A new Judge Dee mystery!
While visiting the mysterious castle of Maidstone for an investigation, Judge Dee and Jonathan discover the only thing more menacing than a vampire child is twin vampire children…
The castle of Maidstone or Maid’s Stone sat alone on a hilltop above a forest not far from a town of the same name. No doubt legend told that a maid was put to death by stoning there, or something equally horrid; in Jonathan’s experience this was usually the case. It also happened that the castle was crawling with vampires.
He trudged after his master in the snow. Dark shapes flittered in the trees. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled at the moon. Jonathan was cold, hungry, and miserable. But this was his usual condition.
They met few travellers as they made their way from Dover to distant London. What purpose Judge Dee had in going there Jonathan was sure he didn’t know. The master went and Jonathan followed.
Something darted out of the dark and chittered at them. Jonathan jumped. Judge Dee turned his austere face on him but said nothing.
‘What!’ Jonathan said. It wasn’t unreasonable to be scared in the dark, he thought.
‘It was just a squirrel,’ Judge Dee said, with a hint of disapproval in his voice.
Jonathan shivered but said nothing. Squirrels, he thought, were just rats with pretty tails. But he didn’t say that to the judge.
They trudged through the snow until they came upon a small village in the moonlight. It sat beyond the trees. The houses were dark and the reflected moon hovered in the ice and only one fire burned at the far end of the village. It was there that the judge and Jonathan went.
They were somewhere between Wormshill and Nettlestead. East of Loose and south of Barming. Somewhere between Hucking and Yalding. It was that sort of place.
As they approached the fire Jonathan could hear a hammer hammering. They moved closer and saw a man banging nails into a coffin. He turned and saw them but registered no surprise. He nodded and they approached the flames. Jonathan warmed his hands and felt grateful. The man continued in his work.
After a time, he ceased and came to them. He was a tall, stooped man, with a long grey and white beard and dark eyes, with skin much weathered by the passing of years.
‘Welcome, strangers,’ he said. His voice was deep and rough, like old wood. ‘You are going far?’
‘To the castle yonder,’ Judge Dee said.
‘Maidstone?’ the coffin maker said. ‘I am finishing a job for the castle myself.’
He gestured at the coffin.
‘Did someone die?’ Jonathan said.
Both the coffin maker and the judge turned and looked at him oddly.
‘No,’ the coffin maker said.
‘Ah,’ Jonathan said.
‘For the master there, I presume?’ Judge Dee said.
‘Indeed. A custom job. Very fine. Walnut and cherry lined with the finest velvet from Arabia. Very comfortable. Very fine.’
‘This master, he is wealthy?’ Jonathan said.
‘He is a Norman,’ the coffin maker said, as though that explained it.
‘May I?’ the judge said.
‘By all means,’ the coffin maker said. He beamed with pride as the judge ran his long fingers along the inside of the coffin.
‘Is that a lock and key?’ the judge said.
‘Indeed it is, sir,’ the coffin maker said. ‘And I can tell you are a man of great taste and learning. It is an innovation, indeed it is, sir! So that the coffin may be locked from the inside, as it were.’
‘It is innovative,’ the judge agreed. He felt the sides. ‘This wood is strong.’
‘Only the finest, sir.’
‘You are an excellent craftsman,’ Judge Dee said.
‘I thank you most kindly.’
‘Is it far, the castle?’ the judge said.
‘It is over yonder, sir. Not far as the bat flies, as they say around here, nor is it far for a wolf. Yet I am but a man and prefer to travel in daylight.’
‘We shall press on, then,’ the judge decided.
‘But master!’ Jonathan said.
‘I am neither bat nor wolf myself,’ Jonathan said.
The coffin maker looked at him critically. ‘Indeed you are not,’ he said. ‘Let me measure you, if you please. Just in case. You are rather rotund and would take much wood. I would suggest something cheap and durable, as befits someone of your lowly station. Here, if you would just let me—’
‘Lay off, man!’ Jonathan said. He pushed away from the coffin maker in alarm.
‘Perhaps you are right, master,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, let us press on, as you say. No time like the present for a journey, what?’
‘What?’ the coffin maker said.
‘I said, no time like the pr— Let go! I’m still a living man!’
Judge Dee turned his face and the light of the moon hit the fine bones of his jaw. It was possible that he smiled.
‘We are all of us measured for the coffin, good sir,’ the coffin maker said reproachfully. ‘For sooner or later we shall find ourselves in one. If you don’t mind me saying, I have always found great solace in this observation. It was made by my father before me, and his father before him, and my great-grandmother before him. She was a fine carpenter. She would have loved to see this latest innovation. I am sure it will soon be all the rage in Europe.’
Jonathan nodded distractedly. He stared at the coffin. It was a ridiculous affair, he thought. Velvet and cherry wood indeed! And a lock on the inside. It was the sort of stupid thing only a vampire could have thought of. And most likely regret a moment after they had lost the key.
‘I bid you good night,’ he said.
‘Go in health,’ the coffin maker said. And he went back to his job, whistling as he hammered.
Jonathan followed Judge Dee, and once more they went into the woods, and the dark swallowed them.
‘What an odd creature,’ Jonathan said.
‘But what a remarkable creation,’ the judge said. ‘It is almost a mechanical contraption. And did you see, he had cunningly built a hidden compartment on the inside, for the secreting of a glass of refreshment before bedtime, or something similar of that nature, I presume.’
Jonathan looked sideways at the judge, for his master was an ascetic who loathed the display of material comforts and possession, and this hideous coffin gave even Jonathan indigestion.
‘It is vulgar,’ Jonathan said. He felt quite pleased with himself for finally finding occasion to use the word, which he’d only ever heard the judge use.
‘Yet innovative,’ the judge said, taking no notice, which admittedly did hurt Jonathan’s feelings.
‘It is a bad idea, this coffin,’ Jonathan said. ‘Mark my words.’
The judge merely nodded. In short time they came out of the woods to behold the castle, a stout stone building in the Norman style. There were several watchtowers. There was a moat. That pretty much summed up Jonathan’s knowledge of architecture.
There were also horses. Jonathan found that out by stepping into a large pile of something they had left behind.
It was still fresh.
He wiped his foot on the flagstones miserably.
‘Who goes there!’ came the cry. ‘Be you predator or prey?’
Jonathan shivered. The voice was cold and mean and arrogant with it. In other words, a vampire’s.
‘I am Judge Dee,’ the judge said quietly.
There was a short startled silence on the other side of the moat. Then the drawbridge came down.
Judge Dee entered the castle and Jonathan followed. A small woman wearing riding gear appeared. She looked at the judge with easy familiarity.
‘Heard lots about you,’ she said. ‘I’m Lady Carmen. I’m afraid you’ve caught us just as we were about to set out on a hunt. We take hunting very seriously here. Would you like to come? How are your horse skills? Is that a human with you? Hello.’ She smiled at Jonathan.
‘Don’t be scared,’ she said. ‘I don’t bite.’
Her long sharp teeth told a different story.
A small and startlingly skeletal man came to join her. He too wore hunting gear.
‘Judge Dee,’ he said. ‘I am Odo, Earl of Maidstone and surroundings. I have been on this land since old William ceded it to me for my help in the conquest. That was a while ago, I think. I pay little attention to the world outside. Be welcome in my castle. Do you hunt? Can you handle a horse? We would welcome your company. I am famished for blood!’
Jonathan noticed that neither earl nor lady asked why the judge was there.
‘I hunt only the truth,’ the judge said; a little pompously, Jonathan privately thought. But Odo, Earl of Maidstone (and surroundings), nodded thoughtfully, and Lady Carmen clapped her hands in delight as though the judge had said something both profound and witty.
‘Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly!’ she said.
‘What?’ the judge said.
‘It is a whatchamacallit, an aphorism,’ Lady Carmen said. ‘You know, a pithy observation which contains a general truth.’
‘But that’s ridiculous,’ Jonathan said. ‘If you fall you don’t fly. You’re not a bird. Unless it’s advice for birds. But that’s a terrible piece of advice for people. It is categorically unsound.’
‘Not if you’re a vampire,’ Odo said, not unreasonably. ‘Vampires can fly.’
‘Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it!’ Lady Carmen said. She seemed determined – Jonathan had to give her that.
‘What if you’re scared of snakes because they’ll kill you?’ Jonathan said. ‘What if you are scared of drinking milk because your body reacts unfavourably to milk, and will k—’
‘Kill you, yes,’ Odo said. He nodded thoughtfully. ‘The young chap is right,’ he said. ‘I would be rather scared of sharpened stakes, for instance, or villagers, but it would be most idiotic to go and play around with them, do you know.’
‘But it sounds so wise,’ Lady Carmen said.
Judge Dee said nothing, and looked sorry he had ever delivered that line about truth.
‘Ah, Stefan,’ Lady Carmen said. A third figure approached, pulling two horses behind him. He was a tall gaunt man, also a vampire, but evidently a social class or two lower than the others. His clothes were clearly worn for work and not for show, and they had a threadbare, faded look about them.
‘I brought the horses,’ he said.
‘We shall ride! What fun!’ Lady Carmen said, clapping.
‘What do you hunt?’ the judge said. He spoke softly but his voice carried.
‘Only servants,’ Odo said carelessly.
‘Bring the servants!’ roared Lady Carmen.
Several servants shuffled into the courtyard. They looked more resigned than scared. Two of them were chamber girls, one a hunchback cook, one a farm hand, and the last a valet. Or so they seemed to Jonathan. None of them looked very well. There was a pallor to their skin and their eyes were wan.
‘We’re here,’ the valet, who was youngest, said sullenly.
‘He’s mine,’ Lady Carmen said with glee. She glanced at Odo.
‘You can have the hunchback,’ she said.
‘I always get the hunchback!’ Odo said. But he didn’t argue. It occurred to Jonathan that Lady Carmen was not a person one usually picked an argument with.
‘Send out the servants!’ Lady Carmen roared.
Stefan, the tall vampire, shooed the servants to the open gate. They walked listlessly over the moat bridge and into the woods.
‘After them!’ Lady Carmen roared.
Odo smiled, showing long, needle-like teeth that made Jonathan shiver.
‘Let the Wild Hunt start!’ he screamed. Then he turned into a bat and flew clumsily after the servants. Lady Carmen and Stefan climbed the horses. Once over the moat, Lady Carmen looked back.
‘Are you coming?’ she said.
The judge shook his head. Lady Carmen shrugged, then melted into the darkness of the woods.
‘What odd creatures they are,’ the judge said.
‘Master?’ Jonathan said.
‘Why did we come here? I mean…’ Jonathan took a deep breath. A scream came from the wood, but it was muted, like the person who emitted it didn’t really feel very strongly about what was happening. ‘Has there been a crime? They did not seem to expect you. Or care that you are here at all.’
‘Indeed, Jonathan…’ the judge murmured. ‘They expressed no curiosity. Isn’t that, in itself, curious?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘That,’ the judge said, ‘is plain to see. Come. Let us find a shelter from the night.’
‘Yes, master,’ Jonathan said. And he trudged after the judge into the castle.
The castle of Maidstone or Maid’s Stone was draughty, the stone walls cold to the touch and covered in slimy moss. Rats darted through holes in the masonry. Jonathan’s feet crunched small bones. It was a typical vampire dump, Jonathan thought unkindly. Two small shadows materialised at the end of the corridor.
‘Boo!’ they said in unison.
Jonathan jumped. He emitted an unseemly scream. The two small figures giggled. Judge Dee frowned.
‘That is unbecoming,’ he said.
‘Sorry, Master Dee,’ the two said in unison.
Jonathan stared at the two figures. They were near identical and childlike, though their eyes were old, far older than any child’s, and when they smiled – again, in unison – they revealed small sharp white teeth set behind lips stained red with blood. Jonathan shuddered. He hated vampire children.
‘Who turned you?’ Judge Dee said severely. He did not approve of child vampires, either.
‘We never knew our mother-in-darkness,’ the two vampires said. ‘But she was very pretty.’
Jonathan also hated stupid expressions like ‘mother-in-darkness’. The judge said, ‘Name yourselves.’
‘I am Erzsebet,’ the child on the left said. ‘This is Margarit.’
‘No, I’m Erzsebet,’ the child on the right said. ‘You’re Margarit.’
The two of them giggled again.
‘Please follow us,’ the one on the left said. ‘Would you care for refreshments? We have fresh midwife blood, or farmer’s infusion, which is quite robust, with hints of elderberry.’
‘Jonathan,’ the judge said. ‘Do you require food?’
The two child vampires looked disdainfully at Jonathan.
‘There is some servant food in the kitchen,’ they said.
‘Then fetch it,’ the judge said.
They arrived in the common room of the castle. Jonathan was grateful to see a fire burning. He plonked himself down beside it.
‘Why are we here again, master?’ he said. The two awful children had vanished. The judge sat down. A servant appeared furtively with a plate of food, placed it beside Jonathan, and withdrew. Jonathan stared in appreciation at the chicken carcass. He nibbled politely on a chunk of cheese.
A glass of something red materialised in the judge’s hand. Judge Dee sipped and nodded.
‘Elderberry notes, indeed,’ he said.
It was near dawn by the time Jonathan went to his bed. It was always near dawn when Jonathan went to his bed. The judge had vanished, as he always did. Jonathan never knew where he slept, if he even slept at all. Around Jonathan the sounds of the castle gradually grew faint. The hunt had returned late, the Lady Carmen flushed of cheek and the taciturn Stefan more talkative. Apparently, he had spotted a great wild boar in the wood and pursued it in vain, and he thought it must be an omen, an indication that the god Moccus was abroad. Jonathan knew that some of the old vampires still worshipped gods long forgotten in the world of people. Jonathan did not particularly believe in pig-gods. He was just sad the wild boar remained at large, for Jonathan was exceedingly fond of chops and ribs.
Only the lord of the castle, Odo, remained in doleful countenance on their return, even as he licked his lips clean of blood. The twin girls were nowhere to be found, and the vampires had little of interest to offer in the way of conversation. It was evident to Jonathan that, as was common in the way of vampires holed up together in one place for an extended period of time, they all hated each other. Stefan, a Celt, clearly resented the lord and lady of the castle and his own lowly position. Lady Carmen seemed to loathe both her male companions and to rule the castle in everything but name. As for her nominal master, Odo, the man was like a walking cadaver, with the disposition to match. Jonathan had met such vampires before. They were as cheery as the plague.
He snuggled deeper into his thick blanket. He was given an adequate room in the servants’ quarters, and a small coal fire still burned. He was warm, safe, and his stomach was full. He stretched out his legs and sighed with relief.
Two monstrous figures appeared above him, eyes red and fangs extended.
‘Boo!’ they said.
The twins giggled, and then they were gone.
Somewhere outside, the sun rose, and the living world awakened. For those hours of daylight, at least, there were no vampires. Jonathan rolled on his side. The coals in the fireplace died, but slowly, and the heat lingered on, until he slept.
‘You see,’ Odo said earnestly, ‘someone is trying to kill me.’
Which at least explained why they were there, Jonathan thought with some relief.
They were sitting in the count’s private study, which had seven entire illuminated manuscripts, a small fortune which Jonathan saw Judge Dee wordlessly admire.
‘You must be a great reader,’ the judge observed.
‘What, these?’ Odo said, surprised. ‘No, never learned my letters. I just keep them to sell eventually.’ He puffed up his puny chest. ‘I have two Herbals, a Psalter, a Gospel, a Bible, a Homer, and a Glossary.’
‘Impressive,’ Judge Dee said. But he pursed his lips disapprovingly all the same. The judge valued learning and disliked people who were ignorant by choice.
‘Who is trying to kill you?’ Jonathan asked Odo.
‘Everyone!’ the earl said. He interlaced his bony fingers in his lap. ‘I do not know, in truth,’ he admitted. ‘They keep at it, though. It is becoming positively perilous! Only the other week an arrow came at me out of the trees during the hunt, and it was only by good luck that it missed my heart! And the week before it was a fall of rocks that rumbled downhill and nearly buried me in the stream. I fear the worst, Judge Dee! I am grateful that you came. You must stop them before it’s too late! I am getting so anxious I can barely taste my food these days. I cannot feel safe even in my own castle!’
Jonathan stared at the Earl of Maidstone with suspicion. These self-styled earls and counts were always getting murdered or plotting murder or slaughtering the local villein population (who didn’t count). But the earl really did look worried sick.
The judge sipped blood politely. He considered.
‘What of these two little girls?’ Jonathan blurted.
The earl startled. He looked this way and that as though checking no one was near.
‘Erzsebet and Margarit,’ Odo said. ‘Horrid little monsters. Centuries old. Utterly merciless. They hate me almost worse than my wife does!’
‘Can you not exile them?’ Jonathan said.
Odo shuddered. ‘Have you met them?’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t dare. Besides, they are favourites of Carmen’s.’
He looked very sorry for himself.
‘And speaking of your wife?’ Jonathan said. He was having to ask all the questions. The judge seemed enraptured in Odo’s Herbal.
‘She hates me most of all,’ Odo said; but he looked more philosophical about this. Perhaps all wives hated their husbands, Jonathan thought. He had admittedly no experience in this particular field.
‘What about the others, then? This groom, Stefan?’
Odo waved a dismissive hand. ‘The man’s a simpleton,’ he said. ‘A peasant. If I ever meet the vampire who bit him I would put a stake through his heart for the sheer affront. The man has common blood running through his veins. And, well, it’s not like we feed well here. English blood is soup-thin, nothing like the heady brew of a good Norman farmer or a well-bred Norman wench.’
He licked his lips, practically salivating. Jonathan suppressed a shudder. He could see why the earl’s companions might wish to kill him.
‘What about the servants?’ Jonathan said.
‘As if they’d dare!’ Odo said. He glared at Jonathan, then turned to the judge.
‘What do you think, Judge Dee?’ he said.
The judge put down the Herbal with some effort.
‘You are secure?’ he said.
‘As well as one can be,’ Odo said. ‘Come, I will show you.’
Jonathan trudged after them. Odo spent an hour showing off his arrangements. The room of stark stone at the top of the tower, to which only he had access. The hidden traps that would spring on an assassin attempting to enter. There were no windows, of course. The room was shut off like a tomb. But still there were spikes on the outside walls to prevent anyone climbing. There were nets to trap an unwary bat, and ingenious bellows to capture any in mist form. And the stout doors had a double lock on them, for which the Earl of Maidstone had the only key.
Jonathan had to admit it: Odo was thorough.
One did not get to live centuries as a vampire without getting good at not dying.
Just then the clear and piercing sound of a horn sounded outside.
‘The hunt!’ Odo said, clapping his hands excitedly. ‘Will you join us tonight, Judge Dee? Oh, it is such fun, to hunt for our prey!’
‘I would like to study your Homer,’ the judge said. ‘But…’ He glanced at Jonathan.
The judge shook his head silently. They followed Odo back down to the courtyard. There, the scene was much as it was the night before. The Lady Carmen, bright-eyed and sharp of teeth, waited as Stefan brought out the same listless servants, the two chamber maids, the hunchback cook, the farm hand and the valet and the horses.
When Lady Carmen sounded the horn again the servants shuffled off into the night. The wild hunt followed shortly. This time, Erzsebet and Margarit joined them. The two girls turned into wolf cubs and slunk off into the night with sharp teeth glinting. Jonathan could hear their howls in the woods, and he shivered.
‘It must be them,’ he said. ‘Who would kill Odo.’
‘What of the servants?’ Judge Dee said.
‘They look barely fit enough to lift a fork, master,’ Jonathan said. ‘Let alone a crossbow.’
The judge nodded.
‘It is a disappointing case,’ he said. ‘It is clear to me…’ But he did not finish his thought, for just then they heard the sound of hooves, and the ringing of a small bell. A cart emerged out of the woods, a small but determined donkey pulling it and the coffin maker driving. A wolf’s howl sounded in the distance and then the flapping of leathery wings, and three dark shapes dropped out of the sky and turned into Odo, the Lady Carmen, and Stefan, the groom.
‘My coffin!’ Odo said. His lips were stained with blood, the colour stark on his pale face.
The coffin maker drove into the courtyard and stopped, and his donkey made a mess on the flagstones. Jonathan hid a smirk. The servants trudged back into the fold. They looked even worse than before, and it took six of them to bring down the coffin from the cart.
Odo was enraptured. He admired the smooth wood, the ingenious lock, the velvet lining. He squealed with delight at the hidden drinks compartment. He paid the coffin maker in gold. Jonathan saw how the Lady Carmen and Stefan glared at the earl with barely concealed hatred. He saw Erzsebet and Margarit stand very still with cold fury in their eyes, as though already making calculations for the best way to get at the Earl of Maidstone in his sleep.
But Odo paid them all no mind. He made the servants bring the coffin upstairs and had it installed in his room. He invited only the judge and Jonathan to observe it. Odo had the only key, of course.
‘Now I can finally sleep in peace,’ he told them. He escorted them away. Behind them the door double-locked from the inside, and the traps were primed and set to wait for an intruder. Jonathan imagined the Earl of Maidstone slipping into his coffin at last and shutting it on himself. Locking the door to the coffin, also from the inside, and perhaps pouring himself a little coffin-time daycap from the hidden compartment before falling at last into a long and satisfied sleep.
Jonathan himself curled under the blanket. The birds called outside. He hated going to sleep with the birds calling outside.
The waking world woke.
And the world of the undead went to sleep.
Jonathan woke at dusk and for a while all was well. The vampires still slumbered. Jonathan made his way to the kitchens, where wine skins that were no doubt filled with blood hung from the rafters. Some had bite marks in them and Jonathan turned his head in disgust. He found the listless servants sat by the fire and joined them. He picked hungrily at bread and cheese and half a game bird. It occurred to him someone had to be hunting, which meant someone had use of a crossbow.
He studied the servants one by one. The two maids looked far whiter than the sheets they laid out. The farmhand was skeletal, the valet looked a hundred years old. They were as sad an assortment of specimens as one could wish to find. Only the hunchback cook still had some fat on him. His face shone greasily as he dug into the food (competing with Jonathan for the remains of a pheasant), and in the light of the dying sun in the window his hump looked thinner. Jonathan made a lunge for the last drumstick, missed, and settled for mopping up the fat with a piece of bread.
He wished he and the judge were on their way to London. He had had enough of castles, moors, bogs, fens, marshes, and pheasants for lunch. He was sick of the countryside.
Give him a street! he thought. Give him the cries of hawkers on the docks, the cackles of painted Jezebels, the singing of drunks, and the chanting of priests – give him a city!
‘Boo!’ two voices said close in his ear.
‘Oh, go away,’ Jonathan said.
The two little vampire girls stood there and sulked.
‘Where is your master?’ they said in unison.
Jonathan shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, pinching the last bit of meat from the pheasant’s carcass. He stuffed it in his mouth and licked his lips. The two girls looked at him with moues of disgust.
‘What?’ Jonathan said. He looked at them closely.
‘What happened to you two?’ he said. The two girls looked distinctly…bruised, he thought.
‘Where is your master?’ Jonathan said.
‘We serve no master!’
‘You live under his roof,’ Jonathan said. The two girls hissed at him. Then they simply vanished.
How did they do that? he thought. Turn into mist, or whatever it was that vampires did. He got up reluctantly, for the food was finished, and the servants sat there looking like bodies waiting for the grave. All was quiet in the castle of Maidstone.
When the vampires assembled for the nightly hunt, the Earl of Maidstone did not make an appearance.
Lady Carmen paced at first, then fumed.
‘Where is my lazy, no-good husband?’ she demanded at last. She looked a little bedraggled, Jonathan noticed. So did the groom, who was limping tonight. It was as though all the vampires had had a long and difficult late night last night.
‘Asleep, still, perhaps,’ Stefan said. ‘He has been lethargic of late. Shall we go without him?’
The hunchback cook touched his hump with a look of sudden hope on his face. Clearly, being fed on by Odo every night was not his idea of happiness. Not that Jonathan could blame him.
‘You don’t think…?’ Lady Carmen said.
‘My lady?’ Stefan said.
‘You don’t think something awful happened to Odo, do you?’ she said.
Stefan shrugged. Lady Carmen’s eyes shone, and the twins suppressed a giggle.
They all looked quite pleased at the thought. Even the servants perked up at the idea.
Jonathan wasn’t sure what made Odo so unbearable to the others. He supposed that Stefan hated him for being an old Norman and for his part in the conquest of England; that his wife hated him for being her husband; and that the twins hated him for being above them in station. But in truth, vampires were just as likely to try and murder each other out of sheer boredom. It didn’t take much.
Not that people were all that different, Jonathan reflected. People killed each other over the littlest things. Petty greed and jealousy and rage. It didn’t take much.
As for the servants, they were probably just sick to death of being hunted every night. They looked drained.
‘Master?’ Jonathan said.
Judge Dee appeared soundlessly.
‘His door is locked,’ he said. ‘There is no answer from inside.’
They all climbed the tower. The door stood firm before them.
‘I daren’t go in there,’ Lady Carmen said. ‘My husband has…traps and suchlike. He is a cunning, vicious creature.’ She said it with pride.
‘May I?’ Judge Dee said.
The lady nodded. Judge Dee put his hand on the double lock. He concentrated and the locks sprung open. The other vampires looked surprised, then impressed. Dee was an elder. His powers were of a different calibre to theirs.
‘Stay behind,’ the judge said. He pushed the door open. ‘Jonathan, follow me, please.’
‘Yes, master…’ Jonathan said.
He followed cautiously.
The judge paused.
‘You noticed the scratches on the locks?’ he said.
‘Someone attempted to unlock them last night. And one of the traps was activated last night, also,’ he said, pointing to a spike that jutted out of the wall and held a torn piece of cloth on its very sharp point. Jonathan swallowed. He followed the judge deeper into the room.
‘Something bad happened here,’ Jonathan whispered.
‘Something bad happened in this room every night,’ the judge said.
They stepped deeper into the gloom.
In the middle of the room stood the coffin.
‘Odo?’ Jonathan said. His voice trembled. ‘Odo, are you in there?’
‘It’s locked,’ Judge Dee said. He ran his fingers along the side of the coffin.
‘From the inside?’ Jonathan said. ‘Can you open it, master?’
Judge Dee pressed against the thin gap between the two halves of the coffin. He frowned in concentration, then heaved.
The coffin sprung open.
Jonathan took a step back.
He stared at the inside of the coffin.
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘Oh dear.’
Odo, Earl of Maidstone, was decidedly dead. He looked peaceful enough – what little was left of him, which was mostly a skeleton.
‘How?’ Jonathan said. ‘How did they get to him in here?’
The earl had locked the coffin from the inside. He lay inside a room that was itself locked. So how did he die?
‘And who killed him?’ Jonathan said.
Judge Dee shrugged. The others all crowded into the room then. The wife – the widow, Jonathan supposed, now – cried out, ‘My Odo! My Odo!’ and fell on the coffin. This display of grief only lasted for as long as it took her to search the skeleton for a key.
Lady Carmen held it up in triumph. ‘The vault is now mine!’
‘What’s in the vault?’ Jonathan said.
‘Gold,’ Lady Carmen said. ‘What else? My gold now!’ She turned on the others. ‘And don’t any of you think otherwise!’
Stefan inched his head in reply. Erzsebet and Margarit curtseyed.
‘Well,’ Lady Carmen said, turning to Judge Dee. ‘Thank you for your help, but as you can see we have everything under control here. And, well, my husband did die naturally, after all.’
‘Your food seems unwell,’ Lady Carmen said to the judge.
‘I am not food!’ Jonathan said.
Lady Carmen flashed him a smile.
‘But you could be,’ she said.
The atmosphere in the room was tense. Jonathan was keenly aware of the skeleton in the coffin, of the four hostile vampires, of the fearful servants. Judge Dee was not wanted here. They were all happy with the outcome. Earl Odo was dead. It was a consummation that had been devoutly wished.
But then, Judge Dee was never wanted: not where the guilty awaited judgment.
The judge will judge. The judge will pass sentence.
The innocents avenged. The guilty punished. And so on.
Although, with vampires, no one was ever innocent and everyone was guilty.
‘Silence,’ Judge Dee said.
They fell quiet. The judge stood still in the middle of that locked mausoleum. He pondered. His eyes moved over the locks and traps, the skeleton, the suspects. Jonathan thought longingly of that evening’s pheasant. He had completely missed his midnight snack.
‘It is clear you all wished him dead,’ Judge Dee said. He raised a finger. ‘No, don’t argue. What is more, you all actively made attempts on his life.’
‘He was my master!’ Stefan said aghast.
‘My loving husband!’ Lady Carmen said.
‘Sure, I mean, we gave it a good try,’ Erzsebet and Margarit said together. ‘But he was hard to kill, the old bat.’
‘I mean, I may have shot an arrow at him a couple of times during the hunt…’ Stefan said, reconsidering quickly. ‘But that was all in good sport! Not…this! The coffin was locked from the inside!’
‘Ah, yes,’ Judge Dee said. ‘The old locked coffin mystery. Do you know, there really are not that many possible solutions to a murder in a locked room? I have made study of the various methods over the centuries. It is in the nature of our kind to go for the theatrical kill. Something that makes a—’
‘Splash,’ Margarit said, and Erzsebet giggled.
‘Indeed. Something overly complicated, at any rate, when a simple stake through the heart would do. Don’t you agree, Jonathan?’
Jonathan nodded. He had travelled with the judge for a long time, ever since Judge Dee pulled him out from under a pile of corpses, not from kindness but from a need for directions to the Black Rock and the horrors that dwelt there. Why he kept him by his side after, Jonathan never knew. But he had witnessed many of the judge’s cases, enough to know that the more ludicrous and elaborate the plot the more a vampire liked it. People killed each other easily, sometimes with kitchen knives and sometimes with sharp swords. Or they used their fists, or a rock. Anything close to hand. But humans lived short lives and acted quickly. Vampires had centuries to plot and plan.
‘You know, don’t you?’ Jonathan said. ‘You know already.’
‘I merely conjecture,’ the judge said. But he almost smiled, and he never usually smiled. The judge was still a vampire. He loved elaborate charades as much as any of his kin.
‘But let us consider the usual methods,’ Judge Dee said, ‘of the so-called “impossible murder”. The victim is found, alone, in a room that is locked from the inside. How could it be? For instance, note that this room has no windows. Odo knew a window was a risk. After all, an ape could be trained to climb a wall impossible for a person and kill the occupier before vanishing as though it was never there.’
‘What’s an ape?’ Margarit said.
The judge ignored her. ‘A vampire, of course, could easily fly up as a bat. But again, there are no windows. So, this was not the method used.’
‘Fascinating,’ Lady Carmen said, not bothering to hide a yawn.
‘Then there is gas. Noxious fumes that could be poured into the room through the keyhole or under the door. This, I believe, was attempted – in a manner of speaking. Is that not so, Erzsebet?’
‘I’m Erzsebet,’ the other twin said.
‘I’m Margarit,’ the twin Judge Dee had addressed said.
They both smirked, showing teeth as sharp as knives.
‘You have the unseemly habit of terrorising the servants, I noticed,’ Judge Dee said. He frowned in disapproval, for he was not a man given to frivolities, as Jonathan well knew. ‘You sneak up on them and scare them before vanishing. Like smoke, as they say. Or mist, to be exact.’
‘So?’ Erzsebet said.
‘So?’ Margarit said.
‘You attempted to invade Odo’s sanctum last night, did you not?’ Judge Dee said. ‘You turned to mist, as is your wont, and attempted ingress through the keyhole. You could have murdered Odo inside his own coffin, then vanished as though you were never there.’
‘You little monsters!’ Lady Carmen said. Though whether she was enraged or proud of the girls wasn’t immediately clear.
‘I seem to recall Transylvanian tales going centuries back of a couple of silent assassins,’ the judge said. ‘The Terror Twins, who were condemned to death by the Council for their many crimes—’
Erzsebet and Margarit fell back from him in genuine horror.
‘That wasn’t us!’
‘We didn’t kill him, either! We tried, yes, we tried, but he had some terrible contraption, bellows, you see, which blew us right out of the room again! Oh, how I wish it was us who—’
‘Shut up, Margarit!’
The two girls stared at each other in hatred. They hissed fury.
‘Very well,’ the judge said. ‘We shall leave that for the moment. Now, another possibility is, of course, poison.’
‘Poison!’ Lady Carmen said.
‘Such as the one you no doubt put into his drink,’ Judge Dee said. He reached inside the coffin and sprung open the hidden compartment, where a glass decanter and cup were ensconced. Judge Dee opened the bottle and sniffed.
‘Belladonna?’ he said.
‘This is preposterous,’ Lady Carmen said.
‘This is not even blood,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Just water coloured red with elderberry syrup.’
‘Odo was too fat,’ Lady Carmen said. ‘He needed to lose weight.’
‘And the poison?’
She shrugged. ‘It was worth a try,’ she said. ‘Did he drink it?’
‘No,’ Judge Dee said. ‘The glass is untouched.’
She shrugged again. ‘So what is it you want of me?’ she said.
‘For the moment, nothing,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Though I seem to recall a notorious poisoner some two centuries back, the Spanish Widow they called her, condemned by the Council to death yet never captured. Perhaps she hid in this dismal castle all this time…’
‘Absurd!’ screamed Lady Carmen. ‘And my castle is not…dismal! That’s just rude.’
‘We shall leave that for now,’ the judge said. He rubbed his hands together drily. ‘Now, some alternatives we could dispense with,’ he said. ‘The murder made to look like suicide, for instance. In fact, it is hard to even say how he died.’
‘On account of he’s a skeleton,’ Jonathan said.
‘Quite. No poison, no weapons I can see…Of course, the weapon could have been a frozen stake made out of blood, or even water. This is another popular method, you see.’
‘Where would we get ice!’ Stefan protested. ‘It is a very expensive substance, Judge Dee.’
‘Ah, yes, Stefan,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You already admitted to firing arrows at your master. Tales are told in this part of the world of men of the wood, who wear the green of outlaws and use the bow and arrow. Is that not so?’
‘A vampire archer was—’
‘Condemned by the Council some centuries back?’ Jonathan said. He couldn’t resist. ‘Was he called the Awful Archer? The Blood Curdling Crossbowman? The Sinful Sh—’
‘The second one, actually,’ Judge Dee said, looking, Jonathan thought, a little sheepish.
‘Of course, master,’ Jonathan said.
‘I am not him!’ Stefan said. ‘I lead a lawful life! I follow the Unalienable Obligations!’
‘There were scratches on the lock,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You did try to get in last night, did you not? You tried, but failed. You all tried.’
Judge Dee was not a tall man, but he towered over them then, and the shadows pooled to him and turned him into a great angel of darkness; and the other vampires fell from him in fright.
Judge Dee said softly, ‘But only one of you succeeded.’
Jonathan hugged himself. His stomach rumbled. He was hungry and scared: the natural state of a mortal travelling with a vampire judge.
He wasn’t scared of the other vampires. He was only scared of what Judge Dee would do to them.
‘Master,’ he said tentatively.
‘You missed a method,’ Jonathan said. In his travels with the judge, he had experienced some of these other so-called ‘impossible crimes’.
‘Go on,’ the judge said, frowning.
‘It is the one where the victim was still alive when we came into the room,’ Jonathan said, swallowing, for he had the sudden and unwanted attention of all the vampires in the room. ‘And was murdered after the locked room – locked coffin, I mean, master, in this case – was opened.’
‘I had not brought it up because it was I who opened the coffin,’ the judge said. ‘And Odo was clearly dead then.’
‘Indeed, master,’ Jonathan said. ‘I just thought I’d mention it.’
The judge inched his head.
‘So where does that leave us, Jonathan?’ he said, and again he was almost smiling. ‘What cunning method did our murderer use? An ice arrow? Poison? Gas? A trained animal? Was it a faked suicide? Or was he fatally injured outside the room, stumbled inside, locked the door, climbed into his coffin, locked that again, and only then die?’
‘It worked in the Case of Praga Fatale,’ Jonathan said defensively. ‘Besides, that’s actually pretty common.’
‘Enough!’ Lady Carmen screamed. The shocked servants seemed animated for the first time. They turned to flee from the lady’s wrath, but the door was shut. Judge Dee let them out, then closed the door, trapping the vampires inside.
‘Tell us, then!’ Stefan said. The ancient little girls nodded in tandem. ‘Tell us and be done with it!’
The judge paced. He looked faintly bored.
‘Odo,’ he mused. ‘Earl of Maidstone. But before there was an Earl of Maidstone there was a Norman with a reputation for blood. He was hungry then. I rather think he died hungry, too. That man, Odo the Butcher they called him. He broke the Unalienable Obligations, and it was said he sailed with William the Bastard to England to escape the wrath of the Council’s judges…I wonder if it was the same man.’
‘Who cares, man!’ Stefan said. The gaunt vampire looked desperate and angry. ‘Pass your sentence and let us be done with it!’
But Judge Dee just shrugged.
‘The sentence for each of you was pronounced long ago,’ he said, ‘as it was for Odo. There was no call for me here. Nothing but old, unfinished business. Come, Jonathan.’
The judge turned. He opened the thick door easily. Jonathan slipped out after him. The judge replaced the door as it was and locked twice, this time from outside; and he pocketed the key.
‘Let us be on our way,’ he said.
Outside it was the depth of night, and for a moment everything was quiet and still; peaceful, even. Then Jonathan saw lights bobbing in the distance, faint as yet, but soon to grow brighter. It was the servants, he realised. After years of abuse they were free, and they had run to the nearest village and raised an army of their kin.
The villagers, marching on the castle with burning torches.
Jonathan almost laughed.
He followed his master into the dark of the trees. They went the other way, away from the fire and the mob.
Something bothered Jonathan. A detail, niggling in the back of his mind.
Something the judge had said.
Jonathan tried to put together the facts of the case. The impossible murder, the nightly hunt. The skeleton in the coffin. He tried to picture Odo as he saw him. What were his first impressions of the man?
‘I always get the hunchback,’ he said.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Judge Dee said.
‘It was something Odo said, the first time we met him,’ Jonathan said.
And Jonathan suddenly thought of the wineskins he had seen hanging in the kitchen.
‘Some had bite marks in them,’ he said.
‘The wineskins?’ the judge said. ‘Yes, I noticed that, too.’
Jonathan thought of the poisoned blood untouched in Odo’s coffin. It wasn’t wine, the judge had said. It was water coloured with elderberries.
‘She didn’t poison him,’ he said, almost whispering. ‘She starved him.’
‘Yes,’ the judge said. ‘She did, didn’t she.’
‘There was no hunchback,’ Jonathan said. ‘I wondered why the cook alone seemed lively, even fat. His hump…’
‘Was a wineskin inserted under his clothes and filled with viscous liquid,’ the judge said.
‘Odo went hunting every night, but he never drank blood at all, did he?’ Jonathan said. He thought of the Earl of Maidstone’s red-stained lips when he came back from the hunt.
‘Elderberry,’ the judge said.
‘And he slowly starved…’
‘Starved to death,’ the judge said.
Behind them, flames rose into the sky as the castle started to burn. The condemned vampires trapped inside didn’t have a chance. But then again, they were, all of them, murderers. The world would not miss them, Jonathan thought. And he would not lose sleep over the loss of Castle Maidstone, or Maid’s Stone.
Judge Dee went into the dark and Jonathan, as he always did, followed him.
“The Locked Coffin: A Judge Dee Mystery” copyright © 2023 by Lavie Tidhar
Art copyright © 2023 by Red Nose Studio