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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 7/31/20. Camp NaNoWriMo, July 2020 edition.


Warning(s): traumatizing content; violent content.

It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever."

—Sheridan Le Fanu,
Carmilla,
Chapter IV: “Her Habits—A Saunter”


1


When Katherine’s visionary spell ended, everyone in the family room broke out of their collective trances and dropped back onto their seats in the family room, taking in massive gulps of air as if coming up from a deep sea dive. Everyone sat in silence for a time after witnessing Katherine’s extraordinary dual narrative, their eyes still swimming with the ghosts of those visions.

Katherine’s sisters, in particular, took the revelation hard and couldn’t stop themselves from crying and sniffling as they held onto their eldest sister’s hands, yet Katherine kept herself under control despite her own tears. She looked at her younger sisters, both as vulnerable now as she had been back at her dream mansion in the Phantom Realms. So she let go of their hands and wrapped her arms around their shoulders, hugging them close to her bosom, so they could hear her heart beating for them, and then grabbed a hold of their hands and stole a glance at a smiling Leslie, who nodded her head.

“Big sis is here, so don’t you worry,” Katherine said to her sisters. “We’ll get through this, I promise.”

After a time, Randal got back to his feet and started pacing before the coffee table, rolling things through his mind that Katherine could only guess at, though she had a hunch. In fact, Katherine herself had been thinking about it the moment she woke up earlier this morning just before her sisters confronted her about keeping secrets from them.

When Randal stopped his pacing, he looked straight at her and said, “You made us all link hands to show us that vision. Since it came from your mother, did she do it the same way?”

“No,” Katherine said. “She used another method.”

“Can you describe the method she used?”

“She placed her forehead against mine as if she was checking my temperature,” she said, “and then she had me recite an old spell together with her that went something like, ‘listen to the words your heart should know: / That we are twain, but one where love can grow,’ or something like that. I’m not sure of the exact words,” she added and looked down on the floor before her feet. “Afterward my mom took out a knife and had me hold it as she and I recited the spell again.”

“She used a knife as a totem?” Randal said.

“Yeah,” she said, “but I never thought it was the one she’d used to kill Grandma, till after I saw the vision.”

“So she hid the murder weapon?”

Katherine nodded.

“Do you still have it?”

She shook her head. “Mom took it with her when she left.”

“How do you know?” he said.

“Because she asked me to give it to her,” she said.

“And where did she keep it?” he said.

“In the box that has the false bottom inside it,” she said.

“The same one Leslie and Ramona opened?”

She nodded and said, “That’s the one.”

After that, Randal paused for a second time, rolling things through his head that Katherine could only guess at, and said, “Okay, from what you’ve said and what you’ve shown us, we have several examples of people using different names to hide their identities. For instance, Countess Karnstein and Aaron Rancaster and Amelia Hearn all used different names to hide their original names in print, since emigration papers and authoring a book requires you to write a name in print. Moreover, the word, ‘Dracula,’ is a title, not a name, so in Amelia’s meeting with Rancaster, she wasn’t aware of his true name.”

“Vlad?” Katherine said.

“Vlad III, to be exact,” he said. “In addition, ‘Auna’ in the mirror and ‘Prince Prospero’ and ‘Alice’ are names that came from the same source, Amelia Hearn, first in spoken words and the other two in written words in her book. The key difference in these names is artistic license in ‘Prince Prospero’ and this ‘Alice’ and the name she gave to the girl in the mirror. Were you aware of your great grandmother’s name before Lima showed you this vision?”

“No,” Katherine said.

“Did your mother ever mention her name before that?” he said.

“I don’t think so, but . . .” she said.

“But what?” Randal said.

“Mom mentioned Alice once three years ago,” Katherine said, staring through the blurry images of her memory on that night. “I was sixteen back then, and I remember that night.”

“What do you remember?”

Katherine closed her eyes, drowning out the daylight filtering through the shuttered windows of the family room, and let her mind’s eye wander onto that fateful night in her bedroom. When she opened her eyes, she looked at her sisters and squeezed their hands, saying, “Maddy, Celia, I was hoping to keep this from you for as long as I could, but I don’t have a choice now. Do you two really want to hear this?”

Her sisters just stared at her and nodded.

“Yeah,” Madison said. “No more secrets.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“We are,” Celia said.

Katherine took a deep breath and exhaled, then said, “Do you remember that night three years ago when our mom and dad were arguing?”

Her sisters traded glances with each other and nodded.

“Yeah,” Madison said. “We asked them what they were arguing about, but they wouldn’t tell us.”

“Well, I’m telling you now,” Katherine said, “Someone visited us that night, but nobody in this house saw what happened except for me. At first, I thought it was just a creepy dream. In this dream, something woke me up out of bed during the night, so I checked all the bedrooms in the darkness, till I saw a girl I didn’t recognize at the top of the stairs. It was really dark, but she had this ethereal glow about her and was wearing a Sunday dress and a skimmer hat. Anyway, I don't know why, but at first I thought she was just a figment of my dream, so I ignored her and checked our parent’s bedrooms but couldn’t find them. The inside of their bedroom was a black void. I then went back into the hall, and the girl was still there, and she called me by my name. I don’t know why, but I came up to her, and . . . I decided to kiss her and felt the impression of her sharp teeth when I did that.”

“Why did you do that?” Celia said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just did, and then I invited her into my bedroom, and we . . . We made love.” At this point in her account, Katherine took another deep breath and exhaled and said, “After that, she told me her name was Alice-something.”

“Alice Liddell,” Randal said.

“No,” Katherine said, looking at her sisters and squeezing their hands, “but it was another surname that had the letter L in it. Anyway, after she told me her name, Alice said to me, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.’ I woke up to my parents shaking me awake in my bed, and when they asked me what had happened, I told them exactly what I’m telling you now. Mom was frantic, and Dad was just horrified, and that’s when they began arguing over what they should do. That was the only time they ever argued like that in front of us. Afterwards, the only times they ever argued was when my sisters and I weren’t there to witness it, so I didn’t know something was up, till they both filed for a separation and Dad left the house and moved somewhere else. Since then, I kept badgering Mom if she knew anything about what happened to me that night, but she didn’t think I was ready for it, till she finally told me about Alice and showed me her vision on the day she left the house. After she left, I updated the countermeasures she and Grandma placed on this house, and I made updates to my dream mansion to make sure nobody would enter it without my knowing, but just to make doubly sure, I included the aid of an outsider if all of my countermeasures failed,” and she leveled her gaze at Colbie on the divan next to Leslie.

“That’s why you included me in this?” Colbie said.

“Yeah,” Katherine said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from that night, it’s that we don’t expect outsiders, till they come knocking on our door. All the while, we miss whoever was already here in the first place. And that’s exactly what happened to me and to Mom and to Grandma.”

All was silent for a time.

Randal took out his smartphone from his pocket and dialed his brother’s number and waited for Stephen to pick up, then started pacing around as he said, “Randal here. . . . Yeah, we’re almost finished. You have all the documents with you? . . . What about the manuscript? . . . Good, that’s good. Wait, what?” He then glanced at Katherine on the sofa, listening to Stephen’s intel of what the concierge had said to him over the phone, and said, “Really? Auna Wenger? . . . I see. . . . Yeah, well listen to this. Based on Kathy’s intel, that girl bears the same name as Amelia Hearn’s own mother, Auna Hearn. . . . Yeah, and she’s not the only one, either,” and Randal expanded on everything Katherine had said about the ‘false names and lying tongues’ of Amelia Hearn and Aaron Rancaster and Countess Karnstein, as well as the collective vision she had shared during her group channeling session and the story of Katherine’s own visitation in the Hearn household.


2


After Rancaster left Chess Cathedral to ‘settle’ something with Amelia Hearn, Auna tailed her doppelgänger through the pews and said, “Alice, what’s wrong? You can talk to me. I’m not gonna run away from you anymore. I’m here for you, Alice!“

“Stop saying my name!” Alice said, turning around to face her, and manifested her knife in her hand.

Auna stopped her in her tracks along the flooded floor and said, “What did Rancaster tell you?”

“He told me the truth,” she said. “He said you put me sleeping in the tomb—”

“That’s not true!” Auna said.

“—and locked the casket shut with that key in your hand,” Alice said, pointing her knife at Auna’s fingers still laced through the key ring with the key dangling from it. “You can deny it all you want, but you had me buried in that godless tomb inside you with nothing but your nightmares for company.”

“I don’t even remember that!” Auna said.

“Of course, you don’t,” Alice said. “That’s what denial is!”

“That’s not fair!” Auna said.

“Fair! FAIR!” Alice yelled, rumbling the whole cathedral around them and backing Auna away from her. “I’ll tell you what’s not fair! For six godless years, I’ve had to relive the night your beast of a father raped me—”

“Alice, I—”

“—while you went on living your blasé one-season world! And every time I reached out for you, you shut me down and cut me off! You left me to suffer alone and turned me into a monster! Well, guess what, Auna?” she added, smiling a slasher’s smile. “I’m here for you, too, and it’s time for me to bury you,” and she approached Auna like a predator stalking her prey.

So Auna backed away, her lower lip trembling at her insinuation that she had meant for Alice to experience it in her stead, but nothing was further from the truth. Auna couldn’t help dissociating herself from the atrocity of her father’s caresses and pinches and kisses, which turned into groping and fondling and worse night after night. And when those nights culminated in that last night of horror, she couldn’t help herself pretending she was Alice after her father had confiscated all the knives hidden in her bedroom. She couldn’t help becoming Alice after her father dragged her, kicking and screaming, into his bedroom and onto his bed and committed an atrocity that would haunt her for the next six years of her life. And for all she had to endure at the hands of her beast of a father, she couldn’t help manifesting a knife in her hand and slashing his throat and weeping herself to sleep on that night with the knife still clutched tight in her hand, her mind cracked under the stress of it all, and her spirit exiled to Wonderland. Auna had cried then as she was crying now with her hand, which had once held a knife, now clutching the key ring as she backed away from the monstrous reflection of her own self, her own shadow come to life.

“What’s the matter?” Alice said.

“Put the knife down, Alice,” Auna said.

“Why so?” Alice said. “Getting cold feet, are you?”

“Don’t do this! I’m begging you,” Auna said, looking from the knife in her hand to the maniacal expression on her face.

“That’s too bad, love,” Alice said.

“I won’t fight you!”

Yet Alice charged her down the flooded nave in a blast of spray, slashing at her face in a vicious arc, so Auna dodged and rolled into the pews, soaking her clothes in the process. And when she felt her cheek sting, Auna put her hand to her face and winced as she saw Alice stepping onto the raised platform in the middle of the cathedral crossing, where she stood before the throne.

“Alice, stop this,” Auna yelled. “It’s not worth it!”

“I’ll decide that for myself, thank you,” Alice said and raised her hand. “Let’s continue—”

“Don’t!”

“—where we left off, shall we?” And she snapped her fingers, which echoed through the cathedral, and summoned a squadron of her red musketeers formed into three ranks at the head of the nave just before the cathedral crossing, around eighty musketeers in each rank. With all three ranks of red musketeers shouldering their flintlock muskets, Alice said, “First rank, on my mark!”

“Fuck!” Auna belly-flopped onto her stomach between the pews, while one rank of red musketeers aimed their guns at her.

“Make ready!”

Auna manifested a semiautomatic pistol in her hand and closed her eyes (Fuck, fuck, fuck . . .), while the front rank cocked their guns.

“Fire!”

And a volley of thunder filled the cathedral with plumes of gun smoke, biting off tufts of foam and long splinters from the pews and scattering them in the air.

Yet when the gunshots stopped and the girls reloaded their guns, a cumbersome process of taking out a paper cartridge and priming the flash pan and closing the frizzen and priming the muzzle and stuffing the cartridge and ball inside and ramming them home into the breach with a ramrod and replacing the ramrod into the stock, Auna scrambled to her feet. Since these red musketeers were novices at reloading muskets, their rate of fire wouldn’t exceed two volleys per minute. So Auna splashed her way down the pews and fired her gun at a rapid pace, sending rounds into their ranks in a bloody spray of pained screams—

(with 25 seconds left)

—till she reached the row of columns between the side aisle and the knave, where she replaced her magazine and slid back the slide and chambered a new round—

(with 20 seconds left)

—and then attempted to peer past the column . . .

Yet when she heard Alice yell, “Second rank, fire,” Auna ducked and covered herself as yet another thunderous volley filled the cathedral, biting off chips from the column behind her and scattering them around her.

“Fuck!” Auna said.

“You’re not the only tactician here,” Alice said from the raised platform, a captain on the field of battle. “I know these girls have their limits, but three ranks should be enough to keep you on your toes. I have to make things fair, you know.”

“How is this even fair?” Auna said.

“‘All is fair in love and war,’” Alice said. “Did you forget what Rancaster taught you? ‘Don’t play by anyone’s rules but your own,’ I think he said, ’for those who win make their own rules and live to fight another day.’ At least, that’s what I remember him saying. I’ll have to thank that Hearn girl for bringing me back, but don’t you worry, love! I’ll send her my regards for you in a letter, addressed from ‘Nobody’ for a nobody like you. You can depend on it!”

“Fuck you!” Auna said.

“Oh, we’ll ‘fuck’ in due time,” Alice said and quoted a line from Le Fanu’s Carmilla. “And when we do, I’ll say to you, ’You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.’ And you won’t be the only one, love. Mara and Kendra will be there, too, with Rancaster as our father and lord and master. How does that sound?”

“You’re crazy!” Auna said.

“Am I?” Alice said.

“Alice, please, you have to stop this,” Auna said. “I didn’t come here to hurt you. I came here to rescue you!”

“I don’t need rescuing,” she said. “Third rank, fire!”

And another thunderous volley rang through the cathedral, taking bigger chips from the column behind her, yet Auna stayed put. Once the volley stopped, Auna splashed her way down the row of columns towards the narthex, putting distance between herself and the squadron, till she halted at the sight of a blue musketeer, Monsieur Roy Dolan, lying asleep by the side of one of the columns.

“What are you doing here?” Auna said.

“I’m getting bored here, love,” Alice said. “It’s no fun playing the cat all the time if the mouse won’t put up a fight. Either come out and fight me, or I’ll sic my girls on you!”

Ignoring Alice’s threat, Auna kneeled before the man, remembering the courage he displayed when he let Auna and Akami through the trap door inside Dorothy’s prairie house, and pressed her hand to his chest, where she felt his heart beating, faint but there. So she returned the favor and placed the key ring in his hands and wrapped his fingers over it, then leaned over him and kissed his lips and said, “When you wake up, go to your friends and show them this key. Tell them about Chess Cathedral and this queen’s duel. I’m depending on you, chevalier.” She then thought of Akami the Red Queen and imagined her finding this man asleep beneath an old willow tree, then put her finger on the cross of his tabard and said, “Go!”

And the man dissipated from view, leaving Auna alone, till she looked up and saw a small battalion of blue musketeers. And one of them, in particular, reminded her of a handsomely distinguished Don Quixote, if Don Quixote had been born a Frenchman.

“You’re not Don Quixote?” Auna said.

The man smiled and said, “Indeed, I’m not, your Highness. I’m Monsieur Charles de Batz de Castelmore d'Artagnan, but call me Monsieur d'Artagnan for short,” and he stretched out his hand for Auna to take, which she did, but her hand passed through. “You’re still in limbo, I see.”

So Auna picked herself up and said, “You’re ghosts?”

“Indeed,” d'Artagnan said, “but we’re at your service, all the same. We’ve heard about what happened to you and your comrades from Monsieur Dolan’s friends. So command us, your Highness, and we will fight for you.”

“I’m waiting, love,” Alice said from the cathedral crossing.

“What do you say, your Highness?” the man said.

“All right,” Auna said, taking off her hand-me-down jacket and wrapping it over her arm, “but follow my lead. Monsieur d'Artagnan, I want you to divide your forces in two behind the columns on both sides of those pews over there,” and she pointed to the pews in the knave. “Await my signal. The moment I throw this jacket, you fire on those red musketeers and fight them off without mercy. Those are my orders.”

“Very good, your Highness,” d'Artagnan said.

But just as the man was about to take up positions with his men, Auna added, “Wait, Monsieur.”

The man turned and said, “What is it, your Highness?”

“When this is over, come what may,” Auna said, “go find Kendra Tellerman.”

The man raised his eyebrows and said, “By God, the daughter of Monsieur Edmund Tellerman?”

Auna nodded. “You know him?”

“I’ve heard of him,” he said. “I’ll send a word out to Monsieur Tellerman and organize a search party for his daughter.”

“Good. Now go,” Auna said and walked out behind the pews between the narthex and the squadron of Alice’s red musketeers at the cathedral crossing, while the ghostly troop of blue musketeers manifested in the side aisles and got into position behind the columns on both sides of the knave. “I’m here for you, Alice!”

“Golly, it took you long enough,” Alice said, crossing her arms over her chest and smiling a wry smile. “What were you doing, anyway? Were you playing with yourself, love?”

Auna copied her doppelgänger’s wry smile and said, “And I’ll play with you, too, if you’ll let me. And I’ll even let you do anything you want with me after we’re finished, but you’ll have to fight me, first,” and she flung her jacket through the air, drawing their eyes onto the decoy and keeping her opponents occupied for the briefest of moments, just long enough for d'Artagnan’s men to fire a thunderous volley into the crossing, filling the knave with plumes of gun smoke.


3


Randal then paused for several moments, looking at the intent stares of his listeners as he listened to his brother over the connection. He said, “All right, I’ll do that,” and he put his phone on speaker mode and raised the volume and placed it on the coffee table, so that everyone in the family room could listen to what Stephen had to say.

“Can you hear me?” Stephen said through the connection.

“You’re on, Steve,” Randal said. “We can hear you.”

“Good,” Stephen said. “Kathy, are you there?”

“I’m here,” Katherine said.

“Girl, you just blew my mind,” he said. “I never thought I’d find a lead on this part of my investigation, but what you told my brother has it tied up. Now I’m gonna ask you some questions that are relevant to my part in this investigation, one of which led me down a tangent that might interest you and your sisters. You mentioned Countess Karnstein, right?”

“Yes, I did,” she said.

“Well, there’s almost no extant documentation of that name in the old Austrian records,” Stephen said, “and the ones I managed to find had no connection to what we’re dealing with. I did find it in English, though.”

Katherine perked up and said, “Where’s that?”

“In a novella by Sheridan Le Fanu,” Stephen said. “It’s called Carmilla, which was published in an 1872 collection a year before the author’s death. In the early part of my investigation, I found the name Countess Karnstein and three other names associated with it in that book: Mircalla, Millarca, and Carmilla, which are epigrams of each other. At first, I couldn’t connect this to what I was looking into at the time, till Roy’s observations on the Cairns case pointed me in the right direction. After looking up all three names in the U.S. immigration records during the latter half of the 19th century, I found her name in the 1875 immigration records of the Hearn family into the U.S., listed as Carmilla Hearn and married to Barnabas Hearn, the patriarch of the Hearn family in the U.S.”

“Oh . . . my . . . God,” Katherine said.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “Based on what I’ve said so far, what does that tell you about Le Fanu’s novella?”

“You’re kidding,” she said. “You’re telling me it’s based on real events?”

“Yep,” he said, “and the novella itself mentions a copy of an official report from the Imperial Commission that conducted the investigation at the time, but I couldn’t find any mention of it in Austria’s government archives. If it still exists at all, they’re not telling us about it. That’s where I got stuck on this part of the case, but that dream you told my brother blew this case wide open. In fact, it reminded me of a passage I read in Le Fanu’s book,” and the sound of shuffling papers screeched through the static of the smartphone connection. “Tell me if this sounds familiar, okay?”

“Okay,” Katherine said.

“‘But I was equally conscious of being in my room, and lying in bed, precisely as I actually was,’” Stephen said, reading from an excerpt. “‘I saw, or fancied I saw, the room and its furniture just as I had seen it last, except that it was very dark, and I saw something moving round the foot of the bed, which at first I could not accurately distinguish. But I soon saw that it was a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat. It appeared to me about four or five feet long for it measured fully the length of the hearthrug as it passed over it; and it continued to-ing and fro-ing with the lithe, sinister restlessness of a beast in a cage. I could not cry out, although as you may suppose, I was terrified. Its pace was growing faster, and the room rapidly darker and darker, and at length so dark that I could no longer see anything of it but its eyes. I felt it spring lightly on the bed. The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream. The room was lighted by the candle that burnt there all through the night, and I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little at the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.’” He paused for a bit and said, “Does this sound familiar to you?”

Katherine found herself gaping and let go of her sister’s hands and put her hands to her mouth, but when she closed her eyes, she saw the scene of her own encounter with Alice playing out in her mind’s eye. And when she opened them again, she felt her cheeks wet with her tears, so she wiped them away with her sleeve.

So her sisters put their arms around Katherine’s shoulders and hugged her close to their bodies, saying that it was gonna be okay, even when it wasn’t.

“Are you there?” Stephen said.

“I’m here,” Katherine said, wiping her eyes once again, and took a deep breath and exhaled.

“Are you okay?” he said.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” he said. “You sound shook up.”

“I am,” Katherine said, “but I just can’t wrap my head around it. Are you saying that something published in the 1870s predicted what happened to me three years ago?”

“I don’t think ’predicted’ is the right word,” Stephen said, “because we’re not dealing with cause and effect here.”

“Then what are we dealing with?” Katherine said.

“It’s a bit hard to explain,” he said, “but the term for it would be ’synchronicity,’ which Carl Jung used to explain the seemingly random events of life in a meaningful way. Think of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, in which a moving clock ticks slower than a stationary clock. Thus, in relation to space and time, if you bend space through physical movement, you simultaneously bend time. Well, synchronicity works in a similar way with mind and matter. Think of yin and yang in Chinese Taoism, in which yin corresponds to the shady side of an object and yang to its sunny side. Thus, if you shine a light on one side, you simultaneously cast the other side into shade and shadow. That’s basically how our minds work: in order to focus on one thing, you must ignore everything else. Does that make sense?”

“Kind of,” she said, “but where does Jung’s synchro-whatever fit into all of this?”

“Here’s what I’m trying to say,” Stephen said. “Jung observed that life’s seemingly random events are manifestations of a deeper nature. In Einstein’s work, it’s called space-time, which emphasizes the physical world around us, and in Taoist philosophy, it’s called the Tao or ‘the Way,’ which emphasizes the inner worlds of our minds. In Jung’s work, he combines the physical and mental aspects of both ideas into one, which he called Unus Mundus or ‘one world,’ in which our minds interpret our physical world through our instincts. Yet in order to use our instincts properly, we need to recognize what we see in our daily lives through patterns, which Jung calls ‘archetypes’ for recognizing a collective set of motifs and images and ‘synchronicities’ for recognizing specific instances these motifs and images represent themselves. Think of the passage I read to you earlier from Le Fanu’s book, and think of the reaction you had to that passage. Why did you have that reaction?”

“Because it reminded me of my dream,” she said.

“Exactly,” Stephen said. “That is a synchronicity, and it’s these very synchronicities that Randal and I have been finding in this investigation for weeks now.”

“And that’s why the Cairns case I was working on was transferred to the Phantom Office,” Roy said.

“Exactly,” Randal said. “Look at what we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing with changes in people’s memories, dreams and psychic visions, time travel and astral travel, even supernatural entities from superstition and folklore. No court on this side of the Borderlands would accept any of our findings as admissible, because none of them have the resources to carry out an investigation of this kind or complexity anymore.”

“So how are you going to tackle this?” Katherine said.

“The same way Le Fanu did it,” Randal said. “Through fiction.”

“Seriously?” she said.

“Seriously, yes,” Stephen said through the connection. “And after listening to what Randal said about your vision and the other observations from everyone else, it sounds like Amelia Hearn had the same idea. I even have her manuscript of her book, Entering the Secret Room, with me.”

“Is Linda Kouri the pseudonym she used?” Katherine asked.

“Yep,” Stephen said. “And that name also reminds me of another connection I’ve found with a specific letter in the names of everyone involved in this case. What letter do you think that is?”

Katherine gave it some thought, rolling the detective’s riddle-like question through her head, and said, “I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

“I’ll give you a hint,” he said. “This is a list of names associated with my part of this investigation: Mircalla and Millarca and Carmilla, Le Fanu and Amelia Hearn and Linda Kouri, Vlad and Dracula, my ancestor Leon Larking and myself and my brother Randal, Ronald Hamilton and his father Scott Hamilton, and Alice Liddell.”

“And this is the list of names I have for my part,” Randal added. “Paul and Lucy Cairns, Leslie and Colbie Amame, Celia and Lima and Amelia Hearn, Auna Wenger’s mother Bridget Barton Langley before her marriage to Rubin Wenger, Kendra and Ramona and Edmund Tellerman, and Roy Dolan. You said it yourself earlier, so it should be obvious now.”

Katherine just stared at Randal, then at her sister Celia beside her on the sofa, then at Colbie and Leslie on the divans, and then “Their names have L in them.”

“Exactly,” Stephen said. “We’re all connected to this case with the letter L in our names, which is another synchronicity in itself. With this in mind, my brother and I have built a timeline of events starting where the events in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, left off and leading up to the Cains case, so I’ll focus on the parts where Rancaster figured into all of this. But before I do, Kathy, there’s one more synchronicity I want you to think about, because it’s important.”

“And what’s that?” Katherine said.

“This one comes from my interview with Ronald Hamilton, a key witness in the case,” he said. “During the interview, he mentioned two ways of creating a body double using a mirror, one that Amelia Hearn used and another one that Rancaster used. Ronald mentioned Amelia using a reflection spell, but he said little else besides that. For Rancaster though, he was placed under Rancaster’s blood spell and witnessed a more complex performed on Alice Liddell that involved Ronald inseminating her against his will—”

“Dear Christ!” Roy said.

“—and Rancaster then driving a stake through her heart and capturing her image in the mirror and pulling her reflected body double out of the mirror,” he said. “Kathy, are you familiar with these kinds of procedures?”

“I’m familiar with mirrors and reflection spells,” Katherine said, “but not so much with spells requiring blood seals. That’s Celia’s forte.”

“Okay,” he said. “Celia, are you familiar with the procedures?”

“I know Grandma’s way of doing it,” Celia said.

“Can you explain it to us?” Stephen said.

“Well, it’s pretty simple,” Celia said. “All you do is collect a sample of blood—just a few drops—from the donor and write the donor’s name on the surface of the mirror. After that, you use a blood spell and a reflection spell to create a body double, but the body double only lasts for about 24 hours.”

“That’s it?” he said.

“That’s it,” she said, “but I’ve never heard of Rancaster’s method in my life.”

Then Katherine said, “Why are you even asking about this?”

“I’m asking,” Stephen said, “because Amelia Hearn and Rancster both had the same idea of using a mirror to create a body double of Alice on the night she was murdered, though Rancaster got to her before Amelia did. That’s another synchronicity right there, but that’s not the only connection to Rancaster I’ve noticed. Here’s where it gets crazy.”

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Katherine said.

“I’m not. Now listen,” he said. “You told my brother that Countess Karnstein became a vampire after she killed herself. Is that right?”

“That’s what my mom said, anyway,” she said, “but how does that have anything to do with Rancaster?”

“Right now,” he said, the sound of more shuffling papers emanating through the connection, “this is just my speculation based on the documents and notes Sheridan Le Fanu collected when he wrote his novella. In fact, I have a copy of his notes with me here, all of them ascertained under the pseudonym, L. Kouri. I’m sure you know who that is by now.”

“But why?” Katherine said.

“I don’t know why,” Stephen said, “but I think Amelia Hearn knew something when she looked into Le Fanu’s notes. All I know is that whatever she found out during her time from 1913 to 1923 has affected everyone connected to her findings.”

Katherine paused for a spell, rolling Stephen’s statement through her head, and said, “By ‘everyone,’ does that include me and my mom?” And she looked at Leslie on the divan beside Colbie and Kendra on the sofa between Roy and Connie and added, “And does that include Leslie and Ramona, as well?”

“Yep,” he said. “It also includes Alice and Auna, Nico and Mara, Ronald Hamilton, Aaron Rancaster, and my ancestor Leon Larking. Amelia’s the link in all of this.”

“Then tell me this,” Katherine said. “How is my mom involved in all of this?”

There was silence on the other end of the connection, as though Stephen was weighing the pros and cons of revealing whatever he knew, but he said, “Kathy, your mother was the one who started this investigation. In fact, she was investigating this case before Randal and I even knew about it.”

“That’s why she went away?” she said.

“Exactly,” he said. “Lima was the one who clued us in on the whereabouts of these documents in the first place. I don’t know how she had obtained the whereabouts of these documents or what connections she had used, but it’s all here with me because of your mother’s efforts. And it’s not just Le Fanu’s notes, either. She had also obtained the whereabouts of the documents and notes relating to the events of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, as well as the inquest reports and papers relating to the deaths of the first two heads of the Phantom Office, Ezra Rancaster in 1897 and Tobias Ranaster in 1912, but more on them later.”

“Whoa, slow down,” Katherine said. “How did she even know where to get all these documents in the first place? And how did you get the manuscript of Grandma’s book?”

“Your mother was a bit cagey about it,” he said, “but she said it took a lot of elbow grease with all the travel she’s done on her end. As for the manuscript, Lima said she spent a week’s worth of research and leg work to find its whereabouts, but she eventually found a deposit box at an old Austrian bank under the pseudonym, Linda Kouri. While there, she found everything that Amelia wasn’t able to give to my ancestor, Leon Larking, namely the notes of Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker for their books. The whereabouts of the other documents relating to the deaths of Ezra and Tobias Rancaster, she gave to Randal and I to look into, and that’s where we started off our part of this investigation.”

Then followed another round of shuffling papers through the static connection of Randal’s smartphone.

“Okay, back to Le Fanu’s notes,” he said and sighed through the connection. “I must admit that his notes are circumstantial evidence at best, so take my observations with a grain of salt, but from what I’ve gathered so far, Le Fanu had access to the official report of the Imperial Commission that conducted the investigation of Carmilla’s exhumation, staking, and disposal. The principal protagonist of Le Fanu’s book, ‘Laura,’ was said to have had access to this report, from which she had written her narrative depicting Carmilla’s destruction, but I couldn’t find any other documentation on her. Apparently, this ‘Laura’ was the informant of this investigation that Le Fanu had tried to contact, and according to Le Fanu’s notes, she had gone missing soon after Carmilla’s exorcism and was presumed dead by the time Le Fanu’s novella was published. Yet a week after the novella was published, Le Fanu met ‘Laura,’ who had him destroy the correspondence they had shared. A year after publication, the author himself died under mysterious circumstances.”

“And what’s your point here?” Katherine said.

“My point is it’s another synchronicity,” he said. “’Laura’ is a pseudonym used by Countess Karnstein when talking to Le Fanu through the mail. My guess is that after Le Fanu’s book was published, despite Countess Karnstein’s efforts to protect Le Fanu, Rancaster must have intercepted one of their correspondence letters. I’m thinking that Rancaster was looking for the whereabouts of Countess Karnstein and paid Le Fanu a visit to find out, but when he couldn’t get more information from him, Rancaster killed him. This might have been the reason why Countess Karnstein married into the Hearn family and moved to the U.S. soon after, but this is conjecture at this point. Look, I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s important.”

“Then please, for the love of God,” she said, “tell me in plain English what you’re trying to say.”

“All I’m saying,” he said, “is that these disappearances and deaths bear some similarities to the circumstances surrounding the publication of Bram Stoker’s own book. In fact, Stoker was the last person verified on record to have seen the Imperial Commission’s official report firsthand, the same one Le Fanu had in his own research. And outside of verifiable proof, either in documentation or in testimony, the last two persons to have seen that report were Ezra and Tobias Rancaster, both of whom died under mysterious circumstances. And in all of these events, they have a common link. Care to guess what that is?”

“Aaron Rancaster?” Katherine said.

“It looks like it,” Stephen said, “but all this is circumstantial evidence at best. Based on my research into these matters and your own testimony of what your mother told you, I’ll lay out what I think might have happened from Countess Karnstein’s initial death by suicide to her supposed death as Carmilla Karnstein during the Imperial Commission’s investigation, then to the circumstances surrounding the publications of Le Fanu and Stoker’s books, and then to the subsequent deaths of Ezra and Tobias Rancaster. Now are you ready for this?”

Katherine and the other occupants of the family room remained silent for a spell, till Katherine nodded at Randal.

So Randal said, “They’re ready.”


4


With gunfire ringing in her ears, Auna ducked behind the last row of pews and manifested a semiautomatic pistol, while keeping an eye on any movement amidst the smokescreen. She pulled back the slide, chambering a round into the barrel of her gun, ready to shoot the moment the smoke cleared. Yet just before it did, another volley of return fire thundered through the smokescreen into the barricade of columns sheltering d'Artagnan’s men. And out of the smoke came the high-pitched battle cry of surviving red musketeers, unsheathing rapiers in a series of clinks, rousing d'Artagnan’s men into a roaring war cry of their own, unsheathing their own rapiers in another series of clinks.

Then, through the dissipating gun smoke as far as Auna could make out, both sides surged into the pews, and the clangs of rapiers and bucklers mingled with the screams and yells of grievous strikes. Yet as the gun smoke dispersed, revealing Alice’s red musketeers and d'Artagnan’s blue musketeers engaged in battle, Auna failed to spot Alice amidst the onslaught. Try as she might, she saw no sign of her shadow anywhere within the premises of the ongoing battle.

So Auna did the next best thing. She charged down the nave into the fray and fired rounds at close range into several red musketeers, emptying her magazine of bullets and replacing it with another thereafter. Then, just as several red musketeers saw her and slipped past the blue musketeers to get at her, Auna fired off more rounds into their foreheads, then avoided a flying lunge from a red musketeer and swept her feet and sent rounds into her forehead before her attacker hit the ground with a splash.

Then another group of red musketeers rushed in from behind, but before Auna swung around with her gun to shoot, d'Artagnan and his blue musketeers routed her attackers with a blindside of flintlock pistols and blunderbusses gunning them down.

Auna looked at d'Artagnan’s blue musketeers, still active and relatively unscathed, while most of Alice’s red musketeers lay massacred, turning the flooded floor crimson with their blood. Such was the difference between d'Artagnan’s professional soldiers and Alice’s untrained novices.

Monsieur d'Artagnan ran up to Auna, saying, “Are you injured, your Highness?”

“I’m not,” Auna said, still looking across the nave and through the cathedral crossing into the choir for any sign of Alice, “but I haven’t seen Alice since your volley, and that worries me. Look out for her, but whatever you do, stay on your guard.”

“Will do, your Highness,” he said, giving her a salute, and gave his order to his men, ordering them to keep their eyes peeled for any sign of Alice on the premises.

So the blue musketeers primed and reloaded their muskets and carried their guns with their fingers across their trigger guards, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. They then regrouped into three squadrons of around 100 men, each squadron combing through one section of the cathedral. With d'Artagnan leading one squadron down one side aisle and his lieutenant leading another squadron down the other, Auna led a third squadron down the central knave, all three squadrons scanning for Alice on the premises. And when they approached the cathedral transepts, they converged into the crossing but avoided stepping onto the raised platform, till Auna ventured up the steps into an elevated choir area (“Careful, your Highness,” d'Artagnan said) and halted before the choir stalls funneling an ominous throughway towards the altar.

The narrowing of that path got Auna’s mind turning, her skin tingling into goosebumps as if a target had been placed on her back. So she looked back across the nave and saw Alice and her red musketeers on the balcony above the narthex, their muskets aimed and awaiting Alice’s orders.

“Shit!” Auna said—

As Alice yelled out, “Fire!”

And another thunderous volley broke out through the cathedral, raining shots out of plumes of gun smoke into the crossing. Auna and several blue musketeers fell under a sickening storm of lead cutting through astral flesh, splattering ectoplasm from spectral wounds, their blood floating on top of the flooded floor like oil. A leaden slug had struck Auna through the stomach, setting off a wave of pain through her astral body, and bled out into the water, turning it crimson—

(with 8 seconds left)

—as the remaining blue musketeers, including d'Artagnan, scattered and regrouped behind the columns and the pews on both ends of the transepts.

Picking herself up on all fours, Auna pressed her hand to her stomach and scrambled to her feet, slugging her way across the flooded floor of the crossing in a slow attempt at movement—

(with 5 seconds left)

—as d'Artagnan’s men leveled their guns at their assailants down the nave (d'Artagnan yelling, “Fire!”) and returned fire, filling the cathedral with another thunderous volley. Plumes of gun smoke obscured the crossing just enough for Auna to make it halfway, stumbling and hobbling through the water, towards one of the four giant pillars where d'Artagnan had taken up position with his men.

Upon seeing Auna in distress, d'Artagnan ran out and reached for her, but his hand pass through her as she fell back onto her hands and knees, still pressing a hand to her stomach—

(with 0 seconds left)

—till Auna peered through the dissipating haze of gun smoke down the nave at Alice and her remaining red musketeers aiming their guns from the balcony above the narthex (with Alice yelling, “Fire!”) and firing another volley.

Another sickening storm of leaden slugs ripped through the astral flesh of motionless musketeers, blue and red alike, floating face down in the water.

Auna found herself beneath the astral corpse of d'Artagnan, the ectoplasm pouring out of several wounds and floating like oil on the water. She sat up and slid herself out beneath d'Artagnan’s body, drenched in the ectoplasm of her ghostly protector, and looked in horror at the bodies of dead musketeers, red and blue alike, floating in the flooded floor of Chess Cathedral and baptizing this house of God with the blood of the fallen, as d'Artagnan’s lieutenant took up his command and yelled, “Fire at will!”

And the blue musketeers returned fire, plumes of gun smoke obscuring the bodies from Auna’s sight, yet the proximity of pain and hatred playing out around her permeated every astral fiber of her being. The horror of it, witnessed through the eyes of a ruined child, sent Auna reeling back to that godless night of tears and pain, gritting her teeth against her father’s cruelty, the cruelty that had manifested Alice into her life, reminding her of her fallen state whenever she touched herself.

She blinked back the memory and struggled to her feet and looked out into the nave, and her eyes flashed upon a horrific image: her doppelgänger, Alice, getting struck through the chest. And just like her doppelgänger, Auna felt the same wound splattering from her own chest right where Celia Hearn had shot her on the previous night.

So she put her hand to her chest and felt the life-giving blood draining out of her, till only the translucent glow of ectoplasm leaked out.

That’s when her astral body split in two, tearing her spirit away from her own astral form, and she fell backwards into the water of the flooded floor like a baptism from John the Baptist. And out of that baptismal rite, Auna found herself above the scene, looking over the bodies of herself in the crossing with those of fallen red and blue musketeers from a bird’s-eye-view with lidless eyes. She then thought of Alice and found the body of her doppelgänger, shot through the chest, with her fallen red musketeers in the balcony above the narthex.

Through it all, the remaining red and blue musketeer continued the fight, volley after volley, plumes of gun smoke enshrouding the fallen like the shroud of death. It continued, till the last of Alice’s red musketeers fell on the balcony with her fallen sisters, the last to baptize the cathedral with bloodshed.

Yet amidst the fallen musketeers in the crossing, Auna saw her fallen self glowing for a instant and then sitting back up, drenched in water and ectoplasm, amidst the roaring jubilation from the blue musketeers left standing, who had fought the good fight and prevailed.

As they all crowded around this other Auna below her, the real Auna realized the truth and yelled out, Stop! Get away from her! That’s Alice!

Yet the blue musketeers couldn’t hear her, nor could they have foreseen their demise when Alice manifested a kodachi in her hand.

GET AWAY FROM HER! Auna screamed, but it was too late.

Alice swung her kodachi like a whip across one end of the cathedral transept, sending a psychic slash through d'Artagnan’s lieutenant and his blue musketeers, felling them like trees in a grizzly spray of ectoplasm. And as the other musketeers unsheathed their rapiers, Alice wheeled on her feet, swinging her kodachi in an underhand sweep, and swept away the remaining blue musketeers with another psychic blast accompanying yet another spray of ectoplasm.

The accumulation of ectoplasm had turned the waters of the flooded floor from crimson to a glowing white, so Alice took her kodachi and ran it across the palm of her other hand, letting her blood mix with the glowing substance.

She crouched and soaked her bloody hand in the ectoplasm and said, “I peer Through the Looking-Glass on page 137, and what do I find but soldiers all sent to heaven?” Then the ectoplasm shimmered and flashed over the water as several red roses appeared floating on top of it, so she added, “Rise up, oh ye soldiers, from the depths of my mind, and unburden yourselves from the chains that bind!”

And the floating roses tore apart in a swirl of red petals, and amidst the swirl of petals revived d'Artagnan and his musketeers dressed in red tabards fluttering in the swirl of Alice’s spell when they got up to their feet.

Get away from her! Auna yelled, yet it was no use when d'Artagnan approached Alice and took a knee before her.

He said, “What do you command, your Highness?”

“Attend my coronation, Monsieur d'Artagnan,” she said, “for I am about to become your queen. Now line yourselves up by those pews over there,” and she pointed her kodachi to one side of the pews.

“Will do, your Highness,” he said and ordered his men to line up, shoulder to shoulder, with five feet between them along one side of the pews in the knave from the crossing to the baptismal font in front of the narthex.

Alice then lifted her hand in the air and snapped her fingers. And another line of her red musketeer girls (around 300 of them) appeared, shoulder to shoulder, with five feet between them along the other side of the pews in the knave.

Both lines of red musketeers stood facing each other.

Auna just looked on in horror, wondering where Alice had obtained those powers, let alone where she got that weapon she held in her hand. Yet when she saw Alice dissipating the kodachi and manifesting a semiautomatic pistol and aiming it up in her direction, Auna said, Don’t do it, I’m begging you!

“Too bad, love,” Alice said. “My coronation can’t wait.” And she fired a round through Auna’s astral spirit, sending her down the rabbit hole of unconscious sleep . . .


5


Silence reigned for a time as everyone in the family room waited for Stephen to continue, and Katherine waited out the interval with bated breath. After finding out about her mother’s involvement in the case from Stephen, Katherine thought of her mother making her promise to look after her sisters in her absence. Her mother had reminded Katherine to keep Alice’s visitation to the house to herself, till she thought her sisters were ready for it, till Katherine herself was ready for it. She then felt her sisters’ hands squeezing her palms, so she faced both of them in turn and said, “I should’ve told you sooner.”

Celia and Madison smiled.

“It’s okay,” Celia said. “And I’m sorry for causing you so much trouble.” She then looked at Madison and added, “And you, too.”

“Sorry for losing my cool like that,” Madison said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Katherine smiled and was about to reply—

When she heard a beep over the connection and Stephen said, “Hang on. Someone’s texting me.”

“Who?” Katherine said.

Yet when the man on the other end stayed silent, Madison said, “What’s going on?”

“It’s your mother,” Stephen said.

“What did she say in her text?” Celia said.

“I’m not sure if I should discuss it over this line,” Stephen said, “but I’ll let her know everything you said. I’ll click off for a bit, but I’ll call back when I’m done,” and he disconnected his call, and Randal’s smartphone went silent.

Moments passed.

Katherine then turned to Randal and said, “Do you know what’s going on?”

“Not much,” he said, “but if it’s a call from your mother, it might be something major.”

“Like what?” she said.

“I don’t know yet,” he said.

Then the phone chimed, and Randal picked it up and said, “Steve, are you there? . . . Mrs. Hearn?”

Katherine met Randal’s eyes and said, “What’s she saying?”

“Yeah, she’s here, along with Celia and Maddy,” he said and paused for another spell, then pressed a button for speaker-mode and gave the smartphone to Katherine. “She wants to talk to you.”

Katherine took the phone and said into the speaker, “Mom, I tried calling you earlier, but you didn’t answer my calls.”

“I know,” Lima said over the static connection. “You left over a dozen voicemails in my call log. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” she said, “but—”

“Mom!” her sister’s said.

“Maddy? Celia?” Lima said. “Are you there?”

“Yeah, we’re here,” Celia said.

Then Madison snatched the phone out of Katherine’s hand and said, “And we’re pissed. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do!”

Again, there was a sigh on the other end of the connection and said, “Did Kathy tell you what happened?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us back then?”

At this, Lima paused for a spell over the connection, then said, “Kathy was terrified when she told us about it, and your father and I were already scared enough, so we didn’t want to stress you out at the time. Look, I know we should’ve told you, but we weren’t in the right mindset to tell.”

“Was it really that bad?” Celia said.

“Yeah, it was,” her mother said. “Your father and I couldn’t sleep for a week afterwards. Are you two okay?”

“We’re fine,” Madison said, “but why did you leave?”

Lima paused for another longer spell, as if she were organizing her thoughts, and said, “I tried contacting the rest of the family, but they never called me back, and they never answered any of my messages. I even tried visiting the family residence, but I was refused entrance.”

“Geez, do they hate us that much?” she said.

“Apparently, yeah,” Lima said, “but not all of them were like that. In fact, one of them decided to help and has been helping me out for a while now, but she got disowned for it.”

“Oh my God, seriously?” Madison said.

“It’s sad, I know,” Lima said. “Besides her and a few others, I’ve been on my own here.”

“What about Dad?” she said.

“He’s been helping out in another country,” Lima said. “Listen, Maddy, I’ll be coming back after this whole thing blows over. I promise. Let me talk to Kathy, okay?”

“Sure,” she said and handed it back to Katherine, who took it.

“What is it, Mom?” Katherine said.

“Kathy, I sent a picture of Countess Karnstein to your smartphone,” Lima said, “and I had Steve send a picture of Alice there, too. Do you have your smartphone with you?”

“It’s in my room,” she said, then to Celia: “Celia, can you go get it? It should be on the dresser drawer next to my bed.”

So Celia got up and ran out of the family room and across the entrance hall and up the stairs, her footsteps stomping on the treads into the upper hallway towards her room. Then her footsteps echoed back down the stairs and across the entrance hall, till she returned with Katherine’s phone and handed it to her, still booting up, before seating herself beside her on the sofa.

“Do you see them?” Lima said.

“Not yet. It’s still booting up,” Katherine said, and after the phone booted up, she entered her passcode and accessed the pictures from her messages app. “Got it. Wait a minute.” She took a closer look at the pictures on the screen and placed it down on the coffee table for everyone to see for themselves.

The picture Lima had sent was a small portrait of Countess Karnstein, dated ’1698’ with the name ‘Mircalla Karnstein’ at the top left corner, while the picture Stephen had sent was an old talbotype photograph of Alice Liddell.

“No way,” Madison said.

“They’re exactly alike!” Celia said.

At her words, Colbie and Leslie arose from the divans, approaching the coffee table, and peered at the screen of the smartphone. Roy and Connie got off the armrests of the sofa and did the same. All eyes were on the pictures.

“They’re doppelgängers,” Roy said.

“I think they’re more than that,” Lima said.

“How so?” Katherine said.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Lima said. “From everything I’ve researched on my travels, I’m starting to think that Countess Karnstein and Alice might have been the vessels of some entity that assumed their names and personas, but for all I know, this entity might have possessed other vessels and assumed their identities, as well.”

“That makes sense,” she said, “but how are we involved?”

“Look at it this way,” Lima said. “These vessels are born into different families from different mothers as different individuals with distinct personalities of their own, but some traumatic event causes them to lose their original personalities and adopt the persona of this entity, whoever that is. One of those vessels was a distant ancestor of ours, Countess Karnstein, who was turned by a vampire and tried to kill herself before she became this other entity.”

“What kind of ‘entity’ are you talking about?” Katherine said.

“I used to think it was an elemental,” Lima said, “but now I think it’s something else, something primeval that you would need bells to ward off.”

“Like death knells?” Leslie said.

“Yeah,” Lima said.

“I guess that explains the ringing bells in my dream dive,” she said, “but what ‘entity’ are you specifically talking about?”

“I don’t know the name, exactly,” Lima said, “but it’s a variation of the name, Lilith.”

“The mother of all vampires?” Randal said.

“Yeah,” Lima said.

“Speaking of vampires,” he continued, “do we know the ‘vampire’ that turned Countess Karnstein into one?”

“I can’t find any definitive proof,” Lima said. “This is just speculation on my part, but I think it’s Rancaster.”

“Otherwise known as Vlad,” Katherine said.

“Yeah. That’s the one,” Lima said. “As such, he also fits the profile of adopting the names and personas of other people after possessing their bodies as vessels. And I’m also starting to think that he had a hand in what happened to Laura, the protagonist of Le Fanu’s novella, though I’m going off of circumstances at this point.”

“You really think it was Rancaster?” Katherine said.

“Yeah,” Lima said. “And he’s also the reason why we’ve all encountered Alice: you, me, and your Grandma.”

“But we’re dhampirs,” she said, “not full vampires.”

“Which explains why he holds a grudge against us,” Lima said.

“But why, though?” Katherine said. “Is it because of something we did?”

“Yes and no,” Lima said.

“What do you mean?”

“Kathy, listen to me,” Lima said. “Have you ever considered that Rancaster is related to us?”

“Are you serious?” Katherine said.

“That’s crazy!” Madison said.

“You’re joking, right?” Celia said. “Right?”

“Listen to me, okay?” Lima said. “Just hear me out. I’d never think this, unless it’s true. Think about it. What’s a vampire without a family? Nothing but a corpse. That’s exactly what happened to Dracula at the end of Stoker’s book. In the book, most of Dracula’s family had been wiped out, so he moved to another country and added more members to his family by turning Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker into vampires.”

“Okay,” Katherine said, “but how does Countess Karnstein fit into all of this?”

“It’s the same thing for her, as well,” Lima said. “After Rancaster turned her, Countess Mircalla Karnstein faked her own death and assumed a different identity (Millarca) and escaped him for a time, but since she was a vessel, Rancaster found her out. So she adopted another name (Carmilla) and faked her own death again using a body double with the help of the Imperial Commission, who helped her escape and later officiated her secret marriage to Barnabas Hearn before moving to the U.S.”

“Wait a minute,” Randal said. “Where are you getting this information?”

“I got it from the report of the Imperial Commission’s investigation,” Lima said, “the same one Le Fanu and Stoker had accessed for their books, and the same one Ezra and Tobias Rancaster had seen before their own deaths.”

“How did you even get that information?” he said.

“Barnabas’s grandfather, Matthew Hearn, was present during the Imperial Commission’s investigation,” Lima said, “and Matthew Hearn’s signature is on the report as a witness to the proceedings. All I had to do was provide the right documents proving I’m related to one of the signers, and they allowed me to see it for myself. In that report, they created a fictional name (‘Laura’) and staged the events of Carmilla’s supposed death to throw Rancaster off her trail, then moved her to Italy for a year to make sure she was safe before allowing her passage through France into England.”

“Wait,” Katherine said. “What about Alice?”

“Do you remember what Alice said to you when she visited you?” Lima said. “It goes like this: ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.’ Do you remember?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Well,” Lima said, “those were Rancaster’s words to Countess Karnstein when he visited her in Italy, though she confided this only to Matthew Hearn soon after she reached England. Under Matthew’s sanction, Countess Karnstein married into the Hearn family as Carmilla Hearn, the wife of Matthew’s son, Barnabas Hearn, and moved to the U.S. after the rest of the Hearn family exiled them for it.”

“Great, just great,” Madison said. “We’re not just the black sheep of our family. We’re exiles, too.”

“Trust me, I know,” Lima said. “I got an earful from the head of the Hearn family when I tried visiting them, and the rest of the family pretty much treated me like the plague. Only Isabel Hearn stood up for me.”

“Is she the one who’s been helping you out?” Madison said.

“Yeah,” Lima said.

“Tell her she’s amazing,” she said, smiling. “I mean it. She’s fucking amazing.”

Lima laughed over the line and said, “I will.”

“Anyway,” Katherine said, “how does Alice fit in?”

“You know that banshees are the ancestors of their victims, right?” Lima said.

“Yeah, I do,” she said.

“Well, I think that Rancaster is the vampire equivalent of our banshee,” Lima said, “but when Countess Karnstein married into the Hearn family, a family of witches, she diminished his control over us. My guess is that Rancaster’s been searching for another vessel to regain control over us.”

“You mean Alice?” she said. “You think—”

“She’s not,” Lima said. “Amelia Hearn renamed Alice after your great-grandmother, preventing Rancaster from using her as a vessel. That’s why he came after you and me using Alice to lure us out of the house. That’s why I asked you not to tell your sisters about Alice’s visit, because they’re potential vessels, as well. That’s why I’ve been away for so long, because I don’t want to give Rancaster another shot at using any of us for his plans. And that’s why I’ve been chasing clues all over Europe to find a way to break Rancaster’s hold on us. Now do you understand?”

“I do,” Katherine said, “but wait a minute, Mom. There’s something else that came up.”

“What is it?” Lima said.

“Did you hear what happened to Mara Cairns?”

“Yeah,” Lima said. “Connie left me a message about it yesterday. Is she okay?”

Katherine took a deep breath and gulped, looking down on the floor at her feet, because her mother hadn’t a clue. So she exhaled and said, “Mom, she’s been missing since this morning.”

“WHAT?” Lima said.

“Mrs. Hearn,” Randal said, bending over the phone so she could hear him better, “Mara disappeared from the Nayland Hospital this morning, and after listening to what you’ve said, I have every reason to believe—”

“Dear God, don’t tell me!”

“—that Mara Cairns is the vessel Rancaster’s planning to use,” he said. “That would explain why the Cairns sisters were abducted from their house two days ago, because they’re potential vessels, as well. And that would also explain why their parents were abducted first to lure them away from their house. Vampires can’t enter someone’s house without permission, so instead of asking for it, Rancaster transferred them into another location. This ruse also fits the same pattern as Mara’s disappearance from the hospital.”

“God, damn it!” Lima said through the connection. “I never meant to get another family involved.”

“It’s not your fault,” Katherine said.

“I know, but still,” Lima said.

“Mom, are you gonna be okay?” she said.

“I don’t know, honey,” Lima said. “Just give me time. I still have a lot of things I need to do here, so keep holding down the fort for me, okay? I’ll do my best to come home soon.”

“You want me to fly over there?” she said.

“Absolutely not,” Lima said. “Let me deal with things here, but keep me posted on any developments on Mara Cairns. I need to get going,” and she hung up.

Yet no sooner did Randal’s smartphone go silent when it chimed again, so Randal picked it up and answered it, saying, “Randal here. . . . Yeah, she told us everything. . . . Okay, I’ll do that.” Then he put it back on speaker-mode and placed the phone on the table and said, “You’re on, Steve.”


6


Amelia Hearn put a hand to her mouth after hearing the name of the first child of Lilith, the first child born of the vampire race and the protectress of all subsequent vampires. Upon that revelation, Amelia felt the blood in her veins run warm and then hot, making her sweaty and bothered at the name dancing on the tip of her tongue. For names had a power beyond the cadence of rhythm and the assonance of rhyme, a power assigned to whoever assumes its role and endures its heavy destiny.

So Amelia repeated the wisdom of her older self, saying, “To know it is to carry it with you to your grave.”

Her older self nodded and smiled, saying, “And whatever you do next, do not reveal that name to anyone alive, either in living breath or in written words. Understand?”

“To protect my loved ones from its curse,” Amelia said.

“For it would bring pain to your loved ones, should you tell,” her older self said.

“But if I must tell someone,” she said, “who do I tell?”

“Tell it to the one that owns that name,” her older self said, till the reflection on Amelia’s mirror flashed for a moment, then subsided into her older self looking at something beside her beyond the frame of the reflection. “Ah, what do we have here?”

Amelia then tapped the reflection, saying, “What is it?”

Her older self then came in dragging Auna Wenger into the reflection as though she were a statue and said, “Do you recognize this girl?”

“That’s Auna,” Amelia said.

“Which is the name you gave her to set her free,” her older self said, “because Rancaster had given her an epithet to control her.”

“You mean ‘Bambina,’” Amelia said, “as in ’my child’?”

Her older self nodded and paraphrased a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, saying, “For a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, and from what I’ve seen, a rose’s thorns feel just as painful. Look after this girl, because she bears many millennia of heartache on her shoulders,” and she pushed Auna’s astral body through the reflection and into Amelia’s arms on the other side and disappeared from view.

“What should I do with her?” Amelia said.

And the voice of Amelia’s older self rang out through the walls of Chess cathedral, saying, Make sure you put her somewhere Rancaster can’t get to her.

“And where’s that?” Amelia said.

I don’t know, child, her older self said as her voice began to fade. I wasn’t able to hide her properly before my passing, so it’s up to you to do it for me. Farewell!

And her voice faded from existence.

“You’re kidding me,” Amelia said, sucking in her breath and breathing it out, because she was accustomed to giving out riddles, not receiving them. “Talk about giving an answer without giving an answer. How am I supposed to do that when you couldn’t even do it yourself, huh?”

Thinking back on the words of her future self, she dissipated her own mirror and laid Auna Wenger in front of the Hearts mirror attached to one of the pillars of the crossing. Then she tapped the surface of the Hearts mirror, where the motionless bodies of Kendra and Mara appeared in the reflection, so she reached into it and pulled out Kendra and then Mara. And thinking back to her last encounter with Auna in the Hearts mirror, she laid Mara in front of the Clubs mirror and Kendra in front of the Diamonds mirror, while the space in front of the Spades mirror lay empty.

With all three girls laid out by their respective mirrors, Amelia thought of the last words her older self said before she left Chess Cathedral for good. For a time, she pondered what she might have meant when her older self said that she wasn’t able to hide Auna ‘properly,’ whatever that meant. If it had anything to do with her own thoughts on the matter, all obvious ideas related to it were out of the question, since Amelia had observed enough of Rancaster to know he could read her intentions.

So how could she overcome this conundrum? Was her future self even referring to this obstacle when she said, ‘Make sure you put her somewhere Rancaster can’t get to her’? And if that very question was the key to the whole mess, then how would she tackle that problem? How would she hide Auna from Rancaster?

Amelia juggled the words in her mind and repeated to herself, saying, “‘Make sure you put her somewhere Rancaster can’t get to her.’” It was a subtle but peculiar way of wording it, since her older self could have phrased it this way: ‘Make sure you put her somewhere Rancaster can’t find her.’ But since she left out the operative word, ‘find,’ maybe she meant a place that was known to Rancaster but was unable to access. If that was the case, then it opened another set of options she wouldn’t have considered, and for a time, neither would Rancaster.

Which led to another conundrum, one that was stalking the back of her mind, daring her to employ it. If there was one thing Rancaster was not, it was God. As far as Amelia could tell, she observed enough of Rancaster to know that he had the powers of a vampire or even a minor death god, but the man lacked the omniscience of the Almighty God.

Following that observation, Amelia remembered the Bible verse, Matthew 4:7, quoting it and saying, “‘Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’” In that verse, Satan challenged Jesus to throw himself down in order to test God, to take that leap of faith and put himself in God’s hands: in other words, to put his life up to chance. And to add to the complexity of it, she had to apply this method to Mara and Kendra, as well, so she wouldn’t skew the results.

“Dear God, help me,” Amelia said, and before she could rethink it and give Rancaster a glimpse into her intentions, she went over to Auna and kissed her forehead and whispered her true name into her ear. After that, she went to work. First, she took the Hearts mirror, the Clubs mirror, and the Diamonds mirror off of the pillars and laid them besides Auna, Mara, and Kendra, respectively. Second, she moved the three girls onto the surface of the mirror beside them. Third, she fished out a coin from her jacket pocket and said, “Heads for a haunted house and tails for Wonderland.”

And starting with Auna, she closed her eyes and flipped the coin and heard it thrumming on the mirror’s surface to a stop, where it flashed and took Kendra to God-knows-where. She then picked it back up with her eyes closed and repeated the process for Mara and Kendra, as well, taking care to keep her eyes closed when she picked it up both times.

Then, after sending the girls wherever they went, Amelia looked at the three empty mirrors around her and kneeled in the crossing of Chess Cathedral, where she made the sign of the cross and recited Psalm 46 and said, “‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah. . . .’”


7


“Kathy, be honest,” Stephen said through the connection. “After listening to what your mother had to say, what do you think of all of this? Does any of this strike you as impossible to believe?”

“If I hadn’t seen what I’ve seen,” Katherine said, “I wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe any of it.”

“Good answer,” he said.

“Why do you ask?” Katherine said.

“I’m asking,” he said, “because I’m about to change course from Le Fanu’s notes to Stoker’s, and there are two major links between those two writers and their books. Care to guess what they are?”

“The report from the Imperial Commission,” Katherine said, “and Rancaster.”

“Exactly,” Stephen said, shuffling more papers through the connection. “Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll make this quick. Stoker’s novel is a compendium of the actual documents from the eyewitnesses at the time in 1890, seven years before Stoker published his book. Of these eyewitnesses, he included this in a later preface to his book: ‘All the people who have willingly—or unwillingly—played a part in this remarkable story are known generally and well respected. Both Jonathan Harker and his wife (who is a woman of character) and Dr. Seward are my friends and have been so for many years, and I have never doubted that they were telling the truth; and the highly respected scientist, who appears here under a pseudonym, will also be too famous all over the educated world for his real name, which I have not desired to specify, to be hidden from people . . .’ The principal actors in the novel were Stoker’s friends, which provides another human link between the events of Le Fanu and Stoker’s books.”

“Okay. I get that,” Katherine said, “but what pseudonym are you talking about?”

“Take a guess,” he said.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I’ll give you a hint,” Stephen said. “He’s the most famous vampire hunter of all time.”

“Wait,” she said. “Are you telling me Van Helsing is real?”

“Yep,” he said. “Abraham Van Helsing is the pseudonym of Friedrich Max Müller, a German-born Oxford professor of comparative philology specializing in mythology and Eastern religions. After his tenure at Oxford, he gave a series of famous lectures on natural theology at several Scottish universities from 1888 to 1892, and this four-year term places him within the time frame of the events recorded in Stoker’s novel.”

“Okay,” she said, “but what about Alice?”

“I’m getting there,” he said. “Anyway, based on these findings, I looked into Müller’s diaries and journals and found out that he had three daughters: Ada, Mary, and Beatrice. All three had hemolytic anemia at the time of their deaths,” and he paused on the line for emphasis. “Based on what Randal told me about this morning’s dream vision over the phone and my research about the events surrounding Müller’s daughters, I’ve noticed a detail concerning Amelia Hearn. From what I’ve talked about so far, does this detail ring any bells for any of you?”

It did for Leslie, so she said, “Amelia Hearn had the same disease as the Müller sisters.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Ada died when she was 15 in 1876, and Mary died when she was 24 in 1886, while Beatrice survived into adulthood before succumbing to hemolytic anemia in 1902. This means that Ada and Mary died before the events of Stoker’s novel in 1890, but Beatrice had survived those same events when her father (Friedrich Max Müller) infiltrated Castle Dracula with the help of Mina Harker. This would make Beatrice 26 years old when her father rescued her in 1890. In that same year, Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker both contracted the same disease as the three Müller sisters, though Mina Harker survived her turning, while Lucy didn’t. Kathy, do you see a pattern here?”

“I do for the three Müller sisters and Lucy Westenra,” Katherine said, “but Mina Harker doesn’t have an L in her name.”

“‘Mina’ was a nickname for Wilhelmina, her real name,” Stephen said. “So she still fits the pattern.”

“Okay,” Katherine said. “How does Alice fit in?”

“Based on these findings,” he said, shuffling more papers through the connection, “I looked into Beatrice Müller’s whereabouts after 1890, which were scant, but I found out that she had emigrated to the U.S. soon afterwards and had settled into this town before it was incorporated. Beatrice married into the Liddell baronetcy in 1895 and had her only child, Alice Liddell in 1897, the year Stoker published his novel, which would make Alice 16 when Rancaster abducted her from the Liddell estate in 1913.

“As such, if you follow Lima’s theory that Rancaster had lost control over Countess Mircalla Karnstein when she married into the Hearn family in 1872,” he continued, “Rancaster killed Le Fanu after failing to obtain the whereabouts of Countess Karnstein. This means that Rancaster had no clue Countess Karnstein had married into the Hearn family and emigrated to the U.S. Faced with no other option, what do you think Rancaster did between 1872 and 1890?”

“Oh my God,” Katherine said as she began to see the parallels between what had happened to the three Müller sisters and Amelia Hearn, Lima Hearn, and herself. “You mean he turned the Müller sisters, one by one?”

“Exactly,” he said. “Afterwards Rancaster takes them back to Castle Dracula before the start of the events of 1890, when he would renew his plans to discover Countess Karnstein’s whereabouts. Now,” he added, “here’s where Bram Stoker plays his part in this affair. When he published his book, he changed the details concerning Friedrich Max Müller’s involvement in the events of 1890 by creating a pseudonym for him (Abraham Van Helsing) and leaving out his paternal relationship to the three vampire sisters depicted in Stoker’s book. Stoker did this to protect the identity of Müller’s third daughter, Beatrice, after she married into the Liddell family in the U.S., yet this measure wasn’t enough to keep Rancaster out of the loop for long.”

“Wait,” Katherine said, “wasn’t Dracula . . . or Rancaster . . . or Vlad or whatever his name is. Wasn’t he killed at the end of Stoker’s book?”

“Indeed, he was,” Stephen said, “but Rancaster wasn’t the only one who died at the time. The American Quincy Morris also died soon after he and Jonathan Harker intercepted Rancaster’s casket and killed him, because Quincey had suffered a mortal injury at the time of Rancaster’s death. I looked into the records of Quincey Morris’s death and found out that Jonathan Harker had his body transferred in a casket across the Atlantic to Texas for burial. So I looked into his burial records and found a newspaper article saying that Quincey’s body had gone missing from the casket on arrival to Texas, which launched a three-year investigation from 1891 to 1893. My guess is that Rancaster’s spirit possessed Quincey’s body, and just before the casket housing it reached its destination in Texas, Rancaster escaped.”

“Did he find Countess Karnstein?” Katherine said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I couldn’t find any information on where she was buried.”

“What about Beatrice Liddell?” she said.

“That’s where this stuff gets crazy,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” Katherine said.

“I’m not,” he said. “Anyway, Pat Garret and Bat Masterson headed that three-year investigation into the whereabouts of Quincey Morris’s missing body, which they weren’t able to find. Hence, the case was never closed, but when I looked further into their personal records on the incident, I found that they both mentioned several reports of a man matching Quincey’s description loitering around the old Rancaster residence of this town in the summer of 1897, the same year Stoker’s book was published. Also in that year, the five-year-old Aaron Rancaster (the real Aaron Rancaster) went missing, and Aaron’s grandfather (Ezra Rancaster) was found dead under mysterious circumstances. This is just my speculation, but I’m guessing that since Rancaster couldn’t find Countess Karnstein, he (in Quincey’s body) was trying to find the whereabouts of Beatrice Liddell. As such, Quincey’s reappearance in this town and the incidents accompanying it must have brought Bat Masterson and Pat Garrett back into a new angle of their original investigation when Tobias Rancaster recruited them to investigate the death of his father Ezra Rancaster. Along with them, Tobias also recruited Wyatt Earp to help investigate his father’s death, while Tobias Rancaster enlisted the aid of my ancestor Leon Larking and the Pinkerton agent Scott Hamilton, the father of Ronald Hamilton, to help him look for any clues to find the missing Aaron Rancaster.

“Well, Bat and Pat and Wyatt found the decomposed remains of what they thought was Quincey Morris’s body on one side of the old train tracks of the Helgon Station at the depot, while Leon and Scott found the mutilated remains of what they thought was Aaron Rancaster’s body buried near the crossing of Woodley Avenue on the other side of the train tracks of the Helgon Station, but Tobias disputed this, especially after he found his son ‘alive’ at the Rancaster house where Ezra had been found dead. This difference caused a major rift between my ancestor and Tobias, which would later result in Leon accusing Tobias of murder in the papers and getting him thrown in jail.”

“Okay, slow down, Sherlock,” Katherine said. “What are you trying to get at here?”

“Here’s what I’m getting at,” Stephen said, shuffling more papers through the static connection of Randal’s smartphone. “Rancaster employed a body substitution in order to shake the likes of Bat, Pat, and Wyatt off his ass. This means that Rancaster (in Quincey’s body) abducted the young Aaron Rancaster and created a body double of him using a reflection spell with a mirror, then killed the real Aaron Rancaster and mutilated his body double before he buried that double in an obvious place, so that when somebody found it, nobody could verify it was Rancaster for sure. Then he ditched Quincey’s body for the other lawmen to find, throwing them off his trail, before he took possession of Aaron’s body and assumed his identity when Tobias found him. That’s why there were so many conflicting details in the papers chronicling both incidents.”

“Oh my God,” Katherine said under her breath, making her sisters look at her. “Are you telling me Rancaster fooled all of them?”

“All except one,” Stephen said.

“Who’s that?”

“Scott Hamilton, the Pinkerton agent,” he said. “What Scott found out had spooked Tobias, who recalled Bat and Pat and Wyatt and Scott off the case soon afterwards, so Scott had the remaining investigators collate their findings and continue their investigation on their own time. Years later in 1902, their efforts led them to an impromptu interview with Beatrice Liddell, and they shared their findings with Leon Larking and managed to reopen the case.”

“What about Alice?” Katherine said.

“Alice was five years old at the time,” he said, “so I doubt they interviewed her.”

“Okay,” she said. “Go on.”

“Anyway, the day after the interview,” he said, “Beatrice was found dead under mysterious circumstances next to a sleeping Alice upon her bed, and when the rest of the Liddell family got wind of this, Bat and Pat and Wyatt were banned from the town and the state, pending arrest should they return, and Scott Hamilton was demoted from his post at the Pinkerton Agency, till my ancestor Leon Larking secretly deputized him and had him continue his investigations abroad in England. I think Leon Larking noticed that the circumstances of Beatrice’s death with Alice present on the scene bore some parallels with the death of Ezra Rancaster and the disappearance of the then-five-year-old Aaron Rancaster in 1897, so he looked into it and acted accordingly.”

“Another synchronicity?” Katherine said.

“Yep. Same thing with the year 1897,” he said. “Anyway, while in England, Scott interviewed Bram Stoker and some of the participants of the events of 1890, namely Jonathan and Mina Harker, Dr. Seward, and Lord Godalming.”

“What about Max Müller?” Katherine said.

“He died of natural causes in 1900,” Stephen said. “Anyway, Scott’s efforts obtained him the original documents concerning the events of 1890 from Bram Stoker, which Scott then couriered to Leon Larking by post to help him build a case for Rancaster’s presence in the U.S. That case starts with Rancaster’s arrival in Texas from Transylvania using the body of Quincey Morris in 1890, which continues with Ezra Rancaster’s death and the disappearance of the real Aaron Rancaster (the sacrifice) and the reappearance of the fake Aaron Rancaster (the vessel) in 1897 when Tobias found him, which then comes to the death of Beatrice Liddell in the presence of the five-year-old Alice Liddell in 1902, which finally ends with the deaths of Scott Hamilton and Pat Garrett in 1908 and Tobias Rancaster during his incarceration in 1912. Your mother had me and Randal investigate all of these deaths during this month, which is a tall order, but they’re all connected from the same source. Care to guess who that is?”

“Aaron Rancaster?” Katherine said.

“Yep,” he said. “With the way I see it, Rancaster killed Tobias Rancaster in his prison cell, causing Leon Larking’s constituency to suspect him of foul play because of his prior differences with Tobias in the botched 1897 investigation. Now, Kathy,” he added, “to answer your question about Alice, this is where she comes in. After Rancaster obtained control of the Phantom Office, he abducted Alice with the help of Ronald Hamilton in 1913, but when the two disagreed on how they should proceed, Rancaster created a body double of Alice and mutilated the body double and pinned Alice’s murder onto Ronald. That done, Rancaster had intended to use Alice as a vessel to invoke a spirit whose name we don’t know yet, but I have every reason to believe that Rancaster knew what it was and controlled her using it.”

“Wait,” Katherine said, “did Amelia find out what the name was?”

“I don’t know,” he said and shuffled more papers through the static connection. “I have Amelia’s manuscript here with me, and the story that includes the unknown name, entitled ’Alice and the Mad Tryst,’ is left out in its pages. Your mother Lima thinks it’s related to the name, ‘Lilith,’ the mother of all vampires, which has the letter L in it, but that’s as far as she’s gone without further proof.”

“Who knows,” Katherine said. “Maybe Grandma knew about the name but chose not to foreclose it in writing.”

“You may be right,” he said, “but at this point, unless we have definitive proof, we don’t know whether Amelia knew or not. But from what your mother was able to find out on her end, Amelia had canceled Rancaster's spell on Alice by renaming her after your great-grandmother, Auna Hearn, which stopped Alice from becoming a vessel for Rancaster’s invocation. Yet Amelia’s success in this case, good in the short term, proved to be her downfall in the long term when she succumbed to Rancaster’s psychic influence later in her life. As such, Rancaster was able to use Alice to reestablish control over Amelia’s daughter, Lima Hearn, and eliminate Amelia from interfering any further in 1994, but I don’t think he anticipated Lima’s friends entering the fray.”

At his observation, Katherine bit down on her lower lip, trying to reconcile the image of the strong-willed and courageous mother she had known her whole life with the broken jar of a human being who had tried to kill herself after realizing what she had done to Amelia Hearn, and so she squeezed her sisters’ hands. Stephen’s observation left Katherine thinking the unthinkable: that is, if Leslie and Ramona hadn’t been there to keep her mom from harming herself, would Katherine and her sisters even be . . .

Katherine turned from these thoughts when Madison and Celia pulled free from her grasp and wrapped their arms around her shoulders, hugging her, letting her know she wasn’t alone. Katherine no longer had to carry the burden by herself.

“And subsequently,” Stephen added, “the same thing almost happened to you, Kathy, in 2015 when Alice entered your bedroom through your dream. You were sixteen, yes?”

“Yeah,” Katherine choked out.

Stephen paused on the other end of the connection, then said, “Kathy, how are you holding up? Are you doing okay?”

“I’m not okay, but I’ll manage,” she said. “How much longer are you gonna drag this out?”

“Not much longer, I promise,” he said. “There’s just one more thing I want to add.”

“What is it?” Katherine said.


8


All was silent for a moment, save for the residual echoes of a gunshot through Chess Cathedral and the splashing of a gun into the waters of the flooded floor, where it dissipated.

Alice was now bent over, grimacing and wincing at the pain pulsing through her chest as though a part of herself had been excised from her being, as though the flame that had fed her essence had dimmed and flickered her child-like facade of carelessness like a candle in the wind. The effect this had over Alice manifested in the anguish of tears on her face, tears over the loss of someone she used to love whose name was even now slipping from her mind.

And the effect this had over Alice’s subjects manifested in looks of worry on the faces of Alice’s doppelgängers and d'Artagnan’s men.

“Are you all right, your Highness?” d'Artagnan said, stepping out of line and approaching the raised platform.

“I don’t know,” Alice said, wiping away tears that continued to flow down her face, and walked over to the raised platform in the crossing and slumped herself on the throne. And upon sitting there, she felt a crown manifesting atop her head, cradling her forehead with a band of gold and covering her hair with a felt red cap. “My God, what have I done?”

“Is something the matter, your Highness?” he said.

“How am I supposed to feel, Monsieur?” she said.

“Jubilant, your Highness,” he said. “You’ve won the throne, and you’ve won the crown. Wasn’t that what you wanted?”

“Yes,” Alice said, then wiped more tears from her face, “but tell me something, Monsieur.”

“What is it, your Highness?” he said.

“I’ve wanted to become Queen of Wonderland for as long as I could remember,” Alice said and sat forward in her chair, eyeing the man who ventured to cheer her. “Now that I am Queen of this realm, why do I feel like I’ve lost everything?”

The man stood for a time, as if rolling the possible responses requisite for answering without getting his head cut off, and said, “Becoming a queen is like becoming a wife, your Highness. With the honors of each comes their necessary responsibilities. And with the position of a queen, if I may be so bold, comes with it the responsibility of looking after your subjects as we (your subjects) look to you for our guidance and protection. And yet,” he added, looking at Alice as if she was his own daughter, “you are but a child in the world of adults, a child in need of guidance and protection. If there’s anything I can do to help you, your Highness, just say the word, and I will do it.”

“I asked for an answer,” Alice said, “not a speech.”

“Pardon me, your Highness,” he said.

“But since you offered to help me,” she said, “then bring Aaron Rancaster here. I need to see him.”

The musketeer smiled at her request and said, “Your wish is my command, your Highness,” and he took off his hat and bowed in a style that Alice recognized at once, even when he obscured his face with his hat—

Alice started from her throne, saying, “Rancaster?”

—and when the man stood back up and smiled at her, he added, “The one and only. You didn’t think I’d miss your coronation, did you? Darling, I wouldn’t miss it for the world! And neither would any of my retainers,” and raised his hand and snapped his fingers, summoning masqueraders sitting in the pews along the nave and side aisles and either side of the transepts.

“You bastard!” Alice said. “Why’d you help that good-for-nothing girl-character?”

“I had to make things interesting, you know,” he said. “Otherwise, this whole affair would’ve been a one-sided bore of a spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! Inroads of rival musketeers flooding through this house of God, causing a ruckus rivaling the horrors of Pandemonium itself! And you, darling, you were absolutely magnificent playing the heroine, while I played my humble part in it, small as it was. I sure hope my playing dead was up to par, since I’ve had centuries of practice, but enough about me. You’re the star of the show, your Highness,” and he began clapping his hands. “Everyone, reveal your true colors and show your appreciation for our debutante, our Queen.”

And all the masqueraders in the pews stood up and took off their masks and black cloaks, revealing red tabards and rapiers hanging from their belts. And a moment later, the whole of Chess Cathedral erupted with an acclamation of clapping hands and whoops and hollers of congratulations.

Then Rancaster added, “Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen! . . .”

And the crowd of Rancaster’s newly-revealed red musketeers and Alice’s doppelgängers began repeating the mantra, ‘Long live the Queen,’ in a resounding chorus filling the whole of Chess Cathedral to the top of its many vaulted ceilings.

Amidst this display of applause and celebration, Alice stood up on trembling knees and smiled. And yet, she smiled not so much as to participate in their celebrations but to hide the looming sadness within her behind a mask of good cheer.

So she acted her part in this play and said, “Loyal retainers of the house of Rancaster, allies and friends, you have all proven your loyalty with your presence here today, and here I am before you in triumph, unbroken and unafraid,” even though deep in her heart of hearts, she was broken and afraid. Yet through it all, she kept to her lines and played her part, playing the Queen of Wonderland to her applauding subjects, but playing the fool to herself when she said, “But the long road to this crown and this throne is only a prelude to a magnificent rule and a glorious reign, for I promise all of you that your time (our time) has come. With you by my side, we will cut down our enemies starting with the house of Hearn!”


つづく

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About the author

Fox-Trot-9

Bio: From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!

Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.

Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!

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