Smudged in shadow, Van Helsing removed his hat and took his seat inside one very specific Vatican confessional booth. The attending monk yawned as he slid up the shutter — then yelped and snapped it closed again before Van Helsing could open his mouth. The Holy Order’s defensive gate roared down into the booth’s doorway and finished with an echoing slam. Van Helsing rolled his eyes to the sounds of panicked whispers, then skittering feet. Cardinal Jinette appeared in the monk’s place behind the privacy grating shortly thereafter, wearing the same scarlet zucchetto and puffy old scowl as always.
“Forgive me Father, for I have frightened your friend.” Van Helsing reached left to rattle the heavy gate. Purposed to shut out curious parishioners, it had once again shut him in. “He thinks I’m a tiger.”
“Your reputation precedes you.”
“It always does.”
“It can not be helped,” said the Cardinal. His tone was merciful when it should instead have been apologetic, for it was the Cardinal and his Order who put Van Helsing to tasks that fashioned him into a universally wanted man, casting his ideals to the dirt for demons, inner and outer, to feast upon. It was the Order who dangled the story of his own past above his pillaged brains, teasing him with secrets they surely kept locked away in the ancient tomes of their deepest and most guarded libraries, ensuring his servitude.
But the matter at hand was Van Helsing’s news, not his grudge, and he preferred to revisit only the details that the Cardinal required. “How much precedes me, exactly?”
“Friar Carl has given his report in writing.” A relief. “Do you trust his account?”
“Did anything of interest to the Order transpire without his knowledge?”
“I’m not sure. Let me think.” Van Helsing made himself comfortable. “Dracula is dead. All three of his brides are dead. His hordes of freakish children are dead. Doctor Frankenstein is dead, his assistant is dead, and his monster is dead. Velkan and Anna Valerious are dead. Their town has been decimated and its undertaker, amid so much booming business, is tragically also dead. Everyone who mattered and many who didn’t, all dead.”
“Frankenstein’s monster is dead?”
Van Helsing had hoped the Order would forget about their special instruction to kill an innocent. That creature had chosen the grisly situation of his birth no more than any common man. Why should anyone, however unnatural his form, be sacrificed to snuff out powers for which he had no desire? “Yes, the monster is dead.”
“How did you kill him?”
“We didn’t.” Carl had been right to suggest they share a white lie: “Dracula stole the monster’s life to imbue his offspring with it. When I killed Dracula they all perished, but the monster did not wake. We buried him at sea.” Out of the Cardinal’s view Van Helsing crossed his fingers that the living monster, precariously afloat on his amateur raft, had not buried himself at sea. Did he know how to swim? Did he need to breathe, or in the event of a capsize would he eternally roam the sea floor?
“And did the confrontation with Dracula help to unearth your past?”
That was not wholly the Cardinal’s business. This interrogation was growing tedious. “He gave me a name, a title and many more questions.”
What had Van Helsing gleaned? Could he trust that Dracula had spoken the truth about his past? Likely not, for what could it be but a damning mark of vanity to believe oneself an angel on the word of a devil? Van Helsing had not learned anything definitive about who he was, except that the Wanted posters had been right all along: ‘Gabriel,’ the amnesiac ‘Left Hand of God,’ had earned a black stain of true homicidal disgrace to wear in place of wings, and he was not willing, nor was he necessarily even able, to grant the fact his voice.
The Cardinal waited in silence for more information. Van Helsing crushed his hands together, one fist to the other palm, bracing against the sensation of exposure, and by this tension the ring he wore drew a throb into his finger. One look at that black sigil of the winged serpent stirred the back of his throat with vicious revulsion. He pulled the ring off. “I found out where this came from. It belonged to Dracula a long time ago.” He held it up to a space in the privacy grate. “Throw it in your coffers, trade it for more silver for your foundry. I have no use for trophies.”
The Cardinal raised his hand to the ring and hesitated. “You are certain?”
Van Helsing nodded, once.
“It will be kept secure.” The Cardinal took the ring, put it on his own finger, and then frowned at it as though a terrible taste had come into his mouth. He removed it and placed it in a pocket instead. “Such an historical relic is worth more than a man’s weight in silver, and it remains yours. It will be returned to you upon request.”
“I will not make that request.”
“An incredible story, in all.” The Cardinal reached for the shutter. “And the story continues. Adventure awaits. Come with me.”
“I would like to discuss my salary.”
The Cardinal’s hand twitched back from the shutter’s handle. “Pardon me?”
Van Helsing leaned forward as if readying to whisper a secret. Upon gaining the Cardinal’s close attention he raised his voice instead: “If you want me to keep working for you, I would like a salary.”
“Your ‘salary,'” spat the scandalized Cardinal, “May be found in the compounding grace of God’s forgiveness for your transgressions against…” He trailed off as he noticed Van Helsing’s hand which, resting palm-up on the shelf normally tasked with cradling the elbows of praying repentants, had adopted a persistent beckoning motion. The iconoclastic imagery corroded Jinette’s idealism until only pragmatism was left: “You already receive ample coverage of expenses for every venture,” he mumbled.
“I’m not talking about that. You can’t expect me to live on holy water and communion wafers between jobs.”
“Between jobs,” Van Helsing confirmed. “I’m taking a week off.”
“It is not your place to ‘take’ a week ‘off.’ The forces of evil do not wait.” The Cardinal pulled a lever on the panel before him. With a churning of tired gearwork, the tapestry behind him revealed its familiar hidden door. Torchlight crept slowly up the Cardinal’s robes as the secret passage to the Holy Order’s scientific abyss beckoned them both. “Come along.”
Van Helsing remained seated. “A day, then. You have other servants.”
“We have none like… you.” As the argument came out, the Cardinal’s expression changed, betraying is thoughts: he had unwittingly undermined his own conclusion. The need to keep Van Helsing on assignment was inextricable from his value, a value which entitled him to make demands.
“One day, at least.” Van Helsing hated to beg even in the intimacy of a confessional, but Jinette needed an extra push. “Give me one night to sleep without fresh evils hanging over my head.”
“Fine.” The Cardinal pulled his lever again while waving his other hand. “One night.” The rising passage door groaned, shuddered and changed its direction. “And you will receive an additional three hundred for yourself –”
“Per satisfactorily completed assignment.” The Cardinal’s robes churned comically as he searched beneath them. He retrieved an envelope and began rifling through a low drawer that Van Helsing could not see. “In exchange I advise you to consider attending mass…” Paper crinkled, coins clinked. “…and likewise, attending to the offertory plate.”
The Church, beholden to the laws of men, was far from perfect. Van Helsing wondered how many of the banknotes moving out of the confessional stash and into the Cardinal’s hands were the fruit of bribes and blackmail. “Consider it considered.”
“I suppose that is the best I can ask for.” Cardinal Jinette pushed the envelope through the privacy grate with the smooth gesture of a man who had done it many times before. Van Helsing took the envelope and counted his wage in front of the Cardinal because it was rude to do so. He could feel the Cardinal’s eyes searching his face and his hands as he counted, a gaze unhindered by the grate’s latticework shadows, which barely afforded even a pretense of privacy.
Two hundred eighty, two hundred ninety, three hundred. Van Helsing thumbed through it again, roughly partitioning a budget for a change of clothes to wear in disguise, a bath and shave, a roof over his head away from the Vatican, a gallon of ale and a soft warm bed for the last drop of drink to knock him into; possibly a corseted wench to fall down with as well if he could find one healthy enough, with dark silken curls, a fighting spirit — No! A thousand reasons, no.
“You are troubled,” the Cardinal said.
Van Helsing huffed, amused by the understatement. “Sure.”
“She had a beautiful soul. I could see it even in her picture.”
“Sure.” He folded the envelope and tucked it into an inner breast pocket. “Are we finished here?”
The Cardinal nodded, his sullen eyes averted, and Van Helsing studied him through the slits of his own. Had he demanded too high a price? Was the Church a more generous force for good in the world than its elaborate ornaments implied? They could revisit his wage some other time. He stood to leave, and waited, but the heavy gate did not lift. “Jinette?”
Cardinal Jinette did not move. “I expect to find you in this exact place at daybreak,” he said.
“What? But that gives me no time to–”
“Tuesday,” the Cardinal finished. He closed his shutter and raised the heavy gate.
Van Helsing found the smallest of smiles as the prismatic stained light of St. Peter’s Basilica washed over him unbroken. For the first time in an age, he signed the cross. Tuesday would not come for another five days.