Comfort’s in heaven; and we are on the earth,
Where nothing lives but crosses, cares and grief.
—Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 2, Scene 2
The railway car lurched unexpectedly as the clattering train rounded yet another curve on the switchback westward course through the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The specially chartered train was three days away from its terminus in the deserts of Utah.
Private railcars weren’t all that uncommon even in America, ravaged as it was by the Great Depression. This railcar, however, was uncommon because of the two men who occupied it, conversing with one another, only one was alive.
December’s chill seeped in through the railcar’s windows, a chill hardly offset by the woolen blanket around Nathan Fairchild’s legs or the burbling coffee pot at his side. The Austrian nobleman who accompanied him, recumbent upon a red satin divan, wanted the car’s interior kept cold as a tomb. And so it was.
Raab, as the Austrian styled himself, idly tapped a Turkish cigarette on the back of his hand. The hand was marked by an only partially healed burn mark in the shape of a cross. Raab placed the cigarette in his mouth and lit up. Acrid blue smoke wreathed his head in a tenebrous fog.
Baseborns rarely smoked—and bloodborns all but never—but, then, Raab was hardly one to abide the conventions of either baseborn or blood. If he had, the Krähenhorst, the ancient vampire rookery of Vienna, would not have exiled him here to the New World.
Fairchild took in the scent of the smoke. Iconoclasm was all well and good—vampire society was less a society than a loose grouping of solitary predators—but that iconoclasm had to stay within permissible bounds. Fairchild’s rookery, headquartered in San Francisco, was not altogether certain that Raab would confine himself so. Fairchild had thus been assigned as Raab’s minder rather than as a normal human adjunct.
As if reading his thoughts, the Austrian smiled, baring his fangs ever-so-slightly. “You actually believe you could fell me yourself, human? In Vienna, it sometimes takes an entire pack to bring down even a baseborn such as myself.”
Fairchild poured himself another coffee. Warmth spread through to his fingers as he cradled the mug with both hands. “I’ve heard of your famed Wild Hunts.” He sipped. “Here in America, we tend to do things a little differently.”
“So I was led to believe,” Raab said.
Fairchild’s eyes flicked to the painful burn mark the dockworker’s silver cross necklace had seared into the vampire’s hand. Boston Harbor, and not two minutes off the gangplank of the ocean liner, Raab had insisted on hunting immediately for fresh game. That the first dockworker he’d waylaid into a dark alley turned out to be Irish Catholic…
“What did you expect in Boston?” Fairchild asked.
Raab sniffed. “As if one miserable human city—or even continent—differs from the next.”
Still, once the Austrian had hurled away the offending pendant, he had fed deep and long. The sated vampire would not need to feed again for many days, not until after he’d reached his destination.
The rattle of an eastbound train passing in the opposite direction drowned out further conversation. As the relative quiet of the railcar’s passage down the track returned, Raab blew one last stream of smoke, then stubbed out the remains of his cigarette. He sibilated the desiccated hiss that passed for laughter among his kind.
“Vienna would say that this,” he held up his burnt hand, “only underscores their view that they were right and I was wrong. Faugh.” He looked sharply at Fairchild. “Do you know why those Graubärte exiled me?”
“The High Council doesn’t confide in mere humans.” And if Fairchild limited his information sources to only what he heard directly from the High Council or from his immediate boss, the Judge, he would have been dead long ago. No, Fairchild knew, knew more than Raab did.
Raab steepled his fingers. “Tell me, human. Do you believe in the constructs of Good and Evil?”
Fairchild felt the comforting weight of the tension steel stakes holstered under his brown leather jacket. Oh, yes—he believed in Evil, all right. And the presence of Evil presupposed the existence of Good, though Fairchild had yet to meet it face to face. The closest to Good Fairchild had experienced was the solid chunk of sharpened steel hammered through a vampire’s beating heart.
“Merely the constructs of the human mind,” Raab said, airily waving his fingers, “and yet, have you ever considered why their feeble minds evolved in such a way to possess it?”
“But of course. Have you ever heard of any human culture that had not developed some notion of Good and Evil and Gods? One must account for it by evolution or else join in the silly belief that some God actually exists.”
He went on without waiting for an answer. A vampire holding court cares not for a response from livestock. “For all their tools and machines and clever little monkey thumbs, humans are powerless against us—save for this imaginary construct of Good and God and Holiness they fetishize in their odious religious symbols.”
He nursed his burnt hand again. “Good and Evil. Faugh! Merely a chance evolutionary proto-phrenic defensive mechanism that reflects our own psychic abilities back upon ourselves. But would those fools in Vienna listen to me?”
The train clattered down another mile of track before Raab spoke again.
“Seventeen million head of livestock dead from the Kaiser’s foolish Great War,” Raab spat. “And perhaps an order of magnitude more from the Spanische Grippe. Europe’s peasants are disillusioned, doubting in their imaginary God. It would take only a little push using the levers of power the Krähenhorst wields and we could free ourselves from those accursed silver trinkets forever!”
Raab extracted another cigarette from his inlaid silver case. “But no, the old fools aim instead to de-God the elite of human society.” He tapped the cigarette on the back of his hand again. “As if we fed on them —those who would be missed—instead of safely draining the nameless, faceless masses.” He exhaled another long stream of smoke.
Fairchild hid his disgust behind a tightly gripped coffee mug.
The war’s disillusionment on Europe’s populace was already waning, and left to their own devices the common man might recover. Vampires played a longer game.
The disillusioned elites of shattered Europe: the statesmen and the poets, the writers, the artists, the film makers, even the clergy itself—those whose gift and duty was the channeling and dissemination, the control, of thoughts and ideas—were proving fragile reeds in the aftermath of industrialized Armageddon. They were sloughing off the stays and guides of time-tested moralities for the modern hedonisms and glittering raw power the Krähenhorst secretly proffered. The elites would in turn suborn, legislate, and mock into extinction the common man’s convictions of the divine.
Already it had begun in Italy with that strutting stone-jawed oaf and his Blackshirts, and in Germany also, with its little beer hall corporal.
Turning the masses through the elite might take years, might take decades, but the decadence would be permanent. Hadn’t they played the same game with Rome a thousand years before?
Raab’s true crime against his nest was not his rebellion or his alternative plan, but his rash impatience. And it would soon be the death of him. That had been arranged long before Raab set foot on American soil. That is why Stakeholder Nathan Fairchild, sanctioned slayer of those unsuitable to the rookery, had been ordered to lead the unwitting Raab to the killing field.
Raab idly dragged on his cigarette. “Tell me about this new domain of mine.”
“Hunting ground we call them here,” Fairchild corrected.
Raab smiled sardonically. “Ah, yes. I’ve heard of these Americans’ predilection for deluding themselves that they run their own affairs, when the truth is they are nothing but—what is that delicious Americanism?—free range cattle.”
He blew another stream of smoke. “My new…’hunting ground.’ It is what I asked for?”
Fairchild nodded. “Yes. We actually had a vacant territory with a substantially low amount of Kreuzenträger.” The term for cross-wearing humans. “Less than a single percent, in fact.”
Raab smiled as he took another drag on his cigarette. “That low? Good, good.” He hissed again in vampiric mirth. “You Americans really are mongrels, aren’t you? Too debased even for proper shrivenings. I shall enjoy hunting on my new preserve without those verfluchten crosses to vex me.”
Fairchild smiled, too, but only to himself. It never occurred to Raab to ask why such a seemingly prize territory was left permanently vacant. It never occurred to Raab to realize he was being led to his doom.
Ten miles north of St. George Utah, Fairchild let his Model A truck coast to a stop. A dusting of early April snow glinted in the Saturday morning sun. By noon it’d be soaked into the red sandstone dirt.
Grabbing a three-pound sledge hammer, he got out of the truck.
The door of the rancher’s cabin was ajar, just as the frightened rancher who’d told Fairchild his story had left it. It hadn’t been difficult to track down. Not difficult at all.
The rancher had left his radio on. Fairchild could hear the scratchy sounds of the KSL station out of Salt Lake City. Its fifty thousand watts of broadcasting power was enough to carry down here in the southeast corner of the state. They were broadcasting some annual meeting the Mormons held in their holy Tabernacle.
Fairchild crunched up the gravel trail to the cabin. He made no attempt at stealth. He could smell the vampire now; what’s more, he could smell the blood of jack rabbits and mule deer upon its breath.
Animal blood held only an illusion of sustenance for a vampire. A vampire attempting to subsist solely on animal blood would slowly starve, the lack of human blood not only killing him but slowly driving him mad the way mercury-laden fish would a human.
But what other option had Raab in his new domain, but to scavenge from the four-footed beasts? For he could not feed on its people.
Over the radio the Mormon preacher was slowly, methodically answering a common question asked by the outside world: why didn’t Mormon wear crosses?
Raab lay huddled, shaking in a corner of the cabin, too weak, too maddened, too feral to even recognize Fairchild or the danger the stakeholder presented to Raab. Raab’s swollen mouth gabbled in pain and insanity.
Every inch of the vampire’s naked body was burned and scarred with the same burns a cross would make. He must have tried to feed a dozen times before he realized the truth, the trap he’d been lured into.
As much out of pity as duty, Fairchild hammered a steel stake through Raab’s heart. In its convulsions, the heat of the vampire’s over taxed super-oxygenated blood—the same blood that gave a vampire its power—consumed the vampire in a gout of flame.
Fairchild dropped the hammer and turned back for his truck.
The radio preacher concluded: “Just as we Mormons worship neither a dead nor dying God, we do not connote our faith in Him through the symbol of His death. What symbol, then, do Mormons use? None, for no earthly emblem, sigil, or token could possibly suffice. Rather, our very lives—our very beings—can and must become that symbol, a living symbol, a living testimony of the Living God.”
Raab had tried to feed in the heart of Mormondom, where almost every living person was a cross and held its power.
A land where nothing lives but crosses.