From the bumpy driveway of the hotel I could already see the quaint village on the left, just about a mile from it, but I decided to explore the forest first. The dark and looming firs were taller than anything I’ve ever seen, and wherever one was able to get a glimpse between their very tops, one could see the Carpathian Mountains towering over these enormous trees. The dense undergrowth gave the place a creepy atmosphere, and one was almost expecting some terrifying sylvan dwarfs to jump out of the impenetrable woodwork at any moment.
‘You’re staying at the Raven’s Croak, too, aren’t you?’ a sonorous voice addressed me from behind. I caught my breath and slowly turned around; looking up I saw a tall black man standing in front of me, dressed in nothing apart from a red loincloth and sandals. He must have been closer to seven than to six feet in height, one of his front teeth was missing, and he had gigantic disked ears. Despite his intimidating appearance (and the fact that he rested his upper body on a large spear) he seemed quite harmless, and after I had recovered from my initial shock, we continued our way together.
In a small clearing we saw a couple of grazing cows, who much to my surprise had no difficulty keeping their balance on the steep slope.
‘I’m not very keen on the hotel food,’ my companion said and aimed his wooden spear at one of the cows.
I started laughing in disbelief. ‘I don’t think you can go around killing other people’s cattle just like that.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ he replied. ‘These are my own cows.’
With that he drove his spear into the cow, leapt over the spiked fence, opened a vein and filled his flask with the blood. Then he cut out the best parts which he put into a large leather bag he carried across his shoulder.
His own cows, he had said... He looked nothing like how I had imagined a Romanian farmer, but since it was my first visit to this country, I was willing to learn.
‘What about the rest?’ I asked him. ‘There’s enough beef on it to fill a dozen of these bags.’
‘There’s an old Chinese proverb,’ he replied, ‘that says: If you want to live safely, keep the vultures fed!’
Back at the little hotel, he went upstairs to his room while I checked for messages at the reception. As we watched the tall black man ascending the stairs, I asked the receptionist, ‘If he has his own farm here, why does he stay in a hotel?’
She looked puzzled and probably thought I was having her on.
‘Who, you mean Olumnyak? What makes you think he has a farm?’
‘Well, he killed a cow and told me it was one of his own...’
‘He’s a Maasai warrior,’ I was informed by another guest who had just arrived at the reception. He was tall and effortlessly stiff, probably in his fifties, with a long and sinister face. I looked at him in bemusement, wondering what his remark had to do with my question.
‘The Maasai believe that their God Ngei created all cattle for the benefit of their people, and therefore, naturally, they consider all cattle on this planet their property.’
‘Naturally...’ I mumbled in agreement.
‘I’m Lord Stutton,’ he said and stretched out his hand. ‘And you are...?’
‘Ludwig, Frank Ludwig.’
‘Pleased to meet you! Will you join me in the lobby to pay your respects to Mr Stiube? There’s free palinca as well!’
Despite the weird circumstances surrounding his death – the cries for help for example that were heard by his wife, the supposed bite marks or the fact that his body was completely drained of blood – the hotel owner had been prepared and laid out for the wake already after the doctor had certified a death by natural causes.
He lay in an open casket in the lobby, with a scythe blade fastened across his neck and a branch of wild rose placed on his chest.
‘As you can see, the vampire folklore is very much alive around here, even in the 21st century. The scythe blade is supposed to decapitate him should he attempt to rise; but probably the family will cut his head off before the funeral, anyway.’
Now there was a grisly thought.
‘Do you know a lot about vampirism?’ I asked him.
‘Well, I have been studying superstitious beliefs all over the world, and I found that the vampire folklore is very much the same in all countries, with just a few minor deviations.
Supposedly there are three types of vampires: the patriarchs (or masters, as some call them), the living vampires and the dead ones.
The patriarchs are said to be the most difficult ones to detect – they have no weaknesses and appear just like human beings, but are about ten times as strong; although they don’t always show it, for obvious reasons. Their bodies are able to regenerate within minutes after any type of injury, and the only way to kill them is by decapitation. Some claim they are immortal, others maintain that they have a life expectancy of some ten thousand years – which in our world doesn’t quite make a difference.
The next ones are those who were bitten by a patriarch or another vampire and left alive; these are very much like human beings, too, except that they feed on blood and are telepathically connected to their master. Whatever service he requires of them will be carried out immediately; they have no will of their own any longer. These can be killed the same way any human being can be killed; however, after their death they will belong to the last group.
The dead vampires are usually leftovers from a patriarch’s or another vampire’s feeding. However, the telepathic connection to the master is there as well, and if need be, he can call these creatures from the grave and demand their service. These are the ones one would generally read about in horror novels; they are the most vulnerable of them all, and they can be destroyed by as little as a ray of sunlight or the flame of a candle.’
‘You’ve got a pleasant conversation topic,’ said the marquesa as she entered the lobby.
‘Oh,’ she said and shrunk back after seeing the face of Mr Stiube, ‘I can imagine what inspired that discussion!’
I had met the marquesa earlier in the day; she was a tall Spanish beauty, with wavy black hair and a body to die for. She looked like a noblewoman all right, but the way she dressed did not; her clothes were stylish, that is true, but one would expect a member of the nobility to have them made with about twice the amount of fabric.
‘Do you really believe he was killed by a vampire?’ she asked Lord Stutton.
‘I don’t believe in these superstitions,’ he replied, ‘but I must admit that the circumstances of his death are more than irregular.’
Soon afterwards Mr Froydenman, the American guest, came in. He looked at the casket with a mixture of bemusement and amusement, took out his camera and took a picture of the late hotel owner; ‘Gee, wait till I send this to the folks back home! They ain’t gonna believe these things still exist!’
Now Irina, the chambermaid, pushed in a wobbly wheelchair with the widow of the late Mr Stiube. Irina was a pale girl in every respect; a shrinking violet, very attractive but dressing and acting in a way as if she didn’t want to be noticed. Her eyes were always cast down, and she seemed to be frightened whenever someone addressed her. She was very slim, but her belly was sticking out quite a bit; I imagined that she was pregnant, which would have been quite a stigma for an unmarried girl in this society, even in the new millennium.
I don’t think anyone had ever seen Mrs Stiube before since she was not about too often, but we all knew at once who was addressing us. She was a small and fragile lady, but there was no doubt that she was still in full possession of her faculties. And despite her condition, she had obviously gone through a great effort in order to be dressed immaculately, from the black hat and scarf down to her black shoes.
‘Thank you all for coming,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you are aware of the strange particulars of my husband’s passing. There have been similar incidents in our village before, but the local authorities have decided to ignore all the obvious details; and I suppose they are right when they say there is nothing they can do about it.
I now have managed to contact an expert who is an acclaimed authority on occurrences like these, and I am confident that he will be able to put an end to what is going on in our village; it will be too late for my beloved Joseph and many others, but at least the rest of us will be able to sleep in peace again. Good night to you, and may God bless you!’
With this she signalled Irina to bring her back to her room, but not before having her stop at the casket where she awkwardly climbed out of her wheelchair, pulled herself up and placed a gentle kiss on her husband’s cheek.
Soon afterwards we were joined by Olumnyak who asked Irina for a half glass of milk, a cherry and a spoon. He took out his hip flask, filled the glass up with the cow’s blood, stirred it and put the cherry on top; he joined in the conversation, occasionally sipping from his gruesome cocktail, as if nothing had happened, while everybody was staring at him and his drink in disgust.
‘Do you think he’s a vampire?’ I whispered to Lord Stutton.
‘If so, all Maasai are,’ he replied. ‘That is what they drink; though I have to admit, the cherry is news to me.’
'Wow, a real Maasai,' remarked Mr Froydenman. 'Do something indigenous!'
Maria, the receptionist, entered the lobby and looked for Olumnyak. ‘I just had Father Troik on the phone; he claims that you killed one of his cows, and he wants you to pay for it – otherwise he says he’ll go to the police!’
Olumnyak slowly put down his drink, sat back and said, ‘You tell your little priest that we tolerate his religion being practised in our country, so he should show our people the same courtesy!’
I have to confess that this man greatly intrigued me; he may not have been right, but he certainly was interesting.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what brings a Maasai warrior to Transylvania?’
‘Oh, I was just looking for a bit of peace and quiet. Life as a warrior can be very demanding, and I needed to go on a holiday; and since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the tales of the dark forests in Europe; Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Robin Hood, Dracula...’
The marquesa leisurely moved the shoulders of her jacket back and stuck out her voluptuous breasts while lasciviously opening her legs towards the warrior. ‘And I suppose you would have been the big bad wolf?’
‘As an old Chinese proverb says,’ Olumnyak smirked, ‘The deeper the forest, the easier the girl.’
Back at the hotel I checked for messages at the reception. Maria was as friendly and as happy as always; she must have been the only one who wasn’t affected by the events, or at least the only one not to show it.
‘Will you finish at nine again tonight?’ I asked her.
I tried to look into her bright blue eyes as I spoke to her, I really tried to look her in the face that was framed by her wavy black hair, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes off that golden cross that was dangling over her full breasts.
'See anything you like?' she smiled.
'I'm sorry,' I replied, 'I was staring at your personality. I just wondered,’ I added and actually managed to lift my eyes for a moment, ‘if you would like to go out for a drink later.’
‘What, to the Dungeon‘?’
‘Well, I don’t really know the local pubs yet...’
‘There is only the Dungeon,‘ she informed me. ‘It is a noisy place, there are only old men in there, and they are rude, obnoxious and aggressive – there is at least one bar fight every night!’
‘Still, if it is the only place... I can assure you you’ll be perfectly safe with me!’
‘Well, I suppose...’ she smiled. ‘I’ll meet you after work in the lobby so!’
In the afternoon all of us went to the cathedral for Mr Stiube’s funeral mass. Father Troik was a small man of extreme insignificance; a face one forgets as soon as one looks at it, yet I had the distinct impression that I’d seen him somewhere before.
His mass was compassionate but distant, and I couldn’t help feeling the presence of evil in the church.
When it came to Holy Communion, the way he said ‘Body of Christ’ just gave me the creeps. The wafers we were handed had a strange consistency and looked (and tasted) more like bacon than bread.
It got worse when the chalice was handed around; the wine actually tasted of blood, but I told myself that coming to a foreign country and being faced with the horrors of the previous day, my mind was bound to play tricks on me.
Afterwards we gathered in the hotel lobby again where I voiced my strange feeling of having seen the priest before.
‘The Turin Incident,’ Lord Stutton informed me. ‘When the Turin Shroud was exposed during the Great Jubilee, he tried to scratch a DNA sample off it in order to clone a saviour but was immediately removed by security. It was in the news all over the world.’
‘And did he get the sample?’ the American asked.
‘Hard to say; but he managed to touch the shroud and scratch it with his fingernail, which probably was sufficient. – You see, before he became a priest, he was a scientist and involved in a couple of cloning experiments that were more on the borders than inside the law.
Then, supposedly after a near death experience, he saw the light and found his true calling. He became a priest, and it is said that he had a true obsession with Transubstantiation; of course, every Catholic is supposed to believe they are actually eating and drinking Christ, but even his most conservative colleagues are said to have been scared of him because of this obsession.’
‘He sure looks like a little vampire,’ the marquesa remarked. ‘I am not easily scared, but there is something terribly creepy about that puny man.’
‘Well, fortunately he won’t join us,’ we were informed by Maria who had just entered. ‘He just rang and sent his apologies since he has an emergency.’
There was a sigh of relief, followed by a short silence.
I started fidgeting around with the little cross on the necklace I had purchased earlier.
‘You don’t believe this Christian mumbo jumbo will help you, do you?’ Olumnyak asked me while playing with his spear. ‘Vampires are a lot older than Christianity; in fact, they are a lot older than mankind.’
‘Tell us more,’ Lord Stutton encouraged him.
‘A long time before man inhabited this planet, there was another group of hominoids. They were highly advanced and sophisticated – they had telecommunications, a highly developed technology and even space programmes long before the first Neanderthal.
When mankind finally arrived on the scene, they called them gods and worshipped them because of their seemingly supernatural powers. The gods observed their new neighbours with amused curiosity, just like the way we look at chimpanzees ourselves today.
Even though it was frowned upon by the other gods, some actually kept human beings as pets or slaves. Others took a more active interest in the humans’ development since they realised there was an intellectual potential; but they soon got disappointed. Some taught them to light and control a fire in order to heat their caves, but they used it to burn their neighbours. They taught them to make and use spears for hunting and watched them kill each other with them. They taught them to speak and witnessed endless quarrels and fights. They taught them to read and write, and their first sentence was “Kill the Hittites!”
Around that time, the gods had discovered a planet in Orion which provided ideal living conditions, and after a few centuries of exploration and preparation, they left Earth to settle on that planet.
In order to prevent man from following them once they would reach a technically advanced stage, and probably to protect them from themselves as well, they destroyed all records and materials they didn’t take with them. Most of them had the habit of burning their dead (death was not a big issue since they had a life expectancy of ten or twenty thousand years), and the remaining corpses, if ever found, could easily be mistaken for particularly tall humans.
I can just imagine the gods on their spaceship cracking jokes about us. For example, Thor saying to Quetzalcoatl, “I wonder whom those humans will worship now,” and Quetzalcoatl answering, “Oh, they’ll still worship us – they’ll only believe we’re invisible!” – “And what about all the traces we’ve left behind; the pyramids, the moai, the dolmen...” – “Oh, just give them a few thousand years, and they’ll believe they created those themselves!”’
Olumnyak was so amused at his own joke that he found it difficult to stop laughing. ‘And then I guess staid young Jehovah butted in, shouting “Shut up! I’m trying to fly a spaceship here!”’
‘And where do the vampires come in?’ Mr Froydenman asked.
‘Oh yes, the vampires... As I mentioned, some of the gods had taken an active interest in the development of mankind, and a few of those found themselves intrigued by the basic human instincts: greed, jealousy, hatred, blood lust and so on. Rather than being gods amongst gods, they decided to stay on Earth and become masters of mankind; and I doubt they would have been offered a place on that spaceship, anyway!’
‘It sounds like you were there yourself,’ the marquesa commented.
‘Who knows,’ Olumnyak winked at her, ‘I just might have been... As an old Chinese proverb says: Don’t trust anyone over 5 foot.’
Now Maria came back in. ‘Sorry, can someone give me a hand, please? Irina didn’t show up for work today, and she doesn’t answer the door, either. I tried to get in with the master key, but the door is bolted from the inside. I’m afraid something might have happened to her!’
We all went upstairs with her and tried to push in the door. None of us succeeded despite several individual and combined efforts until it was Olumnyak’s turn; he simply rammed his shoulder against the door, and the whole thing fell apart.
‘My great-grandfather sure could have done with someone like you on the plantation,’ Mr Froydenman remarked as we entered.
Maria screamed from the depth of her lungs, the marquesa lost her composure and almost fainted, and the rest of us just stood in silent shock. Irina lay naked across the bed with a bite mark in her neck, her body completely drained of blood, and her closed fist holding on to a crucifix.
‘She was pregnant, wasn’t she?’ I asked.
‘Yes, she carried a child for the Church.’
‘A child for the Church?’
‘Yes, Father Troik is granting indulgences for every child that is born for the Church; for the first one a universal lifetime indulgence for the mother, for the second one a universal lifetime indulgence for her whole family.’
‘I never heard that the Catholic Church granted universal lifetime indulgences.’
‘Oh, Father Troik has been excommunicated many years ago because he had his own little ways... but we are quite happy with him, so it doesn’t really make a difference.’
‘And what happens to the children?’
‘I imagine they are given to adoptive parents who can’t have any of their own.’
A look around showed us that Irina must have been extremely frightened. She had the door bolted in eight places, but unfortunately she didn’t give the window the same attention. She probably thought she would be safe on the second storey, but anyone with a little climbing skills could have made it up here.
We went back downstairs to let the police and the doctor do their bit, but since were all pretty shaken, we soon retired one by one.
Maria still showed up for our date later, even though she was twenty minutes late. For someone who was concerned about the rough clientele in the Dungeon, she was dressed very seductively and showed even more leg and cleavage than she usually did.
She had been right about being the only female in the joint, but the men in the pub looked rather depressed and introverted, and I couldn’t see any of them being a danger to us, let alone starting a bar fight.
We sat down at one end of the counter and ordered our drinks. We talked about ourselves and what we expected from life, cautiously avoiding any mention of the terrible things that had happened recently.
She was a fast drinker, and I didn’t even attempt to keep up with her vodka consumption. At one stage I caught a glimpse of the mirror behind the bar; it was difficult to say from that angle, but theoretically – shouldn’t that bit in the corner show the elbow she was resting on the counter?
‘Hello, aren’t you the girl from the hotel?’ someone asked her while waiting for his drink.
Maria grabbed him by the collar and pulled his head towards hers. ‘Are you trying to hit on me?’
‘No, of course not... I was just trying to be friendly!’
‘What do you mean by of course not? Am I that unattractive, jerk?’
He tried to reply, but the girl pushed the poor man back with such a force that he lost his balance and fell to the ground.
'You're in a world of broccoli now,' she exclaimed and snatched a bottle from behind the counter, smashed it over his head and threw the remaining part behind the bar where the mirror burst into thousand pieces.
The barman tried to resolve the situation, but when she told him ‘Stay out of this!’ he ducked behind the counter and carefully reached for the telephone.
The other guests soon got involved; some had witnessed the situation and took the side of the man who still hadn’t realised what hit him (and didn’t even try to fight back), others just assumed that he had assaulted Maria and took her side. So these were the bar fights she was so worried about!
After breakfast I decided to take another walk in the forest, which, under these circumstances, probably wasn’t very safe – but then again, even the hotel wasn’t safe.
When I returned, I saw a new visitor signing his name into the book. He was a sturdy-looking fellow, strong but considerably aged, with reddish hair, bushy brows and steely blue eyes.
‘Room Number 6, Mr Van Helsing,’ Maria said and handed him the key.
‘Mr Van Helsing?’ I asked. ‘The Van Helsing?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean by the Van Helsing, young friend, but yes, I am the great-grandson of Abraham Van Helsing - the most famous vampire hunter in our family, but by no means the only one.’
He took the cigar I offered him, put it in his chest pocket and asked me if I had stayed in the hotel for long.
‘Just a few days,’ I answered.
‘But I suppose you are familiar with the hotel guests and the village by now?’
‘To a certain extent...’
‘I’ll just check in and talk to Mrs Stiube; if you have a bit of time on your hands, I’d like to meet you in the lobby in a few minutes to smoke this,’ he said and tapped against his chest pocket.
‘I’m sorry,’ Maria said after Van Helsing had gone upstairs, ‘I can’t remember anything about last night. Did I do anything silly?’
‘No, not at all,’ I replied and tried to keep a straight face. And no, I didn’t believe she had forgotten.
‘Well, maybe we could go there again some time,’ she suggested.
‘I don’t think so; as you said, it is a very rough place after all. Maybe we could have a coffee somewhere or go for a walk...’
That’s after I made sure I can see your reflection in a mirror, I thought to myself.
‘Have you noticed anything unusual around here so far?’ Van Helsing asked me as he lit his cigar.
‘To be frank, I haven’t noticed anything usual around here at all,’ I answered. ‘This hotel is catering for a very bizarre clientele, and I wouldn’t trust anyone completely. Now Maria might be a vampire, but I’m not sure...’
‘The receptionist? She isn’t!’
‘And how do you know?’
‘My magic waistcoat.’ – He leaned back and tapped his fingers against it. ‘These buttons are polished every day,’ he explained, ‘and whenever I meet someone, I make sure I can see their reflection in it.’
I sighed with relief; obviously I was dating a lunatic, but at least she wasn’t a vampire.
‘Anyway, I’m not going after the ordinary vampires,’ he informed me. ‘If you want to destroy a hornets’ nest, you start with the queen.’
‘What exactly do you mean?’
‘There must be hundreds of vampires in this area, and going after them would be a waste of time. But if we can find and destroy the patriarch, we will be rid of all of the others.’
‘They will die, too?’
‘Sooner or later. A vampire is guided by the will of the patriarch; he has no will of his own, and once the patriarch is gone, he has no will of anyone else, either. He will simply weaken and fade, and he’ll die of something as little as the common cold or a minor bruise.’
‘Well, as I said already, I wouldn’t vouch for anyone in the hotel, but I remember I did see the reflections of Olumnyak and the marquesa in the mirror when we found the chambermaid.’
‘Oh, the patriarchs do cast a reflection all right! It is not them who have lost their souls...’
‘So how can you tell them from a human being?’
‘Research, my friend, lots of research; or you can cut off a finger and see if it grows back within five minutes.’
He looked at his pocket watch. ‘Do you know where the town hall is?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Let’s go,’ he said and took his walking cane.
‘My name is Van Helsing,’ he told the receptionist. ‘I believe the mayor is expecting me.’
‘He is, Mr Van Helsing. It’s up the stairs, the large door on the right.’
The distraught mayor was delighted to see the vampire hunter, and after the introduction he was asked for a list of the oldest residents.
‘The oldest residents? You don’t suspect them, do you?’
‘I suspect everyone,’ Van Helsing replied, ‘but the reason I want to talk to them is simply background knowledge only they could have.’
‘Well, the oldest person in the village is 93. She used to be our schoolmistress...’
‘A schoolmistress? That is absolutely perfect! Can you give me her address?’
The mayor wrote it down and gave it to Van Helsing. ‘I will just give her a ring beforehand so she knows who’s coming; in times like these, not many people open their doors to strangers.’
‘I’m sure you have a plan in mind,’ I told him after we had left the mayor’s office, ‘I just can’t figure out what it is.’
‘It’s rather simple,’ he answered. ‘Put yourself into the position of a patriarch; or any vampire, for that matter. How would you live?’
‘I’d keep a low profile,’ I said, ‘I’d live like anybody else...’
‘And after fifty years?’
‘Well, I suppose people would get suspicious about my age... I’d probably move somewhere else.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘And what would everybody else have had, apart from you?’
‘Erm... a reason to live?’
‘Not necessarily. But everybody else would have had a childhood in the 20th century. Unfortunately, I’ll have to find the resident patriarch by process of elimination; and the best source is someone who knows everybody in the village.’
‘And you’re sure there’s only one patriarch?’
‘Not any more. This one has let his guard down big time; he is either awfully careless, or he is inviting all other patriarchs for the showdown.’
‘Yes. Vampires are very much like empires; they are not about peaceful co-existence but about power and expansion!
When man created the first countries, he also created the first little empires which grew larger by taking over other empires. Hundred years ago we had about a dozen empires left, a few years after the Second World War there were only two, and since the collapse of the USSR the whole world answers to one country.
Patriarchs are the same. Since the dawn of time they have fought each other over the dominion of mankind, seeking each other out and killing anyone who might be another patriarch. The more of them disappeared, the more careful the others got. Over the past hundred years or so, they hardly ever left a trace – they didn’t allow their subjects to feed on humans, and they themselves would resort to employment in hospitals where they had access to blood banks, or feed on cattle without killing them. Of course, it’s never the same as the real deal, so occasionally they would go on holidays on the other side of the world, feed on one or two humans and be gone again before anybody gets alarmed.
What happened here is completely out of character for them; as I mentioned, either this one is awfully careless, or this is an open invitation for the others to fight for the ultimate prize.
My guess is that there are probably only two or three patriarchs left. And this is why, after finding the resident one, we’ll have to check out the guests in all the hotels and B&Bs in this area, too.’
‘Are there any matriarchs as well?’
‘Well, theoretically it is possible, I guess. But in the tens of thousands of years of vampirism, there has been no known case. All the children women have born to patriarchs were male and became patriarchs as well.’
‘Does this mean all the patriarchs’ children become patriarchs? In that case I’d imagine there’d be many more around!’
‘Not at all! Nature always keeps her balance, and since a patriarch has a life expectancy of about twenty thousand years, he will only become fertile towards the end of his life cycle. And to my knowledge, no living patriarch is older than eight or ten thousand years; you see, they’re a very patricidal bunch of lads!’
Mrs Ovidiu welcomed us in, and I realised that Van Helsing was satisfied after a subtle glance at his buttons.
Van Helsing asked her if anyone had moved to the area in recent years.
‘No one I can think of... We don’t seem to attract a lot of strangers here.’
‘Think really hard, madam. Is there anyone at all whom you didn’t know as a child?’
‘Oh, I knew all of them. There isn’t one in the village whom I didn’t teach how to read and write! Apart from Vladimir, of course...’
‘Vladimir? Where did he come from?’
‘Oh, he is from here, too... but he is almost as old as I am. We were classmates and two of the seven only children who survived the Night of the Count’s Revenge; he’s the only one here who hasn’t been taught by me.’
‘The priest,’ I thought aloud, ‘Father Troik – did you know him as a pupil?’
‘Oh, I did... he was a highly disturbed child, and there wasn’t a day I didn’t have to cane him for dissecting living frogs or attempting to perform brain surgery on his sister with a flint – and look what a wonderful man he turned out to be!’
‘Madam,’ Van Helsing continued, ‘as I told you, we are looking for a vampire; a man who has to move every few decades in order not to raise suspicion, a man who probably spent his childhood at the court of Ramesses I or in the Children’s Crusade, and – last but not least – a man who has killed more than twenty people in your village. Is there really no one you can think of?’
‘I’m very sorry I can’t help you,’ she said. ‘I would tell you if there were anyone I don’t know from childhood – but trust me, there isn’t!’
After we left the old lady, I decided to go to Irina’s wake at her parents’ house while Van Helsing continued his visits to the old folks.
The shy girl had been very popular with the guests, and when I arrived, everybody else was there already.
Irina’s parents were devastated by their loss, as could be expected. The old couple sat on the sofa, and the mother was crying onto the shoulder of the father who tried to comfort her.
Of course the same precautions had been taken as in Mr Stiube’s case, and Mr Froydenman took out his camera again.
‘Don’t you think that on a solemn occasion like this you could show a little more decorum?’, Olumnyak asked him.
‘Decorum?’ the American replied. ‘Am I supposed to be taught manners by someone whose people still slaughter cows for food?’
The Maasai remained surprisingly calm. ‘Tell me, Mr Froydenman, where do the Americans get their beef from?’
‘From the supermarket, of course.’
Now the marquesa jumped to his defence; it was the first time I saw them standing side by side, and it was amusing to see the tall Amazon being dwarfed by the warrior.
‘His people were tending cattle when your country bombed wedding parties in Afghanistan, his people were tending cattle when you came to America and exterminated the people who lived there already, and his people were tending cattle when your ancestors bashed in the heads of Catholic families in Europe... what exactly is it that makes you culturally superior?’
‘Come on now, this is a wake,’ Lord Stutton intervened; although addressing all three, it was obvious he meant Mr Froydenman in particular. ‘If you want a duel, take it outside, but let these poor people grieve in peace.’
Father Troik, who stood on his own just a yard away, had witnessed the conversation with an evil smirk; he appeared delighted at the quarrel, and I swear he was looking forward to an escalation!
‘I bet you wish you were home now, seeing all this,’ he said to Olumnyak.
‘Oh,’ the warrior replied, ‘I just have to click my heels three times. As an old Maasai proverb says: Home is not far when you’re alive.’
‘By the way, when can I expect you to pay for my cow?’
‘As soon as your people stop turning our women against our men.’
To our surprise, Van Helsing joined us after having completed his rounds. As he introduced himself and paid his respects, her father said, ‘I suppose you would like to examine her?’
‘Oh no, not at all. We all know what happened to her, and there couldn’t possibly be anything else for me to discover on the poor girl. No, the only reason for my visit is to condole with you on your loss, and to promise you that I will put an end to the creature who did this!’
On our way back to the hotel he looked very grim. ‘It seems no one has moved here recently; all the other old folks swear that everybody was here as a child. Tomorrow I will check out the neighbouring villages, maybe he is just commuting.
- Oh God, can you imagine what will happen if I fail? The last remaining patriarch, without any competitor to fear, being able to bring his evil out in the open, setting his vampires on all of mankind, raising the dead ones from their graves... can you imagine the amount of horror that would be unleashed on the planet?’
Olumnyak and the marquesa were walking in front of us; they were getting quite close, and just before we got back, I actually saw her slapping his buttocks to which the warrior replied by whistling through his tooth gap.
Maria was just about to finish up. ‘There’s a full moon tonight, I thought maybe we could have a picnic at the lake?’
‘Splendid idea,’ I replied.
‘I already made a few sandwiches, and I also got a bottle of vodka...’
‘Vodka?’ I asked in terror. ‘Why don’t we stay sober for a change?’
‘Oh, come on!’
‘How about a bottle of wine then?’
I doubted that wine would have the same effect on her, so I reluctantly agreed.
As I had coffee in the lobby later, I was joined by Olumnyak who seemed to seek silent company and nervously fidgeted with his spear.
‘What happened?’ I asked him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Come on, you and the marquesa have been dodging each other all morning, after having been all over each other last night.’
The warrior made a few confused attempts at starting a sentence, then shook his head and tried again.
‘The marquesa followed me to my room last night and came on to me,’ he finally confessed, ‘and I went along with it - Enkai help me, I went along with it! At least until...’
‘Until I lifted his skirt,’ he said and buried his face in his hands.
‘His?’ I repeated in disbelief.
‘His,‘ he confirmed and almost started crying.
‘There, there,’ I comforted him and patted him on the shoulder. ‘As an old Chinese proverb says: When you buy a nest, you don’t want to find a bird.’
Van Helsing joined us a little later and asked me again if I suspected any of the guests.
‘No one in particular,’ I told him, ‘though I must admit that Lord Stutton looks exactly how I have always pictured vampires in the classic novels; but that’s not sufficient for a conviction, I imagine.’
‘Oh, Lord Stutton is a vampire all right, but not a patriarch.’
‘He is? Maybe if we check the guest book, we can find out whether he arrived with his master.’
‘No, he didn’t. He only got bitten last night; he still cast a reflection at the wake, and this morning he did anything possible to avoid standing or sitting in front of me – he must have observed the way I check my buttons, but I finally caught him when I got up in the breakfast room. He is most probably used by one patriarch in order to track down the others; I’m sure you noticed how he was sent to put me on the wrong trail!’
‘Well, his behaviour did seem rather odd. So how many vampires are there that you know of?’
‘Just Lord Stutton and Mrs Burca, which means anybody else could be a patriarch. I have got a map of the area, and I will check out the neighbouring villages today.’
As Van Helsing drove off into the sunrise, I cuddled up between my sheets again with a copy of Oscar Wilde’s poems, occasionally watching the lightning and listening to the thunder. If there were to be a showdown of the dark forces, I thought to myself, this would be the perfect day.
It was not before the late afternoon that I went downstairs again to talk to Maria. The love story of the warrior and the marquesa had spread like wildfire, and according to Maria the whole village talked of nothing else.
The marquesa himself was too embarrassed to show his face, and he had locked himself into his room for the rest of the day.
Later Van Helsing returned from his quest with a bitter and despondent mien.
‘None whatsoever,’ he said. ‘There has to be a resident patriarch, otherwise this whole thing wouldn’t make any sense.’
‘You’re disappointed, I take it.’
‘Oh yes! Even more disappointed than our American tourist when he’ll find out there won’t be any corpses on his photographs.’
‘Mr Foydenman?’ Maria butted in. ‘Oh, Mr Froydenman is not a tourist! He bought a castle in the Carpathians a few months ago, and he’s just staying with us during its renovation.’
My face must have frozen. I looked at Van Helsing who just nodded as if he had suspected something already.
‘And where is he now?’ he asked.
‘I think he’s at the castle now to supervise the works.’
A little later I found an excuse to go to my room and make a call on my mobile phone; in a case like this, one wants to be absolutely certain before taking action!
Back in the lobby Olumnyak had substituted the cow’s blood with a bottle of vodka. He was in a severely pitiable condition, and Maria finally convinced him it was better to retire and escorted him to his room.
Once we were on our own, Van Helsing said, ‘I need your help, young friend. Are you prepared to risk your life for the survival of mankind?’
‘I never thought much about that before,’ I replied; ‘but if it can put an end to this nightmare, I’d be only too happy to oblige!’
As I returned to my room after dinner, I got the return call I’d been waiting for.
‘Mister Ludwig? I have checked out all available sources, and that name simply doesn’t seem to exist!’
‘Are you a hundred percent sure?’
‘I am! I have checked on the Internet, I have checked the telephone directories of this country, the English-speaking countries, the European countries, and there is not a single listing. The only reference I could find was in Amsterdam about 120 years ago; there was a resident by that name all right, but there are absolutely no records – no birth certificate, no death certificate...’
‘Thank you so much,’ I told her, ‘I owe you big time!’
When the American arrived back, Van Helsing ran into him as if by accident.
‘Excuse me, Mr Froydenman, do you have a minute?’
‘Sure, what is it?’
‘I imagine you know why I’m here, don’t you?’
‘I got a fair idea, yes.’
‘Have you noticed anything suspicious about Olumnyak?’
‘The warrior? Yeah, what a queer fella!’
‘I wouldn’t be sure of that, not since he turned down the marquesa... Could I have a word with you in my room?’
‘Sure,’ the American agreed and followed the vampire hunter.
‘Have a seat,’ Van Helsing said and offered him the chair near the window while he himself sat on the edge of his bed.
‘Yes, I think Olumnyak is most likely to be a patriarch... he has superhuman strength, he isn’t even built like a human – he must be seven foot, isn’t he? – and I think he has the marquesa under total control; he must have bitten him long before he found out about his gender.’
‘I suppose I should a closer look at him. By the way, seeing how much you love your camera, do you have any childhood photographs of yourself?’
‘You gotta be kidding!’
Van Helsing’s icy blue eyes angrily penetrated the American like a blade of steel. ‘Kidding? Mr Froydenman, do I look like I have the slightest sense of humour?’
The American’s body grew tense; it was almost like a transformation – his fists clenched around the armrest, his torso bent forwards, and he started to look like a trapped reptile ready to pounce on his assailant.
‘Mr Van Helsing, you know as well as I do that there were no cameras around when I was a child!’
This was the moment. I quietly stepped out from behind the curtain and lifted the cumbersome sword. It was very heavy, and I’ve only had about half an hour to practise beforehand, but this would be the only chance I’d get!
One hard blow, and it was all over. Froydenman’s head rolled under the bed, and Van Helsing congratulated me on the job.
‘We have to make sure the head won’t get anywhere near the body,’ he explained as he put it in a plastic bag. ‘The impulse to regenerate comes from the brains, and we don’t know how long that ability will remain!’
He was so careless. There the old man was, kneeling on the floor with his back to me while bagging the patriarch’s head.
I lifted the sword again. I would have loved to let him know what was going to happen; that after all these centuries (and probably millennia) his cover had been blown, that I knew he had used the guise of a vampire hunter to eliminate his competitors for world domination, and that I had found out no human being ever answered to the name Van Helsing. But giving him time to react could have proved a fatal error, and so I just struck his head off.
I put the heads as far from the torsos as possible to avoid a rude awakening, and I decided to dispose only of the bodies for the time being; as long as I had the heads, no vampire would be able to put his patriarch together again. Besides, maybe I could keep them as secret trophies of my service to mankind and get them preserved or even shrunk.
When the coast was clear, I dragged their corpses down to the car and threw them on the back seat. I slowly drove into the forest and took the most forlorn roads I could get my vehicle onto. After a while the village was out of view, and the isolated cottages along the way became sparser and sparser. Later I passed Father Troik’s estate and heard the screams from the Jesus Farm, and after that I didn’t come across any sign of human presence for about ten miles.
This seemed far enough to make sure they wouldn’t be found too soon. I dragged the torsos through the dense undergrowth to a clearing and covered them with petrol; everything was still wet from the rain, so the danger of a wildfire was practically non-existent. And even if it did exist, what was the price of a wildfire in an uninhabited area compared to the price mankind would have to pay for the resurrection of a patriarch?
I lit a cigar, threw the burning match on the corpses and drove back.
After putting the heads into my closet, I joined the others in the lobby and told them Van Helsing had retired; which was actually true, in a manner of speaking. Mr Froydenman had not been particularly social, so nobody noticed his absence.
Olumnyak, after having had a little nap, was back as well and cracked a few jokes transvestite jokes. ‘As an old Chinese proverb says: If you can’t drink it away, laugh it away.’
‘Have you ever tried Irish whiskey?’ I asked him. ‘I’ve nothing against vodka, but there’s no better cure for a gender misconception – or anything else, for that matter - than a Blackbush.’
‘I never drank alcohol in my entire life, until this morning,’ he replied, ‘but tonight I’ll try anything available! By Enkai, you get so bored after a lifetime of bovine cocktails...’
I went to my room and got the whiskey. I even brought Olumnyak a glass, but he was quite happy with the bottle.
Lord Stutton was awfully pale and looked like he’d collapse any moment. He hardly participated in the conversation and excused himself soon afterwards, leaving me alone with the warrior; I didn’t expect to see him again.
‘Have you ever smoked?’ I asked Olumnyak.
‘As the old Chinese proverb says,’ he answered as he accepted my cigar, ‘there’s a first time for everything, apart from a déjà vu.’
He started coughing after the first taste, and in between fits he alternately sucked on the cigar and from the bottle.
After the whiskey was finished, he turned to the hostess’ palinca.
‘That’s better than your cow produce refreshments, isn’t it?’ I asked him.
‘It sure tastes better,’ he giggled, ‘but I have to say that drinking blood keeps your head a lot clearer than these liquids!’
As he kept on drinking, the marquesa, dressed in black as if she were in mourning, passed the lobby on the way to his room, casting a lovelorn glance at Olumnyak. Fortunately, the warrior was too distracted to notice him.
Since my whiskey was finished, I took a bit of the palinca as well. I felt like celebrating, and Olumnyak felt like getting drunk, so we sat in the lobby for a good few hours and talked about anything from the exodus of the gods to the clothing sizes of Maasai women.
‘I wonder,’ the warrior said after I got the third bottle out of Mrs Stiube’s cabinet, ‘what this would taste like with cows’ blood.’
Leaning on his spear, he made an awkward attempt at getting out of his seat to take his flask out of the pocket, but he had major problems keeping his balance.
‘Careful there, that is not a spear any more,’ I warned him and was surprised at how heavy my tongue felt. ‘That has just turned into a broomstick, and you are the Wicked Witch of the West!’
At this point Olumnyak had given up and sunk back into the couch. ‘Do you think she called herself that?’ he wanted to know.
‘I don’t think so,’ I replied after a moment’s musing. ‘She probably called herself The Good Witch of the West. I bet she even had a door sign at her castle saying just that.’
‘And I suppose she called her counterpart The Wicked Witch of the North?’
‘She must have.’
‘That must have been very confusing for their subjects. How did people know who was the good witch?’ the warrior enquired. ‘By their actions, I suppose,’ he added. ‘I mean, the Witch of the West was really evil...’
‘Was she?’ I asked him. ‘Dorothy had taken her sister’s slippers, and she only tried to get them back. And in order to achieve that, she didn’t do anything a good witch wouldn’t do in the name of justice. No, I think their subjects had to make up their own minds.’
‘Their own minds?’ he giggled. ‘We are talking about human beings here!’
While I pondered on the question whether Munchkins are human beings, Olumnyak made another attempt at standing up and opening his flask. However, he was not able to keep his balance on the wobbling spear and fell flat on his face.
I thought the thump would wake up everybody in the hotel, but nothing stirred. Either the others had an enviably deep sleep, or the sound fitted perfectly into their nightmares.
I rolled the warrior on his back and checked for his pulse and breath. Everything seemed in order, he was simply rotten drunk. I pulled him up, thrust his left arm over my shoulder and held him under his right arm. He was awfully heavy, and since he was too passed out to offer any assistance at all, I had to drag him all the way upstairs and put him to bed.
I was just about to switch off the lights and go to my own room when he opened his eyes.
‘Will you tuck me in and read me a story?’ he asked me. I glanced at his nightstand and was not too surprised to find an illustrated copy of Little Red Riding Hood.
During the night I was subjected to another ghastly nightmare. Two patriarchs had been eliminated, but was it not possible that there were more? Van Helsing’s guess was that there were two or three left before this night; besides the fact that his guess was as good as anybody else’s, I wasn’t sure whether he had included himself in that estimate or not.
In my dream I had been followed to the forest by a tall dark creature, wearing a hood and carrying a scythe, who came back to the hotel with me and took cover in the bushes until my lights were switched off. It waited for another hour before slowly climbing up to my window which it opened quietly and without effort. Gingerly approaching my bed, it aimed at my throat and bent down to me. I felt its breath on my neck, and its lips close to mine...
Then I opened my eyes and looked into Maria’s face. I screamed as I had never screamed in my entire life!
‘I didn’t mean to startle you,’ she said and kissed me, ‘I only feel so terrified that I was afraid to sleep on my own. And by the looks of it,’ she added sarcastically, ‘I’m not the only one.’
She wore a transparent nightgown, but unfortunately she crept into my bed so fast I couldn’t fully appreciate the view.
‘When will this thing be over?’ she whispered as she snuggled up to me.
Should I tell her that it was over? Should I tell everyone what had happened? One possible scenario was to go public, start a new vampire craze, be ridiculed by unbelievers and charged with double murder by the police. The other was to keep quiet, let two persons go missing and have the village return to normal as if by a miracle. I decided in favour of the sane option.
When I woke up, Maria had already started work; however, she had left me a note asking me to give her a call so I could get my breakfast in bed. I gladly picked up the house phone and availed of the offer.
As Maria brought in the tray, she said, ‘Things look so much brighter today. I’m sure there will be a happy ending.’
‘So am I,’ I replied. ‘Who knows, maybe all the patriarchs have killed each other already.’
After breakfast I got dressed, lit my pipe and looked out of the open window. Nothing was left that reminded of the thunderstorm of the previous day - it was a bright autumn morning, the birds were singing, and I had everything I’d wished for: I had saved the world, I got the girl, and I was the last remaining patriarch.