Jonathan saw the demon’s eyes glaring balefully through the dark and the snow while he was still only half-way up the path. Their glow, glinting off the heavy brass ring in the demon’s mouth, followed him as he stepped carefully though the snow drifts towards the front door. He stopped at the bottom of the portico stairs uncomfortably aware that the demon could probably see the steel barrel of the Remington derringer through the heavy material of his right coat pocket. He had to screw up his courage before he could approach the demon any closer. With every step he took its grin grew wider, its eyes more sardonic. By the time he stood in front of it, his shirt was soaked with nervous sweat.
The demon was even uglier and scarier when seen up close. He stared in fascination as the demon strained, soundlessly, to work itself free from the heavy oak door in which it was buried up to the shoulders. Its skin was covered in bronze edged black scales that seemed to ripple in the lantern light. After staring at it for several long moments, Jonathan grasped the ring clenched between its teeth and raised it. The demon’s tongue rasped across his fingers and he jerked his hand away, releasing the knocker which fell onto the demon’s fore claws with a heavy clanging thud that echoed through the house. Jonathan jumped away from the door. His fingers, already burned from where he had carelessly handled the garlic-infused wood of the ‘Vampire Killer’ ammunition with which he had loaded the Remington, tingled and itched. He quickly wiped the demon’s drool onto the seat of his trousers.
Jonathan looked away from the demon and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. The door frame was highly polished ebony carved with strange symbols, darker shadows within the black wood. Above the lintel the frame rose to the point of a gothic arch which contained a brightly glowing stained glass window depicting a saint or angel wielding a blood-stained sword. The whole thing seemed to radiate heat that, at first, felt wonderful after the chill of the walk, but as it sank into his bones it left him goose-pimply and light-headed.
A servant eventually opened the door and Jonathan handed him one of the pseudonymous name cards he’d carefully crafted. The servant gestured for him to enter, and Jonathan stepped into the hallway. He gasped as all the fire that had been settling into his bones while he waited outside, flashed into ice that first burned and then numbed him, leaving him reeling and more than a little disoriented. The servant seemed accustomed to this reaction for when Jonathan opened his eyes he saw the man waiting for him just off to one side with a bland look on his face that Jonathan had used often enough himself when dealing with a tiresome customer at the bookstore where he worked. The servant offered to take his coat and Jonathan, without thought, immediately stripped it off, glad to be free of the weight. The servant shook the snow off its shoulders before turning away to hang the coat. Jonathan took the moment of the man’s distraction to glance back at the door, looking to see if the demon’s aft-quarters protruded through, but the back of the door was just smoothly polished wood.
“This way, sir,” the servant said.
Jonathan turned back, saw that the servant was already a couple of paces down the hall, and hurried to catch up. The man only took him a dozen paces farther before turning to a door on the right and pulling aside the portiere. As he opened the door, he asked Jonathan to wait inside while he went to call the master. Jonathan nodded the way he’d seen the rich customers do it, then stepped inside, aware, after a cursory glance, that the servant’s jacket probably cost more than he earned in a month. Looking at the servant’s jacket reminded him that there was something about his own he should be remembering, but the thought faded, erased from his mind by his first view of the room beyond.
Jonathan found himself in his enemy’s library. The ceiling was high but the book shelves went all the way to the top with little ladders along each side that apparently ran on rails so that people could get at the books on the top shelves. At the far end of the room, sitting beneath an electric chandelier, was a long sofa facing a comfy-looking fire which was flanked by a couple of over-stuffed armchairs. Jonathan’s stomach turned over in envy. To be able to afford to get his house retrofitted with electric cabling the owner must be richer than a rajah. The Ritz had only just had it done and it was one of the first in London to make the change. It showed a certain disdain for the proper vampiric traditions, but Jonathan could see the lure of it. He pictured himself sitting in one of those chairs, sipping brandy, reading, with Nora curled up on the sofa beside him. The image made him shiver with both lust and hatred. Nora. She probably sat there with him, laughing, drinking his brandy, sharing the light in her eyes. Jonathan’s stomach went sour, acid drowning the nervous butterflies. He had to swallow down the pain and the burning reflux in his mouth. If he could have, he would have wept.
He wandered along the bookshelves, looking at the books, trying to force himself to think of something besides her. Many of the books were old, bound in dark leather with titles stamped in silver on the covers. There was a book open on a reading stand and he turned it over and saw it was titled The Key of Solomon. He looked through it with interest knowing it was one of the books kept in the Restricted Magic section of the bookstore. It was filled with a lot of strange symbols like the ones carved around the front door, each of them annotated in a weird flowing script that Jonathan couldn’t even identify, let alone read. He turned back to the shelves but none of the other books looked interesting either. Most of them weren’t even in English, and none, so far as Jonathan could tell, were about vampires. Many were about magic. He allowed himself a small smile, and felt just a little bit superior. He prided himself on having and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of vampire lore, gleaned from his voracious reading of penny-dreadfuls and newspaper reports.
Jonathan heard the door open and turned to see a man enter. Jonathan staried at him for a moment wondering who he was, and then it came back to him, clawing through the torpor clouding his mind. Nora’s new beau. He saw immediately why Nora had left him for this man. He was everything Jonathan wasn’t — tall, broad-shouldered with piercing blue eyes, a shock of black hair and a palpable aura of danger. He could have stepped right out of a copy of Varney the Vampire. Jonathan stared at him dumbly.
“You desired to see me?” he said, in a pure Eaton accent.
It took Jonathan a moment or two to recollect that, indeed, he had come to see this gentleman. Through the fog on his mind he strained to remember what it was he had come to say, and, remembering it, he had to swallow two or three times before the lump in his throat retreated back into his chest and he could get his carefully prepared words out.
“Y-y-you sir, are a w-w-wife-stealer, a m-murderer and a f-f-fornicator. You are an a-adulterous leach upon society; a p-poison, a canker. You are the vile excrescence of a diseased toad. You are a plague that makes the pox appear no more than a mild distemper. The day your uncle raped the whore who was your mother and became your father was a black day for humanity. It is time sir, for you to return to that place from which you sprang, and I speak not of the withered womb of the witch who bore you, but of the nether regions of the lowest pit of hell.” As Jonathan spoke he felt his confidence returning. The man hadn’t moved, nor tried to interrupt, and the only expression on his face was one of mild curiosity. “Now sir, what have you to say in reply?”
“I believe you want Damien Black,” he said. “He lives two doors down on the left. Number 4b.” He smiled. “I think your cabbie must have dropped you at the wrong house, old boy.”
Jonathan felt as though someone had just hit him across the back of the head with a cricket bat.
The man’s grin had just the merest suspicion of teeth in it. “Black isn’t in just now,” he said, interrupting Jonathan’s stuttered apologies. “I don’t expect he’ll return for at least another half hour.”
“Oh.” Jonathan said, still barely coherent. “I see. Thank you. I do apologise.”
“Can I offer you a spot of something whilst you await his return?” As he stepped forward the rich silk of his smoking jacket caught the lamp light and flickered iridescently.
“Oh, I don’t like to intrude,” Jonathan said, trying to edge around him, his face flushed and his brain too muddled with embarrassment to ask his host’s name.
“Not at all. I was just about to sit down myself. Why don’t you join me?” He grasped Jonathan’s elbow in a powerful hand and steered him towards the fireplace.
“Thank you,” Jonathan said, helpless to resist. “He’ll be back in half an hour you say?”
“Yes. He’s fairly regular is Black,” said his host. “But then these upstart middle-class vampires usually are. No imagination you see. Brandy?”
Jonathan was silent for a long moment, staring in shock at his host’s face. There was nothing there to show that the man was making fun of him so he nodded. “Thank you.”
The order was passed to the hovering servant and then Jonathan was gestured into the armchair that he had just imagined Nora using. He waited for the servant to leave, then said, “Vampires you say? You don’t mean that Black is a vampire do you?”
“Oh, certainly. Didn’t you know?” He took out his tobacco pouch and began filling a beautifully carved calabash pipe then glanced at Jonathan. “Can I offer you a fill?”
“Thank you.” Jonathan pulled out his own modest clay pipe and absently helped himself to a big pinch of the proffered leaf. “No,” he lied. “I had no idea of Black’s true nature.”
“Light?” the man said, offering Jonathan a tin of matches. He struck one of his own and sat back, puffing at his pipe until he had it drawing well then tossed the match into the fireplace.
Jonathan followed suit, trying to mirror his host’s casual elegance.
“Black doesn’t even really qualify as a vampire, not in the true sense of the term, though given time he will become one. The disease hasn’t yet claimed him completely.” He shook his head. “He is a quasi-vampire. He has some of the powers though. Enough to get him into trouble with the sort of people it’s best not to irritate.”
Jonathan gave his host one of the politely questioning looks that he’d been practicing. It must have worked for the man went on as the servant returned with a tray bearing two snifters with splashes of amber coloured brandy in the bottom.
“Black has become involved in criminal activities, not an uncommon fate for those of the middle and working class who succumb to the disease. They seem to have some very strange ideas about what being a vampire means, spawned by modern fiction I believe, and when they discover the realities, they use their powers as best they are able to fulfil those fantasies, which usually means setting themselves up as crime-lords of some sort. Black is a typical case. A lower middle-class youth who, once infected, began preying on the poor, stealing money and wares from the beggars and whores and trying to intimidate petty criminals into working for him, none of it with much success however. He hasn’t even been able to give up his day job, though perhaps that is due more to the way in which he squanders whatever he steals on fancy toys rather than necessities, like new boots.”
Jonathan winced, glancing guiltily at his own boots where a seam had popped on his walk over. Black’s story was too familiar and his host’s matter-of-fact tone and cultured voice drove home just how un-unique Jonathan was.
His host’s eyebrows drew down over his eyes, casting them into deeper shadow. “He recently graduated from petty larceny to more serious crimes, however. He used his burgeoning power of vampiric fascination to kidnap a young woman. It’s unclear what he hoped to gain from this as her parents are not well off, but my guess would be that he was seeking a bride, or a concubine.”
Jonathan swallowed down his anger, chasing it with a large sip of brandy. “How is it that you know so much of, of Black’s activities?” he said, trying to turn the topic and only just managing to keep from indicating his own involvement in similar activities. His head was starting to feel light.
“Oh, I’ve made it a habit to discover as much as I can about my targets before committing myself.” The man smiled. “Hunting vampires can be awfully tricky.”
Jonathan froze, brandy halfway to his mouth. His disagreement with Black faded in importance and the whole situation suddenly began to seem even more dreadfully unreal. He stared at his host for several long moments before managing to pull himself together. The man was so busy swirling and sniffing his brandy that he didn’t seem to have noticed. Jonathan cleared his throat. “H-how long have you been after him?” He lowered his own brandy, untasted. The hand his host had cupped around his glass was covered in the calluses and small scars that Jonathan had seen on the hands of some of the customers he knew were ex-military and noted for their swordsmanship.
“Oh, about three months on this hunt.”
“You don’t say.”
“They’re only rarely shorter than that. One has to be quite sure that the target is a vampire and not just some eccentric mortal.” He drew heavily on his pipe and blew out a cloud of pungent smoke before continuing. “After all, having a stake pounded through your heart and your head chopped off isn’t any healthier for a human than for a vampire.” He barked a laugh.
Jonathan forced a smile. “Oh, yes, yes. I see what you mean.” He took a gulp of brandy and gasped as it hit the back of his throat. “Bit of a shock if one was to do the deed only to find that the target was, was, well, was not actually a vampire,” he said when he stopped coughing. He shook his head. “Messy. Very messy.” He puffed on his pipe trying to dispel the image. “But ah, but you, you said that Black is only a, ah, a quasi-vampire? How does that affect the ah, the ah, …”
“The execution?” His host chuckled at Jonathan’s discomfort. “As a hunter you wait until they are enough of a vampire that killing them won’t leave a mess, but not long enough for them to become too much of a threat.”
“And Black? You are, ah, are quite sure about Black, that, that he is a ah, a vampire, I mean, that he has ah, has reached that stage of his, his ah…”
“Development? Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. No doubt about that at all.” His lips curved in a small smile around the stem of his pipe. A log fell in the fireplace sending up a shower of sparks and making his eyes gleam redly through the light haze of tobacco smoke.
Jonathan’s stomach heaved and his head felt both light and over-full. He took another gulp of brandy to wet his suddenly dry throat. “I see.” He cleared his throat again as he leaned forward and carefully put the empty brandy glass down on the table, ignoring the chimes caused by his trembling hand. He knocked the dottle out of his pipe into an ashtray then tucked it away in his pocket. “You ah,” he blinked several times, “You don’t happen to ah, h-have the time, do you?” he said, rising slowly and swaying a little. “Only I, I have a, a rather pressing appointment and as it ah, appears that B-Black is, um, is ah, running behind schedule today I’ll ah, have to ah,… put off, yes.” He smiled. “I’ll have to put off our ah, our little engagement until ah, tomorrow? Or, ah, perhaps the day after?” Jonathan was already edging towards the door, only blearily seen through eyes that didn’t want to focus. “Thank you for the, ah, the brandy?” he said, as the servant emerged from behind the portiere with his coat just before he got there. He turned back to his host, smiling broadly, while the servant helped him on with it. “I do apologise for the rude interruption.”
“You’re welcome,” the man said, pressing his card into Jonathan’s hand as they shook. “I didn’t catch your name?”
“Wiggle, Jonathan Wiggle. At your service.” He tried a bow and almost fell, then turned for the door before the realisation struck him that he had just given his real name to a man who hunted vampires.
There was a click behind him and he felt a chill dance down his spine. Jonathan whirled, setting the room spinning, and, squinting, managed to see his gun in his host’s hand.
“Nora really was a very lovely girl.”
“Pardon,” Jonathan said, striving to Fascinate the man and finding his powers locked away behind the smoke-haze in his head.
“Nora,” the man said, suddenly looking very grim and nothing like the genial host of just a moment earlier. “The young woman you kidnapped. She really was a very lovely girl.” Then he shot Jonathan in the chest.
As Jonathan fell the name card so recently pressed upon him fluttered from his hand. He lay beside it for several moments, staring at the name embossed in silver across the centre: Damien Black, Vampire Hunter. “You lied to me.” His voice was barely a whisper. “You… lied…”
The pain was quite intense, as though someone were driving a white-hot poker through him. Jonathan could feel his blood pooling in his shirt, a glacial spread of warmth upon his cold skin. There was surprisingly little fear. He had time to wonder why he was still there, why he hadn’t vanished in a puff of ash before Black and his servant stepped into his line of sight and rolled him over.
“Let’s get him out in the garden.” Black’s voice was hard. “There’s no need to get blood on the carpet.”
They dragged Jonathan out of the library, down the hall and out a side door into a dark garden and left him staring up into the skeletal arms of an old yew for several long minutes. Jonathan’s shock-numbed brain seemed to see Nora’s face in the swirling snow. The love in her eyes came from a cracked mask that kept slipping to reveal the anger and hatred beneath, just as it had when she’d left him.
Black came and squatted down beside him, his face filling the whole of Jonathan’s vision. “You’re a fool, Wiggle. You should never have kidnapped her. Fascination, even vampiric fascination, never lasts, and the disappearance of a woman of Nora’s class and connections was bound to attract attention.” He looked up, took the stake his servant handed him, and placed it on Jonathan’s chest whilst the servant raised a sexton’s spade.
“She’s dead?” he asked.
Black nodded, face grim.
Jonathan looked back up into the tree and, through his tears, saw Nora’s face, finally smiling at him, then the spade slashed down.