By Chris Barnham
I’m a child this time. Five or six years old.
Fully clothed under a bed, on a wooden floor. I touch a hand to my throat, but there is nothing there. I examine my hands and arms, astonished by the smoothness of the skin. At last, I crawl out from beneath the bed and leave the room.
Light from a jagged hole in the roof, blue sky beyond, streaked with horsetails of cloud. The floor is dusted with splinters of wood and brick. The window at the end of the hall has daggers of glass clinging to the frame.
Over the banister, more rubble and destruction below. Some of the stairs are broken, but I pick my way downstairs, helped by the fact that I am so light now, in this child’s frame. I could skip across a field of grass and barely disturb the dew. There is a door at the foot of the stairs. I turn the handle and push, but at first it does not move. Maybe the wall has shifted in the raid. I try again, ramming my tiny shoulder against the wood.
The door releases its grip and tumbles me outside.
The Previous Day
Before they take me out, they put a hood over my head. A hand on my arm guides me down a flight of stairs. On the flat, they shove me forward. Hands pull me to a halt and there is the sound of a car door, before someone pushes down on the top of my head, pressing me inside. As the car engine starts, I hear a loud wailing in the distance.
“Air-raid siren,” I say. “Are you sure we should be going for a drive?”
“No need to worry about Hitler’s bombers,” a familiar voice says. “Nothing he can do to you that’s worse than what Vincent’s got in mind.”
The car gathers speed. The sirens fall away and another sound comes; a strengthening growl high above. I can picture the swollen metal bellies of the Heinkel bombers, stuffed with high explosives. With the motion of the car, I feel the ancient metal disc move on its chain beneath my shirt. Vincent’s penny; maybe it can bring me luck again.
“You can let me go. Who will ever know?”
“Why would we do that?”
“If you let Vincent do this, who will stop him doing worse in the future?”
The car stops, doors open and close. As they lead me away from the car a succession of explosions in the distance makes me flinch. A sound like a giant striding towards us, wading through houses and shops.
The hood is snatched away, revealing a large empty space, an abandoned warehouse. A table and three chairs in the centre of the room.
I know I will never leave this place.
Two men on horseback approach early in the morning. I see them from my perch astride a tree branch overhanging the river. They cross the bridge and turn right on a path that will bring them to Father’s workshop. I scramble down and I’m in front of the house when they arrive.
They look tired. One of them hangs his head low as he rides, close to falling asleep in the saddle. The other is more alert. His dark eyes catch and hold mine as he draws close.
“Can we get water here, boy?”
“Them horses need more than water.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Not meaning to be rude, sir. Your friend’s horse, look at its foot.”
The right hind shoe has broken. The man jumps down and hands me the reins, before crouching to examine the hoof of his companion’s horse.
“Clever boy.” For the first time he looks at the house. The door to Father’s workshop is closed, but a metal outline of hammer and anvil is fixed above it. “And by a stroke of providence this appears to be a smith’s establishment.”
“My father’s, sir.”
“What is your name, boy?”
“Well, Sebastian, does your father pay you to stand outside and attract business?”
“Perhaps he should. Here.”
He puts a silver coin in my hand, a penny with the outline of the queen’s head on one side and some writing on the reverse, which I cannot read. I run inside. Father is eating his breakfast of bread with gravy, washed down with a mug of ale. My brother, Jacob, and sister, Jane, stand to attention as Mother washes their faces. Mother’s mouth is a tight line and there is a bruise on her left cheek.
“Customers. Gentlemen. They may pay well.”
Father brushes past without thanks. Mother moans quietly. She sounds like a dying cat I once saw in the woods, attacked by foxes.
“Don’t just stand there, boy,” she says. “Help your father.”
He already has the furnace going. I pump the bellows to make the coals glow. The two strangers go back outside, sitting to talk beside the road. Father beckons me to him.
“When you get a chance, boy, see what they have in the bags. Be careful.”
“But, Father -.”
“Don’t argue with me.”
I slip out of the workshop and approach the second horse from the side of the house away from the two riders. There is a cloth bag behind the saddle, fastened with a leather strap. I place a calming hand on the horse as I open the bag and peer inside. A packet of papers, which I ignore, and a wineskin about half full. Beneath this, two packages wrapped in cloth. One rattles as I open it, and contains five small bottles, stopped with corks. One is empty, the others contain a reddish-brown liquid that sticks to the glass.
The other package contains a knife, sticky with rust-coloured blood.
“Clever and inquisitive, I see.” A hand grips my arm, another hand clamps across my mouth. “Keep quiet and no harm will come to you. If you tell anyone what you have seen, I will kill you.”
I nod my head. The man stuffs the knife back in his bag and drags me into the workshop.
“Is this the kind of business you run? Sending the boy to rob innocent travelers while our guard is down.”
“What has the boy done, sir?” Father straightens up from the anvil. He drops the hammer at his feet and rubs a dirty hand across his cheek.
“I caught him going through our bags. Where is the nearest magistrate?”
“I’m sure there is a mistake, sir. He is a foolish boy, but he means no harm.”
“He could be flogged for this.”
“I’ll deal with him, sir. I promise he will learn his lesson.”
“I’ll let this pass, blacksmith.” The traveler pushes me forward. “But I do not expect to pay for your work today.”
After they leave, Father beats me so hard that I cannot open one eye and my jaw hurts to speak. Bad as the blows are, the worst of it is when Mother makes the mistake of trying to restrain him and he hits her so hard that she is knocked against the wall and falls to the floor. She does not move for several minutes and I think that this time he has killed her. At last, she sucks in a ragged gasp of air and sits up. Father leaves the house, heading for the tavern.
I wake in the night at a sound from outside, maybe footsteps on the road. I drift back to sleep and wake again as the eastern sky is turning pale. In the workshop there is a smell of ale and something sour. Father is face down on the floor, his head close to the anvil, on which there is a dark smear. Close to one outstretched hand, a wineskin lies on the floor in a red puddle.
It is worse than crying, the bleak and glassy look that possesses Mother’s face. Father was cruel, but he was the man of the household, with a trade that enabled the family to live securely, if not in luxury.
After the burial, a visit from the church warden and the parish clerk. They tell Mother the parish will assist the family while she makes arrangements for the future. She is of course, the warden says, a little old to hope for a new husband, but one never knows. At least she can work, and there are opportunities for service in the large manors in the parish. The children could not come with her if that was the occupation she pursued, but perhaps some other branch of the family might take them in. At least little Jacob and Jane. The older child might need to go to the workhouse.
A few days later, I sit in front of the house, scratching at the dry dirt with a stick. I do not notice the stranger approaching.
“What’s that, boy? Writing? Can you read and write?”
It is the man who came by with his companion, the day before Father died.
“No, sir. I want to learn.”
“That’s good. A boy with brains should use them. Is your mother here?”
She comes out brushing down her tunic, as if smoothing hands could make the fabric cleaner or less cheap-looking. She invites the stranger inside and tells me to bring some ale, then shoos me away. I listen beyond the door.
“I want to help your family.”
“You are kind but you need not trouble yourself, sir.”
“Hear me out please, madam. I need an apprentice.”
He mentions a sum of money that is larger than I have ever heard. Mother remains silent for a long time. After the stranger has gone, she comes to find me. I am back by the roadside, scratching again in the dirt. She sits down and places a cool hand on my shoulder.
“He is a kind man. You can learn a trade. We will miss you.”
When I wake up next morning she has packed a small sack with clothes and Father’s work boots. One day you will grow to fit them, she says. He would want you to have them. When the stranger comes he is again on a horse. He shakes my hand.
“Are you ready, Sebastian? We have a journey ahead of us.”
“I’m ready, sir.”
“You can call me Vincent.”
I have never been on a horse and I am nervous when he lifts me to sit in front. I touch the penny in my pocket for luck. Mother, sister and brother watch in silence as we ride away.
After midnight, footsteps in the passage and a tap at the door.
“Open the door, Sebastian. It’s me.”
It is more than twenty-five years since I entered Vincent’s service. I open the door. Outside is the new page who took my horse when I arrived at Vincent’s London base in Kennington two days ago. The young man Vincent recruited recently, whom no one else knew, and whose name I never learned. He steps inside, crossing the room in long strides to sit down in the armchair Vincent favours.
“Close the door,” he says. “We have things to discuss before anyone sees me.”
I have previously only heard this man speak a few words, but I would remember his voice. It is the deep tone of a fit young man with a large frame and broad chest. But in subtle ways it is different; the London accent has faded and he speaks with the tone of a man accustomed to people listening. Like he’s imitating Vincent.
“Where’s Vincent?” I sit facing the page. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Come now. Have you forgotten that you have things to ask me?”
Two nights ago, Vincent told me this would happen. I will die, he said. But I will live again in a new form. A man will come here and he will tell you that he is me, and you will believe him because he will tell you things that only I can know.
“Where were you born?” I say.
“A small village in Brittany, called Carnac.”
I nod, because it is the right answer, or at least the answer that Vincent told me. I ask the second question.
“How did we first meet?”
“Twenty-seven years ago,” says this man who cannot be more than twenty-five years old. “You were nine years old. I rode past your father’s workshop and my companion’s horse needed a shoe.”
For the past two days, since Vincent last spoke to me, there has been a deep chasm at my feet. There is no floor to it, just an unending fall away from everything I know about the world. Since that last conversation I have ignored it, convincing myself I can remain upright and avoid losing my balance on the edge. When the young stranger describes my first encounter with Vincent, the ground shifts beneath my feet.
“I don’t know what to believe. It is too -.”
“Ask the other question.”
“While my father shoed the horse, what did I do?”
“You searched in my bag, like a common thief.” The words are harsh but the man smiles. “I blame the father, not the child. See how lucky you were to join my household?”
“What did I find?”
I have never spoken about what I saw that day. Nor can I imagine that Vincent would tell anyone this secret.
“A knife. With fresh blood on it. You never asked me where the blood came from,” Vincent – this new Vincent – says. “It’s how I knew I could trust you. You must have wondered, but you kept your counsel.”
I drain my ale and leave the tavern. Alone on the cobbled path along the riverbank, I hear footsteps behind. The path passes between wharves on my left and a high wall on the right. Shadows clot like dark blood where the wall gives way to the mouth of a narrow alley. A tall figure steps out to block the path.
Seven years ago, the new, young Vincent told me his secret, his power over death. He said he wanted to protect me, to ensure that I was not lost to him by accident, some random outbreak of plague. I trusted him, of course, but I felt out of my depth in this new world of sorcery and conquered death. Did not the Bible say that three-score years and ten was the allotted time for man on earth? Could it be right that Vincent stole the span given to another man?
He persuaded me to take his medicine. A precaution, he said. The potion was thick and rusty brown, sliding from the cup and down my throat in one piece, like a fat leech dropping from the haunch of a cow. Afterwards, my fingertips tingled and I had a surge of energy, as if I had breakfasted on honey and mead.
When the tall stranger blocks my path, I try to walk round him. He shuffles to the side, blocking the way again.
“Please let me pass. I have urgent business for my master.”
I am seized from behind by rough hands. One unseen assailant has a forearm around my neck. The man before me steps close and peers at my face.
“Is it he? You’re sure?”
“For certain. He was pointed out to us at the tavern.”
“Good.” The tall stranger has pleasing, angular features, marred by an old knife scar on his left jaw. “Go now.”
The hands release their grip. The man in front of me lunges forward and a blow beneath my ribs drives air from my chest. My attacker grips my shoulder with his left hand. His right hand holds the handle of a knife close to my stomach. He twists it to the side and pulls it away. Blood splashes to the cobbles.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger whispers. “It’s not your fault. It’s business.”
I fall to my knees, my hands on my stomach, desperate to hold it closed. There is a high-pitched whistle from somewhere and pain surges through my abdomen and into my chest. I slump forward with my face on my murderer’s feet. I taste my blood on his boot.
The whistling stops and there is silence. I do not know how much later it is when I return to my senses and look down at the dead man. I pull my foot free and he rolls to one side, showing his face. My own empty eyes stare up through me to something unseen in the stars above.
I throw the knife into the black Thames. My stranger’s hands are wet with blood, which I wipe on my coat. I touch a finger to my face, tracing the shape of a nose and chin I have never touched before. On the jawbone there is the faint line of a scar.
I squat by the unmoving corpse and go through the pockets of my former body’s clothes, removing a small bag of money, and papers that might enable identification. Under the tunic, secured by a silver chain, he wears an old penny. I take that too, slipping the chain over my head. Then I walk away. I don’t look back.
Heavy boots clatter up the wooden stairs and along the landing. The door vibrates to a quick sequence of blows.
“Open in the name of the Committee of Safety!”
I unlock the door and four soldiers enter. Three have swords drawn, flanking the fourth, who has a sheet of paper in his hand. This man is older than the others, but even he may be no more than thirty. It is hard to tell with soldiers, who in recent years have undergone such hardships.
“I have a warrant for the arrest of Sir Richard Langley.”
“He’s not here.”
“I must tell you that it is a crime to hide him or assist him in avoiding arrest.”
“He’s not here.”
The soldier with the paper gestures the others forward and they spread out to search the rooms. The leader remains in front of me.
“And you are?”
“Sebastian, clerk in the household.”
“Where is your master?”
“I wish I knew. He was here the day before yesterday. He left before dark.”
“You know the consequences if you help him escape the law?”
“What has he done, sir?”
“Maybe nothing. But these are dangerous times. You heard that the King has been convicted of treason and sentenced to death?”
“I heard, but it is hard to credit.”
“Maybe so.” He gives me a hard, suspicious stare. “But the tyrant Charles is safely locked up in Westminster. Our job is to ensure that no one tries to come to his aid. We need to know where Langley is.”
“I would tell you if I knew. I have no great love for him. If he has done something wrong I will help you search for him myself. No man is above the law.”
“A noble offer.” A disbelieving smile. “When did you last see Sir Richard?”
“Two days ago. He packed bags in a hurry and rode out at dusk with two pages accompanying him.”
“And you have no idea of his destination?”
“I assumed it was Norfolk, sir. He has an estate near Fakenham.”
“You had better be right.” The soldier takes hold of my forearm and leads me from the room. “You have five minutes to pack, and then you leave with us. Let us hope for your sake that it is not a fool’s errand.”
In later years I learn a great deal about Vincent’s secrets; the many lives he has lived, the source of his power. For many years, for centuries in fact, I do not question him. I am too much in thrall to this man who lifted me from poverty to a life of wealth and power at his right hand.
Mostly, he offers no reason for doubt; he knows so much, has access to such wisdom. As time passes, the group he gathers around him becomes larger, grows in stability and loyalty as his followers share his secret of life after death. We are like animals drawn to a water hole, who drink deep and forget to remain alert to threats. Vincent always provides, always makes the right decisions.
This is the one time he overreaches, and it is his misfortune to make his mistake at such a dangerous period. During the 1630s, Vincent spent more time in the company of men close to the Court. He had no shortage of money, it was power and prestige he sought. But these were perilous times, as the new King Charles conducted his struggle with Parliament that led to a savage civil war.
Richard Langley was a Member of Parliament whom Vincent befriended. Langley was young – a fit, sporty man, on good terms with everyone at Court. Vincent showered him with gifts, cut him in on trade deals with France and Spain, and paid for Langley’s thirty-third birthday feast. Langley often joined hunting parties at the Norfolk estate.
“Study Sir Richard carefully, Sebastian,” Vincent whispered to me on one such trip. “We need to know everything about him.”
Six months later, Vincent had a fatal hunting accident while out with Sir Richard. There was gossip at Westminster about the fact that Vincent left a will bequeathing his fortune to Langley, but it was no surprise to me. Nor did I hesitate to accept Sir Richard’s invitation to serve him as I had Vincent.
The lead soldier is called Nathaniel Jackson. When our horses cross the Thames, the river beneath London Bridge is thick with slabs of ice, which rattle together as the water flows between the supporting columns.
I am beginning to think like Vincent. As we cross the bridge, and Jackson is distracted by the need to pick a careful route for his horse, I study him. I note Jackson’s erect bearing in the saddle and the firmness of the muscles beneath his jerkin.
Two other horsemen accompany us. Their names are Gregory and Abraham. They are similarly clad in multiple layers of wool and linen under leather jerkins and it is hard to remember which one is which. All three soldiers act friendly, but there is no doubt that I’m under suspicion.
The journey to Langley’s Norfolk estate normally takes three days. Jackson and his men are in a hurry and they push the horses as hard as possible, but it is still unlikely we could reach Fakenham before tomorrow nightfall. The ground is hard and frozen, and the air smells of imminent snow.
None of this bothers me. I have no intention of reaching Norfolk.
By dusk, snow is falling. We reach the edge of the great forest of Epping. It would be foolish to push on into the woodland under darkness and snow, so Jackson leads us to a roadside inn and commandeers a room. Jackson shares the bed with me. Gregory and Abraham sleep on the floor.
I feign sleep as the others fidget to find comfortable positions. Their breathing softens and becomes regular. The room is cold, and puffs of condensation from the mouth of Jackson glow in a shaft of moonlight.
I rise and step over the sleeping soldier beside me. The cold temperature made it natural to sleep fully-dressed so there is no need to fumble for clothing. Instead, I pick up my bag and shoes, and creep down the stairs and into the now-empty main room of the inn. I slip on my boots, then unbolt the door to the stables.
The snow has a thin crust of ice and my steps across the yard crunch like splintering wood. The sky is clotted with stars, crystals of frost bloom on the outbuildings. I take a saddle and I’m about to lead the horse into the yard when cold metal presses against the back of my neck.
“Move and I run you through. Keep your hands in sight and turn round slowly.”
I turn as instructed. The point of Nathaniel Jackson’s sword is an inch from my throat.
“Let me go.”
Jackson ignores me, and steps to his left as one of his fellow soldiers arrives behind him, carrying a heavy flintlock pistol, which he points at my face. Abraham – or Gregory, I still can’t tell them apart – looks eager to pull the trigger.
“Let me go, Jackson. It will be better for all of us.”
“No one told me I had a jester for a prisoner.” Jackson’s arm does not waver, the tip of his sword just under my chin. “Let you go? Do you have any other jokes for us?”
“I have nothing against you and your men. Let me go and you can get on with your lives.”
“What do you think, Gregory? Shall we let him go?”
“What would we tell the Captain?”
“Exactly, what would we tell the Captain?”
“Say I slipped away in the night. I mean you no harm.”
“What a relief! If you meant to hurt us I fear what you might do, what with you staring down the shaft of Gregory’s pistol and my sword about to free your head from your body. Truly, we are at your mercy.”
I nudge the blade aside with my elbow. Jackson is surprised enough to step back and withdraw his sword a little.
“I’m leaving. Don’t stop me and all will be well.”
I step past Jackson and walk towards Gregory, who backs away and to the side, keeping the pistol aligned with my face.
“Stop him, Gregory.”
“Don’t -.” His hand tightens as he pulls the trigger. The flint hammer snaps down and there is a tiny delay before I am propelled backwards by an invisible boulder in the chest.
I come to rest against the stable wall. The smell of gunpowder fills the air, along with the choking aroma of burned flesh. My face and chest have been stung by a hundred angry wasps. At first, I cannot see, and I think both eyes are shot out, but I lift a hand and wipe blood from my right eye, enabling me to see Jackson as he leans close.
“You fool. Why didn’t you stop?”
“I’m sorry.” There is a high whining sound and then silence, as the light fades and I am sucked into darkness. I shrink away from my own body, down to the smallest point of light, spinning in a dark vacuum.
The spinning slows and I expand again in a surge of liquid energy, flowing like a fast incoming tide into new limbs, new blood, new nerves and bones.
I gasp and stumble backwards away from the bloody, ruined face of the dead man on the stable floor. Gregory’s hand at my back steadies me.
“Careful, sir. Thought you’d be used to the sight of dead men by now.”
“I’m fine.” My new mouth and tongue feel oddly-sized. I clap Gregory on the shoulder. “Good work.”
“Why would he walk like that, sir? When we had him under pistol and blade?”
“Who knows?” Gregory is behind me as I crouch over the body, so he does not see me take the chain from around the dead man’s neck and slip it in my pocket. The silver penny is tarnished these days, and Gregory’s shot has dented the metal. But it remains with me, this sole link to the boy I was sixty years ago.
“No matter,” I say. “Let’s get Abraham down here and clear up this mess before we head back to London.”
When I rejoined Vincent in the form of poor Nathaniel Jackson, we took passage for France and soon arranged new identities, with the acquisition of useful quantities of property and money.
Paris, under the Sun King, Louis XIV, felt like the capital of the world. Foreign wars brought new riches into a city that bloomed with imperial new buildings. Opportunities were limitless for those with the advantages Vincent possessed. But he had learned a lesson, and took care to remain discreet. Getting too close to power, seduced by the glamour of public life, was not wise for those with secrets to protect.
He trained in medicine and set up a modest private college, which did little actual doctoring, but was a convenient vehicle for managing money and cloaking the still-mysterious pharmaceutical work needed to produce Vincent’s life-renewing elixir. Others joined us, giving a feeling of security in growing numbers. Vincent spoke often about the things we could do to benefit humankind. His secret could not be shared with a world unready to use it wisely. But those few who possessed it, under his guidance, could use the gift of repeated lifespans to do work that would help everyone.
The first step was to build the wealth that would enable Vincent’s Order to do its work. I was uneasy about the methods Vincent used for this: selecting and grooming rich but obscure men into whose lives we could slip undetected, assuming their wealth and property. I wondered what happened to the people I displaced – did they die forever with my old body?
The 1789 upheaval in Paris, which would soon become a revolution, disturbs Vincent’s plans. Having come so close to the executioner’s axe in England, Vincent has a nose for danger. As rioting ebbs and flows through Paris, we stay indoors. There are shouts and the sound of running feet in neighbouring streets, along with what sounds like gunfire.
One afternoon, I slip out and walk along Rue St Antoine. Ahead, a crowd surges towards me. I stop a young boy and ask him what is going on.
“It’s the fortress of the Bastille! We’ve got the governor prisoner.”
Half a dozen rough-looking citizens drag a man in uniform. Members of the crowd launch kicks at him. Two men lunge forward and he clutches at his chest, where blood splashes down his tunic.
All at once, attackers overwhelm him, wielding knives and bayonets, their arms rise and fall in a sickening flurry. He disappears beneath the mob, to reappear seconds later motionless on the blood-spattered cobbles. One of his attackers begins to saw at his neck. I hasten back to the apartments.
They are alive with activity – servants run from room to room carrying clothing and boxes, while Vincent barks orders.
“Pack what you can. We leave tonight.”
“Are you sure it’s not safe to stay?” I ask Vincent, when we are alone. “The mood may change. If the King is wise he can give some ground and remain in control, bring trustworthy troops from the provinces.”
“Will you stake your future on his wisdom, Sebastian?”
Is this the first time I doubt Vincent? It turns out he is right about the course that events will take in France. But there is a brief sense of weariness. Part of me does not want to sneak away from Paris in the night and start again back in England. Surely more can be done with Vincent’s great secret than to lurk in the margins, amassing money, stealing life from rich and unattractive men.
Years slip through my fingers like sand in an hourglass until the World War changes everything. Teenagers volunteer to go to the blood-soaked fields of Flanders. A generation of young men wasted. The clash of civilizations and collapse of ancient orders across Europe.
And, when it is all over, we emerge from our hiding places to slip into the bodies of the survivors.
“This is my last time,” I tell Vincent one day, two years after the war. “I will live out this life and let it end naturally.”
“Naturally?” Vincent in his current incarnation has chosen to grow older, having taken the body of a retiring army general at the end of the war. He thinks the white hair and salt and pepper moustache give him authority. He will not allow himself to get much older than this. I have already seen signs of his preparations for another transition in the large underground room that he uses for gatherings of his now thirty-strong group. “What do you know of natural death?”
“As much as anyone,” I say. “I have seen a lot of it. And died a few times myself.”
“It may be less pleasant to die knowing you will not come back.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
“Are you not happy, Sebastian?”
“I owe you everything, Vincent. But I have thought about this for a long time; I don’t want to continue living at the expense of others.”
I have finished my wine and Vincent offers more, but I refuse. It tasted bitter and unpleasant.
“There are always people who have things that others do not.”
“Not many people have life while others have to die.”
“Everyone alive has that.”
“You know what I mean. Taking the place of people who have years to live, who have families and friends.”
“Sometimes there have to be sacrifices.”
“For what? I don’t see us doing anything except hoarding wealth and power. The price is too high. None of us knows what happens to the people whose bodies we take.”
“Have I ever told you my theory?” Vincent’s eyes are chips of ice. “When we are reincarnated, I don’t believe the soul of the previous owner of that body is set free to find a new home.”
“So what happens?”
“When I take on a new life I take everything,” Vincent says.
“But the person who lived before -?”
“I eat their soul. It makes me stronger.”
That ends the conversation, a glimpse of cold vacuum at the heart of the man I have served for centuries. A week later Vincent stages his latest transition. The ceremony takes place in the underground hall, where Vincent has a low stage erected and numerous candles around the walls. It is distasteful the way that Vincent now dresses his actions in ritual and ceremony, building a cult around the same old greedy operation.
When I arrive, Vincent beckons me to the front. Caskey sneers from the side of the stage. Vincent’s musclebound lapdog has been with him for the past century but still seems like recent bad news. Caskey makes it harder to believe in the good that Vincent claims to do. Once, Vincent devoted time and money to a school for orphans, picking up poor children from London’s streets and giving them a home, food and an education. But lately the main thing to come out of the school is new recruits for Vincent. All with more muscle than brain.
On the stage are two heavy chairs. One is occupied by a man in his young twenties, bound to the chair at wrists and ankles. His head hangs forward. I reach the foot of the stage and look around for a seat. I did not notice the two men following me. They seize me from behind, wrenching my right arm behind my back.
“Bring him up,” Vincent says. They drag me onto the stage and push me into the vacant seat, tying my wrists to it. Vincent steps forward and unbuttons my shirt, exposing the blackened ancient disc on its silver chain. He lifts it over my head and studies it before placing it over the head of the young man tied up in the other chair.
“Vincent, don’t do this.” I understand too late the bitter taste of Vincent’s wine when we last met.
Caskey steps over to the drugged man and drags his chair close to me. I hear a metallic click and turn back to Vincent. He holds a gun, the opening at the end of the barrel inches away from me. He squeezes the trigger.
There is a smell of burning flesh. Someone fumbles at my wrist and places my hand on something warm and wet. Insanely, at this moment of terror, I think of Father for the first time in a century.
A wineskin. Blood on a knife in Vincent’s bag.
Father died and Vincent took me in.
He hadn’t drunk much from it, judging by the puddle of wine around it.
“We are together in this.” Vincent holds aloft the stranger’s hand that is attached to my arm. The hand is smeared with blood from the ruined head of the corpse in the next chair. The dead man wears the clothes I put on this morning. “The blood is on all of our hands. No one backs out.”
I know how my father died. Maybe I always knew.
Every time I return from a trip, the people around Vincent more resemble a medieval court, the fawning inner chamber of a Roman emperor. The last person I see before I enter Vincent’s study is Caskey.
“You’ve got a nerve, walking in here. I’ll give you that.”
He is still in the East End barrow-boy incarnation he has had for a decade, but there are flecks of grey in his greased hair and a putty-like softness in his face. He’ll be looking for a new victim soon.
“Vincent is expecting me.”
“He certainly is. I’m just surprised you came.”
“I’d love to chat, Caskey. But I don’t want to keep him waiting.”
When I enter the room, it strikes me how long it has been since I was alone with Vincent. How formal our relationship has become. He beckons me to a pair of wing-backed armchairs beside the fire.
“You wanted to see me.”
“It’s so long since we had a proper chat, Sebastian. Of all the people here, you and I have been through so much. We should keep in touch, don’t you think?”
“You keep me busy.”
“Would you like some coffee?” He gestures at the silver pot on the table. “It’s fresh. I don’t know how long we’ll be able to get it, with the rationing.”
“Good.” Vincent regards me in silence for a few moments. “Would you say I’ve treated you well, over the years?”
“Mostly. And I hope you recognize that I have worked hard for you.”
“And I’ve earned your trust.”
“Mostly. None of us can rest on our past, can we?” Vincent breaks off to pour coffee, before continuing, holding the steaming cup in two hands. “Long ago, Sebastian, you and I lived through a different kind of war, and it nearly ruined us. Back then, there was suspicion of anyone who acted out of the ordinary, a fear of witchcraft. Now, this country lives in fear of bombs and spies and invasion. The slightest step out of line could bring the authorities down on us.”
“I know that.”
“So, it’s a time when we need to work together. When I need perfect loyalty.”
“You’ve had my loyalty for centuries.”
“I appreciate that. Come over here. I want to show you something.” Vincent puts his cup down and steps to the window. I follow. “These are dangerous times,” Vincent says. “People like us need to be very careful.”
“Don’t we always?”
“Now more than ever. One thing I have learned, is that above all else you have to know who can be trusted. It’s the secret to a long life.”
“One of the secrets.”
“What about you, Sebastian?” Vincent is not looking at me, apparently studying the view. “What about you?”
“I can be trusted.”
“That’s what I tell them.”
“That incident where I had to make sure you made the transition, it didn’t go down well with our colleagues. And I hear stories about you.”
“It seems some people question my leadership. Some think they should have access to the secret that I own, which has given us all the gift of life.”
“You know what I think about that.”
“You’ve tired of immortality?”
“If anyone has the power to cheat death, everyone should share it.”
“Easy to say when you’ve already lived far beyond the life you would have had without me. Your bones would be dust without me. You’d have been dead by 1650.”
“And when would my father have died?”
For the first time Vincent is surprised. He pulls back as if flinching from something unseen.
“Your father? When do you think he would have died?”
“Later than he did.”
“Do you really want to talk about this? After all this time?”
“Not really. But I don’t want lectures from you about trust. You have been able to trust me more than anyone can trust you.”
“I see that what they tell me is true,” Vincent says softly.
“What do you expect? After all this time, I find that it’s all based on a lie, on murder.”
“You knew that all along, you hypocrite! Your father was a drunk and a fool. You were better off without him and so was your mother.”
“Leave her out of this.” There is a sound behind me, but I cannot take my eyes from Vincent. My breath comes in ragged gasps but he, as ever, stands like a statue of ice.
“You knew all along that his death wasn’t an accident.”
“I did not.”
“It suited you and your family. Even if you didn’t know it then, you have had four hundred years to work out what any fool could have seen straight away.”
“Don’t lay the guilt on me. This was you, it’s always you. You treat people like chess pieces.”
“Oh, grow up, Sebastian. Your mother was happy he was dead, you were happy he was dead. Maybe the poor sod himself was happier dead.”
I throw a ragged punch. As I do so, I am grabbed around the waist and shoulders by the men who have entered the room unseen behind me. They restrain me enough to weaken my swing, but I still manage to punch Vincent a glancing blow across his nose and right cheek. His head slams against the window pane.
I am held tight between Caskey and another man I don’t recognize. Vincent has blood on his upper lip.
“I’m sorry it has to end this way, Sebastian, but you force me. You want to die without transition? We’ll do our best to help you. Take him away, Caskey. No need to be gentle.”
In the empty warehouse, as Hitler’s bombers rumble overhead, they push me into a chair, hands tied in front. Caskey stands with arms folded. Another man stands at his side. There is someone else at my back, close to the chair. I can hear him fussing with something on the floor.
“You’ve obviously got a plan, Caskey. Why not let me in on it?”
“To think I used to be scared of you.”
“Why would you be scared of me, Caskey?”
“Always the big man, the special man for Vincent.”
“Tell me why we’re here. Risking our necks in the middle of an air raid.”
“No problem,” Caskey says. “If we leave you here and a bomb hits, who will worry about one more victim of the Blitz?”
“Maybe you’d better get going then. You don’t want to be here with me when the bomb hits. I suppose you’ve considered the possibility that this building won’t be hit tonight. Would you like me to wait here until it is?”
“Funny man. We ain’t leaving it to chance. Bates is sorting that out behind you.”
I shift round in the seat. The man crouched behind it is fiddling inside a large canvas holdall, where there is a bundle of orange cylinders, wrapped together with tape. A coil of wire spools out of the bag onto the floor and a car battery.
“The morning after a raid, who’s going to notice one more bombed-out building?”
“Someone might notice a body inside has been tied up though, Einstein.”
“You won’t be tied up, Sebastian. Do we look stupid?”
“I assume that’s a rhetorical question.”
“Stewie, cut him loose.” The man next to Caskey steps forward with a knife and saws through the rope around my wrists. The return of circulation makes my hands tingle.
“I’m sure you’ve thought all this through, Caskey. But unless you’re going to wait with me to be blown up, and I’m not tied up, what’s to stop me just walking out when you go?”
“You’ve always thought you were so clever,” Caskey says. “But you can’t see how simple some things are. I hope you do try to walk out. It’s a pity I won’t be around to watch.”
Hands grab my shoulders and press me hard into the chair. The one called Stewie steps forward and takes hold of my feet, lifting them up onto another chair, making a bridge of my legs. Caskey steps forward and I see what is in his hand.
It is a heavy iron mallet, the kind used to knock out brick walls on building sites. Caskey’s face is flat with concentration as he swings the mallet down onto my left shin.
A sound like the snapping of wood forces a scream through my teeth and I convulse in the chair, more in shock than pain. Caskey’s arm rises again and there is another snapping sound. Now the pain arrives, like acid in my veins, surging up both legs. I hear someone moaning and realise that it’s me.
They release me and I slide onto the floor. The modest fall sends another shower of agony through my twisted legs. I can offer no resistance as they take hold of my arms and Caskey swings his mallet twice more. There is blood in my mouth and I realize I have bitten my tongue. Strangely, amid the pain I am conscious of the chain around my neck sliding against my skin as I fall. How could I ever have believed the penny could bring luck, having come from Vincent?
“No one expects air raid victims to be tied up,” Caskey says. “But a few broken bones won’t raise any eyebrows.”
I don’t see them leave.
The Next Day
I tumble outside.
A London street. Opposite, a warehouse looks like it has been squashed from above by a giant fist. Some walls still stand, but everything else is an impossible heap of smoking bricks and wooden planks. Here and there, bits of furniture stick out of the rubble; four chair legs pointing at the sky, the corner of a mattress.
Most of the pavement is buried, so I walk along the road, jewels of glass popping under my shoes. Something catches my eye on the pavement and I bend down to find a blackened metal disc with a hole in the middle. Nearby, there are a few links of chain. I pick up the coin and put it in my pocket. Wardens and firemen swarm over the wreckage opposite, pulling away chunks of masonry. One of them approaches.
“You shouldn’t be here, son. Where’s your mum?”
“I don’t know.” I have never heard my voice before. It sounds high and thin.
“Do you live near here?” The man has a flat tin helmet on his head, with the letters ARP in white paint, and a gas mask hanging from his belt.
“Back there, I think.” He looks past me at the wrecked house I have just left. His face softens as he returns his gaze to me.
“We’d better get you somewhere safe,” he says, a large hand on my shoulder. “Someone will take care of you. What’s your name, son?”
Behind him, they are pulling something out of the wrecked warehouse. It looks like a dead person, bloody and twisted but familiar. I watch for a moment, thinking of the years to come, and how long I will need to wait before I can find Vincent. Give him back his penny and make him pay for it.
“I think it might be Sebastian.”
About the Author
Chris worked for many years for the British government, but now just makes stuff up for himself. Stories have appeared in Compelling SF, Interzone, and numerous other places, including the last two Best of British SF collections. His time travel romance novel, Fifty-One, is available from U.S. Indie Filles Vertes Publishing. He lives in London, England, and has a wife and three tall children — all of them much nicer people than him. Whenever work allows, he spends as much time as possible out of town with mud on his boots.
About the Narrator
Matt Dovey is very tall and very English and is most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. A wise woman once told him the scar on his arm was the Sign of Prophecy and marked him for greatness, but he’s not so sure. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife and three children, and despite being a writer, he still hasn’t found the right words to properly express the delight and joy he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey”, but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He is the Golden Pen winner for Writers of the Future volume 32 (2016) and was shortlisted for the James White Award in 2016. He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including on PodCastle.