Souls Rise, chapter 1:
Gaspard’s boots crunched on the icy snow as he walked through the 11
Gaspard’s boots crunched on the icy snow as he walked through the 11th Arrondissment, the Jewish sector of Paris. The reek of fear was thick and the shadows so dense they were permanent fixtures, impervious to even the sun. The sidewalk’s stains hit Gaspard’s nose with the telltale stink of old blood, punctuated by motes of new blood, the only remains of residents picked off one-by-one. The sun sank behind the Paris buildings and Gaspard pulled his hood up as he traversed Parmentier Street, mulling how the world had gotten so ugly.
Thud. Gaspard heard what had become an all too common sound. The sound of a boot hitting the abdomen of a man. Another thud. Laughter from onlookers.
“Please, stop! He’s my husband! He’s done nothing!” cried a woman. She carried bread and cheese and proffered the rarities on bended knee to the soldiers. A second soldier snagged the food, then put out his right hand and strong-armed the woman back.
“You will be beaten, too, if you interfere! Step back, old woman. Your husband is a traitor and a spy.” Another woman, who had the sagging skin of someone who’d lost a lot of weight too quickly, hauled the crying woman into a shop doorway, saying, “Don’t be stupid! Your children need you. They can’t lose you both!”
One last kick to the head finished the fun for the German soldiers who withdrew several yards to lean against their car, a German-registered Peugeot, and to share the bread and cheese. No one dared approach the bleeding man in the street who lay there, unmoving.
Gaspard could hear the man’s heartbeat slowly fade. Compelled by the blood scent and his revulsion of the man’s mistreatment, he strode into the street and cradled the man as one would a baby, carrying him off.
“Halt!” came the order from behind him. Gaspard walked toward a nearby alley.
Gaspard heard the clicks of rifles being readied. From the corner of his eye, he saw the remaining townspeople scurry into their homes and lock their doors. Gaspard, three soldiers, and a dying man were the only ones left in the mouth of the alley, hearts either pounding or failing.
Gaspard lowered the dying man onto the concrete, rose to his full height, and pushed back his hood.
“Who the hell are you?” demanded one of the soldiers looking at Gaspard’s sharp features, pale skin, and reddened eyes.
Gaspard took a step closer. “I’m hungry.” He lunged for the soldier, cracking his neck with one twist, sinking his incisors into the carotid artery to drink while the blood still pumped. He hadn’t swallowed much when the next two soldiers were upon him.
Gaspard swung one arm and backhanded the shorter soldier smack in the face, dropping him unconscious on the ground. The third, back-peddling as fast as possible, raised his gun and took a wild shot, which went over Gaspard’s head. Gaspard reached him in the blink of an eye, pressed him up against the alley wall and pulled his head to the side, stretching the man’s neck almost to the breaking point. Taking his time, Gaspard bared his fangs at the soldier, letting the man see what was to come. He was rewarded by the sound of urine hitting the street.
Gaspard broke the skin on the soldier’s neck, sucking like a lover, making sure the man stayed conscious throughout. Gaspard took only enough to weaken the soldier but not enough to kill.
He straightened the soldier’s neck and placed his mouth at the man’s collarbone, drawing his tongue up to the ear in one long blood-scented lave, allowing his breath to wash over the man. When he was certain he had the soldier’s undivided attention, he whispered, “Tell your superiors what happened because I’m declaring it open season on Nazis.” He pushed the man out onto Parmentier Street and watched him stumble to the Peugeot.
Gaspard turned to the beaten man who lay on the ground. Gaspard held his head and drank deeply, not the cause of the man’s death, but hastening its arrival. He briefly considered turning the man, but relinquished the thought as fast as it came. It would be cruel to doom a man to eternity in the hell that now lived on Earth. Better for him to take his chances with whatever lay beyond.
He left the unconscious soldier where he was and turned to leave, catching a swift movement in the corner of his eye. The movement came from above and Gaspard looked up at the fire escape, wondering who had been there. He climbed the fire escape, scanning the rooftops. He saw no one, but he felt someone there.
“Come out!” Gaspard yelled. “What is it you want?” His voice echoed in the darkness.
Silence. The snow swirled from the parapets in clouds of pure cold. Even Paris’ pigeons were hiding, although Gaspard couldn’t imagine where the birds could roost in safety. Icicle teeth grew long and pointy from the gutters, threatening impalement to those below, and the moon was a wan, joyless scythe in the sky.
Gaspard didn’t wait any longer. He leapt to the ground and returned to his apartment, where he sat in his chair and waited for the inevitable. The inevitable came a short ten minutes later. Word traveled fast, Gaspard thought.
The vampire thugs threw the door open, hauled Gaspard up by the shoulders, and marched him into a waiting car, throwing a hood over his head like they were starring in a third-rate gangster movie. Resigned to what he knew was coming, his stomach in knots, Gaspard bit his tongue and stayed silent, swallowing the snarky remarks that floated through his brain.
Numerous twisty turns later, the car stopped somewhere in what Gaspard guessed was the fifth arrondissement, the Latin Quarter. He could smell the Seine and hear the noisy clatter of bistros serving what limited food remained. Still blinded, he stumbled down dank stairs permeated by the odor of yesterday’s garbage and was shoved into a cold room with a concrete floor.
He felt the Master’s presence. How could he not? The Master’s aura filled the room and pressed against Gaspard’s resolve. Someone removed Gaspard’s hood, man-handled him into a chair placed above a drain in the center of the room, and tied his hands behind him.
“Arnaud. You could have asked me to come. Politely. I would have. There was no need for all of this subterfuge.” Gaspard crossed one leg over the other to appear casual.
The Master of Paris held silent, but his long, lithe body was shaking with rage. He wore a fine suit, unusual in fabric-rationed France, with flat front trousers cuffed at the bottom. The material was a suitably somber grey with white chalk marks and a double-breasted blazer. He’d removed his Fedora and placed it safely out of the way on a hook installed on the back of the door. Gaspard glanced at Arnaud’s feet, expecting to find two-toned spats and was shocked to see that the vampire wore what looked like black leather German military boots.
Finally, Arnaud spoke, almost a whisper, as if he was hanging onto his temper by a thread.
“Did you or did you not send a message that it is, how did you say, ‘open-season on Nazis’?”
Gaspard didn’t see the blow coming. One moment he was in the chair, the next on the floor, chair broken, blood streaming down his face from his forehead and nose. Since he had drunk his fill earlier, the blood was rich and red.
“They were beating a man, threatening his wife, and laughing openly about it. Germans. In your city. Why do you let them? What happened to you, Arnaud, that you would let them invade Paris unchallenged? Your forces are formidable. You could beat them!”
Arnaud’s long fingers reached for Gaspard, pulling him to his feet only to launch a vicious attack of fists and feet until Gaspard was down and stayed down, the blood from his body flowing out as fast as he had gotten it, down the drain for the city’s rats. Gaspard could hardly see by this time, his eyes were so swollen, and his ears rang from the repeated blows. But he heard Arnaud hissing at him in anger.
“You ibécile! We could beat them, some of them, but more will come. They are like cockroaches, scuttling in and out, hiding in the corners and cracks of the city. We cannot take on the entire German army, so I brokered an agreement. We don’t bother them. They don’t bother us. We co-exist, exactly as our former Prime Minister Reynaud intended, that chicken shit coward.”
“It is our current Marshall Petain that is the coward,” countered Gaspard, through swollen lips. “He’s the one who invited the Germans in.”
“Doesn’t matter. French government is all the same, whether republic or monarchy. Weak. Shallow. Without pride or dignity. We would have fought beside French forces if they had stayed true. Now the Germans hang swastikas from our buildings and ransack our art.”
Gaspard wiggled himself to a seated position on the floor and pushed back until he could lean on the wall, his hands still tied behind his back. “Then why are you working with the Nazis? Why not help the Resistance?” he said, eyes flaming despite the injuries.
“It is better to co-exist than start a vampire hunt in the city. We have lasted this long. This too shall pass.”
“Are your people helping them?”
“No. We neither assist nor hinder.”
“Semantics. If you aren’t fighting them, you’re enabling them. They have overpowered the great Arnaud? What has this world come to?”
“You have no right to judge.”
“Are you having me followed?” asked Gaspard, changing the conversation’s direction.
“No, but maybe I should.”
“How did you get the news about my actions so fast?”
“A member of the seethe saw you and reported back.”
Arnaud leaned down into Gaspard’s face. “Let me be clear. We are waiting this one out, and you don’t get to change that by issuing threats! You do not speak for me. You do not speak for Paris, and so help me, if any of mine are killed because of your stupidity today, I will hunt you down and behead you myself. Am I clear?”
Gaspard nodded, struggled to a standing position, and wiped his bleeding nose on his right shoulder. “I’ll remember, Arnaud, if you’ll remember that I took this beating out of respect for your position as Master of Paris.” Gaspard broke the ropes that tied his hands with one twist, stepped into what was left of Arnaud’s space, held his hands up, and brushed both of Arnaud’s shoulders, as if he was dusting off his best man’s suit before the wedding.
Gaspard pivoted to leave, staring the guards down until they moved out of his way, got halfway up the stairs, and said, “I wouldn’t be too sure some of your seethe aren’t helping the Germans. That vampire that reported to you? If he wasn’t there to spy on me, why was he there?”
Gaspard was indeed in the Latin Quarter, and he was beaten, swollen, and weakened with blood loss. Soldiers filled the coffee shops, drinking the only real coffee left in Paris, studying the French waitresses with half-lidded eyes. When he saw one of the soldiers slap a waitress on her derriere, he had his mark. The waitress grimaced at the slap but didn’t protest. Gaspard swore he would do the protesting for them both.
His opportunity came when the soldier needed to relieve himself. The soldier sauntered to the back of the shop, unbuckling his belt and trousers before stepping into the loo. Gaspard had stolen into the alley behind the bistro and slipped in the back door. Once the soldier entered the lavatory, Gaspard followed, locking the door behind him.
“What the fuck!” was all the German got out. Gaspard pulled the man toward him and in one motion, sunk his fangs into the man’s neck and lowered him to the seat of the toilet. He drained the soldier dry, taking pleasure in the thump of the heartbeat and how it dwindled to silence. Gaspard left the soldier on his throne, exiting as silently as he had come. Already healing and high on the caffeine-laced blood, Gaspard stole away into the night.