is solved I have no footing under the law to detain anyone. If anyone insists, I will be unable to stop them.”
“Good enough, Inspector. Good enough.”
And so Lambert left, and Vail and I were left alone. Vail read through a few more papers, then gave me a cheerful smile. “Well, Pendleton, it’s time we were on our way.”
We flagged a passing hansom and Vail gave our address to the driver. He seemed in good spirits.
For my part, I was left feeling a bit dissatisfied with the day’s events, and vaguely uneasy. Perhaps the case was over and solved, but I could not work out exactly how the vampire related to the mutilated Countess. Over and over in my mind I replayed the day’s events, and I could not see why Vail was so confident and sure that justice had been done.
“Why so pensive, Pendleton?”
I started from my reverie. “Eh?”
Vail gave me an indulgent smile. “You looked lost in thought.”
“Well,” I said, trying to put my feelings into words, “I… I mean, I’m certainly happy we were able to destroy that terrible creature, but it seemed… it seemed a bit anti-climactic, if that makes any sense. Not that I would wish for a better ending, mind. No one was injured and the murderer was dispatched. It’s just that I… Well, you appear to be perfectly satisfied with the whole affair, and I still don’t understand it all, now that we’ve come to the end.”
Vail arched an eyebrow. “The end, Pendleton?” He shook his head. “Not at all. We have only reached the second act of this very interesting case.”
“But I thought Inspector Lambert declared the case closed,” I pointed out.
“So he did, coming falsely to the same conclusion that you have. The true murderer has not been brought to justice. But never fear, we are on his track.”
“Than the vampire was not the murderer?”
Vail smiled. “It is likely he was a murderer, yes. But not the one we are after. You have described our encounter with him as anticlimactic, yes? Why do you choose that word?”
I shrugged. “Well… For one, the creature didn’t seem to give much fight.”
Vail nodded. “We found it unprepared in an amateur lair – which, I might add, was not its normal residence. Father Edmund is able to back it into its coffin and put it into a trance state with nothing more than a holy symbol, and the creature doesn’t even cry out as it is staked. Are these the actions of a powerful undead?”
I thought back to some of our other encounters with vampires. Most had been terrible opponents, not easily defeated or even cornered. “No, I suppose not,” I mused.
“The vampire was the very weakest of its kind,” said Vail, “a fledgling, who fell to undeath less than two years ago. His own letters confirmed it.” He shook his head again. “It is impossible that he could have been the murderer.”
I sensed Vail’s mood had shifted, and that he was ready to reveal a few of his deductions. After all, he is at heart something of an artist, and never likes to give away his line of logic until he has built up suspense. “Why not?”
“The rain, Pendleton. It started well before we left for that dreadful opera and continued through the night.”
“The rain,” I repeated, uncertain why it was important.
Vail gave a nod. “The vampire we destroyed was a very weak fledgling . It could never have left its lair.”
“Running water. It is anathema to vampires and may in some cases even destroy them. Now I will allow that rain – even the torrential downpour we had last night – hardly qualifies as running water in the same way that a swift creek does. Indeed, according to the eminent Dr. Van Richten many of the older and more powerful vampires consider rainfall only a nuisance, and for the most powerful it causes no pain at all. But most occult experts agree that for the fledgling vampire rainfall can be fatal and at the least causes agonizing pain. Their bodies are not strong enough in the powers of darkness to endure it.”
“So the vampire could not have ventured from its lair. But Vail, if rain causes discomfort and can be dangerous to them, even the more powerful vampires would be unlikely to venture out in it. You must have suspected before we even arrived that the creature we would face had no connection to the murderer.”
“No connection!” said Vail, nearly breaking into a laugh. “The vampire had every connection – he was the ‘red herring’ the murderer intended to frame for the crime! But, to answer your charge, I was indeed aware that we would not be facing the murderer. I suspected it from the moment I first laid eyes on the glove.”
Vail nodded again. “It was planted evidence. What other reason could it have, other than to lead us to a false conclusion?” He smiled ruefully. “Among the several points of interest in this case, perhaps the most striking is the fact that the murderer was counting on my deducing the clues on the glove to provide himself with a false alibi. It is the first time I can remember where a villain has actually depended on my help.”
“So then, if you knew that the glove was tainted evidence, why did we chase after the vampire at all?”
“Because the true murderer left no direct evidence to link himself to the crime. The glove may have been tainted, but it was evidence, and I thought that by following even a false trail we might get some clue to the true villain’s identity.” He brandished the letters he had taken from the vampire’s lair. “That is what these are.”
He handed them over to me, but I saw at a glance that they were penned in a language foreign to me.
“I know you do not read Falkovnian, Pendleton,” he said at my look. “But these are missives from an Aleksei Nekelnevich to a Stepan Golyadkin. Stepan was the name of the vampire we faced today. Perhaps you are curious why a fledgling vampire from Falkovnia ended in an abandoned shop in Mordentshire? I certainly was.” He took the letters back from me. “According to these letters, this ‘Aleksei’ had occasion to do the young vampire a bit of a favor. In fact Aleksei prevented the vampire from being destroyed in the earliest days of his undeath. The letters do not mention how this happened, but they make mention of a blood debt that the unfortunate Stepan owed to Aleksei. You follow so far, Pendleton?”
I indicated that I did.
“Incidentally, the letters also reference the fact that Aleksei is a mortal creature, able to go about in hours of daylight. He is an evil man, certainly, for he and this vampire became confederates, and apparently Aleksei betrayed many other innocent people to the vampire, as well as providing the vampire shelter and money from time to time. As you know, young vampires are apt to fall into trouble, inexperienced with the world as they are, and a great deal of them are destroyed simply because they could not control their appetite for murder, nor disguise their nature. This Aleksei aided the young vampire, providing him a steady supply of victims and sheltering him from agents of justice.
“The last letter is dated two weeks ago, a request for aid from Aleksei. It instructs the vampire to come to this city and, indeed, to the very abandoned building where we discovered it. In it Aleksei promises that should Stepan come he will be richly rewarded, not only in gold but in blood.”
“So then this Aleksei fellow must have lured the vampire to this city,” I reasoned.
Vail nodded. “And betrayed him to us. For Aleksei is the true murderer, and needed a scapegoat for his crime.”
“And who is Aleksei?” I asked. “I have not heard the name before now.”
“A false name, nothing more. So we are left again with no direct evidence. But there are telling clues in the account. ‘Aleksei’ is an intelligent man, utterly ruthless in pursuing his ambitions. He befriends and then betrays a vampire, a formidable creature to say the least. And the letters are penned in Falkovnian.”
“It makes me think of Baron de Montebello,” I supplied.
“My same thought. Still, there is no direct evidence linking him to the crime, so we are left only with supposition. So now we must play a very careful game. This is the reason I did not correct Inspector Lambert’s assumption that we had slain the murderer. We must allow the murderer to think he has deceived us. Our opponent is very clever, but he is confident to the point of arrogance. That is the weakness we must exploit.”
* * *
By the time we arrived at the Chamberfield, the sun was setting low in the west, spilling red-gold light across the streets and making the shadow of our carriage stretch grotesquely before us.
There was a long black funeral cart pulled up in front of the door, and a scattering of policemen surrounding it, Lambert among them. As I watched, four men emerged from the front doors, holding a stretcher between them. Whatever was on the stretcher was covered by a long dark cloth, but it had the general shape of a man.
“Hold!” said Vail as we pulled up, leaping out of the hansom before it had fully stopped. “Inspector! What goes on here?”
“This place is not done with death, it seems,” answered Lambert.
“Who has died?”
It was not Lambert who answered, but Mr. Rickards, who had emerged unnoticed from the front doors and stood at the top of the steps. “My wife,” he said in a broken voice. “She has passed from this realm.”
He spoke with such grief that I was immediately struck by a wave of pity.
“When?” asked Vail, keenly interested.
“Not more than an hour ago,” said Lambert somberly, “scarcely ten minutes before we arrived. We called for the funeral cart at once, of course.” He spoke in the quiet and respectful tones most people adopt in the presence of the dead and mourning.
“And who was the doctor that verified the death?” asked Vail.
“Pembroke. He was leaving just as I pulled up.”
I have met Dr. Pembroke once or twice at social functions, but do not know him personally. He is an energetic young man who graduated from the medical school in Martira Bay two years ago and moved to our city thereafter to take up practice.
“Ah,” said Vail. “An able fellow, I am told.” He turned toward the four men who bore the body, who had just hoisted it up onto the back of the cart. “One moment, gentlemen,” he said, stepping forward.
I had by that time joined Inspector Lambert, so I was just behind Vail when he took hold of the corner of the cloth and lifted.
“Careful, Vail!” warned Lambert. “She was infected with the Creeping Death; it is extremely contagious.”
The face of the dead woman was revealed and almost unconsciously I backed a step. I could see that the skin was an unnatural yellow-green color, the lips and eyes blackened. But worse than that were the open sores which seemed to cover her cheeks and forehead, faintly pink and glistening.
Vail felt for a pulse and of course found nothing.
“Best keep a safe distance,” said Lambert. “I’d not touch her.”
But Vail, rather than heeding Lambert’s advice, actually leaned down over her, placing his nose directly above her blackened lips.
Mr. Rickards had said nothing during this entire exchange, but a flash of outrage and anger played across his face when Vail bent over his dead wife. Even I was shocked at Vail’s actions. “Vail, really!” I hissed. “Show a little respect!”
Vail straightened, glancing at me and then up to Mr. Rickards. “Of course. My condolences on your loss, sir. I was merely making certain of something.”
“And what would that be, that you have to press your lips to hers?” demanded Rickards, his voice tight with anger. He glared at all of us. “What manner of people are you, to permit this?”
Before anyone could give voice to an apology he whirled on his heel and stalked back into the hotel.
“Well,” said Lambert, a touch irritated himself, “that was badly done, Vail. I hope you had some purpose in it.”
“I assure you, Inspector,” answered Vail. “I would never disturb the dead without purpose.”
“Er… well, I know that sometimes your methods are a bit unorthodox, if effective,” said Lambert, slightly mollified. “Still, I do wish you’d exercise some restraint. That aside, I am relieved you’re here. Baron de Montebello and his retinue are preparing to depart, and I am unable to stop them.”
“Indeed.” Vail had already started up the steps. He did not sound particularly surprised. Lambert and I exchanged a glance, then followed him in.
The main room and lobby were bustling with servants and porters, most carrying luggage of one form or another. Baron De Montebello stood at the center of it all, giving orders and overseeing, while both Miss Johnston and Miss Perigon stood by watching. Miss Perigon had her arm around the younger woman, and it seemed to me that Miss Johnston was a bit distraught. Her eyes were red as if she had recently been weeping. I saw no sign of Heinrich, the Countess’s steward, but both of the baron’s men-at-arms were present, one standing near the front desk, the other near the stairs.
De Montebello was in the midst of giving orders to one of the hotel porters when he caught sight of us. He dismissed the man at once and strode forward boldly.
“Ah, Mr. Vail,” he said brightly, his face breaking into an insolent smile. “You have come to see us off, then? My congratulations on your speedy resolution of the murder, sir. The good inspector was just telling me of your excellent work.”
Vail did not return the smile. “There are still several details to attend to,” he said. “I am not satisfied that justice has been done.”
De Montebello waved a hand dismissively. “Details,” he said scornfully. “The creature is destroyed and the case has been closed.”
“I am surprised to find you leaving so quickly,” said Vail pointedly. “The Countess has not even been buried yet. And it would be helpful to the case if you were to stay-“
The baron smiled again. “It surprises you that I have no desire to stay in a place where murdering vampires prey?” He shook his head. “Come, come Mr. Vail. You aren’t making sense. As for the Countess and her funeral, I want no part of it. Heinrich is of course staying to attend to it, and for the time being I’ve decided to leave both the maidservants with him. It is as well; the man holds no love for me.”
“There are three maidservants,” pointed out Vail, “not two.”
But the baron shook his head. “There are two. Miss Jameson has not been seen for several days. You are aware that some of the Countess’s possessions were stolen? I think the girl has run off with them. If you wish to continue an investigation, Mr. Vail, I suggest you concentrate on finding her.”
“Perhaps I will at that. So, you and your men-at-arms will not stay for the funeral, even though it is for the benefit of your employer.”
The baron shrugged. “Life is for the living, after all, and I have other duties. I intend to return the Countess’s belongings to her estates in Borca.”
“You mean those that were not stolen,” said Vail.
De Montebello gave a nod. “Those that were not stolen,” he allowed. “And those that were not impounded by the Inspector as evidence.” His gaze shifted towards the front doors. “Ah, the carriage has arrived. Splendid.”
I looked back and saw that a large and luxuriously appointed brougham was just pulling up, the hooves of the horses raising a clatter on the cobblestone street.
Vail glanced back and caught sight of it as well. His lip twisted slightly with irritation.
“You there,” ordered the baron, talking to the head porter. “Don’t just stand about. See that the luggage is loaded.” He gave Vail an apologetic smirk. “Good help is difficult to find in any country, it seems. You were saying?”
“I was saying that it would be very helpful if you did not leave Mordentshire just yet.” Vail sounded a bit frustrated.
“Helpful to you, perhaps,” said De Montebello, “but impossible for me, as I am certain you realize, Mr. Vail.” He said it lightly, but his eyes glittered with malevolent victory. There was no mistaking the double meaning behind the words, and I was amazed at the man’s boldness. “I am a busy man and must be about my work. Now, if you will excuse me.” He made to step forward, but Vail did not move aside.
Anger flashed in Vail’s eyes. “Surely Inspector Lambert has already told you that the police force does not wish you to leave.”
“Yes,” said De Montebello, “he requested I stay, just as you have. He also told me that the case had been closed. You will forgive my limited understanding of your laws, but even I realize that leaves him with no standing to prevent my going… unless I am to be held as a suspected accomplice to the crime?” That last was delivered mockingly, and the baron looked questioningly from Vail to Lambert and back again.
There followed a beat of silence, and neither man answered. Vail’s face was frozen in a hard frown.
“We have no proof of that,” he finally said, his tone reluctant and bitter. “Yet.”
De Montebello smiled again. “Then I will be on my way. I wish you both good day.” He backed a step, then walked around us. Vail stood frozen a moment, watching him go, and Lambert stepped forward to follow.
“Baron,” said the Inspector, “I cannot force you to stay, sir, but-“
“You are right,” said the baron, cutting him off and again flashing that smug smile. “You cannot force me to stay.” And with that, he was out the door.
“Vail!” I said, alarmed. “How do we stop him?”
He did not answer but instead moved to the front doors, passing Lambert, who had halted there, and going down the steps.
The baron was supervising the loading of the brougham with luggage. As I watched from the top of the stairs, one of his two men-at-arms brought him a finely-wrought rapier, which he took and belted about his waist.
“An excellent weapon,” noted Vail. “I wonder that you did not wear it before.”
De Montebello glanced up. “I like to keep it near to hand when traveling. The world is a dangerous place. A gentleman must be armed.”
“You are no gentleman, sir,” said Vail coldly. “Know this. Inspector Lambert may have closed his investigation, but my own will remain open until you are brought to justice. I cannot prove it, but I know you are connected with the murder, and should I spend the rest of my days hunting for it, I will find evidence against you.”
“Now, now, Mr. Vail,” chided the baron. “You are sounding a sore loser. There is no cause for bitterness or hollow threats. In half a day I will be in Dementlieu, and beyond the reach of your law, not that there is any evidence for you to find.” He stepped up into the brougham, then turned and gave us all one last mocking bow. “And now, gentlemen, I must bid you adieu.”
I stood shocked as I watched his brougham pull away and trundle down the street and out of sight. “Vail, is there nothing we can do? That last almost sounded like a gloating confession!”
Vail, who had been standing still and fairly quivering with frustration, suddenly turned towards me, his face breaking into a triumphant smile. “We have already done it, Pendleton. And I think we have done rather well.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, mystified by his sudden change in demeanor.
“I mean that the trap is set, and now we must only wait for the man’s arrogance to lead him into it.” He rubbed his hands together briskly, and eyed the setting sun. “I predict we have a few hours yet. Lambert, would you be good enough to fetch six of your best men?”
I exchanged a glance with Lambert, but he appeared as puzzled as I.
* * *
A low mist was just beginning to rise on the street, covering the wet cobblestones in a hazy ankle-high carpet of slowly flowing white vapor. There should have been a nearly full moon, but dense clouds blanketed the sky, erasing all hint of moon or starlight. Lambert, Vail, and I stood at the corner of Wytheborne and Nachtstras, keenly watching the small white brick building directly opposite. A little sign hung above the door, the words ‘Blackthorne & Son’ etched into it, and it swayed gently in the night breeze. Other than that there was little to see. This was the business district, after all, and on every side of us the windows of the surrounding buildings were dark.
Lambert stamped his feet impatiently, rubbing his hands together. It was not a cold night, but there was a slight chill in the air, and we had been at our post for some time now.
“Steady,” said Vail. “It cannot be much longer now.”
Lambert and I were both growing weary of our vigil, but Vail’s gaze was as attentive as a hawk, and his excitement only seemed to build with every minute that passed.
“I’m still not certain why we’re even here, Vail,” complained Lambert. “I’ve pulled six of my lads off their shifts just to stake out a mortuary, and all with no word of why. I suppose we’re waiting on Baron De Montebello to show up, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why. He must be halfway through Dementlieu by now, and why he would ever come here is beyond me. This isn’t even the morgue they brought the Countess’s body to.”
“No,” said Vail, “but it is where they brought the late Mrs. Rickards.”
“And what on earth has she to do with De Montebello?”
“Everything,” said Vail with a half smile. He gave us both a look. “You must forgive my penchant for drama, Inspector, but I do dislike to reveal everything at once.” His gaze shifted back to the mortuary across the street.
Lambert rolled his eyes and groaned, but kept silent. Both of us had suffered from Vail’s sense of theatre many times before, and we both knew that he would reveal nothing more about his plan or his deductions until whatever was going to happen had.
My eyes fell on the pommel of Vail’s rapier. He had donned it earlier in the night, when we had returned to our apartment to arm ourselves. He had his pistol as well, but the sword was something of a surprise; he enjoys fencing as a pastime but rarely takes his blade out on one of our adventures, preferring to rely on his pistol and whatever supernatural weapons are appropriate the creature we are to fight.
I gazed out at the building again, straining my eyes against the shadows on either side. I knew that Lambert had posted three men on either side of the building, but they were well concealed and I could not see them.
I stifled a yawn and shifted my feet, but suddenly Vail went rigid.
“Listen!” he hissed. “They come!”
Then, faintly, there came the far-away sound of a horse and carriage clop-clopping across the cobblestones. The sound built until far down the street there appeared a lantern attached to a large carriage. As it came closer I saw that it was a long brougham, though I could see nothing of the driver.
It approached at a slow but steady pace, and pulled to a stop just in front of the mortuary. Dimly I could make out the shapes of two or three men climbing out of it, but I could see nothing of their faces.
“That’s De Montebello’s brougham!” whispered Lambert. “Shall I give the signal to converge?”
“Hold, Inspector!” Vail whispered back. “We have no proof against him yet. Wait!”
The men – I could see clearly now that there were three of them – moved to the door of the mortuary and one of them bent down in front of it and did something to the handle. A half a minute passed, and suddenly he stood again, and the door opened.
“That’s breaking and entering,” said Lambert. “We have them for that at least.”
Vail put a hand on his shoulder, holding him back. “Breaking and entering is hardly on the same footing as murder, Inspector. One moment more.”
The man who had picked the lock returned to the brougham, climbing up on it to retrieve the lantern that hung there. As he took it from its perch the light shone full upon his face.
“De Montebello!” I murmured under my breath.
Lantern in hand, the baron stepped down off the brougham and entered the building. One of the men went with him while the other stayed with the horses.
The dim light from the lantern through weird orange images onto the darkened windows, and moved about erratically in the building.
“He’ll be checking through the bodies now,” said Vail.
A few minutes passed, then suddenly the lantern light swelled and the baron appeared at the door. He and the man who had entered with him were bearing a stretcher with a body on it, and they moved quickly to the brougham.
“Now!” cried Vail, springing forward, sword in one hand and pistol in the other. At the same moment Lambert gave the signal, and the other two groups of policemen closed in.
De Montebello had just finished loading the stretcher into the brougham when we caught him. He whirled as we appeared out of the darkness, his teeth bared in a feral snarl.
“Hold!” cried Vail. “We have you surrounded, baron! You are undone! Throw down your weapons and surrender!”
We had caught them all so completely by surprise that for the most part they gave us very little fight. Both of the baron’s henchmen were surrounded by policemen, and so confused were they that we were able to get them in shackles before they had a chance to fight.
As for the baron, he glared at all of us, then gave a hard smile. “So,” he said to Vail, “you are a very clever man indeed. But I wonder what it is you will arrest us for.”
“Murder, of course,” said Vail. “I know all of your design, baron. I assure you, you will hang.”
Again the baron flashed that mocking smile. “It does appear you are the better man, sir.” He held his hands out in front of him. “Come then, you had better cuff me.”
One of the policemen stepped forward to place shackles on him.
“Careful!” warned Vail. “Be wary of his hands!”
But suddenly the baron moved, sidestepping the young policeman and seizing him by the throat. I had not noticed until this very instant, but I could see that the baron’s hands were ungloved. The fingers were unnaturally long and at the ends, instead of fingernails, black claws jutted. These he pressed into the unfortunate policeman’s neck, so hard that he drew blood.
“And so it turns again!” he said. “Keep back, all of you, or I’ll tear his throat out!”
“Hold your places, men!” barked Lambert. “He’s got hold of Roberts!”
The baron backed a step, maintaining his grip on the policeman and using him as a human shield. He smiled mockingly at Vail. “So I had one last card to play. Now we are at an impasse, eh?”
“You don’t imagine we’ll let you escape, do you?” demanded Lambert angrily. “You aren’t going anywhere, baron, I assure you of that. Let him go, and it will go easier with you.”
De Montebello laughed. “Vail has assured me that I will hang regardless. How will it go easy with me? No, if I am to die anyway, I might as well take the pleasure of crushing the life out of this pimple-faced boy.”
Vail stepped forward. “What do you propose, then?”
De Montebello considered. “You have a blade. I have another. Why don’t we settle this like gentlemen?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Lambert. “Vail doesn’t have to enter a duel with you. We’ve got you dead to rights.”
“Then you kill this boy,” said the baron, shrugging. “I’d rather have the opportunity to kill Hector Vail, but I’ll settle for what I can get.” His mouth opened suddenly, and I saw that his two canines jutted long and pointed, like a vampire. He snarled and fastened his bite on the young policeman’s neck. As for the man himself, he cried out, writhing in the baron’s grip.
“Hold! Hold!” said Vail, alarmed, and the baron lifted his mouth away from the man’s neck, revealing two fresh wounds from which a trickle of blood seeped.
“Just a little taste,” said the baron, licking the blood from his lips, “to get your attention. And to strengthen me for the duel, should you accept my challenge.”
“And if I agree to your terms?” asked Vail.
“Then I’ll let him go, and your life will be spilt on my blade.” The baron smiled again. “At least you’ll be saving his life.”
Vail was silent a moment.
“Very well then,” he said at last. “I accept.”
“Vail, no!” I said.
“Absolutely not!” cried Lambert.
Vail never took his eyes off the baron. “There is no help for it; the man’s life is forfeit otherwise. I will accept your challenge.”
“One moment,” said De Montebello. “I must have your word as a gentleman that you will not have your policemen rush me the moment I release him. We must be allowed to settle our duel without any interference.”
“You have it,” said Vail.
Instantly the baron let the policeman go. The young man sputtered, catching his breath, and joined his companions.
“Give us some room,” said Vail, handing his pistol over to Lambert.
Lambert looked very displeased, but ordered his men into a rough circle around Vail and De Montebello.
The baron drew his rapier, smiled, and whistled it through the air in a practice cut. “When you are ready, sir.”
Vail took up position. “As you will.”
Immediately the baron attacked, and the sound of steel ringing on steel filled the darkened street, echoing off the cobblestones. Thrust, parry, counterthrust… Both men moved lightning quick in controlled strikes and blocks.
“Excellent, Mr. Vail,” said De Montebello as the two momentarily sprang apart and circled warily. “You have some very good formal training, I see. Where did you study? Ronges?”
“I learned my art elsewhere, but I do study from to time in Montigny.”
The baron smiled. “An excellent school, I am told. I have never been to Montigny myself.”
“Nevertheless, you did them one favor.”
“Oh? And what was that?”
Vail’s answer was dry. “You never went to Montigny.”
The two sprang together again, the baron attacking a furious flurry of strikes and slashes. Vail parried each calmly, but was forced to back several steps. He almost lost his footing for a moment when he backed into one of the brougham’s wheels, and narrowly evaded a thrust that would have taken him through the heart. Instead the baron’s point only struck the side of the carriage, striking off a piece of wood in a glancing blow.
I watched the entire exchange with my heart in my throat. Vail is an excellent fencer, but it appeared to me that the baron was every bit as skilled, if not more. Too, the baron’s display of fangs and claws made me think that he was certainly no normal man, though I wasn’t yet certain what he was, and he seemed to fight with superhuman strength.
“Tell me, Vail,” said the baron, again breaking off his attack. “When did you first suspect me?”
“Was there ever a time I did not?” asked Vail rhetorically. “Your own vanity made it inevitable; you wanted me to know you had done the crime. I suspected before we even met, but you as much as confirmed it when we did.”
The baron nodded. “It would never have been satisfying to beat you if you were never aware that I had done so. It does appear I underestimated you.”
“Oh, you laid an interesting trail for me, but I always knew it was false. Where did you meet poor Stepan, anyway? A chance encounter in Falkovnia?”
The baron laughed. “I leave nothing to chance. I learned that a young vampire was on a rampage in a village outside Stangengrad. He was pathetically easy to hunt down. I betrayed his lair to the villagers and then warned him they were coming and ‘helped’ him to escape. After that the fool trusted our ‘partnership’. He was perfect for the alibi.”
“Your loyalty to your allies is singularly uninspiring,” said Vail.
The two sprang together again, the blades dancing back and forth.
I do not claim to be an expert in fencing, and there was no clear and dramatic point at which the battle was ended. All I can say is that one moment the duel was in full force, both men thrusting and parrying, and the next De Montebello’s blade went spinning away to clatter on the cobblestones. Vail had disarmed him in some quick maneuver, and now pressed the point of his blade to the baron’s throat.
“So,” said the baron, again giving that mocking smile. “It appears that you are the better man, once again. I do hope you kill me quickly.”
But Vail only stepped back. “What, and allow you to escape justice? I think not. You will stand before a jury and answer to your crimes.”
Swiftly Lambert and the other policemen swarmed in, placing the baron in irons.
“You will live to regret sparing me, Vail,” said the baron coldly. “I will make certain of that. The prison has not been built that can hold me.”
“Now, now, baron,” said Vail. “You are sounding a sore loser. There is no cause for bitterness or hollow threats. I do not think you will be in prison long enough to consider an escape, and we shall be on guard for it if you do. You will answer for your crimes and you will hang.”
“Take him away, lads,” said Lambert briskly.
“What is the charge, sir?” asked one of the constables.
“Well, it’s… Well, the charge…” Lambert shot Vail a questioning look. “Er, what is the charge, Vail?”
“Murder,” said Vail.
Lambert. “That’s right, lads. Murder. And throw in grave-robbing and breaking-and-entering for good measure. We’ve caught the mastermind red-handed, and… Well, I’m certain Vail will provide us with the details of how it was done.”
“Indeed, Inspector,” said Vail, hiding a small smile. “Though I think it very unlikely that De Montebello was the true mastermind of this crime, and perhaps it would be wise to add theft to your list of charges.”
“Er, what do you mean, Vail?”
Vail strode quickly over to the baron’s brougham, throwing open the door and revealing the stretcher. Somehow I was not terribly surprised to see that it held the motionless body of Mrs. Rickards.
“Gentlemen,” he said, bending over her, “may I present the true mastermind behind this very extraordinary crime.”
“The late Mrs. Rickards?” I asked. “But what does she have to do with any of this?”
“There is no Mrs. Rickards. She is a fictional device only.” He fished in his pocket and produced a small vial. “Come here, Pendleton. Bend over her lips and tell me what you smell.”
I approached but not too near. “Vail… the Creeping Death-“
“I assure you there is no danger.”
Hesitantly I bent down over her, though not so close as Vail had done earlier, and took a small sniff. “Her lips… they smell like peppermint!” I exclaimed.
“Precisely,” said Vail. “The moment I smelled it earlier all my suspicions were confirmed. It is from a very rare compound of poisons that was developed by natives in the jungles of Valachan. They have a very specific effect upon the person who imbibes them, slowing the heartbeat until it is undetectable and arresting the breathing. The person who takes the potion is put into a state of profound coma and appears for all intents and purposes to be dead.”
“You mean she is not dead? But what about the Creeping Death?”
Vail shook his head. “A ruse to frighten people away from her supposed ‘corpse’. The sores and discoloration of her face is nothing more than stage makeup, as you see.” And with that he stroked his thumb along her cheek, peeling off the terrible looking sore as if it were wax and revealing smooth ivory skin beneath. “Even a good doctor like Pembroke might be a little reluctant to handle someone who had died of the Creeping Death. Thus they hoped to make certain that even someone with the skills to discern that she was not actually truly dead would not discover the subterfuge.”
“But how did you know the difference then, Mr. Vail?” asked Lambert.
“The makeup, as you can see, is quite convincing. But it is only on her face and neck. The hands and wrists are not discolored in the least, and in a true case of Creeping Death every part of her skin would have been effected.”
He unscrewed the top of the vial he had removed from his pocket, and allowed a few drops of the substance within to fall onto the dead woman’s lips. “This is the antidote for the potion she ingested,” he said. “It may be a few moments before it takes effect… Ah!”
The dead lady’s eyes fluttered, ever so slightly, and suddenly her chest rose and fell with breath. She coughed once, moaned, and slowly her eyes came open.
“Who…?” she asked in a raspy voice, squinting at us in the lantern light. “Where… where am I?”
Vail ignored her, instead fishing about in her clothing as if searching for something. She was still too confused to protest, and I had seen too many strange things this night to comment on his current actions.
“Gods!” muttered Lambert. “If she isn’t Mrs. Rickards then who is she, Vail?”
Vail gave us a triumphant look. “Gentlemen, allow me to introduce Countess Sforza, the true orchestrator of this entire crime.” He straightened, pulling a necklace with a brilliant star-shaped diamond out of her pocket. “And this was her aim and motive!”
* * *
“Theft, Inspector. That was her motive. Theft, pure and simple.”
Lambert had his pen poised over the small notebook he carried. “Theft of the Star of Levkarest, I assume.”
“But why would the Countess steal something that was already hers?”
“Because it was not hers. It is a national treasure of Borca and belongs to that country. It was her legal right to claim possession for as long as she held her title, but as you may know, Inspector, she fled Borca in exile. Even now legal proceedings are under way to strip her of her title. When she loses the title, she loses the Star.
“Too, she has fled Borca in disgrace, with a very powerful enemy in Ivana Boritsi, who is not known for her sense of forgiveness. By faking her own death, the Countess could retain her possession of the Star without fear of reprisal from her enemies.”
Lambert was nodding. “All of this I understand. But I’m uncertain how she arranged it all, or how you figured it all out. Obviously she hired this man De Montebello to aid her-“
But Vail was shaking his head. “First of all, Inspector, Vinciento De Montebello is not a man. Let us be very clear on that.”
I found myself nodding. “Obviously he is not; I saw the baron’s hands, and we all saw him feed on that poor policeman’s blood. But what is he, Vail? Some new form of vampire that can go about by daylight?”
Again Vail shook his head. “No vampire, Pendleton, though he does feed on blood. He is instead a vampyre.”
“Vampyre?” I asked, sounding out the strange pronunciation (for that is the only difference in the two words).
He nodded. “A foul creature that preys on humanity, feeding on blood. Unlike the vampire, though, the vampyre is a perfectly natural creature, completely unrelated to any form of undead. Thus it can go about during daylight, face mirrors and cast reflections, wear holy symbols, and has no fear of normal vampire banes. Perhaps its most diabolical weapon is the poison it generates in its saliva, which is injected into its victims when it feeds. It is a mild sedative with hallucinogenic effects, chief of which is that the victim will become utterly enthralled and charmed by the vampyre who feeds on him. For this reason, the victim of the vampyre will blindly defend him and return to him. Pendleton, you recall the tenacious way Myra Johnston defended the baron? She was his victim; the mark on her shoulder was his mark.”
I nodded. “I thought at the time her defensiveness was a bit odd. But the mark she bore did not resemble a traditional vampire bite.”
“Because the baron is not a stupid man. I suspect he never bit her, but rather made a small cut in an inconspicuous area and lapped from it. Another factor that made her testimony unreliable. His mesmeric hold on her allowed him to plant false memories into her mind, in effect hypnotizing her. It is hardly a coincidence that just as the clock chimed eight o’clock she heard a scream, while Marie heard nothing. It is because De Montebello planted a hypnotic suggestion in her mind; when the clock chimed, she heard what he told her she would hear. And thus her testimony, while sincere, was false.”
Lambert had scribbled a few notes while Vail explained, but now he was scratching his head. “Vail, could you go through it step by step with me and explain exactly what happened on the night of the murder? Or… well, I suppose there was not murder after all, since the Countess was not really dead.”
“Are you forgetting the mauled corpse we found hanging upside down from the chandelier?” chided Vail. “There was indeed a murder, Inspector.”
“But whose body was that?” I asked.
“Why, the missing maidservant of course. Miss Jameson. But that is getting ahead. Let us lay out the tale in order.
“Countess Sforza retained the services of Baron De Montebello, and between them they came up with a plan. I tend to think they selected the Chamberfield Hotel specifically for the task; the building suited their purpose admirably. De Montebello came up with the idea of copycatting the serial murders of the Hangman Killer, and even lured Stepan Golyadkin, a young vampire, to our city to take the blame for the crime.
“Around seven o’clock the night of the murder Baron De Montebello lured the unfortunate maidservant into the Countess’s chamber and murdered her in the most grisly fashion. He tried to make it look like one of the Hangman’s murders, but was not familiar enough with the details of the Hangman’s methods to pull off a convincing job. He mauled her badly, making certain to leave several bite marks on her body to make it look like a vampire had slain her, and even drank a good deal of her blood himself – that was the reason I discovered traces of his saliva in her blood. He tore her head from the body and cast it into the fire, obviously so that her identity would be difficult to determine, and dressed the body in the very dress the Countess had worn earlier. He then broke the mirror and the widow, destroyed the furniture, then hung the body from the chandelier and spread Noose Lily petals on the floor, in imitation of the Hangman Killer. Then – and this was his first error – he left the glove as false evidence, depending that I would follow the glove to Stepan Golyadkin’s lair and destroy him.
“He then posted one of his henchmen on the second landing as a lookout. The Countess collected a few personal items – some of which had no real value – and the Star of Levkarest, and slipped down the stairs, and into the room of Mr. Rickards, who was waiting for her.”
“So then Mr. Rickards was the baron’s accomplice?”
Vail nodded. “If that is his real name, Inspector. After that the baron’s work was done. He made his way downstairs, making certain he was seen smoking by the fireplace long before the first alarm was raised.
“As I said, Myra Johnston had earlier been victimized by the baron, and he had implanted a hypnotic suggestion. At precisely eight o’clock she heard the phantom scream, and raced to the chamber of the Countess. The alarm was raised, you were summoned, and everyone who came on the scene assumed that it was the Countess who had been slain, just as De Montebello intended.
“In the meantime, Mr. Rickards and the Countess were working to apply stage makeup so that it appeared she was affected by the Creeping Death. The false sores and discolored skin served two purposes; they made it unlikely that anyone would recognize the body as the Countess, and they made it more likely that the doctor who pronounced her dead – Pembroke as it turned out – would inspect the body too closely.”
“But what of the doorman’s testimony?” I asked. “When he referred to the mysterious man in the rain… what was that about?”
“Excellent question, Pendleton. There are only two possibilities: either the man was lying or he was not. If he was not, then the mysterious caller in the rain must have been completely unconnected to the case. I tend to think it more likely that the testimony was completely false; it supported De Montebello’s ‘vampire’ scenario too well. I think that if the Inspector questions the doorman and De Montebello, he will find that the doorman was bribed to give false testimony to throw us off the trail.
“The rest of the story you already know. I followed the false clues to Stepan, and then followed the real clues back to De Montebello. It was a good plan, and it would have worked, save for two factors.”
“And what were those?” I asked.
“First, due to my correspondence with Alanik Ray I was intimately familiar with the details of the real Hangman’s murders, and I immediately realized that this crime was an imitation. And second, the baron’s overwhelming arrogance and pride drove him to nearly taunt me, practically flaunting his crime under my nose. Again, until he returned to claim Countess Sforza I had no evidence that he had committed the crime. Had he simply left Mordent immediately there was no way we could have stopped him, and he would have escaped all justice. He was too careful not to leave any direct evidence. But his own overconfidence that he had fooled me led him back into the city, and thus into a prison cell.”
Lambert exchanged a glance with me, then shrugged. “It all makes perfect sense, now that you point out the clues.” He closed his notebook and stood. “Well, that’s it then. The Countess and De Montebello are imprisoned and waiting for trial, and the whole matter is at a close.”
Vail nodded. “Yes, there is an end to it.” He rose and stretched. “And now, Inspector, the hour is late. Miss Sherington will likely be miffed that Pendleton and I have missed supper. With your permission, we will leave you to sort out the paperwork of the case.”
* * *
As an afterthought, I should mention that the case was not so neatly ended as we thought. Baron De Montebello was tried and sentenced to hang, but – as many readers of the Mordentshire Times will be aware – he did manage to escape his cell, murdering two prison guards in the process. He is still on the loose, and I have no doubt that he will make good on his threats to Vail sooner or later.
As for the Countess, she did meet justice of a sort. Ivana Bortisi of Borca petitioned to have her extradited, so she was never tried for her role in the murder in this country. However, soon after being returned to Borca she was found slain in her cell, a victim of some exotic poison.
* * *
Author’s note: There is a house in Thomasville, Georgia that is very similar in design to the Chamberfield Hotel. It is the Lapham-Patterson house, and there is not a right angle in the place. If you’re ever in Thomasville, it’s definitely worth a tour. The spookiest time of year to visit? Every Halloween local actors gather there for a special reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories and poems by candlelight. I performed there myself, reading the ‘Cask of Amantillado’. A fun time. :)