29 December 1989
No one flees to Dracula’s Castle. Not without a very good reason.
When the Romanian people finally rose up against Nicolae Ceaușescu and drove him from Bucharest, the Communist dictator and his wife headed for Târgoviște in a helicopter. When the military forced the helicopter to land, the Ceaușescus commandeered not one but two different vehicles trying to get to the old castle that was once the stronghold of Vlad the Impaler.
Something was there. Maybe something they believed could keep them in power.
But they were gone now, executed after a hasty show trial, one held in the castle.
Why were they so desperate to get here?
Gabriel Popescu planned to find out.
Clouds obscured the night sky, but still the pale light of the full moon filtered through, casting shadows across the stone ruins as Gabriel made his way silently across what once had been a courtyard. Ahead the Chindia Tower loomed, built by Vlad himself. Gabriel covered his mouth with his gloved hand to keep his breath from coming out in white clouds.
Some would consider it ill advised to visit the place at night. Even if one didn’t believe in vampires, which Gabriel didn’t, most believed the place was best avoided after sunset. Horrible things had happened there and had left a taint in the air. Most people could sense it, even if they didn’t have a name for it. Even though Gabriel didn’t feel anything unnatural, the stories made him wary.
In his line of work it was good to be wary.
He probed the base of the tower first, trudging around the outside, looking for loose mortar or any obviously newer stones. He didn’t really expect such a search to bear fruit. After all, Ceaușescu was wily. He had held onto power for over forty years and had the resources of an entire nation at his disposal. He would not be so careless, but at the same time Gabriel would never forgive himself for missing something obvious.
After circling the tower and finding nothing, he came to a small wooden door. The lock took him only a few sec-onds to pick. On the other side, a circular set of stairs led upward into the darkness. Gabriel climbed, sweeping his pen light in front of him. About a third of the way up, he found an irregular stone in the wall, but a brief examina-tion proved it to be nothing special. He was about to pro-ceed when he saw a shadow move out of the corner of his eye. Ahead of him a window broke the monotony of the curved stone wall. Charcoal grey clouds moved against the inky sky. Just a cloud drifting in front of the moon, or so he reasoned. He shook his head and continued up.
Running his hands over the stones he had to wonder. Of any place, the tower made the most sense. It would be like Ceaușescu to place something of importance in Dracula’s stronghold. Gabriel had spent the last several days speculating, running through the possibilities. Gold was his best guess. If so, he’d have to return another night to retrieve it. Currency was another conjecture, though he doubted Romanian leus would be worth the effort. Better to be Russian rubles or German marks. State secrets offered another possibility. Intelligence the Russians or the Americans might pay for. Imminently more dangerous, but enough to allow him to buy a Greek Island and retire from the burglary business for good.
He had almost reached the top when the shadows moved again in his peripheral vision. He told himself it was merely another trick of the light. No one else was there besides him. Still he continued a little more cautiously. When he came to the end of the stairs, he pushed open the heavy door that led to the roof. The wind bit into him as he emerged. The clouds rushed across the sky. Around him the entire valley spread out.
Gabriel had another view in mind, though.
He scanned the floor for almost an hour until he discovered what he was looking for. One of the stones in the floor appeared worn, as if it had been there for five hundred years—a clever bit of camouflage—but the filtered moonlight revealed the obvious difference. The composition was not the same. The color of the tiny shimmering crystals in the rock was just slightly off. Gabriel smiled. It was nice to know he wasn’t out of practice.
He knelt over the stone and ran his fingers around the edges. There didn’t appear to be any gaps in the mortar, but looks could be deceiving. He probed the stones around the rock, seeking some hidden mechanism, until he felt one small stone give. He pushed down, and then a hand clamped over his mouth.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
2 December 1999
Adam didn’t look up when the door opened, or when the cup of coffee appeared on his desk in one of the few places not covered by papers and books. He muttered a thank-you as he reached for the cup, only to have it jerked away. He looked up to find Clara glaring at him.
“What?” he asked.
“Do you even know what time it is?”
Adam glanced out the window of the study into the darkness. “Nighttime.”
Clara rolled her eyes. “It’s four o’clock in the morning. When was the last time you slept?”
“Not sure. What are you doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she replied.
“So, neither can I.”
“Really?” She crossed her arms. “In forty-eight hours?”
Adam surveyed the pile of papers on the desk. “I’m almost there.”
Clara reached over and shut the book in his hand. “You’ve said that for over a month. Now you need to get to sleep.” She wrinkled her nose. “Right after you take a shower.”
Adam smirked. “You’re not my mother.”
She sighed. “Come on Adam. You’ve been killing your-self trying to find Dracula’s medallion.” She picked up a piece of paper with Adam’s handwriting, a grid of letters. “What’s this?”
“It’s a table for a Vigenère cipher.”
“You think there’s some sort of code in these books?”
Several months earlier, Adam had received a worn copy of Dracula from his deceased friend Mihai Iliescu. The book was the first in a string of clues that led him on a scavenger hunt across the Balkans—a scavenger hunt with a high body count. Adam collected several books Mihai had left for him, in addition to confronting Yasamin, one of the women Bram Stoker immortalized as a Bride of Dracula.
“A code makes sense,” he replied. “There are random letters and words circled in all the books, including The Giaour, the one everyone said was the key, but the problem is that we don’t know what exactly the key is.”
The Giaour, an epic poem by Lord Byron and one of the first vampire stories in the West, was the last book Mihai wanted Adam to find, but it had been misplaced, and acquiring it meant working with another of Dracula’s Brides, the beguiling Elena. That encounter nearly cost Adam his life as well.
“Chances are you’re not going to figure it out in the next hour,” Clara said. “It can wait until you get some sleep.”
“Have you heard from Arkady?” Adam asked.
Clara shook her head. “Not yet, but he said he’d be out-of-pocket for a few days. He’ll send word soon I’m sure. Inspector Gavrilović did stop by earlier.”
“What did he say?”
“He said you need to go to bed.”
Adam sighed and stood up. “Fine. You’re probably right. A few more hours won’t make a difference at this point.”
He trudged out of the room, with Clara close behind. “Thank you,” he said.
She cocked her head to the side. “For what?”
“For looking out for me.”
The corners of her mouth turned up in a weak smile. “It’s what I do, it seems.”
Adam shut the door to his room and collapsed onto the bed, realizing only then how tired he was. Clara was right, of course. He had been pushing himself hard, maybe too hard, and he needed a break to get his thinking back on track.
He smiled wistfully as he gazed up at the ceiling. She had ended their relationship, and she’d had good reasons for doing so, but if it weren’t for Clara, he’d likely be dead. She came to find him when no one else would, and she stayed even after learning why he had left his entire life in the States behind. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep thinking, as always, of what might have been.
When Adam opened his eyes again, the sunlight punched through the gaps in his curtains. He pushed him-self up and staggered to the bathroom, dutifully following Clara’s orders to take a shower and wondering why he didn’t hear anyone else in the house.
Usually in the morning the housekeeper came, a dour woman named Greta. The only joy she ever seemed to take was in making as much noise as possible, banging pots in the kitchen and moving furniture emphatically, just to wake him up. Even after Adam stepped out of the shower, there was only silence in the townhouse.
“Clara,” Adam called as he came down the stairs. “Clara, are you there?”
When Adam reached the bottom of the stairs, he knew something was wrong. All of the clean, white furniture he had come to accept as part of the Russian government’s string of safe houses was overturned, and something even more chilling greeted Adam—smeared in red on the wall, a dragon curved in a circle, with its tail wrapped around its neck, the symbol of the Order of the Dragon, the symbol that gave Dracula his name.
Then he spotted an arm protruding from underneath an overturned chair, and his heart leaped into his throat. He ran over and pulled the chair off to find Greta. Some-thing had ripped her throat out. Something with big teeth. Adam covered his mouth and nose to keep from retching. A piece of paper was stuffed in her hand. Two words writ-ten in an exquisitely detailed hand seared into his mind.