WarSpell: The Vampiress of Londinium
The Merge went both ways. So, as the grandmother got the memories of the new-made vampire, and the high school teacher got the memories of a vampire hunter, the vampire and hunter got the memories of the grandmother and history teacher. This is the story of how they dealt with that knowledge.
Lady Jane Alexander should be a monster with no control at all over its desires. A blood-sucking corpse, animated by pure evil. But The Merge went both ways. Now Sir William Deforest has the memories of Bill Goldman, a school teacher who played WarSpell with his friends, and those memories tell him that Lady Jane Alexander may still be Lady Jane. Suffering under a terrible curse, but still Lady Jane.
Sir William’s certainty in the righteousness of his and his friend Alen von Helsing’s cause as vampire hunters is challenged by the knowledge The Merge brought, but that’s nothing to what it did to Jane Alexander. In a moment she went from a very young vampire living on the blood of rats in the sewers of Paris into a moderately healthy young woman who knew that she needed to eat and who could once again feel her body as her body. All because she Merged with Alice Blake, a sixty-two-year-old nurse who had read the Vampyre Compendium IV cover to cover.
As she remembered her fellow gamers’ casual dismissal of the fact that she was still alive, Jane became one ticked-off vampire. She was going back to Londinium to have words with Sir William and Alen van Helsing.
Words, and maybe a snack.
Location: Country Mansion in Derbyshire, Angland
Time: February 7, 1878
Lady Jane Alexander, the Baroness of Petite Lorain, lay in her open coffin, and the agony washed over her. She was cold. So cold. So cold it burned. Her bones stretched and contracted. She tasted red fire, smelled polka dots and satin, and sour green slime screamed its bitterness in her ears while she saw grit, vanilla, coffee, and lemon dancing a paisley pattern before her eyes. All while the voices of demons slithered across her skin. It hurt more than a person could bear. She was dying in agony. As she lay there in the crypt, unable to move, she realized that she’d been dying in agony for months. Frozen in that instant of agonizing death. Her mind jibbered and jabbered, bounced about, trying to avoid the shards of pain, until it happened on a memory of Roderick.
Roderick had shown her. Forced her, really. Remembering, she shifted. Shifted in a way that she could never describe because there were no words for it. The pain was still there, but she was separated from it. Now she could think: distinguish what was real from what the curse made her see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Thinking, she remembered the vague nightmare state Roderick had kept her in. Roderick’s puppet. Roderick’s toy, feeling what Roderick willed her to feel. Ecstasy and agony, lust and horror all mixed together and out of her control. But Roderick was dead now; that constant bond was gone. It was terrifying.
There were sounds. Voices. Real, not delusion. Separated from her body; she could tell the difference.
“There’s really no choice, old man.” That was Anglish with a Dutch accent. Alan van Helsing. “It is not Jane. It’s a corpse occupied by a demon.”
“She was so lovely, Alan.” Anglish again, this time with overtones of Cambridge. Sir William Deforest. “So innocent!”
What on earth was that twit doing here. Innocent, ha!
Wait a moment. Freed from the agony of her body and the mist that Roderick had forced on her, her mind raced. It had to be them. They killed Roderick. A part of her, a vestige of Roderick’s spell on her, wanted to reach out and kill them in turn, but a deeper part of her was immensely grateful.
Oh, what a fool I was. When her father died and she came into her inheritance, became the baroness of Petite Lorain, with no one to answer to, she had acted the social butterfly, traveled to Angland, and spent her time flitting from party to hunt to party to ball to the theater and to yet another party. It was there Roderick saw her. He seemed such a dashing man, with his Oxford accent and his estate in Derbyshire. She let herself become his plaything. She hadn’t objected when he bit her neck and sucked her blood. By then, half under his spell, she’d wanted him to. He promised her eternal life and she believed him.
She should have known better. The sickness, the pain, that awful mind-shattering pain. Then she died and the pain hadn’t stopped even in death. It had become all there was.
She woke in the family vault at Petite Lorain. And there was Roderick, her master in fact, for his will completely overrode hers. He pushed her out of her body and the pain was gone, or at least distanced. She was little more than an automaton under his control. They took her body and some of the soil of the graveyard. They traveled by night to Angland and his estate, where they hunted. Her in a half daze, the world a blur of horror as she sucked the blood of cattle, sheep, and people.
Then, just now, Alan van Helsing drove a stake through the sleeping Roderick’s heart. And for the first time since before Roderick bit her, she was clear-headed. Separated from her monster’s body, she examined it. The black hair, the rare violet eyes, set wide apart in the moon pale face, delicate features, arched eyebrows, well-formed lips. A face that in life had reflected every passing thought in wide relief. It wasn’t the face of a monster. And her body was thin, a dancer’s body, not the body of a monster.
Wait! If I were truly a monster, I would know it. I would have the memories of the demon. She would be the demon, have the demon’s desire to turn the others and condemn them. She would hate the Lord God and all his works. Her memories of being Jane Alexander would be no more than notes in a file cabinet, tools to use against the unwary.
But she remembered. She remembered her French father and English mother. She remembered her brother who died at twelve in a boating accident. She remembered and still felt the pain of the loss of the older brother she adored. In a moment of clarity, she knew that she was still herself.
She started to tell them, to blurt it out to William and Alan. Shout that she wasn’t a demon, that she was still herself. She would have done it, but her body was still walled away. Still a puppet to be manipulated through magical controls. While she was working out how to speak, she stopped. They would never believe her. They would know that she was just the demon lying to them.
Just as she would know he was lying if a vampire told her he was really the person he had been before he was bitten. She ran through all the things she might say and realized they were all the same things that a demon would say.
Her only hope was escape.
She was aware of her body, aware of the cold icy agony, but it was offset. She could ignore it. She reached as Roderick had taught her and controlled her body as though it was a puppet. The eyelids, pull a string of magic.
Her eyes had been closed. Now they opened. She saw the ceiling of the crypt on Roderick’s estate. A dirty granite arch with spider webs, lit by flickering torch light. The direction of the shadows told her where Alan and William had to be. She let the awareness of her body fade a little more and formed her spirit into a mouse. She peeked over the edge of the sarcophagus.
She saw William and Alan. With an effort of will, she abandoned the mouse form and sank back into her body. It hurt, but it was necessary to keep her body with her spirit. She moved.
Suddenly and silently, she was no longer in her casket but hiding behind it. It hurt. Roderick had made sure she left her body safely in the casket when they hunted. She put the hurt aside and peeked around the casket base, her head next to the floor to get a look at William and Alan. They had their heads together. William was actually crying about it, but Jane knew them too well. William would beat himself up over it, but nonetheless, he would hammer the ash stake into her heart.
It took an act of will to move her body with her as she reached up and scooped up a handful of the earth from her home in Petite Lorain. She waited and watched until they were looking away, then moved out the door of the crypt in a flickering of moonlight.
Quickly she made her way to the stables, wearing the gown she had been buried in. It was white chiffon, with pearls and lace, suitable for a ball or a wedding, not for riding. But she had no idea where her clothing had been packed. More importantly, she had no notion of where they might have locked up the money.
At the stables, the horses were terrified, but she managed to catch Prancer’s eye. That was all she needed to hypnotize the horse. She just had to convince Prancer that she was his owner and he was her mount. With the noise the other horses were making she couldn’t take the time to saddle Prancer, so she leapt onto his bare back and rode out into the night, guiding him with her will.
Location: Road to Londinium
Poor Prancer was ridden out when she saw the farm, and Jane wasn’t in much better shape. Besides, the sun would be rising soon. She had to find someplace where the sunlight didn’t reach.
She turned Prancer off the road and into a stand of trees. Then, hating it but driven by her need, she stared into the big horse’s eyes and put him into a deeper trance. Then she moved her head around and bit his neck.
Life flowed into her. And it was different than it had been when she hunted with Roderick. Even though the horse was exhausted, it was much more vital.
She didn’t know why. All she knew—and she was just learning it now—was that feeding while she was in her body gave her more oomph.
Location: Petite Lorain
Time: February 15, 1878
The sun set, and Jane woke. She was hungry again. She left her body under the hay stack so that she could travel faster. She wanted to get home. Moving with vampiric speed, she ran through the night, her dress perfect and her slippers not quite touching the ground.
It took her three hours to reach the chateau. No one was about, and Jane moved quickly to the door.
The door handle turned, but when she tried to pull, the door stood fast. It didn’t move and the handle started to burn against her hand. Then her hand turned to mist and pulled through the door handle. Her hand slowly reformed on her arm. It was a painful process. She had to use her physical body as a reference, and that meant she had to touch it in that special way that the magic allowed. She had to feel her body and the pain that resided there.
Jane went around to the side of the chateau and tried another door, using her left hand. Her right was still hand-shaped mist. She was careful not to pull too hard. When it started to burn, she released the doorknob. She saw an open window. Her hand stopped, as though the open window was walled up. Then finally Jane understood. This was no longer her house. No longer her home. It belonged to her heirs now. As a vampire she couldn’t enter it, not without permission.
And who would give her permission? Cousin Frances, Frances Marie Picard, her heir, was terrified of the undead, especially vampires. Jean Pierre Picard was a mean-spirited little man who hadn’t liked or approved of her even before Roderick.
Wanting to cry, Jane turned away from her home and retreated to her body. It took three more hours to get back to the haystack, and by then Jane was ravenous. She needed blood.
She moved, vampire quiet, to the pig pen. The pigs sensed her and started squealing. Quickly she selected the largest sow in the pen and caught its eye. It quieted and she began to feed, but the other pigs were still squealing. She heard the farmhouse door open. Regretfully, she left her unfinished meal and retreated through the night to her body, which rested under a hay mound. Feeding in projected form was weaker, less satisfying.
Tomorrow she would take her body. But take it where? She had no home. No one to trust or depend on. She was wholly alone in the world.
Location: Paris Sewers
Time: August 25, 1878
Jane moved with preternatural speed. Her hand shot out and the rat had no time to react. She grasped it firmly, not concerned with fleas or disease, utterly controlled by her need. She brought the rat to her mouth and her fangs extended as she opened her mouth in that special way that was both natural and unnatural. She bit and her fangs sank into the skinny rat’s chest.
A rat has very little blood. A single slurping suck and it was dry. It wasn’t even enough to take the edge off. Her senses raged at her in that hyper-alertness that was the constant state of the unfed vampire. She smelt the individual scents of each piece of shit in this part of the sewers, not to mention the amalgamated scent of the liquids that flowed down the center of the stone corridor. It was dark to even her eyes but life glowed and even the desiccated corpse of the rat gave off an echo of that strange light that all living things gave off. She could see it now as she had never been able to when she was alive. She could see it, but not touch it. Not feel it within herself. She only felt it when she fed, and that faded.
A cockroach scuttled by, and though it glowed with life she knew from experience that their ichor didn’t feed a vampire effectively. She needed mammal blood. Birds or reptiles would do in a pinch, but not well. That much she had learned in her month in the Paris sewers. Her hand shot out again and another rat met its fate.
She stood shakily and moved, looking for new prey, on legs that looked like bone covered only in desiccated skin. She looked like a ghoul and didn’t care. Jane had always cared about her appearance, but by now she had no energy for anything but the hunt. Nothing left to consider her appear—
In an instant, between one step and the next, her desiccated muscles healed and she suddenly had the memories of Alice Blake, a sixty-two year old grandmother with an interest in clothing styles from the nineteenth century. That interest had led her to steampunk, and steampunk had led her to the game that she had played for a while a few months earlier. It hadn’t been that much fun, so she had dropped out. But not before her character had been bitten by a vampire and turned. Not before Bill Goldman and Evan Von killed the vampire that had bitten her, then spent twenty minutes hamming up the decision to kill her. Even though Alice Blake had known it was just a game, Alice’s memories of the casually overdone melodrama rankled Jane’s soul.
Location: The Johnson house, Houston, Texas
Time: Game night
“There’s really no choice, old man.” Evan Von patted Bill Goldman on the shoulder and held up a painted plastic cross. “It is not Jane. It’s a corpse occupied by a demon.”
“Actually, it’s still her,” Leroy Johnson said. “I’m using The Vampire Compendium IV, not the version three. A vampire has a magical disease and is not dead unless exposed to direct sunlight or killed in one of the other traditional manners. Holy water, stake through the heart, that sort of thing. They do have a severe allergy to garlic as a side effect of the disease. And that matters too, because vampires can eat and should. If they don’t, they end up looking like an Auschwitz victim. But the young ones forget to eat because their need for blood is so strong that it sublimates all other needs and desires. Vampires don’t get hungry or horny or anything. At least until they have the disease under control, and that can take centuries.”
“Wait a minute,” Alice Blake said. “Remember, I’m new to this. If she isn’t being animated by a demon, why does holy water work on her?”
Leroy smiled at her and reached back for a book on the shelf behind him. “Good question. Because vampirism has been declared demonic by the church, and such decrees have the force of canon law. That means that the holy water attacks the curse, and the curse is usually the only thing keeping the vampire alive. The operation is a success, but the patient dies. Which most people consider an acceptable outcome, or have until recently. The liberals are starting to question whether vampires are inherently evil or just misunderstood.”
“But staking a vamp is still legal, right?” Bill asked. “Sir William is a lawful character.”
“So it’s okay to kill me as long as it’s legal?” Alice gave Bill a hard look.
Bill Goldman put his hand over his heart and said, “I could not love you half so well, my dear Jane, loved I not honor more. It’s going to break Sir William’s heart to drive a stake through Lady Jane’s heart, but he will do it because it’s his duty.” Then he turned back to Evan Von. “She was so lovely, Alan.” An overdone theatrical sigh. “So innocent!”
“Except now that Roderick is dead, I’m Jane again.”
“Nope. You’re just one more demon animating a corpse.” Evan Von grinned. “At least that’s what Alan von Helsing and Sir William Deforest know to be true. Ain’t religion great? It provides such certainty.”
But Alice was busy reading The Vampire Compendium IV. The vamp might actually be a fun character to play, full of angst over her conversion, but with her free will back, she was no longer the blowup doll that Roderick the vampire made her into.
“It won’t work,” Leroy told her when she brought up the idea. “Jane will never be able to convince Alan and William that she is still Jane under the curse.”
“Well, wouldn’t Jane know that?”
Leroy had her make two rolls. First, to determine if she realized in her confusion that she was still Jane. She did. Second, did she know Alan von Helsing and Sir William Deforest well enough to realize that they would never believe her. “Remember how confused she is,” Leroy finished.
“She’s not that confused,” Alice said. “She’s been Roderick’s plaything for weeks. Long enough to know that she was acting under compulsion. That compulsion is gone.”
Leroy conceded the point, and she rolled again. She made that one too.
“While Alan and William are arguing about killing you.”
“Freeing her from demonic bondage,” Evan Von insisted, then chugged a Coke.
“Whatever,” Leroy said. “Lady Jane slips out the back. Come in the other room, Alice, so we can talk about what Lady Jane does next.”
Location: Paris Sewers
Time: August 25, 1878
Jane Alexander sat in the sewer under the streets of Paris and cursed quietly in three languages: Jane’s native French, Alice Blake’s twenty-first century American English, and nineteenth century Anglish, which was similar to English but had its own set of expletives.
That was the last game she played. She—Alice, that is—and Leroy had talked it out. Jane made her way to France where she owned property, only to learn that her vampirism had been reported to the authorities. Jane was legally dead unless she presented herself on a clear day outside before a magistrate. Her property wasn’t hers anymore. So Jane retreated into the sewers of Paris with her need for blood becoming all consuming. She lived on the blood of rats and other small animals in the sewers, not eating at all, the very notion of food making her feel sick.
Which brought her to, well, now. As she sat in the sewer, she wondered about Alice Blake. Not Alice’s past. Jane knew that past as well as her own. No, what she wondered was if Alice even knew what happened.
Had that moment of perfect oneness that left her with Alice Blake’s memories and knowledge touched Alice in any way?
Did Alice Blake remember being her?
Was Alice Blake a vampire now too?
Location: Cheapside, Londinium
Time: August 25, 1878
Keeping his left hand on the steering lever, Tom Blackwell pulled on the brake lever with his right and pushed on the gear pedal, bringing the steam coach to a stop. He reached over and twisted the stop valve to the right to stop the steam. His cab was black and rusted, with a steam engine in the back. Tom called it Betsy, and it was owned by the company he worked for.
Even before Betsy was fully stopped at the entrance to the dirigible docks at Cheapside, the toff leapt out the door and ran for the stairs. The toff had his left hand on his top hat and his right was carrying a long leather case of the sort that held big guns.
Tom shouted, “Ho there, Gov’ner! The fare!”
The toff half-turned and shouted, “Bring my luggage,” then turned back and kept running.
Cursing under his breath, Tom turned around, reached to the roof of the cab, and unstrapped the bag. There was just the one and it wasn’t all that big. Bag in hand, Tom leapt down and chased after the toff.
Sir William Deforest leapt from the hansom cab as it pulled up at the dirigible port in Cheapside. The cab had a large steam engine in the back. It puffed out coal smoke from one exhaust pipe and steam from the other. It was painted black and had hard rubber tires on wooden spoked wheels. It had springs, but not shock absorbers, so the ride over the cobblestone streets had not been pleasant.
The cabbie, in a coachman hat and worn waistcoat, yelled, “Ho there, Gov’ner! The fare!”
“Bring my luggage,” Sir William shouted over his shoulder. There wasn’t much, just his bag. He had the pulse gun in its dumbdumb leather case in his right hand. His left was holding his top hat on his head. The truth was that the exorbitant price he paid for the pulse gun left him a bit short of the ready, and he was going to have to get a loan from Alan von Helsing to pay the cabbie.
The dirigible dock was three flights up a girder work of rusty iron pilings and cast iron stairs, leading to a wooden ramp that entered the large gondola at the base of the magical balloon. It had to use magic to magnify the lifting force of the heated hydrogen or the balloon would be ridiculously large. As it was, it was almost twice the size of the gondola, and the gondola was made as light as possible out of bamboo and pressed paper panels. The pressed paper panels might look like hardwood, but they weighed less than balsa wood and made up one large magical item suitable for crafting the ramp spell into.
Sir William was on the second level landing and the cabby was behind him when he suddenly got the memories of Bill Goldman. The knowledge was just there. A whole other life, longer than his own, with hopes and dreams, failures and successes, attitudes and beliefs. The game, too—Bill Goldman’s memories of the game and the two previous games where Bill had played Sir William. One was with Evan Von, and the one before that was with Evan and Alice Blake, who played Lady Jane Alexander, a young woman of a good family who had been bitten by a vampire. And in remembering, he suddenly knew that Jane had not succumbed, at least not in the way that he and Alan von Helsing thought she had. She had been turned, but when they killed the vampire that turned her, she was freed from his thrall. From what they said in the game, she had the curse under at least some control.
He stumbled. It wasn’t anything in Bill Goldman’s real life that had thrown him for a loop. It was Lady Jane Alexander. She was out there somewhere. Not exactly alive, perhaps, but still herself. Until that moment Sir William knew with religious certainty that the “undead” were in truth dead, their corpses occupied and controlled by demonic forces.
The cabbie was puffing up the stairs behind him, and Sir William realized that he still had to deal with the immediate problem of the cab fare. He rushed up the last staircase to the dirigible docks and ran across the gangplank, hotly pursued by the cabbie.
He saw Alan and waved. “Alan, old chum would you pay this fellow? I had to get the pulse gun and I’m a bit short.”
Alan gave him a disgusted look and reached under his coat for his billfold. Then he patted his chest where the billfold should have resided, in the left breast pocket of his gold lamé waistcoat. Van Helsing had his problems, but a lack of funds wasn’t one of them. “It’s gone!” For a moment Alan van Helsing looked around like he might spot the thief, then he pulled himself up short. “Oh, blast and beelzebub. I left it in my case in the stateroom.”
Now it was the cabbie who was looking around for a copper.
Alan van Helsing sniffed without disturbing the red crystal monocle that covered his right eye and said, “Very well. Follow me, my good man. We will go to our cabin and I will provide you with payment.” He turned and marched off with his Prussian military background clear in every step. Without looking back, he added, “And bring the bags.”
Sir William Deforest followed along with the cabbie, wondering where Lady Jane was. And what had happened to her after she had escaped on the night they killed Roderic.
Tom Blackwell followed the kraut and the fop to the cabin, recalculating his tip. Unfortunately, recalculating it down. German nobles were notoriously stingy. The only good thing was that he was getting a look at the Angola. Tom had a fondness for airships. If his family had had the money he would have gone to Cambridge, to the school of applied magics. He looked over at the pressed paper panels colored in an imitation of oak and he wished he could see under the outer coating to the magical symbol structure beneath. But the hoity-toits didn’t like seeing the mechanics of magic, so everything was covered in veneers of wood or painted to look like normal walls. They turned a corner and went three doors down a corridor to a stateroom. It was a good size room, larger than you would see on a seagoing ship, if a little smaller than in a hotel.
He looked at the window. There was no glass in the window, which Tom knew was a matter of weight, not cost. It did have shutters hinged at the top. They were raised at the moment, but could be closed if it got chilly. There was a small desk and two bunks in the room and in one corner a set of bags including one with a cross, a Star of David, and words in what Joe thought must be Islamic writing. He’d seen that sort of case in the music hall skits. It was a vampire hunter’s case.
The kraut went to the stack of cases and shifted the vampire hunter’s case out of the way, then started going through the others. Tom waited. Tom had been stiffed by more toffs than working men. The kraut went through the second bag muttering all the while.
“I’ll catch you up as soon as I can get to a branch of the bank,” the toff assured the kraut.
Tom crossed his arms and spread his feet, making it clear he was prepared to wait right here until he got paid or they were ice skating in Hades. The kraut turned his head and the red monocle stared at Tom. Then he snorted and went back to the vampire hunter bag.
Just then there was a lurch, and it was only Tom’s wide stance that kept him from stumbling. The toff did stumble, though he caught himself quickly enough, throwing out a hand to grab one of the handholds that were attached to the walls of the room. The other hand held the long gun in its leather case. The kraut went arse over teakettle and the bags went everywhere. The vampire bag came open and a billfold came flying out, along with crosses, stakes, bottles, and other paraphernalia.
Tom looked out the window; London was moving.
The toff looked out the window too, and then he looked over at Tom, then back at the kraut. “No hurry now, Alan. In fact, probably no need. It looks like our good cabbie here will be joining us at least for the first leg of our trip.” He looked back to Tom. “There is a branch of the Bank of England in Casablanca. I’ll be able to get funds there.”
Tom barely heard the man because he was too busy watching his whole life float away beneath him. “I have to get off,” Tom said, even though he knew it was too late. The magic that allowed a balloon as small as they used to lift as much weight as it did was not a single spell, but a complex of them, and they all had to interact just right. The first spell simply magnified the lifting power of the balloon. But the second spell acted as a ramp, redirecting the force acting on the gondola from straight down to forward and down. In combination with the magnified power of the balloon, that spell let the balloon move forward through the air and even angle upwards a bit. Once started, the ramp spell had to be allowed to run its course or be dispelled. In either case, it had to be recrafted and recast at great expense. The price to turn around and go back to the dirigible docks now was the same as the cost of the trip to Casablanca. Not the same as passage on the dirigible. The same as hiring the whole dirigible for the trip to Casablanca.
“But I have a family,” Tom complained, “and I’m responsible for the cab. I have to tell the company where it is, and even so they’re liable to let me go. My mom and my sister need the money.”
“We’ll hire a bird,” Sir William assured him condescendingly. “Once we’ve assured the company that you were not at fault, I’m sure there will be no problem.”
Tom was sure there’d be no problem too. Not for the toffs and not for the company. The company would pick up the cab, hire another driver, and Tom would be out of work, with his mom taking in laundry and Missy probably forced into . . . well, the only job open to a young girl with no prospects. But none of that would be a problem for these toffs.
The kraut was looking at him with that red-monocled stare again. “No, Sir William. Everything will not be all right, not for this fellow. It is quite clear that you being short of the ready has put him into an irrecoverable situation.”
“What? Say Alan . . .” The toff, Sir William, trailed off, then started again in a different tone. “The economy stinks, doesn’t it? Jobs are hard to come by and there are a dozen applicants for every position. They’ll fire you?”
Tom blinked “Fire me?”
“Oh, sorry. Terminate your employment.”
Now the red monocle focused on Sir William, and the kraut spoke again. “What caused you to use such an expression? It’s common in the Americas, is it not? And your aura is different, now that I look at it. It doesn’t appear to be a possession. It’s well integrated, not one aura overlaid on another, but different.”
The kraut moved toward his bag, and after a startled glance Sir William started to grin. “Alan, feel free to try the cross and holy water on me. But not the stake, if you don’t mind. And I would remind you that I came sprinting along the boarding ramp on a sunny day.”
“But something is different.”
“Yes, it is, and I will explain it all. But first let’s see what we can do to settle this fellow’s problems, shall we?” He turned back to Tom, still holding the long gun, then finally noticed it. He turned to one of the bunks and, with the dirigible moving smoothly, proceeded to put the gun away, talking all the while. “I’m Sir William Deforest and that’s Alan van Helsing. He’s Dutch, by the by, not German, but he went to school in Heidelberg and did a stint as an officer in the kaiser’s forces during that dust-up with the Frenchies a few years back. I’m Cambridge, by way of Sandhurst, myself. Not well suited for military discipline, so I ended up a gentleman adventurer, don’t you know.”
“Don’t expect the fact that I am Dutch to help with the tip,” Alan van Helsing said.
“It’s true. Alan’s tight as a Scottish purse string, even if he is obscenely wealthy.” Sir William looked at van Helsing. “You’re going to need to buy a needle big enough to let through a whole herd of camels if you expect to get into heaven, old boy.” Sir William turned back to Tom. “Family money, you see.”
“That’s how rich people stay rich,” van Helsing said. “We don’t give it away.” Then he heaved a sigh. “However, in this case, we may be morally obligated to make an exception.” He sent a pointed look at Sir William. “Both of us. Since we are the cause of this fellow’s troubles, we have an obligation to see him made whole.” Then, with his red monocle winking in the light of the setting sun, and with a finger pointed at Tom, he added, “Within reason, my man, within reason.”
Tom wondered what the kraut—no, Dutchman—would consider reasonable. But that thought was interrupted by Sir William, who went to the desk and sat down, then waved Tom to a seat on one of the bunks. “Tell us about yourself, man. Start with your name and tell it all.”
Gingerly, Tom sat on the made bunk. The quilt was fancy and his trousers none too clean. Cleaners were expensive and Tom made almost enough to keep a roof over his head and a bit of food in the cupboard, not enough to pay a laundry. “My name is Thomas Blackwell. I’m twenty-four. I live in a flat on Baker Street with me mum and sister. And I drive the cab.” Tom wasn’t good at this. He never knew how much to say, what was needed information and what was bragging. He had gotten a scholarship to Cambridge, even though he hadn’t been able to go. His da had gotten sick about then, and he’d had to go to work. He’d studied on his own, and he could do a little of the rote magic and knew about mechanicals. He sometimes managed to borrow a book, though he didn’t have the money to get a library membership. And he was good with his hands, which was how he’d gotten the job as a cabbie. He had fixed a pipe on a boiler. The company didn’t like to pay two people if they could find one that could do both jobs. But how much of that to say? Tom didn’t know.
But over the next few hours, Sir William and Alan got it all out of him.
A bell rang.
“That will be dinner,” Alan van Helsing said. “Come along, Thomas. We might as well get your ticket now, so you can eat. You coming, William?”
“Never miss a meal if I can help it.” Sir William patted his stomach over his waistcoat. It was leaf green satin. His coat was forest green and his trousers nut-brown, worn with shined black boots. But without seeming to notice, Sir William put an arm over Tom’s patched and worn, coal-smoke covered, gray jacket.
They followed Alan out of the stateroom and down the corridor.
The steward took one look at Tom and moved to intercept them. He was a youngish man with blond hair, wearing a pale blue double-breasted tailcoat with dark blue chevrons on each arm. His pants were black and too tight for a man’s comfort. They were too tight for Tom’s comfort just seeing them.
“Ah,” Sir William said, “just the fellow. Tom here stowed away, through no fault of his own. I’m afraid it was all my doing. He’s going to need a ticket at least to Casablanca.”
The steward sniffed at Tom, then brought his heels together and gave Sir William a sharp little bow. “Of course, sir. We can find him a bunk in the servant’s cabins. There is the matter of the fare.”
“Oh, I think we can do better than the servant’s cabin . . .” Sir William started turning to van Helsing.
Tom saw van Helsing’s expression and said, “The servant’s cabin will be fine, Sir William. I’m more concerned with getting word back to Mr. Smithers at the cab company, and I’m worried about my ma and sis.”
Sir William opened his mouth, but van Helsing beat him to the punch. “Good enough. I will pay Blackwell’s fare and see to the hiring of a messenger bird. You can pay me back when we get to Casablanca.” Reminding Sir William that, for now at least, it was van Helsing who would be paying for anything they did. The air ship carried messenger birds that would fly back to their homes in Londinium, carrying notes that were shrunken down, but the cost of sending a bird was high. Tom knew that much, but he didn’t know just how high.
Tom found himself in the more congenial quarters of the servants. There were eight bunks in the room and six of them were taken. Tom had his choice of the top bunk on the left or the top bunk on the right, and was told to stay in it rather than taking up valuable floor space. The food was bangers and mash, brown bread, and cabbage. The drink was small beer, and the talk was of the various lords and toffs who were taking the trip to Casablanca and why. Why mostly amounted to some sort of business they had and a few were making connections to make a tour around the southern Mediterranean to visit places like Alexandria, the pyramids, and the ruins of Carthage.
In the lounge, Alan was finally getting to question William about the strangeness of his aura. “And don’t tell me it’s a problem with the glass, Willy. It was you that charged the thing this morning.” The lounge was shaded by the dirigible’s balloon, but out the windows the land passed under them like a perfectly rendered map. They had passed over southern Angland now, and were over the Isle of Éire. It was a beautiful place at this height. All the trouble and revolution were impossible to see. The table was covered in a white linen cloth and stewards brought fine foods to the passengers on wheeled carts. William was having pheasant and Alan was having saddle of lamb.
“Yes, and I won’t, Alan. But do try not to get too upset when I explain. As I was running up the stair, I suddenly got the memories and experience of a fellow named Bill Goldman.”
“A Jew?” Alan asked, then looked around, embarrassed.
William was caught for a moment. “Not a practicing one, certainly. I, that is Bill, was never all that interested in family history, but from his memories I would say his great-grandfather was a converted Jew. Bill was raised as a Baptist. One of the odd Christian sects that sprang up in the colonies—well, the States, I should say—in the last century.” William stopped and his expression darkened.
“Bill Goldman was married for twenty years. He had a seventeen-year-old daughter and a fourteen-year-old son. I remember them, Alan. I remember them as though I were Bill Goldman and I will never see any of them again. It’s as though I just lost my family and I can think of nothing to do about it. Even could I get to that other world with that other history, what business would I have doing so? If there is a Sandra Goldman, there is a Bill Goldman lying next to her in their bed.
“You can be sure of this, Alan. This, whatever it is, was not Bill Goldman’s doing. He didn’t have the least ability in that way. And he wouldn’t have wanted to, not at the cost of his wife and children.”
“Comfort yourself in the knowledge that if they were real, they are still real. Even if you can’t see them, they are not dead.”
Location: The Airship Angola, over Southern Angland, approaching the Isle of Éire
Time: August 25, 1878
Tom knocked diffidently on the airship purser’s door.
Tom opened the door to see a middle-aged, chubby man in a fancier version of the same uniform worn by the steward. It was the same pale blue but instead of the chevrons, it had shoulder epaulets that would have made one of Napoleon’s generals green with envy. But the jacket was open and the purser had a five o’clock shadow. “Ah, the stowaway.” Then he smiled. “Not your fault, man. Something like this happens every third trip or so. What do you need?”
“The gentleman, Mr. van Helsing, said he would hire a bird to take news back to Londinium. I need to write out messages to my boss and my ma. I was wondering if . . . Can I get a sheet of paper and a pen?”
“A whole bird all your own while we’re still in the air? That’s going to cost a bit. Usually, people just wait until we get to Casablanca. We’ll be there by morning.” Then, apparently seeing Tom’s expression, he added. “If it’s a rush for some reason, they mostly share a bird.”
“How’s that work, sir?”
“We have an amulet wizard on the airship. A good one. Mr. Allenby is a graduate of the School of Applied Magic at Cambridge. He loads his own amulets and he has some spells that will shrink a six-inch wide, foot long, sheet until it will fit in the capsule that attaches to the leg of the pigeon. The sheet has room for five hundred letters and we charge for every letter, laddybuck. A shilling a letter, and that includes spaces. If your patron buys a bird, that’s twenty-five pounds.”
Tom swallowed hard. That was six months’ wages and tips, near enough, just for the use of one little pigeon.
“They can afford it, lad. The toffs who ride on airships can afford a lot. It’s still less than your ticket to Casablanca is going to be.”
The purser gave him the sheet, and Tom went back to the bunk room, climbed up on the bunk, and used the top of his hat as a writing table while he worked out what to say.
He still hadn’t worked it out when he got called back to the toff’s cabin.
“I’ve talked to the purser and the prices they are charging for messenger birds are ridiculous,” van Helsing said. “I will not be gouged like that by the airship company. You can hire a pigeon from Casablanca to Londinium for three shillings, and Sir William here can load an amulet of shrinking. It’s not going to take that much longer to get there, and I fail to see an emergency in this.”
“I have an amulet in my luggage. Not the carryon you brought, Tom, the stuff I sent ahead. I’ll be able to get it once we get to Casablanca and I think it’s already loaded.”
Tom knew that much about amulet wizards. They loaded a spell into an amulet which stored it until they needed it, but they had to have the right amulet for a given spell. An amulet of shrinking wouldn’t work for a spin spell and an amulet of igniting wouldn’t work for a spell of attaching. But it didn’t matter. “Mr. van Helsing, if I leave the cab out of service for a whole day, they are going to charge me for the money the cab was supposed to bring in. There’s a minimum you’re supposed to bring in each and every day.”
“That was a possibility, anyway,” van Helsing insisted, puffing out his mustache and marching around the room. “I will not be held hostage to these ridiculous fees just because they have me here. If they are going to overcharge like this, I am not going to buy, and that’s flat, my man.”
Tom bit back a hot response. The law was on van Helsing’s side.
Location: Grand Hotel, Casablanca
Time: August 26, 1878
Sir William Deforest looked out of the window of the gondola at the Grand Hotel. The hotel was eight stories tall, made of stone, but it managed an airy feel because the stone work was a complex of intersecting arches. On the roof was an airship dock, but just a dock, not a full port.
The Angola would dock here for only an hour to disembark passengers and their luggage, then proceed to an airship station seven miles southeast of Casablanca, where most of the cargo carried by the airship would be offloaded. Then the Angola would be made ready for the next leg of its journey, which would be to Nigeria where it would stop for a day. It would then proceed to Teixeira de Sousa, in the Portuguese province of Angola, for which the airship was named. William wondered if they would be continuing with the airship.
Things had changed since he and Alan had planned this trip. Sir William had changed most of all. Bill Goldman was a middle school history teacher, not an expert on the architecture of North Africa. But with the addition of Bill’s memories, this place had what he could only describe as a “Casablanca feel.” Not the real Casablanca, but the movie Casablanca. He expected Humphrey Bogart to be waiting at the checkin desk with directions to Rick’s American Cafe. It was a comparison that Sir William would not have seen. This world didn’t have movies or movie stars. With Bill Goldman’s memories and abilities added to the mix, William was seeing a lot of things differently.
William was concerned about Jane Alexander, Tom Blackwell and most of all Alan van Helsing. Taken in order, then.
If William remembered The Vampire Compendium IV correctly, Jane wasn’t dead. Not quite. Bill had skimmed the booklet, but not read it in detail. It seemed that vampires were stuck in a moment just before death until the spell that kept them suspended was broken by the death of their body. Hence the stake through the heart. Sunlight probably weakened or even broke the spell. There was something in there about litches, but William couldn’t remember what. So Jane was alive or undead or whatever, probably needed his help.
There was Tom Blackwell, who might be in need of a new job. No, face it, William, he told himself, probably needs a new job. Which shouldn’t be much of a problem because from what he and Alan wormed out of Tom last night, the man might well prove deucedly useful to them. But Tom was also the sole support of his mother and his sister, and William and Alan had a tendency to find themselves in some hairy situations from time to time. Plus the fact that with all his projects, Sir William was perennially short of funds. Which meant he would have to apply to Alan for the support of Tom, his mother, and sister.
And that brought William, with his new perspective, to Alan. Alan, who had been Sir William’s mentor and friend for the past four years and who was, William now realized, the next best thing to a fanatic on the subject of vampires. They had put off discussion of William’s new set of memories by mutual consent, but that delay couldn’t last. Evan Von was an atheist with a pronounced distrust of anything approaching faith, but he had played Alan van Helsing as a committed Protestant and utterly certain of his beliefs. Evan’s harping on the religious certainty that had inspired Jim Jones, David Koresh and Alan van Helsing, not to mention the 9/11 hijackers and Pat Robertson, got on Bill Goldman’s nerves. Remembering it and trying to figure out how to explain to Alan that Jane wasn’t necessarily evil, Sir William Deforest wanted to strangle Evan Von.
The Angola bumped up against the stays, almost causing William to fall. Immediately the horn hooted.
“Disembarking passengers, please proceed to the ramp as quickly as possible,” came over the ship’s megaphone.
William rushed. Alan was at the ramp along with Tom Blackwell and a crowd of passengers being rushed across the ramp onto the roof of the Grand Hotel. “What’s the bleeding rush?” William asked as he joined them in the queue.
“Ship’s weather diviner is saying we have fifteen minutes before the wind changes.” Alan was looking at his pocket watch and didn’t look up as he answered. “Thirteen now, and they have forty-three passengers and servants to get off loaded.”
“Cap’n wants to be in the air when the wind shifts, not tied to a spike at the top of the Grand Hotel,” Tom added. “Can’t say as I blame him for that.”
The line was moving and Alan continued. “It means that they won’t be unloading our luggage here but at the dirigible station. They will have it delivered but it will be a few hours.”
The Grand Hotel had two reception desks, one on the ground floor, and one on the top floor for airship passengers. The one on the top floor was old wood, polished continually over the course of decades. It was manned by two clerks overseen by an older gentleman. The clerks wore hotel uniforms, the older man wore a conservative dress, a frock coat in dark blue, with a black bowtie over a white shirt. He had a goatee and a hairline that was receding like the tide. He was immediately called over as soon as Alan said there were three of them rather than the two for whom they had reservations.
After hearing the particulars, he said, “It is but a minor matter, sir, but the hotel is fully booked at the moment. We can put him up in the servant’s quarters or we can have a trundle bed put in the dressing room of your suite?”
Alan nodded. “Have the trundle bed put into the dressing room and please be prepared to extend our stay for another few days. It looks increasingly like we will have to send more than one bird back to Londinium and receive responses here.”
“Very good, sir. The next airship to Angola will be Thursday, so I will reserve the room until then.” He tapped a bell, and a young man ran up. “The Gold Suite.” He turned back to Alan. “The trundle bed for your man will be up by noon.”
While Alan was talking to the head clerk, William looked around the registration desk. There was a booklet attached to the desk with a brass chain. William opened it and it contained drawings and adverts for the amusements available in Casablanca, and there on the third page was Rick’s American Tavern, with a picture that looked quite a bit like the first scene of the movie. William could almost see Peter Lorre running into the place just ahead of the cops. He had to visit Rick’s while they were in Casablanca. Had to.
As it happened, the trundle bed got to their dressing room considerably before the luggage, so there was plenty of time for William to explain the new memories.
“You’re saying that our world is all just some sort of pretend game that this other fellow is playing?” Alan asked in a tone that made it clear he was close to calling for restraints.
“You were willing enough to take my word that I had the memories of Bill Goldman, Alan. Why is this part so much less believable?”
Tom Blackwell tapped his knuckles on a side table. “With all respect, sir, this feels real enough for me.” Then he grinned, showing a crooked front tooth. ” ‘Course, it would, wouldn’t it? Me being make believe too.”
“I’m not saying this world is make believe,” William insisted. “I can tap the table too and it’s real. But from my memories, there is more than one reality. And in that other reality, this was just a game.”
“So you’re saying it’s a higher order of reality?” Alan asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe it’s just a different reality. But at the very least there seems to be some connection. In that reality, this was a game. I was being played by Bill Goldman and you were being played by Evan Von.”
“Then why don’t I have this Evan Von’s memories?”
“I haven’t got a clue.”
They talked for a while, then got to The Vampire Compendium IV. “My memories say that Jane isn’t inherently evil. Leroy said he was using the version four rules, and by those rules vampirism is a disease.”
“That’s impossible,” Alan said. “Julia was dead. She had to be.”
William had not known Alan when his sister was turned and went on a killing spree in Amsterdam, but he had heard the story. With his new perspective, he had no way of knowing if she was evil or not, but it seemed unlikely that she had been dead when Alan had staked her. He couldn’t say that, though. Not if he expected any sort of cooperation from Alan ever again. “Perhaps there are more than one form. I have to assume, based on my memories, that Jane Alexander was not evil once she was freed of Roderick’s influence. She ran because she didn’t see any way of convincing us. And she chose to run, not to kill. Remember, Alan, Jane didn’t attack us, even though she could have.”
“We were both wearing crosses and garlic. I had holy water,” Alan said. “We were not easy prey.”
“True enough, my friend, but she was clear-headed enough to figure that out. Not a mindless monster.”
“Vampires are not mindless, William.” Alan stood and grabbed up his deerstalker cap. “That’s what makes them so much more dangerous than zombies or were creatures. And it’s what makes them so much more evil as well. They know what they are doing and glory in it.” He walked out, clearly unwilling to hear more, at least for now.
Tom Blackwell looked at the door, then back at William. “You think I should go after him? To see he’s all right?”
“No.” William sighed. “Alan can take care of himself. In most ways he can take care of himself better than you or I.”
There was a knock and the baggage finally arrived.
The amulet for the shrink spell was actually two amulets. Two matched boxes, one twelve times the size of the other. The amulets had to be loaded together putting part of the spell in one box and part in the other and tying the two boxes together with lines of magical force. But invoking the spell wasn’t difficult. William opened the larger box and took the letter that Tom and Alan had written and placed it in the larger opening. He then closed it, and touched his left hand to the jewel on the top of the first box and his right to the jewel on the top of the second box. He said, “Compreso.”
Then he opened the second box and removed the now much smaller sheet. “Let’s get this sent.”
They went to the desk. It was the top floor desk again, because the pigeon roosts were on the roof next to the airship dock.
“Yes, bill the room,” William said to the desk clerk. The clerk gave him a note for the birder and they got the pigeon off.
William looked at his watch. “Yes, there’s still time. Let’s go to the bank, Tom. I need to get some cash. That pulse gun really did leave me penniless.”
By the time they got back from the bank, Alan was back.