Stake & Eggs

                                                                                                   Prologue

 

 

            Anyone familiar with my history would think I would be used to people coming back from the dead. Hell, the past few years it seems that sort of thing happens with more regularity than earthquakes, and I live in San Francisco for god’s sake. Yeah, you would think that, but I’m not. I seriously doubt I will ever be.

            The latest resurrection starred Landau Bain. If you don’t know that name you must have been living on a desert island somewhere or perhaps under a nice dense rock. Bain is a wizard. In San Francisco, he is The Wizard, all caps etcetera, etcetera. The first time I met him he gave me a lesson in manners that fried every nerve in my body. The second time wasn’t much better. He stuck me with the tab in one of the most expensive eateries in the city. There are those people who know guys who know guys, right? Not Bain. No, he’s one of those guys people know. I mean, how many people do you know who can get the devil, I mean the big L himself, so pissed off he gives him the finger, twice. Now ask yourself this, why did Bain only get the finger? Yeah, now ask yourself the follow-up, why didn’t he get anything worse, hmmm? Get the picture?

            I followed Bain into Hell, and no, that is not a euphemism. So what did the jerk do to repay that favor? He saved my life at the expense of his own. Another guy I know used the phrase that starts with, “No greater love hath a man…” This is also the guy who gave me a very broad hint that Bain’s time on earth wasn’t over. I really should have paid much closer attention; really should. I’m saying that for a reason.

            Another fellow who’s crossed my path more than once is Tiny, no last name. At least as far as I can tell. He’s the owner, cook, brewer and chief bottle washer of the Snug, my neighborhood bar, what the Brits would call my local. Tiny is the only guy I know who can almost look Frankie in the eye. Frankie, by the way, is my partner, and no I don’t mean that in the San Francisco sense, but in the business sense. I may not date a whole lot, but I do vastly prefer the company of girls over guys. Frankie, not so much. Imagine a nearly seven foot tall NFL lineman with a penchant for stiletto heels and feather boas and you’re about 1% into the maze that is Franklin Amadeus Jackson. Frankie was there with me when Bain saved both my life and his. He was also there in the hospital when we both watched Bain vanish right from under the covers, looking like he was about 600 years old. The big guy, as I call him, bawled like a baby

            The other big guy, Tiny, also has another job separate from owning and operating the bar, he’s the Norse All-Father Odin. You know, the one with the eye patch and the twin ravens who act as his mobile eyes and ears? I have yet to ask how he keeps his shoulders free of bird crap. That’s not really a question you ask of a guy who’s laid out a troll with one punch, you know?

            I’m bringing all of this up because it was in the Snug where Frankie and I saw Bain, alive and for all intents, purposes and whatever cliché you want to add into the mix, well. Tiny had just handed us a shot glass of something he claimed was nearly priceless and rarer than Madonna’s virginity, and after we sipped it, and both had what can best be described as a very personal moment, found out it was thousand year mead. After that, Bain, who was sitting on the next stool with his back turned to us, turned around and said, “Hi.”

            That’s right where I left things hanging in the last casebook, mainly because it was more of a brief pause than an ending. Yeah, there’s this vast amorphous evil called The Other floating around in the multiverse somewhere that has everyone’s panties in a twist, and I do mean everyone’s, including the biggest guy himself, who for some reason thinks Momma Mandolin’s baby boy is the answer, but that’s another casebook altogether. And, of course, everyone involved is lining up and taking sides as well as side bets, but so what? Politics is politics, whether you’re in Heaven, Hell, or any of the innumerable places in between.

            Where Bain was concerned, after he got his breath back following Frankie’s bear hug, we were informed Tiny’s mead had curative properties, and before the week was over, Landau Bain would be back and as cranky as ever. I thought that was a pretty good deal, even if the guy had put my life at risk just about as often as he saved it. But I also wasn’t going to be counting my chickens waiting for it to happen. It has been my experience that whoever holds down the job of universal balance is always pretty quick on the draw when it comes to sending a trainload of crap my way.

            You know how some of the old detective stories, the really, really good ones from the pulp fiction days usually started with a ringing telephone or doorbell? Well, that’s how it usually begins. It isn’t a cliché if it happens all the time, right? So, I was in my front office, working on a crossword when the doorbell rang.

                                                                                                ♦          ♦          ♦

 

 

                                                                                                    Chapter 1

 

 

            I was trying to find a seven-letter word beginning with W when I heard the doorbell. I glanced at the clock and saw the time; a good hour past my posted office hours, so I called out, “Frankie, doorbell,” and went back to tickling my gray matter.

            There was no answer. Thinking the big guy was probably under the influence of his ear buds, so I called louder, “Frankie! Someone’s at the door!” Then I waited, listening. No Frankie.

            The bell rang a second time and I opened my mouth to yell. Greystoke’s whine stopped me.

            I thought, “What the hell?” and stood up. When a German shepherd makes a sound like that something hinky's going on. It may not be dangerous, per se, but whatever it was, hinky probably applied.

            Greystoke turned to look at me as I entered the hallway leading from my office slash study slash enlarged closet to the front door. He sat, in that typical shepherd version of at attention. Once he was sure I was headed his way, he turned his attention back to the front door.

            I looked. There was definitely someone there, but I didn’t recognize the vague shape through the stained glass. If it had been Pat Monahan, he would have announced his presence with banging on the frame and yelling, demanding to know why I wasn’t there to have the door open as he approached it. It was nice to know his promotion to police Captain hadn’t dulled his manners any.

            Bain wouldn’t have even bothered knocking. I doubt there’s any kind of lock that can keep him out if he’s a mind to go in.

            I said to Greystoke, “Good boy. Good boy.”

            His tail thumped twice in reply, keeping his attention wholly on whoever was on the other side of the door.

            “Now,” I said, “Let’s see who’s on our porch.”

            I opened the door and said, “Yes?”

            The man on my porch could have held down the role of the unassuming friendly neighbor in just about any of the evening sitcoms of the fifties. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he introduced himself as Joe Average.

            “Are you… Anthony Mandolin, Private Investigator?” The question came in an accent I couldn’t place. It sounded familiar, but the place evaded me. I tossed the thought away. San Francisco was nothing if not a city of foreigners; essentially the Casa Blanca of the west coast.

            I answered, “Yeah, that’s me.”

            The guy smiled, lips closed, and nodded, bobbing his head up and down. “Ah, at last. I have been seeking you for nearly a year, Mister Mandolin.”

            Before I could ask the obvious question, he held up a finger, saying, “I first had to learn your tongue and then I had to figure out the odd way you Americans maintain your maps.”

            The expression on my face had to be one for the books. He smiled again and asked, “May I come in and explain?”

            “Sure, sure,” I replied, stepping aside, “Come on in. The office is that door on the right,” I added, pointing.

            “Yes,” he said. It sounded like “yass”, “I see it. Thank you.”

            Greystoke backed out of the guy’s path, his tail not wagging, but very still. I’d learned a long time ago to trust my dog’s instincts. Whatever this guy was, he wasn’t as average as he looked. Another question came to mind as I followed him into my office, where was Frankie?

            My office is small. I like to call it an enlarged closet, but in reality, it’s more of a cozy room, occupying the space between the front room and the kitchen on the right-hand side of my Victorian. Yeah, I owned my own Vickie, purchased for cash out of the earnings of the case that had opened my eyes to the world of the weird. Where other just felt uneasy, heard whispered voices, or caught something out of the corner of their eye they could never really see… I saw what was really there. Consider yourself lucky. Especially those of you living in San Francisco. No other city in the world can claim the oddities that call Fog City home.

            My unknown guest was studying my bookshelf when I entered my office. His right hand was up, the forefinger running across the titles. Some may not believe it, but I do read, and sometimes I read the classics. One of my friends owns a book shop right off of the Haight, and sometimes I get a good deal on a collectible. That forefinger was dangerously close to some of the rarest in my collection.

            He said, not turning his head as I came into the room, “You have a fine collection here, Mister Mandolin. Have you read them all?”

            “Yeah,” I replied, heading toward my desk. “I only buy books I read.”

            “Ah,” he said, pulling one of the older ones out of the shelf. “That would include this one.” He held it up so I could see the dust jacket. The title, Dracula was legible in its faded red against the dirty yellow of the cover. My guest shook his head as he looked at the book, “Mister Stoker had such an imagination.”

            I wondered about that. Since my eyes had been… opened, as the faerie folk say, I’d come across enough solid evidence to indicate to me that old Bram may have been writing his diary more than a book. I wasn’t about to tell that to mister average here, fingering my collection. From the looks of the guy, he’d probably faint.

            Greystoke gave a little woof, and the guy put the book back into its place on the shelf. “You are quite right, my dear fellow. I should ask before handling such a valuable rarity.”

            It may have been the accent, but it seemed he just talked to my dog.

            He turned and asked, holding up the book, “Do you mind?”

            I shrugged, “Not as long as you’re careful. I buy paperbacks for reading. Those are just too delicate.”

            He nodded, sighing, “Yes, age eventually wears upon everything, does it not?”

            He turned, put the book back and then selected the even more prized piece of my collection, Max, the owner of the Haight bookshop and head dungeon master of the local gaming guild almost had a stroke when he saw it uncovered in the bottom of an old trunk I bought at an auction. I nearly joined him when I was told the last copy to surface sold at auction for almost a hundred and fifty grand.

            The guy said, as he slowly turned the book over in his hands, “Lovely little Mary. I’d always wondered if she would publish what she saw…”

            A chill went down my spine, one of those icy shivers that tell you something at the top of the hinky list is going on, and you are unavoidably involved. I said, “Perhaps it may be best if you just put my copy of Frankenstein back on the shelf and tell me why you’re here.”

            He turned away from the book and stared at me. This was not just a look, it was a stare, one of those unblinking things you usually only see in old movies. It was damned uncomfortable, almost a challenge. Then just like that, it was over and he said, as he replaced the book onto the shelf with what could almost be called reverence, “Of course. You must think me incredibly rude.”

            “No…” I said, easing around my desk and sitting. I linked my fingers together and put my hands on my desk as I added, “No, you just seem to be dancing around the subject. I do have to say you do better footwork than most of the people I’ve seen.”

            I waved at the one other chair, “Please, sit.”

            He did and then pulled out a business card and reached across the desk, holding it out for me to take. “My card.” His accent made it sound like my carrrd.

            I took it and turned it over to look. The face side was gloss black with red script lettering spelling out Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum. Underneath that in a thin chiseled-looking typeface, House of Drăculești.

            I put the card onto my desk and said, “I don’t read much Latin, but I get the gist, You’re telling me you’re Count Dracula, right? What’s the follow-up, Frankie bursting into my office yelling surprise?”

            He didn’t give a single tell. I filed away the notion of adding him to my never play poker with this person list. Then he shrugged, “Count is a misreading of the Latin. Vaivoda is better translated into Warlord, or rather War Leader. The closest European title would be Duke, not Count.” Then he chuckled and waved a hand, “But after nearly seven hundred years, it has little meaning, especially the way you humans wage war these days.” He smiled, “And people used to call me bloodthirsty.”

            I couldn’t help it, I smiled as I leaned back in my chair. “You, Dracula, and seven hundred years? You’re being serious?”

            He bowed his head as if he was in a royal court. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, “I am Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum, of the House of Drăculești, as it states on my card. I was born the eldest son of my father, Vlad II, who earned the title as he was inducted into the Order of the Dragon in 1431 by Emperor Sigismund. It is to my eternal shame that I caused the title to take on its devilish intonations, forcing my fellow Romanians to change the word for dragon to balaur.” He sighed, “The way a man deals with heartbreak…” His words trailed off as he shook his head.

            The alarm bells were still going off in my head. I thought back to that case where I had an entire extended family of vampires as clients down in Redwood City. I was never paid for that case, but when your client’s castle winds up being ground into the rock of the mountain by a giant serpent out of Norse mythology, it does tend to put a damper on things like payment, being able to find the client, and so on…

            What the hell. I decided to ask, “So, Mister… uh… Dracul, why are you here? What do you need me to do?”

            He paused, took a breath and then said, “I need you to find the last remnants of my family. I am told you were one of the last to see them alive.”

            Those alarm bells became sirens. “All right,” I said, intentionally leaving off the I’ll bite portion of the cliché, “What can you tell me so I can begin looking?” It helps to slip into the routine to hold off the shakes.

            “From what I was told”, he said, leaning back in the chair and crossing one leg over the other, “My cousin Eretich had his family home transported from its place in the mountains of Romania to a city here named after those incredibly tall trees you Californians are blessed with.”

            Danger, danger, danger Will Robinson. Okay, how do I tell the original bad guy vampire sitting across my desk in my home office that his cousin is most likely bits and pieces of decayed vegetarian vampire mixed in with the rubble of his destroyed castle? And to top it off, yours truly could rightly be blamed for it?

            I, as quietly as possible, eased open the middle drawer of my desk, exposing the butt of the loaded semi auto I kept there. The bullets were those Landau Bain, my cranky alcoholic wizard friend had, uh… enhanced about a year ago. If needed, they just might put a hitch into Vlad’s get-along. As I did so, I asked, “Umm, what’s the full name of your cousin Eretich?”

            Dracula said, his attention apparently on the condition of his fingernails, “Viscount Eretich Drutsk-Upyr, Mister Mandolin. Not cousin, but more nephew. And please, do not insult me by attempting to use that weapon. I am fully aware of the circumstances of my cousin’s disappearance, and even though he blamed you for what occurred, I have been made aware of who was the real cause of that tragedy. I am also prepared to cover the costs of both my needs and what Eretich should have paid you. In gold.”

            Ever have one of those moments where your brain takes off on a vacation right in the middle of a conversation? I was pretty sure I was staring at my client-to-be with about as much intelligence as a newborn calf.

            Finally, a few cells reactivated. “Umm. Mister Dracula—“

            I stopped and held up a hand, and then said, “I’m sorry. But I’m going to need more than just a card. I’m decidedly not calling you a liar or intending to insult you in any way, but frankly, you don’t look or act like who you claim to be, and honestly, even in this city, legends dropping by to retain a Private Investigator… it just doesn’t happen.”

            The guy nodded if anything his expression one of understanding. Then he stood, and then he swelled, changing. I could hear Greystoke leave at speed, whimpering. To be honest, I probably whimpered some myself. What stood before me, filling most of my office from walls, to the floor, to ceiling, was a nightmare of nightmares. Bat could have been the main theme, but it went beyond bat into full blown ewww and then some. And then as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone, and it was just the guy again, sitting in my office and looking at me with a tiny smile on his face.

            “Is that better?” He asked.

            “Good God, no, that isn’t better!” I yelled, and then I forced myself to settle down. Breathe Tony, breathe. I held up a hand, “Sorry. You startled me, but you did it for a purpose and you don’t deserve to be yelled at.”

            Vlad, it couldn’t be anyone else, Dracul nodded, “Very understandable, Mister Mandolin. Actually, I should congratulate you, few men have taken that revelation with the aplomb you showed.

            “Chalk it up to mileage, not guts,” I growled. Then I said, “Uh, are you aware there is nothing left of Ereitch’s castle? I was there. I watched it being destroyed.”

            He stared at me and then shook his head, “No, I was not aware. Please,” he spread his hands in supplication, “Tell me how it happened.”

            “I thought you said you’d been told about his disappearance,” I replied.

            Dracula scowled, “Obviously much was left out. I will deal with that at another time and in my own way, Mister Mandolin.” He relaxed and said, “Assume I know nothing of what occurred, and now please, tell me the tale.”

            So I told him how the snake out of the Nordic apocalypse was discovered under his cousin’s property in Redwood City and my, uh, being temporarily turned into a werewolf wound up defeating the thing, and how in its death spasms it ground what was left of the castle into gravel.

            “What was that damned snake doing under my cousin’s castle?” He asked, more to himself than to me.

            I nodded, “You know, I asked Bain that same question, but I have yet to get an answer.”

            He froze. “Bain? Do you mean Landau Bain, the Wizard?”

            “Uh, yeah?”

            He stood, looking around, “He isn’t here now, is he? Perhaps sleeping off his latest binge?”

            “I take you know him?” I asked.

            Dracula gave me the most haunted look I’d ever seen, and from my perspective, that’s saying something. He just stared at me for a while and then shook his head, “No, and I have a very good reason to not wish to. You are sure he isn’t here, or nearby?”

            I nodded again, “Absolutely. The last time I saw him, he was planning on taking a vacation, or whatever his sort does to relax.”

            “Then it wasn’t him,” Dracula growled, “His sort, as you put it, does not relax.”

            “Well whatever it was he was planning, it was Bain, no mistaking it. You can be sure of that. Regardless, you’re in my house and under my roof and therefore under my protection.”

            He smiled, the first real smile I’d seen. “You know, Mister Mandolin,” he said, “That is the first time, in a very, very long time that I have heard those words.” He bowed his head, and when he brought it back up again, he said, “I, Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum, of the House of Drăculești, gratefully accept your sanctuary.”

            The words sounded formal, and way back in the dusty recesses of my mind, I could bed, a few of my remaining brain cells dedicated to common sense started ringing their own alarm bells.

            To hide any unease I may be feeling, I asked, “Besides my being one of those who last saw your cousin, why come to me? I mean, it could be all I’m good for is just a witness, answer a few questions and that’s it.”

            “Oh, you are far more than just a witness, Mister Mandolin,” Dracula waved a hand. I noticed the ring he wore, it had a very large ruby surrounded by diamonds in a very high karat gold setting.

            He resettled himself into the chair and continued, “Why did Eretich hire you to act as security for his party?”

            I thought back. “He said I had a reputation, I believe.”

            “Oh, far more than a reputation, Mister Mandolin,” He said, chuckling, “In some areas of the nonhuman world you are notorious.” He leaned forward, “Are you aware, that the name Tony Mandolin is used to frighten the unruly children of certain species into behaving?”

            Huh? Then I replied, “That’s got to be a mistake. I haven’t been around that long.”

            He shook his head, “No mistake. You must not be aware that time flows differently outside this dimension. For some of the creatures on the other side of the veil, you have been a nightmare for centuries. For others, a hero of legend.”

            “And I suppose,” I muttered, “For others not even a blip on the radar.”

            He nodded, “Certainly. For others.”

            I thought about that and then decided to stop doing that, it gave me a headache. I tried another direction, “Your cousin told me there are different types of…” I paused, not knowing how to say “vampire” without sounding… well, like a hick.

            Dracula smiled, showing elongated canines, “Of my sort?” He chuckled again, “Eretich was speaking out of turn, either that, or you had been accepted as family.”

            I had been, I thought, and then tossed out on my ear, so to speak, when it all went balls up.

            “Well, as I have accepted your sanctuary,” Dracula added thoughtfully, “I have no issue with affirming what my cousin told you, there is a variety of my kind, and, as you are probably told, there is little love lost between any of them.” He sighed, “It’s a competition for prey issue.”

            I suppressed the urge to cover my neck.

            Dracula continued, “I won’t bore you with a discourse on all the various types of my kind. It is a dreary business at best.” He sighed, “What I will tell you is this, I cannot stand those stupidly insipid romance stories about teenage vampires. No basis in reality whatsoever.” He snorted, “Phagh! Whoever came up with that as a plot device should be staked and laid out in the sun.”

            He stopped and looked at me, “I’m sorry. It’s from spending so much time on my own. Eretich had his family. The last of my wives was killed centuries ago.”

            I was pretty sure I knew the name associated with that deed and mentally drew a line through Van Helsing and then locked it away. I nodded as if understanding. Rule number 35, learn how to act, it pays for itself.

            Dracula broke into my thoughts with, “I believe I mentioned payment.”

            “Yes, you did,” I agreed.

            “Ah,” he said, smiling. This time the fangs were gone. “Good, I do so despise being absentminded, it reminds us of the passage of the years. Do you recall what my cousin promised to pay you?”

            I shrugged, “Sorry. Things went screwy so rapidly once I showed up for his party, I never got around to writing a bill.”

            “No matter,” he said, reaching into his coat, “If you are able to successfully complete this task, you will not only be aiding me but Eretich and the rest of the family as well.” He held a smartphone in his hand, one of the big ones, more of a tablet than a phone when you got down to it.

            He looked at me from behind the phone, his forefinger poised, “Will one do?”

            “One what?” I was way out of my depth, guaranteed.

            “Yes,” he said, pulling the finger away from the phone, “It would not do to be ambiguous now, would it. Allow me to clarify, the one refers to one million… dollars, I believe is the denomination you Americans use, yes?”

            Beep-beep-beep. My brain went into tilt, just like a kicked pinball machine. All I could do is stare. I hoped my mouth wasn’t open. Swallowing, I croaked, “Yes.”

            “Ahh,” he said, “Good.” Then he began tapping on the phone.

            I asked, “Do I need to give you an account number, or anything like that?”

            Still tapping, Dracula shook his head, “No need for anything like that. I distrust banks with ties to governments.”

            He held the phone up so I could see the screen. “Is this address correct?”

            “That’s my address,” I said. “What-?”

            “Good,” he said, going back to his tapping, “Then the gold will arrive safely.” He looked at me sternly, “It will have to be signed for, of course.”

            I nodded vigorously, “Of course.”

            “Well, then,” he said, sounding pleased, “I’m glad that’s settled. Once you’ve found Eretich and delivered the dragon’s egg location, I will have your payment delivered.”

            He stood while I was still digesting what had just happened. “It has been very pleasant meeting you, Mister Mandolin, and not at all what I was prepared for. I will be in touch. Good day.”

            I stood, ready to come around the desk and shake his hand, but he did that smoke or mist thing I’d seen Eretich’s people do and was gone.

            It hit me several seconds later. Dragon’s egg?

 

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