Marsten County, Western Territories, 1888
The light from the setting sun set the dust ablaze, painting the small town of Loathsome in gold. The two riders slowly made their way along the silent main street. Aside from a half-starved mutt scampering out of their way, nothing moved.
They rode past the hotchpotch collection of wind-worn buildings that looked like they were held together with nothing but spit and mud. In fact, the only thing looking reasonably sturdy and new, had been the three wooden crosses marking fresh graves in the graveyard they had passed on their way into town.
“I don’t like this”, Greta muttered beneath her wide-brimmed hat. “It’s too quiet by far.” A movement in one of the windows revealed that Loathsome wasn’t as abandoned as it appeared. Her companion held in her horse and dismounted.
“He is here. I can feel it.” Lenore Kane adjusted the gun-belt on her hip a little and squinted down the seemingly deserted street. Like Greta, she wore her hat pulled low to protect her eyes from the harsh sun. Both women were dressed in men’s dusters over trousers, shirts and a waistcoat. Greta carried a Winchester Repeater. But it was the Colt 44. six-shooter on Lenore’s hip and the sword on her back that drew the eyes. Women simply didn’t pack revolvers, and if they did, they didn’t wear them in holsters on their hips, gunslinger style. And the only ones carrying swords these days were the officers in the army, and even they wore them more for pomp than anything else.
Greta climbed off her horse considerably less graceful than the taller woman. “That’s what you’ve said in every damn place we’ve come to for the last three weeks, Len.”
“This time I’m sure.”
“That’s what you said in Sourflats and Greenleaf.”
“And Head’s Hollow. And-”
“Greta! We have five days until he kill again. I’ll get him this time.”
Greta sighed. “That’s what you said in-“
Lenore’s eyes flashed in anger. “What do you suggest we do? Give up? God only knows how many men, women and children this monster has slain! And if we don’t stop him no one will!”
The shorter woman shrank back a little. “I’m only sayin’ that maybe it’s time we wired the Order for help. We could head back to civilization and hunt down a nest of ghouls or something if it’ll make you feel better. Hell, even a werewolf pack would be easier to deal with on our own than this. Tracking a single vampire across half the goddamm continent is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Scratch that. Finding a needle in a haystack wouldn’t be difficult at all. You could just use a magnetic device or-”
“Or set fire to the haystack”, Lenore quickly interrupted her friend and partner before she could start one of her long rants.
Greta rolled her eyes. “Always with the burning of things. I thought the incident in New York taught you to not play with fire.”
“Hey”, Lenore shot her a glare. “I thought we had agreed that you wouldn’t bring up New York anymore. Besides, they managed to rebuild most of it.” Then she grew serious. “You know we can’t wait for Yanna to send another team. If we do we’ll lose Corbin’s trail again, and he’ll be able to continue get his jollies picking people apart.”
Greta knew that what Lenore said was true. Theirs was a sacred duty. They where Huntresses, members of the Order of Diana. They had protected humankind from the dark forces of evil for thousands of years, and nothing came between a Huntress and her prey.
Though a bath, a meal and a night’s rest in an honest to god bed would be nice, Greta thought, looking up at the elaborately painted sign declaring for all the world that Loathsome Town Hotel was not only the finest establishment in the West but also offered clean beds, hot water and tasty meals.
Greta had some serious doubts of the truthfulness of the sign, but she was willing to be proven wrong.
The creaking of a door made them both turn just in time to watch the sheriff ease his considerable girth out of a building marginally larger than the out-house behind it. The pointed tips on his ears and the tusks protruding from beneath his moustache gave away the fact that a generation back or so, a grandmother or grandfather of his had lain with something not fully human. “Good evenin’”, he said, stepping off the boardwalk to approach them. “Is there something I can help you folks with?” He halted a few steps away from them, more out of surprise, Greta gathered, than anything else. Hell, the man wasn’t even packing! Yes, she thought, rolling her eyes. We’re women armed to our teeth and dressed in men’s clothes. Just get over it already.
“We’re looking for a man”, Lenore said, ignoring the man’s stare.
“And room for the night”, Greta added before Lenore could go on. “Preferably without rats, lice or any other kind of vermin.”
The man cleared his throat and stroked his large, drooping moustache. “Wilson will change the bedlinen to clean ones if you pay extra. You…” He let his gaze roam over their coats, trousers and boots again, taking in the guns strapped to their hips and the sword on Lenore’s back. “… ladies, lookin’ for a man in general or in particular?”
“In particular.” Lenore pulled out a folded up piece of paper from her pocket. She handed it to the sheriff who unfolded it. It was a Wanted-poster. To the man’s credit, he actually studied the picture. Which was more than the sheriff in the last town had bothered to do.
The lawman was right, though Lenore was loathed to admit it. James Corbin was handsome. At least if you believed the poster. The artist had some skill with his pencil and had drawn Corbin in vivid detail. Beneath a black hat, you could feast your gaze on high cheekbones, a straight nose and a jawline that went on for days. But it was the eyes that gave one reason to pause. They were pale, and the artist had captured something mercurial in them that told you that he could go from charmer to cold killer in a heartbeat.
No doubt a trait that came in handy for a bloodsucker, Lenore thought.
“You’ve seen anyone looking like him?” she asked when the man handed the sheet of paper back.
“Can’t say that I have, miss. But we don’t get many visitors nowadays. You should try the next town yonder. Angelbrook. They got themselves a train station now. Reckon that makes it a town of importance. Perhaps your man came through there.”
Lenore touched the brim of her hat. “Thank you kindly, Sheriff.”
“Higgins”, the man introduced himself. “George Higgins, miss. And you are?”
“Lenore Kane and Greta Ross. So, the hotel’s open?” Lenore asked after Higgins had given them both polite nods.
“It is.” Higgins motioned for them to follow. “So, what can you tell me about this man of yours. Is he an… acquaintance? A brother perhaps? A husband?”
“No relations, Sheriff. He’s a vampire.”
Higgin’s eyes widened under his bushy eyebrows. “You’re hunters? Lady monster hunters?” He gave a chuckle. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“No sermon on the weakness of our sex?” Lenore asked.
“No, ma’am. If you gals want to hunt down bloodsuckers, werewolves and what not, who am I to stand in your way. You both look like you can handle yourselves”, he added, eyeing the pistol strapped to Lenore’s hip and the hilt of the sword sticking up above her shoulder and the large rifle slung over Greta’s shoulder
“So, why is everything closed up?” Greta asked.
“Town’s in a state.” Higgins explained. “One of the farmers’ lost a young’un last night. Third person to go in less than a week.”
Lenore and Greta exchanged a look. “Dysentery or cholera?”
“Neither”, Higgins replied. “We think he was taken by a bear. The body was found down by Frogs Creek. It was torn to pieces.” He shook his head sadly. “I haven’t seen damage like that since the war.”
Lenore and Greta exchanged another look. “You said a bear did it?”
Higgins started to nod, then gave a shrug. “Well, no one’s seen it, but the boy’s father claims he heard something that sounded like a bear the night before.”
“I wouldn’t think this was bear country”, Greta said, gesturing at the flat plane surrounding the town.
“It’s not. But sometimes one wanders down from the mountains and makes its way over here.” Higgins gave a heavy sigh. “We’ve been struck by a bout of bad luck lately, that’s for sure.” He raised the rather fancy door-knocker and let it fall against the door. “Time to put your bottle away, Wilson”, he shouted. “You got guests!”
“Guests?” A voice sounded through the door. “Paying guests?”
“Paying guests, Wilson”, Higgins answered. Then he turned to Lenore. “Huh… you can pay, can’t you?”
Lenore turned to her partner. “Greta?”
Greta patted her pocket. “We got money.”
The door creaked as it opened, and a rat-like face peered out at them from beneath a straight fringe of stringy hair. “Guests, you say, Sheriff?” Wilson opened the door fully. He was a short, skinny man in a tattered velvet suit jacket that had been out of style for at least a decade. His eyes roamed over the two women, his gaze fastening on Lenore before he showed bad teeth in a smile. “Welcome, welcome. Step inside, please. A room you say? Will your girl stay in the stable with the horses?”
“My girl?” Lenore asked.
“Yes.” Wilson showed them through the dusty foyer that smelled stuffy and was in dire need of a thorough spring cleaning. He slipped behind the counter that had been painted to look like mahogany and picked up a pen, gesturing in Greta’s direction with it. “As a general rule, coloureds aren’t allowed.” He bared his teeth again. “You understand, don’t you, Miss. We must keep to certain standards.”
Greta’s amber-coloured eyes flashed in anger. “I was born free, motherfucker. And even if I hadn’t been, slavery was outlawed twenty years ago.”
“The lady’s right, Wilson”, Higgins said when the hotel manager looked like he was about to protest. “Now, you gonna insist on being ornery, or are you gonna sign the ladies in and show them to their rooms?”
“Room”, Lenore corrected him. “We only need the one.”
Wilson looked like he had taken a bite out of a lemon. “Of course”, he managed. “Under what name?”
WITH GRETA HANDLE SIGNING them in, Lenore let her mind drift. She was tired. Three months on dusty roads, moving from one crappy town to another, had begun to wear on her, and despite her words earlier, she was beginning to wonder if Greta wasn’t right. Perhaps it was time to admit that they needed help. The only problem was that Yanna would order them to return to New Orleans.
The Order has managed to free the city from vampire rule almost a century earlier and claimed it as its headquarters. Now it struggled to free the rest of the large cities in the Americas, making them safe for the innocent people who had no idea a war was being waged in the shadows. It was a war in which every soldier counted, and Lenore and Greta had been absent from it for too long already.
But Lenore knew that returning to Yanna and to her war wasn’t an option. Not for her, and not for Greta. They had both seen the horror Corbin inflicted upon his victims too many times to be able to turn away. Even compared to the ghouls who feasted upon the flesh of unburied corpses, Corbin was a monster. He had to be put down, it was as easy as that.
Listening with half an ear as Greta informed Wilson that she expected their room to have been aired and cleaned and furnished with fresh bedlinen by the time they had finished bathing, Lenore stared out of the dirty window at the dusty street.
Little by little, the town of Loathsome came to life. The owner of the saloon situated right across the street from the hotel, pulled up the blinders and a little further down the street, the sign on the door of the general store was turned from Closed to Open. The citizens emerged, standing in groups of three and four, talking quietly in between glancing up at the hotel. They had a hollowness in their eyes, a stiffness in their movements. It was something Lenore had seen before.
Loathsome was a town besieged by fear.
HAVING ARRANGED HOT WATER, clean towels and even a bar of perfumed soap, Wilson gave them a greasy smile and left them to their ‘lavations’ as he called it.
The bathhouse lay adjacent to the hotel, connected to it by a small enclosed yard where the stable and a simple wooden plank made up the other two sides. Like the hotel itself, it showed signs of having been spruced up. Badly painted scenes with fat nymphs in different states of undress in flaking gilded frames hung on the walls.
A burgundy velvet hanging blotched with mildew cornered off the bathtubs and Greta pulled it close, not putting it past Wilson to have drilled at least one peep-hole in the walls of the building.
“You don’t think a bear killed that kid”, Greta said. It wasn’t a question.
Lenore shook her head. “No, but something did.” She had undone the straps holding the sword and sheet in place on her back and was now shrugging out of the duster. “We should take a look down by that creek and see if whatever done the killing left any tracks or a trail.” She undid the buttons of first her waistcoat and then the shirt. “And we need to talk to the Sheriff again”, she continued. “If Corbin did it there will be signs of that on the body like there’s been on his other victims.”
“You still think he’s attempting to preform some kind of blood magic ritual?”
“I do”, Lenore confirmed, gingerly stepping into the bath. The water was hot enough that a steam rose up in the air and she sank into it with a sigh. “We should wire the twins and ask them to look into it. If we found out what Corbin is attempting, it could help us predict what he will do next.”
Greta pulled her dusty trousers off and tossed them on the stool standing next to the tub. She started to pull out the pins holding her unruly curls in place. Her gun-belt with the holster and the revolver already lay there, arranged so that she could grab the handle and be armed and ready to defend herself in a heartbeat. But it was the large blunderbuss that she had named Vera that was her favourite weapon.
To be honest, she couldn’t help but to wonder why her friend was so persistent in her belief that Corbin was attempting blood magic. Only an Elder vampire could use blood magic, and their research showed that Corbin was a mere hundred to a hundred years old. There were strange marks on the bodies, symbols carved into the bodies all right. But vampires marking their territories or even inflicting pain and torture on their victims wasn’t unheard of. Still Lenore was convinced that what they were seeing on Corbin’s victims were ritualistic.
“You know all Elders were destroyed in the great fire 1788”, Greta said, climbing into the tub, causing water to slosh over the sides. “The few who survived fled back to the Old World. Maybe Corbin’s just delusional”, she said, reaching for the bar of soap. “It wouldn’t be the first mad vampire we’ve hunted.”
“I had a dream”, Lenore said, her voice quiet.
Greta’s eyes widened. “One of those dreams?”
Lenore nodded, pulling her knees up against her chest and wrapping her arms around them, hugging herself. She’d had prophetic dreams ever since she was a child and they were always deeply disturbing.
“Tell me about it.”
Lenore gave a little shrug. “There isn’t much to tell. I see a ruin… a church I think. The next thing I know, I’m inside it. You’re there…” She trailed off, closing her eyes, wanting to block the images talking about the dream conjured up. “He’s holding you down”, she mumbled. “Pushing your head into the water of the old fount. He’s drowning you.”
“Corbin?” Greta asked, feeling a chill run down her back despite the warm water.
“You know those dreams aren’t literal”, Greta said, reaching over to put her hand on Lenore’s shoulder, giving it a comforting squeeze. “Yanna says they’re symbols. They have to be interpreted in order to be understood.”
Lenore nodded again. “I know. But it was so vivid, Greta. It felt so real.”
“All it could mean is that I’ll pee myself when we finally come face to face with Corbin.”
Greta smiled, pleased that she had broken the dark mood. She gave her friend’s shoulder another squeeze. “No bloodsucker will be the end of me. I’m gonna die old, fat and happy in a bed next to my hubby.”
“You’re not married”, Lenore pointed out.
“Not yet, I am. But I’ll find me someone handsome with a good heart and gentle hands, and I’ll make him mine.” Greta had cut the single bar of soap Wilson had provided in two and handed Lenore a piece. It smelled faintly of lilacs and was so old it almost crumbled in her hands, but it was the first piece of soap she had seen in a week and she gladly made use of it.
Lenore took a moment, just savouring the feeling of being clean again. She leaned back against the tub, watching Greta who was briskly ridding herself of sweat, grime and dust.
Unlike Greta who was plump and curvy like a ripe plum, she was lean with small breasts and skin so pale it looked translucent. The hot water had rendered it pink, making the dusting of freckles across her cheeks and nose bright red. Her long chestnut coloured hair lay slick against the back of her skull and shoulders before spreading out like seaweed in the water.
The bathwater quickly cooled, and the two women stepped out, making use of the towels before dressing in their last sets of fresh clothes.
“The Order has a contact in Angelbrook”, Lenore said, strapping on the gun belt. “I’ll head over there after we’ve eaten.”
“You want me to come with?” Greta asked, looking up from lacing her boots.
Lenore shook her head. “You stay here and talk to the sheriff. We need to know as much as possible about what happened here. If it is Corbin, this is the closest we’ve come to him since Breecher’s Hope.”
Greta sighed. “You know we’re suppose to be partners, right?”
“We are partners”, Lenore replied, reaching for her coat.
“Huhu… That’s why you get to go to the big exciting town and I get to be stuck here talking to the locals.”
“Talking to locals is what you do best”, Lenore said. “People like you, Greta. Besides, I doubt Angelbrook can be described as big and exciting trains station or no.”
“People would like you too if you stopped looking like you’re thinking of poking holes in them with that sword of yours”, Greta said, still pouting. “Maybe if you tried smiling a little?”
Greta gave a shudder. “Now, that’s just disturbing.”
They left the bathhouse, crossing the small yard and entered the hotel. The dining room sported wallpaper in the most horrendous colour of purple Greta had ever seen, and for some reason it had been paired with yellow curtains.
The dinner contained of beans, meat stew that Wilson assured contained high quality beef, but most likely was rabbit, and slightly stale bread. But neither Lenore or Greta was fussy when it came to food, and after having lived on gruel for the last week, they ate with gusto, emptying their plates.
Lenore emptied her glass of surprisingly good wine and rose to her feet. “I’ll talk to Wilson about a horse.”
“When will you be back?” Greta asked, filling her glass with the last of the wine from the decanter.
“Before dawn”, Lenore said, walking out of the dining room. “Don’t wait up.” Her lips curled into a small smile. Greta would wait up for her no matter what she said. She always did.