Chapter no 22

Hell Bent

Alex was glad Dawes wasn’t at Il Bastone.

She let herself in, grateful for the house, its wards, its quiet. It was nearly 8 p.m. Only a few hours had passed since she’d set out for Old Greenwich. The lights flickered and soft music floated through the halls, as if Il Bastone knew she’d been through something terrible.

She washed Reiter’s blood off the brass knuckles in the kitchen sink, returned them to their drawer in the armory, then dug through the cabinets to find the balm Dawes had used on her feet the night she’d sleepwalked to Black Elm. The schoolteacher had lent her enough strength to escape, but it was Alex’s body that had taken the punishment. She was cut up and bruised, her lungs hurt, and her whole body throbbed from her run across county lines.

In the Dante bedroom, she set out the first aid supplies she’d purchased on the pretty writing desk and then headed to the bathroom to peel back her bandage.

The wound on her neck was already closing, and there was no fresh blood. It shouldn’t have healed up so fast. Did that mean he actually had pierced her jugular and it had just started healing right away? She didn’t know. She didn’t want to know. She wanted to forget Linus Reiter and his angelic face and all of that pain and fear. She could feel his teeth sliding into her, his grip on her skull, the knowledge that she was nothing but food, a cup he held to his lips, a vessel to be emptied.

She hadn’t been afraid, truly afraid, in a long time. If she was honest, she had enjoyed facing off against Darlington’s parents, Oddman, the new Praetor. When Dawes had summoned a herd of fire-breathing horses from

hell, she’d been scared but okay. She liked forgetting about everything except the fight in front of her.

But those had been fights she could win. She wasn’t strong enough to beat Linus Reiter any more than she was clever enough to get out from under Eitan Harel’s thumb. They were the same man. Linus would have happily drunk her dry and planted her in his backyard to feed the roses. Eitan would just keep using her, sending her on jobs until she didn’t come back.

She rubbed balm into the wound, replaced the bandage, and looked for a clean pair of Lethe sweats. She’d forgotten to bring back the last couple of pairs to be laundered, so she had to go up to the Virgil bedroom to pillage Darlington’s closet. They were too long and too baggy, but they were clean.

Her next stop was the Lethe library. She drew the Albemarle Book from the shelf outside, ignoring the faint screams and the puff of brimstone that emerged from its pages. The book held the memory of whatever had been researched last, and Dawes had clearly been studying some version of the underworld.

Alex drew a pen from the wicker table beside the shelf, then hesitated. She knew she needed to be very specific in her request. Vampires were all over folklore and fiction, and she didn’t want to have to sort through what was myth and what might actually be useful. Also, if you were too vague with the library, the walls started shaking, and there was a good chance it might cave in entirely. Maybe she should start smaller.

She scrawled, Linus Reiter, and returned the book to its place. The shelf rattled gently, and when it had settled, Alex let it swing open to the library.

There were more than a dozen books on the shelves, but as Alex sorted through them, she realized most were focused on the Reiter family and their grand home in Old Greenwich, Sweetwell. The Reiters were German immigrants and had made their money manufacturing boilers and water heaters. Sweetwell and its surrounding land had always passed from one Reiter heir to the next, but Alex suspected they were all the same man.

She was surprised to see one of Arnold Guyot Dana’s scrapbooks on the library shelf, a fat volume bound in navy blue, Yale: Old and New emblazoned in gold on its spine. Darlington had been obsessed with the

scrapbooks dedicated to New Haven and Yale, and had cherished volumes sixteen through eighteen, which, along with Hiram Bingham III’s diary, had been pilfered from the Sterling Library years ago to hide vital information on Lethe and the flow of magical artifacts through the city.

Alex flipped through the thick pages of newspaper clippings, old photographs, and maps, until her eyes landed on a photo of a group of young men at Mory’s, all stern-faced, all suited. And there was Linus, in the back row, his face solemn, his pale blue eyes nearly white in the old picture. He looked softer somehow, more mobile in this photo than he had been sitting in his own living room. Had he been human then? Or already turned and having a laugh? And how was she supposed to best a drug-dealing blue blood Connecticut vampire?

Kittscher’s Daemonologie was also on the shelf, the same book Michelle Alameddine had recommended and that Dawes had been using for research. Alex flipped through, still hoping for a catalogue of monsters and ideally how to best them. But the book was as Dawes had described: a series of debates on hell between Ellison Nownes, a divinity student and devout Christian, and Rudolph Kittscher, an atheist and member of Lethe.

Nownes seemed to be arguing for Turner’s version of hell—a place of eternal punishment for sinners: Whether there be nine circles or twelve, whether pits of fire or lakes of ice, though the architecture of hell be indeterminate, its existence and purpose are not.

But Kittscher disagreed: Superstition and bunk! We know there are other worlds and planes and that their existence enables the use of portals

—why, ask any Locksmith if he thinks he’s simply disappearing from one place and reappearing in another. No! We know better. There are other realms. And why should we not understand “hell” as one of these realms? Here, the transcript noted “loud applause.”

Some of what they were saying went right over Alex’s head, but she was pretty sure Kittscher was suggesting the existence of hell—and heaven

—was a bargain between demons and men: Just as we may be nourished by meat or fowl, or survive upon a diet of simple roots and berries, so demons are nourished by our base emotions. Some feed on fear or greed or lust or rage, and yes, some hunger after joy. Heaven and hell are a compromise,

nothing more, a treaty binding demons to remain in their realm and feed only upon the dead.

This was where the crowd turned on Kittscher and the notes described Nownes as “red-faced.” Nownes: This is what comes of a vision of a world without God—not only a life but an afterlife devoid of any higher morality. You suggest that we, creatures born of God and made in His image, are the lowliest of beasts, timid rabbits trapped in a snare, made not for great study or high achievement, but to be consumed? This is the purpose and fate of humanity?

Kittscher had laughed. Our bodies are food for worms. Why should our souls not be made meals too?

At that point both parties had nearly come to blows and a recess had been taken.

Alex rubbed her eyes. She’d been straight with Turner: She didn’t believe in his Sunday school version of the underworld. But she wasn’t sure she bought into Kittscher’s theory either. And why had this turned up in her search regarding Linus Reiter?

She combed through the index for any mention of him, then slid her finger down to V, for vampire. A single page was listed.

Kittscher: Think on the vampire. (Jeering from the assembly.)

Herman Moseby: What’s next, leprechauns and kelpies? (A call to order from the moderator.)

Kittscher: Have you never wondered why in our stories some seduce and some terrify? Why some are beautiful and others grotesque? These disparate stories are proof that demons remain in our world, some who feed on misery or terror, others who feed on desire, all of whom take the forms most likely to elicit those emotions.

(Terrence Gleebe is recognized by the moderator.)

Gleebe: In this scenario, is blood a vehicle or incidental to the process?

(Laughter from the assembly.)

Alex touched her fingers to the bandage on her neck. “Incidental, my ass.”

She thought of handsome Linus Reiter in his white suit. Why would a vampire become a drug dealer? There had to be a thousand ways to make money when you had that kind of power and that much time. But what if you fed on desperation? What if the money meant nothing but you required an endless buffet of fear and need? Alex remembered the hangers-on at Eitan’s house, the losers at Ground Zero, her own aching sadness, the desolation that had been her life, the scraps of hope she’d wrung from the moments of peace that a little weed, a little alcohol, a pop of Valium could provide.

So if Kittscher was right and vampires were demons, at least she knew what she was dealing with. But how to keep the monster at bay?

She left the library and took out the Albemarle Book, wrote: how to avoid vampires, nonfiction. Then she hesitated. Why had the library provided her with information on a vampire when she had specifically asked for books mentioning Linus Reiter? She kept the Albemarle Book open and returned to the round table where she’d left Kittscher’s Daemonologie. Reiter hadn’t been listed in the index. She flipped to the back of the book.

Minutes taken by Phillip Walter Merriman, Oculus, 1933. In attendance:

The participants were listed by society, and there, under Skull and Bones: Lionel Reiter.

He’d been there. Under a different name, but he’d been in this house, under Lethe’s roof. Maybe he’d been mortal then. But maybe there had been a demon in one of the societies, inside Il Bastone, and no one had been the wiser. And what about the date? 1933. A year after Sterling had been built. Did that mean there really had been a first pilgrimage to hell? Was that the subtext here? Who had known about the Gauntlet, and was this less a heated argument about philosophic hypotheticals than a very real debate about the possibility of traveling to the underworld?

And if demons fed on humans, on their happiness or their pain, even their blood, was there another variable she had to consider? She remembered Marjorie Stephen, old before her time, eyes milky and gray. What if there hadn’t been any poison? Could Reiter be involved? Or some other demon having his fun? Taunting them with scripture? Turner would have told her if they’d found neck wounds on Professor Stephen or Dean Beekman, but before tonight, Alex hadn’t known vampires were real. What else might be lurking out there in the dark?

Alex felt panic rising up to choke her. She thought of all those studious young men from well-to-do families debating morality and immortality, arguing semantics, while a monster enjoyed their hospitality. Because we’re all a bunch of amateurs. Lethe pretended they knew the score when they didn’t even know the game. But this house, this library, could still protect her.

After three more searches, she had regained some small sense of calm,

and she had a list of recommendations culled from the few books she could find in English that covered repelling demons and vampires, most of them involving weapons made of salt. According to the books she skimmed, stakes, beheading, and fire all worked because they killed just about anything. Crosses and holy water were dependent on the faith of the user, since they lent courage, not real protection. Garlic was only effective as a repellent toward a particular type of succubus. And the wards worked. That was what mattered. In the armory, she located a wide lacy collar made of tiny salt pearls that dated back to colonial times and that she could tuck neatly under her shirt. She lay down in the Dante bedroom, beneath the velvet blue canopy, and dreamed she was playing croquet on Linus Reiter’s lawn. She was barefoot and the grass was wet. She could see blood seeping up between her toes.

“Intriguing,” he whispered, but in the dream, he was Darlington, in a white suit with glowing golden horns. He smiled at her. “Hello, honey lamb. Have you come to be devoured?”

The house behind him was no longer Sweetwell but Black Elm, covered in ivy, somehow lonelier than even a vampire’s castle on a hill.

Alex drifted inside; she knew the way, that same strange sense of compulsion drawing her on. The rooms seemed bigger, their shadows deeper. She climbed the stairs to the ballroom, and Darlington was there, in the circle, but he was her Darlington, just as she remembered him the night he’d disappeared from Rosenfeld Hall, handsome, human, dressed in his long dark coat, his weathered jeans.

Through the windows she could see the demon with his curling horns, standing amid the discarded croquet set on the lawn, gazing up at her with golden eyes.

“There are two of you,” Alex said.

“There have to be,” Darlington replied. “The boy and the monster. I am the hermit in the cave.”

“I saw everything. In your grandfather’s memories. I saw you try to survive this place.”

“It wasn’t all bad.”

Alex felt her lips twist. “Of course it wasn’t. If it was all bad, you could just let go.”

“When did you get so wise, Stern?”

“When you went on sabbatical to purgatory.”

“I could hear them,” he said, eyes distant. They were dark brown, tea left to brew too long. “My parents. When they were yelling at the front door.”

“Should I have let them in?”

His gaze snapped to hers, and in his rage she could see the echo of the demon. “No. Never. They turned the power off, after I inherited this place. They thought they could freeze me out.” His shoulders lifted, dropped. His anger fell away from him like an ill-fitting garment. He looked so tired. “I don’t know how to not love them.”

How many times had Alex wished she could feel only resentment toward Mira? Or nothing at all? That was the problem with love. It was hard to unlearn, no matter how harsh the lesson.

“Is this real?” she asked.

But Darlington only smiled. “This isn’t the time for philosophy.” “Tell me how to reach you.”

“Come closer, Stern. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Was she afraid? Was this the real Darlington, or was he the monster waiting in the garden? Some part of her didn’t care. She stepped forward.

“Was it you that night?” She could see the circle of protection was fraying, dissolving into sparks. He is dangerous. He is not what you think. “At Book and Snake? Did you use the corpse to spell my name?”

“Galaxy Stern,” Darlington said, his eyes flashing gold, “I have been crying out to you from the start.”

When Alex woke, the sheets were soaked with sweat, and the wound at her neck was leaking pale pink rivulets of blood.

It is interesting to contemplate which of Aesop’s fables were chosen for illustration in Bonawit’s very fine glasswork. Is there a lesson in the choices? That may depend on how each fable is read. Take “The Wolf and the Crane”: In the course of eating too quickly, a greedy wolf gets a bone stuck in his throat. To the crane he says, “Use your slender beak to pull it out and I will give you a fine reward.” The crane obliges, placing his head inside the wolf’s jaws and extracting the bone, but when the work is done, the wolf grants the crane no prize. Isn’t it enough that he has let such a fool escape his bite? Traditionally, we are told the moral is “There is no reward for serving the wicked.” But we might just as well understand the story to posit this question: “Isn’t it a merry thing to cheat death?”

Less famous but also found in these same windows is the tale of “The Kid and the Wolf.” Separated from his herd, a young goat

encounters a wolf. “As I must be eaten,” he says, “will you not play me a tune that I may die dancing?” Happy to have music with his meal, the wolf obliges, but from across the pasture, the huntsman’s hounds hear his playing. Chased through the woods, the wolf marvels at his own foolishness, for he was born a butcher, not a piper. The moral offered in most readings is strange indeed: “Let nothing keep you from your purpose.” Then are we to understand ourselves as the wolf? Why is the clever goat not our model? Take then this lesson: “When faced with death, better to dance than to lie down for it.”

—A Reconsideration of the Decoration of Sterling Memorial Library,

Rudolph Kittscher (Jonathan Edwards ’33)

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