ARCHER ARRIVED ON FOOT. His taxi had dropped him off a quarter of a mile away from his destination, beside the crowd streaming into a brightly lit theatre. Misty drizzle was glistening on his hat and overcoat by the time he reached the avenue of large, old houses. Cold air bit his fingers when he took them from a warm pocket. The paintwork on the wrought iron gate had a greasy, fungoid sheen. Archer wiped his fingers dry on his reserve handkerchief as he started up the drive.
The house looked welcoming and forbidding at the same time. Archer was glad that exterior lights pushed the darkness back to a safe distance. This particular house was almost three hundred years old; a direct link with the times of Queen Anne. Even knowing that the brass lanterns in the porch cast unwavering electric beams, Archer felt an affinity with its first visitors, who had arrived at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The towering bulk of the house merged with a solid overcast, expressing a timeless continuity. Archer could see a white Rolls-Royce through an open door of the stable block, which had become a long garage. The modern vehicle looked comfortable enough in its ancient setting. It was the carriage-of-the-times of a gentleman.
Archer was pleased to find a bell-pull. The head of a fierce, mythical beast slid toward him on a solid rod. A bell jangled faintly, deep within the house. Archer had arrived to solicit a contribution to a worthy cause from a wealthy man. Count Barchescu's family had come to England from Romania as refugees. Theirs had been an orderly withdrawal, however.
As well as a knack for making money, the family had developed the skills necessary for keeping it and for moving it to a place of safety in troubled times. Thus the count was well able to support good causes as a way of thanking his adopted country for its hospitality. His desire for anonymity explained why Archer had told no one of his plans for the evening and why he had paid off the taxi some distance away.
The butler was tall, strong, dark and polished. Beneath the surface, and not too deep beneath, was an air of disdain. He took Archer's damp overcoat and hat as if he were doing him a special favour. The servant displayed an aristocratic loftiness, which his master was far too well mannered to show.
Count Barchescu was a stocky man of about fifty, ten years older than Archer. Dark brown eyes gazed with confidence from beneath thick, black brows. His nose was straight and thin, and his jaw firm. His hair was sparse, mainly silver with black threads, close cropped and brushed back. He was dressed in an elegant business suit, a pure white silk shirt and a red cummerbund. His tie had a dragon motif, which was European-traditional rather than Oriental.
Archer, a man of just over average height, was surprised to find himself towering over his host. He had seen the Count on television several times, but he had never realized how short the Romanian was. Somehow, the Count's air of self assurance made him the larger figure. They reached level terms in the Count's study. When they were sitting on either side of a log fire, the Count seemed not to be engulfed in his chair, even though it appeared to be the twin of a chair that Archer found roomy. Archer put the illusion down to wealth, vanity and a clever trick with perspective.
The butler brought a decanter and two glasses of fine crystal on a silver tray, then attended to the fire. The old, pale brandy whispered softly over the palate to light a warm glow within. Archer forgot the chilly, quarter of an hour's tramp to the house as he watched blazing logs throw out sparks when another lump of timber joined them.
"Thank you, Perkins. That will be all for the moment." Count Barchescu had a deep, rich voice. His English was as perfect as his brandy, but it carried just a charming hint of his native accent to show that he was not ashamed of his origins.
"Very good, your lordship." Perkins inclined his head respectfully toward his master. Archer received the merest nod to acknowledge his existence before the butler swept out of the study.
"A very rare breed," said the Count. "Perkins guarantees total loyalty to his employer. To the exclusion of all others. A man in a million, one might say. He and his kind formed an inner core of household servants in the days when a nobleman had to defend his possessions by force of arms.
"Their fortunes rose and fell with those of their house. Of course, their salary structure is slightly different these days. A sports car instead of a fine horse, a personal corner of the wine cellar, a private television, video recorder, compact disc player, and so on. But the basic bargain remains the same. Special skills still command the highest rewards."
"You have a large staff?" said Archer.
"I find Perkins and four others suit my requirements perfectly. My wife and the children are abroad with their retinue, visiting relatives."
"If you had many more staff, I suppose you'd have trouble getting your own car into the garage."
"Yes, perhaps I would." The Count gave a throaty chuckle of genuine pleasure, proving that he had a sense of humour.
"This is a marvellous room." Archer turned in his chair to take in the portrait on the wall opposite the fireplace.
Rich earth colours from the carpet, leather bindings of a great many books, tapestries on the oak panelling; all were echoed in the background of the painting, common items in a different setting. The picture, in its ornate, gilt frame, was a good six feet square. It showed a man of about thirty sitting in a throne-like chair on the Count's side of the study. His face was composed, but there was a certain sadness in the eyes, as if the man had suffered greatly. Sunlight flooding through leaded windows provided the other room's illumination, however. In England, at night, there was the intimate glow from wall lamps with shades of dark parchment.
"My grandfather, painted by van Reuven," said the Count. "My family has always found the Dutch to be masters of portraiture."
"That's a very distinctive ring he's wearing." Archer leaned sideways in his chair as he concentrated on what was clearly a feature of the picture.
"Please." The Count pulled off his signet ring and tossed it to his guest. "It has been in my family for generations. The design is worn now, but it was a dragon originally." He glanced down at his tie. "The emblem of a royal house. The dragon is called dracul in the language of my ancestors. A name often taken also by illegitimate sons of the king. To the ignorant, superstitious peasantry, the word means devil."
"Is that anything to do with Dracula?" Archer asked cautiously. He pronounced the name Drack-you-la in the English fashion, with the stress toward the beginning of the word. He kept his tone light to avoid giving offence to his distinguished host. "Not that I'm suggesting you had vampires in your family."
"Dracula," corrected the Count gently, pronouncing the name Dra-coo-la, with even weight on the three syllables, "means son of the dragon. The one you are thinking of, the supposed model for Bram Stoker's character, was Vlad, the second son of a nobleman called Dracul. As usual, tradition distorts the truth. An unreasoning fear of vampirism did arise in the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania, but that was in the seventeenth century. Vlad Dracula was murdered in fourteen seventy-nine.
"Curiously, though, the vampire myth does have a slight historical basis. One of the principal symptoms of a mysterious plague that came and went in the seventeenth century was an extreme degree of anemia. And blood is a rich source of iron."
"Very odd," smiled Archer, feeling thoroughly at home in pleasant company and luxurious surroundings. "The fifteenth century Dracula would be Vlad the Impaler?" He made no attempt to mimic the Count's pronunciation with its strange (to Archer), liquid, Eastern European overtones.
"The very same. His adventurous life began with twelve years as a hostage to ensure his father's good behaviour, which meant that he was a prisoner in all but name and leading an extremely precarious existence. He escaped to become a king in his own right. He fought great battles with the Turks. And eventually, he met a common fate for a great man. He was betrayed, and later beheaded.
"Vlad Dracul was a man with a great sense of honour. His father was walled up alive by what one might call the solid citizens of his region. Rich merchants and so on. A nod, one might say, in the direction of a future master of the macabre. You recall Edgar Allan Poe's story The Cask of Amontillado?"
"For the love of God, Montresor!" quoted Archer in confirmation, certain that there was a first edition of the Tales of Mystery and Imagination on one of the Count's many bookshelves.
"When Vlad achieved power, he rounded up the merchants and their families," continued the Count, "and put them to work adding to the fortifications of his castle. It still stands to this day, guarding the head of a great valley. Visitors seeing it from afar often describe it as a fairy-tale palace in the sky. In the fifteenth century, the only access was via a narrow road, which zig-zagged hundreds of metres up a steep hill. Vlad turned his father's murderers into beasts of burden.
"He made them carry large stones up to the heights. Men, women and children toiled in the heat of the summer sun; without food, without water, without rest. Sweat and dust turned their fine garments to filthy rags, which chaffed and rubbed their soft flesh raw. Hearts pounded, muscles creaked from the dead weight of the unyielding stones and lungs threatened to burst. But when they fell and tried to rest, soldiers whipped them on. Their world became an ocean of pain, directed only to one single, glorious moment of release when they fell for the last time, dead of exhaustion."
"They were rather violent times," murmured Archer, a little disturbed by the Count's evident relish at the fate of the merchants and their families.
"The traditional English sympathy lies with the underdog of the moment," grinned the Count, displaying a set of normal, white teeth. Archer noted a lack of enlarged canines in the upper jaw and felt a sense of irrational relief. "But who suffered more?" added the Count. "Vlad's father, condemned to linger for many days in a black cavity behind the living rock until he descended into merciful madness and then death? Or his murderers, who experienced a greater intensity of pain, but over a much shorter time span?"
"Well, I suppose everyone involved died a long time ago and no amount of recrimination will change anything that happened to them," said Archer diplomatically.
"Of course, the history of any period is always written by the survivors and according to their prejudices. Vlad Dracula enjoyed less than cordial relations with the Saxon merchants who were his neighbours. Take the impalings, for instance.
"Some accounts say he spitted a few hundred Saxons and Turks. Others would have us believe that his victims numbered tens of thousands, and that whole forests were hacked down to provide sufficient stakes. We can only believe that which our own prejudices makes reasonable.
"But threads of truth about the man survive in the most biased stories. One tells of a merchant arriving to do business with Vlad and finding him calmly dining in one of his forests of stakes, surrounded by rotting bodies. The merchant asked if the smell did not put Vlad off his meal. Vlad said it did not, and asked if the smell bothered the merchant. He too said it did not but Vlad could tell that he was lying. And so he had the merchant impaled and added to the forest, but on a much longer stake so that he would be above the field of rotting corpses, untroubled by the smell. I think you will agree, the story shows that Vlad had a sense of humour."
"Rather black humour," shuddered Archer.
"Humour and terror go extraordinarily well together. It is easy to fear a grim, threatening figure. But how much more we should fear a man with a sense of humour. Because it is a sign of imagination. The capacity to invent even greater terror. To take another example from the literature of the macabre: would not Frankenstein's monster have been yet more terrifying if he had shown a sense of humour? Underlining his intrinsic humanity but stressing his unhuman nature?"
"I don't know quite how Frankenstein with jokes would go down," murmured Archer, reluctant to disagree with his host.
"I was thinking more of a well-developed sense of the absurd rather than one-line jokes. But no matter." The Count abandoned the thought. "The novel Frankenstein is another fine example of an author weaving a thread of fact into her fantasy. The tradition of scientific experiment by members of the European nobility goes back many hundreds of years. In my own family, for instance, my paternal grandfather was very interested in the development of television. I myself carry on work in the field of electronics begun by my father before his untimely death."
"No doctors in your family?" Archer spoke with mock nervousness.
"Not recently," smiled the Count. "But my family has always taken an interest in the workings of the human body. Who knows what dark and terrible secrets were uncovered in the secluded depths of houses such as this? What hints emerged to guide the thoughts of those who received the credit for revealing the body's hidden mechanisms."
Archer was trying not to stare a the lampshade on the right of the chimney breast. He told himself firmly that it was not made of human skin, even though the design on it looked like a tattoo of an Austrian imperial eagle, perhaps dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. "All a long time ago," he said to fill a pause in the conversation.
"Yes, the blood of the Impaler has run a little thin by now."
"You're related to the Draculas?" Archer wriggled into a more comfortable position in his armchair, easing a sudden discomfort in the seat of his trousers.
"The Barchescus have many relatives in Europe. Marriage is the usual form of alliance between noble houses. You will be relieved to hear that I can see myself in a mirror; which is why I do not cut off my nose when I shave."
"I'm surprised you don't see more bearded vampires in films," chuckled Archer. "But I suppose the Count Dracula in the book got his servant to shave him." Archer was feeling warm and relaxed through the combined effects of the fire and the excellent brandy. He was also starting to feel a little drowsy.
"I had not thought of that," chuckled the Count. "He must have had his manservant comb his hair, too. How difficult to maintain one's appearance without the benefit of a mirror."
"On reflection, I think the fictional vampire is slightly less savoury than the historical impaler. Not that Vlad would be able to get away with it these days. The public health inspectors would be round like a shot. All those rotting bodies must have attracted flies by the billion. And what was the point of his mass impalings? Sorry, no pun intended."
"An extension of the mass crucifictions of Roman times. Punishment, and a warning."
"Surely not?" frowned Archer. "A crucified person is meant to die a slow death of suffocation. If he had a dirty great spike rammed up his nether regions, he'd be dead of shock and massive blood loss in minutes. Surely the merchant in your story was dead and unconcerned by the smell long before he was hoisted up on his longer spike?"
"That is where the art of the impaler comes in," said the Count with a gentle smile. "He too must be a man in a million. While his four asistants keep the victim's spine perfectly straight by pulling to just the right degree on ropes tied to the thighs and upper arms, the impaler must hammer the iron-tipped stake accurately through muscle, avoiding major organs and blood vessels, until a few final, delicate taps bring the iron tip clear of the flesh at the top of the back. And when the stake is raised up, the victim often hangs for as much as two days before expiring.
"Imagine, Mister Archer, the exquisite agony of the initial shock of penetration, the surging drive of the stake through living flesh, hearing one's body make curious creaking noises in the quiet interval as one draws breath for one more unhuman shriek, and then the engulfing waves of dull pain, which sharpen with each slight motion of the suspended body. And that perfect moment of relief when all life ceases."
"Makes you glad this is the twentieth century, not the fifteenth." Archer tried to cast off his drowsiness. "Well, perhaps we could discuss the reason for my visit?" He was there for cash, not just chat.
"Most certainly," smiled the Count. "You told no one that you were coming here tonight?"
"I even got the taxi to stop at the theatre on the main road."
"Are you feeling a little tired, Mister Archer?"
"Not at all." Archer tried to shake his head but it had become too heavy for his neck to support. He felt himself sliding. Then the world rushed away.
A sudden muscle spasm jerked Archer awake. He tried to rub his eyes but his hands would not move - could not move. He tugged impatiently. Then he realized that none of his limbs could move. He was lying face down on a cold, stone slab with his arms and legs spread to make him into a letter X.
The light was much whiter and brighter than in the Count's study. Archer could see bare walls of massive stone slabs with perfectly smooth faces, an arched doorway closed with double doors of iron-studded, age-blackened timber, and racks of electronic instruments. Brightly coloured cables looped from cabinet to cabinet.
"Ah, you are awake again," said the Count's voice.
Archer turned his head, with difficulty, to the right. He rested his cheek on the chilly stone. Count Barchescu was adjusting a sort of cap, from which wires sprouted. Archer had a sudden wild thought about an electric chair and suicide.
"As well as the Draculs, we are also related to the Borgias," added the Count. "You took a harmless narcotic with your brandy, from which you have recovered completely. The equipment around the room is my electronic research project. My aim is to link two minds by communicating the electrical impulses which carry thoughts.
"The person who acts as receiver will be able to see, hear, touch, taste and smell everything experienced by the transmitter. I am sure you will agree that such a system will be a great boon to everyone who is immobile for one reason or another. It will open up a great new world for the disabled, for instance, and allow the deaf to hear and the blind to see. And a recording process would pose a great threat to the travel industry. All the sights, sounds and smells of the world's most popular wonders experienced in the comfort of one's own home....
"But every great invention has its beginnings. In its present state, my equipment can transmit only extremes of sensation. I refine it with every experiment, and take advantage of developments in the field of electronics, but I need the data from tests to be able to do so. Some day, I shall be able to record experiences and play them back at my convenience. But, until I perfect the device, each transmission has to be live, to borrow a term from radio and television broadcasting.
"I must admit the truth of the saying, Old blood breeds corruption. The Dracul line produced a princess, who achieved sexual ecstasy only while watching the bloody torture of young virgins, and who bathed in her victims' blood to preserve her beauty.
"The Barchescu line carries an unfortunate craving to experience pain. Equally unfortunately, its gratification can result in mutilation and damage severe enough to be fatal, as many of my ancestors learned at a comparatively early age. The survival of our line remains a source of constant wonder to me.
"However. My device allows me to share your sensations while avoiding the physical consequences. I think the time has come now to thank you for visiting me in secret, and to place you in the hands of my staff, ably led by Perkins, my man in a million. You may scream if you wish. You will not be heard beyond my laboratory."
A constriction of his forehead and damp patches on his scalp told Archer that he too was wearing an open cap fitted with electrodes. Count Barchescu sat down before Archer in the throne-like chair from his grandfather's portrait. Between them was a round socket in the stone floor for the butt of a stake.
Ropes tightened irresistably. Archer could see two men, young and strong, keeping the tension on his upper arms. He knew that three others stood behind him, two with ropes tied to his thighs and the third a man in a million, whose skill with hammer and the awful stake would sentence Archer to a compressed eternity of suffering for the Count's twisted pleasure.
Before he felt the first urging, tearing thrust of steel-tipped oak, Archer's throat was already raw from screams of terror and utter despair. ■