From the author: The Royal Occultist hunts for a vampire during a Christmas party.
With special thanks to Joel Jenkins
It was December and there was a dead woman in the pantry. A bawdy rendition of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ drifted down through the floorboards from upstairs. The sound paced the kitchen like a drunken tiger. The cheerfully bellowed chorus found no purchase in either the ears or the hearts of those downstairs, however.
“Thoughts, Miss Gallowglass?” Charles St. Cyprian asked softly.
“She’s dead.” Ebe Gallowglass peered down at the body that lay between them as if it were nothing more than a common butterfly pinned to a cork board. She was dark and thin and slightly feral looking, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob, and a battered man’s flat cap resting high on her head. She wore a man’s clothes as well, beneath her convoy coat.
“Got her throat ripped out, didn’t she?” She sank to her haunches beside the body and thumbed back the brim of her cap. The motion revealed the butt of the Webley-Fosbery revolver holstered beneath her arm. There was a Seal of Solomon was picked out in ivory on the grip. “Fairly mucky way to go,” she added, unnecessarily.
“Show me a way that’s not,” St. Cyprian muttered. He sank down opposite Gallowglass. The body was sprawled on the floor of the pantry it had been discovered in. Despite the wound in her throat, the dead woman was recognisable as the daughter of a prominent member of the House of Lords. Sarah Edgemont had been infamous in her circle. Said circle was still celebrating the holidays upstairs, unaware of what had transpired.
If it had simply been a murder, a special investigator from the Yard would have been crouching where St. Cyprian now crouched. But it hadn’t simply been a murder. Murderers did not, as a rule, chew their victims’ throats out. They cut them, or gouged them, but they did not chew, and leave the remains of their repast on the floor of a pantry.
The owner of the pantry in question, and the host of the party rollicking on above, ran shaking hands through his sweaty mop of hair and said, “I popped down for another bottle of bubbly and saw the door open. Thought the servants had left it, before I sent them home for the evening. I went to close it, and, well there she was. I called you as soon as I saw, Chaz. I said to myself, ‘self, not a job for the plods this one, what with the—ah—the particulars, what?’ and rung you up sharpish.” Porthos ‘Porky’ Caruthers was, despite his nickname, rail thin and built more like a bird than a pig. He was dressed like a refugee from an American dime novel, wearing far too much fringed buckskin to be healthy, in St. Cyprian’s opinion.
In contrast, St. Cyprian was tall and rangy, with an olive cast to his features and hair a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He wore a dark suit beneath a battered officer’s greatcoat, and had a snap-brim fedora dangling from his hands. “You’ll still need to call them, Porky, if only to keep up appearances,” he said, glancing at the other man. “And what the devil are you wearing?”
“Think it could wait until after the party?” Caruthers said. He looked down at his outfit. “And this is authentic American attire, I’ll have you know. It’s real buckskin. My man in Savile Row swears by it.”
“Its dubious authenticity doesn’t make it any more appropriate, Porky. Why are you wearing it?”
“It’s Christmas, Chaz,” Caruthers said.
“I’m aware of the season, old top, mistletoe and figgy pudding and all that rot. And it’s not Christmas for two weeks. That still doesn’t answer my question,” St. Cyprian said.
“It’s a party isn’t it? And every party has to have a theme. Bobbie suggested that we have an American Christmas, just for a laugh—you know I’m mad for all that rot—so, buckskins, and bearskin rugs and whisky and such. Even found one of those tabaccy store Indians to put up in the parlour, donchaknow? It looks jolly authentic,” Caruthers burbled. “And Bobbie found us a real life American—he’s quite the card, Chaz. Bobbie thinks he’s a scream.”
“Bobbie—Roberta Wickham, you mean. She would over-complicate a simple concept like Christmas, wouldn’t she?” St. Cyprian said. He shook his head and looked down at the body again. Then he looked away from the red ruin of the young woman’s throat and let his gaze sweep the pantry. “Something’s missing,” he said.
“Her throat,” Gallowglass said.
“Besides that,” St. Cyprian said. “No, there’s no blood. Not enough, at any rate.” There were spatters on the stone, and some on the shelves—evidence that the pantry had been the scene of the crime, rather than merely a convenient hiding spot.
Gallowglass’ eyes narrowed. She straightened and looked around. Then she grinned and looked at St. Cyprian. “You owe me a quid,” she said.
“Not yet,” St. Cyprian said as he rose to his feet.
“I said not yet,” St. Cyprian said. “We don’t know for certain.”
“Oh, I’d say it’s a ruddy certainty,” Gallowglass said smugly. She held out her hand.
St. Cyprian looked at her. “You’re appalling.”
“Stop stalling. You owe me a quid—pay up.”
“After,” he said. “Let’s take care of the current docket first, before we start doling out ill-gotten gains.”
“What? What is it, Chaz?”
“Vampire,” Gallowglass said, with far too much volume and enthusiasm. She punched the air. “Vrykolakas, strigon, vukodlak, obour, it’s a vampire,” she chanted, hopping in a small circle. She paused and pointed both of her index fingers at St. Cyprian. “Garlic,” she said.
“Pantry,” St. Cyprian said sourly, motioning to the shelves around them.
“Right,” Gallowglass said cheerfully as she began to scour the shelves.
“This enthusiasm is unbecoming in the apprentice of the Royal Occultist,” St. Cyprian said. Gallowglass ignored him, and began to whistle the tune to ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ as she pilfered the pantry.
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist was responsible for the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boggarts and the occasional worm of unusual size—by order of the King, for the good of the British Empire.
The list also included vampires. Which, save for a brief, unpleasant incident during Victoria’s reign, were mostly extinct in England and had been since the Twelfth Century; nests of the beasts occasionally surfaced from forgotten plague pits, hidden barrows or decrepit churchyards, but they generally proved no more troublesome than an outbreak of measles, provided you had them contained and weren’t shy about a good bonfire.
He looked down at the body again, considering. The marks on the neck were recognisable enough. They were not the discreet pinpricks of Stoker’s sanitised accounting of the last vampire outbreak, but rather the red, wide marks of a beast of prey.
Despite the savagery of the wound, Edgemont hadn’t fought back against her attacker. He’d seen enough bodies to know when someone had died hard; too, there’d been neither sight nor sound of a struggle, according to Caruthers. Either she hadn’t had the time to fight back, or, more likely, she lacked the inclination. Most vampires were staggering horrors with more appetite than brains. But some were quite intelligent—they could lull their prey with a crude form of hypnotism, and then strike at their leisure.
If there were one of the latter loose in Kensington, mingling with the bright young things, it could prove troublesome. It needed to be nipped in the bud, before it spread its plague through the upper crust. He did a quick calculation in his head, judging how much time had passed since her death and Porky’s discovery of the body. The body wasn’t stiff yet.
“How many people are at this party you didn’t bother to invite me to, Porky?” St. Cyprian said, turning to Caruthers. If the vampire had left immediately, it could be anywhere by now. But if it hadn’t, they might be able to put an end to it before it claimed anymore lives.
“Really Chaz, you hardly ever come to parties anymore. I just saved you the bother of an RSVP, what?” Caruthers shook his head. “Maybe thirty—well, twenty-nine now.” He looked at St. Cyprian. “But some have already gone home! And, well, some haven’t arrived yet. You know how it is, old sport…lots of to’ing and fro’ing and all that.”
“Yes,” St. Cyprian said dubiously. He looked at Gallowglass, who had several bunches of garlic looped about her person. “Where in the name of…Porky, why do you have so much garlic?”
“Is that what that is? I rather thought it was fennel,” Caruthers said, peering into the pantry. “I let my man do all of the shopping, bally nuisance, otherwise.”
“Never mind,” St. Cyprian said. “When did you last see Miss Edgemont?”
“A few hours ago,” Caruthers said. “She popped out with someone for a bit of—ah—hanky-panky, what?”
That wasn’t unusual at parties. Necking was a long-standing social tradition, and most were only too happy to follow it. “Did you see with whom, by chance?”
“Fairly certain it was a chap, if that helps,” Caruthers said, helplessly.
“Well, it narrows it down, I suppose,” St. Cyprian said. He ran a hand through his hair. “All right, we’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Ms. Gallowglass, take the garlic and seal the first floor, windows, doors, stairs…if our blood-sucker is still on the premises, I want him nailed down tight. We’ll need a silver-backed mirror as well.” St. Cyprian scratched his chin and looked at Caruthers. “I don’t suppose you have such a thing as hawthorn or holly about, Porky?”
“Not unless my man bought some,” Caruthers said.
“Did he?” St. Cyprian said, looking at Gallowglass.
“Do they come in a tin?” Gallowglass said.
“Probably not,” St. Cyprian grunted. “If only we had some seeds or corn kernels. Easiest way to do for the buggers is to toss down some seeds. They can’t resist counting them.”
“Bullets are better than seeds,” Gallowglass said, patting the butt of her pistol.
“And magic bullets are better than regular bullets,” St. Cyprian muttered. He’d left his own Webley at home. Since the war, he’d come to detest the weight of a loaded weapon in his pocket. He carried one when absolutely necessary, or when Gallowglass nagged him, but otherwise went without. In a pinch, he always had the brass knuckles in his coat pocket to fall back on.
“Magic—I say, Chaz did I tell you that I bought a magic pistol?” Caruthers asked.
St. Cyprian looked at him. “No, Porky, that did not come up.”
“I bought it from a collector,” Caruthers said, “a genuine six-shooter, a Colt .45, straight from the wild west! It belonged to an Indian chappie, one of theirs, not one of ours. It’s got an eagle on the butt. Ain’t that a scream?”
St. Cyprian shared a look with Gallowglass. He looked back at Caruthers. “Why, pray tell, do you think it’s magic?”
“Oh the fellow who sold it to me swore it was! Owned by one of your sort,” he said. He leaned towards them and whispered, “Spiritual sort of fellow, what?” Caruthers tapped the side of his nose. “Heap big medicine, that’s what the man said. He said he dug it up himself, after the owner passed on.”
“I’m disappointed Porky. Grave robbery is beneath you,” St. Cyprian said. Caruthers winced, as if struck. St. Cyprian shook his head and pointed to Gallowglass. “I’m going to go take a look at this magic pistol of Porky’s. You know what to do.”
“I know you owe me a quid, is what I know,” Gallowglass said, trotting out of the pantry, garlic strung about her like ammunition bandoleers. A health dollop of garlic across the various portals on ingress and egress would stymie the creature’s attempt to escape, if it hadn’t already.
“Yes, yes,” St. Cyprian said testily. He grabbed Caruthers by a fringed sleeve and said, “Show me this revolver.”
“But I thought we were looking for a vampire?”
“We are,” St. Cyprian said. “But if that particular weapon is the one I’m thinking of, then it being in this house, at this time, with a vampire on the loose, is perhaps no coincidence.”
“Just lead the way,” St. Cyprian said tersely.
The noise of the party grew louder as they left the kitchen and went upstairs. People were moving all about the house, laughing, talking, singing and staggering. The party was centred on the sitting room, where the drinks cabinet was. The room was the largest in the house, and the walls were covered in the sort of tacky displays one rarely saw outside of a French cabaret.
Framed exhibition bills for Wild West shows, trick-shooting competitions and other such marvels, each one gaudily hued and cheaply printed, lined the spaces between similarly framed wanted posters and badly exposed photos depicting scenes from the western reaches of North America.
A glass faced cabinet in one corner held a dressmaker’s mannequin that wore a tattered grey uniform. The latter had enough gold braid to choke the horse it’s former owner had likely been shot off of. Smaller cabinets hugged the wall between picture frames and floorboards, each one stuffed with the sort of blood-stained memorabilia that appealed to Caruthers. Pistol balls, yellowing dime novels and purloined native war-bonnets jostled each other for space.
A pair of coffins which Caruthers swore were from Boot Hill, stood silent sentry to either side of the room’s large fireplace, and a wide-mouthed spittoon sat nearby, stuffed with kindling. Alcohol flowed freely as a tinsel-draped record player unleashed the scratchy styling of Frank Jenkins and his Pilot Mountaineers’ ‘The Burial of Wild Bill’. Men and women dressed in highly inauthentic western garb danced and laughed atop a scraggly looking buffalo skin rug.
St. Cyprian looked around, somewhat taken aback. Caruthers beamed proudly. “Took me years to build this collection, donchaknow,” he said. “Got dealers running hither and yon, procuring me interesting whatsits. Americans got no appreciation of their own history, Chaz.”
“Yes, well, what about this pistol of yours, Porky?” St. Cyprian asked, sidling out of the path of a couple waltzing to the screechy rhythms of the fiddle emanating from the record player. He scanned the room, taking in the faces and ticking off those whom he knew. None looked particularly vampire-like, then, you never could tell. He spent an idle moment scanning the wanted posters scattered about the walls—Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cavendish, Billy the Kid. Famous outlaws and killers all.
“Why, is that Charley St. Cyprian? Where’s your little friend, Charley? Hasn’t left you, has she?” a voice asked in something just short of a bellow, startling his train of thought off of the tracks. He turned, a weak grin fixing itself to his face as he recognised the young woman threading towards him through the crowd.
“Bobbie,” he said, stepping back, but not quickly enough.
Roberta Wickham was a small woman, petite and red-headed, and dressed like a socialite of the Plains tribes of the American southwest. She grabbed his arm and whirled him away from the case and Caruthers and into an awkward dance. “That’s all right, if she has. Bobbie’s here for you, darling.”
“Oh Gallowglass is about, I assure you, Bobbie. Nice to see you, by the by. You’re looking well.” St. Cyprian tried to extract himself from her grip, but she held on fiercely, wrinkling her nose at his efforts.
“And how would you know? You never call ‘round, you never write. You haven’t come to ruin another party of mine, have you? I still haven’t forgiven you for making a scene at that art opening of mine last year,” she said.
“Bobbie, that was three years ago and your artist was a lycanthrope,” St. Cyprian said. Somebody had changed the record, and now Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Black Bottom Stomp’ was playing.
“Was he Greek then? I thought he was Irish. At any rate you chased him off. I was so embarrassed,” Wickham said.
“No, not—never mind. Porky tells me you found a stray American,” St. Cyprian said.
“Right over there, lounging against the wall with all the louche elegance of a frontiersman born and bred,” Wickham said. St. Cyprian glanced in the direction she’d indicated. The American was leaning against the fireplace, seemingly unbothered by the heat. He wasn’t tall, nor was he particularly broad, but he had boyish good looks and a crooked smile, beneath a mop of shaggy dark hair. He wore old boots, cracked with age, and clothes that had seen better decades. Something about his face tugged at St. Cyprian’s memory. He’d seen that face somewhere, and recently.
“Is that what you call it?” St. Cyprian murmured. “What’s his name?”
“Antrim. Henry Antrim,” Bobbie said. “Doesn’t that sound so American? He was with Sarah—Sarah Edgemont, you know her?—when I stopped to have tea with her. Just sitting on her couch, grinning like a tomcat. I rather think she fancies him.” She frowned. “You haven’t seen her anywhere, have you? I could have sworn she stepped out with him, but then he came back.”
And she didn’t, St. Cyprian thought, eyeing the American surreptitiously. It might all be a coincidence. Antrim could simply be a guest. But something about Antrim’s name pricked at St. Cyprian’s mind, even as his face had. It was familiar, though he’d never seen Antrim before. He spun Bobbie about and stepped back, towards Caruthers. “Thank you for the dance, Bobbie, but Porky here was going to show me his latest acquisition, weren’t you Porky?”
“I was?” Caruthers said. “Oh, oh yes. Yes I was.”
“See? Man’s quite insistent,” St. Cyprian said. He grabbed Caruthers’ elbow and wheeled him away as Wickham fumed.
“Dash it all Chaz, she’s going to give me hell for this,” Caruthers whined.
“She’d give you worse if our bloodsucking party-crasher kills any more guests. Now, where’s this gun of yours?”
Caruthers led him towards a dais mounted display case near the far wall of the room and opposite the liquor cabinet. It would have had pride of place, if anyone had been paying attention to it. St. Cyprian leaned forward. The .44 Colt Navy revolver sat on a cushion, its barrel gleaming, and the eagle carved on the grip looked ready to launch itself off and up.
“The pistol of Lone Crow,” Caruthers said reverently. “Mystic, gunslinger, and devil-hunter,” he continued. “I have the diaries of Shotgun Ferguson, you know. The bits that deal with Lone Crow are simply wild, Chaz. Like some of your stories…giant worms, lost cities, shadowy killers. I have an agent trying to get access to a whole box of unpublished dime novels that Miskatonic University have sealed away like the tight-fisted Yankees they are.”
“Oh I’m well aware of how wild—and true—those stories are. And you’re sure this is his gun, are you?” St. Cyprian asked.
“Oh yes,” Caruthers said. “I paid a fair few quid for it. Lone Crow has been dead for years, apparently. I’d give anything to know how he died.”
“So would I,” St. Cyprian muttered. He could see the room reflected in the polished glass of the display case. Myriad faces swept across the flat surface. His eyes narrowed as he realised that one was missing, and which one it was. And, all at once, he realised where he’d seen Antrim’s face before. He looked up at the wall, at the wanted posters and shook his head in disbelief. He straightened quickly, grabbed Caruthers and hissed, “Find Gallowglass, Porky, and then get everyone who’s not in this room out of this house.”
“What?” Caruthers goggled at him.
“Just do it, man. I’ve found our vampire,” St. Cyprian said. As Caruthers hurried out of the room, he glanced over his shoulder at the American, where the latter leaned out of the way of the party. Antrim saw him looking and raised his glass in a salute that St. Cyprian could only take as mocking. Did the creature suspect he knew? And if so, how would he react?
His question was answered a moment later, when Antrim began to amble towards the door. He didn’t get far, however. Porky bustled back in, and Gallowglass just behind him, swinging a strand of garlic around her finger. St. Cyprian caught her eye, gestured to Antrim, and she nodded. She moved towards Antrim, said, “Catch!” and sent the garlic hurtling towards him.
Antrim leapt back like a scalded cat, and St. Cyprian felt a surge of delight as his suspicions were confirmed. Antrim shoved people aside in his retreat. He’d lost his good looks as well, and his distorted features were barely human. Snapping fangs and a lashing tongue, surmounted by blazing eyes, spun about, sending party-guests scrambling out of his way with screams and yells.
Antrim retreated back to the fireplace and visibly fought to control himself, cursing quietly the entire while. The room had gone silent, save for the record player and the crackle of flames in the fireplace.
Gallowglass pointed at him. “Told you—vampire,” she said.
“Hush you. Porky, what’s the proper western parlance for calling a chap out?” St. Cyprian said, waving Gallowglass to silence.
“Mostly they seem just to shoot one another and talk later,” Porky said, staring at Antrim in horrified fascination.
“Charley, what’s going on?” Wickham asked. She’d gotten an eyeful of Antrim’s fit. “What did you do to my real live American?”
“Mr. Antrim, or however you wish to refer to him, is, unless I mistake my guess, the very opposite of a real live American. He is quite dead. A vampire, in fact.” A murmur shot through the crowd.
“Still American though,” Antrim said. He didn’t appear bothered by the revelation, or the way the crowd of party-goers drew back from him. “You’re certainly a sharp one. Got some mojo, I’d bet. You got that look. What gave me away? Weren’t my breath, I hope. That do trip me up from time to time.”
“Your reflection. Or, rather, your lack of it,” St. Cyprian said as he knocked a knuckle against the case. “And this as well.” He reached over and took one of the framed wanted posters down. The resemblance of the picture to Antrim was obvious to everyone present. “William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. I thought it was a coincidence, until I recalled that Henry Antrim was an alias used by Bonney. That pushed it one step too far for coincidence.”
“I always forget about those,” Antrim said. “I didn’t think they looked nothing like me.” He chuckled. “My bad luck to come to the only damn house in Kensington with my face hanging on the wall.” He eyed St. Cyprian and smiled slyly. “Let me guess, you found poor Sarah in the pantry?”
“Sarah?” Wickham said.
“You mean where you left her, missing her jugular? Yes,” St. Cyprian said harshly. He glanced at Gallowglass and signalled her surreptitiously. She nodded tersely and began working her way through the back of the crowd, shoving people towards the door.
“I do admit, that was a bit rude of me, being a guest and all. I wanted to take her earlier, but she wanted to come to this here party, and I’m not a fellow as can resist a pretty face.” He glanced at Wickham and winked. She turned pale and St. Cyprian pulled her away from Antrim.
“You came just to kill her?”
“Actually, I just came for a drink and a bit of company,” Antrim said. “Holidays as make a man crave the sound of laughter, even a dead man.” He leaned back against the fireplace and picked up the poker. He gestured towards the case with it. “Then I saw that little bit of hell etched in steel, and decided as to pay my respects, you might say.”
“By killing someone,” St. Cyprian said.
Antrim’s smile was unpleasant. “I figured it was an appropriate gesture, considering.” He scratched his jaw with the tip of the poker. “Man can’t help but recognise a gun what done drilled a hole or six in him. The bastard what owned it shot me, and then dumped me in New York harbour must be—oh—twenty years ago, for killing some fat old tycoon’s daughter. She done had a whole collection of them dime novels they wrote about me.”
His smile slipped. “And then that damn injun hunted me down, through the snow and ice, and sent me into the water. I ain’t never been hurt that way by a gun, except once, and both times I died. But I got me a habit of coming back.” He tapped his chest. “My body just sort of fell apart in the mud and filth down there, and those old bullets just fell out, one by one,” he said and laughed. It was a shrill sound, like the chortle of a child. “I woke up with the rest of the trash and hopped ship. If I’d known he was dead, I might have hung around.”
He laughed again and swatted his knee with his free hand. “Funny thing, it being here tonight. Like a sign from the Devil hisownself. A sign that I’d outlive every two-bit bastard who was looking to plant me, like good old Patsy or the injun.”
“Except that you aren’t really alive, are you?” St. Cyprian said. “And you didn’t survive, not really. You’ve died twice, Mr. Antrim, by your own account.” The vampire liked to talk. St. Cyprian intended to encourage him as long as he could. The more Antrim gabbed, the more people Gallowglass could get out of the line of fire. He wondered how the outlaw had become what he was—and how many he’d killed since then. He pushed the thought aside. It was something to worry about later, in less dangerous circumstances.
“Maybe so, but look at me now, hunh? Sipping on bright young things in merry old England, like a real gen’lman.” Antrim grinned at him, displaying a mouthful of yellowing needle-fangs. He looked around at the party-goers, as if playing to an audience. “Ol’ Billy done well for hisself, and ain’t nobody going to say otherwise.” He swung the fireplace poker up and swept it through the air experimentally. “Especially after I kill everybody at this here shindig,” he added, nonchalantly. ‘I’ll have to be quick. I got me a boat to catch. I’m going to see Paris, maybe watch me one of the Grand Guignol shows.” His eyes flickered up and pinned Caruthers in place. “By the by, ain’t nobody ever dressed like that except Buffalo Bill, and he was an asshole.”
Then, with a single sinuous motion, Antrim was flowing towards them across the Turkish carpet, his eyes glowing like hell-sparks, and his jaw unhinging like that of a serpent. People screamed and scattered. He swung the fireplace poker at Caruthers, who gaped, paralysed by fear. St. Cyprian caught the fringe of Caruthers’ buckskin coat and jerked him out of the way. The poker smashed down, shattering the case. Antrim whirled with a hiss. St. Cyprian had slipped his fingers through the loops of the brass knuckles weighing down his coat pocket, and as Antrim made to follow Caruthers, he slammed his fist across the vampire’s jaw.
If Antrim had been human, his jaw would have shattered. As it was, he merely grunted and backhanded St. Cyprian across the room. He clutched at his jaw and moved it from side-to-side. “Damn, you got a good punch for a limey,” Antrim chuckled.
He stalked towards St. Cyprian, and his countenance became something less human, more monstrous. The youthful demeanour withered away, revealing the bestial core beneath. Antrim’s lips writhed back from needle fangs and his tongue lashed, snake-like, behind the thicket of teeth. His fingers were curled like claws and his head seemed to compress and shift, so that he resembled a weasel wearing a human mask. “I got me a pretty good punch too. Want to see?” he gurgled. His fist snapped out, piston-like, and put a hole in the bookshelf behind St. Cyprian as the latter rolled aside.
Book and loose pages flew across the room as Antrim jerked his hand loose of the splintered wood. St. Cyprian scrambled aside, Antrim’s fingers tearing at the edge of his coat. Gallowglass had yanked her Webley-Fosbery out of its holster and, as St. Cyprian got clear, she hauled back on the hammer. The pistol boomed several times as its cylinder emptied. Antrim jerked like a man caught on a third rail. Every shot knocked him back another half-step.
But he didn’t fall. He merely wheezed and stumbled back. The front of his shirt was wet and red, but he didn’t appear to be unduly bothered. “Were those shots silver, by chance,” St. Cyprian said, as he propelled Caruthers and the others towards the door.
“Forgot,” Gallowglass said tersely.
“Shame,” St. Cyprian said.
“Say that again,” Antrim said. He coughed into his hand. He extended the latter and opened bloody fingers, letting the bullets drop to the carpet. “I’ve had this shirt since I stole it from Blackjack Pershing’s footlocker, back in old Mexico.” He grinned at Gallowglass. “Just for that, I’m going to take my time with you.”
Gallowglass didn’t bother to reply. As Antrim lunged for her, she ducked under his arms and threw herself towards the shattered case. Antrim spun with a cry as she slid across the glass covered dais, scooped up the .45 Colt and twisted about as she fell to the floor to fire. The pistol bucked in her hand and Antrim clutched at his groin, doubled over and wailed.
St. Cyprian swept up a chair and shattered it over Antrim’s head, knocking him to the floor. The vampire squirmed about, trying to get to his feet. He shook his head and groped at his crotch. “Oh lordy, you done unmanned me,” he whined, snapping his fangs together. He shoved himself to his feet. “Ain’t no woman does that to me,” he snarled.
Gallowglass shot him again, and he pitched backwards and squalled like a crippled cat. He tried to get to his feet, his flesh flaking and curling like paper caught in a fire. “No,” he groaned, lunging towards her. Gallowglass skipped back, trying to get out of his reach, but he was too quick, even in as bad a shape as he was. His fingers pierced her shoulders like meat-hooks and she yelped.
“You ain’t getting me!” Antrim wailed, his eyes bulging from their blackening sockets, “You ain’t getting me with that devil gun! Not again!” St. Cyprian leapt at him from behind, and rammed a lengthy splinter from the broken chair into Antrim’s back, right between his skinny shoulder blades. The vampire spasmed and released Gallowglass, who fell to the carpet and drove her feet into his midsection, knocking him back.
“Out of the way,” she snarled. St. Cyprian dropped to the ground. Gallowglass fanned the Colt’s hammer, emptying it into Antrim. The vampire pitched backwards, tumbling over St. Cyprian to fall flat on the floor, his putrid blood leaking into the carpet.
Antrim kicked and shrieked and then curled up on his side and fell silent. His blood began to steam, and rose up like the stench off of an open sewer. His flesh continued to blacken, and his frame sagged like a deflated balloon.
“Quickly, get him into the fireplace,” St. Cyprian coughed, as the vampire began to come apart inside his clothes. “Don’t let a single bit survive—all of it must be burned.” Maggots, beetles and worms spilled out from the crumbling putrescence, chewing through the sagging, flaking flesh and spilling across the carpet.
“Quickly,” St. Cyprian repeated, grabbing one end of the rug. Gallowglass grabbed the other and they rolled the crumbling remains over the hearthstone and into the fireplace. The scrabbling insects popped or crisped with tinny whispers of noise that sounded almost like screams.
When every bit of the vampire had been consigned to the fire, they sat back and watched the flames consume Antrim’s immortal remains. “Funny how he came all this way, just to get popped in a sitting room in Kensington,” Gallowglass said.
“Fate has a way of catching up to a man at the most unexpected times. May I see that?” St. Cyprian said, holding out his hand for the revolver Gallowglass still held. She handed it to him and he examined it. “Lone Crow’s pistol,” he murmured. Then he smiled. “It’s a fake, of course,” he said, spinning the revolver’s cylinder.
“A fake,” Caruthers squeaked. He tore his eyes away from the fire. “What do you mean it’s a fake? We just saw it fire!”
“Oh it’s a real revolver. But it’s not Lone Crow’s.” St. Cyprian took aim at the crumbling ashes in the fireplace, and squinted down the barrel. “You got taken, chum of mine.”
“How do you know?” Caruthers demanded.
“Well, Porky, for one thing—he’s still alive.” St. Cyprian lowered the pistol and tossed it to Caruthers, who scrambled to catch it. “I had a letter from him just a month ago. He’s doing quite well for a fellow of his advanced years. He helped us out quite a bit during that nasty business with a cannibal-spirit at Fort Kent, in Canada, a few years ago.”
“So why’d Antrim go down like that?” Gallowglass said. “If that gun isn’t blessed, shouldn’t he have just spit out those bullets just like the others?”
“Belief is a powerful thing, especially for something like Antrim. It gives them the strength to crawl out of graves, and stumble down the long, dusty trail of years. But it’s also their weakness. The things they worshipped in life become anathema to them in death. Antrim, Bonney, whatever you want to call him, lived by the gun, and died by it, twice over.”
He looked at her and smiled crookedly. “You heard him—Lone Crow’s gun was the only one that ever hurt him, for whatever reason. So when you shot him, he reacted accordingly. Mind you, it’d have gone badly for us, if he had been a bit more observant.” He picked up the discarded poker. “Then again, maybe it was just a case of the stars aligning and the third time being the charm.”
He used the poker to stir the ashes in the fireplace.
And what was left of Henry Antrim swirled up the flue and out of sight.
This story originally appeared in Pulpwork Press Christmas Special 2013.
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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