ONE Rory “Doodlebug” Richelieu shivered as he walked up the dark gravel path toward the fifteen-foot-high walls surrounding the High Krewe’s compound. A vampire shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, he told himself. Yet the short walk from where a cab had let him off on Metairie Road through these gloomy woods, barely lit by a weak moon, had seriously creeped him out. He wished he’d worn a shawl. His lightweight linen dress and lace hosiery were fine for the Quarter, but here they left him feeling chilled. And the heels of his pumps sank into the gravel, nearly causing him to twist an ankle several times.
When he was ten feet from the gate, something scurried near his feet. He saw something run into the underbrush, a mouse or squirrel or maybe a small rat. Doodlebug smiled a wistful smile. The tiny mammal had made him think of Jules. As he had innumerable times during the past eight months, Doodlebug wondered how the Fates had been treating his vanished friend. He hoped with all his heart that Jules had found happiness.
The iron gates towered before him like the entrance to one of Dante’s inner circles of Hell. Doodlebug pressed the cold steel button that protruded from the marble gatepost. A disguised panel slid open, revealing a video screen. A dignified, somewhat haughty face appeared; a computer-generated image, Doodlebug realized, since the butler was himself a vampire and could not be photographed. Above him, at the top of the entrance archway, a small camera tracked his movements. All it would reveal to the viewer on the other end was a knee-length black dress, pale ivory lace hosiery, sensible black pumps, earrings, and lipstick of a modest shade of red.
“I’m Rory Richelieu,” Doodlebug said. It felt odd to call himself by his birth name; normally he went by Debbie, and whenever he’d returned to New Orleans to see Jules or Maureen, he’d always slipped back into his childhood nickname, Doodlebug. “I flew out from California. Georges Besthoff asked me to come.” Asked was too pale a word; demanded was more like it.
The face on screen appeared to be examining a list. “Yes. Mr. Richelieu. I’ve been told to expect you. Master Besthoff is awaiting you in the library.”
The massive iron gate swung open as smoothly and silently as silk on silk. The scent of pomegranates reached him on a cool breeze. Blood apples. High above, at the center of a cloud-dimpled sky, a half-moon illuminated stately groves and manicured gardens, all of which would appear quite at home surrounding the ancient fortress-estates of Moravia or Romania. Doodlebug had not set foot within the gates of the compound of the High Krewe of Vlad Tepes in decades. Not since 1968, just after he’d completed his thirteen years of study in Tibet, when he’d been planning to leave New Orleans for California to establish his Institute of Higher Alpha-Consciousness.
As grand and beautiful as this walled assemblage of mansions and gardens was, he’d never felt any fondness for this place. Most of the vampires here were far older than he was, immigrants from Eastern Europe, one of the cultural hearts of world vampirism, and had amassed their impressive fortunes over hundreds of years. The wisdom of their collective centuries had not brought them enlightenment, as it had to Doodlebug’s Tibetan monk teachers; instead, it had taught them to pursue their own narrow interests with scientific precision. As a fledgling vampire, he’d considered himself a catfish among tiger sharks in his dealings with the masters of this place. He’d always suspected they’d granted their support to his California project only because they’d judged him to be an interesting, potentially useful freak.
Doodlebug hadn’t heard a peep from the High Krewe’s masters in a quarter century. What did they want with him now? Besthoff certainly hadn’t ordered him to fly across the continent for a social call. He had been infuriatingly evasive in his communiqués, as he always was. But he’d left no doubt that he was willing to pound the stake through Doodlebug’s most precious aspirations if Doodlebug failed to comply.
Doodlebug walked briskly past fountains illuminated with beams of green, red, and white, the colors of the old Hungarian monarchy. He sensed an unfamiliar dampness under his smooth arms, despite the chill in the air; he was thankful that he’d chosen to wear black. Apprehensive as he was about the nature of his mysterious task, he was eager to get the undoubtedly sordid business over with as quickly as possible.
He climbed the broad marble stairs that led to the compound’s central building, an Italianate mansion easily twice as large as the grandest home on St. Charles Avenue. Twin twelve-foot-high doors opened soundlessly before he could knock.
“Mr. Richelieu. Welcome. It is a pleasure to see you again after all these years.”
The sentiment sounded as sincere as a local politician’s promises to fix the potholes. Doodlebug stared up at the long, sallow face of Straussman the butler. He was even haughtier and more austere than his computer-generated image; Doodlebug, an avid fan of the films of the forties, thought Straussman made Erich von Stroheim look like Lou Costello. Nevertheless, he smiled and answered Straussman’s stiff bow with a polite curtsy.
“Thank you, Straussman. The years have been good to you.”
“You are too kind, sir.”
Straussman closed the doors, polished oak eight-inches thick, with little discernible effort. “Please allow me to escort you to the library.”
They left the entrance foyer and entered a tall, wide hallway decorated with tapestries large enough to cloak elephants. Doodlebug remembered these tapestries well. Each depicted a victory of King Vlad Tepes over the marauding Turks, who were portrayed as beasts with barely human features. The largest of the tapestries showed Vlad Tepes holding court in front of a panorama of severed Turkish heads impaled on tall wooden spikes.
Just before they reached the library, Straussman paused and turned back toward Doodlebug. “We have been experiencing unsettled times within our household,” he said in a low voice, almost a whisper. Doodlebug detected a slight change in his normally imperturbable face, a hint of what might almost pass for concern. “The young masters . . .” His voice trailed off. It was fascinating and unsettling to watch Straussman struggle for words. “I do hope, sir, that you will be able to assist Master Besthoff in bringing certain matters to a satisfactory close. Bringing certain . . . foul parties to the justice they richly deserve.”
Then he turned away again, and Doodlebug watched him straighten his neck and torso to their habitual lacquered stiffness before he opened the doors of the library. “Master Besthoff,” he said, “if you would kindly forgive the intrusion, I have the pleasure of presenting Mr. Rory Richelieu.”
“Thank you, Straussman,” a deep, fine-grained voice, tinged slightly with a Rumanian accent, answered. “You may show him in.”
Doodlebug hurriedly smoothed the wrinkles from his dress and entered the library. Of all the compound’s hundreds of rooms, this was the one that had always fascinated him the most. He was greeted by a seductive perfume of polished teak and aged paper. His mouth fell open as he craned his neck to take in the thousands of volumes, most of them more than a century old. The inhabitants of this compound had millions of empty hours to fill, particularly since they had “advanced beyond the primitive hunting and gathering stage,” to use Besthoff’s memorable phrase. What better place to spend some of those millions of hours than this cathedral of literature, open all night long?
However, apart from Doodlebug and Straussman, who hovered near the entrance in readiness for additional tasks, the library held only one occupant. Georges Besthoff sat in a high-backed, gilded Queen Anne chair beside a tall Tiffany lamp and a coffee table decorated with the wings and clawed feet of a gryphon. He was as tall as Straussman, but far broader through the chest. Untold centuries in age, he didn’t appear any older than his midforties, with only an occasional strand of silver flashing within the midnight blackness of his immaculately groomed hair. His eyes were coals that had been compressed by unnatural gravity into onyx diamonds, glowering with negative light.
Doodlebug frowned slightly as he remembered how Besthoff and the others had built their fortunes in Europe. Among the oldest of that region’s vampires, they had gradually seduced many of the neighboring noble families into the blood-sucking fraternity, convincing them to leave one aristocracy for another; then they had taken advantage of the nouveau vampires’ junior status to appropriate portions of their holdings. If it hadn’t been for the antiroyal revolutions of 1848, Besthoff, Katz, and Krauss would never have left the enriching embrace of their ancestral lands for New Orleans.
Besthoff’s smile was well rehearsed, the practiced smile of a diplomat from the age of dynastic empires. “Mr. Richelieu,” he said, gesturing for him to sit in the chair on the far side of the gryphon table, “I believe the last time you visited us, that Texan excrescence, Lyndon Johnson, was still in the White House. It has been too long.” He looked Doodlebug over with a coolly appraising glance, his eyes lingering on the swellings of his guest’s hips and bustline. “I see that you have honed your talents considerably since the last time we met. Were I ignorant of your natural sex, I would be most aroused by your display of lush, young femininity.”
Doodlebug felt hot blood rush into his face. It wasn’t a sensation h...