The Persian was surprised to see the bold vampire hunter Inspector Daubert holding court by the buffet table, in full dress uniform with plumed hat and sword. A very fair woman in a simple green dress was at his side.
Making it his business to drift closer to the group, the Persian overheard the Inspector expressing confidence in the likeliness of an early arrest in the stone-cold murder at the Hôtel Meurice.
‘The nights of Les Vampires are numbered.’
‘Our old friend must be missed,’ suggested a tall gentleman who had a Viennese accent.
‘Of course,’ said Daubert. ‘The Count de Rosillon was a fine fellow, very high up in… you know… intelligence.’
The policeman made gestures which suggested but did not outright state that the victim was a dauntless servant of the state murdered for getting too close to exposing a treasonous conspiracy.
‘You surprise me, Raoul,’ said the tall gentleman. ‘The Camille I remember would be the least likely to be accused of association with… intelligence.’
The Persian took a drink – champagne sacrilegiously diluted with Scotch whisky – and attached himself to the group. The Phantom might have refused the request of the Grand Vampire, but it was a good idea for the Agency to keep up on the latest Parisian crimes.
None of Daubert’s cronies were suspicious characters – which, experience suggested, was what made them worth watching.
The Viennese wore a smart black cloak. A fanged bat-mask was pushed up into his hair so he could drink. He had a pencil-stroke moustache and arched eyebrows. Beside him was a square-faced, square-shouldered woman in middle-age with iron-grey hair, determined eyes and pince-nez. The Austrian was affable and easily distracted but this lady – whom the Persian took to be Dutch – was grimly intent on pinning the policeman down.
‘My learning I have placed at the disposal of the Sûreté,’ she said, ‘but my letters unanswered go. Impertinent sergeants turn me aside when in person I call on your office. Realise you not how ridiculous is your theory of vampires? Why, a fact accepted by all European science is that… such things, they cannot be!’
Daubert looked trapped. He must have hoped for a nice evening off at the opera.
The blonde in green rescued the Inspector by talking to the Persian.
‘We haven’t met,’ she said, ‘but I know who you are. You are a retired police chief from the East, aren’t you?’
The Persian was surprised. Few noticed him as more than a slinking background figure.
This lady was rather dazzling, too. Very sharp smile. Pearly teeth.
‘I’m the new coroner,’ she said, extending her dainty hand, ‘Geneviève Dieudonné.’
The Persian clicked his heels and pressed his moustache to her knuckles. Her fingers were slightly cool.
‘A retired police chief,’ snarled Daubert. ‘I suppose you’ve a theory about the de Rosillon murder too. A great many amateurs buzz about this case, like flies on… on substances flies like to buzz on.’
‘I only know what I read in the papers, Inspector,’ the Persian said. ‘I am happily retired and content to leave murders and vampires to active officers.’
‘An example it would do some very well to follow,’ responded the policeman, looking pointedly at the Dutch woman.
‘I am Michel Falke,’ announced the Viennese. ‘Dr Falke.’
‘A lawyer, though I do not practice. I have an interest in crimes of this stripe. Twenty-five years ago, when I was first in Paris, vampire rumours were rife. Doubtless you remember, Raoul? Mysteries were a passion with our little circle at the Sorbonne. Even then, you were a bloodhound.’
Inspector Daubert was eager for those old rumours to be aired. Or perhaps he didn’t care to be reminded of his student enthusiasms.
Beneath his suavity, Falke was taut as a bowstring. His eyes gleamed when he spoke. The Persian wondered if he were another adept of mesmerism.
‘There are vampires, you know,’ Falke continued. ‘In my homeland, the Karnsteins preyed for centuries on the peasants around their estate… and the undead stalk Europe still.’
‘Nonsense and stuff,’ said the older woman. ‘Such rot I have heard from my deluded husband these many years long. We have no place for folkish tales in this Century Nineteen.’
‘This is Professor Van Helsing,’ explained Dr Dieudonné.
‘I have heard of—’
‘Not him,’ said the woman. ‘You are thinking of my mad husband, the head-of-fatness who sets stock in such things. Abraham is in the news often, for breaking into churchyards and abominably mistreating the dead. I am Professor Madame Saartje Van Helsing, occupant of the Erasmus Chair of Rational Philosophy at the University of Leiden.’
‘The Professor is a debunker,’ said Dr Dieudonné. ‘She banishes ghosts not with bell, book and candle but with the clear light of logic.’
‘Is not this house haunted?’ asked Falke. ‘One hears stories of a Phantom.’