So the next Gaslamp Gothic book is almost out; I sure have missed this series. We all went a little crazy in lockdown; I ended up writing a trilogy of sci-fi westerns (who’d have thunk it?), but I’m back on track now, Harry & John fans! There will be another coming out on Christmas called The Beast of Loch Ness. If you haven’t delved into the collection at all, not to worry. They don’t have to be read in order. But the previous book, Dead Ringer, is free right now, so feel to grab that one, too.
Anyway, here’s the first chapter of The Scarlet Thread, enjoy!
It was the perfect night for a vampire hunt.
A gibbous moon hung over Greenwood Cemetery, wreathed in racing clouds that made the shadows seem to writhe in a macabre dance. The skeletal branches of the elms rattled in a chill December wind. Standing before a mausoleum capped with a hideous gargoyle, I could not deny the thrill of dread that permeated my bones.
There was only one problem.
“You do know that vampires aren’t real?” I said.
John Weston was busy rooting around in a canvas bag. “Eh, Harry?” he muttered distractedly, a lock of light brown hair flopping across his eyes.
“Mr. Kaylock said so.”
“Yes.” I tucked my hands into the pockets of my red wool coat. “What are you after in there?”
I heard metallic clanking inside the bag.
“Just making sure . . . ah!” He produced a crowbar. “There she is.”
The wind moaned, sending dead leaves swirling across the deserted graveyard.
“So in light of the fact that vampires are a myth, would you remind me why I’m not at home in bed right now?”
John flashed his dimples. “Because you can’t resist my company?”
I studied his wide, expressive mouth and intelligent brown eyes. Weston was tall. I had to stand on my toes to kiss him. “That’s entirely true.”
Our friendship of many years had finally blossomed to romance, though neither of us had spoken of marriage yet. John was finishing his third year of medical school at Columbia College. I was serving out the fourth month of my suspension from the Society for Psychical Research. But we were both young—I was twenty, John twenty-one—and there would be plenty of time to plan our future together.
“I think you just wanted to lure me to a deserted spot,” I said, once I’d caught my breath. “For nefarious purposes.”
John’s gaze held mine. “You’ve no idea,” he said. Then he picked up the lantern, raising it high to illuminate the name engraved on the tomb. “But I have it from my sources in Eastern Europe that Count Enache Vacarescu is indeed one of the Undead, Harry.”
John corresponded with monster hunters around the world. No rumor was too outlandish to attract his interest. I had seen enough strange things myself at this point that I ruled out nothing, but I did recall Mr. Kaylock—my immediate superior at the S.P.R. and an authority on all things supernatural—saying vampires were a fiction devised by the authors of gothic horror novels. The most likely creature to lurk about a graveyard in the middle of the night was a ghoul, a rather low order of bloodsucker that abhorred iron.
“The count’s a nasty one,” John continued. “He lived in some remote castle in the Carpathians. Preyed on his poor vassals for years. They finally decided to take matters into their own hands, but he must have gotten wind the mob was coming. He slipped the net and shipped himself to America. Just arrived in New York Harbor last week.”
The marble mausoleum did appear to be new. It gleamed ghostly white in the moonlight.
“And what did your sources say would kill it?” I wondered.
“Iron stake through the heart.”
“So it is a ghoul.”
“No,” he said patiently. “It’s a vampire.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Hypnotic powers. Superhuman strength.” He tapped one temple. “Cunning, Harry. Vacarescu is old. Very old.”
I grunted. “If you say so.”
I produced my lock picks and started working on the entrance. With no referrals from the S.P.R., I’d been reduced to penny-ante investigations of mysterious cold spots—i.e. drafty flats—and one memorable case in which an elderly woman was convinced that her deceased cocker spaniel had come back to eat a leftover kidney pie (the culprit turned out to be her husband). I was bored witless, so when John dangled a jaunt to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, I’d jumped at the chance to escape the house.
“Has the count attacked anyone?” I asked, fiddling with the lock.
“Not yet. But they rise on the ninth day after reinterment.”
“Which is tonight, I suppose?” I stood back as the tumblers clicked.
John pushed the bronze double-leaf door. It swung back with a theatrical groan.
I glanced at his bag. “What else do you have in there?”
“Oh, some odds and ends,” he replied cagily, lifting the lantern.
We stepped inside the mausoleum. It was very cold. By which I mean a solid twenty degrees colder than the air outside. The wavering light illuminated a stone bier in the center of the chamber. I glimpsed words engraved in a foreign tongue.
“Right,” John said briskly. “Let’s just open that up.”
Looking back, it was at this precise moment I felt a pang of genuine misgiving. A quiet voice warning that perhaps we should just turn around, close the door, and be on our merry way. But John was already going at the lid with his crowbar. I knew he wouldn’t be deterred.
And vampires weren’t real, were they?
I silenced the rational part of my brain—sad, how easily that came now—and joined him at the bier. John had the shoulders of a heavyweight boxer. Within moments I heard the grinding scrape of stone as the lid shifted a few inches. The noise was horribly loud in the small chamber.
I raised the lantern. We peered into the crack. I saw a suggestion of dark, heavy cloth. An arm?
“Shouldn’t you get the stake ready?” I asked.
“Good point. Let me just double check something . . . .”
John bent to rummage through his vampire-hunting bag. My gaze remained fixed on the dark crevice. Ghouls were akin to animated corpses. But there was no odor of decay.
“In a jiff, Harry,” he muttered.
I heard the rustle of pages turning. Against my will, I glanced over.
“Did you steal that from Connor?” I asked in disbelief.
John was flipping through a lurid penny dreadful called Varney the Vampire. I know it belonged to my sister’s errand boy because I recognized the jam stain on the cover.
“Borrowed,” John said hastily.
“For what purpose?”
“Information. The lore is a bit sketchy on certain aspects.”
My heart sank. “This is your authority?”
“One of many, Harry,” he replied reassuringly. “One of many.”
“Oughtn’t you have done your research while we were outside?”
“Well, you distracted me, didn’t you?” He ran a finger down the page. “Ah, yes. Here’s the bit I was looking for. The thing to watch out for is the teeth. They sharpen to fangs when the vampire smells blood.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said, rather crossly. “So better it doesn’t.”
“Right.” John produced an iron stake and mallet, setting them at the foot of the bier. Then he took off his overcoat, pushed his sleeves up, and set to work again. After a moment of waffling, I joined him. The lid shifted another few inches. I could see an old-fashioned frock coat now. And two very white hands clasped across the breast.
“You see,” John whispered. “No sign of decomposition.”
“Can you stake it without opening the lid all the way?” I whispered back.
Why we were both whispering now, I had no idea. It was clearly too late for stealth. But something about those white hands made normal speech impossible.
“Don’t think so,” he hissed. “Angle’s wrong.”
More grunting and grinding of stone on stone. The lid was now ajar about eight inches. I could see part of one hollow, bloodless cheek and thin lips. The rest was lost to shadow.
We stood up and exchanged a quick look. John, as usual, had the air of a child on Christmas morning surveying a mound of shiny presents. I was less euphoric. Particularly since our guide to vanquishing the Undead monster was subtitled, A Feast of Blood.
“How does Varney die in the story?” I asked softly.
John reached for the stake. “He dies several times actually. In one of the tales, a deranged medical student brings him back with galvinism. But in the end, he throws himself into Mount Vesuvius. Suicide.”
I frowned. “So he wasn’t even staked? I don’t see—”
The lid of the bier gave a violent lurch. Someone shrieked, possibly myself, though I couldn’t be sure because there was a crash of stone and Count Enache Vacarescu sat up from his bier. I saw the dome of a high forehead, thinning black hair, and deep-set eyes that burned like embers in the gloom.
“Now, John!” I cried.
But he was standing next to me with his arms limp at his sides, staring transfixed at the creature. The iron stake slipped from John’s hand. It struck the stone floor with an echoing clatter that spelled doom. The vampire made a fluttering gesture with those pale fingers. His lips curved in a smile that revealed pointed canine teeth.
“Run, Harry,” John said in a subdued voice.
It seemed a sound idea. I grabbed his hand, but John didn’t budge. He’d fallen under the thing’s spell. And I certainly wasn’t fleeing without him.
I dove for the stake as the count flung a trousered leg over the edge of the coffin and sprang nimbly to his feet. The lantern lit the hollows of his eyes to ghastly effect. He was bending to John’s neck when I plunged the stake into his back. Vacarescu gave a howl and spun towards me. He looked angry.
Not the result I’d hoped for.
I fled to the other side of the bier. Vacarescu feinted left, then right, but I wasn’t falling for it. We faced each other for a long moment. He still had the iron stake sticking out of his back. Either I’d missed the heart or the weapon was a mere irritant.
I realized two things then. First, vampires were indeed real. And second, I was about to be drained by one.
I tried to tear my gaze from that uncanny face, but lassitude crept over me. The stone chamber faded away. There was nothing but his blue eyes, burning like cold stars in the darkness. My legs seemed rooted in place as he prowled around the stone bier, skin gleaming like the marble of the tomb itself. An icy hand touched my cheek.
Surrender. The wordless command filled my ears. Give yourself to eternal life. Eternal beauty. Join me, my little draga, my darling—
Glass shattered. A sudden flare of light. The rigid features contorted in a grimace as flames erupted from the vampire’s frock coat. John had broken the lantern across his back. The count staggered from the tomb, trailing streamers of orange fire. John pursued with the canvas bag in his hand. I reached the doorway in time to see the count collapse and John’s arm, raised in the silhouette of the flames, driving a second stake into his chest. There was a shrieking, unearthly cry, carried away by the wind. The flames took on a greenish hue like burning phosphorus. John dove to the side and covered his head.
It was at this point that the vampire exploded.
There’s really no other word for what occurred. A towering pillar of flame erupted in the center of the cemetery, streaking upward like fireworks. The hot wind of it knocked me back a step. For several long seconds, I was blinded by the afterimage.
“John?” I cried.
There was no answer. I blinked rapidly, seized by a sudden bottomless fear that was far worse than Vacarescu’s gaze.
“Weston!” I bellowed, heart hammering.
I ran on unsteady legs and saw him crawling out from behind a headstone. He was covered in rather nasty dust but looked unharmed. I pulled John to his feet. All that remained of the count was a charred heap of cloth. John stomped the flames out.
“You see?” he said, panting. “Piece of cake.”
I started to laugh. “Oh, it had you, don’t pretend otherwise.”
“Pah. Only for a moment.”
“I think you would have shined his shoes if he told you to.”
The smile faltered. “When he touched you . . . . Well, I didn’t have Mount Vesuvius, but I had the lantern. It slowed him down, at least.”
“I will never disparage penny dreadfuls again,” I vowed.
His gaze lowered to my mouth. “You have a bit of soot on you, Harry. Let me just . . . .”
There was quite a bit of kissing after that, which I won’t describe in tedious detail. Suffice it to say that our Sunday outing at Greenwood Cemetery was the most enjoyable evening I’d had in ages—and the last for many days to come.
Get your copy of The Scarlet Thread here!