Judge Dee must himself stand trial before his fellow vampires for the loss of a valuable manuscript, even as those vampires are murdered, one by one, by an unknown hand.
A thin layer of frost lay over the bluebells and violets that grew in profusion on the low slopes, and thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance. The storm was still behind the mountains, but it was making its presence known. The moon was hidden behind fog, and what light shone through cast the shadows of the two travellers in tremulous silhouettes that seemed to have a life of their own. Judge Dee’s shadow kept turning into a bat or a wolf. Jonathan’s shadow kept reaching in its pocket for cheese.
Jonathan liked cheese. He bit into the hard pecorino. A cold thin wind whispered like one of those deadly looking letter openers through his thick robes and he tried to burrow even deeper within.
‘I do not like the thin air,’ he said miserably, for he was often miserable. Being the human assistant to a vampire judge did not make for a life of easy merriment. ‘It interferes with my digestion.’
Judge Dee strode ahead. His austere patrician’s face was caught in the moonlight, his fine cheekbones as pronounced as a death sentence. He looked, Jonathan thought, much like the mountains—as hard and as old as a rock.
‘I find the thin air invigorating,’ the judge said.
‘Of course you do,’ Jonathan said. He tried not to be bitter. Judge Dee had saved his life, long ago in England. Why he kept him around Jonathan never knew. He took another bite of pecorino. There were still good things in the world, he thought. Beauty. Love. Cheese. He figured having one out of three wasn’t that bad.
‘Where are we going?’ he said.
‘Up there,’ the judge said. He pointed.
Thunder rumbled. The wreath of clouds over the peak parted for just a moment. Lightning struck high in the upper reaches and Jonathan jumped. In the light of the moon and the glare of the flash he saw a monastery built high on the cliff. Bats flew in the air above it. More thunder followed.
‘It does not look very inviting,’ Jonathan said.
‘It is not,’ Judge Dee said. He stopped abruptly, and Jonathan stumbled behind. ‘I must admit I feel some trepidation going there.’
‘You?’ Jonathan said in surprise. He had never heard the judge speak this way before.
Judge Dee looked embarrassed. ‘It is a small matter, I am sure,’ he said. ‘But still . . . I fear our welcome.’ He turned fully to Jonathan.
‘You have accompanied me to many difficult situations,’ he said. ‘And never complained. Well, you did complain, endlessly, but you followed me nonetheless.’
Jonathan thought of some of their previous cases. The Dread at Vermin’s Pass; The Horror of Hellmouth Hill; the Case of the Ghastly Ghouls of Genoa; and so on.
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘This time, you may stay behind,’ the judge said.
‘Stay behind?’ Jonathan said.
‘You may choose so, yes,’ the judge said. He gestured to the monastery high up in the mountains. Lightning flashed again. Bats circled.
Thunder came crashing down on them then and a strong, cold rain began to fall. Jonathan hid under his cowl and blinked rain out of his eyes.
‘But master!’ he said. He did not wish to remain here, where he would surely die anyway. At least if he came along, he thought, he might die out of the rain, which had to be preferable. ‘What is that awful place?’
Judge Dee sighed like a man who’d lost all hope.
‘It is a library,’ he said.
The gates were very tall, made of solid iron, and had a bat motif in bas-relief, along with all the usual accoutrements. They looked old. Snow fell, this high up on the mountain. Jonathan was cold. Judge Dee grasped the knocker (held in the bared grin of a wolf) and knocked. The sound rang loud and clear and everything was quiet, and Jonathan felt hidden eyes on them and was afraid. He wondered if he shouldn’t have stayed behind after all.
‘Who goes there!’ came a voice. The gates opened inwards, seemingly of their own accord. A small, stooped figure stood in a vast and empty courtyard, hooded and wearing a monk’s black habit.
‘It is I,’ the judge said. ‘Judge Dee.’
There was another silence. The elderly monk shuffled towards them. The moonlight caught his face and Jonathan bit his lip so he wouldn’t scream: the face revealed was that of a wizened, ancient vampire, more ghoul than human. It was a face straight out of Jonathan’s not infrequent nightmares.
‘Dee!’ the monk said.
‘Yes,’ the judge said quietly, and he lowered his head.
‘You have a lot of nerve showing your face here again!’ the monk said.
Jonathan stared in horrified surprise. He had never heard anyone speak to Judge Dee in this fashion before. Not if they wanted to go on living.
‘I am sorry, Master Umberto,’ Judge Dee said.
Jonathan was even more appalled. He had never heard the judge utter words of apology before.
‘You know the punishment that is your due!’ the monk said. ‘Do you dispute it?’
‘I do not, Master Umberto.’
‘You are willing to pay the price of your transgression?’ the monk demanded. He had a high, almost childlike voice.
‘I am willing,’ Judge Dee said.
Master Umberto relaxed. ‘Then come in, come in!’ he said. He waved them over. ‘And who is this, your manservant?’
‘A human? How modern! He must be hungry. Are you hungry? We keep a good larder, food barely spoils here in our cold room. Come, come! We have a lovely fire, too. It is so nice to have guests at this time of year! We are surprisingly busy, yes, surprisingly busy, you know how it is with the comings and goings and visiting scholars, and the copying and the illuminating and the tooling and the mixing, and do you know how hard it is to get paints up here? But I am talking too much, come!’
Jonathan trod across the frozen courtyard in some confusion. The monastery towered overhead, hewn into the rock, grey and mottled and forbidding. Terrible gargoyles were carved into the rock, and they leered down on Jonathan with terrible teeth and awful, lolling tongues, and he averted his gaze.
A small pale figure with bright red eyes darted across the courtyard. Jonathan started.
He heard a squeak.
‘Just a mouse,’ the abbot said. ‘They are a constant problem.’
A larger pale figure with bright red eyes darted across the courtyard. Jonathan started.
It pounced on the mouse and Jonathan heard a ‘Sque—’
The larger figure raised its head and smiled at them. It was a small vampire with a cheerful grin and a dead mouse held in its mouth. He had blood over his lips and over his robes.
‘That’s just Charlie,’ the abbot said. ‘He’s the mouse catcher.’
‘Hello,’ Charlie said. Then he darted away.
Snow fell. They came to the doors and the doors opened.
‘Welcome to the Archivum Noctis!’ Master Umberto said. He raised his arms rather theatrically. Most vampires, in Jonathan’s experience, had a deplorable fondness for the theatrical. ‘Enter of your own free will! And so on!’
Judge Dee stepped over the threshold and Jonathan followed.
High ceilings rose overhead. The doors shut without sound. A fire burned in a large fireplace, and various figures sat around the hall. Vampires in black robes walked to and fro, deep in conversation. A spiral staircase led up. A bell, somewhere high above, began to toll for midnight.
Jonathan heard the voices, felt the attention of the monks on them. A very large vampire with a tonsure approached them eagerly.
‘Do you have it?’ he said. ‘Do you have it?’
Judge Dee nodded. The monk breathed.
‘Not now, Montelusa!’ Master Umberto said sharply, and the large monk wilted under his gaze.
‘Brother Montelusa is Master of the Glue,’ Master Umberto said. ‘And a fine job he does, too. He has a true love of the archives and the work we do. Blood?’
‘Would you care for some blood? It is fresh,’ Master Umberto said.
‘That is most kind of you,’ Judge Dee said.
‘And for you, young man?’ Master Umberto said, turning that monstrous ancient face kindly on Jonathan. ‘Some ham, perhaps? And bread? Roast chicken?’
‘Yes,’ Jonathan said, nodding vigorously.
Master Umberto clapped. Immediately a small table was prepared by the fire. Monks carried plates of food and a small glass of blood materialised in the judge’s hand as if by magic. Clearly, they took their hospitality seriously there.
Jonathan thoroughly approved.
He sat by the fire and dug into the food and for a while he was oblivious. He tore pieces of ham with his fingers and stuffed them into his mouth. He pulled the chicken apart. He ran bread in the juices and ate and in between he gulped from a glass of wine his hosts had set there for him unasked.
‘This is excellent,’ Jonathan said. ‘The wine, what vintage is it?’
‘Who can tell?’ Brother Montelusa said. He sat there and watched Jonathan eat in horrified fascination. ‘It’s from a Byzantine shipment from a few centuries ago. We ate the soldiers who trafficked it but kept the wine in the cellar. This is how we get most things, you see. What passes on the mountain belongs to the archives. Your table manners are terrible, by the way.’
‘Thank you,’ Jonathan said. He was not really listening. Judge Dee was speaking quietly with Master Umberto. Somehow, Jonathan’s plate was empty. He wiped a last piece of bread over it and chewed on it contentedly.
This library wasn’t so bad after all, he thought.
‘The library proper is of course upstairs,’ a small and rather intense-looking little vampire fellow said. He had somehow slid in next to the table by the fire and was examining Jonathan with evident fascination. ‘You have not seen it yet? It is a most remarkable institution. Near unique, in fact. Hello, I am Drago of Carpathia. It is most auspicious to make your acquaintance. I say, you are English?’
He beamed at Jonathan.
‘Yes?’ Jonathan said.
‘I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London!’ Drago said. ‘To be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is!’
‘I mean, it’s all right,’ Jonathan said. ‘I don’t know as that I would make a special trip there or anything.’
Drago nodded, quite seriously. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘I have made up my mind to go there one day. Perhaps buy a property. Not right away, of course. Maybe in a few centuries. Carpathia is my home but I have been driven here, to this lonely outpost, to seek out knowledge. You have heard of mechanical locomotion?’
‘No?’ Jonathan said.
‘Yes, yes,’ Drago said, nodding vigorously. ‘To build, you see, a machine, a mechanical contraption that could travel by some unknown means across great distances, wouldn’t that be a thing to see? One could have routes one could follow, and times of departure and arrival, and so one could spend days watching these locomotive engines go past and record their movements. Perhaps in a codex of some sort. Wouldn’t that be useful?’
‘You could build one?’ Jonathan said, impressed.
‘I cannot,’ Drago admitted. ‘But I am sure in this library of rare and vanished works from around the known world such knowledge could be found. For instance, Hero of Alexandria—’
‘Hero of Alexandria!’ a voice said scornfully, and Jonathan saw, coming towards them, a rather striking woman dressed all in crimson robes, and with sharp teeth glinting in a hungry grin. ‘He has not stopped going on about this—what was he? Some sort of Greek inventor?’
‘An ancient engineer of great wisdom who created a contraption powered only by steam!’ Drago said indignantly.
‘A human!’ the woman said. She glared at Jonathan. ‘Worthless, pitiful humans! I am Baphomet, High Priestess of the Order of the Pure Blood! It is only the bloodline of the vampire which matters, and I claim descent from the first and most ancient elders of vampirekind! I am merely here to find, um, some sort of written proof, for the exact knowledge of my blood-ancestors has been lost to me.’
‘You’re deranged,’ Drago said contemptuously. ‘Somebody bit you, that’s all! Just as somebody bit them. You may as well be a dog with rabies seeking to lay claim to the first rabid dog!’
‘How dare you!’ Baphomet said. She advanced on Drago with murder in her eyes, and the smaller vampire shrank from her in fright.
‘I have three wives back home!’ he said. ‘They will miss me terribly!’
‘Miss you!’ Baphomet said. ‘They will be grateful for the mercy!’ And she jumped at Drago with teeth bared and claws extended.
Jonathan hastily took the last of the bread and was just about to hide himself under the table when a third figure materialised between the two vampires as though out of thin air. The man who appeared was small of stature but stockily built, with short cropped hair, cold eyes and long fangs. He grabbed Drago by the throat with one hand and Baphomet with the other.
‘Enough,’ he said.
His voice was as cold as the wind outside. Jonathan shivered. He could sense power—old, dangerous power. He knew only one other vampire with such a presence, and that vampire was his master, Judge Dee.
The vampire elder held the other two like rag dolls.
‘Tell me why I should not kill you now and be done with it,’ he said. His voice was low and growly and it carried.
And then suddenly Judge Dee was just there, the glass of blood still in his hand, and he was face-to-face with the other vampire.
‘They would tell you,’ he said quietly, ‘if you didn’t hold them both by the throat. Hello, Cutter.’
‘It’s Judge Cutter,’ the other vampire said. ‘Dee.’
‘I didn’t think you were still alive,’ Judge Dee said.
‘I am . . . not alive,’ the other judge said in that same wolf’s growl. ‘I am . . . undead.’
‘You know what I mean, Cutter. And will you release them? They have not broken the law.’
‘The law?’ Cutter said. ‘I am . . . the law!’
‘And so am I,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Put them down!’
Cutter, with a look of deep disgust, tossed both vampires simultaneously. They flew across the hall in opposite directions and slammed against the walls.
‘What brings you here, Dee?’ Judge Cutter said. ‘An overdue book?’
There was a sudden silence all throughout the hall. And Jonathan realised that every monk and novice who had been quietly speaking throughout had suddenly gone mute.
Judge Dee shifted.
‘Actually . . .’ he said.
Master Umberto came and patted him on the shoulder.
‘We may as well begin your trial,’ he said; though not unkindly.
Master Umberto clapped his hands. The monks all came and arranged themselves in a half-moon behind the old abbot. Red eyes stared at Judge Dee from under their cowls. Drago and Baphomet and even Judge Cutter all moved aside, and only Jonathan remained. He hid under the table. He was good at hiding under tables.
‘Judge Dee!’ Master Umberto said.
‘I am here,’ the judge said softly.
‘You have entered of your own free will!’ Master Umberto said ceremoniously. ‘Now you must answer for your transgression! Do you accept the judgement of this court?’
‘You have taken a manuscript from this library,’ Master Umberto said. ‘And you have not returned it. What is the Law of the Library?’
All the monks behind him chanted in unison. Their voices were eerie in the grand hall.
‘All loaned books must be returned on time! There can be no exceptions! For any overdue book a fine must be paid or a fitting punishment suffered!’
‘That is the word of the law,’ Master Umberto said. ‘Brother Shallum, you have the record?’
A small vampire darted forward with a large bound codex in his hands.
‘It was on the first day of spring,’ he said, ‘the year of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. You had come to these archives seeking the Code of Hammurabi! That manuscript was granted to you! You begged to borrow it for a short time only! This was agreed and recorded in the book of records! Is this your signature?’
Judge Dee looked at the book.
‘It is,’ he said gravely.
‘You are seven hundred years in arrears, Judge Dee!’
‘Time ran away from me,’ the judge said.
The monks hissed in disapproval.
‘Judge Dee,’ the small vampire said, ‘I, Brother Shallum, son of Jabesh so declare, you stand before this court today accused of gross negligence! Of breach of protocol! Do you have the book, sir!’
‘I do.’ Judge Dee reached into his robes and carefully extracted a small rolled parchment. He held it in both hands.
The monks all gasped.
‘That which was lost is returned to us today!’
‘I only borrowed it,’ Judge Dee said.
Master Umberto took the scroll reverently.
‘Return it to its proper place in the archives, Shallum, if you will.’
‘It will be my utmost pleasure,’ Brother Shallum said. He vanished up the spiral staircase. Overhead, the bells began to toll again.
‘What will be my punishment?’ Judge Dee said.
‘What does Hammurabi say?’ asked Master Umberto.
‘An eye for an eye, I believe,’ Judge Dee said. ‘It is the first law, and perhaps still the most just.’ He sighed.
‘I apologise to you all,’ Judge Dee said. ‘I am in the wrong. I borrowed the manuscript in good faith but for a long time my path lay elsewhere, and the call of the Council kept me engaged. But Brothers, I enjoin you: seven hundred years is a mere blink of an eye when one studies the law. For the law is as old as written history itself, the law is what makes society. And to follow the law, I must study it.’
The monks, Jonathan saw, were murmuring in some agreement. And Jonathan thought that perhaps the monks were not used to anyone coming to visit, to anyone showing an interest in their work or an appreciation of the books they guarded so jealously. And so Judge Dee’s argument carried.
‘Nonetheless!’ Brother Montelusa said. ‘The law is the law, and the book has been overdue for seven centuries! The transgressor must be punished!’
Judge Dee lowered his head.
‘I will accept the judgement of the court,’ he said.
‘As is right and proper,’ Master Umberto said.
‘Death!’ the monks chanted. ‘Death to the unlawful borrower of books! Death to the late returner!’
‘That seems a bit excessive,’ Drago of Carpathia said. ‘He did bring it back!’
The monks hissed at him and he cowered from them and fell silent.
‘I will accept the verdict of the court,’ Judge Dee said.
Judge Cutter laughed. The cruel sound cut through the air of the hall.
‘Pathetic!’ he said. ‘I will to my coffin, for day is drawing near.’
‘Me too,’ Baphomet said, yawning. ‘Kill him and be done with it.’
‘I, too, shall go,’ Drago said. ‘I wish you luck, Judge Dee.’
‘Luck,’ the judge said, ‘plays no part in the law.’
Drago nodded politely. Then all three visiting vampires were gone.
Now it was just the monks and Judge Dee. And Jonathan, under the table. Jonathan reached for cheese. All this legal wrangling had made him hungry again. And he wanted to see what Judge Dee had in mind. Judge Dee must have had something in mind if he came back for certain doom after seven hundred years.
And, if not, then Jonathan was very shortly going to become vampire food, so he may as well have some cheese first.
‘An eye for an eye, so spake Hammurabi,’ Judge Dee said. ‘But what is an eye, in this instance? Is one’s death the equal of one overdue manuscript?’
The vampires murmured.
‘Seven hundred years of torture, then!’ Brother Shallum said.
Judge Dee nodded. ‘Indeed, indeed,’ he said. ‘But consider. I derived great interest from studying the manuscript of Hammurabi. It has given me hours, days, years of—not pleasure, for I do not approve of pleasure—’
‘Quite right, quite right,’ Brother Shallum said. He clearly did not approve of pleasure either.
‘But use,’ Judge Dee said. Jonathan knew his master. The judge was an ascetic. He abhorred indulgence.
The vampires murmured, catching on to his point.
‘So how could I be tortured, when I did not suffer?’ the judge said. ‘For seven centuries I found solace in a great work of the early law of humankind. The law is the law, always and forever. What then should my punishment be?’
Brother Shallum looked suddenly uncertain. Vampires weren’t very bright, on the whole—at least that was Jonathan’s considered experience.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘I mean . . . You could pay a fine, I suppose.’
The brothers murmured appreciatively.
‘A fine, yes!’ Brother Montelusa said. ‘That is a fine idea!’
He looked very pleased at his own cleverness with words.
Judge Dee inched his head, acknowledging the notion. ‘But what sort of fine?’ he said. ‘What could possibly compensate you for seven hundred years? Would it be gold? Rubies? Pearls of sunken treasures?’
‘These things all sound fine indeed . . .’ Brother Shallum murmured, looking quite happy at the thought.
‘Nonsense!’ Judge Dee said. Brother Shallum was so startled he did a little jump in place. ‘Gold? Rubies? What are they but shiny worthless rubbish to you, to a place like this? Here books hold sway, not jewels! The soft and supple texture of worked leather, the smell of ink, the rustle of the pages! You would have me pay my debt in gold?’
‘No, no, of course not!’ Brother Shallum said hurriedly. ‘I mean . . . gold? Haha. It is worthless like you say. Yes, who needs gold.’
‘Shiny gold . . .’ Brother Montelusa said. ‘And rubies . . .’
‘Yes, well, we don’t need them, do we!’ Brother Shallum snapped. Brother Montelusa, too, was now awakened from his reverie.
‘Fine!’ he said crossly. ‘What then! I grow weary of this back-and-forth. Let’s bury him in scorpions and be done with it.’
‘We don’t have any scorpions,’ Brother Shallum said.
‘Then I am sure I do not know,’ Brother Montelusa said. ‘How do you recompense us for seven centuries of a missing manuscript?’
Judge Dee did that thing with his mouth then that almost resembled a smile.
‘I may have an idea,’ he said.
‘I thought you might,’ Master Umberto said.
‘Jonathan?’ Judge Dee said.
‘The travelling bag, do you have it?’
‘Would you be kind enough to crawl out from under that table, please?’
‘Yes, master . . .’ Jonathan said. He crawled out reluctantly.
‘Inside the bag,’ the judge said, ‘there is a small wrapped parcel.’
Jonathan rummaged inside until he found it. He did not remember it being there before—the judge must have slipped it into the small bag before they entered the monastery.
‘Here you go,’ Jonathan said.
‘Give it to Master Umberto.’
Jonathan shrugged and handed it to the abbot, who opened it carefully.
Jonathan stared. In the abbot’s hands there was not a book at all but a small statue, of vaguely human shape, and clearly ancient. He had never seen anything like it before. All around the sculpture was tiny writing etched into the stone, in strange characters Jonathan had likewise never seen.
Master Umberto breathed.
‘It cannot be . . . !’ he said.
‘I dug it out with my own two hands in the place that was once called Lagash,’ Judge Dee said. ‘I spent three of the last seven centuries searching for it.’
‘The Code of Urukagina!’ the abbot said. He held the statue up for the brothers to see. ‘The Code of Urukagina!’ he cried.
The monks pushed forward, each craning for a look.
‘What is it, master?’ Jonathan said.
‘The oldest of the known legal codes,’ Master Umberto said. ‘More than thirty centuries old, and written in a land which no longer exists, in a language no living human speaks. I had thought it lost, with no extant copy of it anywhere!’
‘For a long time,’ Judge Dee said, ‘so did I. Please accept it as my gift and my apology, Master. Though I would have liked to study it longer . . .’ And he looked at the statue rather wistfully.
Master Umberto nodded. He handed the statue reverently to Brother Shallum.
‘Place this in the sanctum immediately,’ he said.
Brother Shallum departed up the spiral stairs for the second time that evening.
‘I have passed my sentence,’ Master Umberto said. ‘An eye for an eye indeed. You always had a clever legal mind, Judge Dee. I shall accept your gift in lieu of payment. May the records show that Judge Dee has returned the book that was overdue, and that his late fees have been paid in full! Do all here acknowledge so?’
‘Then the trial is concluded. Judge Dee, you are free to borrow books once again!’ The abbot smiled and patted the judge on the arm, a familiarity that from any other person would not be tolerated, Jonathan well knew. ‘Just try to return the manuscript promptly next time.’
‘I will,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Try.’
Master Umberto sighed.
‘Then let us retire—’ he began to say, but he never finished.
A scream from upstairs tore through the night.
‘I found him like this,’ Drago of Carpathia said. He shuddered pitifully. ‘It was awful. I got blood on my shirt! It is a very expensive shirt, I have them made in Paris. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get bloodstains off silk?’
Jonathan stared at the corpse. Brother Shallum—what was left of Brother Shallum—sat slumped against the wall with a long sharp letter opener straight through his heart. The corpse was withered and bloodless—Brother Shallum must have been old.
The brothers closed on Drago of Carpathia threateningly, their long sharp fangs glinting in the candlelight. Drago looked at them in fear.
‘Stop!’ he said. ‘What is the meaning of this!’
Realisation dawned on him then. ‘You do not think it’s me who killed him?’ he said. ‘I had nothing to do with it! I was the one who raised the alarm!’
‘What were you doing in the library?’ Brother Montelusa demanded. ‘It is closed at this hour!’
‘I, I mean . . . I was bored, and your ridiculous trial downstairs seemed to drag on endlessly, so I thought I might look for a book to while away the time. Something on mechanical locomotion, I’d hoped. I heard you had Hero of Alexandria’s notes here, which is why I came all this way to this dismal, lonely place! Please, stop! I have three wives!’
Drago shrieked. He turned into a bat and tried to fly away when a hand emerged out of the shadows, caught him effortlessly in its talons and tossed him against the wall. Drago turned back into human shape and slid down to sit beside Brother Shallum’s corpse.
‘You again,’ he said miserably.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ Judge Cutter said. He wiped his hand on his robe as though the very act of holding Drago had repulsed him. ‘A murder? You must really keep your house in order, Abbot. Very well. As senior judge here, I will investigate.’
‘Senior judge?’ Judge Dee said quietly. He stepped into the pool of light under the candle. The candles, Jonathan saw, were ingeniously kept in glass lanterns surrounded by water in a bowl. The monks were careful of a fire. ‘Where were you in the past hour, Cutter?’
‘You dare to accuse me?’ Cutter laughed. ‘I was in my room, thinking of the law. Something you clearly know little about, Dee.’
Judge Dee inched his head. ‘I am but a student of the law,’ he said quietly. ‘Please, then. Tell me what you deduce.’
‘Deduce!’ Judge Cutter said. He stared at Dee in contempt. ‘There is nothing to deduce. This pitiful excuse for a vampire clearly stole into the library in search of something. He expected the room to be empty, but it wasn’t. Poor Brother Shallum here must have startled him. Drago of Carpathia grabbed the first thing to hand—a letter opener. He stuck it right through Shallum’s heart, and here we are. You always overthink things, Dee. But murder is simple. You never understood that. You seek conspiracies under the bed. But one does not put a lamp under a bushel basket!’
He seemed pleased with himself.
‘You quote scripture?’ Judge Dee said. ‘Nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest.’
‘What is the meaning of this?’ a new voice said, and Baphomet appeared. ‘I was having a rest. Hello, who’s the stiff?’
‘That is Brother Shallum.’
‘That was Brother Shallum!’ Baphomet said, and laughed at her own witticism. ‘I spoke to him last night and he was a bore. I believe his bloodline was tainted. My bloodline is pure, you know.’
‘Where were you in the last hour?’
‘Not here!’ Baphomet said.
Judge Dee nodded. He moved about the library quietly. The Code of Urukagina, Jonathan saw, had not been disturbed. It sat safely on Brother Shallum’s desk. Judge Dee moved about the library and Jonathan shadowed him.
It was a large gallery on the third floor of the monastery. Shelves held ancient codices and bound manuscripts and between the shelves were desks for the monks, some with paints and brushes on them, others with paper and pots of glue and fine knives and others still with gold and leather for tooling and binding.
‘Someone disturbed the shelves,’ Judge Dee said. ‘As though looking for something. They were in a hurry. You have many precious books here, Master Umberto?’
‘Priceless! We even have Aristotle’s Comedy, though I must confess it isn’t very funny. But why steal what you can borrow?’
Judge Dee frowned, and Jonathan noticed that the visiting vampires suddenly paid close attention to the conversation.
‘What of the Librorum Prohibitorum?’ Judge Dee said.
‘W . . . what’s that!’ Drago of Carpathia said. His voice quivered.
‘The forbidden books?’ Master Umberto said. ‘Yes, yes, of course. The Book of Bai Ze, The Apocalypse of Moses, Zoticus’s Story of Atlantis, The Book of Thoth, The Book of the Dead, and so on . . . Those, you mean? But they’re safely locked away in the . . . Well. They are safe.’
‘What was that last one?’ Baphomet said —a little too eagerly, Jonathan thought.
‘The Book of the Dead?’ Master Umberto said. ‘It is a supposed listing of the early vampires and their deeds down the ages. To be honest with you I never studied it.’
‘But . . . !’ Baphomet spluttered. ‘I must see it! Don’t you understand? Such a book would be proof of the purity of my bloodline and my descent from the earliest of our kind!’
‘Are you sure you never heard of it before?’ Jonathan muttered.
Baphomet turned on him. ‘What are you suggesting!’ she said.
‘Just that you might have gone looking for exactly that book,’ Jonathan said. ‘Was startled by poor Brother Shallum, stabbed him, then made haste to depart. Drago came up for whatever reason and stumbled over the corpse.’
‘That’s outrageous!’ Baphomet said. ‘Also, I did not know the book was kept securely elsewhere, did I?’ She looked pleased with her reasoning despite all but admitting, in Jonathan’s opinion, that she did search for the book.
‘I am sorry,’ Master Umberto said. ‘Those books are forbidden. Dear me.’ He turned to Judge Dee. ‘You do not think someone was prowling my library trying to gain access to these volumes? You are aware of the danger they pose.’
‘You will . . . show me,’ Judge Cutter said. ‘I . . . am a judge. And so I will judge.’
‘I am sorry,’ Master Umberto said. ‘But no one can access the sanctum without authorisation from the Council.’
‘Outrageous!’ Judge Cutter said.
‘Dear me, what a mess,’ the abbot said. ‘I can make no sense of it. Murder, here! I feel faint. Could someone fetch me a scholar, please? I am quite parched.’
‘A scholar?’ Jonathan said.
The abbot nodded distractedly. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘Human scholars provide most of our meals here. In exchange they get access to many lifetimes of study, so losing a little blood means nothing to them. Ah, the venerable Bede, there you are.’
A small human man came in nervously. Master Umberto fell on him and fastened his fangs to his neck. He fed greedily. When he pushed Bede away the small man was pale and disoriented. Master Umberto wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
‘Much better,’ he said. ‘How go your studies, Bede? Still looking into the nature of things?’
‘Things,’ Bede said.
‘Quite,’ the abbot said. ‘What a generalised thing to study! I often wonder what the point is. But regardless.’ He turned to the assembled vampires. ‘Day is drawing near. Put this Drago in a cell for the night. He is clearly suspect. Brother Montelusa, you will guard the library. I will have no more running amok in my archives! We shall get to the bottom of this.’
‘I shall get to the . . . bottom of this,’ Judge Cutter said.
‘Please, everyone, disperse. And brothers, please remove Brother Shallum’s remains. We must dispose of him appropriately.’
‘I could boil his bones for glue,’ Brother Montelusa said. ‘He would have liked that.’
‘Excellent suggestion,’ the abbot said. And with that, they all departed the library floor and went down to the living quarters on the second. Poor Drago was taken away, Cutter vanished, and Baphomet was unusually subdued. As he turned away to follow his master, Jonathan took one last glance at the dark, now quiet library.
For just a moment, he thought he saw red eyes set in a pale face, staring at him from under a shelf marked M that went from ‘Men’ to ‘Mice’.
‘I really do not see why I can’t read The Book of the Dead,’ Baphomet said. She glared at the abbot with withering contempt. It was the following night and no one had died, which Jonathan counted as a blessing. He sat in the common room drinking warm milk with Bede.
‘I am of the purest blood. Surely that is the only thing of consequence in this matter,’ Baphomet said.
‘Things!’ Bede said. He blinked sleepily. ‘I often think about things,’ he confided to Jonathan, who nodded reassuringly.
‘How does it work, this inner sanctum?’ Drago of Carpathia said. He’d been released from the cell and now sat with the others, though he was watched by the monks. ‘You must have some amazing volumes inside. Books of ancient engineering and invention, I would venture. Perhaps a volume on mechanical locomotion!’
Master Umberto shrugged with good nature. ‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘who can really tell why a book becomes banned? They had all probably upset someone important at one time or another. I believe The Book of Thoth is filled with filthy jokes, while The Gospel of Eve is a little too candid for some people. That is all. Nevertheless, we keep them secure.’
‘How secure?’ Drago said, his eyes wide.
The abbot smiled at him. ‘We take the usual precautions,’ he said comfortably. ‘There is a maze, naturally—’
‘Naturally!’ Drago said.
‘With the usual traps—oubliettes, silver spikes, balls of rock that would roll over you and crush you, that sort of thing. You really must know the path to get through, and of course only the keepers of the sanctum know the way. The books really are quite safe, you see.’
‘But I must have The Book of the Dead!’ Baphomet said.
‘You?’ Judge Cutter said with contempt. He came in and stood glaring at them like he wanted to murder them all. ‘What do you even know of blood? You are like a newborn pup with no understanding of what the elders are and were. I could crush your skull in my palm. However, Master Umberto, I do need it for my research, so if you could make it available I would be much obliged.’
‘Research?’ Master Umberto said. ‘You did not mention research.’
Judge Cutter waved his hand. ‘A minor historical work, though I trust it will have some merit when completed.’
‘And what would that be?’ Judge Dee said. He materialised in the room. Judge Cutter scowled.
‘Never you mind,’ he said.
Judge Dee nodded. He turned to Master Umberto. ‘I have examined the library,’ he said.
‘I can only presume someone wanted access to the inner sanctum,’ Judge Dee said.
‘I demand access!’ Baphomet said.
‘You must make it available to me,’ Judge Cutter said.
‘I would quite like to find Hero of Alexandria’s notes on steam engines,’ Drago said.
‘Enough with your Hero of Alexandria!’ Baphomet said. ‘Murderer!’
‘I did not kill Brother Shallum!’ Drago said. ‘I told you what happened.’
‘You were snooping around in the library!’ Baphomet said. ‘It is obvious. Searching for the sanctum.’
‘I am innocent!’ Drago turned pleading eyes on Judge Dee. ‘You must believe me!’
Judge Dee nodded. ‘Jonathan,’ he said.
‘Let us get some fresh air.’
‘Yes, master . . .’ Jonathan said. He got up reluctantly, for the fire was warm and so was his milk, and he shivered as he and the judge stepped out into the monastery’s courtyard.
A pale moon shone down on the frozen courtyard. The gargoyles leered down on Jonathan. The gates stood closed against the night. There was an air of age to the place, of great antiquity, and Jonathan wondered who had built it.
He said, ‘Master, you do not really believe anyone would murder for the sake of a book, do you?’
In Jonathan’s opinion, books were overrated. Hardly anyone used them, anyway. Only scholars and monks. There weren’t even pictures in most of them.
‘History,’ the judge said, ‘means inquiry, Jonathan. A knowledge acquired by investigation. Without writing there is no history, for it is in the act of writing that history is created. Books are the foundation stones of civilization, the dams we build against the dark. . .’ He brooded. Jonathan did not like it when the judge brooded.
‘I fear there is something deeper here,’ the judge said.
‘What is it?’ Jonathan said.
‘The Book of the Dead is not what you think—’ the judge began.
It was perhaps by chance that Jonathan looked up just then. Something had troubled him at the edge of vision. He looked and saw a shadow move on top of the monastery roof. Only for a fleeting moment, then it was gone. But something had been disturbed, high up on the rooftop. Jonathan watched a piece of masonry fall.
A stone gargoyle, dropping from the sky.
For a moment Jonathan stared in horror. Then he screamed, ‘Judge Dee!’
The judge moved swiftly. The gargoyle was on top of them, leering face frozen in deadly stone. Judge Dee shoved Jonathan out of the way. He moved like a dancer then—just a tiny motion, expending the minimum amount of force and speed.
The gargoyle passed an inch from the judge’s face.
It smashed on the hard ground.
Jonathan lay on his back, winded.
The judge was unharmed.
The moon shone down with an odd expression on its old pockmarked face; as though if only it could it would speak to them both, and tell them all its secrets.
And Judge Dee, improbably, smiled.
‘Well,’ Judge Dee said, ‘that certainly is puzzling.’
When they got back inside they found the common room all but abandoned. Only Judge Cutter was there, sitting by the fire with one leg folded over the other, and he glared at Judge Dee in hatred.
‘Where is everyone?’ Jonathan said.
‘Another . . . murder,’ Judge Cutter said.
Judge Cutter stared at Jonathan. ‘What do you . . . care?’ he said. ‘I certainly . . . don’t.’
Cutter waved a hand. ‘See for yourself,’ he said indifferently.
‘You do not intend to investigate?’ Jonathan said, surprised.
‘I no longer have . . . an interest in the case.’
‘Very well,’ Judge Dee said. He nodded. ‘Cutter.’
They ascended the stairs. Up to the library, where desks were fallen over, books tossed in the air, and a hidden bookshelf had swung open from the wall to reveal a narrow passageway.
Brother Montelusa sat slumped at his desk, what was left of his head resting on the writing surface. Jonathan saw, sickened, that a large grimoire in a spikey metal binding lay on the floor at his feet and it was covered in blood.
‘Someone brained him to death,’ Master Umberto said. ‘With Protagoras’s On the Art of Disputation.’
‘Shocking!’ Dee said.
The abbot nodded. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘A most valuable book, needlessly ruined. I would venture the assailant tortured poor Montelusa before killing him. As you can see—’
He pointed silently to the hidden passageway.
‘I take it that leads to the Librorum Prohibitorum?’ Judge Dee said.
‘It does. You may as well go in now. I fear more bad news await inside.’
‘When and how did this happen?’ Judge Dee demanded. ‘I was not gone long and when I left everything seemed calm.’
Master Umberto looked embarrassed.
‘The, uh, fire in the fireplace in the common room suddenly grew enormous,’ he said. ‘Really, it was frightening, the fire bellowed out and everyone present raised the alarm, and all the monks ran down to try to put it out, and, well, with one thing and another, there was as much confusion as you could care for. By the time we put it out and went back up here I found Brother Montelusa as you see him. As for the forbidden books—come, see for yourself.’
Judge Dee squeezed into the narrow passageway and Jonathan followed with some trepidation. ‘Careful . . . Careful!’ Judge Dee said, snatching Jonathan away a moment before silver-tipped blades came out of the wall and nearly sliced him in half. They tiptoed down a corridor, past various lethal contraptions that had been seemingly disabled, and emerged into a small but comfortable book room with a single candle burning.
‘Oh, hello,’ Drago of Carpathia said, surprised. He held a large, forbidding volume in his hand. ‘This is most fascinating!’ he said. ‘Clearly a disciple of Hero of Alexandria built this maze and its devices. See here! He suggests the use of steam to power locomotive engines that could pull carriages behind them. Oh, to see such a thing!’
‘What are you doing in here!’ Master Umberto said.
‘Why, I thought I’d have a look and nobody seemed to mind,’ Drago said, offended. ‘The traps really are wonderful. I nearly fell into an oubliette!’ He beamed at them with his fangs. ‘Ingenious stuff. And look here! There’s a schematic for installing heating ducts throughout a tall structure. Much like this monastery. It would explain the burst of fire earlier, which was most inconvenient, I must say, I nearly singed my eyebrows. Someone could have dropped a flammable of some sort down the chute to set the whole thing off. In fact, using one of Hero’s notions of timekeeping, one could easily set up some crude time-delay device and actually be in the room when the flames came. I was in the room.’
‘You are just incriminating yourself, man!’ the abbot burst out.
‘But I had nothing to do with it!’ Drago protested. ‘I keep telling you this! It was not my fault Brother Shallum was lying dead there for me to trip over him. I nearly ruined a very expensive cape! And besides, nothing of value is missing here other than that stupid Book of the Dead, and I have no interest in it!’
Judge Dee and Master Umberto exchanged glances Jonathan could not read.
‘The Book of the Dead is missing?’ Dee said.
‘I’m afraid so,’ the abbot said. ‘But really, what harm can it be?’
‘I do not know.’
‘Well, then. It is just like Aristotle’s Comedy. Overrated.’
‘I will examine the scene of the crime,’ the judge said. ‘Too many things do not add up, and I grow tired of this mystery. Leave us now.’
‘As you please,’ the abbot said.
‘May I borrow this book?’ Drago said, and the abbot sighed.
‘You may as well,’ he said miserably. ‘If you murdered both Shallum and Montelusa you will die soon anyway, so what difference will it make if you read it?’
‘Excellent,’ Drago said, and he followed Master Umberto out cheerfully.
‘I don’t understand anything,’ Jonathan said. ‘What is The Book of the Dead? Why is someone trying to kill you? Who murdered the two monks? What is a steam locomotive?’
‘These,’ Judge Dee said, ‘are all the wrong questions.’ He examined the small room carefully. ‘The question we must ask ourselves is where the book currently is. It is obvious that someone wanted that book and was willing to go to great lengths to acquire it. We know both Baphomet and Cutter expressed their interest in the book. Yet it’s Drago of Carpathia who seems to have an inexhaustible—if exhausting!—knowledge of mazes and contraptions, and who keeps popping up whenever someone dies. Any one of them could have done it. And yet, where is the book?’
‘By your own reasoning,’ Jonathan said, ‘one of them must have it.’
‘Had they the book, I suspect they would have fled by now, their mission successful,’ Judge Dee said.
‘I did not see Baphomet,’ he pointed out.
‘Then we shall search for her,’ Judge Dee said. ‘As well as conduct a search for the book. Hello, what’s this?’
His arm snapped out and snatched a small white shape off the floor.
The small creature squeaked in alarm.
‘It’s just a mouse,’ Jonathan said.
‘And where did it come from? And where does it go?’
‘I do not know, master,’ Jonathan said.
The judge set the mouse carefully back on the floor. The mouse glared at him, then darted into a hole in the wall and vanished. The judge knelt to look.
‘Drago wasn’t wrong,’ he murmured. ‘This place is riddled with ducts.’
Jonathan remembered now what he saw the previous night. The white face and the red eyes under the bookcase. He told the judge.
‘The mouse catcher?’ the judge said. ‘Yes. I saw him too. He does get about, does this Charlie. Come, Jonathan. Let us conduct our search. But I doubt we will find anything.’
Drago’s belongings and his room brought up nothing. He’d been locked up again in the cell but was cheerfully reading his Hero and did not seem to mind. ‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘when you have three wives at home you find yourself longing for a bit of quiet. And a rest is as good as a cure, don’t you think?’
And he went back to his book.
They found Judge Cutter still sitting by the fire. He laughed grimly when they asked to search him. Nothing was found but for an assortment of knives, stakes, and other various and unpleasant instruments of death, but then he was a judge, and there was no Book of the Dead in his belongings.
Baphomet was nowhere to be found. Master Umberto organised a hunting party. The monks transformed into wolves and bats and sped out from the monastery.
‘They will find her,’ the abbot said. ‘Nothing moves on this mountain without my say-so.’
And so they waited.
Judge Dee paced the common room. Judge Cutter sat grim-faced in his chair by the fire. Master Umberto nibbled on the venerable Bede. In his cell, Drago the Carpathian sighed with contentment as he turned another page in his book and listened to the silence.
And Jonathan ate his cheese.
No one was murdered, which was a blessing. Deep under the floor the mice ran and squealed and did their micey things. They ate and they pooped. And high above the monastery hung the moon in the sky, and it looked down. It saw the leering gargoyles on the rooftops and the snow fall on the mountain, and it saw the tiny shape in its red cloak flee across the snow, and the wolves that chased it.
The monastery doors opened.
The monks came in, holding the furious Baphomet between them. They threw her to the ground. She rose on all fours and growled, fangs showing.
‘I didn’t do it!’ she said.
‘Do what?’ Judge Dee said quietly.
Baphomet looked at him in confusion. ‘Whatever it is I’m accused of!’ she said, with a logic Jonathan had to admit was unassailable. Clearly a keen legal mind was at work here.
‘You are not accused of anything,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Yet.’
‘Then why was I dragged back here?’ Baphomet said. Which again, Jonathan thought, was a perfectly reasonable question. Baphomet stood up and glared at the monks, who shied away from her fury. ‘My bloodline is pure!’
‘There’s no such thing as a bloodline,’ Judge Dee said. He came to a sudden stop and now his eyes were animated, and Jonathan could sense that the judge was ready at last to pass judgement.
‘Bring in Drago of Carpathia!’ he said.
Drago was brought in by the monks. He looked around him in bemusement.
‘Are we having a party?’ he said.
‘We are not . . . having . . . a party!’ Judge Cutter said. He got to his feet and pointed an accusing finger at Judge Dee. ‘What is it that you think you’re . . . doing, Dee? You have no authority! I will solve this . . . case!’
Judge Dee stopped still.
‘Very well, Judge Cutter,’ he said. ‘Present your arguments.’
‘Thank you.’ Judge Cutter looked around the room in contempt.
‘The Carpathian did it,’ he said.
He sat down again with finality.
‘I did no such thing!’ Drago protested. ‘As what you suggest . . . What did I do?’ He blinked confusedly.
‘Settle down, Drago. And thank you, Cutter. Brief and well-argued as always.’ Judge Dee did that thing with his mouth again that wasn’t quite a smile. ‘You, too, Mistress Baphomet, sit down,’ he said.
The judge paced.
Cutter glared at him with a sneer on his face. Baphomet, too, perched herself on a chair and now stared at Judge Dee with a mixture of fascination and hatred.
Judge Dee steepled his fingers.
‘Several things are clear,’ Judge Dee said, ‘yet nothing is clear. Two murders, a missing manuscript. This much we know. The monks, I think, we can dismiss from our inquiry. They are the guardians of these books and have no need for subterfuge to take them. Which leaves the visitors. You, Baphomet. High Priestess of the Order of the Pure Blood you style yourself. I find your interest in blood . . . unhealthy. One must not be consumed with one’s feed, nor confuse it for nobility. No, do not argue. You were vocal in your desire for The Book of the Dead, for you wish to ascertain some mystical link between yourself and the elders. But you are wrong, for the book is not what you think it is, and the elders would kill you as soon as look at you.’
‘Quite right, I would, too,’ Judge Cutter said. Baphomet looked at him, then looked away.
‘I did not kill them!’ she said.
‘Then there’s Drago,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Quite a cold and clever mind lies beneath the buffoonish surface, I believe.’
‘Who, me?’ Drago said.
‘And all this interest in locomotives is unpleasant. I believe sooner or later you’ll come to a sorry end,’ Judge Dee said.
‘I hope not before I see the wonders of London!’ Drago said, and Jonathan mumbled, ‘I told you, it’s overrated.’
‘You were caught red-handed trespassing in the library,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Raising the alarm over poor Brother Shallum could have easily come after you killed him. And you were already in the room of forbidden books when I arrived after Brother Montelusa’s death.’
‘I did not kill Brother Montelusa!’
‘Then there’s Cutter,’ Judge Dee said.
The other judge glared at him in hatred. ‘I am a judge!’ he said. ‘Be careful now, Dee!’
‘You, too, expressed desire for the manuscript. Did you steal it, perhaps? But I rather think not. You know what it truly is, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘What is it!’ Baphomet said.
Judge Dee sighed.
‘As judges,’ he said, ‘we are tasked by the Council to observe the Unalienable Obligations. Devised to ensure the continuity of vampirekind, they require that no vampire draw undue attention upon themselves. The problem with the old ones is, they can . . . lose sight of that necessity. In short, they can be rather too terrifying.’
‘Monstrous!’ Judge Cutter said in satisfaction.
‘And so The Book of the Dead exists as a sort of . . . precaution, you might say,’ Judge Dee said. ‘It is not a celebration of some noble and imaginary family tree. It is rather what we call a mug book. A book of faces. Artists have drawn the likeness of these elders as best they can, and the book contains information about their last known whereabouts, their age and power. Just in case, you understand.’
‘In case one goes rogue,’ Judge Cutter said. ‘At which point, we get to kill them!’
‘Which begs two questions, Cutter,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Why do you need to access the Book of the Dead and why don’t you have authorisation from the Council?’
Cutter hissed. ‘I told you! It is for a little project of mine. And I did not steal the book!’
Judge Dee nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I rather believe you, too. You see, one other thing puzzled me. Who tried to kill me, and why?’
‘Well it wasn’t me!’ Drago blurted. ‘I only killed the first fellow!’ He stared at them in horror when he realised what he’d said. ‘It was an accident! I was searching for the way to the book of forbidden manuscripts when that idiot Shallum interrupted me. I had to kill him so he would not give me away! Then I raised the alarm, to throw suspicion off myself.’
Judge Dee nodded in satisfaction. ‘You alone did not crave The Book of the Dead,’ he said, ‘but you had your own burning desire to get into the sanctum. Moreover, I do not think you were alone in the library that night. Someone else saw you. Someone who thought to utilise your . . . mechanical interest. To plant a timed flammable device that would drop into the fire at just the right moment, causing a diversion. Is that correct?’
‘How did you . . . yes,’ Drago said.
‘All three of you wanted to access the Librorum Prohibitorum,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You had failed the first night. The second night, one of you three tried to assassinate me by dropping a gargoyle on my head. It failed, but by the time I came back inside the fire had gone off, Brother Montelusa was murdered, and The Book of the Dead was gone. It was a clever, dangerous ruse. And it would have worked, but for one thing. You never did get hold of the book, did you, Cutter? When you finally broke into the room, the book was already gone.’
Judge Cutter stormed to his feet. ‘You accuse me?’ he screamed. ‘I am your equal, Dee!’
‘That you are not,’ Judge Dee said coldly. ‘And you did plot it all. You saw Drago murder Shallum, and saw your chance. You blackmailed him to help you. With his interests in mechanics Drago was able to set off the explosion and help you navigate the maze into the sanctum. You tried to kill me. You brained poor Brother Montelusa with the grimoire, and it was you who tried to steal the book! But you did not find it.’
‘He did it!’ Baphomet screamed. ‘I saw him! That’s why I ran away, you see. I saw it and did not want to be blamed for it.’
‘I know,’ Judge Dee said.
Cutter stood very still, and his eyes were narrow and cold. ‘Where is the book, Dee?’ he said. And suddenly he had silver-bladed knives in both his hands.
‘You are right, of course,’ he said. ‘You always are. I did try to kill you, and I will again, just as I will kill all the elders! The monsters! They are just as you say—venal, corrupt, deranged, operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable undead conduct! I will murder every single one of them and the world will sing my praises! Now give me the book!’
The monks murmured in fear and Baphomet looked subdued. Jonathan saw Drago sneak away in the commotion. He made it to the doors and bolted out. A small bat flew out against the moon and no one but Jonathan saw it.
No one but Jonathan, and a small, pale-faced vampire with red eyes who came catlike into the room from the courtyard. Judge Dee turned and saw him, and he smiled.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Charlie.’
‘Judge Dee,’ the small vampire said.
‘Who let the mouse catcher in?’ Judge Cutter said in disgust.
‘Do you have it?’ Judge Dee said gently. ‘Do not be afraid. You will not be harmed.’
‘Have it? Have what?’ Cutter said. ‘What could this creature possibly have of any value?’
Judge Dee smiled. Charlie nodded. He reached into a bag and brought out a small leather bound codex.
‘Here it is, sir,’ he said shyly. ‘I only took it away to keep it safe, you see.’
‘The book!’ Judge Cutter said. ‘The Book of the Dead! Give it to me!’ He snatched it from Charlie’s grasp before anyone could stop him.
‘Mine at last!’ Cutter said. ‘Now I will know their faces and their hideouts. Now I will destroy them all!’
‘Where did you hide it?’ Judge Dee said. ‘To keep it safe?’
‘The only place I could, sir,’ Charlie said. ‘With the mice.’
‘The mice? The mice!’ Cutter said, and he started to laugh. He opened the book. Judge Dee watched him and did nothing, and Jonathan saw how the merriment drained out of Cutter’s face.
‘What . . . did you do?’ Judge Cutter whispered.
‘I kept it safe,’ Charlie said. ‘Did I do wrong?’
‘Safe? Safe?’ Judge Cutter shook the book. Mouse droppings and bits of parchment dropped out of the binding, fell onto the floor. Jonathan stared.
The mice must have nested in the pages.
Of the precious manuscript, nothing but the binding remained.
‘It is ruined!’ Judge Cutter said. ‘It was all for nought!’
‘Probably for the best,’ Judge Dee said. ‘What happened to you, Cutter?’
‘I grew weary of the law, Dee,’ Cutter said. ‘The law!’
He laughed bitterly.
‘It is nothing but pretence,’ he said. ‘A thin veneer we put on mindless slaughter. I could not abide it anymore, the lying, the scheming, the killing! I would end it all and make the world anew, cleaner, purer!’
‘Yes! Yes!’ Baphomet said. She looked at Cutter with new, adoring eyes. ‘The purity of the blood! I must be of your line, master!’
Cutter hissed. He turned to Dee, ignoring Baphomet. ‘If I cannot have them, I will start with you,’ he said. He hefted his knives. Judge Dee stood calm and still.
The two judges stared into each other’s eyes. Nothing moved and nothing stirred. The moment lengthened. The very world seemed to hold its breath.
Then something ended. Cutter, without a word, went to the door and vanished outside.
‘What happened, master?’ Jonathan said.
‘He worked out how the battle ends,’ Judge Dee said simply. ‘And knew he lost.’
‘Will you not stop him?’
‘He will stop himself,’ the judge said. ‘There are worse monsters out there than Cutter, and when he finds them, I fear they will be waiting.’ He turned to Baphomet. ‘You I pronounce innocent. You’re free to go.’
‘I am of the blood of Cutter!’ Baphomet said. She shrieked, ‘Wait for me!’ and ran out after the departing judge.
Judge Dee shrugged. ‘I am sorry, Master Umberto,’ he said. ‘For not stopping this sooner.’
The abbot waved a hand. ‘All we lost are a book and two monks, and those are easy to replace. What of this Drago, though?’ he said. ‘He flees as we speak. Shall I fetch him?’
‘I see a fire in his future, and a stake through his heart,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Let him be.’
Master Umberto inched his head. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Will you be staying a while longer?’
Judge Dee looked out, where the moon shone bright and pale down on the frozen land. He shook his head regretfully.
‘I shall leave at next nightfall,’ he said. ‘The law, like the tide, waits for no one.’
“Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Missing Manuscript” copyright © 2022 by Lavie Tidhar
Art copyright © 2022 by Red Nose Studio