The Frenchman’s feigned drunkenness ushered them out of the tavern and into the dark alley. Enough men and wenches had heard his ravings about an insult to guarantee a crowd of witnesses; and at least half of them goaded him on as he uttered the slurred challenge. Since the chances of doing any damage at twenty paces in a moonless night were negligible, Santiago accepted. But as the crowd stumbled across the door, the Frenchman’s cane became a sword. And suddenly there was no glaze of alcohol in his eyes, no stupor in the smile that curled his lips.
Two slashes, barely avoided, backed Santiago against the wall. The palm knife he had drawn instinctively was no match. The Frenchman drew back for a final thrust. Santiago still could not remember what went through his mind in that instant. Did he do it just to take his murderer with him? No, he had seen a man run through by a spear once and live. A spear, a sword, what difference did it make? Santiago thrust himself forward into the blade, about an inch below the tip of his sternum and slightly right. The distance to his foe’s throat was halved. The problem was solved.
The Frenchman’s triumphal smile vanished. Disbelief froze him in place momentarily. And that was enough. Santiago’s gloved left hand held the blade fixed at his own gut while his right hand slashed the end of the duel across the Frenchman’s throat. The Frenchman refused to believe it even as his body slumped and his life emptied out on the filthy street.
Nine months later and a quarter of a world away another moonless night ushered Santiago De Soray into an unusual gathering. Constable Avdan smoothed his moustache as he motioned him to stand beside the Englishman, Brighton, one of his dinner partners from the previous night. They were in the last cargo room astern, adjoining the makeshift stable that housed a prized Arabian mare on its way to be sold to some European nobleman. There was obviously a body on the table at the end of the room, covered by a sheet. At the arrival of the Dutch Doctor, another of the dinner party, the door was closed and the constable recounted the conditions under which the body was found.
Santiago had been asked to join in because his passport, issued by the Spanish Government’s Branch of Protection and Public Safety and countersigned by the French Consul in Barcelona, suggested to the constable that he might have some investigative experience. Doctor Bernice Vedeen had been asked because it was her money that was financing the bulk of this trip. The constable had barely finished his summary when Brighton took over. The Englishman wiped both face and brow with his kerchief despite the absence of perspiration, out of nervous habit. The constriction of his throat, whether from horror or excitement – it was hard to tell – made his voice half an octave higher, in obnoxious contrast to the gentle lapping of the waves outside.
“Look here,” Brighton’s attempt at turning the cadaver’s face was foiled by the onset of rigor mortis. He had to lift the whole torso to allow the lamplight to shine on its neck, “twin puncture wounds, body all but drained of blood… again!” Santiago De Soray was the first one of the others to approach the cadaver. He eased Brighton’s grip off the dead man’s arm and restored the body to the table. A thin trickle of blood exuded from the lower wound and flowed along the gold chain around the neck to puddle on the table.
“Vampires, I tell you.” Brighton insisted.
The doctor too had reached the table. “Mr. Brighton, what do you make of this?” There was almost no Dutch accent in Bernice Vedeen’s English. De Soray stepped aside as the petite doctor’s gloved hand raised the bloodstained gold chain so that the ornate cross at its end dangled freely.
“A vampire unafraid of the cross.” De Soray’s reaction was echoed by a mild raising of the doctor’s brow, so he went on: “An infidel vampire perhaps?”
“Or a blind one?” She dropped the chain and stepped away from the table with exaggerated determination. “That’s it! That would explain the fate of the gypsies’ cow: twin puncture wounds everywhere, until it found the artery. Although,” Doctor Vedeen took on a pensive air, “I must admit the grotesqueness of the imagination gives me pause. No man’s jaws could open that wide to bite a cow’s neck.”
Santiago snapped his fingers. “Snakes! I hear, in the jungles of the Amazon, anacondas can distend their jaws and swallow a cow whole.”
“A most convenient way to dispose of the body of evidence, Signor… Oh, but we still have it here, don’t we?”
Brighton was livid at the barrage of ridicule. His voice was about to return when the doctor faced him squarely and demanded, “Was he a hemophiliac?” She returned to the table and daubed the trickle of blood still flowing. Her eyebrows asked the question again.
“Well, I, I suppose he could have been. Hemophilia is very common in his side of the Tsar’s family.”
“Constable,” the doctor turned to the official, “I put to you that Mr. Ossipov was murdered earlier this evening. His murderer then proceeded to drain the body of blood to play along with Mr. Brighton’s nonsense and the gypsies’ superstitions.” Before the Englishman could protest she went on. “Last night at dinner, after the conversation finally drifted away from the macabre, Mr. Ossipov confided that his cousins would be joining him at the next port. He took considerable comfort in the thought. I suggest that the presence of three blood relatives of the Tsar, otherwise unescorted and anonymous, coincident with one former war correspondent,” and she nodded towards Brighton, “bespeaks of a secret diplomatic mission, against which there might be a host of adversaries; human, mortal, adversaries.”
After the constable admonished all to keep the matter in confidence until the next port, Brighton left the room, his face almost as red as the doctor’s hair. Santiago De Soray kept his admiration, and attraction, under careful check but not strictly out of propriety. At just over six feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds, the Spaniard towered over the doctor, but the fire in her eyes and her voice evidenced a soul mightier than he had ever met. “Miss Vedeen, How did you know Brighton was a war correspondent?”
“Horace Brighton? I read every piece he wrote about the Russian war.” She fingered the short diamond pendant at her neck. Her gaze was lost somewhere far away, for the briefest moment, and then she returned. “Britain and France won, you know. Europe is safe.”
Santiago understood full well the haunted look that crossed her face. He had seen it far too many times. He had come to call it the sigh of the survivor. “War is never won,” he said. “It may be quenched for a season, but it is never sated.” Then an unexplainable boldness moved him to ask, “What was his name?”
She understood his question and answered in a controlled voice. “Jonathan, Jonathan Fleming, of the Light Brigade… We met in London, the summer of ’52. I was attending a lecture by Dr. Blackwell before she went back to America.” Her green eyes gazed up into the Spaniard’s grays. “Good night, Signor De Soray.”
Well past midnight, Santiago De Soray stepped out onto the modest promenade to consider his own affairs. For him this was a return trip, with little accomplished. At least there had been no attempts on his life for over six months. But the questions still remained. Every lead in Russia turned out to be barren. Yes, he had a list of names that kept recurring in his investigation, of people and organizations possibly connected to the Frenchman; but their agendas were so esoteric, their publications so blatantly bizarre that, if anything, they had to be purposeful distractions, meaningless. And that in itself was a bothersome thought. As Descartes so well put it, to be deceived requires one to be the target of a deception and, of course, the existence of a deceiver. Did they, whoever they were, know he was looking into their affairs? Or was the mesh of confusion a general protection against any prying eyes?
Indeed, why should anyone have targeted him? He could not pinpoint a single mistake he had made to attract attention, not a careless word in wine or passion. Old enemies were long dead. He was almost ready to believe that that duel had been pure coincidence and not a response to his casual inquiries. If so, this trip would have been a wasted affair, except for the doctor.
To him she was an enigma. With impeccable logic she had drawn on a vast body of literature to challenge the neo-cabbalistic ranting of Brighton at dinner the previous night. For every unexplained mystery he brought up she had a physical or psychological explanation. But later when Santiago asked her directly if her conclusion was that evil was a purely human invention, with motives and powers strictly limited to the natural, her answer was a categorical ‘No’. And to prove it she recited for him, in order, a crisp summary of the arguments raised at that table that night, and her counter arguments, this time punctuating every one of them with a precise citation from Holy Scripture. How she could deny the existence of golems, vampires, and goblins with the same vehemence that she could accept the existence of a God, was beyond Santiago’s rationalistic mind.
He needed someone like that, someone that could think with clarity and conviction, yet along entirely different lines from him. By himself he was getting nowhere. Yes, she could help… He shook his head at the vanity of the thought. He could never ask her.
A curl of cigarette smoke reminded him he was not alone on that deck anymore. Another shadow had come to share its thoughts with the night and the softly rolling water. It was Brighton, and he approached the Spaniard.
“You think me a fool.” He spoke absently, almost as if he were speaking to himself. His eyes only met Santiago’s briefly and then they returned to the eastern horizon. The faint lightening of the sky confirmed that dawn was, at most, two hours away. The Englishman drew in a full breath of smoke and then let it out slowly. “Everyone has heard of the battle of Balaklava.” Santiago nodded, and Brighton went on. “Decisive and bloody, it was. As I walked through that field of carnage, a whimper called me to the side of a man that had been left for dead. Both legs had been crushed, right arm severed at the elbow, but he still clung to life.
“I realized then that I had met him in the barracks the previous week. I had thought him an interesting character with whom to color one of my stories, Quincy Rabelaire. He was a young aristocrat, disaffected with life, who had joined the army in search of adventure… brilliant, educated for a career in medicine and then abandoned it. World-traveled. I spent the next two weeks visiting him at the hospital. He seemed to be taking quite stoically the loss of legs and arm, and then he told me a story of his youth.
“During one of his trips to South America he decided to prove to the Amazon River natives that they were superstitious fools. They so feared the piraiba, a gigantic fish rumored to pull down even horses, that they built fences around the river shore to protect their villages. So he paid them to guide him to the most likely lair of the monster and he dove in. He swam from shore to shore with impunity. Boasting of his victory he dove deep beneath the waters and suddenly found himself caught in a strong undercurrent, much faster than the broad flowing of the surface. It came in measured spurts that carried him tumbling down into a deep hollow.
“At the pause of the last spurt, his air almost failing, he managed to orient himself towards the dim daylight high above and he started to swim for his life. But then something made him glance down and he saw it, something like a gigantic catfish, resting at the bottom of the hollow, receiving into its massive mouth the fish and debris that the current of its own creating had brought to it. Their eyes met. In that instant he knew that his life was at the mercy of that creature. If it opened its mouth one more time and sucked in the river, he would surely die. But it didn’t. It had proven its point. It let him swim away back to his world of fools and mortals.
“Rabelaire spent the next three days in shock, speaking to no one, haunted day and night by those eyes. In the end, he had to return to the river. Tying a long rope to the trees by the shore and then firmly about his waist, he dove in, loaded down by a sack full of stones. With that weight he sunk directly to the hollow, and there he walked in the presence of one of the ancient gods. Yes, a god, that is what he called it, for those eyes that we only see glazed in asphyxiating desperation were alive down there with human, nay superhuman, intelligence. It watched him as he came closer. It was over thirty feet long, at least one ton of muscle and sinew under smooth gray skin. Its massive jaws could have easily swallowed him, but it had no such intentions. They just stared into each other’s eyes, and Rabelaire understood that this creature had lived for centuries, perhaps millennia, ever growing, never dying.
“He would have gladly died under the eternal gaze of that being, receiving those words of silence that seemed to flow out of it with each gentle heaving of its gills, imbibing of secrets that seemed to sear his very consciousness and then slip out into the forgetfulness of dreams. But he was only human, a puny mortal. The fire in his chest, and that basest of human instincts for self-preservation, made him drop the stones. His hands, no longer under his control, clawed at the rope in desperation. And he pulled himself towards the surface in a sacrilegious flight to the world above. ‘I abandoned the presence of the immortal for a breath of oxygen, for a taste of life, a life that had to be, in its majestic eyes, but like a wink.’ Those were his very words.”
Brighton lit another cigarette. The eastern sky was clearly brighter than the rest of the heavens. Dawn was indeed approaching, and the Englishman seemed to breathe easier. He rested his back against the railing, took another deep breath of warm smoke, and met the gaze of the Spaniard again. “Rabelaire left that hospital determined to return to the Amazon because, finally, the words, the thoughts of that ancient one made sense. The delirium, the pain in that hospital brought it all back. ‘Life and death, healing and slaying, are in the blood.’ Those were the monster’s words. Those were Rabelaire’s parting words to me from his Bath chair.
“That was almost two years ago. Last summer his father died. At the proceedings for the settling of the estate, along with instructions for the disposal of the fortune, a letter requesting my attendance was found. The signature was authentic, the motives beyond guessing. All the land was to be sold to buy a castle in Moldavia. The house furnishings, including unopened trunks from South America, were all to be sent there. And there were further instructions for me: to return the next week to the garden behind the manor.
The meeting was set for midnight. There was only one servant. The house was open and barren, the way to the meeting place illumined by a few candelabra. And he met me there. Signor De Soray, he met me there. No longer maimed, he was standing on two legs; and he shook my hand with his own right hand.”
“‘Eternal life,’ he smiled at me, ‘is in the blood.’”
[This first chapter Template of the Rephaim appears in the Crossover Alliance’s Second Anthology. If you like this story, you may want to read the Anthology for stories by other authors too.]