'Pirates of the Caribbean' belongs to Disney.

xxx

Norrington pressed his face between the window bars, studying the scumbled sky. Trying to gauge from it's brightness how long it would be until sundown. His hands were tugging at the base of those bars, just to release tension- he'd long since determined they were too well-set to budge. It'd been hours since he'd awakened here, head throbbing, relieved of frock coat and waistcoat along with his crossbow. And with two gloating people regarding him through the door grate.

One had been a large hirsute male; quite probably the individual who'd clobbered him. The other was a youngish female, with blonde hair done in long curls and a disturbingly malevolent face. She'd mockingly repeated her "Somebody please help me!" decoy call, before informing him that, despite his showing up without an invitation, "the Master" would graciously grant him an audience this very evening.

As soon as they'd left, he'd set about examining the place. James quickly deduced he was imprisoned on the second floor of the old mansion, for he recognized the abandoned stable opposite his window. He knew he was too far from the road for any shouting to be heard, though he'd made a few attempts anyway.

More time was spent seeking an egress from this room, which had clearly not originally been built as a holding cell, It had a multi-wood parquet floor (badly scruffed and scratched), and a few shreds of expensive silk-screened paper clinging to the walls. Unfortunately, whoever had done the conversion really knew their job. He'd even tested the grating in the heavy door, though removing it wouldn't have helped him anyway; that opening was too small for him to squeeze through.

It was obviously dusk- might even be past sunset- when he heard a clatter of wheels and hooves coming up the drive. James strained to see, hoping against hope that Jack and Mare had sent a rescue party.

A plain one-horse wagon drove into view, bearing three people. To his great disconcertment, two of them were wearing that wasp-colored Vartenberka livery. As the wagon halted beside the stable, he recognized the Countess' footman. The other liveried man was tall and lean, with a very surly expression. The third figure was a woman, of ordinary build and features, with ragged dark hair. As the footman tied the scrawny brown horse to a hitching post, he sent one gloating smirk towards James' window. Then the trio hastened into the house.

Norrington did some calculating. Assuming Kazimir was inside, there were now at least six enemies inside this building. The pair who'd entrapped him earlier couldn't be vampires, nor could the Countess' footman. The other two newcomers probably weren't either. If that wagon had come any distance, they must have been on the road when the sun was still up.

So he might be dealing mostly with unaltered humans- minions recruited to carry out daylight tasks, who would lack any extraordinary powers. Still, being badly outnumbered, he must be prepared to do his utmost. Evening was falling fast, his 'audience' with Vrana would soon take place.

The outside was dark enough for the owls to start calling, when several sets of footsteps approaching his prison. James turned to face the door, both hands closing into fists.

The ragged-hair woman appeared on the other side of the grating, pointed a pistol through. "On the floor. Other side of the room," she ordered. Seeing no choice, Norrington obeyed.

The thick door opened, two people entered; the tall sullen guy who'd recently arrived, and the bearish brute James had seen earlier. Everyone was now wearing rough-spun dark cloaks. The two men closed on James, chained his hands behind back, pulled him to his feet and hustled him out. Their grips, though not inhumanly strong, were certainly formidable. As Norrington was pulled down the decrepit hallway, the pistol-welding woman fell into step behind him.

The prisoner was led down two deteriorated stone staircases and along a damp subterranean corridor, towards a large open doorway smelling of mold, smoke, and a hard-to-identify metallic odor. As the entrance loomed he grabbed impressions of the room beyond: large, sunken, floored with gray stone. The walls were covered with what looked like old tapestries, woven in such dark shades it was hard to discern their images. What could be made out was rather disturbing.

James was brought him to a stop just inside the doorway. Now he could see two freestanding iron cages on either side of the chamber. To his horror, the left one contained Meredith; an unconscious sprawl of disarrayed hair and skirts, one sleeve torn, with bruises on her arm and the side of her jaw. In the other cage sat Jack, arms folded over his knees, looking tense and miserable. Two more cloaked minions stood guard beside the cages, bearing ornamented spears. Mare's guard was the angry blonde girl, Jack's the hatchet-faced footman.

Sparrow shot James a brief apologetic glance. He might have voiced regret over his failure to keep Mare safe, but Hatchet Face had threatened painful consequences if he spoke without permission.

The chamber was lit by a half-dozen pedestal braziers filled with glowing coals, and perhaps some strange-scented incense. At the room's center was a pentagon-shaped dais, about six feet in diameter, luxuriantly upholstered with new-looking gold brocade. Norrington didn't want to consider what purpose it might be intended to serve.

The ragged brunette brushed past James and descended the five remaining steps into the chamber, to the free-hanging tapestries behind the dais. With a worshipful expression, she grasped the heavy fabric edge and pulled it back like a curtain, revealing a high-backed carved chair cushioned with purple velvet- practically a throne. On it reclined a pale man who could only be Kazimir Vrana. Even after being forewarned about the resemblance, Norrington felt a start of recognition.

Vrana returned the scrutiny. He was apparently quite at ease, poising like a magazine fashion ad in tight ivory satin breeches, his matching shirt open to the waist. The close-fitting black boots were as alarmingly familiar as the face. The unruly frame of hair was nearly as white as those old Naval wigs, the legs just a bit longer, but other than that...

The vampire bestowed a benign, cruel smile, beckoned with that too-well-remembered finger curl. James was tugged down the five steps, to stand across the dais from his 'host.'

"Lord Norrington, I presume?" The aristocratic voice also matched.

"I am." James, fixing a hard stare on Vrana, employed his most authoritative tone. "What is the meaning of this?"

"I believe you've already deduced that. I am in the preliminary phase of establishing a network of loyal Coven members in this city. We've assembled here tonight for the purpose of inducting a new member. You, and your colleagues, are here for the same reason." Vrana related this with a skewering stare of his own.

"Whatever you're up to, you'd be well advised to take it someplace else. The authorities have been notified- this stronghold will soon be invaded. The police won't have to believe in vampires to realize what you're doing here is highly illegal. Kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, assault..."

Jack gave his cousin credit for presenting a near-perfect bluff. It was most regrettable he was facing an opponent with uncommon resistance to such ploys.

Vrana cut James off. "Ah, but I don't think you've informed anyone, Mr. Norrington. I believe you invaded my property with the intent of discovering something to report. Though you've succeeded at the first task, you've had no opportunity to accomplish the second. And as you can see..." Vrana waved a languid hand at both cages, "... I possess the means to assure you never do. The welfare of the hostage shall depend upon your silence."

James caught the implication. "'Hostage'? That's singular."

"Correct. For reasons you're unlikely to comprehend, I initiate only one new Coven member at a time. Therefore, just one of the prisoners shall be joining us tonight. The other shall be returned to your keeping."

Norrington forced himself to ask, "Which one?"

Kazimir smiled, evil and triumphant. "That, my dear Norrington, is for you to choose."

Though James controlled nine-tenths of his reaction, his dismay was obvious. Just to twist the knife, Vrana added, "After which I will require a single service from you, before you can leave. You must act as a witness to the induction ceremony of our new member." He regarded the padded dais expectantly, fingers twitching like a spider testing it's lines. "I shall certainly enjoy it, whichever way you decide. You'll be allowed a few minutes to make up your mind."

Norrington's face and form had gone rigid as glacial ice. Jack averted his eyes, enraged at seeing his friend subjected to such vile treatment.

Sparrow's frustrated gaze fell on his own left shoe. Secreted inside the heel was one of those oh-so-useful universal keys- standard equipment for all Operatives. Five unobserved seconds were all he'd need to extract and use it on his cage lock. But it would be worse than useless to try while Hatchet Face was still watching him. He must master himself- wait for the opportune moment. And when it came...

The pirate had long since observed the darkened old coat-of-arms plaque, hanging on the wall behind Vrana's throne. There was a pair of short (but apparently functional) crossed swords behind it. It was a myth that vampires could only die from wooden piercings; metal could also do the job. Jack briefly wondered if that plaque was here due to carelessness or another bit of uncharacteristic sportsmanship on Kazimir Beckett's part. Either way, Sparrow intended to make him regret it.

On the other side of the room, Mare moaned and stirred, earning a baleful glare from her guard. Jack knew that blonde minion was responsible for the completely extraneous infliction of Mare's bruises. Being an aficionado of Greek Mythology, he'd deduced the source of that animosity: Goldilocks was jealous of the Master's interest in the new gal. Not good at all.

Vrana spoke again. "You can believe what I say, James. You've done well to track me this far, so I'm offering a consolation prize; restoration of one of the captives. The other I'll keep beside me, to assure your future good conduct. And my own pleasure. But you needn't feel any anxiety over that individual's fate. Ours is an existence with considerable redeeming aspects. It won't be long before my new Coven member shall scarcely believe they ever wanted to follow any other path."

James' arm muscles clenched so hard they trembled. "How do I know you'll honor your half of the accord?"

"I could make the same inquiry of you. Though I don't think I need to. As I'm a man of my word, I can recognize that quality in others. You might rant in protest, but you will keep your promise to me." Kazimir's red-rimmed gaze roamed appreciatively over Jack, then Mare. "Both of your associates are such exquisite specimens, I'm finding it difficult to decide which I'd prefer to grace my alter tonight. Thus, I am leaving it up to you."

"I'm not convinced you have any intention of freeing either!" Norrington barked.

Kazimir frowned dangerously. "But you may be entirely sure of this: I shall retain them both, if you fail to decide. Your interval is almost up- you'd be well advised to make an answer!"

For long seconds the only audible sound was the settling of burning coals. Unless that was the grinding of Sparrow's teeth. Jack was nine-tenths sure this 'choice' was a heartless ruse- that Kazimir intended to kill or 'initiate' them all. The maggoty bastard was toying with James in the cruelest possible way.

But there was that one-tenth possibility Vrana was sincere. He might or might not be Cutler Beckett; he was undeniably a vampire. It could be those bloodsuckers were prone to keeping their word, and if that was the case...

Sparrow shifted restlessly. Self-sacrifice did not come naturally to him, but he was confronting an inexorable inequality: his own already extensive life span, versus the barely-started one of Mare and James' child. The navyman had a right to know what he was bargaining for.

Jack cleared his throat, ignoring Hatchet Face's warning spear thump. "Mr. Norrington, theer is one thing you need ta be told since it might possibly have bearing on yer decision. Meredith is pregnant."

James couldn't hide his response to that- shock, sharpened concern, fierce rebuke. Jack understood the latter- he'd taken a big risk. They were all very much in Kazimir's power, and there was no predicting how he'd react to this revelation.

Sparrow sneaked a look. The vampire was gaping into Mare's cage with... was that revulsion?

Jack's own lips curled slyly. His little gamble just may have paid off.

The pirate rose to his feet, addressing Vrana directly. "Aye- the wench has a bun in the oven. Within months she'll be swollen as an overstuffed kielbasa, cranky as a constipated puff adder- nowhere near so appealing then, eh? I, in contrast, shall retain my current comely shape." Jack performed a provocative full-body sway, running a sensuous hand from shoulder to waist, and began unfastening his frock coat. "Might be I've got too much cover ta do it justice, but that can be remedied."

James kept stock still. He'd caught that code word 'cover': don't interfere, play along.

Kazimir regarded Jack with suspicion, but also growing interest- a combination mirrored by his followers.

In the other cage, Mare tossed as if gripped by a nightmare, one arm sliding behind her back.

Sparrow peeled back his coat, let it slide to floor. He made a show of reached behind his neck to loose his queue, shaking his freed locks to their fullest length. He'd seen enough burlesque shows- including a Gypsy Rose Lee performance in 1934 New York- to know what moves to use. Flashing an inviting glance at Vrana, he proceeded to unfastened his shirt buttons, one by one, then teased the sleeves from his shoulders before yanking it off entirely. He saucily whipping the garment in a circle, concealing a fast glance at Mare. She was on her side, her back to the room, a subtle shoulder shake indicating her hands were in motion. Jack could only hope Norrington had noticed, too.

James had, so was steadily keeping his attention elsewhere. / A rather obvious diversionary tactic, Sparrow. But it only has to work for another minute. / He positioned his feet, readying himself to move when the moment came.

Nearly every other stare in the room was fixed on the pirate's lissome movements. The blonde was ogling him hungrily, running a very pink tongue-tip along the edge of her teeth.

Jack gracefully bend one leg, slid off his shoe, spun it once on a fingertip before letting it fall. He made a sinuous half turn, curled the other leg, bared his other foot. Always with that come-hither smile, winking through a swaying curtain of dredlocks. Vrana leaned ever closer- a predator scenting a rare feast.

Sparrow ran sinuous hands over his revealed chest and sides, plucked teasingly at his waistband, hips swaying like a Lebanese dancer... but he noticed Kazimir was focused on a higher point. With a flash of insight, Jack realized what move the vampire would find most alluring. Jack lowered his face, curled his right arm over his head, trailed sensuous fingertips over cheekbone and jaw. Slowly gathering his hair to tuck behind his left ear. Suddenly he threw his head back and arched his neck, displaying the full, tender length of his naked throat.

The minions gasped. Vrana emitted a concupiscent snarl as he stood, fangs bared, eyes red and maddened. "I've made my choice..."

A whoosh of projectile splitting air- Kazimir's tearing screech rent the chamber. He pitched onto the dais, hot liquid spouting from his back as he thrashed, howling, staining the gold fabric to crimson.

Meredith, crouched in her cage, was glaring down the length of her just-fired crossbow. Jack had a brief absurd thought about scorned women.

Vrana's underlings yelled in dismay. They all swarmed, unthinking, to their stricken leader, except the dumbfounded lean guard. James abruptly ducked from his loosened grip, turned a somersault across the floor, came up with his hands before him. He swung manacled wrists against Bean Pole's jaw, knocking him aside.

Jack snatched up his shoe, grabbed out the key, pounced on his cage door. Freed, he sprang to the back wall, yanked down that dingy coat of arms, smashed it to release the swords. He threw one in James' direction- then the hairy brute was upon him, lunging to seize. Jack slashed ferociously to keep him back.

Norrington had scooped up the tossed weapon, was fighting both Bean Pole and Hatchet Face. Even chained, the ex-Commodore was lethal with a sword.

The ragged-haired woman cradled Kazimir's head, wailing "The Master! The Master!" Beside her, Goldilocks whipped a murderous glare at Mare. Snatching her spear to shoulder level, she charged the cage.

Next instant the place rang with a shrill feminine scream- not Mare's- ending in a loud thud of a body hitting the floor. Jack and James knew what confusion of ideas had just taken place: Goldilocks had thought Mare was out of bolts, and Mare thought she wasn't.

Seconds later she fired again- Jack's ursine opponent roared with pain, clutching at a bolt in his shoulder. Jack finished him with a stab through the heart- that injury was fatal to human and vampire alike.

Mare was doing fine where she was, so Sparrow focused on freeing James. The agile pirate ducked and dodged among the combatants, until, seeing his moment, he slammed the key to manacles. Norrington, suddenly two-handed, swung his sword back and rammed it through Bean Pole's chest. The man emitted no cry, just looked astonished as he toppled. As James took a second to wrench his blade free, Hatchet Face fiercely lunged at him with the spear- Norrington barely dodged in time. Hatchet Face wasn't as quick; Jack's weapon descended on the back of the neck, virtually decapitating him.

The ragged brunette suddenly fled the dais, launching herself wildly at James. He whirled to meet her, sword braced before him- she impaled herself through the ribs. The wench staggered back, keening in agony more mental than physical. The back stab Jack delivered was a mercy; she looked almost grateful as she fell, swords protruding fore and aft. Only the Operatives were left standing.

Norrington, iron-eyed, lifted Hatchet Face's dropped spear from the floor and turned to the one enemy who still moved. Kazimir, convulsing on the gore-splashed dais, stared back in helpless, red-hot fury. James closed in like a cruising shark- unhurried, inexorable, merciless.

Untargeted though he was, Jack shuddered at the sight. / Theer's consequences ta be had fer threatenin' dire harm to the people a man loves most. Most especially when it's a man of Norrington's steel. /

James had reached the dais. Gripping the spear with both hands, he raised it high overhead and brought it down, hard and fast. Vrana bellowed like a mortally wounded beast. James didn't respond; just tore the weapon free to stab again, and again. The animal shrieks gave way to wet gurgling; the pierced body moved only from the force of the penetrating blows; the rage-filled eyes glared at nothing.

There was no telling how many more times Norrington would have struck, if a familiar hand hadn't caught his elbow, a beloved voice breached his frenzy.

"James! It's over- Vrana is dead. We're safe now."

The navyman gasped, letting go of the crimson shaft, and spun to clutch his Meredith to him. She returned the embrace with equal fervor.

Sparrow, swiping perspiration and blood from his brow, noticed the single shoe in the left cage- the one from which Mare had removed her own key to free herself. A metallic clink told him she'd just used it to unlock James' remaining manacle. Sparrow bent to tug both swords out of the brunette's body, before approaching the entangled couple. Mare was nodding in answer to her husband's whispered question- no doubt confirming her 'delicate condition.'

"Sorry I jumped the gun tellin' him, lass."

"You're forgiven," Mare breathed.

Jack suddenly found himself captured by a strong arm and pulled close. James hugged them both against himself, bowing his own head in ardent thanksgiving. Sparrow arched a brow, but didn't protest. / I'd guess yer relieved you didn't haveta make that horrendous decision. That would've weighed hard on yer conscience either way, wouldn't it? /

Uncounted seconds passed before the arms slacked and the three eased apart. For another long moment they gazed around the gory chamber with it's scattered bodies. There no trace of comeliness left to Kazimir; just staring hate-filled eyes and distorted blood-filled mouth.

Sparrow looked to the coal braziers. "These corpses are dangerous even dead. 'Twould be advisable ta burn this place down."

James nodded. "Then it's lucky this building is well removed from any others. You two wait here while I scout a route out."

Jack offered the Commodore his sword back. Norrington took it before heading out the door.

A sticky tug of blood under his bare sole reminded Jack of his underdressed state. He stepped to his former cage to retrieve his shed garments. Mare likewise fetched her missing shoe, solemnly regarding the slain enemies as she buttoned it up. Sparrow noted the way her eye lingered on Goldilocks and the bear.

"I suppose I'll always wonder how many of these were actually evil people, and which were just deluded fools."

"Might not be an important distinction, lass. If they weren't truly bad, they were well on their way ta becoming so. Lord Beckett had that effect on his subordinates." Jack was replacing his shirt, the red spatters on his torso promptly soaked through. "I know of only one bloke who undid the influence, an' he paid a similar price." Sparrow pointedly eyed Bean Pole's fatal chest wound.

"And the poor Countess. She'll be heartbroken either way- whether she thinks Count Vrana deserted her without a word, or confirms he lied to her with every breath."

Sparrow sat on the steps to replace his own shoes. "Even at that, she's better off now. If his past behavior's anything to go by, the egregious bastard would've killed her, or worse, the moment she ceased ta be a source of fundage. 'It's just good business.'"

Mare was eyeing the repulsive corpse sprawled on the dais- finally, an honest representation of the personality within. "If this really is the Cutler Beckett you and James knew, I wonder how he ended up in this time and situation?"

"Via a long contorted route, I shouldn't wonder." Fully shod, Jack got to his feet and joined her, adding his glower to hers. "Seems unlikely we'll ever learn the details. Not that I particularly want to. 'Tis far more important that we make sure it ends here."

"We are in accord, Mr. Sparrow."

There was a rush of approaching steps. Mare and Jack raised their weapons- but it was only James bounding back in.

"There doesn't appear to be anyone else in the building- I'd guess the entire Coven was attending the ceremony. And I've established the shortest route out: one flight up, right turn, then left. There's a horse and wagon tied beside the back stable."

"Then let's finish what we started," Mare pronounced.

Using the spears for leverage, they soon toppled the braziers to set the dismal tapestries ablaze. Flames quickly spread over the walls- orange reflections danced in pools of blood, and Vrana's baleful eyes. With a grimace of distaste, Mare tossed her crossbow back into the inferno as the three vacated the chamber.

Following James' route, they hastened upstairs and out of the mansion. It was wonderful to breath open air again. They wasted no time piling into the wagon; James took the reins and urged the scruffy horse down the driveway.

About halfway to the road, he pulled them to a halt. The three Operatives looked back- the mansion's lower windows were already glowing like furnaces. When the blaze reached the upper floors the neighbors would surely notice and call the fire brigade, but by then the basement would be destroyed.

Norrington reached to the side, hugging Mare against himself. As though he couldn't get enough reassurance that she, and their unborn child, were safe.

The horse whinnied, disturbed by the smell of smoke. In the back, Jack also fidgeted. "I vote fer returnin' to our hotel w' all due speed. We could all use a bath an' a full night's sleep."

James looked everyone over- himself as gore-spattered as an abattoir worker, Mare's gray dress besmirched from his embrace, Jack noticeably splotched. "First, we'd better find someplace to wash off. We certainly can't be seen like this!"

"Perhaps we could accidentally fall into the river?" Sparrow suggested. Mare pulled a face.

"That would be an advisable place to dispose of the swords. But I can think of a somewhat more sanitary alternative for ourselves." Norrington clicked to the brown horse. The animal willingly trotted down to the road, turning in the direction of City Center.

As the wagon clattered off, a bearded man stepped from behind one of the big lawn trees. He proceeded to follow the same route on foot, pausing under the street lamps to jot notes.

xxx

They couldn't risk being found with the wagon, which probably belonged to one of the slain minions. So they left the horse tethered to a public watering trough, in an alley not far from a certain Prague landmark.

Some while later, the three trudged into their hotel's opulent lobby- the men abashed, Mare beet-faced with rage, all three soaked to the skin. In answer to the night clerk's predictable inquiry, Meredith related that her donkey-brained husband and cousin-in-law had made a semi-inebriated wager, over whether they could circumnavigate the rim of the Triton Fountain without falling in. After they'd both lost the bet, she'd made the mistake of attempting to help them out, and the clumsy oafs had overbalanced and pulled her in too. She might overlook the damage to her dress, but it would be a long time before she forgave the facial bruise!

The clerk had been in the hotel business long enough to've heard similar tales, so simply offered to send their clothes out for laundering and repair. James paid for that service upfront, and for another night's stay, mentioning they'd probably be sleeping too late to take any breakfast.

Indeed, none of the Operatives rose until noon. After lunch they finally did go on a walking tour of Prague, visiting the sights at all five pentagon corners. The Charles Bridge- "the queen mother of foot bridges" Jack called it, lined with statues and commanding a panoramic view of the Vitava River. The Justicní Palác- not staggering as palaces went, but adjacent to the hilly green walkways of Petrin Park. Charles Square- showcase to the impressively spired Town Hall. Wenceslas Square (actually a long rectangle)- lined with impressive antique buildings, with the eponymous King charging forth on his equestrian statue. And the Old Jewish Cemetery- somber in a good way, now that it no longer concealed any threats. It felt cleansing to see all these places daylit and unsullied.

They had a fine celebrational dinner at a restaurant that stocked decent rum and exemplary sausages, walking back to their hotel well after dark. The nighttime streets no longer held any terrors for them.

But one afternoon was all they dared. Even innocuous activities like sightseeing carried some risk of accidentally changing historical events- the longer they stayed, the higher the likelihood.

So after breakfast next morning, Meredith visited the front desk to make arrangements for a coach out of the city (activating the timenet required an unpopulated spot.) As she turned from the counter, Mare glimpsed a recognizable face across the lobby; that same rust-bearded newspaper-reading tourist Jack had noticed at their first hotel. Come to think of it, that wasn't the only place she'd seen the guy. Mare pressed her lips, deciding this was something she needed to look into.

Gathering her verdant skirt, Mare strode directly up to the man's armchair. "Pardon me, sir, but I believe we're past due for an introduction."

The fellow looked up from his paper, mildly puzzled. "How so, Madame?"

"Over the past three days you've shown up in our vicinity several times. I don't think it's unreasonable for me to wonder about your motive for following us."

She was prepared for a barrage of denials, but the man just set his paper aside, bestowing his full attention over folded hands.

"I assure you, I intended no harm. I am a habitual observer of the unusual, so took interest when I first noticed you conversing with your workman associate. A well-bred woman and a day-laborer speaking as equals is hardly commonplace. An entirely unoffended husband joining their discussion is even less so. My hearing is exemplary, and I was most curious to know what you were talking about- I confess to listening in. What I overheard exceeded my most farfetched expectations. I have, indeed, been positioning myself in your vicinities ever since, to observe how your drama would unfold. But you need not be concerned about public exposure, Madame. I'm quite capable of keeping secrets."

To her surprise, Mare sensed the man was speaking with complete frankness. She regarded him even more closely. "Might I know who you are, sir?"

"A part-time writer, which is why I'm in Prague. I'm presently researching the folklore traditions of Eastern Europe. But my primary occupation is business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London."

This revelation rang a distant bell... a reassuring one. "I see. Are you planning to write about the events you've just witnessed?"

"I'm inclined to. Though it will be a significantly altered account, and presented as fiction. No one would be likely to credit it as anything else." The man regarded Meredith with admiration. "I'll certainly include a character based upon yourself. Women with your mettle are a rarity."

Mare was unsure how to answer that. The man filled the interval by extracting a business card from an inner pocket, and handing it to her. "Consider this a token of my regard. I don't offer these to just anyone."

She took the card, giving it a good hard look. Then she meet his eyes with equal candor. "I think you should pursue this writing endeavor- you'll probably do well with it. Just call it a feeling." Mare tucked the card into her reticule. "I wish you the best of luck, sir. Good day!"

"To you as well, Madame." The man watched as Meredith crossed the lobby and disappeared up the staircase. "A remarkable woman."

xxx

"Theer's no mistakin' a newly expectant couple," muttered Jack, as the three made their way from the check-out desk. There was special solicitousness in James' manner, and a new blitheness in Mare's- not all of it due to her release from those bothersome costume supports. As they exited, Mare paused to give a friendly wave to a bearded fellow reading in a lobby chair. He bestowed a polite nod in return.

James frowned. "That looks very much like the man I was following near the cemetery."

Sparrow stole a glance. "Also bears resemblance to the bounder stayin' at out first hotel!"

"You're both correct, but it's all right- he's meant to know," Mare soothed. At their incredulous looks, she added, "I'll explain when we're in the cab."

She made them wait a little longer, not wanting to lose her last chance to view the City Center. Not until they'd trundled across the Vltava did she extract the business card from her reticule and hand it to the curious males. They ogled it simultaneously.

"Good lord!"

Jack slapped his knee. "Ha! So we've helped inspire yet another world-famous novel! Gratifying, hain't it?"

James shook his head. "It's certainly fortunate he has... that is, that he's going to present his work as fiction."

"He could hardly do otherwise- the public'd find anythin' else'd too disturbin'. Who'd want ta believe theer really are such nasty beasties lurkin' about?" asserted Sparrow.

"That's one aspect of this era I'm glad to leave behind. That and bustles," Mare added, with the vaguest shudder.

James placed an arm about her shoulders with special tenderness. "We'll be home soon, cinnabar. By the way; I really think you should consider going on lo-haz duty for a while." His other hand lightly patted her abdomen.

"No need to use heavy persuasion, James. I think the excitement from this Mission is going to last me a while." Mare's left hand settled atop his. "We've got double responsibility now, to a dog and a child!"

"I think we can manage it. Considering what we just accomplished..."

"Aye!" Jack turned to look out the carriage's rear window, smiling wistfully as the city's many spires receded into the distance. "Prague's been called the City of a Hundred Points. Could be said, we've successfully prevented it from acquiring a few too many."

xxx

Back at the hotel, the bearded man quietly folded his paper and returned to his room. Seating himself at the desk, he arranged his notebook, and several scribbled paper scraps, across the surface. He then removed a sheath of blank sheets from the drawer, dipped his pen and wrote across the first page:

DRACULA

by Bram Stoker

xxx

THE END