Archivum Arcanum

By Dan Klefstad

(Being a Glimpse into the History of Mors Strigae, the Death-Dealing Order of the Roman Catholic Church, Presented in the Epistolary Style)


Diary of Cardinal Massimo de Luca

 

Dec. 21, 2021

The Vatican

Such a strange occurrence on this first day of Winter, one perhaps more in keeping with the Solstice traditions of our pagan ancestors than the supposedly enlightened proceedings of the Church. Today, Holy Father finally allowed me to join the College of Cardinals, though my appointment isn’t the one for which I’d hoped. For years, I’ve been petitioning His Holiness, or rather his vicar, to elevate me to Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the body that promotes and defends the Church’s core values. I should note that Cardinal Ratzinger held that title before becoming Benedict XVI, so anyone securing this commission is viewed as next in line to the papacy. It’s tempting to use the word “Mephistophelian” to describe the backroom dealing – even backstabbing – employed by those striving for this hallowed prefecture. My elimination as a candidate was so swift and bruising, I considered leaving the Church to help my brother run his winery in Tuscany. This potential future acquired even greater urgency when I pondered the position Holy Father did grant me: I am now Prefect of an obscure and rather arcane institute called The Sacred Congregation for the Inquiry into All Things Preternatural. As the name suggests, this body is charged with investigating occult phenomena, a responsibility that includes paranormal investigations and demonic possession. His Holiness – that is, his vicar — said the time had come to re-establish accountability for this jurisdiction, which lacked cardinal supervision for more decades than he could count. But not too much accountability, it seems. I was instructed that no one under my authority should ever be quoted, cited anonymously, or even hinted about in official communications or the news media. “For the sake of completeness,” he added, handing me a key, “His Holiness must never, ever, be asked to confirm or deny anyone or anything pertaining to your Sacred Congregation – and this especially applies to the order known as Mors Strigae.”

You read that first half correctly, “Mors” meaning “death.” I now supervise the only lethal branch remaining in the Catholic Church. As for the second part… we’ll get to that in a moment.

Still thinking wine country would be more hospitable than Rome, I unlocked the archives. I was curious as to why His Holiness – his vicar — presumed I would be an ideal match for a death-dealing monastic order. So, I grabbed random scrolls and started reading. And here’s where a warning is in order: If you’re Catholic, worship with another denomination, or do not acknowledge God, be prepared to accept on faith that He allows a host of unholy entities to wander among us. I’m speaking beyond those things which desire to haunt and possess us. It includes creatures that look like us, and behave like us – in fact, they used to be us – but now prey on their former cohorts. Which brings us to the second part of the name Mors Strigae.

Strigae (singular: striga) is difficult to translate today because early Latin speakers didn’t have a noun for the thing to be killed, a heretofore unknown monster that hunted humans at night, feeding on their blood. The closest word they had, striga, meant “evil spirit” or “witch,” so they used this identifier for the new threat. Later, we in the west adopted the eastern word “nosferatu” – meaning “not dead” – to refer to these creatures, and “striga” was soon forgotten. Meanwhile, Mors Strigae kept its name, allowing its mission to fade from memory — and leaders in Rome to deny the existence of “i vampiri” even as our monks hunted them.

Vampire hunters.

My head keeps shaking at this discovery which makes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith look like a quilter’s group. Suddenly, my ambition is piqued: Who needs doctrinal authority when I have the tools to assemble my own private army? True, the soldiers are long gone, but the papal charter remains. And now, for the first time in decades, there’s a budget. Still, I remain suspicious. Who wants this order revived, and why now? Perhaps this bound stack of letters to and from my predecessor will offer some direction. They date from the last time Mors Strigae engaged in armed conflict, more than a century ago…

 

***

 

March 20, 1900

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Adolpho Martinez

 

Your Eminence,

Greetings on this first day of Spring in the new century. I hope this letter properly conveys my excitement at receiving news of great importance to our order. Without further ceremony, I’ll get right to it: I’ve just received intelligence that, if true, could lead to the realization of our goal of eliminating that elusive scourge to all that is holy, the bloodsucking strigae.

According to my second in command, Brother Matteo, several of these, our Lord’s enemies, have retreated to the village of Campoleone, about a day’s journey south of our blessed city founded by St. Peter. During interviews with local peasants, Matteo learned that about ten “i vampiri” (as they call them) have, during the past month, visited their nightly depredations upon the villagers, before, at dawn, taking shelter in a catacomb previously unknown to us. Your Eminence might well remember my reports from late last year estimating a similar number of strigae plaguing Rome and the surrounding area. I can’t yet prove these are the same foul creatures, and I am without explanation as to why they may have moved, but it appears the Lord has given us an opportunity to destroy all his enemies in one location. To this end, I am preparing to join 100 of our brothers already in the field who are setting up camp near this Den of Devils. However, one important item begs for your consideration before any operation can proceed. And here I must temper my passion by grappling with the comparatively prosaic matter of infrastructure.

A scouting mission has revealed only one entrance to the catacomb, with a tunnel that appears limited to single-file passage. One entrance presents both a challenge and an opportunity. A single cave-in could be enough to cut off any team we send below ground — possibly long enough for them to perish. On the other hand, the lack of a second opening makes it easier to trap our enemy. It goes without saying that any incursion would be conducted during daylight hours when the strigae are asleep.

After much prayer, I’ve come to believe the Lord has given us a rare (and possibly brief) opportunity to finish this near thousand-year war on His behalf. I humbly request that upon reading this news (and after what will no doubt be a profound moment of prayer) Your Eminence will grant approval for my proposed incursion. Such a mission would be made even easier with the arrival of 200 more fully armed brothers to Campoleone, plus engineering tools. You have my most heartfelt gratitude for devoting whatever time and resources you can spare to this rather urgent petition. Viva Mors Strigae!

Your faithful servant in Christ’s mission,

Abbot Adolpho Martinez

 

***

 

March 22, 1900

To the Abbot Martinez

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot Martinez,

Viva Mors Strigae indeed! After years of struggle and limited victories, it seems Heavenly Father desires our order to finally live up to its name. Your report of this hidden harbor for Satan’s children has renewed my faith that we will prevail in this centuries-old struggle. However, after spending the last hour seeking our Lord’s guidance (the “profound moment of prayer” you predicted), I’ve concluded that we should balance our renewed spiritual fervor with a measure of caution. Two concerns now settle heavily on my mind. First, we should confirm the reports from Brother Matteo’s peasant sources that possibly ten strigae are indeed hunting in the area around Campoleone. Second, we must be absolutely certain that these alleged blood drinkers are, in fact, residing in this newly discovered catacomb.

I have no doubt about the godliness and good intentions of our local informers. Still, I’ve had occasion to learn that rural folk benefit greatly when large groups of hungry strangers arrive, bearing coins. I also worry that some of our less experienced brothers may fall victim to the charms of fortune tellers or women of questionable virtue.

With all this in mind, I must ask that you provide confirmed contact with a striga or strigae before I send additional brothers and equipment. It would also be greatly helpful if you would search for other places where our enemies might retire during the day, thereby proving beyond all doubt that the catacomb is to be our battleground.

I’m releasing two horses for your journey, plus an extra steed for your courier. Safe travels, brother. And please address my twin concerns as soon as you are able.

Yours in Christ,
Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

March 24, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Thank you for your quick reply and wise counsel. Such qualities are the sign of a right and true leader, and our order is clearly blessed to be placed under your stewardship. Another characteristic of a great leader is forgiveness, or at least forbearance, which brings me to the following confession: Immediately upon my arrival in Campoleone, and alarmed at the gaunt faces and growling stomachs of my brothers who greeted me, I unlocked our order’s treasure to purchase milk, bread, and eggs from our local hosts. Seeing now your desire to discourage excess entrepreneurship among these rustics, I shall therewith halt this outflow of coinage by ordering a fast. Such discipline should be made easier during the current period of mourning felt by many of those under my command, which leads me to my report:

It is my sad duty to inform Your Eminence that last night, shortly after midnight, at least ten strigae assaulted our encampment. Our losses amounted to the deaths by exsanguination of Brother Matteo, plus nine more from our order. Their bodies were found scattered across the countryside. After collecting the corpses, we followed the protocol for those felled during this holiest of wars — staking their hearts, separating heads from torsos, and burning the remains while reciting prayers for the souls’ quick ascension to Heaven. Having witnessed these measures myself, I am confident that none of our dear brethren will return as cursed creatures of the night.

I should note that my 90 surviving brothers found the ceremony beautiful and filled with meaning, and I assure you that each of us continues to be moved by the Holy Spirit and a desire to finish this mission. I also appointed Brother Francesco as my new second-in-command. Nevertheless, the sun is getting low again, and I fear our numbers may decline from further predations. In order to stem our losses from attrition, I must now reiterate my request that you send 200 more brothers, armed with wooden stakes, holy water, and crucifixes. If granting such a request is not convenient at this time, I beg you to allow us to retreat to Rome so we can regroup for a return mission to this village.

I remain your faithful servant in Christ’s mission,

Abbot Adolpho Martinez.

 

***

 

March 26, 1900

To the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot Martinez,

It is with great sadness that I read of the demise of Brother Matteo and the nine other members of our blessed order. Matteo, in particular, will be missed since I have fond memories of his service as an altar boy in our beloved Basilica. Please accept my condolences. I have no doubt that each of the fallen has assumed his rightful place in Heaven. Please also extend my salutations to Brother Francesco as he assumes his new post as your second.

Despite my disconsolation at our losses, the Good Lord has seen fit to provide me with half the proof I requested in my letter of March 22: You have confirmed that approximately ten strigae are hunting in the area around Campoleone. That’s one box we can check. Unfortunately, your most recent letter didn’t provide me with a list of alternatives as to where these evil creatures might be sleeping. I make no reproach since your letter clearly conveyed the distress which has arrested your attention. I look forward to learning in your next letter whether the catacomb is our main target or one of several possibilities.

Yours in Christ,

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

March 30, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Please excuse my delay in replying. The reason for my tardiness will become clear later in this message. First, allow me to provide the answer you sought in your letter dated March 22, which I neglected to include.

After conducting a wide search of the area, and failing to find any other shelter that could possibly be useful for a striga to take its ill-earned rest, I’ve concluded that the catacomb must be the only location where these bloodthirsty monsters hide when the sun rises. My suspicions were confirmed the night of March 27-28 during a visit to the crypt’s entrance, which we’ve been guarding since our arrival. While chatting with the sentries, my own eyes witnessed, for the first time, a striga. It flew out of the tunnel, naked and borne by some wicked force that allowed it to arrange its arms and legs as if it were posing for a prurient artist’s paintbrush rather than propelling itself through open air. Such a frightful thing to behold – a female with hair the color of glowing embers, piercing green eyes, milk-white skin, and a most fiendish smile, punctuated by those long canines so often mentioned in folklore. Since it was my first time witnessing such a creature, I stood transfixed as she swooped down upon the sentries, undeterred by the crucifixes they employed to keep her at bay. Grabbing my hapless brothers by their collars, she lifted them up and smashed their heads against each other. Then, God as my witness, I heard her utter a lascivious moan of pleasure as their lifeless bodies crumpled to earth and were quickly set upon by her unholy kin. As I ran toward our camp, the unclad female descended light as a feather in front of me. When she approached, my feet were paralyzed by a debate raging in my mind. Should I avoid looking into her eyes, which, according to our instruction, could hypnotize in seconds? Or do I risk my eyes being diverted to her pale breasts, hips, and thighs, which were so sinfully curved and well-proportioned that I now understand it to be a sinister trick to keep me from attacking her with the holy water I carried. I hope you and Heavenly Father will forgive me for being duped by such a simple yet diabolical ruse.

It is with some hesitation that I provide further details of this encounter, because doing so will reveal how profoundly my soul has been corrupted, and how unfit I am to continue service in our sacred order. Nevertheless, share I must because it may provide information about what to expect when future warriors of God confront these terrible yet astonishing creatures.

“My name is Agripina,” she said without any solicitation from me. “I want you to convey a message to your cardinal.” I agreed, hoping she would spare my life. My reprieve was merely temporary but that is far less important than the information she offered which, if true, could save hundreds of our brothers.

“The catacomb is rigged to collapse,” she warned. “Should you monks enter, you will all perish.”

“Why do you tell me this?” I asked, uncertain as to whether I should speak to this evil creature. She answered, “Nature requires a balance between predators and prey. Nothing upsets that balance more than a massacre.” Then, taking my hand, she turned and led me toward the woods, adding, “Still, the laws of nature say nothing about playing with your food.”

I don’t remember being bitten, but one of my brothers found me early next morning with twin punctures on my neck. I was laying amongst the leaves in a state of nature, barely conscious and shivering from exposure. I can only conclude that this wicked monster fed off me, leaving just enough blood to allow me to relay her message to you, however suspicious it may seem to both of us. I still have doubts while writing this, wondering if the Devil might profit from our hesitation to enter the crypt. Nonetheless, I will probably hand this letter to the courier and leave this matter to be decided by your wisdom. And now I have one more confession for you to hear:

Added to my bodily injury is a spiritual unmooring which results from my shame at having to admit that, with the help of this concupiscent demon, I have broken my vow of celibacy. I am left with little faith that even Heavenly Father, for all his power and goodness, will find my decrepit spirit worth salvaging.

As I write this, the sun is about to set and I fear that venereal vixen will return to finish me off. Even if she spares me such a visit, my weakened state makes me doubt I’ll witness another sunrise. With every cough, with each labored breath, I can feel life slipping away from me. I have already written a note to my brothers instructing them to dispose of my remains according to our doctrine, and informing them that Brother Francesco has command until you decide on my replacement. I can only hope that my soul will be allowed to enter Purgatory, so I may have a chance to expiate my sins, as I am too unclean to enter Heaven.

Despite the gravity of my circumstances, I continue to find comfort in prayer – plus the thought that our holy war will continue under your steadfast leadership. Thank you, Your Eminence, for allowing me to serve you in His mission. And may the good Lord bless you and keep you from harm.

Viva Mors Strigae!

Abbot Martinez

 

***

 

April 1, 1900

To the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Dear Abbot Martinez,

My shock over your injuries and concern for your spiritual well-being continue to haunt my thoughts after a most difficult night. Following much prayer and reflection, I’ve become certain that your unblemished record of service, plus the kindness and generosity you exhibited to each member of our order, will bless you with enough indulgences that Heavenly Father will speed your redemption and grant you the everlasting salvation you so richly deserve.

I hope this letter finds you at peace and surrounded by angels ready to sing their praises for your exculpation. For my part, I will pray every night, asking that the Good Lord embrace you in the hereafter.

God speed, faithful friend. And Viva Mors Strigae.

Cardinal Soriano

***

 

April 1, 1900

To interim commander Reynaldo Francesco, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Brother Francesco,

It is possible that your esteemed abbot, Adolpho Martinez, will have expired by the time you read this. It is with great sadness that I read his letter of March 30th, in which he described the assault upon his honorable person by a striga, and his subsequent failing health. If he passes, I charge you with the disposal of his remains according to our rules.

Responding to one of the abbot’s final requests, that for reinforcements, I am dispatching 200 brothers who should arrive at your encampment no more than two days from now. They will be led by your new abbot, René Jean-Baptiste, who will assume command. Please be ready to receive him and provide updates regarding the strength, both numerical and spiritual, of your team, and report your latest intelligence about the dreaded strigae.

There is another item in Martinez’s most recent letter which requires your awareness, but not immediate action. Martinez said he received a warning from the striga who attacked him the night of March 27-28. This succubus named Agripina informed Martinez that the catacomb had been rigged to collapse after we enter. To verify this claim, I ordered your new abbot to bring a team of engineers who will inspect the tunnels. I’d like you and eleven volunteers to provide security for this team while they do their examinations underground.

On a more disturbing note, Martinez also informed me that our holiest symbol, the crucifix, did not deter Agripina during her attack on two of our sentries on March 27-28. If Martinez was not mistaken, we’d need to rethink how we engage these creatures in future combat. I hardly need to tell you that it is essential for you confirm the potency of our sacred symbol during your next encounter with these foul demons. Additionally, I’d like to confirm the efficacy of our other weapons including silver and holy water. There’s no need to confirm wooden stakes; this long ago proved a most devastating implement.

I realize this is a highly detailed communiqué for a temporary command, and I thank you for your attention to my concerns. Thanks also for your continued service and loyalty to the cause.

Viva Mors Strigae!

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 3, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot René Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

It thrills me to deliver this, my first report as leader of the divinely inspired band of brothers you assembled to exterminate our Lord’s enemies. And while the latter may have gotten the better of us last night, I have every confidence that, God willing, we shall prevail. No doubt, you’d prefer to read more details about our latest clash (this being a report, after all), so here are the main points:

  1. We lost 15 brothers last night during an attack just before midnight by about ten strigae. All our brothers’ corpses have been recovered and disposed of in the prescribed manner.
  2. Silver works! Brother Himmelman, a Master Metalworker, created a 6’ x 6’ blanket made of silver rings, all tightly linked, and for a brief time we captured a striga. During the attack, Brother Himmelman courageously positioned himself as bait next to the blanket which lay on the ground under a bed of leaves. When the striga, a raven-haired female of exceptional beauty, landed on it, she immediately collapsed like a rag doll. Himmelman wrapped her in the blanket and was in the process of dragging this captured devil when a loud shriek assaulted our ears. An anguished call for “Fiona” echoed off the trees, quickly identified as coming from a red-haired female my brothers call Agripina. This banshee grabbed another of our German brothers, Bauman, and held him with nails like eagle’s talons poised to pierce his neck. Despite Bauman’s offer to sacrifice himself, Himmelman unwrapped our prisoner. A third demon – male, name unknown — flew down and picked up Fiona and all three flew off, to our dismay, with the doomed Bauman. He was discovered the following morning, bloodless, with multiple bite marks the length of his body. All of us are furious at the treachery the strigae displayed during their feigned hostage negotiation. Nevertheless, our feelings at Bauman’s loss must be tempered by our newly gained knowledge about the power of argentum.
  3. Crucifixes don’t work. I am still waiting for a report on the efficaciousness of holy water.

Tomorrow morning, my engineers will return to the catacomb to continue searching for evidence of the alleged trap set for us. I should mention the majority of brothers killed during this latest attack – nine — were engineers. With this development, I can only conclude that the strigae are targeting them.

I hope my second report from the field brings better news. In the meantime, I remain your loyal partner in service to Heavenly Father.

Viva Mors Strigae!

Abbot Jean-Baptiste

 

***

 

April 5, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

Please assign additional protection for your remaining engineers in the form of extra guards and, if possible, clothing or ornaments made of silver. This was the most interesting and useful revelation of your April 3rd letter, which otherwise I found objectionable for the breeziness of its tone and content. For example, your first item describes in the briefest possible manner the slaughter of 15 of our brethren – but no context. Were they ambushed as previous reports suggest? Could they have survived if they were better prepared? I am becoming increasingly concerned that the deaths on our side result from poor leadership that allows our brothers to be caught unawares. You are hereby ordered to establish new protocols for night watches and assemble a fully armed team in reserve that can quickly respond to sudden attacks.

Let me remind you that the loss of any member of our sacred order carries great significance because they died while serving Heavenly Father. There is also the more worldly consideration of recruiting and training new brothers, which takes time, effort, and treasure. So remember: You are your brothers’ keeper – take better care of them!

In the meantime, I’ll order a team here in Rome to add silver rings or threads to our standard battle garments. I’ll advise you when these are ready to be distributed among your men.

Cardinal Soriano

***

 

April 7, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Please accept my humble and heartfelt apologies for the perfunctory manner with which I related the deaths of our 15 brothers the night of April 2nd. I will make sure that future notitia mori properly convey my own feelings of loss, plus awareness of the Church’s investments – material and spiritual – to prepare each soldier for the Lord’s service. Now to my report:

  1. Your Eminence surmised correctly that ambush is the leading cause of expiry for our brothers serving near the catacomb. I have adopted your advice about increasing the number of sentries, and establishing a team armed and ready for a rapid counterattack between dusk and dawn.
  2. I have ordered our hallowed silversmith, Brother Himmelman, to add rings of argentum to our cloaks, and already he issued one to the head of our engineering team. I am pleased to report this cloak repelled the much-feared Agripina during a raid last night. Unfortunately, two more rank-and-file engineers were slain, one each by Agripina and the raven-haired Fiona. Hopefully, the garments and weapons you promised will arrive soon. Brother Himmelman has enough material for two additional cloaks, and I plan to issue the next one to myself.
  3. Holy water is not a deterrent. I myself attempted to douse the blessed drops onto a male striga who promptly ignored me and flew away with another of our precious engineers. I am ordering our brothers to reserve their vials for worship, along with our crucifixes.
  4. The claim of a rigged tunnel or tunnels has yet to be proved during inspections. The engineering team spent two full days in the catacomb, advancing 50 meters each day. The eight surviving members hope to advance another 50 today. All they’ve discovered so far are the skeletons of Capuchin monks from long ago, supine and intact. I can assure you the remains have not been disturbed during our work.

I hope to have more tangible progress to report during my next dispatch.

Viva Mors Strigae,

Abbot René Jean-Baptiste

 

***

 

April 9, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

The next cloak of silver produced by Brother Himmelman should go to an engineer. If Himmelman produces a third, and my promised shipment has not yet arrived, you may have that.

 

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 9, 1900

 

To Cardinal Stefano Mancini, Vicar to His Holiness

From Cardinal Gianluca Soriano

 

Your Eminence,

 

Happy belated birthday. I do hope Heavenly Father continues to grace your worthy person with good health, good spirits, and the steadfast determination for which you’ve become legendary in service to His Holiness.

It is with sincere hope that a humble request from yours truly will in no way spoil your celebrations, but an emergent state of affairs compels me to prevail upon you, my brother, for the distribution of certain assets. I’ll avow it is not currency I seek, rather a quantity of silver that could be melted down quickly for a purpose which, I am obligated to remind, cannot be disclosed under the terms of my Congregation’s rather esoteric charter. Nevertheless, you have my utmost assurances that the material I seek would forthwith be employed in direct service to our Lord.

No doubt, Heavenly Father has blessed you with an exceptional memory, which I truly envy at my age, but I seem to recall hearing about a vault somewhere in the Holy See containing hundreds of bars of precious metals, including many of pure silver. I assume that such a collection, were it to exist, would fall under the supervision of His Holiness. Would your Eminence be so charitable as to inquire on my behalf to Holy Father? I will admit the unorthodox nature of this request causes me to blush more than a little.

I remain respectfully yours in Christ’s service,

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 10, 1900

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano

From Cardinal Vicar Stefano Mancini

 

Your Eminence,

 

Unorthodox, indeed! Of course, most requests from the Prefect for The Sacred Congregation for the Inquiry into All Things Preternatural are bound to raise an eyebrow. Still, I must admit the earnestness of your query nearly convinced me to melt down all the silver goblets and flatware I keep in my household! Fortunately for my discriminating dinner companions, I am happy to report that, verily, the Holy See maintains a collection of .999 silver in the form of 100-ounce bars. And while it remains under the authority of Holy Father, I see no need to interrupt his sojourn in Capri with this matter. How much argentum do you require?

I remain your fellow servant in Christ’s holy mission,

Cardinal Vicar Stefano Mancini

 

***

 

April 11, 1900

To Cardinal Vicar Stefano Mancini,

From Cardinal Gianluca Soriano

 

Your Eminence,

 

Blessed news! Many thanks for your assistance which, I assure you, will greatly further our combined mission in service to our Lord in Heaven. I think 100 bars should be enough to meet our current need. I shall immediately alert the metal workers under my authority to prepare for this shipment.

I am at once humbled and inspired by your generous and expeditious offer of help.

Your dear friend in Christ’s service,

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 15, 1900

To Abbot René Jean-Baptiste

From Cardinal Soriano

 

Abbot Jean-Baptiste,

A shipment of 100 cloaks fitted with silver rings left this morning for your encampment. I hope to send another 100 in a few days. What news from you?

 

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 17, 1900

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Many thanks for the silvered cloaks which arrived around Noon today. Since there are approximately two monks for every cloak, I asked during our morning muster which brothers would forgo a cloak so another could benefit from its protection. My heart became full and my eyes watered when, to a man, they all declined. Still, proper leadership demanded that I distribute these garments, so I asked my brothers to count off, and then asked Brother Francesco to choose odd or even. The odds won the cloaks which were promptly issued. Among the evens, I noticed more than a few faces trying to conceal their relief when I announced that more of these cloaks were on the way. I include this anecdote merely to underscore how brave these men are despite the terror they feel. And now for the difficult news:

Nearly all of our blessed engineers, who worked tirelessly to inspect the catacomb’s main tunnel, have succumbed to the predations of the evil strigae. I am deeply saddened at the loss of such dedicated and pious men. Only one survives, Brother Paolo, who lately has been displaying symptoms of the dreaded dysentery and joined a growing number of men in our makeshift infirmary. I’ve lately been reading a scientific journal which warns about how diarrheal diseases spread and I’ve concluded that our training could benefit from a course on personal hygiene, with particular attention to the burying of excrement. Much fouling of the landscape has occurred since our first group of men arrived more than a fortnight ago, and I fear the flies that swarm during our mid-day meal are polluting the food. I humbly suggest that we could prevent future outbreaks by adding a small shovel to each brother’s standard kit. In the meantime, I must prevail upon your Eminence to send whatever shovels you can spare during the next supply shipment.

With the emergence of a second opponent, disease, I must also ask that we quickly agree on a course of action. Each day we remain encamped costs dearly in lives, plus valuable resources needed to sustain us. And for what? So the strigae may continue to gorge themselves? So the flies can carry our own feces back to our meals? I believe the time may be right for us to return to Rome, regroup with proper equipment, and then return here for a decisive battle. Your thoughts, Eminence?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Abbot Jean-Baptiste

 

***

 

April 19, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

I do hope for the sake of your eternal salvation that your hours spent perusing the latest science don’t outnumber those praying or reading scripture. It seems your study of the worldly literature has enervated your attacking spirit and engendered a wandering state of mind, as evinced by your sudden interest in human waste and shovels. Really, brother – is this what preoccupies you?

For too long, I have refrained from running this operation from afar, but now I see your lack of initiative has further enfeebled a once proud fighting force. As you’ve no doubt ascertained, my patience has run its course over your inaction which has imposed a drain on capital – both financial and political – for our sacred order. With this in mind, my next directive is a metaphor in keeping with your sudden fascination with all things scatological: Evacuate your bowels or else remove your posterior from the latrine. And expect no shovels from Rome.

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 22, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

 

What news?

 

Cardinal

 

***

 

April 24, 1900

 

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

From Brother Reynaldo Francesco, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield.

 

Your Eminence,

It has fallen upon me to inform you that the Abbot Jean-Baptiste has, like so many of our brave brothers, fallen in battle. During an attack the night of April 17-18, I personally witnessed the abbot succumb to bewitchment by the malevolent enchantress Fiona. Myself engaged in combat, I was unable to prevent him from removing his silvered cloak and following her alone into the catacomb. The next morning, I entered the crypt to begin a search which required me to venture twice more until, on the third day, I finally recovered the abbot’s exsanguinated corpse about 1000 meters into the main tunnel. And here, if your Eminence permits, I’d like to add to our growing body of knowledge about strigae and those unfortunates who become their prey.

Upon my discovery of our late abbot, I’d noticed the normal process of putrefaction had begun to take hold. After his removal to our camp, and an overnight vigil with brothers holding sharpened stakes at the ready, I have concluded that merely being drained by a striga does not lead to one’s reanimation as a similar foul creature of the night. Once again, it seems our order has been fooled by the gross simplification of the common folklore. After burying the abbot, and saying prayers for his speedy ascension to Heaven, I now feel I can safely recommend the cessation of our current method of disposing victims, as this consumes not only time but valuable resources like firewood.

And now, I must humbly seek your Eminence’s forgiveness for resuming, without your order, the interim command I briefly held from April 1st to 3rd. I have today deferred to a special appointment by my brothers who unanimously affirmed their wish for me to finally lead them in an attack, which shall begin as soon as I hand this letter to our courier. Before I sign off, you will no doubt require assurance that during my three days underground, I encountered no evidence that our enemies plan to welcome us with a cave-in. I found none. Furthermore, I’m certain that the infamous warning issued by that harpy Agripina was a ruse designed to keep us in the open, exposed to repeated nocturnal hunts. As I write this, my blood boils at the realization that we’ve become handmaidens to our recurrent slaughter. Now at last, with Heavenly Father’s grace and assistance, we will catch these evil creatures while they slumber, at last employing our disposal methods on their cursed bodies instead of ours.

Upon returning victorious to Rome, I will gladly accept any punishment you deem fit for exceeding my authority. However, I must humbly ask that you spare my brothers from blame as their unanimous support for my command was inspired, not by mutinous feelings against your person or our order, but a sincere desire to complete our sacred mission.

I look forward to personally sharing with you the details of our blessed victory after so much struggle and loss. The thought that we may deliver such a devastating blow against evil fills my entire being with the light of the Holy Spirit. May God be pleased to witness such a triumph achieved by those fighting on His behalf. Viva Mors Strigae!

Interim Abbot Reynaldo Francesco

 

***

 

Diary of Cardinal Massimo de Luca

 

Dec. 22, 2021

 

I can’t stop shivering after reading these “Catacomb Letters.” Only after a second cognac was I able to calm my nerves and feverish brain. Then I got on my knees and prayed, thankful for the unwavering faith and bravery exhibited by these brothers while facing terrible odds. Their story is at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and I am privileged to be their witness. How awful not to be able to share this! The Abbot Martinez, in particular, arrested me with the sheer desolation of his prose. The interim abbot, Francesco, made me so terribly worried about his inexperience, but I had every confidence in his faith and the spiritual readiness of those who placed themselves under his command. Even the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, for all his brusqueness, astonished me with his certainty. As for the strigae Agripina and Fiona – I can only say they represent the most profane confluence of savagery and cunning. I doubt I could survive for two seconds after encountering either of them, which makes the absence of a victory message from Francesco weigh more heavily on my mind. I’ve searched everywhere in this archive for a hint of the outcome, but to no avail. Other than a notebook about strigae and the weapons employed against them, the only item I found is Cardinal Soriano’s diary which I dutifully read. It’s a long and often boring chronicle of his career, a story I nearly gave up on several times, but the ending wrenched me awake and caused me to jump out of my chair. Soriano’s final entry comes two years after the Campoleone letters end, and contains a startling revelation – no, confession – about a most unholy wager.

***

 

Diary of Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

 

March 20, 1902

 

When a cardinal seeks confession, where can he go? Normally, I could obtain absolution from a brother cardinal or even Holy Father if the sin is not too bad. But when a transgression is so great it threatens the authority of the Church, then it – like a disease – must be contained. I must not infect my colleagues’ spirits with the colossal military failure that weighs solely on my shoulders. Nor should I burden any person other than the one who reads this entry with the knowledge that I am also a traitor to God, having consorted with, and been duped by, an emissary of Satan.

One night a little more than two years ago, I received an unexpected visit from an ancient striga dressed like a Caesar in white robes and a crown of gold leaves. He did not attack me. Instead, Caius Drusus introduced himself and offered something:

“Have you noticed a sudden decline in the population? No doubt, you’ve heard from certain armed monks that ten of my… associates… have been hunting around Rome.”

Before I could finish uttering the word “strigae,” five of the coldest fingers I’ve ever known clamped shut my mouth. “Imagine the scandal when your worshippers learn that their Sunday offerings are paying for a secret army that fails to protect them.” Then his tone brightened a bit. “Are you a sporting man, Cardinal?”

I nodded once.

“Let’s test the strength of your order. I’ll send my army of ten south to Campoleone, where they and your monks will meet in battle.”

I backed away from his fingers. “And if my men win?”

“Then you, sir, shall become Pope.”

Here I sought to correct my visitor. “The College of Cardinals elects the Holy Father.”

“Yes, and His Holiness appoints the cardinals – it’s all very incestuous, like my own system of governance.” Then he leaned closer, his voice like whispers from a crypt. “All that’s needed is for the papal vicar to instruct the College to approve his successor.”

“You left out an important step. His Holiness would have to die.”

“Look who’s connecting the dots.” Caius’s lips curled into a smile, revealing two long canines. “I would handle that bit, of course.”

Only the most Machiavellian ambition could temper my horror at the thought of such an assassination, and I am here admitting my most baneful weakness. “And if my men lose the battle?”

“Surely the Cardinal doesn’t admit that possibility.”

“The Cardinal must be prepared for every possibility.”

Caius chuckled at my resoluteness, but then turned serious. “If your men lose, you will be my agent for as long as you live.”

“Agent for what? Your agenda is unknown to me.”

“And so it shall remain.”

I never thought that an all-powerful and merciful God would allow His army to fail. But fail we did, and now I’m reminded of our Savior’s last words while dying on the cross: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I hope you, Dear Reader, will not consider my quoting these words a blasphemy.

My orders from Caius were few and far between, at the start. Befriend Vicar Cardinal Mancini, buy him gifts, gain his confidence. Listen to his concerns, offer suggestions, and stroke his ego. Then one day my tormentor announced “an escalation in intimacy” was required so that I may gain access to the most sensitive information about papal offices and appointments.

I am too ashamed to write more. After violating nearly every proscription in the Bible, I shall debase myself no more. My soul beyond salvation, I have decided that only my absence can stem this pernicious corruption. I have procured poison which I will ingest immediately after composing this warning for whoever succeeds me.

Beware: The visitor who won my eternal damnation is certain to know of your appointment and will soon approach you. I pray that you’ll resign immediately and halt the evil that I helped promulgate. To continue your appointment would only further prove that this city is not a place for men of God, only men of power – the very kind our Savior warned us about. I hope your moral compass is truer, and your faith in God greater, than mine ever was.

Yours in disgrace,

Gianluca Soriano.

 

 

 

Elevens (2001)

(Excerpt from the novel Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad)

 

“You count the money. I’ll count the blood.” Daniel pushes the open case of dollars toward Jesús who in turn opens a large cooler releasing a cloud of mist. The cooler is tied to a dolly. Daniel’s gloves lift blocks of dry ice, revealing pint bags labeled O negative, A negative, A positive, B positive, etc. All will be consumed during a single meeting of Fiona’s extended family. The O negative is for her.

“All good.” Daniel replaces the ice and shuts the lid. “Let’s do this again sometime.”

“You got it.” Jesús shakes hands and nods toward the twin-engine plane fronting a skyline of red rock formations. “Baron, huh? What’s it cruise, 200 knots?”

“I’m not a pilot.” Daniel grins. “I just hire them.” He tilts the dolly back while Jesús opens the door. “I need a steady source for O negative. What can you get me every other week?”

Jesús shrugs. “80 or 90 pints. Maybe 100.”

“Get me 100 and I’ll pay 200 bucks a bag.” Daniel pushes his cargo into the morning sun. “See you in two weeks?”

“You got it. I’ll have 100 for you.”

Outside, today’s pilot – Bud — opens the baggage door. When Daniel unstraps the cooler, each grabs a handle and lifts. Bud groans. “This feels heavier than what we agreed.”

“131.5 pounds, like I told you.” Daniel grunts through his teeth.

Bud puts his end into the cabin. “Same as my daughter who flew with me yesterday. Course, she’s at the age where she’d kill me for telling. You got kids?”

“None that I weighed recently.” Daniel looks at his watch. “It’s after six. Let’s go.”

Bud starts the engines. “Sedona traffic, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha taking off runway Two-One, left turnout.”

That you, Elevens? It’s Boxcar on your six. Where you headed?

“Goin’ to Chicago with all that money I won last night.” He turns onto the taxiway.

Me too.”

“Uh, I recall you leavin’ more than you came with.”

“I meant Chicago. And I was doin’ all right until you dropped triple Jacks. I’m staying at the downtown Hilton. Sure would love a chance to get my five hundred dollars back.”

“Game on!” A smile creeps across Bud’s face. “Of course, we could bet that five hundred on a race to Chi-Town.”

“Hmm. Where you stopping for fuel?”

“Garden City, Kansas.” Bud enters the runway. “Wanna make it double or nothin’?”

“That’a Texas-sized 10-4.”

Bud opens the throttle and the engines roar in stereo. Seconds later they’re airborne, white wings disappearing into a cerulean panorama. He looks in the mirror at Boxcar’s Mooney lifting off. “So, Mr. Strange, what’re we haulin’ today?”

Daniel is so entranced by the Mars-red surface he almost forgets his “business” name, Robert Strange. “Uh, lab samples. Tissue. Can’t say much beyond that.”

“Long as it ain’t stem cells – or clonin’.” Bud shakes his head. “So sick of people playin’ God when they should be worshipping Him. You a church-goer?”

“It’s been a while. I might come back.”

“Don’t wait too long. Never know when Judgement Day will arrive.”

“So why do they call you Elevens?”

“My lucky number. Born November 11. On my eleventh birthday I went to church for the first time and got moved by the Holy Spirit. At twenty-two, I became a father for the first time. And at the age of thirty-three, after wandering in the desert so to speak, I came back to Jesus. Yessir, born again.” He pauses. “Of course, you heard about my last winning hand.”

“Three Jacks.”

“Which was the eleventh hand of the game.” His right hand goes up. “God as my witness, I kid you not.”

Daniel wrinkles his forehead. “I’m trying to remember the significance of eleven in the Bible. All I remember are twelves.”

“Right, the number of apostles, and the age Jesus was when he questioned scholars in the temple. Plus, twelve sons of Jacob who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Yep, the good book likes an even dozen. But eleven is connected to the main event for people in my church – hold on.” Bud listens to frequency traffic for several seconds. “Chatter on the east coast. Reports of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.” He shakes his head. “Where were we?”

“Eleven in the Bible.”

“Right. Eleven appears less often in scripture but when it does, it usually signifies judgement. Take the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 11, mind you, mankind rebels against God and builds the tower of Babel. God responds by confusing their language – literally, they start babbling, and the result is chaos.” He pauses to listen again. “The apostle John had eleven visions in connection with the final judgement. And the Gospel of John tells of eleven promises God makes to mankind, beginning with everlasting life if you believe in Christ and ending with a call to obey Jesus. My takeaway: Eleven is a sign to get right with the Lord before Judgement Day.” Listening again. “For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that our savior was 33 when he was crucified.” He presses a headphone tight against his left ear. “Another plane hit the World Trade Center – South Tower this time – and now they’re saying both were airliners. Looks like an attack of some sort.”

“Let me hear.”

Bud switches to an AM channel and they listen silently for several minutes. The news gets worse as reports come in about another airliner crashing into the Pentagon. Even the distance of two time zones can’t deaden the reality that the nation is under attack. There’s confusion about a fourth plane which, at first, was headed for the White House but now lies burning on the ground in Pennsylvania. Aboard each plane, the hijackers shouted “Allāhu akbar” – 11 letters spelling “God is greatest” — as they used boxcutters to slit crewmembers’ throats. Now the media is sharing voice messages from those trapped in the burning towers. Daniel keeps swallowing to quell the emotions rising in his throat. Bud just lets his moans, groans, and tears flow unchecked. He improvises a prayer:

“Dear Lord, it’s Elevens here, your perennial sinner. I know we haven’t spoken directly about my little gamblin’ problem, but I’d like to make sure we’re square. If this is your Final Judgement, please have some mercy and take this flawed but well-meaning servant to sit by your side. If, however, this is a trial you’ve set for us, I’m ready to show my devotion by givin’ up cards. Just, please, give me a sign. Show me the way.” He turns to Daniel. “If you need help prayin’ – maybe you forgot some of the words – I can help.”

“I’m sure my fate has already been decided.”

Bud looks forward. “And Lord, let’s not forget our quiet friend here, Mr. Strange. He may be a mystery, but I’m guessin’ his intentions are just as noble as mine. That, I believe, makes him worthy of your protection. Amen.”

Albuquerque Center to all aircraft: All flights are to immediately land at the nearest facility. This is a nationwide order from the FAA. Repeat: Land immediately.

“Ask for a sign, receive one.” Bud clears his throat. “Albuquerque Center, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha. Message received. Over.” He spreads a chart across the control wheel. “No long runways in front of us, so we’ll have to turn around.”

“No.” Daniel holds a pistol in his right hand. “Keep going.”

“You out of your mind? I’ll lose my license – and my livelihood.” Bud’s eyes land briefly on the gun. “Careful with that trigger. We’ll both die if you pull it.”

“I’m not pulling anything so long as you keep flying.”

Bud sighs. “Mr. Strange, you’re makin’ a big mistake. And it’s a hell of a thing to do, dragging me into whatever scheme you got going on.” He glances back. “I’m guessin’ that’s not lab samples, is it? What are you into, drugs?”

“The less you know, the safer we both are.”

“Sounds like you’re in deep.” Bud softens his voice. “Look, man, it’s not too late. I’ll testify in your favor if you just give me the gun and let me follow orders.”

“We’re all obeying someone, Bud. Just get us to Garden City.”

“And then what? You can’t take off. All flights are grounded!”

“Let me worry about that.”

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, Albuquerque Center. Turn around now and land at Sedona. That is an order.

Daniel pushes the gun closer. “Don’t acknowledge.”

Bud exhales and puts both hands on the wheel. After several seconds, he shakes his head. “The Lord is testing me today. With signs I do not like.”

“When we land,” Daniel adjusts his tone, “I’ll pay your second installment early, and we’ll part ways. The world has no time right now for this little problem between us.”

“Problem? You hijack my plane and call it a ‘little problem’? That is a breach of trust, my friend, and comes at a time when my very identity is shaken to its core.”

“Identity?”

“Eleven has always been my number — whether it’s cards, horses, or life events. Then this morning happened. I woke up and said, ‘It’s the 11th of September, gonna be a good day.’ But clearly, it’s not. It’s a shitty day for everyone – possibly the worst in our nation’s history. That’s one sign.” He points at the gun. “Next, I’m held up by a Colt M1911. And now,” he punches his door, “111 miles from Sedona, we get intercepted.”

“What?”

“LOOK OUT YOUR GODDAMN WINDOW.”

Daniel’s jaw drops when he sees an F-16 with its flaps open and gear down, slowing into formation. Its pilot raises a hand, finger pointed down.

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is Captain “Spike” Ripley of the United States Air Force. I’m in visual contact and will shoot you down if you fail to comply with the following order: Land immediately. Repeat: Land immediately.

“There’s nowhere.” Bud is sweating. “NOWHERE TO FUCKING LAND!”

Daniel snatches the chart. “There’s a private strip on a mesa up ahead.”

“What’s the heading?”

“25 miles straight ahead.”

“Length?”

“What the mesa?”

“RUNWAY.”

“2,900 feet.”

Bud snatches it back. “Shit, that mesa looks half the size of Sedona. It’ll be like landing on an aircraft carrier – which I’ve never done before.”

Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is your final warning. Land immediately.

Bud’s voice cracks. “Don’t shoot, Captain! Gimme two seconds.” He switches on the landing lights, decelerates, and snaps his fingers at Daniel. “Airport elevation.”

“What?”

“FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.”

“4,700.”

Bud clears his throat. “This is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, descending. God bless you, sir, and God bless the United States of America.” He glances over. “I’m assuming there’s no tower at this little outpost we’re shootin’ for.”

“Correct.”

“Well, brace yourself, because crosswinds are gonna be a problem.” He scowls when he notices the gun again. “Put that away.”

“Are you calm now?”

“Fuck you.”

Daniel complies and settles into his seat as the runway comes into view, sitting atop a block of crimson stone. The approach is fairly calm until a quarter mile out, when a gust knocks them off target. Bud’s knuckles are white as he raises the nose and straightens out against the crosswind. Back on track, he finally lowers the wheels, adjusting for the extra resistance which now appears to come from everywhere. At 500 yards, the plane shakes violently while Bud struggles to stay on target. At 200 yards, he pulls back on the wheel, keeping the nose up, while gunning the engine to stay above the rim. At 50 yards, a giant gust pushes the plane below the runway. Bud yanks back again and accelerates sharply as the rocky face grows bigger. Nearly above the rim, Daniel sees another plane above them.

“Shit, that you Elevens? I’m on top of you.”

“THE FUCK, BOXCAR. ABORT LANDING.”

“Pulling up.”

Too late. The Baron’s wheels catch the rim and collapse, causing them to skid diagonally across the runway. They knock aside a parked helicopter, then hit another plane before smacking into a hangar. As he slowly regains consciousness, Daniel hears a gurgling sound. Turning his head, he sees Bud’s eyes staring down at a long piece of metal in his throat. The gurgling slows to intermittent choking before Bud finally goes silent. Next, Daniel turns to the right and sees his arm hanging out the window, bent the wrong way. A piece of bone sticks out through his bicep.

***

“Daniel.” A familiar voice, but not the one he hoped for. His eyes open to see Søren Fillenius leaning over him, eyes piercing the narcotic haze. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand in front of Daniel’s face.

“Stop it.”

“There he is.” The hand withdraws. “That must be powerful stuff they gave you.”

Daniel looks at the tubes hooked up to his left arm. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Really? I come to your rescue, and she’s all you think about?” He shakes his head. “She’s not coming.”

“Rescue? Bullshit. You’re here for the cargo.”

“I did salvage some A positive. The rest will go to waste because the elders canceled the meeting. I suppose you’ll blame the pilot for our having to reschedule.”

“Waste? Take the O negative to Fiona.”

Søren looks indignant. “I’m not your mule – or hers.”

“You piece of shit. I nearly killed myself to deliver that.”

“Well well, the truth comes out.” Søren’s face comes closer. “I’ve got some truth of my own to share.” Two icy hands grab Daniel’s face and turn it to the right. “Look at what’s left of you and tell me you’re still useful.”

Daniel’s breathing accelerates when he sees the stump wrapped in bandages. “That’s up to Fiona…”

“She and I have already spoken.” Canines appear as Søren’s voice changes to a snarl. “I’m to estimate your value and decide whether you stay employed or remain here. Permanently.”

“I have a new source.” Daniel struggles to speak. “100 bags of O negative every two weeks. That, plus Atlanta and Cleveland, and Fiona is set.”

“Where is this new source?”

“Sedona. All we have to do is hire a new pilot.”

“All the planes are grounded.”

“For just a few days. The economy would collapse.”

“100 bags of O neg, huh?” Søren regards him carefully. “Add 100 of A positive to each flight and I’ll let you live.”

Daniel’s vision fades as the drugs take hold again. A warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout his body, and the pain that was rallying begins to recede. At this point, he could care less if Søren brought him home or drained him dry. He wonders if heaven feels this good, and kind of wishes he could slip away forever. Would Elevens be there? His prayer for protection should carry weight, right? With St. Peter or whoever guards the gates? If, however, he must stay here it better be with a steady supply of this shit. The label on the drip bag was hazy but it might’ve said Dilaudid. Maybe Jesús could add a few bags of this, too. Get rid of the bad dreams. Allow him to forget everything.

The shadows gather again. Søren’s voice sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph. Soon, all Daniel can hear is his own shallow breathing. Sure ain’t hell, that’s for certain…

###

The Dead of Venice (1914)

By Dan Klefstad


She promised to do it quickly. I promised to stay out of sight. All bodies float, which is why I brought two anchors – one for me, one for her victim. All she need do is throw us in, then the chainsfollowed by the weights. This far out the lagoon is forty feet deep, maybe fifty. From down there our lifeless ears might still enjoy the sounds of Vivaldi performed in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Just as likely, we’ll hear the rattle of Europe’s emperors as they prepare – once again — to exterminate a generation of working class blokes like me. As I row, I point to Italy’s newest battleship which dares to keep its lights on; perfect target for a night raid. I ignore that bit as I play the tour guide for Fiona and tonight’s meal. “The Regina Elena. Faster than the HMS Dreadnought wot I helped build. Yup, this next war looks to be a doozie.” 

In the lamplight, Fiona toys with the gold dragonfly I pinned to her ball gown. I can see her eyes well up and her mouth tremble. Lorenzo, heir to the Duke of Parma, raises his fist at the glowing gunboat. “Viva l’Italia!” 

Toff. What does he know of war? I served in the Tibetan campaign, so I know it’s a nasty business for those who actually fight. I want to hit him now but we’re still within sight of ship and shore. Looking back, I see a city of free spirits being hemmed in by sandbags and barbed wire. Bloody hell, when did the Four Horses of the Quadriga flee the Basilica?  Someone said the statue might go to Rome for safe keeping. From what — So the Turks can’t take it back? 

I suppose I owe you an explanation as to why three people are in a boat, after dark, and two of them will soon head to the bottom. Hang on: The young swell is giving Fiona his kerchief. Blimey, he even recites a Shakespeare sonnet – in English. She tries to smile but struggles to contain her thirsty teeth and, guessing here, a broken heart? Concern for her future? Both hands cover her mouth as she leans forward, shoulders quaking. This exposes her breasts which prove such a distraction that Lorenzo misses the oars resting and the blackjack falling toward his scalp. I wanted to wait ‘til a hundred yards off the Main Island, our usual point, but the fog rolled in so … Boom. Done. Colazione is ready. 

uncork my wine and try not to stare as she sinks her canines into his neck. It always amazes me how efficient she is. No wasted drops. Her lips move gently as she slowly sucks him dry. I’ve never timed her, but bottle and body usually empty together. Then I chain him to the anchor and over he goes. The rest – hundreds of them – are a little further out in what I call “the cheap seats.” This will be my final resting place. I can barely stop my tears now, but they’re not for me. Creatures like her are vulnerable these days. She’ll need someone to look after her, but my pain is almost debilitating now; I couldn’t arrange a replacement. 

I take another sip and remember how our partnership began with an ad in the Daily Mail 

“Seeking Personal Assistant. Must be physically strong, and willing to work all hours. Compensation: copious. Benefits: worthy of a parliamentarian. Nota bene — People with the following characteristics should not apply: squeamish, weak-willed, illiterate, semi-literate, religious, superstitious, melancholic, alcoholic, xenophobic, agoraphobic, unimaginative, uninventive, uninspired, and with rigid moral standards.” 

I had to look up Nota Bene and, if pressed, would cop to some grumpiness without a few pints each night. But I posted a reply. Benefits worthy of a parliamentarian. What did that mean?

***

We met soon after sundown in Hampstead Heath, at the gazebo. I wore a suit that no longer fit and she wore a dress that barely contained her bosom. Her coal black hair waved gently across the palest shoulders I’ve ever seen. I thought she was a courtesan looking for some muscle, and she did nothing to dispel that notion. She gave me money to hire a carriage which took us to Charing Cross. We stopped outside a row of fancy homes and that’s when she turned and handed me the dragonfly. All that gold with emerald eyes; I couldn’t guess the value of this “down payment” as she called it. Then she lowered her voice and — without blinking — said, “A gentleman lives there. I am going to drink his blood and he will die. Your job is to wait in this carriage until I return. If you tell anyone what I just said I will know, and I’ll come after you to reclaim my dragonfly. And you. If, on the other hand, you wait as instructed, I will pay a handsome sum. But first you’ll need to get rid of the body. Think of a place to bury him. And start thinking of places for tomorrow night, and every night. Welcome to your new career.”

***

She didn’t tell me for a week that I was her first. Guardian, I mean. Or caretaker or whatever you call someone that works for a … Whoops, not supposed to say that word. Anyways, from backbreaking work in a shipyard I started breaking my back for Fiona, digging graves and such. That first week I made more than all the previous year and a half. I quit that job — Hello new job — and soon graduated to being the murderer. Things were getting hot for Fiona, what with Scotland Yard improving their detection and all. She needed someone to do the dirty work, which I didn’t mind. I killed before, but it always bothered me that the people you shoot, stab, or blow up often go to waste. You seal them in a coffin or burn them and that’s it; they serve no further purpose. These days, when a body goes limp in my hands, I know it’s about to give life. 

She looks ravishing afterwards. Her hair gets full and wavy. Her skin glows like the moon. And her eyes – you could drown in them, they’re like a clear lake with a bottom so deep, so full of secrets that you’d need to swim forever to discover them. It’s the opposite, though, when she doesn’t get her ten pints. That’s the nightly quota. The first night without a victim is bad, but her hair starts to fall out on the second. Then her skin wrinkles and begins to smell, and her eyes harden to the point where I think she’d eat an entire schoolyard of children. I work very hard to make sure I never see that look again.

***

“We have to move,” she announced one night. “Detectives, newspapers – I feel like we’re surrounded. Did you know Venice has lots of people and very few policemen? It’s also easier to get rid of bodies there.” 

“Where will I dig? It’s a city built on water,” I said before realizing her point. “Fairly deep water actually, between the islands.” 

“Yes.” She frowned. “The only problem is getting there.” 

Before the night is over, I’m nailing her into a trunk with an unconscious bloke beside her. The journey would take two weeks by ship so she warned me: Some passengers would have to die. When I asked how many, she wouldn’t answer. I think she didn’t know the minimum needed to sustain her. In the end, I tossed three bodies over the rail; we couldn’t risk any more. To this day, I pity that poor bastard that crossed our path after we landed. I did a rum job of subduing him, and Fiona ripped him so terrible that half his blood painted the alley. Absolute horror show. We didn’t have a boat yet, no weights. Just my blackjack smashing his nose, a knock-down drag-out into the alley, and Fiona attacking his throat like a rabid dog. The musical accompaniment, though, was amazing. A lively melody emanated from a church across the street. I’d never heard a string ensemble perform, so I was unprepared for the effect it had. The bowing and plucking lifted my spirits, opened my heart, and stimulated an awareness I’d never felt before. 

A spark of inspiration – Let’s make this disaster look like a Mafia hit. I took my knife, severed his head, and tossed it into the nearest canal. Wouldn’t you know, that did the trick. The next morning, I scoured the papers and saw nothing. No mention of a blood-sprayed alley, headless body, or bobbing face screaming in silent agony – Niente. There was, however, an article about another event on that same street: a review of a concert featuring music by the baroque master Antonio Vivaldi. It said they did five shows a week at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and they always sold out when performing The Four Seasons. 

***

St. Stephen’s became our main hunting ground. Fiona and I surveyed the crowd and she picked the swain who’d leave with her as the musicians stood to rapturous applause. That’s how we claimed the cream of European societyToo bad I won’t see the job through to its finish. Here, off the Piazza San Marco, this dying East-Ender is preparing for his curtain call. I am not even good enough for an emergency snack because the cancer makes my blood smell bad. When she said that, when I realized could serve no further purpose, I replied “Enough. Let’s end it.” 

“Well,” I stand chained to my anchor, “you found me. You’ll find someone else.” I wipe my nose and eyes and lower my head toward her. “I’m ready.” 

Her hands caress my face as her lips melt against mine; I taste a little of bit of Lorenzo. Now our foreheads rest against each other. “You’ll feel a brief shock but no pain. I promise you.” 

“Will I hear the music from St. Stephen’s?” 

“Vivaldi? Yes. And Bach …” 

I nod, tears mingling with hers in a puddle at our feet. She drapes her right hand around the back of my head, stroking my hair, while her left tightens around my chin. “And Corelli … Scarlatti…” 

I close my eyes. 

“… Handel … Monteverdi…” 

I feel the shock but the flash behind my eyelids is a surprise. From inside the boat I hear a series of sobs. Then a splash, followed by a slight wailing sound, which gets wobbly as I sink beneath the waves. Her voice grows fainter and fainter as I take my place among our Venetians. 

Her timing was perfect. The concertmaster is tuning up the ensemble. I hear a pause. Then, glory of glories, they launch into the first movement, La Primavera. Four violins, one viola, a cello and bass fill my ears. Even the bells of the Regina Elena keep time with the bowing. I’ve seen this show dozens of times and never got tired of it. But the water bends the music in ways I couldn’t imagine. Antonio, if you’re in the ground somewhere, find a way to get yourself down here. Your Four Seasons never sounded better. 

Best seats in the house, eh boys? You can thank Fiona for that. Better yet, keep her in your prayers. It’s the least we can do for her. God, what an amazing place to spend eternity. 

###


‘The Dead of Venice’ is a chapter-excerpt from Dan Klefstad’s upcoming novel, ‘Fiona’s Guardians.’

A Siring

By Dan Klefstad


“I was starving, I couldn’t help it.” Camilla wipes blood from her chin and points. “He’s in the car.”

“How could you be starving?” I put my stump in one jacket sleeve while my left arm hurriedly finds the other hole. “You had at least six pints before you left the house.”

“Okay, then, he was delicious. What’s wrong with enjoying a meal?”

A Corvette convertible sits at the edge of the park, red finish partially lit by a perfect half-moon. I lower my voice. “Front or back seat?”

“I put him in the trunk.”

“Please say the interior isn’t white.”

“Okay. It’s some other color.”

“Don’t play with me.”

“You’re the one who’s playing.” Her bare feet make no sound on the grass. In contrast, my loafers seem to find every leaf that gave up the ghost during the recent drought. I shine a light on the driver’s seat. “It’s like Jackson Pollack was here. Fiona was never this messy.”

“You don’t work for her anymore.” She folds her arms. “And I like Jackson Pollack.”

“Did you forget our agreement? I raise money to buy blood and you don’t kill people. We don’t need police sniffing around.” I open the trunk and see a man in a polo shirt and plaid shorts. He looks 35, maybe 40.

Camilla leans against the fiberglass body and runs her hands over it. “I want this car.”

“We have to ditch it.” I reach into the man’s back pocket and take out his wallet.

“Oooh.” She sidles up. “Make it look like we robbed him. Clever.”

Camilla’s been watching a new police show. Maybe it’s an old one, those procedurals are all the same. One minute in, someone finds a body. After the first commercial detectives arrive, and five minutes later something threatens to derail the investigation which leads to the climax. A quick, pithy observation follows, and it ends at 22 minutes. The wallet opens and my thumb lands on metal. Oh God, no. Please, no. I put the flashlight between my teeth. “Fuck me.”

“That’s not in our agreement,” Camilla snaps back. Then she groans as her hands encircle her belly. “I’m too full anyway.”

“You killed a cop.”

“Okay.”

I stare at her, flashlight dangling from my teeth. Finally, I remove it. “Cops never stop looking when one of their own… Oh, Jesus Christ.” I slam the trunk and turn away, gathering my thoughts. Camilla is only six months old, but Fiona warned me she’d never learn caution. I can’t believe I signed up for four years of this.

“Is that what I think it is? Cool.”

It’s best if I hide the body several miles from the car, but I haven’t used a shovel since losing my arm. And Camilla? She’s allergic to manual labor. But, just now, I remember a secluded lake about a mile from here. Perhaps we could find weights to keep him down…

BANG

“What the fuck?” I whip around to see smoke curling up from a pistol. Camilla can’t stop laughing at the hole in her left hand. “I shot myself.” Her excited eyes meet mine. “Coppers back home don’t carry these.”

“Give it to me.”

“No, I’m gonna keep it.”

“You have no need for a gun.”

“We’re in America now.” She waves it in front of me. “Everyone needs a gun.”

“Camilla, I need you to give that to me.”

Her face moves right up to mine. “You’re not the boss.” I feel the barrel against my ribs. “I am, remember?”

“If you kill me, you’re on your own.” I stare back. “Think you can survive by yourself?”

Our standoff lasts several seconds. Finally, she grins. “You’re right.” She turns and walks away. “You’re always right.” She tosses the gun in the bushes. “Good luck with this mess.”

***

It’s after seven when I get home. Camilla’s been asleep since 5:30. Everyone else on our street is scurrying to work, or wherever normal people go in the morning. In the kitchen, I pour myself a scotch, then remember the final item on my list before waking at eleven to check our investments. I walk down the corridor and turn the handle to Camilla’s room to make sure it’s secure. I always order the bolt installed on the inside to protect my employer when they’re most vulnerable. To her credit, Camilla always locks it. So, there’s hope. When I return to the kitchen, I see a letter from Rome on thick, faded stationery.

Dear Daniel,

How’s life back in the States? Is Camilla behaving herself? Despite her wild ways, I have every confidence you’ll guide and protect my progeny during these difficult early years. I just hope she’s paying you enough. Speaking of money, please find the enclosed check which should help with surprise expenses. I do hope we work together again someday. My current guardian isn’t even close to your level.

All the best,

Fiona

 

The check is for $10,000, not much in our world. Still, it would be enough if I were to buy a one-way ticket to the Equator where the sun shines twelve hours every day. No doubt, a spurned Camilla would die pursuing her revenge. Fiona, ever more cautious, would send human assassins, but most working today have less experience than me. I could stay hidden for years thanks to secret deposit boxes filled with cash, false passports, and gold. I’m still calculating the exact number of years when I hear her voice:

“Hey.”

I turn and see her door slightly open. My eyes immediately go to the window shades to make sure they’re down. “Yeah?”

“Can you come here for a second?”

I walk to the entrance and see a teary eye staring out. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For being… difficult.”

“I’ll forgive you. Just give me a day or two.”

She sniffles. “It’s just that I feel so unprepared.” Her eyes roll. “That’s probably really obvious to you. But I’m finding it hard to adjust to… this.”

“I understand. Fiona said it took her a couple decades. Try to get some sleep.”

“I can’t.”

This is new; Fiona always slept through the day. “Want some B positive?”

“No. What are you drinking?”

“Whisky. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Can you sleep with me – just for a little while?”

“Umm…”

“I know it’s not part of our agreement.”

“I’ve never slept with…”

“A vampire?”

“Yeah.”

“I just need someone to hold me.” An icy hand takes mine. “Please?”

I follow her in and lock the door. We face each other for a few seconds — she in silk pajamas, me in slacks and a button-down shirt – before she lifts the covers and slides in. I remove my shoes and lay down next to her.

“Spoon me?”

The last time I did this, I had two arms and one grew numb. For the first time, I learn one arm can be a benefit. I press my chest against her back and immediately feel her relax.

“Please don’t leave.”

“You mean, stay all day with you?”

“No, you can go once I’m asleep. Just don’t take off permanently. I don’t know what I’d do on my own.” Both her hands press mine against her chest. “God, I hate being so dependent.”

“Everyone depends on someone.”

“Who do you depend on?”

“I left myself open for that. Touché.”

She turns to face me, eyes searching mine. “You know I’m here for you. I just need to know what you need.”

***

The next evening, I’m reading the news, swiping at my tablet, when something catches my eye: a story about a body, drained of blood, in an alley. Enraged, I push open her door and hold up the tablet. “You did it again.”

She’s in her closet, topless, sifting through dresses. “Hello, that door still means something. What do you want?”

I step in. “Someone sucked a body dry last night. It’s all over the news – we’re exposed.”

“I didn’t do that.”

“Then who did?”

She’s smiling when she faces me. “Congratulations!” She kisses my cheek. “We’re parents.”

“What?”

“It’s a miracle.” Still smiling, both of her hands take mine. “Remember that cop from two nights ago?”

“The one you killed, and I dumped in the lake?”

“I’m calling him Austin – hope you like the name. He’s alive and living nearby.”

My breathing becomes shallow as I extract my hand and grab her upper right arm. “Are you saying you sired that cop?”

“We sired him. We had sex and I gave Austin some of my blood…”

“His name was Officer Jared Brown and we had sex after you killed him.”

“I don’t remember the order — I don’t know how this works — but aren’t you happy? We have a son.” She tries to move, looks at my hand gripping her arm, and fixes her gaze on mine. “Let go of me.”

“Walk me through it. You were alone with him in the car, and you drained him. When did you give him your blood?”

“I can’t REMEMBER.” She yanks herself free. “Really, I thought you’d be happy – at least for me. I didn’t think I could sire someone.”

“Camilla, listen: You brought a being into this world that we can’t protect…”

We brought him into this world.”

“…and once the police catch him, they’ll start looking for others…”

“But you can teach him to survive – like you’re teaching me.”

“STOP ACTING LIKE I’M HIS FATHER.”

Blood pools in her eyes as her body shakes. She points toward the door. “Get. Out.”

I point at her before I leave. “We will talk about this tonight.”

“GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE.”

***

Finally, an order I agree with. Fiona’s check is still on the kitchen table. I pocket that and grab my tablet. Before leaving, I open my go-bag and feel all the way to the bottom. I pull out a pistol, a trophy from a battle that now seems ages ago. The magazine contains regular bullets. Reaching back inside, I find the other mag containing wood-tipped rounds. One through the heart is all that’s needed.

A moment later, I’m driving to the neighborhood where the latest body was found. I’m testing that TV trope that says a criminal always returns to the scene of his crime. It takes several minutes to find the alley, which still has pieces of yellow tape on the ground. I get out, put the gun behind my belt, and begin walking, occasionally looking through a thermal imager. It takes ten minutes to find him. He’s still wearing the polo and plaid shorts, although this time he’s 28 degrees and walking several paces behind a woman registering 98.6. He glances back once, briefly making eye contact. He knows I’m there for him. Still, inexperienced and consumed by hunger, the two-day-old continues his pursuit.

I quicken my pace, already thinking beyond the ultimate crime of rendering mortal what was supposed to be immortal. No doubt, Camilla will come after me for killing “our” child – for shattering the illusion that this creature would bind us forever. She’ll disregard her own safety, and the universe will act accordingly; there’s a reason most vampires die before their first year. Still, a longing has settled in, one that threatens to haunt me for the rest of my life. She certainly got to me with that fire in her eyes, and the smell of her hair. How each breast felt when I held it. How she tasted.

This is all my fault. I broke the first rule of guardianship, and the consequences couldn’t be clearer for all involved – including me. But perhaps I’ve been wrong all along. I’ve made a career out of helping others cheat death. Now, for the first time, I see mortality as a gift. It forgives, wipes the slate clean, and allows you to forget difficult memories. For this, Officer Jared or Austin or whatever you call yourself — You are welcome. Just stay dead.

###


You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.

 

Hauptsturmführer Fillenius (1944)

By Dan Klefstad


The Russians knew they had no chance; we surrounded them. They also knew we’d have no mercy, but they surrendered anyway. They gave up their weapons and helmets, hoping for cigarettes which we no longer had. Were they buying time? Somewhere across the drifting snow, their swine-kin prepared another attack, but we didn’t know when, or how many. So we tried beating the details out, smashing their fingers and noses with rifles. After burning precious calories, we huddled in our so-called “winter outfits” and stamped our feet to get the blood moving. Then we tried to strip their coats which covered neck-to-ankle with thick, coarse wool. I knew very little Russian but it was clear we’d have to shoot them first. That sealed their fate. I ordered my last surviving officer to line them up and empty our German guns into them; the captured ones work better when frozen, and we’d need those for the next assault.

A corporal limps toward me and salutes. “Herr Hauptsturmführer, shall we aim for the head? The coats would be intact then.”

“If you want pig brains on your collar, that’s your business.” I yank the magazine from my pistol and count the remaining ice-covered rounds. “I’ll take the three on the right.”

Up to now, I thought Der Führer might introduce a Super Weapon that would stop the Red Army from entering Germany, but when half our guns failed to perform a simple mass execution, I knew it was over. The war would go on for another fifteen months but this moment in Estonia is where the end began – for Germany and these mongrel fucks who surrendered everything but their coats. At least their weapons worked; my men were thrilled. I, however, counted every one of the eleven bullets they spent.

“Hauptsturmführer Fillenius!” Major Haas motions from a staff-car that must’ve arrived while we were firing. I walk quickly and salute, expecting a reprimand for wasting ammunition.

Haas ignores the bodies. “I’m going to Tallinn to prepare defenses there. Need I remind you of Der Führer’s directive?”

“Stand and fight. No retreat, no surrender.”

His driver, a lieutenant, salutes. “We know you’ll give your all for the Fatherland.”

I ignore him. “Can you send some food, cigarettes, bandages – anything?”

“I’ll assess the situation and let you know.” Haas motions to his driver who shifts into First. “Don’t let us down, Søren.”

His use of my Christian name is another sign that the “thousand-year Reich” will last little more than a decade. I salute once more as he drives toward the final sunset I expect to see. I try to savor it, but someone yells “Deckung!” and I jump into the nearest trench.

§

I’ve seen men hallucinate before they die, so I’m not surprised by the woman wearing a low-cut peasant-style dress. This moonlit vision is a lovely distraction from the gurgling in my throat and lungs. A sucking chest wound gets priority in any triage, but there’s no one left to plug the holes. Suffocating, I try to relax and enjoy this little film about an underdressed beauty walking toward me through white and crimson snow.

“You don’t look Russian,” I wheeze. “Estonian?”

She gathers the long fabric as she kneels, and I see blue veins in her large white breasts. Long fingernails like shell splinters descend toward me, and I wonder if she’ll gouge my eyes out. I close them as she brushes aside a stray forelock.

“Please.” My eyes reopen. “Just stay with me.”

“What a pity.” She says in English. “You look like an angel.” She fingers a pin on my uniform. “SS Nordland.” Then she frowns and grabs a handful of hair, lifting my face toward hers. “I could have used those prisoners you killed.”

I focus on her accent which is different from that of my language tutor in Copenhagen. “American?”

Her grip tightens. “You wasted them!”

Wasted. What did that mean? This was more than a war. It was a crusade against Slavs and other sub-humans, and Jewish bolshevism – a crusade I joined four years ago to help the Nazis take over my native Denmark. The fact that the Aryans failed means nothing matters anymore – nichts. Nearly defeated, I spend one of my remaining breaths on a question. “What do you want?”

“What do you want, Søren?”

Definitely a dream; even my dog-tags use an initial for my first name. But I consider her words. “Leave the war. Leave this fucking continent.”

Her eyes narrow as if preparing to divulge a secret. “I’m going to America.”

“Take me with you.”

Her fist tightens against my skull, eyes glow red, and lips part revealing two long canines. “You’re a monster,” she hisses. “Only a fellow hunter can go with me.”

“I… Who… What are you?”

Her mouth closes but her glowing eyes remain fixed on mine. Of all the things I expected to see while dying, I never imagined a seductive hellish creature calling me a monster. What does that make her? My frozen lips barely move: “Vampyr?”

She scowls. For a moment, she appears uncertain about what to do. Finally: “You’re useless now, nearly bloodless, but I can change you.” Her face is so close, our noses almost touch. “First, I’m going to give you something I never had: a choice.”

“Make me one of you.”

“You haven’t heard the terms.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“If I save you, the sun will be your mortal enemy. And your thirst will never end.”

“Please… ” I cough a final time as my lungs collapse.

Both her hands support my neck as she moves behind me. Then she rests my head in her lap and holds her right hand above my face. A nail slices her wrist and my head instinctively turns as blood rains down.

“Open.” Her fingers squeeze my jaw. The drops cover my face as I struggle for my last breath.

“Be still.”

§

When I awake, I hear a heart beating and know immediately who it belongs to. I sit up and hear his panicked breathing, but pause to take in the surroundings of a command bunker I visited once, now abandoned. Fiona relaxes in the Field Marshal’s former wing-chair, sipping from a glass of red liquid that I already know – I can smell it. And I want it.

“You can relax.” Fiona swallows. “It’s safe here.”

“Safe for whom?” He yells from across the room. “Hauptsturmführer Fillenius! Untie me and arrest this woman!”

“Sturmbannführer Haas,” I rise, noting the major’s civilian clothes. “Where did you go after you left our position?”

“To Tallinn – like I told you!”

“He’s lying.” Fiona examines her nails. “I found him at the Loksa Shipyard, arranging passage to neutral territory. He and his lieutenant – who’s delicious, by the way – had Swedish passports.”

I glare at him, sitting in a wooden chair, arms and legs bound. “Stand and fight, you said.” Then I see the passports on a nearby table, plus a dozen gold coins. “My men were killed – all of them – covering your rear.”

“Oh, I think Lieutenant Baumann covered his rear just fine, wouldn’t you say Major?” Fiona smiles as she takes another sip.

“Søren, listen.” Haas fixes his eyes on me. “She kidnapped us in Tallinn, planted that stuff on us, and killed Fritzi.”

“Don’t call me ‘Søren’ – I do not consort with cowards!”

Haas’s face wrinkles with disgust as he looks at Fiona. “Then, like an animal, she bit his neck and drank his blood.”

I inhale deeply, suddenly aware that my teeth are longer. Haas’s skin reveals a spider web of throbbing vessels, but I know which one to attack first. I glance at Fiona. “Can I take him now?”

Fiona looks amused as she leans back in the Field Marshal’s chair. “Permission granted, Hauptsturmführer.”

§

The Stockholm Palace looks stunning at night, yellow lights reflecting off the sandstone exterior. But the fact that a King lives there – plus the surrounding architecture, music, and fashions – reminds me that we’re still in Europe. I look at Fiona’s hands which rest on the wrought iron balcony, and place my right on her left. “I hear the war will be over soon.”

“Yes.”

“It should be safe to travel, no?”

“It’s never safe.” She looks at me. “The first leg, to England, is a small risk. We could take two or three passengers, but we’d have to share them. The second leg, though…”  She looks at the night sky. “That would be seven or eight – again, shared – so we’d still be starving. If we’re alive when we get to New York, the police will know something’s wrong and board the ship. All they need is a little luck and they’ll find our trunk.”

“Why not have separate trunks?”

“That doubles the chances they’ll find one. If they discover you or me, they’ll keep looking.”

“Remind me. Why are we doing this?”

She points west. “Because that’s where we’ll get dinner every night.” She waves toward the city. “They just had two devastating wars, and God knows if the Russians are finished marching. There aren’t enough people to hide behind while we make the others disappear.”

I gaze at the rising moon and imagine how it looks from New York, Boston, or Chicago. Then I lift my glass. “To America. May we thrive among her teeming multitudes.”

“To whoever controls the universe,” Fiona raises hers. “May she still need us enough to grant safe passage.”

###