A Letter from Mihai Iliescu
3 March 1999
I will miss the books.
I have never had enough space for my entire collection, but I have always insisted on dedicating one room in my house to the library. This house, in particular, is ill suited to handle so many things, least of all the books. They cascade off the shelves onto the floor and collect in the corners, but I know exactly where each and every one of them is.
There are those who expected more from the last scion of Arnold Pavle than an overweight, balding, middle-aged man who likes to hole himself up inside and read dusty tomes others have forgotten even exist. They see monster slayers in films, and they expect a dashing, square-jawed hero, fearless in the face of danger and willing at any moment to rush in and save the day.
I am simply Mihai Iliescu, son of Andras Iliescu, war criminal. My country tells me I should forget our shameful past. I was raised by an aunt who barely tolerated me because I reminded her of what my father was. But how could I pretend none of it ever happened? To deny my father and the events that shaped him as a person would be to deny a part of myself.
I’ve chased his ghost for almost fifty years. I thought I could understand him by surrounding myself with the artifacts of his universe, but it hasn’t worked. I’m no closer to understanding what kind of man my father was than the day I started, and now I’m tired.
Maybe I could have become the true heir of Arnold Pavle, had circumstances allowed, but now I will never have the chance. So perhaps in death my life will finally serve a purpose, and these books, seen by the eyes of others, will continue my family’s noble legacy.
I cannot explain everything. The only advice I can give you is to read. “The monsters are real,” my father told me, “but we are not helpless against the darkness.”
12 August 1999
There was no ticking clock, no traffic din, no wind in the trees, not even the sound of his own breathing. Nothing broke the silence that followed until her lips parted, and she asked a single, simple question.
“Why are you here?”
Drawn like an adder ready to strike, the woman sat across the room on a divan. He stood near the door by one of the room’s tall, narrow windows, a shaft of sunlight cutting across his face. Though the shadows obscured her features, he could feel her dark eyes studying him. He knew the question was coming. He just didn’t want to answer it.
“So it’s true?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I didn’t say that.”
He let the beads of the rosary in his pocket slide one by one through his fingers and allowed himself a cautious smile. “Are you familiar with a man named Mihai Iliescu?”
“I’ve heard of him.”
“It’s remarkable how many have.”
“It’s not so remarkable if you have an appreciation for antiques.” She glanced around the room. He followed her eyes.
Indeed, the room spoke to her appreciation. It boasted several fine examples of Rococo Chinoiserie, including the divan on which she sat. The value of the two Empire-style tables on either side would have allowed him to retire in luxury then and there. A portrait set in a gilt frame hung on the wall to his right, notable both for its subject and its creator—Rembrandt van Rijn.
The most extraordinary object in the room, however, hung on the wall behind her. Unmistakably Turkish, the giant tapestry could not be any less than three hundred years old. Filaments of dark crimson, blue, cream, and black flowed through the green fabric, invoking lush hills and pomegranate trees heavy with blossoms. In the center the thread formed a tiny mosque with a splendid domed roof and four gleaming minarets. The tapestry’s graceful arcs and arabesques danced around the woman’s poised figure, the green color in the fabric setting off her olive skin.
“No, perhaps not so remarkable,” he said, “but I’m sure it came as a shock to many that a quiet mid-level Romanian bureaucrat had such a passion. He managed to amass quite the collection before he died—furniture, books, artwork, jewelry … relics.”
He drew out the last word so that it lingered, haunting the space between them for a moment before fading away.
If she reacted, he couldn’t tell. “Remind me again, Mr. Mire. What do you do?”
“It’s Dr. Mire, actually. I teach history at a university back in the States. I’ve also written a few books about medieval and Renaissance Eastern Europe.”
“And what interest does an American university professor have in the antique collection of a Romanian civil servant?”
He held his hand out to the sunlight beaming in through the open window. Adam Mire had learned to appreciate simple things like the warm late summer sun on his skin and the light playing on the leaves of the linden trees outside the woman’s townhouse. A part of him felt sorry for her, and he more than understood her reticence to answer what most would see as outlandish accusations.
He returned his attention to the woman still sitting across from him, her face still hidden in the shadows. “I’m not interested in the collection per se—but then neither are you. You’ve been making inquiries into the whereabouts of a certain item rumored to be part of the Iliescu estate.”
“And what is this item?”
“A medallion in the likeness of a dragon, formed into a circle with its tail wrapped around its neck. On the dragon’s back is a cross, and around the outside an inscription, ‘O Quam Misericors est Deus, Pius et Justus.’”
“‘O How Merciful is God,’” she spat, “‘Faithful and Just.’”
A cloud passed in front of the sun. The room grew darker and colder and. if possible, even stiller. Shadows reached across the floor toward him like grasping hands threatening to ensnare his feet. Instinctively, he backed away until the sun reemerged. The shadows retreated, though not exactly to where they had been. Around the woman they remained darker.
“And if I did seek such an item, what about this medallion leads you to make the allegations you do, Dr. Mire?”
He swallowed, struggling to suppress the sense of unease that had appeared unbidden in the pit of his stomach, and tried to keep his voice steady. “This medallion is not the type of thing an antique collector would bother with generally, and its value as a museum piece is only marginal. But its worth can’t be counted in currency, or what a museum curator might be able to see under a microscope. The stories and legends surrounding it and its owner go back centuries. Some are written. Some are not. Some have even inspired poets and novelists. But what most people don’t realize is that there is a tiny scrap of truth in each of these stories. I want to know the entire truth.”
“Stories and legends of some ancient, legendary artifact. You have nothing more?”
Adam took a deep breath. “Only that according to his doctors, Mr. Iliescu died of an ‘unidentified blood disorder,’ just as your husband did.”
Her eyes flashed with an emotion hard for him to classify. Pain? Anger? Loss? “You know nothing about my husband or how he died.”
The outburst surprised him. He noticed that even though more than a year had passed since her husband’s death, the woman still wore her wedding ring on her right hand. He found it curious she would do something so sentimental. “My apologies,” he said. “You’re right. I don’t know. In fact, I don’t have proof of anything I’ve claimed today.”
She raised an eyebrow. “But you make claims nonetheless.”
“There’s no need to worry, Mrs. Ashrafi. I’m not interested in telling anyone anything I know.”
Her expression changed again, this time to one he could read a little easier. He had seen it before in others—something feral, something predatory. “There is only one way to ensure you will not tell anyone.”
He clutched the rosary still concealed in his pocket. “With all due respect, Mrs. Ashrafi, whom would I tell? My professional reputation demands I verify every claim I make. I could never produce enough evidence to make anyone believe those such as you exist. My career would be over in an instant.”
“Then I’ll ask you again, Dr. Mire. Why are you here? What is it you want?”
“I want to know why you’re seeking this medallion.” Adam took a breath. “The very thing that gave Dracula his name.”
The minutes passed, measured only by the beating of his heart. Her dark eyes bore into him. Adam wondered if he had miscalculated, if he would be able to reach the door before she pulled him screaming into the shadows. She glanced at the photograph in her hand. He had used it as a calling card of sorts, to gain an invitation inside her home. The woman in the photograph bore an uncanny resemblance to her, though the picture would have been taken long before she was ever born—if the age she was in fact matched the age she appeared.
“You intrigue me, Dr. Mire,” she said, brushing her fingers across the picture. “I’ll tell you what you want to know, on the condition that you tell me how you found me.”
Adam slowly let out the breath he had been holding. “That’s a long story, I’m afraid.”
The corners of her mouth turned up in a twisted smile. “I don’t mind, Dr. Mire. Unlike you, I have all the time in the world.”