Message to Isaac of the Rosenthal.
Metis is well.
After reviewing your project, you will be pleased to learn that the board has approved your loan, with a one-year grace period before interest is collected.
You will find the signed agreement, as well as a reminder of our terms and conditions in separate documents.
We wish you all the best in your endeavour.
Andrew Mills, Manager for the Rosenthal Consortium, branch of Savannah.
December 21st 1831, Marquette, Illinois.
Below my bedroom’s largest window, I placed a mahogany desk. The delicate furniture is an expensive and wasteful affair I gifted myself last summer as a well-deserved treat for my birthday. Its surface has not been clear since then, always cluttered with messages, invoices, and orders I must countersign. Tonight, the right-hand pile will remain untouched. Tonight, I dedicate my time to contemplation.
I lined the walls with some of my best paintings. The Eye, my favourite rendition of the Herald, a portrait of Dalton, another one of Loth. Those are the personal paintings while the rabble downstairs contents themselves with my landscapes and other portraits.
There is even a single piece of poetry under a protective glass case, a Sonnet in alexandrines written by a passing artist singing the glory of my rear. That one made me laugh.
The four-poster bed with a goose feather mattress, I seldom use, just like the vanity with its attached mirror. They serve to keep appearances in case somebody manages to break in.
The two wardrobes are packed. I do have a reputation to uphold, one that requires a flawless appearance. Right now, I am wearing a blue winter gown with an ermine collar as I stare over the city.
Two winters in a row now, the entire state has been covered in thick snow. Travel is almost impossible, and I expect that when it thaws, we will have to recover the corpses of the unwary and the unfortunate. The fluffy white mantle hangs over everything and even the dark soot of burnt coal has yet to mar its pristine beauty. For a few more hours, the alabaster cloth will mask the truth of what this city is: a rotten shithole. White powder to hide away the decrepitude like heavy makeup on an old whore.
I appreciate the moment while it lasts.
Then somebody knocks on the door.
I sigh deeply and resist the urge to crumple the fragile letter in my hand, the one telling me of father’s death three years ago to this day.
I take one last look outside and enjoy the scent of jasmine and burning log, the crisp air inside before it is polluted.
Margaret’s vixen face appears as I knew it would. She searches the dim room with her pitch-black eyes.
“Did I not leave specific instructions that I should not be disturbed?”
She swallows nervously.
“You also said to fetch you if the Alvaro were to come again. They… They are here. Three brothers. Hm. Michael and George and Gabriel. Those.”
Two archangels and one king. Pretentious.
“Very well. I will go.”
“And mistress? Hm. You might want to check Patrick. I think… I think he’s been drinking.”
I wait a few seconds before answering.
“You may go.”
She closes the door and scurries away, to prepare her promotion, no doubt. Margaret is my best cattle, and I believe she may have been Lancaster vampire material. That, or she is just a cunning, backstabbing harridan. I cannot decide which.
This is, in essence, what cattle are. After three bites they lose most of their autonomy and only exist to serve us. The fires of ambition and inspiration in their soul is smothered. Their entire existence is reduced to menial tasks and spying on each other to improve their standing.
I turned her into this because the twit poisoned my wine. I did Patrick because he tried to swindle me. They remain the most proactive of those I took in, and I placed them in charge of the dozen I keep around at all times. Sadly, their blood is just as insipid as their personalities.
I wish I could have a Vassal but unsurprisingly, it takes a deep connection between vampire and mortal to form such a bond. The deepest connections I formed since my arrival consisted of my hand in someone’s rib cage and I do not see it changing any time soon. I suspect that Masters can have several, though I remember Baudouin mentioning that only one can become the Servant and thus escape old age for a life of servitude.
I step out of my room and in the corridor to the view of Margaret’s quickly retreating back. The alley is decorated by my paintings and actual plaster, with doors on both sides leading to storage closets and the staff’s personal quarters. I follow it to the end then down the set of stairs.
The Dream is four stories high with three wings around an inner court. It is the largest building in a hundred miles in any direction, not that the South of Illinois abounds with those. I am about to reach the third floor when I come across a nervous Patrick climbing up. He sees me and stops. Under the stench of stale sweat, sex and unwashed bodies, I detect the subtle hint of expensive liquor.
The weaselly man freezes in his tracks, not even daring to move.
If the man gets anymore scared, I fear he may soil his pants. Human excrement is not something I wish to add to the already fragrant bouquet I submit myself to.
I slap him. He manages to cushion his head with an arm before it impacts the wall. Blood drips down his crooked nose.
He shakily extends his hand. I grab the index and snap it. Ignoring his scream of pain, I drag him by his broken digit until he kneels before me.
“I can tolerate mistakes but not deception. One more incident and you will join Russel and the others, and I would hate to ask John to dig a grave in this weather. Do I make myself clear?”
“You will give the key to the pantry and cave to Margaret.”
“… Yes, Mistress.”
After one last twist, I leave the whimpering failure behind. Such a waste of my time.
Two more landings and I am on the ground floor. Normally, the noise coming from the saloon eclipses even the moans and giggles of the upper floors. Tonight, it is unusually quiet. Even the piano stopped playing.
John is waiting at the bottom with an iron poker and a big goofy smile. He cleans the drool from his cleft lip and bows.
“Good evening John, I see you remember. Thank you.”
The man nods frantically with a delicate blush.
John is an interesting find. He is without a doubt the tallest and strongest man in town by a wide margin. He is also one of the ugliest men I ever had the misfortune of ever meeting.
I wish I could say he is the stupidest. He is not, but he is close.
“I remember. September seventh eighteen thirty-one. If they come back, bam!”
What John is explaining in his own words is my previous banishment of the Alvaro brothers from the Dream on threat of death, by strenuous application of the aforementioned implement. John’s memory is simply uncanny. His ability to process information, not so much.
With the poker held by my side, I enter the main room and calmly walk towards the bar where the trio is drinking, their back to the oaken strip. Gabriel, the eldest, is pointing an old pistol at the crowd while the two others nurse glasses and glance around nervously. The customers and girls alike stare at them and I can see quite a few predatory smirks. Those are not the delicate gentlemen and ladies of the East coast, but godless frontier folk and they are always eager for a free bloody show.
When Gabriel spots me, he swings the pistol in my direction, and I catch a glimpse of the pan. Truly, it is a miracle that the entire Alvaro bloodline is not extinguished yet by the result of their sheer incompetence. A mistake that nature made and that I shall remedy myself.
“Well well well, and who graces my establishment tonight?”
“You bitch, we go where we want. You don’t get to order us around, you know who we are?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I remember telling you to leave and never return, or else. Isn’t that right Gabriel?”
“You don’t get to tell us that. We’re the Alvaro. You gots to respect us. You’re just a nasty slut, who cares what you want. Ain’t that right?”
I have almost reached them yet. I could Charm them into begging. I could make them leave with their tails between their legs, but I will not. I made a public promise, one I fully intend to fulfil. Their fate was sealed the moment they stepped into my domain without my leave. I do have a reputation to uphold after all, and the fancy clothes are only a part of it.
“I said, if you come back here, I will break your skulls with an iron poker.”
I am close now, just barely out of arm’s reach.
“I don’t see no iron poker, you whore.”
I slightly extend my right arm until the entire room sees the implement. A collective intake of breath and a few expressions of admiration welcome the barbaric statement.
Gabriel panics, he lifts his pistol and pulls the trigger. The flint erupts in a rain of sparks as the people behind me yell in dismay.
Nothing happens. That inbred cretin forgot to close the pan. His powder is on the ground somewhere.
My strike catches him in the temple with a resounding crack. There is a trick to applying strength in public as a vampire. I only need to move at human speed and let the weapon’s weight do the job for me.
A two-handed swing takes care of George on the right, and a downward strike cracks Michael’s head as he kneels by his sibling’s side.
For a beautiful moment, the room is filled and yet perfectly silent, then the mob lets loose. Cheers, jeers and laughter bloom at my back as I drop the poker without a care. I approach my barman under tumultuous applause. He is cleaning glass as if nothing of note had occurred.
The man is a black freeman, an oddity around here. Light from the candles shines on his bald head. He raises sad brown eyes to me and nods in appreciation.
“I’m sorry for giving them booze miss Lethe, they threatened me with that gun.”
“Did you give them the cheapest swill?”
He returns to work and I approach the main entrance just as my men step in to get rid of the corpses. I smile pleasantly at the revellers complimenting me.
“You sure showed them!”
“Did not even flinch…”
A man with a black beard and a brutish face is waiting right outside.
“Those three must have cut a way through the snow to come to town. Take three teams and go to the Alvaro estate. Kill all the adults, take the kids, and burn the house down.”
“Even old Mary Alvaro?”
“Especially her. Now go.”
I turn around. Horrigan is a brute and also the leader of my private army. There are around twenty of them at any time, a costly investment but one I can afford. The unruly pack will loot the place but they will also do as I ordered.
I step back inside and use a side passage to return to my room unhindered. I meet a few couples on my way up. The men remove their hats and my girls curtsey, as I instructed. This should soothe me, yet it does not. The calm is gone.
Well, I might as well do some paperwork.
“This concludes the meeting. Anyone else has anything to add?”
Horrigan is already trying to escape and frowns as Kitty, the one in charge of the girls, raises a hand. He is not a fan of work, especially the kind that requires a brain.
“Preparations for the Christmas party would go better if your, ah, personal staff helped us shovel snow.”
Margaret fixes her. If looks could kill…
“Very well, the men only.”
Kitty dips her head and soon my assistants file out.
There is Horrigan for security, Kitty for the girls, Oscar for the entertainment side and old Martha for food and cleaning. Margaret is present as well, though their role is separate.
When I settled here, I realized that there were very few positions of authority for women that did not start with ‘wife of’, so I became a madame.
I run a brothel.
If my father had learnt of it, he would have died of embarrassment. As for me, I don’t really care that much. It is a means to an end, an excellent means besides. And the end is near. I just need two more years.
My establishment, the Dream, was built with funds I borrowed from the Consortium. That debt is now repaid several times over. Indeed, I am in the business of pleasure and illusion, and business is booming. Mine is the only place of entertainment in the surrounding three counties, the only destination where one can forget about their miserable existence, their back-breaking labour or their nagging wife. This is the grandest building in all of Marquette, larger and more lavish than both the mine’s office and town hall together. For a week’s pay, workers and farmhands can come and drink rotgut in fancy glasses of fake crystal, served from ornate bottles by beautiful women who pretend to care. With only a handful of coins, they will find comfort in arms smelling of cheap perfume and wake up the next day just as miserable but with their mood, their purse, and their testicles lighter. Their aspirations are fulfilled, if only for an evening.
All of their aspirations.
The Dream is well provisioned. They want shy brunettes? I have them. Prissy blondes? Got them too. They want plump girls dressed in farm clothes they bend over to fulfil a cousin fantasy? They can. Refined ladies pretending to slum it to get their freak on? I got them as well, with quality acting delivered by the daughters of expert conmen. I got red-heads, I got auburn, I even got grey. Fat and slim, tall and small, luscious or boyish, I have them all. They want a black woman? No problem. A native? A Chinese? Right this way sir. They want food served? I have all the ribs they will ever need. I have beer, whiskey, gin and wine. I have music and dancers. I have games and jokes and all they will ever need to live the dream, to feel successful, to feel that they matter. And when dawn comes and the shining rays of the sun show the cracks in the wall painting and the imperfection on the bar’s varnish, their money is already on its way to my office.
Leading this small empire is not an easy task though. This is a company. We sell services and the logistics alone is already a nightmare. The amount of food required to satisfy almost three hundred people on busy nights is truly staggering, and this is without even considering cleaning. Before starting this, I had no idea how much effort is required to wash a hundred and fifty sheets, and well, let’s just say that if a mer-woman lives downstream, she’s pregnant. Growing and managing the massive structure has been a formative experience and I have a newfound respect for Isaac.
Tonight is a town council night. As the owner and sole proprietor of the Dream, I count as one of the city’s top dogs, which I guess makes me the alpha bitch. The big wheels gather once per week to discuss their domain’s ongoing affairs and align to solve them. This goes from funding public works to handling disgruntled employees or undesirables, an initiative made necessary by the frontier’s unequal rule of law. Until tonight, that is.
I leave Horrigan and John in the town hall’s entrance. A woman alone is a tempting target for those who do not know better, therefore I bring them along to intimidate people. And it works. I ordered John to smile and remain silent when people talk to him. The resulting facial expression is an abominable rictus that does not reach his eyes. As long as he doesn’t utter a word, he appears dangerous instead of just plain stupid. I left no instructions to Horrigan, he only needs to be himself.
The council room is a stuffy fumoir with heavy leather couches. The walls are yellowed by years of cigar smoke and the centre is occupied by a coffee table cluttered with alcohol bottles, often emptied and changed. Inebriation makes my colleagues more amenable, most of the time. I highly suspect this will not apply to the newcomer.
“Ah, here you are hehe! Miss Lethe, meet our new judge, the honourable Mr Richard Sullivan. Splendid, hehe, yes, now, order will finally come to our beloved city, hehe, isn’t that right Mr Sullivan?”
The mayor is a short and plump man with a sweet disposition. Under his affable air lies a shrewd businessman, one with probity, according to local standards. His striped suit flares around the middle making him bottom heavy. By contrast, the newcomer is dressed in black with a top hat, gloves and an entirely black suit with a white shirt. He is tall, with white hair and an abundant white beard, and painfully thin. Two pale blue eyes peer down an aquiline nose. His tone is glacial.
A silver cross hangs on his tie. Not from the Brotherhood thankfully, or our collaboration would have been brief indeed.
Thankfully, I know how to handle his kind without leaving a corpse.
I curtsey respectfully and offer my hand in greeting.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, judge Sullivan.”
And here is the thing, scorning me would not only be unbecoming of a gentleman in public, it would also insult the mayor, his host.
After a slight hesitation, Sullivan relents and holds my hand. He bows slightly in a gesture that is calculated to convey disdain.
“I have heard much about you and your… Establishment, Ms Lethe.”
“Only good things, I hope?” I add, ever the pleasant host.
“It is a den of sin!”
“You mean, prostitution?”
“So, you do not deny it?”
My calm statement takes him by surprise, and I use the distraction to push him further.
“We live on the frontier, judge Sullivan. Those are hardy and persistent folks, but they have base instincts. I merely offer them a safe and clean place to relax and… ply their trade.”
“You attempt to present adultery as something inevitable!”
“Ah, but we both know that if your constituents were all respectable citizens, your task would be significantly easier would it not? I understand that you would see the Dream as a tool of chaos and evil, but you could not be further from the truth. When I came here, these women were living in poorly lit and filthy barns while the men were drinking dangerous concoctions made by smugglers and criminals. The squalor of their living conditions was appalling and every year, many would die to disease and exposure. The Dream brought civilization, such as it is, to those poor people. We provide a safe environment for them to… Channel their impulses. As a man of law, I believe that you can appreciate our contribution to peace and order in this town.”
“Certainly, their time would be better spent attending church rather than a house of ill repute!”
“I am afraid that this would be the purview of pastor van Tassel. Ah, here he is.”
An older gentleman in a dark ensemble joins us at the table, soon followed by a dour bald man who manages the city’s coal mine for some Chicago firm.
“Mrs Lethe is right I’m afraid. I fight an uphill battle to save the souls of those lost lambs. At the very least, her financial contribution to the church helped us repair it last winter so my efforts could continue.”
Of course, I would fund the local church. I do need the priest off my back, not to mention that he likes curvy women and roleplay. Interestingly, so does his wife.
“An undisciplined rabble is what they are!” harrumphs the mayor, “it takes all of Ms Lethe and pastor’s van Tassel’s efforts to keep them in line. Why just yesterday an entire farm was burnt to the ground as part of a criminal’s quarrel, no doubt!”
“You have your task cut out for you, judge Sullivan. You can, of course, count on all our help.” He continues.
The righteous man is not convinced by their arguments in my favour, but he is mellowed and that will be enough for a first contact. As in most things political, I will take my time, erode determinations and enmities by making them too costly to maintain. In truth, immortality grants me a unique mindset to appreciate long-term goals. So many decisions are motivated by biological imperatives to find fortune, a good party, or to leave a legacy to one’s children within a few years. I do not disdain mortals for it, quite the contrary. So many great deeds are carried out through the motivation a limited lifespan offers. Short-sightedness is only an unfortunate and unavoidable side effect of this condition, and with no vampires around, insults slide off me like water. Betrayals are nothing but amusing distractions I need to repay in a particularly inventive and cruel manner. Finally, if the offenders decide it wiser to leave town, they never reach the next one. Metis and I make sure of it.
A slow stream of notables joins us until all are present or excused. I remain the only woman present to the general indifference of all. It appears mortals can get used to anything, with time.
Judge Sullivan introduces himself and what he stands for through a concise speech mentioning “God” far too many times for my taste, and “Justice” too few. Our discussions then lead to the town’s Christmas celebrations. Van Tassel and I mention our respective preparations, and the meeting is soon adjourned.
I never truly appreciated cold before. I feel it in my bones but it is no longer uncomfortable, nor distressing. Instead of shivers and lethargy, I enjoy the crisp air and silence only broken by feet trudging through snow. Then we reach the Dream and I am hit by a sensory wall.
Bright lights, loud music, the overwhelming stench of sweat, stale sex and unwashed bodies. Spilled booze mingles with cheap tobacco in a concerted effort to saturate my mind. I immediately turn to a side door to escape the main room before one of our patrons gathers enough courage to accost me.
“Your head hurts?”
How can he be so perceptive yet so dumb? A most peculiar man.
“No, the music is just too loud.”
The towering giant nods wisely, or his version of wise anyway. Horrigan sneers but remains quiet.
Once, I ordered John to execute a man who had shot one of our girls. The simpleton placed his hands around his victim’s skull and crushed it like an overripe melon. Since that fateful moment, not a man has seen it wise to test or bully my self-proclaimed bodyguard.
“I will retire to my room. You two enjoy your evening.”
I close the door behind me. Finally, blessed quiet, and the light scent of cleanliness and jasmine. And woodsmoke. And…
There is an envelope on my bed. NEST COMPROMISED. FIND THE INTRUDER AND KILL IT. KILL IT NOW!
Feet scurry outside, only to stop at the door. I bang it open and take her by her devious, lying throat.
“Who came here!? Who?”
“No one! No one I swear!”
A small gathering of cattle is now watching us.
“Who came in here?”
“No one Mistress.”
They all shake their heads. They look scared, terrified even, but I detect no signs of duplicity. No shifty eyes, no one trying to avoid attention. They are all looking around trying to catch another lying, eager to curry my favor. I even forbid them from entering and as far as I know, cattle cannot, and will not disobey a direct order.
“Very well. Wait here.”
I go back in and look around the room. The windows are sealed, and cannot be opened from the outside. I inspect all four of them without finding any sign of tampering. There are no magical auras either.
Not even from the envelope.
“Margaret. Find anyone who came to this floor while I was away and bring them to me.”
“Very well, Mistress.”
The letter smells of roses. I open it and read its content, a single piece of paper covered in a flowery script I do not recognize.
Your problem is more than skin deep.
What in the name of the Watcher?!
“They are here, and I heard some terrible news!”
“Old man Roger has been assassinated!”
Old man Roger does not matter. His assassination does. I do not tolerate any bloodletting on my territory unless I am the instigator, and so I decide to head out immediately. Interrogation will have to wait.
I leave the house with John in tow. The murder occurred near the Northern entrance to the town on a large square surrounded by warehouses where convoys unload their wares. The Southern entrance is mostly used to load coal and is easily recognizable by its spoil pile, an artificial dark valley devoid of plant life where the mine dumps its rejects.
When we arrive, we find a small gathering even at this late hour. They part to let us through and I find that I am late to the party. The doors to one of the warehouses are wide open, the interior lit and in it, I find men surrounding what I assume is Roger’s corpse.
“Ms. Lethe, would you mind explaining what on earth do you think you’re doing here? This is no place for a woman.”
The man is surrounded by four men in heavy cloth and identical leather coats with Marshal stars, quite likely men he named himself. None of them are locals which tells a lot about judge Sullivan’s trust in local law enforcement and his willingness to be part of our community.
“I wanted to know if the dreadful rumors I heard about old Roger have any truth to them. He did some work for us after all. His well-being concerns me.”
The man scoffs lightly but he questions my sincerity and not my motive, and that is all I care about. As for me I know the rumors to be true. The scent of carrion and blood is heavy on the air.
“See for yourself.”
The men step back.
On the ground, lies old Roger or to be precise, what is left of him. He has been savaged with full pieces of meat and most of the innards missing while the skin of his face has been peeled off and removed. Only his signature hat, his pipe and a missing right eye ascertain his identity. I have seldom seen such cadavers outside of animal attacks and this is simply impossible here.
“You do not seem shocked.”
I raise my eyes to meet the judge’s inquisitive brown eyes.
“I have seen worse, in animal attacks.”
“Did you now? And do you believe this to be an animal attack?”
Ah, time to decide. Do I gracefully dodge the question, or do I make myself look competent? This is a defining moment, one that will shape our future relationship for the next two years.
What do I want?
I want him to consider me as an off-man. I have seen it before. Many of the more religious men see women as incapable of holding a business or dealing with violence. When confronted with me, those beliefs conflict with observable facts and when it happens, they simply discard me as an anomaly. I become an “off-man”, an anomaly, someone who was conceived without dangling parts by some divine clerical error. Competence it is.
“Not at all, sir.”
“A mauled man is always surrounded by a pool of blood, here the ground is mostly dry so he was not killed here. No beast large enough to inflict this type of wound would move the body, not to mention they would never reach this far into the city, nor open a gate.”
“What if an animal killed him and dropped the body here.”
“Unlikely, there are no blood trails. And something is clearly missing.”
He blinks. I hear his heartbeat accelerate in excitement.
Is he not tired of testing me?
“Bite marks. Roger’s corpse has been cut apart by claws or a claw like instrument but there are no teeth marks. Look at the chest, the pieces of flesh here and there have been clearly carved out but not bitten. It cannot possibly be the work of a beast.”
The marshals all bend down to get a better look, a few looking a bit green around the gills. Sullivan’s eyes widen and I realize my mistakes.
They had not noticed yet.
I hope I did not present myself as too competent.
The judge takes a step forward, only for John to cross his arms at my side. I classify John crossing his arms as a spectator sport. When he does it, many men realize that waists are not that thick. They stare in wonder and their eyes drift up to a face even a mother would not love, which explains why he was abandoned as a kid.
Then John smiles.
Sullivan wisely decides to take a step back from the man who might very well be Illinois’ second highest altitude after Charles Mound and asks his question from afar.
“How does a woman know all of that?”
Because my eight hundred years old Dvergur friend taught me how to recognize monsters from their victims.
“Because I grew up in a farm, judge Sullivan. I saw dead sheep and dead horses and it was nothing quite like that.”
“So he was killed somewhere else. It cannot be far since he was still alive three hours ago.”
No way. Too rotted.
“Yes, he and other drivers…” Sullivan stops abruptly and with a blush of embarrassment, realizes he is giving precious information to a civilian, and worse! One who wears petticoats.
“Thank you for your assistance Ms. Lethe. Now I will ask you to clear the scene.”
I nod and gracefully make my exit, my bodyguard in tow.
“Someone killed Mr. Roger. Mr. Roger gave me treacle twice and tobacco four times.”
It is a rare thing for John to speak first. The death must trouble him a lot.
“Who killed Mr. Roger, Ms. Ari?”
One who can mask his aura.
“Are you going to kill it?”