Guest of Honor

Guest of Honor1

The richly carved and decorated door opened slowly. Standing inside the warm, glowing foyer, the butler nodded courteously and welcomed in the man who had been standing on the grand portico outside.

“Monsieur Galante,” said the butler with a hint of a French accent. “Welcome. So good to see you again. The master will be most pleased that you are here. Allow me to take your coat and I will announce you.”

With a flourish, he assisted Henri Galante in removing his long top coat and whisked it away along with Henri’s hat. Henri stood in the foyer and rubbed his hands together to warm them. It was a particularly chilly night for New Orleans and Henri was glad to be inside. He looked up and the large clock in the parlor said 7:03.

********

His investigation had not been going as smoothly as he had hoped. When he stood in the office of Martin Oglethorpe nearly a month ago, reading the telegram from Marie concerning the recent attacks here in New Orleans, he assumed that he would have located the vampire and dispatched of him within a week. By now, he had expected to be back in St. Louis, enjoying a cup of tea by his fireplace. Instead, he was having dinner with one of the most prominent businessmen in Louisiana, Mssr. Frederick Rousseau.

This vampire had proven, thus far, to be quite clever and resourceful. He had also proven to be extremely deadly. The day he arrived in New Orleans, he headed straight to Marie’s room on Royal Street. He found her body there, drained of blood. Henri could not be sure if the vampire knew of his arrival, but he had to assume so. He had learned early on in his hunting training that one cannot be overly cautious with the wretched sanguineous beasts.

With Marie gone, his investigation went slowly. She’d left no notes or clues as to what she’d found. He had only her telegram that she’d sent to Oglethorpe, informing him that she had located a Master and his Doulos. She’d indicated that she thought he may be a member of New Orleans high society but she did not say why. She had given no word as to his identity and it was likely that she was not sure.

Henri, having located and destroyed numerous Vampirae, set about his work, questioning first everyone he could find that had recently been in contact with Marie. This proved to be a tedious task, but yielded results when he was able to locate a vagrant by the name of Jean. Marie had hired him to follow a woman named Claudette Worthington, daughter of the wealthy spice trader, Jonathan Worthington. The Worthington’s lived in London, but Claudette had spent the past year and a half residing in The Big Easy, using her father’s name and wealth to ingratiate herself with New Orleans socialites. She was on the guest list of all the parties and soirees and apparently had a bit of a reputation for being free with the men.

Jean was reluctant to reveal any information to Henri, but after a few pints of solid stout, a belly full of warm food and some coin in his pocket, he disclosed that Ms. Worthington had been spending a great deal of time with Victor Rousseau, son of Frederick Rousseau. It seems the two of them spent many late nights together and the junior Rousseau was rarely seen during the daytime. This was enough for Henri to move his investigation along.

Vampires, he knew, while able to tolerate direct sunlight, preferred the night-time, as their condition made bright light painful to their eyes, which are so well adapted to seeing in the darkness. A vampire could, if necessary, conduct his business during the daytime, but most were active at night and this was usually a telltale sign of their true nature. Henri’s instincts, which had been built upon years of dangerous hunting, told him he was getting closer to his quarry.

For the next several nights, he tailed both Mlle Worthington and Mssr Rousseau as they dined out, drank and on one occasion, danced to the exotic music that was so prevalent and popular in this particular region of Dixie. Henri could understand why Mlle Worthington enjoyed New Orleans. The rich, diversified culture, the spicy foods and tolerance for behavior that would clearly be frowned upon in London must have been intoxicating for a young woman who had clearly been raised in proper English tradition.

Each night he followed them and each night they eventually retreated to the Rousseau Manor, not to be seen again during the primary daylight hours. Despite their nocturnal habits, he saw no evidence of vampiric feeding. He witnessed no attacks, there were no bodies found in alleyways or floating in the waters of the river and no reports of anyone missing. In fact, since his arrival, he’d seen nothing to suggest that a vampire was dwelling in the city at all. If not for Marie’s own death, he might have thought she was mistaken.

The lack of evidence puzzled him. He’d known Marie for many years and together they had sent numerous vampires to their grisly demise, so he knew that she would not send a telegram reporting vampiric activity unless she was certain. Yet, everywhere Henri turned, he came up empty-handed. He concluded that he must be missing something; something so obvious as to seem insignificant.

His first real clue presented itself nearly three weeks into his visit. He had returned to the alley where he’d first found Jean. Henri wanted to question him again, to see if there was anything he’d missed or if Jean remembered anything significant.

Jean was nowhere to be found. Henri asked the other vagrants he encountered on the streets as to the whereabouts of Jean, but none would speak to him. They regarded him with suspicion and fear and the more he plied them with questions about Jean’s disappearance, the more they tried to flee. Henri was about to give up when he heard a voice behind him. He was near the river and he turned to see a scruffy looking dark-skinned man in his mid 50’s standing near the river wall.

“Best not to be askin’ questions about the missin’,” the man said in a heavy Creole accent. “Be sho’ to wind up missin’ yo’self.”

“I’ll take my chances,” replied Henri. “Do you know anything? Can you tell me where to find Jean?”

“Jean be with the others now,” replied the man slowly. “He shon’t be helpin’ dat woman. He shon’t be helpin’ YOU!”

“Please, if you know where he is, I can pay you,” pleaded Henri. This was his first lead on the location of Jean since his search started.

The grubby vagrant laughed. “Ain’t no coin gon’ help me if dey come for me in da night,” he said cryptically. “Ain’t no coin gon’ help you neither.”

“Who are ‘they’?” Henri asked desperately. “Please, other lives could be at stake.”

“Dey come in da night,” said the man. “Dey take all us who is invisible. Ain’t no one gon’ notice if’n we’s go missin’. You gots a choice. You can leave if’n you wants to. I’d leave if’n I could.”

With that, the man turned and disappeared into the shadows. Henri stood staring at the place where the man had been, clouds of vapor blooming up from Henri’s mouth. It was a cold January, but his coat was thick and warm. Certainly it was much warmer than the clothing he’d seen on most of the folks he’d met in the alleys.

Henri understood now. He knew why he’d not seen any bodies or read of missing persons in the newspaper. The vampire was feeding on those who lived in the streets. The “invisible” as the man had said. No one ever notices the poor and homeless, Henri thought. They are perfect meals.

He wondered if Jean had fallen victim. If so, was it a random feeding or had the vampire selected him because he’d been assisting Marie and Henri? Again, Henri’s instincts told him the latter was most likely the case.

He decided his best course of action would be to try to catch the monster in the act of abducting one of these poor lost souls. Life had turned a cruel cheek to them and they deserved a fate better than a painful death at the hands of a fiend. Henri returned to his room and made preparations for his hunt the next night.

He slept most of the day and awoke as the sun was setting on the horizon. The clock in his room showed the time was 5:14 p.m. He was certain the vampire would not strike before midnight. With everything ready, he chose to pass the remaining hours with dinner in his room. He made another entry into his journal and wrote a letter to Oglethorpe to give him an update on his progress. By the time Oglethorpe received the post, Henri hoped to be heading home. He knew he was close to ending the hunt.

As the clock struck 10, Henri grabbed his bag, which contained his tools of the trade: a cross, several wooden stakes, a mallet, rope, a torch, a book of matches, and a bible. Despite his accoutrements, he was not a religious man. It wasn’t that he had no faith, the very existence of vampires saw to that, but he never felt compelled to attend church or practice the rituals of any religion. The cross and bible were implements, nothing more. He’d enough faith for them to work, but he was certainly not a holy man.

Dressed in black, he made his way through the streets, trying to avoid the light of the lamps. He wanted to become as invisible as those who had been hunted by the beast. In the past few weeks, he’d come to know the French Quarter well. His keen mind memorized the layout of the streets, the buildings and other structures and he’d taken note of where the less fortunate tended to dwell. It was to those places he now found his way. Something told him tonight destiny would be in his favor. If Jean had been the last victim, then surely the vampire would need to feed again soon.

Bracing against the frigid night air, he pulled his dark coat together tightly as he staked out his spot. He’d chosen a location near the river, by warehouses that held so much of the merchandise that flooded this city. New Orleans was a rich port destination with a bustling river trade and during the day, the warehouses were a flurry of activity. Longshoremen loaded and unloaded the boats, carted around the crates and boxes and stacks of cotton and moved all manner of things around the docks. Now, as the quarter moon shone down, the area appeared all but deserted, but Henri knew it was not. Upon closer inspection, there was still life here. The downtrodden huddled around small fires, keeping warm and many times sharing food that had been scavenged from the taverns and inns only blocks away.

An hour passed and Henri saw and heard nothing. Another hour passed in the same manner, and then a third. Shortly after 1 a.m. however, there was a scream. Henri recognized it as female. The sound came from his right, perhaps only a few hundred yards from his position. Grabbing his bag he leaped to his feet and hurried towards the origin of the scream. The light of the moon was barely enough to navigate. Even adjusting for the dark, Henri was able to see little and he knew his adversary would have a distinct advantage in this area. He hoped the element of surprise might even the odds.

Henri turned a corner and there, standing against a wall, stood two figures. One was in tattered clothing, a dingy dress and ripped coat. The other, a dark, tall cloaked figure had his victim in his arms and his head was buried in her throat. Henri knew he only had moments to act. Reaching into his bag, he grabbed a stake. Grasping it firmly in his right hand, bag in his left, he ran silently towards the two figures, intent on driving the stake deep into the chest of his prey.

Just as he approached, the vampire must have sensed another’s presence and lifted his bloody visage from the neck of his victim just as Henri’s arm swung around in a broad arc, stake in hand. The vampire turned and blocked Henri’s arm, preventing his impalement. With his other arm, the vampire grabbed the woman and flung her towards Henri. She collided with the vampire hunter and the force of her impact knocked them both to the ground. The stake in Henri’s hand went flying and his bag fell to the ground next to him, spilling its contents.

The woman, not dead, but not conscious either, was nothing but dead weight on top of Henri. He struggled to push her off but before he could, the vampire descended. The darkness prevented Henri from seeing his attacker clearly, but he did spot the red, glowing eyes that vampires display when they feed. Those piercing red eyes are unmistakable. Usually if one sees those eyes, it is the last thing witnessed before death.

As the vampire got close to Henri’s face, Henri could smell the scent of iron from the blood, mixed with the putrid decay of death. It was a ghastly smell and Henri’s stomach lurched but did not empty itself. He retained the presence of mind to act instead of react and that saved him. With his left hand, he reached out across the ground, feeling for anything he could find from his bag that would assist him. He only had seconds before the vampire pulled his head to the side and sank his long teeth into the soft flesh of Henri’s neck.

The vampire grabbed Henri’s head just as Henri’s hand found the thing he wanted most. With a tight grip, he brought his left arm up before him and displayed the cross.

“In the name of the Lord, begone!” yelled Henri. “I cast you out, demon of the night!”

The vampire hissed and releasing his grasp on Henri, used his hand to cover his face and block the sight of the holy symbol. He sat up and then stood quickly and backed away. Henri used this opportunity to finally heave the woman’s body off of him. Now able to stand, Henri faced his attacker. Still holding the cross in front of him, he slowly walked to the vampire, who was now backing away. Henri took a risk and quickly glanced away from his opponent to see if he could locate one of the stakes. In that moment, the vampire saw his chance and turned to flee.

Henri cried out, “No!”. He knew he needed to pursue, but he also was keenly aware that the cross alone would not be enough to vanquish the enemy. Knowing he was losing precious seconds, Henri scavenged the ground, looking for weapons. In moments, his hands found a stake and the mallet. Grasping them in his right hand with the cross still in his left, Henri gave pursuit.

The vampire was fast, but Henri had spent years training his body to be at its absolute peak of fitness and managed to keep pace. Though his target was many yards ahead, Henri kept him in his sight and pursued. In the wee hours of the morning, even a city like New Orleans can sleep and there were few people who saw the two men lurching through the streets wildly. The vampire headed northwest on Toulouse and then turned right on Dauphine. He kept ahead of his pursuer for many blocks until he reached St. Ann Street. Turning left the vampire glanced over his shoulder to see if he was still being followed. To his amazement, Henri was not far behind.

At first, Henri thought the vampire was simply running away with no thought as to a destination, but when he turned on St. Ann, Henri knew he was being led to the cemetery. Just past Rampart, the graveyard was dark and the raised crypts would provide plenty of places to hide. Because New Orleans was below sea level, bodies in this part of the city could not be buried underground, so stone crypts that stood taller than a man were used to inter the dead.

Sure enough, a few blocks up on St. Ann and the vampire disappeared into the shadows of the cemetery. Henri was reluctant to follow. It was not fear that stayed him, but experience. Henri was now at a distinct disadvantage. The vampire’s enhanced strength, vision and other abilities, plus his knowledge of the cemetery and the cover of darkness would all work in his favor. Still, Henri wanted to end this tonight. He wanted this vampire dead, for duty, but mostly for Marie.

His heart ached to follow, but Henri’s trained mind kept his heart in check and he turned back. There would be another time and another place for his vengeance. Henri returned to the scene of the attack near the river. The body of the woman was still there, lying amongst the remaining articles from his bag, still strewn upon the ground. Henri lit his torch and using its light, he checked the woman’s eyes. With some sadness, he could see that they were beginning to turn crimson. This was the unfortunate result of interrupting a vampire before he’s finished eating. Normally, a vampire drains all of the blood from a victim and the body dies. But if only some of the blood is taken and the victim is left alive, the sickness that causes the affliction will infect the victim and they in turn become Vampirae.

Knowing what must be done, Henri searched the nearby warehouses until he found a drum of oil. He located a small bucket and dipped it into the drum, filling it. He returned to the body and covered her in the oil. He knelt beside her and a tear fell from his eye. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to her. “You deserved better.”

Then he set her alight with his torch. The nameless woman’s body blazed brightly but he’d dragged her away from anything else that might catch fire. He had no desire to burn down half the city.

He stood watching her burn, his charcoal gaze focused intently on the blaze. He would not stop until this killer was destroyed.

The next day, Henri dressed in his finest and set out for a social call. It was time, he reasoned, to confront the monster in his lair. He decided he would pay a visit to the Rousseau Manor and try to catch Victor off his guard. At the very least, he wanted to look into the man’s eyes and let him see that Henri knew who and what he really was. He wanted Rousseau to know that his days and nights were in short supply and his tyranny would soon be at an end.

Henri stood in front of the ornate entrance, waiting for someone to answer. Presently, a tall, thin man dressed in typical butler garb opened the door.

“Yes, may I help you, sir?” replied the dapper servant.

“Hello, my name is Henri Galante, a representative of Mr. Martin Oglethorpe. I am here to see Mssr. Victor Rousseau. Is he in?”

“I’m sorry, Mssr. Galante, but I am afraid he is not. However, his father, Mssr. Frederick Rousseau, master of the Manor is at home and I’m sure he would be most pleased to accept you as his guest. Please come in.”

With that the butler ushered in Henri and took his coat. He assured him he would announce his arrival and asked Henri to sit in the parlor. Soon, the butler returned with a short, balding man in his late 60’s. Upon seeing Henri, a broad smile crossed his face and he walked to Henri with open arms.

“Ah, Mssr. Galante, Bonjour. Welcome to my home. I am Frederick Rousseau. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.” With that, the senior Rousseau thrust out a hand and took Henri’s into his with a strong single shake.

“Mssr. Rousseau, the pleasure is mine,” said Henri politely, returning the smile. Henri knew that the protocols of society demanded certain niceties.

“So, my man here tells me you are an emissary for Mssr. Oglethorpe, is that correct?” asked the senior Rousseau.

“Well, uh… not an emissary exactly,” said Henri hesitantly. “I am an associate of his and I’m in town on business. Mr. Oglethorpe, as you know, has many business interests across the south and I am here to attend to certain matters at his newspaper. He told me that while I was in town, I should stop by and meet you.”

“Ah, mais bien sur, but of course,” replied the senior Rousseau. “It has been several years since I last saw Mssr. Oglethorpe. I hope he’s doing well, eh?”

“Yes,” replied Henri cordially. “Very well. Actually, he gave me a message to deliver to your son, Victor. I understand he’s not home at the moment, is that correct?”

“Victor?” the senior Rousseau asked looking mildly confused. “Why, no he is not home presently. He is… uh, out attending to business matters for me. Perhaps you can deliver this message to me and I will happily pass it on to my son.” He smiled as he said this.

“If only it were that simple, I’m afraid,” replied Henri apologetically. “Mr. Oglethorpe gave me explicit instructions that I deliver this message directly to Victor. I cannot say what the contents of the message are, but I know he made it clear that it was a matter of great importance. Do you know when Victor will return?”

Rousseau looked slightly disturbed but quickly recovered. “Well, I do not expect him home until dinnertime. I am having a small soiree tonight with some special guests. Perhaps you would do me the honor of joining us? You could deliver your message to my son and share your stories of St. Louis with us? Eh, what do you say?”

Henri was not expecting this and was not sure if this would work in his favor. He had hoped to meet with Victor alone and take him off guard in his home, where he would believe himself to be protected. A dinner party with guests could complicate things but it was also an invitation inside the Manor.

“That’s very kind of you, Mssr., but I don’t want to impose upon you…” began Henri. Rousseau cut him off politely.

“Not all, you will be our guest of honor,” replied the Frenchman. “I insist.” Rousseau said the last two words in a tone that made it quite clear to Henri that the conversation was over and the decision was made.

“Well then,” said Henri, “until tonight.” He smiled again.

“Dinner will be served at eight, cocktails at seven,” replied the butler to Henri, as if he were a waiter listing the day’s special.

“Seven it is,” said Henri, taking his coat from the butler.

********

The clock on the wall said 7:10 p.m. The butler returned for the second time that day with Mssr. Rousseau leading the way.”

“Mssr. Galante, so pleased you could make it!” the senior Rousseau beamed extending his hand.

“Please, call me Henri,” said Henri shaking the hand of his host.

“Come, please, follow me. I shall introduce you to the other guests.” said Rousseau, leading him across the large entrance to another large room filled with about a dozen men and women all dressed in expensive clothing. Most had drinks in their hands and each was pleased to meet him. Henri was introduced to the very top of New Orleans society. Even the Mayor was present. As Henri flowed through introductions, he was faced with the beautiful visage he had come to know so well over the past few weeks. She batted her eyes coyly at him in typical southern tradition. Apparently her time in Louisiana had taught her many local customs.

“May I present to you Mademoiselle Claudette Worthington of London,” said Rousseau.

Henri took her hand in his and placed a kiss upon the back, as was custom. He smiled, though behind his smile lurked a face of accusations. He could not be sure if she knew of Victor’s true nature, but it was possible. If so, she was complicit in any murders he committed.

Mademoiselle, it is my pleasure,” he remarked charmingly.

“Why thank you, Mssr. Galante,” Claudette replied with an accent that sounded like Standard English toned down by a slight southern drawl. Local influences were strong in this city, thought Henri.

“Are you being accompanied by anyone tonight?” he asked her casually. He had not yet seen Victor and thought perhaps Claudette would betray his whereabouts.

“Well, I was to meet Victor here, but he’s not yet arrived,” she said sweetly. Henri turned to Frederick Rousseau.

“Is your son not here?” Henri asked.

“He, uh… has been slightly detained,” replied Frederick and then he quickly added, “But I do expect him shortly. He certainly does not want to miss dinner. I suspect he’ll enjoy tonight’s meal very much.” With that he chuckled and Claudette laughed along with him at his private joke.

For the next forty-five minutes, Henri was entertained by numerous guests, all of whom wanted to hear about St. Louis and of course, Martin Oglethorpe. They knew him as a business magnate and popular philanthropist. None of them were aware that Oglethorpe spent many of his younger years hunting down and killing vampires. He, alongside a few other brave souls, including an intelligent, ruddy man from Illinois who later went on to become President of the United States, had formed a team of vampire slayers. They spent years learning about their enemy: the habits, biology and weaknesses and used every bit of knowledge to become more effective killers of Vampirae. Henri met Martin when Henri was only a boy. A vampire had slain his entire family and Henri had only escaped by hiding in a root cellar. Martin took in Henri as his ward and trained him in the hunting arts. Henri grew to become the most prolific vampire slayer in the country.

A bell chimed and the senior Rousseau announced that dinner was ready. All of the guests, including Henri followed Rousseau into a grand dining room that was adorned with beautiful paintings and long draperies that covered the windows of the stately mansion. Henri looked around but did not see Victor. He began to grow concerned. Victor’s absence couldn’t be coincidence. He must have realized that Henri had discovered his identity and feared making his presence known.

The guests all took their respective seats at the long table, with Rousseau sitting at the head and Henri seated to his right. Henri felt disappointed. This dinner was turning out to be a waste of his time. He had learned nothing from his conversations with the other guests. Even Claudette had demurely deflected any direct questions he’d aimed at her to try to glean anything he could about Victor or his recent actions. He supposed he might was well enjoy the meal and formulate a new plan tomorrow. Sooner or later, Victor would present himself and when he did, Henri would be prepared. For the sake of Marie, Henri would not leave New Orleans until either he or Victor was dead.

“Ding, ding, ding,” Frederick Rousseau tapped his fork against the fine crystal goblet he held in his hand. A servant had just filled it with a rich red liquid. A nice bordeaux perhaps, Henri thought. Rousseau held up his glass and prepared to make a toast.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “I would like to thank you all for coming tonight. Once again, it is marvelous to see all of your happy faces in my home.” He smiled and there erupted mild laughter from around the table.

“As you know, we are blessed to have a very special guest with us tonight. Coming to us all the way from the great city of St. Louis, I present to you, Mssr. Henri Galante!”

The guests applauded Henri enthusiastically and Rousseau beckoned for him to stand. Not really wanting to draw that much attention to himself, Henri half stood and waved his hand to the table in appreciation.

“Thank you very much,” he replied modestly as he sat down.

“Mssr. Galante,” began Rousseau, clearly not finished with his speech, “I hope you know we are all very excited to be having you for dinner tonight. You see, your reputation precedes you. I admit, I have not been completely honest with you. I am well aware of your daring exploits across our great country, hunting down certain… shall we say… creatures of the night?” He looked down at Henri with a glint in his eye.

Henri suddenly felt a strong tingling feeling crawling up his spine. His instincts were kicking in and he began to realize there was more to this dinner party than he was led to believe. All of the guests eyes were on him now.

Rousseau continued, “I know you were waiting to deliver a message to my son, Victor. When I told him of this earlier today, he was most eager to receive it, but I made him promise to wait until the appropriate time.” Rousseau glanced towards the door to his left.

“Victor, please come in,” Rousseau said.

A tall, well dressed man of about thirty glided into the room. His dark blonde hair was immaculately groomed and he smiled brightly.

“Ah, Mssr. Galante, we meet again,” he said calmly. “I had hoped we might be able to see each other once more.”

Henri stood abruptly, knocking his chair back. Turning, he reached into the breast pocket of his suit and withdrew a long, slender carved slice of hickory that was sharpened at one end. This was his moment.

Before he could act, he felt a strong hand grip his right arm. He turned to see Frederick Rousseau holding him.

“Mssr. Rousseau, let me go!” Henri yelled. “If you know about vampires, then you must know that your son is among their numbers. I cannot allow him to live!”

Henri tried to extricate himself from the grip, but the old man held strong.

“Oh my dear sir, of course my son is a vampire,” he chuckled as if this were an elaborate joke. “We’re ALL vampires!”

Henri felt a wave of cold fear wash over him. He turned to look at Frederick. The old man’s eyes glowed red. He then twisted slowly and gazed with terror at the rest of the dinner guests. Long fangs were growing from their rows of teeth and each guest had glowing red eyes, all fixed upon him. Henri wanted to move but could not. Fear froze him in his tracks.

“You see, my good man. It was as I just said only moments ago. We are really going to enjoy having you for dinner!”

Henri’s screams echoed through the halls of that stately southern manor. It was not the first or the last time those walls would witness such carnage. But bloodstains are easily cleaned.

~V

 

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