Campaign of the Month: July 2021

The Coldfall Sanction


Session Twelve - Part Nine


Jackson Elias’ Journal (continued)
14 March 1916 – Bucharest – In a backward glance, I observed Eleonora as she calmly reclaimed her seat at the table. A freshly lit cigarette in the black lacquered holder in one hand, the other casually lifting a glass of wine, while ahead of us, as I returned my gaze to Petre, he moved now with the grace of experience. A state of controlled haste. The desire to hurry tempered by a wary cautiousness, as he led us through the threshold from the main dining room of the Alhambra. It was a wariness I had seen before — among certain members of the New York Camorra. The more experienced, older Black Handers, who, having survived many a fruit wagon ambush, restaurant gun battle, or shotgun assault in a barber shop, knew to never allow the necessity for haste to overcome the need for vigilance. Of which, the longer they survived, the more it increased. It was fascinating now to see it in a man so obviously as young as he. Testimony to just how experienced he was for his years. Or as to how early he had begun in achieving it. There was no way to know and no time to ask.

The clatter of a pot greeted us as one of the kitchen staff turned awkwardly upon our invasion through the threshold. They all gave us their severest glances as we entered. In some ways hoping I emulated Petre’s controlled wariness, I finished affixing the pin to my hat, as I strode behind the Professor, who, following Petre, was at the vanguard of our invading party. With Lord Cyril before me, I followed in their wake, having resisted his lordship’s chivalry in wanting to allow me to go forward. But having been behind enemy lines before, seeing in my eyes a look we had exchanged many times, he gave deference to appendance and gave up his gentlemanly forbearance. Even as I felt the reassuring weight of my Steyr. His lordship gave them a smile and a slight nod, with a polite doff of his hat, as he said in his ever fluent Romanian: – "Te rog, iartă-ne intruziunea.”

We passed a man in grey trousers and a white coat – the chef – who gave us a silent disapproving glare as we moved through his kitchen. Petre, having been silent the whole of our intrusion, reached behind and inside his jacket to remove a revolver, he spoke but one a single word: “Siguranța.”

And the kitchen’s staff’s displeasure immediately dissipated as they began to take up pots and pans, whatever came to hand, in the appearance of being once more busy in the preparation of luncheon entrée’s for a dining room bereft of patrons. I took note as well; they all now had long knives ready to hand. The chef turned and stepped away to open a cleverly concealed niche in the floor beneath the large stove into from which he retrieved a Browning automatic.

We moved quickly past service tables, some with food in preparation, some bearing an array of small wooden boxes filled with vegetables as we made our way silently to the back of the kitchen. Upon reaching a whitewashed door, marred with rough scuffs along the bottom, Petre opened it, allowing a blast of frosty air to invade the comforting warmth of the Alhambra’s narrow scullery as he stepped back. Beyond, in a drift of undisturbed snow, lay an alleyway.

The Professor, at the lead, took a moment upon the threshold to lean forward as he quickly reconnoitered the exit, before, having been assured there was no one observing, he stepped cautiously into the crust of the snow, his shoe sinking several inches into the hoary drift laden against the backdoor.

His lordship pulled a large banknote from his coat pocket and turning placed it firmly in Petre’s hand, and said something quietly to him. It moved quickly from his hand to his pocket as Petre nodded and muttered something in return, they both speaking in Romanina – which I learned later from his lordship was, rather than an acknowledgement of his lordship’s more than substantial tip for the restaurant’s sublime service, was to tell his lordship to impress upon Take Pavel the growing urgency for him to give his running account attention. Pavel being apparently a gamester of modest skill and far too charitable a running credit.

Cane in hand, his lordship stepped out as the Professor turned to offer a supporting hand.

Both offering me theirs as I followed them out the whitewashed door to step as best I could into the hoary impression of his lordship’s footsteps, as they stood in snow far past their ankles. Without further word, Petre closed the door behind us. And silence fell.

The hush of a cold, frozen, winter’s day blanketing the alleyway in an undisturbed snow settled all around us. It was narrow, the alley, barely the width to allow a team and a good-sized delivery wagon, or motor truck passage. To our right it stretched away into the haze of the day. And to the left, the way in which Eleonora’s doff hand wave had directed, it lead to the street which must lie just beyond the misty fog. The Professor, arms held slightly outward to assure his balance, began to lead the way, placing one foot before the other, before, having taken a few steps, turned to look back to his lordship to ensure he did not need assistance. Before me, his Lordship sought to stride in the deeply set imprints of Vordenburg’s footsteps before him – even as I sought his own. Lord Cyril, cane in hand, pressing it down for support, used his other to brace himself against the wall of the building opposite. Their steamy breaths of their exertion drifted into the misty fog. It appeared no more than twenty feet, but the snow was deep and undisturbed.

Holding up the hem of my coat and dress, careful, to place my foot into the foot track left before me by either the Professor and his lordship – whose progress was my sole attention – we made our way through the hoary drift.

“Siguranța.” I asked as we progressed.

“The Secret Police.” His lordship replied as he took a careful step, “They were set up in the wake of the peasant revolt eight years ago, to crack down on any sort of unstable elements.” His cane stabbing into the crust, “However they are generally unaccountable and I am unsure as to where—” assured of his balance, he stepped forward into the imprint of the Professor’s foot track before him, “their loyalties actually lie.” He looked up to peer ahead, “One of their number made a call on me and seemed to be, at least a bit appraised of the situation.”

“Ah, would that have been Deputy Inspector Vlădescu come to made the not too innocent introductory call?” Came the Professor’s over the shoulder remark.

Hems falling, I suddenly reached out instinctively, to become horribly aware I was a foot or two short of being of any assistance to his lordship as I saw him catch himself as he was just beginning to slip: — "In all honesty, I think they could be a very strong ally in this fight — the Professor, having looked back, quick to reached out and give him a bracing hand: — “But their reach is so obvious,” He continued in a huff of steamy breath, as he righted his lordship, “That I can’t help but think our enemies have had the same idea long before.”

“Indeed it was.” Lord Cyril, halting for a moment to assure his footing, “I take it he has done similar with you?”

“Yes.” Both assured now of their footing, Professor Vordenburg proceeded once more in the vanguard — “Made his way to my doorstep.” He braced himself against the wall, “Shortly upon my arrival in Bucharest.”

The two of them ahead of me, crushing ankles depth of the snow, as the Professor continued, haltingly: “All pleasantries, of course — while letting me know . . . I was under observation."

“Vlădescu is definitely in the know——” his lordship looked up, attempting to peer ahead, "And his manner . . . seems . . . to indicate . . . a willingness, “ observing the Professor, having reached the mouth of the alley, “to co-operate . . . against our joint enemy.” His lordship took Vordenburg’s hand, following suit now to step out of the alleyway, as he removed his bracing hand from the brickwork of the building.

The fog enshrouded avenue and pavement, though an improvement from the undisturbed snow of the alley, from which we now emerged, were not as well traversed as the main thoroughfare and pavement lying before the Alhambra – which his lordship and I had made our way down, and back, to inspect the site where that unfortunate young boy’s body had been found.

I lowered my hems again as we stood for a moment attempting to make out what we could in the low visibility afforded within the misty fog. In the hush of the wintery day, there was the crunching sound of the hooves of the horses, which appeared ghostly out of the haze of the mist and the beginnings of a lightly falling snow. Their steamy breaths as labored as ours as we stood listening to the crunch of their hooves and the crush of the wagon wheels, cutting their ruts in crust, as the team drew it slowly past.

“If push comes to shove,” His lordship continued renewing the grip of his cane as he leaned slightly upon it, “I think, we might be able to call on him for aid. However I should like to save it as a last resort.”

“The secret police——” I mused looking about the misty avenue. My concern now more than merely the watchful eyes of the Brotherhood, or of the slender and rather sinister Viorel Rákóczi, but in memory of that man in the peaked cap, I had taken suspicious notice of earlier in the street upon our return to the Alhambra——were there now to be added those of the secret police upon us as well? “Does it not seem a bit odd? I mean—would the Secret Police have an interest in the reported death of some poor, unfortunate boy? A tragedy to be sure.” I continued to cast a wary eye about, “But – on the face of it – it’s nothing more than merely a street crime. And no doubt, for this neighborhood, not that uncommon a crime——to which the Bucharest Police has yet to arrive. But instead, it is this – Siguranța?”

“Yes, well, mayhap we can presume there are lines of inquiry of which we are unaware. Lines that may quite possibly find their endpoints here in Crucea de Piatră. Even the Alhambra. For the Frăția lui mortii vii, for whatever we may know of them, is not without political aspirations.” Professor Vordenburg, hands now deep in his overcoat pockets, shoulders slightly hunched against the cold and the fine falling snow, “Not withstanding the vanishing of Dacia as an identify, there are the sentiments of a rural population that feels out of touch with the European mimicry of the new boyars and the growing bourgeoisie. The medieval soul versus the modernists.” his breath punctuating his pedantic lapse, “Fashions and architecture – look around you, Bucharest. Cosmopolitan. The Paris of the East. Capital of a greater Romania. Where once a Romania did not exist. Not until the union of Wallachia and Moldavia. Before, there was Dacia. And there are those who yearn for it. And the Frăția lui mortii vii speaks to this disparity. Of the Cosmopolitan versus the rural culture and spirit of the farm and peasant villages> Those who have lived on a single piece of land for generations, who cling to their family, to their culture, to their customs, who now see and feel the ever growing influence of Europe, the French – an elite influx of foreigners – you and I – for them there has been a profound transformation of society. All across Central Europe – the advent of the idealized nation state, there are those who cling to their blood and culture, and since leaving his Carpathians, he has grown ever more cunning, skillful, in his manipulation of grievance and religion – rather than weld pike and sword – to bend the prey of the sanguinarians, to the growing powers of darkness——” He glanced towards me, “You yourself have come seeking this black market preying upon the misery of war —— and so, we may know the truth of the Frăția lui mortii vii and what lies behind the façade of their religious revival, whereas the Siguranța they see its political motivations. I would hazard their eyes have long been upon them, and now upon us — whereas, we know the meaning and intent of Rákóczi’s rather less than subtle message delivered by way of having affixed my poor Theresa upon my fence, to them, they see nothing more than a suspicious Austrian, an Englishman, and an American——”

“Entering a restaurant—“ I smiled.

Which brought him up with an awareness now of his wandering discourse, “But, come, we seek the Pavel’s —” and he smiled, knowingly, and then turned his keen eyes once more to observing our surroundings.

His lordship silent, chin down, seemingly deep in thought, strode silently.

“From the directions we received from Constantina,” I lifting my hems, careful in the slipperiness of the crests of the few foot tracks, into which I sought purchase, I moved over towards him and motioned to the pavement ahead, which lead off to our right and to whatever lay beyond the misty curtain of fog and the growing fine falling snow. “We should proceed down this avenue and we would have taken, a right, yes, had we gone as she had initially indicated, where we were, at the park; then we would have taken a left, but from this way round——it would be to our right."

“Then by all means, mademoiselle, lead us on.” The Professor smiled brightly.

And so, ever holding my coat and skirt to lift their hems, my feet already damp and chilled from having sunk them into the unblemished drift of the narrow alleyway, I continued to cautiously proceed, taking care to step in what few foot tracks there were before us. Owing to far fewer shops along this avenue, there had been less foot traffic, and so the way before us was a slippery hazard. Professor Vordenburg ever attentive at his lordship’s side — after Lord Cyril’s cane, having been sunk into the snow, had become momentarily stuck, in what surely must have been some fracture of the pavement beneath the snow, and had all but slipped in wrestling with it, before having been able to extricate it.

As I now took the vanguard of our party, I could not help but envision the situation we had left behind for Eleonora. The man with the thin mustache, in his long, black coat, having entered the Alhambra to remove his homburg and his gloves; lips taunt, eyes narrowing as he stood to individually give everyone an long intense, inquisitive gaze, before stepping further into the restaurant to look upon the body of the boy, lying upon the table: “And so—this is all that there was so gathered here today? When the boy was brought in?” Looking at no one in particular, speaking to the all. “Not, very profitable today—Madam Misirliu?”

“Food and death, Inspector? Food is nourishing – death not so much. ” Her calm reply as she put down the glass of wine from which she had sipped.

“Ah, the merchant or businessman’s repast –” He removes his dark gloves, slowly, as he continued to gaze upon the lifelessness of the body. “Not so appetizing when one knows there is, as they say, the killing in the making?” He now turns his attention from the unfortunate boy to make his way towards her, “But, ah, alas, yes, they come to Alhambra for business of another kind do they not?”

“The boy was brought to us.”

“As I understand.” Gloves in hand, “Many things, as well as people, make their way here, do they not, Madam Misirliu?”

“A rather uneventful morning, actually, Deputy Inspector, until tragedy arrives at my door.” The smoky trembler of her voice, the measured smile. “As for Vasili Buzesco? I have sent some to seek him.”

“He who found the body?” He would ask, standing before her, their eyes locked, unflinching, in understanding. “Of no mind . . . we have him already.”

“I am somewhat dismayed.” I remarked over my shoulder, my left foot carefully stepping through the undisturbed crust, there being no footstep to tread upon. “I had expected Commissioner Câmpineanu. I am certain we heard Eleonora direct her man to place the call for him.”

“This is a city of some 350 thousand people. Trying to get in touch with one specific police officer in the whole of Bucharest might be a challenge.” His lordship replied as he and the Professor walked together. “Especially for this neighborhood.”

A cold brisk wind whipped along the pavement and down the avenue as I loosened one hand from my skirt to grip the throat of my coat. Loose snow arose to swirl about before us like some hoary spirits arising from the street.

“This is most foreboding weather.” His lordship remarked securing his hat.

And so against the wind, we made our way down the pavement to the next intersection, where we turned left, in reverse of the directions Constantina had given me – had we proceeded from where she had given them. The street before us was narrower. Even more enshrouded in fog. It seemed barren. Foreboding. Something from some Gothic novel, or penny dreadful.

A residential neighborhood nestled and neglected within Crucea de Piatră. There were no business establishments along the pavement; no huddled, hurried foot traffic. The avenue was lined with large oaks and elms, lofting their hoary limbs from out of the fog. Become visible like looming specters as we approached. Ill kept landscaping grey ghosts in the courtyards beneath vague outlines of large two-story homes. No doubt they had once been own by wealthy boyars, who had long since abandoned them, as well as the neighborhood, to the third-class citizenry and their saloons and eateries, their pedestrian businesses, their gaming houses—to their criminality. And, of course, to the denigration of the popularity of the brothels. Across the way, I took note of several women proceeding from the gloom, as they left the walk of what was visible of a three-story, gabled house, to make their way along the pavement back toward the intersection we had left in our wake. Their profession readily discernable.

After a few moments of snowy silence, disturbed by the crunch of our feet, careful as we were with every step, to our left, there appeared the beginnings of a wall. Dun-hued, waist high, which would have been the far wall as seen from the park, where his lordship and I had previously inspected the grim site of the niche of that old oak tree.

“It should be close,” I said, “The Pavels. Number 231.” My feet now colder and growing numb, as I had to fight against the intrusive chatter of my teeth, as peering across the street, I lifted my free hand – not holding skirt or coat – to point across the steer: – “It should be somewhere there—ahead.”

But we were on the wrong side of the street to see numbers of the homes, if they were still homes. And so, I broke from the snowy pavement, feet seeking purchase in deepening drifts, until I found my skirt draping over wet, glistening ruts cut by iron rimmed wagon wheels and horse hooves. Once upon the opposite side of the street, I began to look for some designation of address.

I moved along the snow covered pavement as the Professor and his lordship stood their side of the street watching me, and as I approached one good-sized house, shadowy in the finely falling mist of snow, I discerned two half-height stone pillars standing sentries to a walk. I moved closer and took note of the white painted numerals upon the dun-hued stone of one of the pillars. 231. It would be one up – and so I looked back and waved to them to indicate it would be the house next and made my way quicker, knowing I was almost there. A stonewall, similar in height to the one enclosing the park, made its presence known as I drew ever closer and moved along it to soon find the iron gate slightly ajar. I spied the numerals — “231,” I called out.

The Professor and his lordship hurriedly, cautiously, crossed the avenue to join me.

Large, three-stories, rising to stand in the misty snow, as I struggled to push opened the gate – the sound of cold hinges disturbing a few birds which took flight, forcing wrought iron bars and the frame to cut through loose snow, thankfully not yet packed and iced over – the house looked as if had once been a very exclusive home, but what was visible now seemed badly in need of repair. I awaited the Professor and Lord Cyril, as I found the gate being more than I could force further, and they helped to open it wider than the small aperture it had been sitting ajar upon my arrival — a space allowing someone rather slender to make their way past. Together, we approached along the walk. As we drew closer, we saw the heavy gables, a cluster of chimneys, only one of which produced a wisp of grey smoke fading into the pewter of the misty sky. Beneath one of the front gables there was a large window, from which, within, if one were standing before it, one would have had a splendid view of the park – only now the snowy mists obscured it. There was no light discernable from the window, although the curtains were visibly pulled back.

And as we approached the five stone steps leading up to the entrance, Lord Cyril gripped his cane firmly by the neck — by its silver handle. There was a grim expectancy to his expression, which only heighten my growing sense of dread as we approached the grim, grey house. Were we being watched? Knowing as I do that through not at all as powerful as they were in the night, they were quite capable of being about in the day – the very reasoning behind their effective falsification of the lore that had been build up around the sanguinerians.

We mounted the steps as yet another strong wind blew against us, almost as if a warning to turn back. Lord Cyril approached the door and rapped the silver head of his cane upon it.

There was no answer.

He renewed his rapping with more vigor. As he did so, we took note that the door moved ever so slightly as if it had not been properly closed.

For a long moment we looked at one another upon observing it. My hand having immediately gone to Steyr – I prepared myself.

Lord Cyril’s grip grew tighter upon his cane as he opened the door, slowly.

Light of day fell in all sorts of gloomy forms even as we cast great shadows through the threshold and it’s transom. There before us was revealed a large vestibule, with a centerpiece table sitting half in shadow upon a well-worn, dark maroon Persian rug. Upon it several porcelain pieces were set. A heavy chandelier hung above, unlit. Beyond, to the left, there was a flight of stairs running upwards to a darken balcony, which overlooked the entryway.

His lordship, gripping his cane, called out: —"Domnul și doamna Pavel?”

There was no answer.

I must admit to a feeling of eeriness and growing unease – from something actual or my own imaginings, I was not at all certain, then or now.

Lord Cyril said softly to me: —

“Jackson, you have your automatic, I assume.”

“In hand.”

He lifted the end of his cane, as he took his first tentative step past the threshold, and began to slowly unscrew its end cap to reveal the sharpen point of its hawthorn shaft.

“Domnul și doamna Pavel?” Once more he called out.

The Professor, in our wake, cautiously entered as well.

A creak of a floorboard under his lordship’s boot caused us all to come to a sudden halt.

To our left, there were closed double doors, to our right, a large open threshold leading to the parlor. I held my gun in the anticipation of the abrupt expectation of those doors being flung wide.

The house was quite.

Too quite I thought as I renewed my grip upon the Steyr.

The Professor moved now past us toward the open threshold: — “Madam and M. Pavel?” He called out.

Lord Cyril followed close behind, even as I, near the center table, stood watch of the doors and the balcony above.

In the gloom of the light falling through the large window – we had observed upon our approach – they slowly entered the large drawing room. I saw from the set of the Professor’s shoulders he was ever wary as he took the vanguard. Cautiously, my Steyr continuing to cover them, I moved to occupy the center of the threshold to the parlor, my back to them, to stand vigil. How I longed for the security of Lieutenant Kadijevic and Marko at my flanks – I wonder how they fare – if I shall ever see them again —

It was evident from glances and posture we all felt the tension of the moment, of the eerie silence of the house — ever more so as a part of the sitting room was more than vexing to us as several shadowy dress forms and manikins occupied it. A sinister sight upon first glance — those darken forms standing there. I cursed myself for letting my quick glance linger upon them. Upon a few tables there amongst them lay bolts of cloth. Apparently, Sophia Pavel provided services as a seamstress as well as beds for lodgers.

I looked to the balcony; the double doors ahead; before hazarding yet another glance over my shoulder to observe their progress. The parlor was of good size. The big window, which looked out across the courtyard to the park, providing most – save for that which fell from the anteroom – of what light there was, as the heavy, muslin drapes were pulled back. There were several comfortable chairs. End tables bearing oval framed pictures and other small bric-à-brac set upon functional, rather than merely decorative, doilies. Gas lamps on the walls, even as there were as well a few lamps upon the tables to reveal that some electricity had been laid on. In the center of the room stood a good-sized fireplace where in the hearth there was a dying fire.

The Professor, now with his hands slightly raised as if wading in uncertainty, offered, in a much lower voice then before: — “M. Pavel?”

Was that a shadow that moved at the head of the stairs – my gaze darting, growing intense. Uncertain. Then back to the double doors, closed, across the entryway. The sound of their footsteps behind me an agony.

I darted once more a look to see the Professor slowly approaching, past the centrally located settees, along the aisle they made – having been set to face one another – and around the small oval table between, toward a large, wing-backed chair sitting very near the hearth.

Uncertain whether to give up my position, I backed further into the sitting room, my attention now diverted, as the Professor approached the chair, which had been set to provide comfort before the fire.

I looked to see a book on the floor as well as the trouser leg and shoe of a man.

“Lord Cyril.” I motioned to the chair even as the Professor’s voice had earlier drawn his attention from the dress forms.

He nodded and held up a hand, indicating I should remain in position — maintain my cover of the threshold drawing room to the vestibule. Much like we had done in occupied Serbia — where a hand and an eye had said volumes.

He quietly approached the Professor, who stood still to allow him to pass, as he approached the chair, his cane rising to be held as a club.

“M. Pavel?” He asked cautiously.

He looked to the Professor, who looked at him as well.

Torn between curiosity and caution, I backed yet further into the room and to the left so as to get a better glance at the chair, which had drawn our attention, where I saw, who surely must have been Partake Pavel sitting rather heavily. Perhaps not yet fifty, unshaven, with a cascade of loose locks of thick, grey-streaked hair having fallen over his forehead. He wore a collar-less off-white shirt and dark trousers. His hands are curled in his lap. His head ever so slightly lolling up against the wing of the chair, as if asleep — or as I suspected something worse.

His lordship, his sharpened cane ready, stepped over, I was certain, to ascertain whether he was breathing.

Caught between the threshold and the slumped man in the chair, I took yet another long look, renewing my grip on the Styer. He was pale. His eyes – in the firelight – were shown to be fixed, as they stared at the dying embers in the hearth. Well aware of death, having seen it on my trek to the Danube – it was obvious. As were the unmistakable stains of blood on the front of his shirt.

I took quick notice of the Professor now oddly holding a small crucifix.

“Lord Cyril?” I asked, renewing my vigil of the threshold.

“He’s been drained.”

“See the wound upon this throat,” I heard the Professor observe to his lordship.

Another quick glance and I saw Lord Cyril stepping back from the body, looking now to the entrance of the parlor and making his way back along the aisle of the twin settees, leaving further examination of Partake Pavel to the Professor.

But my attention was shockingly drawn back to the anteroom as I heard the voice exclaim in some horror: —

“Oh—My God! What have you done!”

I was startled to find a tall, heavy-set woman, who suddenly began now to scream, as she stood in the entryway, having just stepped past the central table, looking now through the threshold, past his Lordship and I, to the Professor and the dead man in the chair.

“You’ve murdered my husband!”


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