Monday, December 26, 2016

The Sublime Electricity, Book 2: The Heartless

The Sublime Electricity, Book 2: The Heartless
by Pavel Kornev

Release: February 28, 2017
Preorder now -

The Sublime Electricity, Book 1: The Illustrious (Kindle - KU)


Once, this world was dominated by the fallen, but humanity cast off their tyrannical rule and created a mighty Empire with colonies spread out across the globe. The power of the metropolis is stronger than ever before, but its past is dark and its future cloudy. Old secrets are capable of destroying in one moment what took years to create. After all, nothing can save it from treason, not armadas of battleships nor bomb-laden dirigibles.
The key to one such secret, by happenstance and inheritance, has fallen into the hands of Leopold Orso, a former police investigator who now works as a private detective. His illustrious talent allows him to bring other people's fears to life, but it also does not help him extricate himself from the web of another's scheming. Defeat threatens to result in imminent death. Victory beckons with the ghost of a chance to escape with his life. His soul is plagued by painstakingly forgotten memories. And to think that all Leopold ever wanted was to get an inheritance that was his by birthright.

Nerves, nerves, my heart is stitched of thee!
Steamphonia (Russian Steampunk Band), Heart

Part One

Moor. Tempered Steel and Gelled Kerosene.


The engine blared out a heartrending bellow. The armored car was racing down a rain-slicked country road, every minute and even second threatening to fly off the shoulder and get stuck in the mud or, even worse, slam into a tree or flip over. Time and again, the tires bounced up on a bump, then plunked down into a pothole. The steering wheel was banging up and down, trying to break free of my hands. I had to grasp it with all my might or I risked losing control.
My first misstep would almost certainly be my last.
Speed. Peril.
My legs had long gone numb. My back was shooting with unbearable pain, and my eyes were constantly tearing up. But I was glad to be rushing off to my uncle’s estate in the middle of the night, relieved to be done with the formalities in the Chinese Quarter so quickly. Ramon Miro, on the other hand, had been complaining about our trip from the very beginning.
His normally red-tinged face was now nearer the color of cream. The former constable was splayed out like a starfish, afraid to fly out of his big seat on our next little jump, and clearly struggling against a bodily urge to vomit. He strongly doubted the possibility that the unknown strangler would be in front of us, and told me as much without end until he was finally overcome by nausea.
"Stop and clean the headlights!" He demanded.
"I can see the road just fine!" I retorted, not wanting to lose time.
"It's make or break time!" I repeated to myself mentally. Another of my grandfather's sayings. "It's make or break time, no looking back now!"
We had to make it. Make it or die trying!
Fortunately, now that we were outside city limits, the rain had become less intense. The country road mostly ran through fields, making detours around the little forest glades. All that was left for me was to look out for potholes and keep the pedal pressed to the floor, pushing the engine for all its horsepower.
It was crackling madly, just gulping down the trotyl granules. The unsecured cargo in the back was rattling loudly, as well. I couldn't even hear my own thoughts, but I did make out a question from Ramon.
"No!" I screamed back, not looking away from the road for even one moment. "I have no idea who strangled the Judean!"
But it definitely was no human. The hands of mere mortals could not cause frostbite, nor leave ice burn on the skin. Aaron Malk had been killed either by infernal beasts or an illustrious gentleman. It was probably one of the bank robbers who tried to work me over.
Who precisely was not important. What was important was beating him to my uncle’s estate.
The killer now knew for certain where to find the lightning-rune aluminum box and, if we didn’t get there first, Count Kósice would be parting not only with it, but with his very life. The last part, to be perfectly honest, wouldn’t have especially bothered me. The problem was that, if it came to that, the chance of us meeting the same fate surpassed all rational bounds.
If the illustrious gentlemen got their hands on the aluminum box, the malefics would come after me. Failing that, I'd have to keep running from the mysterious bank robbers. But if I had the box, I could take control of the game; my only real chance of overcoming my opponents was to make some more progress in the investigation.
Just then, a front wheel plunked down into a pothole. The self-propelled carriage lifted off the ground, then slid into the mud; at the very last moment, I regained control and straightened out the armored vehicle just before it drove off the shoulder. We came very close to turning over in a ditch.
Ramon made a convulsive gulp and moaned out:
"I hate you, Leo!"
I just snorted:
"Think about the three thousand..."
"I've earned it already!" My hulking partner cried out immediately in reply. "My job is done! But now, you've dragged me along on this long-shot adventure!"
"The hunt for the werewolf you also thought a long-shot adventure, right?" I replied, easily finding an answer.
But Ramon Miro wasn't quite as verbally adept. He stuck his finger into the loose seam of his blood-soaked cloak and asked in an accusatory tone:
"Do you think this is normal?"
I had nothing to parry his indisputable conclusion with, so I didn't even try.
"We need to figure out why all this started! If we find out what's riding on this horse, we'll be showered in gold!"
And again, Ramon was ruthlessly precise in his wording.
"That's you!" he declared. "Not me! You'll be showered in gold, not me."
"Don't worry. I won't leave you out in the cold," I promised him, noting a few flames flickering to my right and warning him: "We're past the station. We'll be there soon."
Ramon went silent.
Having thrown all the dogs and people nearby into a panic with its loud chattering, the armored car dashed between tenant’s farms, drove around an oak glade and finally rolled right up to the manor.
"We're almost there," I warned my friend. "Get ready."
"Turn off the headlights," Ramon advised.
"There's no use," I refused, not even so much because I was worried I would fly off the road, as much as because of the engine's clapping. Only a deaf person wouldn't have heard that.
Or a dead one.
That was the very thought flickering through my head as the armored car came to a stop before the closed gates of my uncle's manor. In the guard-post window, there was a dim light flickering, but the late old man didn't think to glance outside and ask why the police were visiting at such an unearthly hour.
Something wasn't right.
"Something isn't right," I said to Ramon.
But before my warning, he was already hidden behind the smoke-shrouded hood of the armored car, pressing the stock of his Winchester to his shoulder.
"What am I even doing here?" he moaned.
"You're covering me!" I reminded him, and got out of the vehicle. "Don't yawn!" I warned my friend, running around the self-propelled carriage, throwing open the back door, and tossing my cane in. In its place, I pulled out a semi-automatic carbine and a few cartridge pouches full of loaded clips.
"The glasses won't affect your vision?" Ramon then asked.
I lifted the smoky eyepieces and snorted:
"What do you think is better?"
My partner's reddish face lit up in the darkness with the luster of my shining eyes. He admitted:
"On. Put them back on."
I lowered my glasses back onto my nose and carefully walked up to the gate. Then, my rifle propped on a crossbeam, I commanded Ramon:
"Come on!"
My hulking partner jumped over the fence in a flash, undid the latch and opened the path onto my uncle's property.
"The guard-box!" he whispered, warning me.
"You first!" I sighed out just as quietly in response.
I didn't want to loudly announce my presence, regardless of the warning shot I risked from a manor guard.
Covering one another, we walked up to the cracked-open door. There, Ramon peeked inside and immediately recoiled.
"Dead," he said, adding: "Broken neck."
"Curses!" I swore, hesitating for a moment, then ordering: "Wait!" and hurried to the armored car.
I removed the steering wheel and threw it in the rear, then climbed in after it. I felt around for the box of grenades I had strapped down under the seat, took out two and twisted in the fuses. Then, I hung a massive padlock on the tailboard and returned to my partner, now much calmer and more put together, my knees not shaking in the slightest.
"We should call for backup!" whispered Ramon, greeting me angrily, having completely forgotten his recent dismissal.
I didn't stick my finger in the wound, though, just shook my head:
"I think we're too late."
"Where did you get that idea?" asked my hulking partner, growing surprised.
"The dirigible is gone," I told him, pointing to a lonely signal light on the docking tower.
The airship’s signal lights were nowhere to be seen, along with the white oval of its balloon.
"The murderer might have flown away on the dirigible," Ramon posited.
"All the more reason not to worry," I snorted and started off to my family mansion.
My hulking partner came behind me, but quickly stopped and declared:
"Either the Count or the killer flew away. There's no reason for us to go in!"
"Come off it!" I exclaimed, trying to bring my partner to reason. "We have to figure out what exactly happened here!"
"Why the devil do we have to do that?"
"In order to have an elementary understanding of who we're searching for! And also, if the Count flew away on the dirigible, the strangler must be somewhere nearby. What if we can get him talking?"
"No," Ramon cut me off. "That's a bad idea."
I looked at the silhouette of the mansion. There wasn't a single light on. Next to it, there was a stable and an overgrown garden that could have hidden a whole company of soldiers. I mentally agreed with my friend.
It really was a bad idea. Bad and very dangerous.
But I said otherwise out loud.
"Either we go together," I shrugged my shoulders hopelessly, "or you wait for me in the car. But know that, if I don't come back, the Judeans won't pay you a centime for the werebeast. Think about that!"
"Curses!" Ramon swore, wiping his sweaty face and nervously glancing at the darkened mansion. "Aw hell!" he relented. "Let's go!"
With a quiet chuckle, I went first down the path, stopping when I reached the fork toward the stable, but didn't turn down it, not wanting to waste time. The mansion was luring me in.
Luring? I caught myself on that thought and even slowed my pace.
My excitement faded as if I had crossed over some invisible boundary. The world once again acquired dimension. The silhouettes of the buildings and the trees of the garden no longer seemed like carved plywood theater props strewn carelessly about the lawn. The understanding rolled over me that this was all happening in the here and now.
My fear returned.
I froze in place, listening to the silence of the night. Without the sound of our boots splashing in the puddles, the silence would have been grave-like. The only other noise was the horn of a steam train somewhere very far in the distance. But it felt like it was coming from another world; all the armored trains of the Empire taken together wouldn't have been able to help us now.
"Leo!" Ramon whispered quietly. "What's going on?"
I shrugged my shoulders to settle my imagination's unwelcome playfulness, and walked on. My family manor grew up out of the darkness like a black titan. Soon we were able to see the door. It was thrown wide open.
"I'll be damned if that isn't an invitation!" Ramon sighed. "'Will you walk into my parlor?' said the spider to the fly!"
My laconic, hulking partner's strained nerves had loosened his tongue, and I found it necessary to reassure him, so I handed him one of my grenades.
"Take this."
"You just can't wait to blow this whole place up, can you?" Ramon joked, looking around apprehensively. "Maybe we should just burn the house down now and not waste time."
"Excellent idea!" I grumbled, slowly and carefully stepping up onto the veranda. "Cover me!" my friend called out, first to cross the threshold.
We stood in the entryway, looking around in the darkness, then I flipped the light switch on the wall, but the electric bulb on the ceiling didn't turn on.
I hung my carbine on my shoulder, took my Roth-Steyr from its holster and requested:
Ramon handed me his pocket torch; its bright beam swept through the entryway and immediately picked out the body of my uncle's butler from the darkness. Also, someone's legs were sticking out into the hallway in a pair of badly abused ankle-boots.
After stepping over the night guard's body, we walked into the guest room. There on the sofa was lying the parlor maid with her head thrown back. The color of her bloodless face was now no different from that of her white apron.
"Damn it!" Ramon Miro sighed.
"Quiet!" I hissed at him, listening to the silence.
On the other side of the wall, there was a cricket chirping quietly, but that was all. I couldn't hear anything else.
"Follow me!" I commanded and started walking up to the second floor.
The bright beam of the torch danced and jumped from side to side, easily illuminating the dark corners. At the same time, I couldn't leave the thought that someone's cold eyes were watching us from the darkness.
Wishful thinking? Who the devil could say...?
We walked right past the second floor.
"First, let's check the Count's office," I decided, walking further up the stairs.
To my great surprise, I lost all desire to continue pursuing the unknown strangler; I was filled with the urge to turn around and run away without a second thought. And I don't even know what exactly stopped me from taking that shameful step, the left-over passion still raging in my blood or the fear of looking foolish.
I suspect it was more the second.
We walked up to the third floor. I walked into the hall and froze like a dead person when the I saw the flickering of a kerosene lamp in the flung-wide doors.
And a shadow! The shadow on the floor in front of the door was throbbing slightly, either crawling away in one direction or slinking away in the other. There was someone in the office.
The torch now off, I stuck it in my pocket and pressed my pointer finger to my lips. Ramon nodded, letting me know he'd seen the shadow, and was gathering strength for the fight.
I held onto my Roth-Steyr with both hands and walked forward. Walking soundlessly on the carpets leading down the hall, I stole up to the door and took a bounding leap into the office. Once there, I immediately stepped aside, making way for my partner.
I didn't shoot; I didn’t see any person. There was just paper strewn about, and filing-cabinet drawers snarling up at me from the floor.
But I made a mistake! Initially, my gaze just slid right over a figure sitting at the desk, as if it was just another shadow. The flame of the kerosene lamp was quivering behind the immobile man, turning him into a black silhouette like one of the slippery fish swimming thoughtlessly in the aquarium at the far wall.
I could only make out a cloak and a hat with a wide flat brim; nothing else.
Shadows, what a damned nuisance!
I drew my pistol, putting the stranger in the crosshairs, but before I managed – or got up the resolve – to pull down on the trigger, there came an unpleasant whistling half-whisper, just as ghostly as the shadows:
"It's no use!" The sentence echoed in my temples with a vile sting. I froze indecisively with my pistol raised. Ramon, though, didn't hesitate. His Winchester burst forth with a deafening thunder. Its dual spark tore the shadows filling the office to shreds, but the malefic wasn't moved in the slightest.
He made a theatrical pause, then looked at the bullet in his hand and said carelessly:
"You’re just wasting perfectly good cartridges."
Angry at the setback, Ramon clanked down the lever of his Winchester, throwing the spent casing onto the floor. But I stopped him, repeating the strangler's words:
"It's no use!"
The mysterious figure set the bullet down on the edge of the writing desk. Not only was it covered in frost, it was also deformed; the stranger's bony fingers had crumpled the aluminum jacket.
"Good decision," the malefic laughed. Then, with a magician's gesture, he pulled a box made of light-gray metal from thin air. I saw the lid. It was engraved with a jagged lightning rune. "I suppose this will be of interest to you, illustrious Mr. Orso?"
"Perhaps," I answered cautiously, guessing how to act.
Move from a position of power or show him how reasonable I could be? Attack first, or try to come to an agreement?
The bullet he crushed in his fingers made the first option seem futile; the ruthlessness displayed by the strangler had taken away all hope for the second.
So, what to do?
Ramon started walking in one direction away from the door. I went the other. The kerosene lamp was now not at the strangler's back but, even so, the dense shadows under his hat formed an impenetrable veil, hiding his face better than any mask.
"Guess where the Count is," the malefic commanded me calmly; he was stubbornly ignoring Ramon, instead turning to face me.
I made sure the desk was between us, and demonstratively holstered my gun.
"Even if the Count is in hell, I won't be too broken up," I answered, not especially bending the truth.
"Perhaps he is in hell," the strangler chuckled. "Would you like to take a look?" he asked, extending the box. He immediately pulled his hand back, though, as if teasing.
"Take a look?" I asked in incomprehension. Licking my lips, I asked: "Under what conditions?" I asked and immediately realized I'd just made an unforgivable mistake. Perhaps even a fatal one.
The strangler's relaxed demeanor was immediately replaced with predatory interest.
"You don't know what's inside, do you?" he asked, even taking a step forward. The flame of the kerosene lamp before his face forced him to stand up straight and move back, though.
For the first time, his whistling half-whisper did not cause a biting echo in my head, so I was able to formulate my answer more carefully in opposition to my previous, rushed bluntness.
"Do you?" I asked, watching a fiery moth wriggling on the window. "Do you know?"
"That doesn't matter," the malefic answered, and the shadows around him started moving like a constrictor wrapped around a circus performer.
One of the ghostly tethers slid up to Ramon and twisted around his ankles; my hulking partner froze half-step, and the barrel of his Winchester, originally pointed at the strangler, suddenly shook and began to turn in my direction.
With a fated sigh, I removed my dark glasses, but the glow of my eyes didn't throw the malefic off in the slightest. He just laughed:
"And just what do you think you're going to do, illustrious one? Scare me to death?"
"Take you with me to hell," I answered, and threw the lamp on the floor in a careless motion.
The glass immediately shattered. Kerosene poured out all over the office and caught fire. The flames reached the curtains almost instantly, flying up to the ceiling. The haphazardly strewn papers, turned over drawers and furniture then also caught in their turn.
Ramon threw his Winchester away and tore off his flame-ensconced cloak. He ran into a chair and started rolling on the floor looking like a human torch. The fire cut me off from the entrance door and chased me into the corner. But the strangler didn't lose his presence of mind. Or was it that he lost his mind in fear? In any case, he dashed toward the exit right through the fiery room.
I glanced at my timepiece, waiting for the right moment, but Ramon extended his hand to me and, begging, rasped out:
"Come on, Leo!"
Having decided not to test my partner's patience, I took the carbine off my shoulder and struck the aquarium wall with its buttstock. The water that poured out onto the floor instantly put out the puddle of burning kerosene and an impenetrable blackness took over the office again.
"Fires of hell!" Ramon whispered through his parched lips, peeling himself from the wall. "That hurt like hell!"
"Silence!" I hissed at him, walking over to the door and looking into the hallway, but the strangler's trail had already gone cold. I tried to listen for him, but the dense silence just rang in my ears.
Ramon stood next to me and whispered out barely audibly:
"Did he get away?"
"He got away," I confirmed just as quietly.
My hulking partner wiped off his perspiring brow and fell back into the armchair, sapped. He'd been struck by just a little echo of another's horror, but even still looked like one of the fish from the now empty aquarium.
"Will he be back?" Ramon asked when I turned on my electric torch and started studying the chaos I'd caused in the office.
"No," I stated confidently in reply. "But if he does come back, he'll see a burning house."
"How'd you do that?"
I just laughed:
"It’s all my talent, old buddy. Or have you forgotten?"
The strangler was afraid of fire; I noticed him jump back from that kerosene lamp. He was obviously scared. All I had to do was pull on that thread at the right time to turn the puddle of burning kerosene into a raging fire.
Can terror magnify a threat? Indeed!
The aluminum box glinted up from the floor in the light of the electric torch; I pulled on my gloves and picked it up, but the lock was broken and the box was empty.
"Curses!" I swore, not hiding my disappointment.
"What are you on about now?" Ramon shuddered.
"Nothing at all?"
"That's right!" I snarled. In a fit of anger, I threw the box into the corner and walked around the office, but I still hadn’t come to any definite conclusion on who was responsible for all this mess: was it the Count, and he'd fled, or the malefic who'd come after his soul?
"Leo, we need to get out of here!" shouted my hulking partner, trying to hurry me along as I shuffled through the burned papers strewn about the floor, now wet from the spilled water.
"We do," I agreed with him and stuck the bullet the strangler had crushed into my pocket. "But first, let's check the house."
We went through the whole mansion, but there was no one on the third or second floors, and all the servants down below were dead. The strangler was enviably methodical. He hadn't left anything behind.
"Where is the Count's family?" Ramon asked as we walked into the guest room.
"His daughter's at a boarding school, and his wife's at the spa." I answered. "Continental Europe. Neither we nor the malefic will reach them now. Well, at least we won't. That much is for certain."
"Will you search for the Count?"
"What do you think?"
"It's your business," Ramon replied, not trying to convince me one way or the other. He then suddenly pointed to the body of the servant girl spread-eagled on the sofa. "Hold up!"
"What is it?"
"Point the torch at her neck!"
I did what he said, and immediately noticed two dark blue spots on the dead pale skin.
"Well, tear me to pieces!" Ramon gasped. "There was a vampire here!"
An unpleasant chill ran down my spine; I forced myself to touch the dead girl. The body had already gone cold, but unlike the other victims, this one had just started to get rigor mortis.
"What have you dragged me into, Leo?!" Ramon whispered in fear and anger. "Malefics and vampires, just think! Even in Europe, there are practically no vampires left. All the more so here!"
"Well, the werewolf flew in from the New World, so why couldn't this vampire have done something similar?" I muttered.
"What for? Why the devil would he do that? What's happening, Leo?"
I dismissed my partner's concern and hurried to the exit.
"Let's get out of here! It's getting light out already!"
"No, just a moment!"
"You just can't wait to get behind bars, can you?" I asked with a frown, looking my friend from top to bottom.
"Alright, we can talk later!" he decided. I just had to head for the exit, but he grabbed my hand and stopped me: "Are you sure the malefic was alone?" he asked and first looked outside, his Winchester at the ready.
"Why wouldn’t he be?" I asked, surprised.
"How could he get through so many people all alone?"
"The shadows," I reminded him. "He had the shadows helping him. You almost shot me because of one of them, remember?"
Ramon was clearly shaken by the unpleasant memory. He loaded another cartridge into the tubular magazine of his Winchester and muttered:
"In any case, don't yawn!"
I nodded and took the semi-automatic carbine from my shoulder. The strangler definitely wouldn't be hurt by a rifle, but vampires tended to surround themselves with mortal helpers. So, I had to be careful with the weapon in my hands...
The high veranda of the mansion faced east. At the very horizon, the clouds were already turning a shade of faint pink, and I said quietly:
"It's getting light out!"
My hulking partner nodded, letting me know that he had heard my words, but not lost vigilance; he didn't believe the legend that vampires could be hurt by sunlight. To be perfectly honest, neither did I. So, in no particular hurry, we walked back to the armored car, not taking our eyes off the trees and bushes near the path.
The birds had already begun their normal morning bickering. From the tenant farms, I heard a rooster crow. The risk of meeting a random passerby was growing with every minute. Approaching the gates, we threw back the latch and ran headlong for the car.
Ramon took a prudent look under the self-propelled carriage and gave a nod:
"All clear!"
Then, I opened the tailboard and threw my rifle in it and taking out the steering wheel in its place. My partner ran up and extended his Winchester.
"Take it," he said.
I accepted the gun and groaned out:
"What are you on about?" Ramon shuddered.
"The casing!" I screamed. "You left a casing in my uncle's office! Fingerprints!"
"Curse me!" Ramon exclaimed, going bed-sheet pale. But he immediately overcame his moment of hesitation, grabbed the wheel from me and got into the car.
"Let's go back! Now!" he shouted, affixing the steering wheel to the column.
"Start it up!" I called out, and jumped onto the passenger-side running board.
The engine chattered to life; to the jingle of its very frequent popping, the armored car drove up to the gates, easily tossed them aside and drove onto the grounds of the mansion. When it hit, we shook hard, and the self-propelled carriage even went off-road onto the grass. But Ramon managed to turn the wheel in time and get back on track.
A moment later, we had arrived at the mansion. There, Ramon sharply braked, jumped out of the cabin and ran at breakneck speed into the building. I ran around and sat in the driver's seat, turned the car around to prepare to leave and raised the front armor sheet, which had been down on the hood until that point. Driving at night with an obscured windshield wasn't possible, but now, it was getting light out. The villagers were all waking up, and the last thing I wanted was for some eagle-eyed tenant to describe us to a policeman
The front door slammed again, and Ramon ran fervently down from the veranda into the car.
"Drive!" he shouted.
"Did you find it?"
"Yes!" he replied, catching his breath. "Drive, I said!"
And so, we drove. We didn't stop until we reached the city, not even to pour water into the radiator. Eventually, though, we found a dark passageway in the back yard of a factory to park the vehicle in.
Ramon ran to a station on the neighboring intersection with a bucket, and I started pacing around the self-propelled carriage, massaging my cramped legs and looking all around. My back was in unbearable pain, my head felt full of molten lead, and my arms were shaking in exhaustion. I felt out of sorts, but not at all because of my personal wellbeing.
There was something else bothering me.
"What should we do with the self-propelled carriage?" I asked my partner after he’d come back with water. "Everyone knew the Count and I were at loggerheads; I wouldn't be surprised if they came to search my place today or tomorrow."
"Is that even possible?" my hulking partner asked in surprise.
"What do you think?" I furrowed my brow.
"No!" he waved his hand in annoyance. "What about the quarantine? How will they get inside?"
"Sooner or later, they'll find an illustrious person with immunity to the Diabolic Plague. The armored car is direct evidence. We left too many tracks at the estate."
"Get rid of it," Ramon suggested.
"Not an option," I refused. "We might need it again."
"Leo! This tin can could land us behind bars."
I didn't even listen.
"Your cousin from Foundry Town..." I snapped my fingers. "What if we brought the armored car to him?"
"Are you crazy?" Ramon's eyes grew round. "I'm not bringing family into this!"
"What about the coalhouse?"
The man began thinking, then nodded.
"You know, there are a couple other abandoned packhouses there," he muttered. "There's no way anyone will go into them before fall."
"Do they have separate vehicle entrances?" I clarified.
"Some do, yes," my friend confirmed. "Let's go!"
By that time, it had long been light outside and the recently-awoken people on the street were looking curiously at our police armored car, caked in mud from wheels to roof. Fortunately, there weren't many people in the outskirts near the coalhouse where Ramon now worked as a guard. Our only company was a pair of chatty mutts.
Ramon pointed at the set of gates, told me to wait and ran out. When he came back, he was holding a heavy keyring.
"Don't worry," he reassured me, undoing the rusty warehouse lock. That old drunk wouldn't wake up even if a ship's cannon went off next to his ear.
"Make copies during your shift."
"Of course."
The gates gave way with a ghastly screech. We had to put all our weight into throwing them open. I then drove the armored vehicle into the interior of the sooty packhouse. I turned off the engine and extended my partner a hand, all my energy sapped:
"Thank you! You really helped me out."
Ramon clenched my hand in his massive paw and asked:
"When will you be retrieving the reward for the banker's killer?"
"I'll deal with it this morning," I decided, looking at my timepiece and correcting myself: "Actually, it might be closer to lunch time."
"Don't draw it out," he demanded. "Alright?"
"Don't you doubt it," I promised, taking my cane and getting out of the cabin.
With our combined strength, we managed to close the warehouse doors, but only barely. Ramon put the lock back on, rubbed some coal dust on it and took a look at our handiwork.
"This will be fine," he decided.
It would have been good to take the right key off the ring now, but my weary thoughts got all mixed-up. My eyes were starting to close all on their own. The sleepless night and jitters had squeezed all the juice out of me. The only thing I really wanted now was to lie in bed and close my eyes.
So, I just waved my hand and headed home. Sleep.

BUT IT WASN'T so easy to get to bed.
Elizabeth-Maria knocked me off course. She examined me closely then declared in a tone that wouldn't bear objection:
"A glass of tea would do you good."
I looked at the reflection of my pale and peaked countenance, turned away from the mirror and nodded:
"Alright, make up a pot."
"You'll drink it in the kitchen. I hope that at least can teach you to come home on time!"
I didn't start a fight over it; I just wasn't in the mood. I silently hung my dusty jacket on a hanger, placed my cane in the umbrella stand, then got out of my mud-caked boots and walked into the kitchen.
I took a seat at the window, finished the hot sweet tea and stared thoughtlessly at the wet, black trees of my garden.
"I'm starting to see that coming back in the morning is a habit of yours!" the succubus noted pointedly as she lit the stove.
I stayed silent. I didn't want to talk, or move. Even the bed no longer called to me with the promise of slumber. It now seemed impossibly far away.
I sat at the window and drank tea.
Elizabeth Maria stopped trying to make me talk and set a thick cast-iron pan on the fire. She poured oil in, added spices, and the kitchen immediately filled with the smell of exotic goodness. A few minutes later, a glob of meat was slapped down on the red-hot metal, but I didn't pay the hissing and sizzling sounds the slightest bit of mind. Only when the girl set a plate of barely cooked steak before me did I express my incomprehension:
"Don't you think this is a bit rich for breakfast?"
"Look at yourself, you're all skin and bones!" the girl objected. "Also, I suspect this is not breakfast for you, but a late dinner."
"Where'd you get the idea I wanted to eat?"
"You smell of death," Elizabeth-Maria answered calmly, "and for a man, killing is but the prelude to a substantial repast. Even if you're killing something like yourself. It's an ancient custom."
"Like myself?" I asked, making a face. "Today, we killed a werewolf. A ghastly monster."
"Do you suppose you're so very different from him?" the girl couldn't resist joking back.
I squirmed.
"Yes, I do!" I threw out sharply. "I am very different. Is that clear?"
"As you say, dear," Elizabeth-Maria shrugged her shoulders and took a bottle of sherry from the drawer. "Yes, that reminds me! The red wine is still disappearing. You better bring your light-haired monkey to reason before I cut his hands off."
"The leprechaun and I haven't been able to find a common tongue recently," I shook my head.
To be honest, my childhood imaginary friend's trickery was now driving me totally crazy. I hadn't thought about the rude pipsqueak for many long years, and now couldn't get my head around why on earth he'd suddenly popped out of my subconscious. It scared me, because it meant I might lose control over my own gift. No nightmare I'd ever created before had stayed in the world for so long. No fantasy had seemed so real.
Elizabeth-Maria was just a clever succubus, but what was powering the leprechaun?
I had no answer to the question.
"That pipsqueak drinks like a horse," the girl complained, taking a seat opposite me with a glass of fortified wine and setting a dish of sauce before me. "Eat!"
I was about to refuse, but my stomach suddenly moaned out in hunger. And though I had never especially cared for undercooked meat – and when I cut into the steak, blood came out – I had to admit that it wasn’t at all bad. The spicy sauce had a flavor I couldn't place, but it was surprisingly subtle, and went with the steak perfectly.
"Have you ever heard of the Convent?" I asked the girl, cutting another bite of meat.
"The Convent?" Elizabeth Maria asked in confusion and sipped the wine, trying to hide her puzzlement. "Ideologues," she said after a pause so long I wasn't even really expecting her to answer.
"Ideologues?" I didn't understand.
"Typical malefics are simply happy to sell their pitiful little souls in exchange for a little bit of power and mortal prosperity. These are not like that. They tell tales of old. They want to bring those times back."
"Is that so?"
"That is precisely so," she attested. "And why do you ask?"
I just shrugged my shoulders, not telling her the dying werebeast's final words.
"Don't get involved with the Convent," Elizabeth-Maria warned me. "They're dangerous. Extremely dangerous. If you cross their path, they'll kill you and eat your soul."
"Where's all this sudden concern for my soul coming from?"
For a moment, from behind the imaginary exterior of a sweet-looking girl, her true appearance stepped out, revealing an infernal creature with the fiery red eyes of a hellbeast. They burned into me with unconcealed hatred.
"If they eat it, there’d be nothing left for me!" the succubus announced.
But it was very easy for me not to play along. I had a good understanding of fears and could say for certain that the succubus was afraid. And that she was afraid on her own account, not mine.
"Weren't you summoned from hell by a malefic?" I squinted. "Was he from the Convent?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You ran from him and he's searching for you. Is that right? What would happen if he finds you?"
"You won't manage to get into my head, Leo," Elizabeth-Maria said with a sweet smile. But I wasn't ready to change the topic.
"Perhaps he even put a bounty out on you." I posited, looking the succubus right in the eyes.
"You don't understand the first thing," the girl sighed. "Leo, you and I have an agreement. And that could only mean one thing..."
"And just what is that?"
"He is long dead," Elizabeth-Maria stated. "He pulled off his own head. You can't even imagine how great it was!"
"Please, spare me the details! We're at the table!"
"It wasn't I who started this conversation," the succubus reminded me dryly. "And no, he wasn't from the Convent. The arrogant twerp! Smart people choose devils and minor evil spirits as familiars. With them, you can do whatever you want! But he chose a succubus! The arrogant upstart!"
"But minor evil spirits don't give as much power, isn't that right?" I asked, surprised. "What's the good of that?"
"Power?" the girl laughed uncontrollably. "The source of power is the divine fire of the human soul. Familiars serve a different purpose."
"Please enlighten me, then."
But the girl had already finished her wine and gotten up from the table.
"Finish eating and go off to bed," she demanded. After that, she went over to the neighboring window, looked at the dead garden and suddenly stated: "Pain."
"What? Excuse me?" I asked, pretending not to have heard her.
"Pain," Elizabeth-Maria repeated. "This world is a constant source of pain, but when one's master casts a spell, that pain is multiplied ten-fold. Familiars absorb that pain. That's all. And not all the pain can be absorbed, just some. But even that causes unbearable suffering."
"Is that so?"
"Oh, yes! The burning tears your head to bits and pierces you through with hundreds of icy needles. Have you ever heard of Chinese water torture? The monotonous pain bears down on you and brings you to the level of an animal. When someone speaks to you, you can hear the words, but they mean nothing. In fact, you cannot even perceive that you really are hearing them."
"And are you suffering this pain now?"
"No, sweet Leo. Not at all. Thanks to this body," the girl said, turning away from the window and leading her hand from her chest to her thigh, "the pain left me. But it's around here somewhere. Look for yourself."
I nodded and got up from the table.
"Leo! Stay away from the Convent!" the succubus repeated. "Don't make them angry. Don't talk to them. Don't look at them, and don't even tread in their shadows. Just forget they exist. That's my advice to you."
"Shadows?" I perked up my ears. "Shadows with their own life force?"
Elizabeth-Maria didn't answer at all, turning away toward the window again.
I hesitated, but in the end, I didn't pester her with an interrogation. I just waved my hand and headed into the bedroom.
Malefics, their familiars and a strange burning. The dead Kira and her companion. The strangler's shadows. All these things could have been part of something bigger, but my weariness was stopping me from sorting it all out. The only thing I had the energy for was crawling up to bed, climbing into it and putting a pillow under my head.


I WOKE UP in a flash. I just opened my eyes and felt a clear presentiment of misfortune. I grabbed my Roth-Steyr from the bedside table and hopped out of bed.
I looked into the kitchen and caught my breath with relief. There was no one there.
A bad dream?
But then, I saw that my window had been left open. On the windowsill, there appeared the gaunt figure of a werefox; a bounding leap and she was already in the middle of the room.
"Long time no see," said the miniature-framed girl with a clear Chinese accent. Then, her smooth face stretched out into a ghastly snout. Her bared teeth shimmered back at me with a yellow glint. They were small, but extremely sharp.
That they were sharp I could be certain. And so, without any hesitation, I unloaded my pistol at the beast as she prepared for a jump. The bullets slammed full force into a wooden panel behind the fox's back. She herself leaped toward me, but even faster, I threw a hand forward and snapped:
The beast evaporated. Just a stiff wisp of air remained, hitting me in the face, finally chasing off what was left of my dream. It was a nightmare, just a nightmare...
I subconsciously worried that the fox would try to get even with me, and my talent didn't delay in bringing that fear to life. Recently, my talent had gone totally out of control, no matter how unfortunate that was.
A knock came at the door; I unlocked it and let Elizabeth-Maria into the room.
"Another nightmare?" she asked calmly, having noticed the many bullet holes in the ceiling.
"Not at all," I objected, looking at the smoking pistol in my hand and shrugging my shoulders. "I was trying to draw her Imperial Majesty's monogram. That's all."
"At least you've got a hobby," the girl snorted and hid in the hallway. "Go to the range! You're a horrible shot!" she shouted, already down the hall.
Theodor came in to replace the acid-tongued redhead.
"Would you like me to fix it, Viscount?" he asked me, studying the mess I'd made.
"I suppose we could just hang a rug over it," I decided, taking out my extra clip. I then noticed that my Butler’s skin was looking abnormally pale and asked: "Is everything alright, Theodor?"
"Naturally, Viscount," my servant assured me expectedly. His face was noticeably upset, though. It was as if some power accessible only to twins had made him sense the death of his brother.
It would have been nice to tell him about his brother's untimely end, but I hesitated, not sure how my servant would react to the news. Did he really need all these tribulations now? I wasn't convinced.
"You may go," I said, dismissing my butler without having come to any definite decision.
At one point, I'd be sure to tell him everything, but not now. Some other time.
Cowardice, you say? Nothing of the sort. Simple tact, and nothing more. One mustn't simply up and dump that kind of news on one's butler! He must be prepared for it first. I'd have to think something up...
Alright, so it was cowardice. What of it?
Who among us is without flaws?
I reloaded my Roth-Steyr, got dressed and left the bedroom. I went down to the first floor and looked cantankerously at my reflection in the mirror. But my suit was fitting perfectly as if it had been sewn to my exact order. Surprising even, considering my tall and lank dimensions. Trying to buy a suit when you looked like I did was pure torture.
"Leo!" Elizabeth-Maria called out to me from the kitchen. "Let's go drink tea!"
"Not now!" I refused, looking at the clock on the wall. It was already two in the afternoon.
"Leo!" The girl raised her voice.
I gave a heavy sigh and relented.
"Let's try to pretend we're a normal family," Elizabeth-Maria suggested when I had taken my seat at the table and was staring out the window.
I still had the urge to answer rudely but, by force of will, I held back the inappropriate outburst and just noted:
"That would mean we should act like master and servant, then. That seems most appropriate to our situation."
Elizabeth-Maria put two spoons of sugar in her cup and parried calmly:
"Many families have just that sort of interaction, dear. The husband – sovereign and the wife – his rightless slave."
I grabbed a piece of toast from the basket and took off the top from a jar of raspberry jam. I scooped it onto a knife and shook my head with a bitter sigh:
"A succubus suffragette. Where is this world headed?"
"I cannot claim that we have equal rights in hell, but we are certainly more tolerant of others' faults, dear. You mortals could learn a thing or two from us."
"Ugh, no thank you!" I snorted, finishing my tea and asking: "What do you know about vampires?"
The girl tilted her head to the side and stared at me, suggesting I go on.
"It’s not such a hard question," I muttered, slathering my second piece of toast with jam. "You know, vampires! Fangs, pale skin, allergy to sunlight, an unhealthy obsession with others' blood. What do you know about them?"
"Are you planning a trip to Transylvania?" Elizabeth‑Maria joked.
Or maybe she wasn't joking, and was totally serious.
"Why Transylvania?"
"Remember our conversation yesterday about the burning?" The girl stared thoughtfully at a glass of tea, then pushed it away from herself and went to get some wine; she had stashed a bottle of fortified red in the grain drawer.
"The burning?" I asked in surprise. "What of it?"
"Malefics experience the pain only when they are casting a spell. And that doesn't happen so terribly often. They can either bear it or force a familiar to suffer along with them. Werebeasts experience torturous pain immediately after they turn back into humans but, even still, they are infrequent visitors to New Babylon."
I nodded, agreeing with her assessment. Elizabeth-Maria continued:
"Underworld natives arrive to this world in their natural state. They rid themselves of the pain by clothing themselves in the flesh of others, taking human souls and bodies. Other creatures, the offspring of times gone by, either run from civilization, or become degraded, losing the last remnants of their mind. Only ghosts and magical conjurations do not feel the pain. In fact, they do not feel anything at all."
"Where are you going with this?"
"No one can bear such pain for long," Elizabeth-Maria declared. "Vampires cannot deny their essence and go back to being normal people, even for a minute. Vampires are not like the zombies raised by Haitian masters. They can feel pain. But their bodies are dead, and dead flesh has no defense against the pain."
"How long ago were you called to this world?" I asked, having caught a sense of sorrow flickering in the succubus's voice.
"It doesn't matter!" she snapped back in annoyance, waving it off. I put my eyelids together, shutting in the fell light glowing up out of my eyes. "It doesn't matter, Leo. The most important thing is that not a single vampire would come to New Babylon out of good will. It's akin to the most intricate torture. Only threat of death could make them suffer it."
"But still, where might I find them?"
"In Transylvania, Romania, or Zuid-India. Among the Egyptians or the Aztecs. In Cuba or the African Colonies. In the Siberian taiga, the mountains of Afghanistan or the endless Asian steppe. Anywhere but here. Not in big cities. Even in the provinces, the burning is too strong..."
But I was still being haunted by the bloodless body of my uncle's servant girl with two precise wounds on her neck, so I kept insisting:
"Where do you think I could find a vampire in New Babylon?"
Elizabeth-Maria looked in reply with unhidden doubt, then with a careless look shrugged her shoulders, clearly having lost all interest in the conversation:
"The bottom of a hole. The deeper the better. If one really did come to New Babylon, it would be in a leaden sarcophagus somewhere in the catacombs beyond the city."
"A sarcophagus?" I asked in surprise. "And why lead exactly?"
"If you come across a vampire, ask. Perhaps you’ll even get an answer," the girl said with a detached smirk, now thinking about something else entirely. "What are your plans for tonight?" she suddenly inquired, twirling a lock of her red hair around her finger.
"I'm going to the circus," I said, standing from the table and removing the kerchief I’d stuffed into my shirt neck to catch dripping jam. "What of it?"
"I never took you for a circus aficionado."
And that was an accurate assessment; I didn't like the circus. Neither the circus, nor circus people.
Devil! If I really thought about it, there weren't many people on the planet, toward whom I didn't experience a certain antipathy.
Was I a misanthrope? No, more like a clinical introvert.
"A friend asked me to go with him," I explained. And when she came out after me into the entryway, in my turn, I inquired: "And the burning, what causes it?"
"The million-franc question!" the girl laughed, taking a little brush and starting to dust the shelves. "No one is sure, but in the time of the fallen, it wasn't around. Back then, the whole world belonged to us, and us alone."
"Yeah, yeah," I chuckled, going outside without a cloak or even a jacket.
The weather put a smile on my face. There wasn't even a trace of yesterday's tempest remaining. The sky was clear, though far off on the horizon there were clumpy, foreboding cumulus clouds gathering.
I started down from the porch and immediately was reminded by the discomfort in my leg that it was sprained. And even though it wasn't bothering me so bad today, it still seemed reasonable to go back home for Alexander Dyak's cane.
"You're fast!" Elizabeth-Maria snickered acridly on my return, not stopping her dusting.
"And you, I see, have really taken to housework," I replied, going tit for tat and looking with surprise under my feet, only now noting the bare floor. "What happened to the rug?"
"The rug?" the girl asked in surprise.
"Yes, the rug!"
"Leo, do you take me for a housekeeper? How should I know about your rugs?"
I frowned and raised my voice:
"Yes, Viscount?" my butler asked, having come to my call.
"Theodor, did you take the rug from the entryway?"
"No, Viscount," my servant answered dispassionately and said nothing further.
Elizabeth-Maria stared at me with lively curiosity. With a no-less-interested tone, I answered her:
"And you say you had nothing to do with this either?"
"That's right," the girl confirmed.
I'm not sure why, but I believed her. And that put me all the more on alert.
I walked through the guest room, looking carefully underfoot and soon noticed a long reddish-brown splotch on one of the skirting boards, as if someone had tried hastily to wipe off some spilled red ink. Or blood?
"Look," I said to Elizabeth-Maria.
The girl gave a graceful curtsy, scratched it with her long nail, licked her finger and, perplexed, drew out her words:
"How interesting!"
"What is it?"
"Blood," the girl stated her verdict and added: "It’s fresh."
Theodor's distant tranquility disappeared in a flash.
"Please!" he flared up. "Only the three of us have been in the manor. Others have no way of even entering! That must have occurred to you, Viscount!"
"And yet, the rug disappeared, and the floor is dirty with blood," I muttered, continuing to look around the room. At first glance, everything was in place. I didn't manage to detect any other traces of another's presence.
"Another one of your nightmares, perhaps?" Elizabeth‑Maria purred.
"I do not know," I replied, shrugging my shoulders and looking into the hallway. "Theodor, bring me a lamp!"
The butler carried out my order and, soon, the uneven light of the bat-like bulb hanging down from my ceiling allowed us to discover another few drops of blood, smeared and partially dry.
I pulled my Roth-Steyr from its holster and chambered a round. Someone had been in the house uninvited, and I didn't even want to think why they had rolled out the rug. However, the blood on the floor didn't leave me much room for imagination.
Someone had killed someone else and then covered their tracks.
But who? And most importantly, who did they kill?
Theodor armed himself with a poker from the fireplace. Elizabeth-Maria ran for the saber and we followed the bloody spots as if it were a trail of breadcrumbs. This person wasn't particularly precise, so it wasn't a difficult task to discover the reddish-brown spots.
We breezed through the pantry and closet, turned down the side corridor and Theodor hazarded a guess:
"The carriage-house!"
And he was dead on. The drops of blood extended right up to the door from the annex into the carriage-house; unlike many modern homes, my manor had a door directly from the living quarters into the vehicle storage area.
"Quiet!" I whispered, flinging the door open and stepping in with my pistol at the ready. Theodor quickly came after me and raised the lamp over my head, illuminating the dark garage.
The leprechaun, caught unawares, peevishly moved his accordioned top hat onto the back of his head, spit his rolled cigarette onto the floor and cursed:
"Bugger, what bad timing!"
And it was hard to disagree with him. We’d caught him with a fresh corpse laid out on a workbench, hacksaw in hand. It was, in fact, very bad timing...
"What the devil?!" I snarled and, ducking my head as not to hit it on the low door jamb, went down the stairs. "What the devil are you doing?"
The leprechaun didn't answer, though. He tore off his kitchen apron and skillfully leaped out an open window.
I stuck my pistol in the holster and walked up to the body. Its throat was ripped open from ear to ear. The cadaver was unfamiliar to me, but I could say for sure that it was not an illustrious gentleman. In his dead eyes, the bloody murk of the curse that enveloped my house had already taken hold. The body of an illustrious person wouldn't have capitulated to the Diabolic Plague so quickly.
"Do you know, Leo...?" Elizabeth-Maria said, drawing out her words with an incomprehensible look on her face, slowly going through the tools the leprechaun had laid out: a hacksaw, a hatchet, a set of utility knives, a small hammer and a chisel, "your fantasies are quite a bit darker than I supposed..."
I cursed.
"This isn't my fantasy!"
"Your nightmare, then?"
"Come off it!" I retorted with a wave. I then went through the cadaver's belongings on the floor.
He had a wallet with a few hundred francs, a pair of gloves, and a pen-knife, which didn't arouse any suspicion. But the mask with eye slits, set of lock picks, small crowbar and glass cutter spoke for themselves.
Someone had tried to break in. What could I say? He picked the wrong house.
"It occurs to me that the situation is not unambiguous," I muttered, sticking the money in my own wallet.
"Alright. If you want to think so..." Elizabeth-Maria grinned, amused at everything.
Theodor remained imperturbable.
"What shall we do, Viscount?" He asked. "Get rid of the body, or inform the police?"
I paced through the garage, nervously tapping my fingers on the boxes and trophy weapons, then decided:
"Bring him to the icehouse."
"Fresh meat?" the girl cracked up laughing and threw up her hands. "Leo! Don't be so serious, I was only joking!"
"Alright, I guess," I muttered, spreading out the blood-soaked rug. "Theodor, help!"
Together, my butler and I lowered the corpse to the floor, wrapped it up and dragged it into the house. Elizabeth-Maria lifted the hatch, so all we had to do was lower the body down and lay it on the ice.
"This isn't right," my butler said, pursing his lips. "He cannot stay here!"
"You're right," I agreed, hurriedly leaving the basement; I didn't want to stay down there any longer than necessary.
"And what will we do with him?" Theodor asked, coming up after me.
"We'll think something up," I replied, shrugging my shoulders. My plan now was to bring the armored car back here later and take the body out of town.
Elizabeth-Maria lowered the hatch and inquired acridly:
"You don't want to ask your imaginary friend what he was planning to do?"
"I can get by without his advice, thank you very much."
"Viscount," the butler started. But I cut him off:
"Later, Theodor! I have business to attend to first."
Elizabeth-Maria adjusted my neckerchief and smiled:
"Dear, are you really saying there are more pressing matters than a fresh corpse in the icehouse?"
"Much more pressing," I confirmed, donning my derby-cap before the mirror and leaving the house.


MY ATTORNEY'S office was located in one of the faceless towers of glass and concrete that grew up from a new neighborhood in the northern part of the city, which was quickly becoming the center of the Imperial business world. Huge corporations bought whole floors of office buildings there according to their needs. Less well-off companies made do with just individual offices. The successful industrialists considered offices with a view of the historical part of New Babylon especially prestigious; my lawyer's place, though, might as well have been a windowless jail cell.
A recent graduate from law school, the red-headed and sickly pale young man tore himself from his papers and stretched out his lips into something resembling a warm smile. The greenhorn lawyer wasn't getting a single centime from me, either. He was satisfied just to have the status of Viscount Cruce's attorney, though he did think that gave him the right to do half-assed work. Normally, that didn't bother me. Normally, but not today.
When the young man began standing up, I pushed him back into his chair, myself taking a seat on the edge of the table.
"I've got an urgent job. It must be done without delay!" I ordered in a tone that wouldn't bear objection.
"But, Viscount, I cannot abandon my other clients!" the lawyer protested. He really did seem to have been working on some other papers before my arrival, too.
I set a check for ten thousand francs in front of him and smiled:
"Your commission would be ten percent."
My attorney studied the check and shot me a gaze of amazement.
"Ten percent?" he asked with badly hidden trepidation.
"Yes," I confirmed. "Ten percent of ten thousand. But you'll have to work for it."
The lawyer opened his notepad and inquired:
"Under what circumstances did you come by the check and on what grounds was it protested?"
"Unimportant," I said with a wave and jumped back from the table. I then instructed: 
"File a suit to recover the whole value of the check. And just in case, ask for an injunction against the Count's bank accounts, his suburban estate and his dirigible, Syracuse. Also, you must put out a search notice for the dirigible immediately."
"But, Viscount!" my attorney protested. "For a sum such as that, these are rather extreme measures..."
"If the suit can’t make the Count pay in cash, we'll have no choice but to follow the accepted procedure and wait out the funds from the sale of his property. I wouldn't like that. Would you?"
The lawyer shook his head and bleated out indecisively:
"But the dirigible?"
"My uncle may attempt to flee to the continent by air. If we can deprive him of his means of transportation, he'll be a lot more ready to negotiate."
"And if he voluntarily pays the check..." my attorney started, nervously cracking his fingers, "will my commission remain in force?"
"Yes, the ten percent is yours no matter how this shakes out. But if you don't get to this right now, I'll have to hire someone else."
The lawyer jumped up from the table, adjusted his vest, grabbed his well-worn jacket from the hanger and reported back:
"I'm headed to court immediately!"
"Stop!" I yelled out, barely getting his attention in time. "First, draw up an official complaint. I'll take it to my uncle's attorney first so we can't be later accused of bad faith."
That was how anyone would have acted if they didn't know for sure that the Count had fled, and I was not preparing to give a reason to suspect me of knowing too much.
The lawyer went back to his table, loaded a sheet of paper into a time-worn typing machine and started clacking away on the keyboard with a mad speed, glancing from time to time at the check in front of him.
I didn't sit down in the wobbly visitor's chair, instead pacing from wall to wall. The uneven flickering of the electric lamp under the ceiling was having a bad effect on my nerves.
"There. It's done! Sign!" the lawyer said a quarter hour later, handing me the sheet.
I didn't sign anything, first studying the complaint in excruciating detail, telling him to correct a few typos and only after that placing my signature.
"If you lose that check, I'll tear your head off," I warned my attorney, placing the complaint in my inside pocket.
"I don't doubt it for a second!" he said insightfully. "I'll send it to my notary's office for safe keeping."
"Please do," I nodded. "And don't dally."
"I'm already on my way!"
Not waiting for my lawyer, I went outside alone, stopped the first cabby I met eyes with and told him to bring me to Via Benardos, which is where my dear uncle's lawyer worked.
Maître LaSalle rented an office on the upper floor of a building that looked a lot like a piece of pie from the outside: its facade was of a normal width, but the side walls met in a sharp corner, allowing the architectural abomination to fit between the two neighboring buildings. If desired, I wouldn't even have to jump from rooftop to rooftop. I could just walk.
A finicky watchman at the entrance wanted to know the purpose of my visit, then relayed it up the listening tube to the lawyer's assistant. Only after getting the go-head from him was I allowed inside. There were no elevators in the building. I had to take the stairs, which snaked around an internal courtyard all the way up to the fifth floor. The view out the windows revealed a tiny, dark space reminiscent of the inside of a well.
The lawyer's assistant met me in the entryway and tried to impede me with questions. But, feeling annoyed, I waved him aside and barged straight into the lawyer's office.
"Viscount Cruce!" said the lanky, if not to say frail gentleman of fifty years with surprise, looking up from his papers. He handled the affairs of several members of the old aristocracy. They were all still well off, but had long ago burned through their former influence. "To what do I owe your visit?"
I turned to the pushy assistant standing in the doorway and barked out:
"Make yourself scarce!"
"Leave us," Maître LaSalle ordered. Then, he reproached me: "Have a bit of courtesy, Viscount! Nothing costs so little and is valued so highly as common courtesy."
"You may find that to be so, maître, but I prefer cash," I parried, tossing the complaint on the table. "Ten thousand francs, for example."
The lawyer clipped his reading glasses on his nose and started studying the document; I didn't want to loom over him, so I went over to the window, which looked out onto the neighboring building with a rusty rail of a fire escape. It revealed a view of one of the side streets, narrow and curving.
"This must be some kind of mistake!" my uncle's attorney then exclaimed. "A mere misunderstanding!"
"I do not agree with that assessment, maître," I shook my head, continuing to stand at the window, "but in any case, there's nothing stopping you from getting in touch with the Count and speaking directly."
"Have you brought the check with you?"
"What do you think?"
"What claptrap," the lawyer muttered, picking up the phone and asking to be put through to Count Kósice's manor. Soon, he threw down his phone and told me: "The line's malfunctioning."
"What a shame."
"Where did you get the check, Viscount?"
"That's not important. It's got his name on it."
"Then I place your right to it in doubt. I also have doubts on its authenticity and the very fact that it was refused in the first place!" the lawyer said, putting forth three mutually exclusive arguments with glee. But I couldn't be deterred so easily.
"I guess you’ll have to convince a court of that, then," I smiled.
"This is plain abuse of the legal system!" the lawyer objected. "The demand for an injunction on his property, bank accounts and means of transportation over such a trivial matter is simply laughable!"
"Get in touch with the Count, maître," I recommended. "Get in touch with him and insist that he meet with me as soon as possible. The longer this goes on, the worse it'll get."
The lawyer got up from the table and said very quietly and distinctly:
"You'll come to regret this, Viscount. You will regret your negligence very much."
"Whatever happened to courtesy!?" I exclaimed, leaving the office. "Maître, remember your courtesy!"
I didn't try to catch a cab on Via Benardos. I immediately turned down one of the side alleys and walked through the arch onto a quiet boulevard to the Emperor's Academy. Thankfully, the broken feeling in my leg wasn't bothering me quite as much today. And also, I was in no rush.
In the end, it took me ten minutes to reach Leonardo-da-Vinci-Platz. When I entered Mechanisms and Rarities, Alexander Dyak was reading a paper.
"Leopold Borisovich!" the inventor cried out, glad at my arrival. He walked around the display case and extended a hand. "Allow me to congratulate you"
"On what?" I perked up my ears.
"On a successful end to the experiment, naturally!" Alexander Dyak burst out laughing, then faltered. "Or was it not you that brought Procrustes to his doom?"
I took a fateful sigh and corrected the inventor:
"It wasn't Procrustes."
"If you say so, Leopold Borisovich, if you say so!" said the shop owner, nodding his head several times. "I trust you haven't forgotten my request? The timeframe is very important for science..."
As surprising as it was, I hadn't forgotten the inventor's request and, while still in the opium den awaiting the police, I had written down a full chronology in my notepad from the first shot to the werewolf’s last breath.
"Here you go," I said, handing him a piece of paper taken from my notepad. I then grabbed a newspaper from the display case and immersed myself in reading but, beyond the flashy headline "Procrustes Dead!" there was nothing concrete in the article. The inspector general's prohibition against talking to the press was being rigorously observed. Only one of the coroner's assistants hadn't managed to hold his tongue about the fact that the bite marks on Isaac Levinson's servant matched the jaw size of the werebeast shot down in the Chinese Quarter.
My name was not mentioned.
"Staggering, just staggering!" Alexander Dyak muttered to himself, studying my notes. "There's quite a lot to think about here."
"I'm afraid werebeasts are rather infrequent visitors to New Babylon," I smiled.
"The world isn't confined to just New Babylon," the inventor shrugged his shoulders, turning the sheet and hiding it in the pocket of his frock. "How's the cane?"
"Above all praise," I answered, not exaggerating one bit. "But today, I've come to you with a new request of an applied-science nature."
"Very interesting," Alexander Dyak replied, curious. "What is it this time?"
"Fire," I told him. "I need a compact device capable of creating a powerful flame."
"A flamethrower?" The inventor asked in surprise. "Leopold Borisovich, do you need a flamethrower?"
"I have a flamethrower," I admitted with a smirk, "but it's too bulky and uncomfortable to carry..."
"Tell me what you need it for," said the inventor, waving his hand. "I'll help you if I can."
So, I told him about the ghastly strangler, his shadows and fear of fire. I didn't mention exactly where our tussle had taken place, and why I was worried I'd meet him again, though.
And worried I was. Fear is a weapon. Fear can kill, but some things are much more deadly than fear. For example, black magic. One time, the malefic had run from the fire. But that trick wouldn't work again. As soon as I tried, he'd tear my head off. A being capable of snatching a ten-caliber bullet out of thin air was nothing to trifle with.
"Quite a serious task!" Alexander Dyak gasped, shaking his head. "I am familiar with the construction of a flamethrower. There's nothing complicated there. But a compact portable flamethrower..."
"I know," I nodded, "it's not easy..."
"There's the combustibles tank, the compressed-nitrogen tank, the jet pipe," said the inventor, enumerating the necessary components.
"I don't need a full flamethrower," I reminded him again. "It only needs to work one time, like in an emergency situation!"
"A single-use flamethrower?" Alexander Dyak started thinking. "What can I say Leopold Borisovich? It's never a bore with you!"
Just then, a couple of students came into the shop and I hurried to bow out.
"Come by tomorrow at the same time," asked the inventor, walking over to the customers: "What can I help you with, young ones?"
I went outside and bought a fresh edition of the Atlantic Telegraph as I walked toward Emperor Clement Square, feeling too stingy to spring for a cab.

THE RECENT SPOT of bad weather had been to the city's distinct advantage. It had washed the dust and ash off everything. The fresh wind blew away the smog and smoke of the chimneys, and the puddles and many streams were drying out before my eyes. It was very sultry out. On the horizon, there were new black clouds starting to form in wisps. They looked dark and evil.
The bad weather was threatening to return, but for now, the sun was still shining in the sky. The city-dwellers were walking down the boulevards and across the squares, sitting on cafe verandas and admiring the sheen of the freshly washed glass in front of the expensive stores.
On Emperor Clement Square, there was even a suffragette demonstration. Fifteen ladies were rhythmically shaking signs with calls for equality; the curious onlookers, newspapermen and police gathered around them were much higher in number. I walked calmly around the crowd.
Much more calmly than before. The usual public that gathered on this street was well-to-do and stylish but, in my new getup, I no longer felt like somebody's poor relative. The shoes I was wearing were so shiny with fresh polish that it seemed I had gotten them done at one of the nearby stalls not five minutes earlier.
I walked into the hotel Benjamin Franklin with a confident victorious air, carelessly nodding at the porter as I announced myself:
"Viscount Cruce for Mr. Witstein."
"One minute." The receptionist went through the list, made a call and pointed me to the elevator. "He’s been expecting you, Viscount."
Abraham Witstein came out into the main room of the Emperor’s Suite with his face red from a recent shave. On the coffee table, there was a pile of fresh press. On top of that, I saw today's edition of the Atlantic Telegraph.
Apparently, I needn’t have bought one...
"Viscount!" the Judean exclaimed with a smile. "Am I to understand that you come today bearing good news?"
I placed a deformed ten-caliber bullet on the table, the same one I'd dug out of the wall of the opium den, and confirmed his supposition:
"The news is even better than you suppose."
"What is that?" the banker asked, getting on edge as he stared at the rumpled lead ball and torn aluminum jacket.
"This is the bullet that struck Procrustes," I told him. "This ruthless monster was long considered uncatchable but, when he came after Isaac Levinson and his family, a certain private detective followed the beast on orders from the Witstein Banking House and gave him a one-way ticket to the underworld. Mr. Witstein, I trust you have nothing against this version of events. It is the one I told the police."
The Judean took the bullet, turned it in his fingers and placed it back on the table, pursing his lips.
"We were quite emphatic that you should not allude to our enterprise..."
"Do you prefer the story that a private detective killed an out-of-town werewolf who had it out for your company for no reason?"
The banker thought over my words and waved his hand:
"Viscount, pay no mind to my grumbling. You did everything as you should have. I've already received a call from the police saying the bites match up, so I'll give the order to pay out the three thousand francs..."
Abraham Witstein smiled:
"My dear Leopold, if my memory doesn't deceive me, you were promised three thousand francs for the killer dead."
"Mr. Witstein!" I exclaimed, melting into a no less false smile in my turn. "Do you really think you can compare some run of the mill werebeast with Procrustes himself? The whole city is humming, abuzz with the name of your banking house..."
"We weren’t chasing fame!"
"That's good, but judge for yourself: who in their right mind would try and rob the very bank responsible for bringing the most terrifying legend in town to justice?"
"Not the most terrifying," the banker corrected me. "Not even close."
"Alright then, the most terrifying legend of recent years," I agreed. "Is that of no interest to you?"
"Five thousand?"
"Five thousand!"
"And that's all? No monthly payments?"
"Blackmail runs deeply counter to my nature," I assured the Judean. "If you do not value my efforts at five thousand, what can I do? Pay three. I'll just compensate the remaining two with the kind of cheap fame you have no desire for. Declaring that the dead werebeast was not Procrustes, but just some nameless New-World emigrant would stir up quite the sensation, I assure you! I don't exactly have clients lining up, so I'm telling you the pure truth and nothing but."
"But your ego would far prefer going down in history as the killer of Procrustes, isn’t that right?" Abraham Witstein chuckled.
"So, you see why this could never be blackmail, then. I stand to lose incomparably more than you, if the real story were to come out."
"Do you really need money this badly?"
"That's all a question of how my labors are valued," I replied, leaning back in my chair and admitting: "I mean, another two thousand couldn't hurt."
The banker called his bodyguard. The balding big-nosed Judean halved a packet of hundred-franc bank notes, counted them out and handed me the agreed-upon sum. I watched him in a most careful manner, so I didn't have to check the accuracy of the count. I just stuck the pile of bills into my wallet and stood to my feet.
"It was nice working with you, Mr. Witstein."
He looked sourly in reply and clarified:
"Our work together will continue, though, right?"
"Unofficially," I reminded him.
"Unofficially," the Judean confirmed.
Then, I bowed over him and said quietly:
"If this information gets out in any way, I'll deny it, but unofficially, one of the robbers is already dead. In total that's two of the four."
Abraham Witstein sized me up with his piercing gaze and asked:
"What happened to him?"
"He was careless with explosives."
"Is that all?"
"For the moment," I answered. "And now, allow me to take my leave. I have a great many pressing activities planned for today."
"Keep me informed," the banker said after me, getting up from his chair. "Alright?"
"Without fail," I promised, squeezing his outstretched hand and walking down to the first floor. There, I looked thoughtfully toward the bar but, although my wallet was now swollen with hundred-franc bills, I chose not to squander my money and just left the building.
The sun was peeking out from between shaggy black clouds, just as before. Steam was rising from the wet causeway. I didn't leave the square. I took a seat on one of the benches not far from an equestrian statue of the founder of the Second Empire, got out my half-empty tin of sugar drops and tossed one into my mouth.
So, the Emperor's brother had done something and now, sixteen years after his death, it was coming to fruition. But what?
A box, a thunder rune, many illustrious gentlemen. Was it a conspiracy? Perhaps.
There was one thing I could be absolutely certain of: I knew nothing. And the faster I figured this all out, the higher my chances of remaining alive.
The main question now was which of the threads to pull first in order to unravel this ball of twine with the least amount of effort. My attorney was already bending over backwards to find Count Kósice and, if my uncle hadn't yet managed to make it to the continent, sooner or later, he would find him. I had two directions I could put my efforts into now: trying to search for the strangler or trying to track down the gang of illustrious gentlemen.
Though they no longer possessed the mysterious contents of the box, they definitely did know what exactly was supposed to be inside. And in matters such as this, information is worth its weight in gold. Other than that, both the strangler and bank robbers had it in for me and, to my eye, the best defense would be a pre-emptive attack. The potential threat had to be eliminated.
Now the question was whether the bigger threat was the malefic or the illustrious gentlemen.
I even decided to toss a coin, but had a change of heart and headed for the magistrate. It would be incomparably easier to find the illustrious gentlemen; I decided to start there.
Incomparably easier seeming, at least. I had the perfect plan: determine who owned the warehouse I'd blown up, find that person and use them to track down the robbers. I knew the approximate location of the plot of land. There was little else to do. I had to spend a few days in the archive, go through a few half-tons of ancient documents and, after working up an allergy to paper dust, find the information I needed in the very last box I thought to open.
Not such a charming perspective.
But money is often capable of performing real miracles, right? One hundred francs was enough to get one of the quick-thinking clerks interested in finding me the right documents by this evening. After negotiating for another fifty if he actually found the documents, the young man got lost in the archive. I went back outside and started thinking about what to do with myself before the day came to an end.
I could consider my work as a private detective finished, so now, I could either head for lunch with a clean conscious, or go on a walk around the city and enjoy the day off. I certainly didn't want to go back to my mansion with a corpse in the icehouse. And I had to refuse taking a bit of exercise down the Yarden Embankment because of the pain in my leg. The cane saved me from being totally lame, but getting around was still a chore.
Albert Brandt was expecting me at six. Ramon Miro was probably still sleeping before his shift. To my great surprise, I realized I had basically nothing to do.
A strange sensation. I wasn't used to it.
I stood for a bit on the steps of the magistrate, went down to the sidewalk and hopped into a steam tram headed for Newtonstraat.
I had one more thing remaining. It was unpleasant and even somewhat dangerous, but it wouldn't have been good to let it go. Quite the opposite, in fact. The earlier I stuck a feeler in this direction, the higher my chances of success would be.
I didn't go into the Newton-Markt. I headed from Ohm Square directly into The Blue Ostrich.
Every department of the metropolitan police had their own preferred meeting places. Low-level constables disappeared after their shifts in one of the nameless liquor bars nearby, CID constables preferred drinking in Archimedes' Screw, office clerks had The Green Fairy coffee shop, and the detectives of Department Three met up in The Blue Ostrich.
It was considered one of the most tranquil establishments in all New Babylon, and I sincerely hoped that the serene atmosphere would keep the person I was going to see from physically assaulting me. It would be devilishly unpleasant to end up behind bars because of a fight with a police detective.
The Blue Ostrich restaurant took up the first two floors of the building on the corner of Newtonstraat and Ampère Boulevard. From the outside, it had no noteworthy features except the ostrich on the sign, which was a noble shade of royal blue, the same as a police uniform. There was music playing inside. The interior was adorned with potted palm trees growing up to the ceiling, and it smelled of expensive tobacco. Department Three really knew how to relax in style.
The maître d' gave me a courteous smile and inquired:
"Have you reserved a table?"
"I'm expected by senior inspector Moran," I said, fudging the truth. "Is he already here?"
"Yes, he is," the maître d' confirmed. "Would you like me to take you to his table?"
"If you'd be so kind."
My arrival was not to Bastian Moran's liking. Not in the slightest.
Before him, there was an untouched stuffed grouse in pineapple gravy; the senior inspector looked first at the appetizing dish, then shifted his gaze to me and, without a doubt, came to the conclusion that the grouse and I absolutely did not pair well.
"Don't worry, Bastian. I won't keep you from your meal long," I smiled, taking a seat at his table.
"Will you be ordering anything?" the maître d' clarified.
"No, he will not," the senior inspector answered for me. And when we were left alone, he pursed his lips. "You know, Viscount, you're the last person I was expecting to see here today."
"Life is full of surprises," I said back with a shrug of my shoulders.
"Have you come to spoil my appetite?"
"Nothing of the sort. I thought I could be of service."
Bastian Moran set aside his knife and fork, wiped his lips with his napkin and nodded:
"I'm listening." He was clearly hoping to get rid of me before the grouse went cold.
I took a police report from my inner pocket and handed it to him.
"Where'd you get this?" Bastian Moran asked in confusion, quickly looking over the papers.
"Wrong question," I shook my head. "You should be asking how the bank robbers got a copy of a police report."
"I suppose the newly minted private detective before me doesn't have an answer to that question," the senior inspector noted reasonably, slapping his hand on the table. "I'll ask you again: where did you get this?"
"I was attacked," I answered, not especially bending the truth. "In the course of the fight, these papers were dropped by one of the criminals."
"And what became of the attackers?" asked the senior inspector, staring at me with the unblinking gaze of a boa constrictor.
"They got away. Otherwise, why would I come to you?"
"And why did you come to me, Viscount?"
I threw my gaze over the bright room with huge floor-length windows, a dance floor and an orchestra stage, then put one leg over the other and said calmly:
"There's a rat in the Newton-Markt, senior inspector. And I think it's in your best interest to find him."
Bastian Moran rolled the report into a tube and banged it on the edge of the table.
"And what do you care, Viscount?" He smiled poisonously, adding, "beyond the desire to aid in the pursuit of justice, naturally?"
"Expecting to be stabbed in the back is not conducive to mental balance."
"So, you wanted someone else to solve your problems for you, eh? Or are you implying I was involved in this regrettable incident?"
"The thought has crossed my mind," I nodded, changing he topic: "I suppose you are aware of yesterday's events in the Chinese Quarter?"
"Did you come here to brag?" he asked.
I then set a round ten-caliber bullet on the table. Its aluminum jacket bore clear fingerprints from the strangler.
"The fingerprints of the man who killed Aaron Malk are on this metal."
The senior inspector's eyes grew dark.
"Where did you get that bullet, Viscount?" he demanded.
"It’s called work. You might consider acquainting yourself with it one day, instead of just wearing out your pants in an office," I smiled, getting to my feet. In parting, I wished him a "bon appétit" and headed off for the exit.
Bastian Moran stayed at the table, but was now looking at the stuffed grouse without the slightest interest. It positively warmed my soul.
As I stepped out onto the veranda, I measured up the distant titan of the Newton-Markt with my gaze, took out my tin of sugar drops and threw an orange-flavored one into my mouth. The clouds carried through the sky like whitish shaggy cotton. The fresh wind chased the smog and furnace-smoke from the city. It was surprisingly easy to breathe today, even despite the vapor rising from the earth.
I stood for a bit, enjoying the pleasant sour taste, then waved a hand at a cabby rolling through the intersection and told him to drive to the municipal library.
Once there, I slipped the badly sun-burned man a few coins, but didn't enter the temple of knowledge. Instead, I walked up onto the terrace of the neighboring cafe. There was a vision of grouse with pineapple gravy dancing before my eyes, and I could no longer sate my hunger with sugar drops alone. I needed something more substantial.
Also, the very thought of just sitting for a bit in a wicker chair and doing absolutely nothing was quite attractive. I could forget about all my cares and just drink a cup of coffee in the very middle of the work day.
Wasn't that a dream?
I ordered Viennese coffee, a few Belgian waffles and an ice cream with maple syrup. I leaned back in the chair and realized that I was suffering from a critical lack of fresh press. Without a paper, the appearance of a world-weary lounger just wasn't complete, and I'd somehow managed to lose the issue of the Atlantic Telegraph I bought earlier.
I looked out onto the street, snapped my fingers and found a boy nearby with a stack of papers under his arm and satirical magazines sticking out of the side of his bag.
"Atlantic Telegraph," I asked him.
The kid handed me the paper I requested, getting ten centimes in return, then walked down the street, loudly informing passers-by:
"Storm warning! Hurricane coming! Dirigible flights to the continent canceled! Anarchists blow up police armored car! Read all about it! Blood-soaked horror and imminent storm!"
I went back to the table and began leafing through the news as I waited for my order. But there was nothing new about Procrustes in the paper. Just rumors, as before. The Newton-Markt was keeping stubbornly silent.
They brought my coffee, crispy waffles and two scoops of ice-cream with maple syrup on top. In no particular hurry, I ate my food and leafed through the paper. The hurricane was expected any day now. After I finished my meal, I just sat and drank my coffee.
But I was no longer unoccupied, not at all. I was thinking over my next steps and considering my opponents' possible moves. I wasn't expecting the malefic strangler to attack any time soon. What did he need me for? But then the gang of illustrious gentlemen had serious intentions. And it wasn't at all certain that Bastian Moran's forthcoming activity would get them to lay low. He might have been working for them, after all.
Paranoia? Nothing of the sort. The bruise on the back of my head and electrical burns on my arms and legs were clear evidence of the fact that I was currently quite far from mere paranoia. But sure, I did have a slight, if natural, mistrust of those around me.
I paid up and headed into the library. Once there, I spent some time filling out a library card and set about shuffling through old newspaper files. I was looking for any mention of people who died with the characteristic bite marks on their neck. But there was no mention of such happenings in the crime blotter from any paper in the last five years. Elizabeth-Maria was right. Vampires must have tried to avoid New Babylon. And if not, they were devilishly good at covering up their foul misdeeds.
After killing a few hours, I tossed my gaze at the clock face and ordered a few books on the founding of the Second Empire. But I was disappointed: though there were dozens of thick tomes written on the great Rie brothers, Emperor Clement and Emile his constant chancellor, I wasn't able to glean anything useful from them.
They all just told slight variations on the same official story I’d heard my whole life: a group of people fighting for freedom and justice rose up in rebellion against the tyranny of the fallen. And though the Emperor himself had been given every imaginable biographical treatment, his younger brother had always occupied his shadow. Even as chancellor, he wasn't such a public person and, after his sudden end, everyone simply forgot about the great Duke of Arabia. I supposed the fact that he was disliked by the widowed Empress had at least some part to play in that.
One thing could be said absolutely for sure: of those who took part in the rebellion alongside the Rie brothers, the survivors now numbered in the single digits. Their generation was gone now. Those who had known Emile Rie as chancellor numbered incomparably higher, but I was hardly likely to track down anyone involved in his secret by going down that route.
And there was definitely some kind of terrifying secret tied up with the lightning-rune aluminum box.
"In respect to the memory of Emile Rie..."
What the devil did that illustrious gentleman have in mind?
What kind of respect? What did that have to do with anything?
I headed to the magistrate, still not having found an answer to the questions hounding me.

I ARRIVED to the magistrate just as it was closing. I walked into the vestibule, looked for the clerk whose palm I'd greased and was unpleasantly surprised to find a sour expression on his handsome mug.
"Alas, Mr. Orso," the young man sighed, "I'm afraid I cannot help you..."
"Listen here, my good sir!" I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward me. "Our agreement was mutually beneficial. Don't complicate things!"
"I checked the archive," the frightened clerk whispered back fitfully. "The land you asked about is currently in abeyance. You can check yourself, if you like!"
"Where are the documents?"
The young man adjusted his frock and pointed at one of the doors.
"After me, please," he said in an official tone.
We walked into the office. The clerk there rifled through a desk, opened a dusty folder and handed it to me.
I quickly made sure that the documents were about the right property. Its last owner really had died half a century ago. With unhidden disbelief, I looked at the civil servant:
"How is this possible?"
"I do not know," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "The plot of land has simply been forgotten!"
"Do such things even happen?"
"Back then, stranger things were known to happen."
"Perhaps." I wrote the address of my attorney on a sheet in my notepad, tore it out and handed it to the man. "If you do manage to find something out, I'd be much obliged."
"By all means," the clerk nodded, sticking the paper in his pocket.
And I went outside empty-handed.
Twilight had already crept up on the city. The street lamps on the alleys leading to the magistrate were starting to turn on. The black clouds on the backdrop of the darkening sky seemed to be made of cut black paper. A steam tram grumbled loudly across the square. A few carriages and a police armored car rolled past.
I followed it with my watchful eye and headed into the Charming Bacchante.
My mood wasn't suited for an outing to the circus, but Albert Brandt would never forgive me if the valuable ticket went to waste on my account.

Release: February 28, 2017
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The Sublime Electricity, Book 1: The Illustrious

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