It took me two days to drive back to L.A. from the Seattle area. It would have been quicker if I’d flown, of course. But traveling by air is not ideal for someone like me. I don’t like being around large numbers of people in the first place, and ever since the World Trade Center it’s been increasingly difficult for me to smuggle my switchblade past security. Plus the airlines keep cutting back on the leg room—I honestly don’t know how the average human can stand to fly coach anymore.
I’d rather take a bullet to the chest or a knife to the lung than spend hours sandwiched, cheek-to-cheek, between a computer analyst and an insurance adjuster. Besides, it’s not like I punch a time clock for Vampires-B-Gone. If I want to take a nice, leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, that’s nobody’s business but my own.
I pulled the metal garage door shut against the coming dawn, pausing only long enough to glance at the graffiti mural covering the wall across the alleyway. I inherited Indigo Imports from my friend and mentor, Erich Ghilardi, over thirty years ago. I relocated the home office to West Hollywood in 2004, just around the corner from Pink’s. Save for the blacked-out front windows and a sign that reads: “By Appointment Only”, it doesn't look that different from similar boutiques along Melrose.
I wound my way through the maze of antiques, shrouded under their drop cloths.The ground floor was taken up by the bulkier pieces, while the second floor served double duty as my living space and storage for the more valuable items that have found their way into my possession. As I stooped to pick up the bills and circulars piled below the mail-slot set into the triple-locked front door, I spotted an envelope with a red wax seal that bore the initial ‘H’ embossed into its center. You can always tell those accustomed to wealth and power simply by the quality of their stationery.
I cracked open the seal and removed a single piece of tri-folded paper. Attached to one corner by a paperclip was a color photograph of an ornamental dagger. I frowned and looked at the letter, which was written in a masculine, yet tremulous hand, suggesting that the correspondent was either elderly or infirm, if not both.
Dear Ms. Blue: Please forgive me contacting you in such a manner, but I have it on good authority from a close mutual acquaintance that you are a dealer in certain macabre items. I have in my possession one such piece—the so-called Bluebeard Knife, used by the notorious Gilles de Rais. Should you be interested in this item, you can reach me via the phone number written on the reverse of the enclosed photograph. I await your call. Sincerely, Senator Miles Holden
I studied the photo as I climbed the stairs to the second floor. If the dagger belonging to Holden was a fake, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to replicate an item only a handful of antiquaries had heard of, and even fewer would be interested in.
You see, Indigo Imports does not merely serve as a front to cover for my vampire hunting around the globe, but also provides me with the raw materials I need in order to conduct business deals with certain… consultants.
The Bard did not lie when he wrote ‘the evil that men do lives after them’. All of the things that find their way to me possess a malign physic residue--evil, if you will. It’s like catnip to demons—they can’t get enough of it. For example, there’s this one demon down in New Orleans, who is an information broker. I use the pieces I find to barter with the bastard for his services. Normally he requires a human soul in exchange for his help, but, like most infernals manifested on the material plane, he has a serious jones for evil—the more depraved the better.
That’s why I’m always in the market for personal items associated with notorious serial killers, mass-murderers, and other such wastes of skin. I’m not talking bad clown paintings by John Wayne Gacy, cranked out from behind prison bars for morbid hipsters, but the real deal—things like Jack the Ripper’s valise, Countess Bathory’s bathtub, and Mengele’s scalpel. Hell, I’ve even got the guillotine that stood in the Place de la Revolution during the Reign of Terror sitting on the shop floor.
The Bluebeard Knife would, indeed, be a major score, but only if it proved to be the real thing. And the only way to know for sure if something is genuinely evil or not is if I handle it. Authenticating items is never a pleasant task, but there is no getting around it in my line of work.
I flipped the photo over and punched the number into one of the burner phones I keep for such occasions. Despite the earliness of the hour, it only rang a couple times before someone picked up.
“Hello, Ms. Blue.” The gravelly voice on the other end was that of an elderly man. “I’ve been awaiting your call.”
“I assume I am speaking to Senator Holden then?”
“Indeed you are.”
“Please forgive my calling so early in the morning, but I’ve been away on business,” I explained. “I’ve only just returned to the city, and I called as soon as I read your letter. Do you still have the knife?”
“At my age, sleep is more accident than activity,” Holden replied with a dry chuckle. “And, yes, I still have it. I take it you are interested?”
“Yes, I am. But I must personally verify its authenticity before I can make an offer.”
“Of course,” he agreed. “However, I do not keep the knife at my home. I will have my assistant retrieve it from my safety deposit box once my bank opens. I can have it available for inspection early this evening—How does seven o’clock sound?”
“Very good. I live in Calabasas. The address is 24520 Rancho Peligro Drive. Just give your name at the gate.”
“May I ask exactly who it was that told you about me, Senator?”
“That will have to wait until we meet face-to-face, Ms. Blue,” the Senator replied. “Goodbye until then.”
Come sundown, I was back in my car, headed toward the 101 and the Santa Monica Mountains. Located in the hills of the southwestern San Fernando Valley, Calabasas is one of several enclaves of super-wealth that ring the outskirts of the city. It is a place of lush, rolling hills overlooking scenic canyons, perfect for multi-million dollar faux-Tuscan villas and sprawling horse-ranches. I heaved a sigh of relief as I spotted my exit. Even with superhuman reflexes, driving on the Ventura Freeway within two hours of either side of rush hour is nerve-wracking.
Holden’s estate was located high in the foothills, on a tight road with hairpin curves, far removed from the television producers and Hollywood celebrities who call the suburb their home. As I piloted my way up the twisting road, I suddenly found an all-too-familiar voice murmuring in my ear: How do you know it’s not a trap?
“I checked out Holden,” I replied to the empty air. “He’s legit. He was a California state senator for over twenty years until he fell off a horse. Since then he’s been paralyzed from the waist down. He’s known for collecting fine antiques, so it makes sense he might come into possession of something like the Bluebeard Knife.”
Who put him onto you in the first place?
“I’m rather curious about that, myself,” I admitted.
What does he want?
“He wants to sell me an antique dagger.”
No, what does he really want? There has to be another reason for him luring you out here.
“You’re paranoid, you know that?” I sighed. “You always suspect everyone of hidden agendas. You have a really low opinion of humanity, you know that?”
Because I’m not one of them, The Other replied. And neither are you. You would do well to remember that.
“Shut up and leave me alone,” I growled, digging my fingernails into the flesh of my upper thigh. My invisible passenger fell silent, but I could still feel it in the back of my head, watching me like a cat standing guard outside a mouse hole.
A couple minutes later the car came to halt in front of a high stone wall and a pair of imposing metal gates. A man dressed like a farm hand with an Uzi slung over his shoulder, emerged from a small hut on the other side. I stuck my head out of the driver’s side window and saw the guard frown as he realized I was wearing mirrored sunglasses after dark.
“My name is Sonja Blue,” I said. “The Senator is expecting me.”
The guard nodded and stepped back inside the building. There was a buzzing noise as the gates swung open, allowing me to continue my journey. A mile later, after passing several paddocks and a sizable stable, I finally reached the main house. It was a Spanish Colonial Revival-style mansion that gleamed white as a tomb in the glow from the security lights.
A tall, muscular man in his early thirties stood waiting for me in the front court yard. He was dressed in a nicely tailored suit that did its best to try and hide the bulge from his shoulder-holster. As I got out of the car, I caught a tiny flicker of concern as he took in my leather biker’s jacket, steel-toed boots and sunglasses.
“Good evening, Ms. Blue,” the bodyguard said with a practiced smile. “My name is Vickers. I am the Senator’s personal assistant. He sent me to formally welcome you to Rancho Peligro, as he is unable to do so himself.”
“How considerate,” I grunted.
“The Senator does not get many visitors nowadays,” Vickers explained, gesturing for me to follow him into the mansion. “He is most eager to meet with you.”
The foyer of the house was vast, with decorated tile flooring and a huge wrought-iron chandelier hanging suspended from the exposed ceiling timbers like a medieval piñata. Just beyond the entry were twin stairways, each with elaborately scrolled metal balustrades, which branched off to separate wings of the mansion.
Looking down from the left-hand landing was a blonde woman in a designer cocktail dress, holding a martini glass in one finely manicured hand. It was hard to tell her exact age, as her face possessed the waxy, wrinkle-free sheen of the perpetually Botoxed, but she appeared to be in her early forties.
“Is that the Blue woman?” she asked in an over-loud, slightly slurred voice.
“Yes it is, Mrs. Holden,” Vickers replied, speaking in a tone usually reserved for small children and pets. “I’m taking her to see the Senator.”
“About time she showed up,” the blonde said as she drained what remained of her drink.
“Is that the Senator’s wife?” I asked as Vickers led me through an archway off the main foyer that opened onto a loggia decorated with Renaissance bronze and marble statues.
“The Senator is a widower,” the assistant explained matter-of-factly. “The woman you saw is his daughter-in-law, Estelle.”
Upon reaching the end of the gallery, Vickers opened an oaken door with hand-forged fittings with a key that looked like it belonged to a pirate’s treasure chest. I stepped into a large rotunda-like room, the walls of which were hung with original El Greco and Velázquez canvasses. At its center was a mahogany desk big enough to play ping pong on, behind which was Miles Holden, seated in what could best he described as a motorized executive’s chair.
“Good evening, Ms. Blue,” the Senator smiled. From the shoulders up he looked no different than he had in his campaign posters, save that his salt-and-pepper hair had finally turned silver. From the waist down, however, his body was as gnarled as a cypress stump. He reminded me of a living, breathing Pez dispenser. “I trust Vickers has officially welcomed you to my humble abode?”
“That he has,” I replied. “Nice place for horses you’ve got here.”
“Yes, it was,” he agreed, a hint of sadness in his voice. “I had them all put down after the accident. I didn’t see any point in having them if I couldn’t ride them.” He motioned to one of the club chairs opposite him. “Please have a seat, Ms. Blue.”
“Senator Holden—you mentioned that we shared a mutual acquaintance in your letter. Who exactly was it who recommended me to you?”
“All in good time, Ms. Blue,” he assured me. “But first allow me to show you the knife.” He nodded to Vickers, who opened one of the desk drawers and removed a black leather clam shell case. The bodyguard walked over to where I was seated and flipped open the box, holding it so I could examine its contents.
The dagger lay on a bed of black velvet like a piece of fine jewelry. From its blue lapis lazuli pommel to its sterling silver knife point, it measured eight inches in length, and had an eighteen-carat white gold hilt studded with diamonds and sapphires.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Holden said. “Hard to believe something so lovely was used to slit the throats of over a hundred young boys while observing black Sabbath rituals.”
“It is stunning,” I agreed. “Of course, I need to handle it in order to verify whether or not it is the genuine article.”
“Be my guest.”
I took a deep breath, steeling myself against what might come next, and carefully lifted the jeweled dagger from its velvet-lined resting place. As my fingers wrapped about the handle, I experienced a slight electric shock, as if I had brushed against an ungrounded wire, followed by the sound of a small child wailing in fear and pain. Within the space of a heartbeat the single voice doubled, tripled, quadrupled—until it was a children’s choir of terrified screams. I quickly let the knife drop back into the case.
“It is authentic,” I said, wiping my hands against my leather jacket. “I have no doubt that this was used by Giles de Rais. How much do you want?”
“I’m not looking to sell it,” the Senator replied.
“If that’s the case, why did you bother contacting me in the first place?” I snapped. “Did you simply drag me out here just to authenticate it?”
“Hold on—there’s no need to become angry. Let me explains. While I’m not interested in selling the Bluebeard Knife, I am willing to make a trade…”
“Trade? For what?” I frowned.
“Your services as a vampire hunter.”
The pit of my stomach dropped away, and for a single, paralyzing second I felt as vulnerable and exposed as I had that night in London, decades ago, when I found myself trapped in the backseat of a car with a lord of the undead.
“I’m sorry, Senator,” I said, quickly regaining my composure. “Everyone knows there are no such things as vampires!”
“Just like everyone used to know the world was flat and the moon made of green cheese, eh?” the statesman said with a humorless laugh. “I didn’t believe in them, either, until a week ago—when one of the bastards stole my granddaughter. But now I know they’re real—just like I know you’re the only one who can get her back.”
“If this is a joke, it is in very poor taste,” I said, getting to my feet. “I may not be as rich and famous as other people you’re accustomed to dealing with, Senator, but my time is valuable to me, and I don’t appreciate having it wasted in such a manner!” With that, I turned my back on Holden and headed for the door.
“You wanted to know who it was that told me about you?” he called out after me. “Very well, I’ll tell you his name: Jacob Thorne.”
I froze in my tracks and then slowly turned back to stare at Holden, who sat there watching me with a confident smile on his face.
“How do you know my father?” I asked.