Chapter 1: Jump!
In Bucharest, Alfred Cooper raced after Professor Abronsius, dodging though the thick crowds of people on the platform of the train station. Their train was already puffing out great billows of black smoke from the smokestack as it readied for departure. Alfred felt incredibly out of place as he slipped between the passengers who'd disembarked or were boarding the train. Those folks were far above his class – they all dripped with the trappings of obvious wealth. Not one of those fine people even glanced at Alfred except for a man who gave him a glare when Alfred accidently brushed against him.
"Hurry, now!" Professor Abronsius snapped over his shoulder. "If we miss that train because of your dawdling… I'll put you back where I found you – right on the streets of Whitechapel!"
Alfred shuddered and quickly hurried his pace. "Yes, professor." He didn't want to end up going back there… he's sooner die than go back to Whitechapel.
Professor Abronsius looked over his shoulder several times as they hurried. He wasn't looking at Alfred, but whatever he was expecting to see, he didn't tell Alfred. It was puzzling. Alfred had been watching Professor Abronsius look over his shoulder ever since they'd left the hotel in a mad dash to get away from Bucharest. Alfred didn't even know what the urgency was – he quite liked Bucharest. It was pretty and the people were nice.
They just made it onto the train before a long, loud hiss of steam and the shrill call of the whistle, announced that the train was ready to leave. After showing their tickets to the conductor, Alfred and Professor Abronsius found their empty compartment and made themselves as comfortable as possible. It was to be a long journey back to Germany, but this train was fast and comfortable. The trip to Bucharest had been long, but uneventful and Alfred hoped the trip back would be the same.
Professor Abronsius stood in the compartment for a moment, oblivious to be the movement of the train, and just held his bag while he possessively stroked it. He looked out of the window in their compartment, then opened the door and peered out into the hall that ran down the length of their car. Whatever he was looking for, he didn't tell Alfred and Alfred didn't ask. He knew better. Professor Abronsius kept his own counsel.
After a time, the professor's wild energy settled and he sat, never once letting go of his leather bag. It was his special bag, his professional bag. That was the bag that held his vampire hunting equipment: a wooden stake, a mallet, and a cross. Alfred carried the professor's more mundane supplies. He carried the bag with money, travel papers, spare clothes, and a flask of brandy.
The trip started out very quietly. Professor Abronsius rarely spoke to Alfred and demanded Alfred's silence when Alfred tried to speak. Alfred didn't mind. Even after such a long time away from the squalor of home, he still appreciated being away from it so the hours of admiring the world outside the train was no hardship. The vast forests of Transylvania with clear skies and the occasional quaint little village were a real pleasure to see. The whole place was idyllic. He spent nearly a full day staring happily out the window.
At one point, Professor Abronsius absently handed Alfred a few coins and gave him instructions to purchase them some food from the dining car.
Pleased with his task, as he'd been hungry for several hours at that point, Alfred went off with thoughts of sandwiches and apples swimming around in his head. He'd just gone into the dining car when a man caught his eye and walked slowly, almost menacingly, towards him.
"Boy! Where is Abronsius?!"
Alfred took his cap off and gave a quick nod of his head at the rough, aggressive tone though he was very surprised to see the man so far from Germany. "He's in our compartment, Doctor Alibori." As Alfred did with most people, Alfred made sure to keep at arm's reach from Doctor Alibori. "May I show you…" He was cut off abruptly when Doctor Alibori shoved passed him and stormed down the corridor towards where Alfred had left Professor Abronsius.
Alfred was torn. He had a task and Professor Abronsius didn't like it when Alfred failed to complete a task, but he felt quite sure that there was about to be a confrontation of the Not-Terribly-Professional type back at their compartment. Alfred rushed to buy two sandwiches, and then all but ran back to their compartment. While Alfred had no idea what kind of fight two aging scholars might have, he had been born and bred in the dark streets of Whitechapel. He had seen men killed in knife fights before his fifth birthday and he'd seen two women trying to strangle one another in the middle of the street in broad daylight over some petty argument. He had no doubt that the two professors had enough vinegar in them to start a real brawl.
He hadn't been wrong.
"Thief! You immoral slime!"
"Odious rat!" Professor Abronsius shouted back.
Alfred heard the yelling before he reached their compartment. It made him slow his step. People from other compartments were looking out at the spectacle being created. Alfred felt his heart speed up. He hated fighting!
Professor Abronsius bolted out of their compartment, both bags in hand, and ran down the aisle at Alfred. "Run!" He threw one bag to Alfred before Alfred, shocked at the sudden turn of events, caught the bag and ran.
A glance over his shoulder showed Alfred that it was Doctor Alibori who was chasing them. He looked furious and though he wasn't a young man, he, like Professor Abronsius was fit and strong. They nearly collided with a porter and Alfred called out as they ran on, "Sorry!"
"Keeping moving!" Professor Abronsius shouted. He knocked over a tall floor lamp in the hopes of slowing Doctor Alibori's pursuit.
They kept going until Professor Abronsius called out, "Wait! Here!" Alfred turned and looked back to where Professor Abronsius stood at one of the car's doors. He grabbed Alfred by the arm and pulled him to the open door.
Alfred looked out the train door at the world rushing by. Everything was white from snow and the trees seemed like a moving wall in front of him. He started to shake his head. He couldn't do it. "We'll be killed!"
"I said, jump!" There was a shove on his back and Alfred lost his balance. He fell and, for the briefest of moments, he felt like he was flying. Then he hit the ground so hard that it knocked the breath out of him. He rolled in the snow and only came to a stop when it hit a tree. It hurt, but at least he didn't hit his head. Alfred got to his feet as quickly as he could, just in time to watch the tail end of the train rush by and vanish out of sight.
He was in the middle of a deep forest, trees all around. It would have been very pretty if he wasn't suddenly very aware of what a precarious position he was in. The two leather bags had ended up not far from Alfred and he retrieved them before he started to search for Professor Abronsius. He knew Professor Abronsius had jumped from the train, too, because he wouldn't have abandoned his bags.
A blizzard set in, quickly.
"Hey! Professor, where are you?" Alfred shouted as loudly as he could, but the storm raged so terribly that he could hardly hear his own voice. Snow fell heavily and the wind howled. Alfred was freezing. Even his teeth were cold. He was shivering so hard, he could hardly stand. The long trek was miserable. The wind howled and the snow fell at an alarming rate. Alfred's nose and ears were freezing. His toes were so cold that they hurt. "Professor!" Alfred called out over the wind. "I can't see you!"
There was no answer.
The whole world was white. The sky and the ground were all one-in-the-same. If he hadn't had the ground under his feet, he wouldn't have known which way was up and which way was down.
When he finally found Professor Abronsius, still and silent as he lay on the ground, Alfred let out a shocked cry even before he ran to Professor Abronsius' side. The man was cold as death. His whole body was stiff and even when Alfred rolled him onto his back, he didn't wake up. Alfred shook him and rubbed his face, but Professor Abronsius didn't wake up. With all his strength, Alfred managed to heave Professor Abronsius up onto his back and stood, with a struggle. So, with the professor on his back and the bags in his hands, Alfred began walking and prayed that he would find some shelter.
After a short time, he felt like he would collapse. His muscles were tired. He'd stopped shivering and his head felt fuzzy. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to close his eyes for just a few minutes.
Then, in the distance, there was a light.
He followed that light. It felt like it took him hours to get to that light as it burned in the darkness of the storm. Alfred felt like he was dying. He was cold right to his bones. Professor Abronsius was unbelievably heavy and growing heavier by the moment. Alfred's hands, holding the handles of the professor's bags, hurt so very badly. He couldn't feel his toes or his nose and his ears hurt so badly from the cold that he wished he couldn't feel them.
The light grew brighter as Alfred moved closer to it. He very slowly became aware that he was in a village. It was a dim thought, dull and unimportant that lurked in the back of his mind. He kept his eyes fixed on the bright light and the closer he got to it, the more clearly he could see that it was a window in a large building. In the window, though the raging storm that had nearly become a white-out, he saw figures moving briskly around inside. People.
Alfred almost cried.
People. Light meant warmth. There would be a fire.
With a burst of energy that came from the thoughts of being warm and safe, Alfred tried as hard as he could to walk more quickly. The gusting wind pushed against him, as if it were alive and trying to keep him away from the building. Alfred gritted his teeth and pushed on.
By the time Alfred reached the front door, he felt like he was dying. He hurt and his head felt fuzzy and he was starting to lose feeling in his hands; he could hardly hold the bags. And somehow, though he was aware of what was happening to him, he didn't have quite enough energy to be alarmed by any of it. All he wanted was to get to the light and warmth.
He reached the door. It was a large door with a big iron handle and iron hinges. Alfred rapped on the door and called for help, but his voice was weak and the wind roared; he was sure no one inside would hear him. He tried, again, but still there was no answer. Finally, exhausted, Alfred just pushed against the door. The relief he felt when it swung open was unspeakable.
Alfred staggered a few feet into the building before his strength gave out entirely. He fell to his knees and lost his grip on the bags before he lost his grip on Professor Abronsius and he fell. The whole world went dark. He could hear voices, but they were muffled and strangely distant. He felt strong hands under his arms lift him. Something pressed against his lips just before a burning liquid ran down his throat and Alfred coughed. His eyes sprang open and he found himself staring at a middle-aged woman with dark hair and a concerned smile who held a bottle of vodka – obviously what she'd used to revive him.
The room was packed with people. They were all staring and Alfred self-consciously slouched down on the chair he was sitting on. He didn't like being the center of attention. He looked around at all the people and couldn't find any words. He was still freezing, but there was a blazing fire on the heath of the room's large fireplace and that helped. The dark-haired woman kindly put a blanket over Alfred's shoulder. Slowly, feeling began to creep back into his fingers, toes, ears, and his nose.
"You're safe, now." The woman told Alfred. "What's your name?"
"Alfred, ma'am. Please, there was a man with me. I thought I brought him in here."
A man with a large potbelly spoke up. "You did, but he didn't make it."
The woman put a hand on Alfred's shoulder. The sudden touch made Alfred flinch, but turned to look at her and tried to keep calm. "I'm Rebecca. Rebecca Chagal. How are you feeling?"
"Cold. Sick. Please, where is Professor Abronsius?"
Madam Chagal looked pityingly at Alfred and opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, the man said,
"He's dead. What do you think I meant? He was dead before you walked in the door, froze as stiff as an icicle. Look there," he pointed to the middle of the room where a table sat and, on top of it, a white covered body. "We laid him out neatly enough." The man smiled at Alfred, showing off yellowed, crooked teeth. "I am Mister Chagal, innkeeper of this fine establishment." He clasped his hands together in front of his chest in an ingratiating manner. "Will you be renting room tonight?"
Stunned, Alfred looked away from Mister Chagal to where Professor Abronsius, apparently, lay under a shroud. It probably wasn't Professor Abronsius. He was far too tough to die. It had to be some kind of wild mistake.
"Where are the bags?" Alfred asked. "I had two bags."
"Right here," Madam Chagal picked them up from where they'd been sitting on the floor next to Alfred's chair and handed them to him.
Grateful to have them, Alfred held both bags, hugging them to his chest. The familiar smell of the leather was a comfort. "Are… are you sure he's dead?"
"Very." Mister Chagal gave a decisive nod of his head. "He's been dead for a good long time. What were you two fools doing out in that storm?"
Alfred didn't even register the mild insult. He'd been called far worse. "We had to get off the train."
Madam Chagal let out a horrified gasp and put a hand to her mouth. "You came from the train tracks? That's a good half-mile away! Oh, you poor thing. You need to get out of those wet clothes and…"
"Now," Mister Chagal interrupted. "Let's deal with important matters, first. That man," He made a negligent gesture of one hand to where Professor Abronsius lay. "Was he important to you?"
"I was his servant. He was very important." So important that Alfred had no idea what he would do now that he no longer had his employer. He didn't even know how to get back to England… not that he really wanted to.
Mister Chagal, with a pleased smile, said, "That's very good. Now, you'll have to give me your money."
"Well," Mister Chagal said, thoughtfully. "You do want him to have a decent burial, don't you?"
"Yes, of course," Alfred answered.
"Of course you do, but that will take money. Do you have any?"
Madam Chagal shot her husband a shocked look and looked as if she might say something, but Alfred wasn't really paying attention. He still felt unfocused and shaky. He couldn't stop shivering, even with the fire and the blanket. Despite how poorly he felt, he did understand that Professor Abronsius needed a funeral and that would cost money. Besides, it wasn't as if it was Alfred's money, anyway.
"I don't, but Professor Abronsius had some." Alfred opened one of the bags and rifled through it until he found the pouch of coins. He started to open the bag to count out the money, but the bag was snatched out of his hand by Mister Chagal.
"This feels about right." Mister Chagal grinned down at Alfred. "If more is needed, may I assume that you're willing to work off the debt?"
Debt? Alfred blinked dumbly up at Mister Chagal, even as Madam Chagal turned red and snapped something at her husband in a language Alfred didn't understand. Mister Chagal waved off whatever she said to him, but kept looking at Alfred, expectedly.
Confused and not really knowing what else to do, Alfred nodded, slowly. "I… I suppose so. Does a funeral cost so much?" He'd thought Professor Abronsius had quite a bit of money in that bag.
"Don't worry about that." Mister Chagal tucked the small purse of money away in his shirt with a very satisfied smile. "I'll tell you if you have a debt to work off. You're a bit skinny, but I'll find work for you to do. Now, do you have any more money or is this all of it?"
Alfred really had no idea. He wasn't normally allowed to handle money. But he dug through the bag, again. "No," he said, when he was certain. "That was all. There isn't any more."
Mister Chagal's face fell. "Shame. Ah, well. A pity. That means you can't afford to rent a room from us tonight, unless you'll work off that debt, too."
At that, Madam Chagal let out a squawk. "You can't be serious!"
"Be silent, woman. He has no money to pay for a room." Again, Mister Chagal waved away her complaints. "I'm not heartless. If he doesn't want to work, he can sleep in the stables." Then he turned and went up stairs without a second glance at the body of Professor Abronsius laying on the table or Alfred looking completely lost.
Alfred looked up at Madam Chagal and said, "I can work…"
"Don't you listen to him!" Madam Chagal declared. "I won't hear of you sleeping outside on a night like this and this is no night for you to be working. I can't give you a room or he'll throw you out, but you will stay inside tonight. However," Madam Chagal put a motherly hand, red and chapped from a hard day's work, on his arm. "I think you might have a hard time sleeping out here with him," she gestured discretely to Professor Abronsius' body. She took Alfred to the kitchen where a huge fireplace with a dying fire gave light to the room. Madam Chagal added a few logs to the fire and stirred up the coals until the fire danced back to life. "You make yourself as comfortable as you can here." She brought him blankets and dry socks. "No one comes down here at night, so no one will bother you if you take off those wet clothes and let the fire dry them." She brought him a cup of water and bread with butter and said, "I know it's been a rough day for you, but you're alive and sleep will make the world seem brighter in the morning."
"Thank you, ma'am."
She left him and Alfred was alone in the kitchen. There were great ropes of garlic bulbs hanging in every corner of the room and draped over the doors and windows. For a long moment, Alfred stood there, feeling completely lost. His eyes burned with the need to cry, but he fought not to. He'd been taught long ago that crying never solved anything. Anyway, he was plenty big enough to deal with his problems… even if it did feel like his world had collapsed on his head.
Alfred stripped off his clothes right down to his long underwear and set them as close to the fire as he dared, then he sat on the brick hearth and wrapped the blankets Madam Chagal had given him around himself. He felt dreadful. The fire did warm him, but he still kept shaking.
Professor Abronsius was dead. He'd frozen to death while Alfred had been looking for him. Alfred knew he should have searched faster, should have done something different – though he didn't know what else he could have done. Perhaps Professor Abronsius had been dead when Alfred had found him laying in the snow, but he may have been alive. If Alfred had walked faster, if he'd run through the storm and gotten to the inn faster, then the professor might have been saved.
It was all Alfred's fault.
That sort of guilty thought kept running through Alfred's head and he was unable to sleep. Eventually, he got up and wrapped one of the blankets around himself because he didn't want anyone to see him in his underclothes. That done, he went into the inn's common room, leaving the kitchen door standing open behind him so as to give him enough light to see.
The room was empty. The customers had gone home and the family had gone to bed. The room was eerily silent and the fire in the kitchen gave a dim light to the common room and cast dreadful shadows everywhere. Determined to see for himself, though it would change nothing and would probably give him nightmares, Alfred went to the table where the villagers had laid out Professor Abronsius.
Wringing his hands in his agitation, Alfred stood by the table and looked down at the white shroud. He struggled to build up his courage. He drew in a deep breath before he pulled back the cloth and saw the ghastly pallor of Professor's Abronsius' still face. He felt a rising panic. A pulse. He should check for a pulse. Alfred shakily raised a hand and started to reach for the professor's throat.
"He's dead, if you're wondering."
Alfred turned at the unfamiliar voice and found a young man standing in the common room with him. The young man was, perhaps, a few years older than Alfred's nineteen years and was as elegant as any man could hope to be. He wore fine clothes and a grey cloak that was nearly long enough to touch the ground behind him. His hair was long and, strangely, it was completely white, all bound back at the nape of his neck with a long black ribbon.
The young man smiled at Alfred. He then wrinkled his nose and looked around at the garlic that hung everywhere in the room. "No wonder you look like you want to cry," he said. "This smell is horrifying."
"Good evening, sir." Alfred bowed his head a bit. He knew when he was in the presence of his betters.
The young man laughed, merrily. "'Sir'? Oh, I like that. Aren't you a darling little bird? You may call me Herbert."
To be continued…