A Counting Game, by Derek Ferreira

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play buttons below. Read by David Binks. Story illustration by Mike Dominic.)




Inspired by (and with a great many thanks to) Roger Zelazny.

October 17

A Counting Game – illustration by Mike Dominic – click to enlarge

I found myself in my master’s leather satchel – I often did – as the long October weeks stretched onwards.  The sound of men talking was muffled through the thick material, not that I was in any way paying attention to them.  No, I was busy trying to stay comfortable while avoiding the pointy sticks that were sharing the space with me.  Every step that my master took seemed to jostle everything about.  It was dark and stank of herbs and garlic.  When I could bear it no more, I nudged my head out from behind the heavy flap with my beak and took a long breath of freedom which, this time, smelled of newly-minted death.  My master was kneeling beside a well appointed boudoir and though I could not see much from my peep-hole vantage point on the floor, I did note the slender, feminine arm hanging lifeless off the edge of the bed and the shadows of the men cast in candlelight against the far wall.  I stifled a yawn and shook away the haze gathering around my head.  I wasn’t really cut out for the whole ‘nocturnal’ thing.

“Ey!  Ol’ man!  Ow’ did you get in ‘ere?”  A gruff, official-sounding voice called out.  My master turned his attention over to where all the shadows were coming from but didn’t say a word.  He was like that sometimes, reserved, when he didn’t think he had anything to add to a particular situation.

“Come now, constable.  Don’t tell me you do not recognize this man.”  There was a pause where no one spoke, but my master rose from his position at the side of the bed and I was forced to squirm around several shifting pointy sticks and the roll of a bulbous mallet.  “I dare say that there’s not a more qualified man in all London in attendance here tonight.  Present company included.”

“Mm.  If you says so, sir.  But you’ll ‘ave to agree to take all responsibility for his bein’ ‘ere.  Last thing I need’s the Inspector gettin ‘ow he does.”

“Of course, of course.” said the other man.  There was a waltz of shadows along the wall and I edged along the lining of the satchel to stare out at the other man, the one that had just vouched for my master.  He was younger and leaner than Abraham, but his eyes were keen and I could see them moving minutely in the candle-cast orange glow.  “Doctor, I quite enjoyed your monograph on blood born pathogens.  A stimulating read.  My name is…”

“I know who you are, Detective.  Ah, forgive me, I find that mitt men such as ve, in lieu of introductions, it is best to allow our reputations to precede us, ja?”  My master smiled and extended his hand to the other.  They shook a greeting and both men turned their attention to the pale corpse of a once-beautiful young brunette sprawled on her bed in a tangle of sheets.

“Indeed, Doctor.”  The man Abraham called ‘Detective’ replied. “I trust your trip was a restful one, I’ve always found the rhythm of a locomotive soothing, myself.”   Well, the Detective and I did not share the same idea of soothing.  I for one found the ride nerve-shatteringly claustrophobic and this is coming from someone who spends a great deal of their time inside a pack of pointy sticks.

“Impressive.  Vhat gave it avay?” asked Abraham.

“Ticket stub, bottom right pocket of your jacket.” said the Detective matter-of-factly.

“Ah!  Ja.  Ja,” My master nodded and then after a moments pause continued, “an interesting time to visit London, is it not?  I had just caught vind of this tragedy mere moments after my arrival.  Such a shame.” he frowned and turned his eyes to the floor.

“Margaret Hawthorne.  Aged twenty-two.  I suspect the cause of death was exsanguination.”

“Vhere there any vounds upon the body?  Needle marks or punctures, most likely to be found upon the neck, the breasts or the inner thighs.”

“Two such wounds, spaced an inch and a half apart and piercing to a depth of three quarters of an inch, located as you have said, on her neck.”

At that my master leaned forward to brush the dead girl’s long curly hair out of the way and took a closer look at the miniscule wounds.  Abraham let out a tight lipped hum.  “It is as I feared.”

“Tell me, Doctor, what would you do?”

“There is little choice in vhat the next step must be now.  There is still vun treatment that may help this poor soul.”

“’Elp ‘er?  You’ve got to be bleedin’ mad, sir.  She’s still as a coffin nail.  There’s naught to be done for ‘er now save catchin’ the bastard what did this!”  The voice of the constable rang up from the hallway.  The Detective and Abraham turned their attention his way for a moment but that was all the mind they gave him.

“The treatment, sir?”  The Detective prodded.

“To have this girl moved to a secure location.  I vill return mit my post mortem knives.”

“I don’t believe this, she don’t need an autopsy!  We know ‘ow she bloody died!  The needle marks on ‘er neck say as much!” The constable interjected again and I could see a flash of annoyance on the cool exterior of the Detective.  My master was used to skeptics though, it barely registered on his stern, sorrowful features.

“If you are quite done with your inane ejaculations, there are men attempting to work here.  I have long been a friend of the Yard, but I swear to you I will abandon this endeavour if you so much as utter another word, constable….  Forgive me, you needn’t have gotten such a welcome as this, Doctor.”  the Detective sighed. “No, not an autopsy; you want to cut off her head and remove her heart.”

“Ja.” My master whispered accompanied by a questioning raise of the brow and a series of nods.

“Your reputation does precede you, sir.  Alright.  I shall have it arranged.  With the caveat that I be allowed to attend the dismemberment.”

“Certainly.  Vun must alvays have an assistant to ensure that the job is finished.  I must admit…I did not expect you to agree to what some say is a very drastic, very morbid course of action, so readily.  You are a believer?”  Abraham asked.  It was rare for him to find someone that shared his ideas on certain nocturnal predators of man.

“I have seen much these past weeks to lend credence to certain theories that fit a bit too well when one steps into darker – some would say, more fanciful – reaches.  Now that I see these things have caught your interest as well… there is little reason in straying away from this particular path of investigation.”  The Detective led Abraham out of the death-smelling room and down the stairs.  Somewhere in our descent we were joined by a huskier man with a well groomed mustache that – by the way the Detective regarded him – I thought to be his friend.

“You speak of my arrival as if it is a timely thing, mein freund.  But in truth I am very late to London.  My only hope is that I might still make a difference.” A long frown contorted my master’s face.  He was right, we were far too late in our arrival.  The death of the moon had already passed, the players had arranged themselves, the site had been set.  In all the Games that I had witnessed I had never seen an entry like this… but then the will of men had as much to do with such things as fate or God – or gods.  Abraham was a very willful man.

“Interesting,” the Detective said.  “I would be happy to trade information with you.  I would like to know a bit more about these creatures your purported to hunt.  In return I shall bring you to speed with regards to certain individuals and events that I feel are suspect.”

“Das is very generous, Detective.  I vould be happy to share my knowledge of such matters.”  We were outside on the front stoop of the building when Abraham, the Detective and his companion shared a smoke, my master telling them to be on the lookout for symptoms of sudden anemia and consumption amongst comely young women.  That would be the surest sign of his presence.

“The body will be at the Yard, Doctor.  When shall I meet you?” asked the Detective once the cigars had been finished.

“Three.  In the morning.”  Abraham responded.

“The witching hour.”

“Very gut, Detective.  You are already avare of a few things.  That vill serve to grease the vheels, ja?”

“I thought it impolite to say so in front of the constabulary, but… your cock is showing.”  The Detective canted his head in my direction and I felt my master smooth down the leather flap over my beak so that I was trapped in the pointy, garlic-stinking darkness again.

“Ah…an old man’s foible… ve had only just arrived.  I barely had time to set up mein room!  I do look forward to speaking mit you again, Detective.  Until the vitching hour is upon us, auf wiedersehen.”  Abraham hurried away.  I could tell because the pointy sticks were moving faster and angrier than before.

October 17-18

By the time we returned home I was exhausted.  Even the sharp jabs of wood weren’t enough to keep me from dozing off within the comforting warmth of the satchel.  I heard the door shutting behind Abraham and stirred.  I knew I had to stay awake for just a few more minutes, it would be midnight soon and there would be much to talk about.  My master set his satchel down upon the table and opened the flap.  He helped me out of the confines and cradled me in his palms before setting me down onto the ground.  I offered him a quick nod of my head before I stretched my wings to the side and took a few strutting steps around our new space.   You can’t really know a place until you’ve gotten up high and seen it all at once, but that would have to wait until tomorrow morning.  I’d have to be satisfied with just a walk until then.

“Hahn, darling…our sweet beautiful bird.  Why won’t you visit with us?  We would love to see you.” came the lilting, seductive chirping.  A dark leather cover was draped over the cage that contained a trio of beautiful cockatoos.  They were skinnier than the girls that usually got my blood up, but there were three of them – that counted for something right?  Plus I hadn’t seen a hen in so long that the gaslight fixtures were starting to look good.  Too bad that the girls had wound up as part of Abraham’s transfusion experiments.  They were strictly no touching, off limits.  I saw what they did to the mice the master fed them.  Still… they knew just how to move and just what to say.  It was easier for me with the cover down, but not by much.  I idled next to the cage; I loved the way they said my name in that exotic accent that cockatoos have.  You know the one.  Beside their cage was the smaller one with the rabbit inside.  The master called him Hase.  He was a new addition and he didn’t talk much.  He licked at his dish of water and looked around the room before settling down amidst a comfortable-looking pile of bedding.

“So this is the place?” said Hase.  I was still clicking my claws about the outside of the girl’s cage.  I was rewarded almost immediately by the sound of them cooing and urging me closer.

“I suppose so.”  I replied.  “Now, ladies… calm down in there…”  I added, I wasn’t really supposed to interact with them either, but passing along the master’s wishes shouldn’t count against that.  Just to be sure, I cocked my head to the side to look over at Abraham.  He had already set up his vials and beakers and burners and foul smelling chemicals on the sturdy wooden table that dominated our small apartment.  As usual, he was entirely absorbed in his work.

“Oh…mm… Hahn… so commanding… so dominant… come in here and make us…”  They whispered and pleaded, punctuating their voices (for when they spoke their sentences drifted together seamlessly) with little moans and gasps that sent an electric current through my feathers.  I fluffed up a bit as I shifted on one foot and then the other.

“You’re not supposed to do that.”  Hase muttered, in a vaguely bored sort of way.  The great grey rabbit was staring at me through one half-open blue eye.  I ignored him, because I wasn’t about to be lectured on abstinence by a rabbit.  The girls were pressing up against the leather cover, small bulges sliding up along the brown material from where I assumed they were poking their pretty little beaks up between the bars.  Well, how could I resist pressing my beak back against their little fondling motions, just a bit?

I realized my mistake the moment I did.

The cage nearly jumped off the table with the sudden furious impacts batted against the metal and the leather covering. I was in the air clucking and cawing my surprise before I knew I had thrown myself away from the shaking cage and the awful hissing sounds coming from within.

“Hahn!  Leave them alone.”  Abraham muttered, without breaking his attention from his current experiment.

“Told you.” Hase shook his head disapprovingly at me.  I landed on the ground, suddenly happy that I couldn’t see the rabbit’s smug face.  Instead I preened myself for the short time between my master’s reprimand and the sound of the clock on the mantle striking midnight.  When the last of the chimes had faded I spoke.

“We need to get hens.”  I said to Abraham.

He adjusted his thick goggles and toyed with the burner beneath a particularly round glass beaker.

“Mm.  If I can go vithout a varm embrace, so too can you.  Besides, vas it not you that told me that ve could not unduly jeopardize civilians?”

“A harem shouldn’t count.”  I objected. “And you’re so much older than I am… sort of.”

“This does not mean that I do not still have my virility, nor that I have forgotten just vhat I am missing, ja?”

“We could get a harem for you too.  Humans have harems right?”  I fluttered up onto his bench and then hopped onto the table.  One of the purple liquids was bubbling over the white-blue flame of the burner.

“Ja, some.  But I have told you, I am married.”  Abraham pointed absently to the band of gold around his finger before scribbling something down into his journal.  I sighed, in so much that I can sigh, really it was more of a dip of my neck than anything else.  I didn’t want to get him started on his wife again.  The whole situation depressed my master more than anything and we had other business to discuss.

“We’re playing a dangerous game, Abraham.  I’ve never seen anyone try to join into the game after the death of the moon.  We’re very far behind in our collections and we don’t have any inkling as to who any of the other players are!”

“Ve know vun of them.”

“Yes.  He’s here and he’s brought his gipsies.  But that’s all we know.  We don’t know if he’s an opener or a closer.”

“That… does not matter.”

“Yes it does, very much.  What if he’s the only closer and you succeed in destroying him?  The world is left without a champion and who knows what would happen if the elder gods did take hostile dominion over this world?  We need to be very very careful about all of this!”

Abraham gave me a sidelong look and nodded.  “I understand, Hahn.  Thank you.  Of course I vill exercise a modicum of caution.”

“More than a modicum, you’re trying to force your way into a full game, I’ve never even heard of someone doing that… but…”

“It can be done.”

“Anything can be done, it’s the consequences of those actions we need to be aware of.”

“That is vhy I have you to guide me.  You have the experience und the oracular ability to see this scheme through to its end.”  My master smiled, but didn’t look away from his work.  The purple liquid had frothed and was starting to collect in a long glass spiral, pushing its way through into a vial with a brackish solution.

“At dawn, I’ll be able to find out if he’s an opener or a closer.  It’s about that time of the month when there’s enough power behind my divination and his kind is always weakest at daybreak.  It’s our best chance.  Once we have that figured out, we can plan our next moves.  You remember the list of ingredients we need to really shore up our closing spell?”

“I am still uncomfortable vith some of the items upon that list.  If I can take them from the body of the deceased, I vill, but I vill not harvest parts from innocents.  I refuse.”

“We don’t have the luxury of being picky.  We’re way behind.  You might be the only closer, if you don’t get those ingredients its the Book of Revelation, Abraham.”

“I do not have it in me to kill.  But I vill do vhat I can.”

There was a silence between us as he watched the reaction within the second vial.  It seemed to please him and he jotted another line in his journal.

“I think the Detective knows something.”  I said finally.  I hated wasting any of my talking time with quiet.

“A great many things, if his books are to be believed.”

“I meant about the game.  He might even be playing, he offered to trade you information.  That’s a staple between players and their companions.  Look for an animal that seems interested in your conversation.  The detective might even be an opener.  If that’s the case, that could be a lot of trouble.”

“I don’t think so.” he said.  I got the feeling he might not be paying a great deal of attention to me.

“You don’t think…what?” I prodded.

“Ah… if he is playing, that he is an opener.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“Instincts.”

“Great.”  I sighed – sort of.

“Don’t be like that.  All ve ever have in the vurld are our instincts, our reason und our tools.  Doch!  Ja, that reminds me.  I had a little present made for you.”  He looked away from his beakers for the first time and removed his darkened goggles, resting them on the top of his head among the unruly curls of faded orange-yellow hair streaked through with wisps of white.  He walked across the room and rummaged through his luggage, grumbling in German all the while.  I don’t have a great ear for German.  I guess Abraham would just have to be happy with his English speaking rooster.  I can also do a pretty passable old R’yleh if I ever take the wrong turn in the dreamworld.

My master returned to the bench with something in his palms that glistened by the light of the flames powering his experiment.  They were blades, sleek elegant blades of silver with an elaborate crucifix etched upon the sides along with the initials:  A. V. H. in flowing script.  At the edges of the deadly looking razors were loops of sturdier metal surrounded by miniature black leather belts.

“Here.  I imagine this month vill be dangerous for roosters as vell as men.”

I watched as he moved to place the blades on my legs.  The metal was cold against my spurs, but they fit wonderfully.  I could tell even before he fastened the belts around my legs.  They felt dangerous and what’s more they worked.  There is a confidence that comes with being armed and I savored it.

“Thank you, Abraham.” I said as I admired the gleaming daggers affixed to the back of my legs.

“Think nothing of it, mein freund.  They look good on you!  They fit vell, ja?” he asked as he lowered himself back onto the bench and pulled his goggles down.  I was losing him to the work again and I still had questions.  There wouldn’t be much more time for asking them in the upcoming days.

“Why did you pick a rooster?” I asked.

“Are you unhappy vit my choice?”

“No.  But you could have bound me into any animal.  A hawk… a horse… anything, but you specifically chose this one.  Why?”

“Consider the life of a chicken, eh?  There is a vurld out there that hunts them.  Vould like nothing more than to feast upon them, nein?  Being hunted makes you sharp.  It makes you dangerous.  Underestimated.  If you can survive in such a hostile place, you can survive anything.”  He paused. “But vhat is so very special about you, is that even living a hunted life you still greet every morning by screaming out to the sun: I am here und I am unbowed!”  I had never thought about it like that.  The body he willed me into was the first I’d worn in a long time.  It really was a very good body.

“This plan.  There’s a good chance you’re going to die, Abraham.”  I whispered.

“All of us vill die, sooner or later.  If I can help ensure that there vill be a few more mornings for you to sing to, then I vill not have died in vain.”

“If you die, what should I do?”

“That is for you to decide.  Perhaps you vill find your farm mit your hens.”

“What will you do if I die?”

He wasn’t looking at me and he was drifting further into his work.  Abraham lifted a vial of dark red blood.  I had seen him harvest it from the girls in the cage.  He mixed the blood into the foul smelling elixir that he had been brewing.  I was not a creature of science, but only a fool would ignore its power.  It was becoming the strongest craft that man had available to him.

“What if I die?”  I repeated.

“Um… I vould… do everything in my power to recover the body.”  Abraham said as he swirled the vial of blood and whatever together.

“To give me a proper burial?”

“Nein, to pluck you, season you und roast you.”  He affirmed dryly.

“What!?” I stammered.  “You’d eat me?”

“Ja… you are a beautiful bird, to do othervise vould be vasteful.  Vasting is a sin.”

“I mean… I know that we haven’t known each other that long but… y-you wouldn’t even mourn me?”

“Ja, ja, there vould be mourning!  I am sitting und I am sad und there vill be der crying mit the tears und around every perfectly-seasoned morsel I am sobbing ‘Auf weidersehen, mein freund!  May the gods of poultry have mercy upon you!’”

I shook my head and hopped off the bench, my silver spurs ringing together prettily as I landed and they struck each other.  I was starting to think that I was ready for a little more quiet time.  Abraham stood as well, moving across the room to the cage that contained Hase the great grey rabbit.  I saw him stick the tip of the hollow needle into the solution and pull the plunger back, the needle drinking the solution up greedily into its confines.  He whispered soothing words in German to Hase, but apparently the hare didn’t have a long floppy ear for the language either.

“What’s he doing?”  asked Hase as Abraham opened the heavy latch on the rabbit’s cage.

I didn’t respond.  I didn’t want to watch, but I caught a glimpse.  Hase tried to back himself into a corner but there was only so far he could go.

At the end of the night, the needle was empty and Hase was dead.

October 18

Dawn.

I was outside, perched on the top of our little apartment on the outskirts of London and I was crowing to the world:  I am still here.  The warmth of the sunlight was muted by dark clouds hanging heavily in the sky above me, but in the distance it was cast in ribbons of violet and orange.  I moved from my roost and flapped my wings to slow my fall.  I had to play my part, just as my master was out playing his.  He had not yet returned from his meeting with the Detective.  But that didn’t change what my orders were.  The Count was in residence, he was playing the game, and I had to make sure just what side he fell on.  My master had left me the knife that had slit the Count’s throat on the dusty Borgo Pass, years ago.  Shame it didn’t take, but at least the blade would provide me the connection I needed to work my spell.

I found a patch of dirt in the back of our apartment that wasn’t visible from the street and dragged the knife there between my beak.  I dropped it and started scratching the circle into the dirt.  Body or no body the diagram was something ingrained in me.  I paused only to gulp down a deliciously squirmy worm and was thankful for the repast.  Divination is hungry work.  I kicked up the dirt and moved around the circle, my wings bowed to the depths and raised to the stars just as it must always be.  I focused on the knife and I focused on the Count and the moment the sun climbed high enough to cast its rays down onto my circle, I had my answer.

October 19

I stared out of the window into the dismal, rain soaked darkness.  Abraham was entertaining a woman that had come calling and that left me with plenty of time on my hands.  Part of my duties was making sure that no one else could discern our presence in the game.  It was not an easy thing to do and it was never a guaranteed thing.  I could only hope that since we had not arrived before the new moon that everything was set without us and the others wouldn’t be searching for yet another player.  I drew the lines of power and clucked the words to lend them strength.  Chickens have excellent annunciation for such things.  Abraham was sipping his tea with the woman and discussing Baruch Spinoza between charming anecdotes from their childhoods.  He enjoyed her company, her conversation and I was happy to allow him that.  I only drew near when the woman remarked on what a handsome cockerel I was and she was kind enough to drop some of her tea cake down to me which – not to be rude – I pecked up handily.

Eventually I found myself satisfied in my wardings and made my way over to the two cages.

“Is that you handsome?  Won’t you help get these covers off… we would love to show you something.”  The girls chirped.  You know, I think I might have a problem.  Even with what happened the last time I had gotten close to the cage, even after seeing them feed earlier this evening before the kindly woman arrived… I was still tempted.

“Do not listen to them… rooster!”  Hase said from within his cage.  He had come back to life with the setting sun. “Look into my eyes… you will open this latch and set me free.”

I stared at Hase for some time.  His normally blue eyes were gleaming a sickly red color and I was drawn to them by some strange affect of the light that seemed to cast bars of shadow above and beneath his illuminated orbs.

“Good.  Goood.  Now… open the latch!”  Hase commanded.

“Why are you talking like that?”  I finally asked.

“Because I am transformed!  Where once I may have been but a mere rabbit, now I feel the powers of perdition coursing through my sinews!”

“You are still a rabbit.”

“I am vampyre!”

“A vampire rabbit.”

“Come on, Hahn!  Are you going to open the latch?”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“No, Hase!  You’re a vampire!”

“You aren’t his type long ears… but we are…” chirped the covered cage to my right.

I was busy trying to think of a way to respond to that when I looked over at my master.  Something had changed in his demeanor.  He was serious now, the smiles and the jokes had been packed away.  He was playing with his wedding band.  That was always a bad sign.

“Have you ever been married, Detective?”  Abraham said to the lady while I stared completely confused.

The woman paused mid sip of her tea and set the cup down on the spartan table in front of her.  She searched my master’s eyes for a moment and then it was as if she became an entirely different person, her posture changed and her voice dropped from falsetto to a pleasing baritone.  It was only then that I realized what Abraham had seen.  This human was one that bore watching.

“No, I have not.”  the Detective answered.  “What gave me away?”

“I am married…I have been for a very long time und I vould take my tea vith my vife everyday.  Those vere the best years of my life.  There is something very feminine in the vay a voman moves and vhile your efforts are impressive and I vas completely taken by your act for quite a time… you understand…I loved vatching my vife move.  Sometimes I could just sit there quiet, lost in the graceful vay she vould putter about the house.”

“What drove your wife to mental illness?”  asked the Detective, producing a pipe from within the confines of his billowy skirt.  Somewhere far away a rabbit and three cockatoos were trying to get my attention.  I left them behind with a single bound that carried me to the wooden floor.

“Our son.  He died.  My vife vas a good, soft voman… caring… tender.  But, fragile.  She could not handle the strain.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Doctor.” the Detective responded.  “Would you mind if I smoked?”

“Not at all, sir.  In fact, I have a mind to join you.”

They sat together in silence and puffed on their pipes, spicing the air with thick smoky wisps.  The Detective was the first to speak, his nicely lipsticked lips exhaling a trail of smoke to accompany his words.

“You are a part of this.”

Abraham nodded.

“You have done quite well at going unnoticed, Doctor.  I am certain that you have never come up in conversation.”

“Are you playing The Game?”  Abraham asked.

“Not in any official capacity.  Not that I know.  What sort of game is this?”

“It is different for everyone who plays.”

“What sort of game is it for you?”

Abraham paused, lost to thought for a moment.

“A counting game.  Or… a game of counts.  Detective, I do not believe in coincidence.  That ve have met in these circumstances I attribute to divine providence.  I sense that you are a good man and not just a lawful vun, vich are not alvays the same thing.  If you vill indulge me, I vould tell you my role in this.  Then I vill ask you for your help.”

My master did not just tell the Detective our plan, he told him everything.  To his credit, the dress-wearing-man agreed to assist Abraham without another question on the matter.  I had warned Abraham about bringing civilians into the game.  There was no telling what role they would play, but there was a trust between the men.  Perhaps they each considered the other a kindred spirit, I couldn’t say.  But, as a sign of good faith the Detective did give us a choice bit of information; he had analyzed dirt from the scene of the exsanguinated girl and deduced the resting place of the Count.

Just like that, our goal became a lot more possible.

October 20

It was such a strange game we were playing, Abraham and I.  Usually in these things the players make themselves known to each other, a necessary risk to get information on the other players and feel out potential enemies and allies, but here we were, playing things close to our chests.  Certainly I’d been approached by a few creatures looking to trade or just to learn what my part in all of this was. But I realized that our only advantage was secrecy.  Every time some beast approached me and asked me something I’d pretend like I was deaf and cackle on about some farmer’s rifle retort ruining my ‘ears’ when he fired it too close while chasing away a fox.  I don’t know if they all bought it, but I was very dedicated to my role.  Eventually the squirrel, the snake and the cat all left me alone.  I felt Abraham and I had more to gain by keeping our involvement quiet than to give credence to the hopes that I could somehow cover the information gap of two wasted weeks in an all too short lonesome October.  Besides, if Abraham’s plan was going to work we’d have to pull off one of the greatest illusions in the history of the game and that is no small boast.

It had been a long day for we two game crashers.  For it was by day that Abraham could act freely and, using the knowledge of the area and its inhabitants that he had gleaned from his meetings with the Detective, we knew which roads to avoid and where exactly we could move to obscure ourselves.  I was absolutely spent as we watched the sunset, sitting together in an old graveyard.  I could only imagine how my master must have felt.  He had hands so he had to do most of the grunt work.  Abraham’s coat was draped on the stone to the left of him, taking on the T-shape of a cross.  He was quiet, his body slumped with exhaustion, but there was a fire burning in his eyes, one of anticipation and obsession.  I was kept in his satchel, but it was far more comfortable now, as the wooden stakes and the mallet had been removed.  Somewhere in the distance thunder cracked and it looked like the lightning was striking down upon the same location again and again in bright forked flashes.

Suddenly, I felt the Count’s presence.  I knew that my master felt it as well, because he stood upright and all of that weariness dripped off of him as he prepared himself to face an old enemy.  The sensation of something terrible, unnatural was overpowering and every instinct in my body made me want to run.  I wondered if Abraham felt the same way.

“Ah…” said a perfect, cultivated voice, “I was wondering when you and I would meet again, Doctor.”

“Good evening, Count.  I trust you slept vell.”

“You are a foolish man… to challenge me in my element, in the dead of the night.”

I moved just a bit in my satchel to stare at the cloaked count.  He shifted forward and my eyes did something strange, it was like I couldn’t focus on him, like he was flowing forward instead of moving.

“I have been here for quite some time, actually.  Vaiting for you.”  My master said.

“Very.  Arrogant.  Normally, I find you entertaining, if a bit boorish.  But you have caught me at a bad time, Doctor.  You are forcing my hand, begging for a death that I should have granted you the moment I saw you.  I am afraid that I have very pressing matters that will keep me occupied for the remainder of the month.  I have no time for a mouse that thinks himself a cat.”

“You vill not see the end of your game, monster.”

The Count surged forward but my master was ready, lifting a cross that he had obscured behind him and brandishing it at the cloaked figure.  The Count hissed and recoiled, his lips twisting into a snarl as he floated back several feet.  He composed himself, his lips uncurling as he adjusted his cloak.  The moon glinted off the large, opulent ring that adorned his hand.

“How do you know of the game I am playing?”

“Proximity, mostly.  I had never been fully convinced of your death und I had been tracking signs of your presence for a very long time.  It vas not long before I noticed peculiarities in your behavior… this combined mit my own occult studies led me to discover this little game played every few decades or so, to prevent the rising of the old gods or to release them into the vurld.”

“Doctor… you are not seriously considering playing are you?”

“More than considering.”

“Foolish mortal.  You know nothing of the forces which await you and yet still you seek to challenge me without even knowing if we are enemies or allies?”

“Ve vill alvays be enemies, Count.  But I know your persuasion.  You vish to throw open the gates and make vay for more horrors like yourself.”

“My, who have you been talking to?”

I don’t think I could have tucked my neck in any further.  My master didn’t respond.

“What now, Doctor?  Do you think that cross will save you from one such as me?”

“I failed to destroy you vunce before and many have suffered for my failure.  I vill not repeat the mistake again.”

“And what would you do?  We are in darkness and I am its lord.  I command the children of the night.  I who twist the minds of men with a mere gaze, I who have all the forces of darkness at my disposal.  What do you have, would-be-slayer?”

“Dynamite.”  Replied my master before slamming his hand down on the detonator’s plunger he had hidden under his coat.

October 21

It was a bit past midnight when we finally limped back home.  I could smell the blood dripping down my master’s arm and I knew he’d been hurt.  My ears were still ringing from the blast that out-struck the ever present thunder cracks that had plagued the night skies for the past several days.  I had swallowed so much dirt that I thought I might never get the taste out of my beak.  Even after the devastating explosive blast, that unholy creature was still more than able to fight.  This whole plan had been desperate, but the graveyard assault – at night of all times – was particularly so.  Abraham wanted to look his immortal enemy in the eye before delivering the death blow.  He almost didn’t get his chance.   Even with all his preparation it was a hard won victory.

Abraham leaned into the door with a hiss of pain as he shouldered it open.  He set the satchel – and me with it – on the ground as gently as he could.  He cradled his injured arm as he slumped onto the bench and began going through his medical supplies with one hand.  I pulled myself out of the dust-covered leather bag and made my way over to him.

“Abraham!”  I fluttered my wings and pushed myself up onto the bench.  My throat was scraped sore from breathing in that cloud of dirt and pulverized stone.  “Are you alright?”

“Ja…”  He replied through gritted teeth.  He was cutting away his shirt at about his elbow.  The formerly white material was soaked in mud-tinged blood.  “Say vhat you vill about the Count, the monster had quite a grip… if you hadn’t crowed vhen you did… I dare say he may have tvisted it off entirely!”

“You’re bleeding.”

“It vill mend… it vill mend.”  Abraham tore his shirt sleeve free and I turned around when I noticed the first flash of bone jutting grotesquely from his forearm.  He went into his supplies again.  The cages containing Hase and the girls were rattling.  They must have smelled the wound.  I dared to venture a look back in his direction and saw that he was injecting something into himself with the hypodermic needle.  He flexed the fingers on his wounded arm and nodded.  “Doch… driving a stake is so much harder mit just vun arm.”  He sighed.  “But just… as satisfying.”  Whatever he had given himself was working quickly to take the edge off of his pain.

“You need to get that set.”

“I vill set it.  I’m a doctor.” he smiled.  His eyes were taking on a hazy quality. “You have to accept the possibility of risk… in such a venture.  Now… tell me… vhat do you make of this?”  He set the Count’s magnificent dark-stoned ring onto the table and I shuddered at the energy radiating from it.

“It’s one of the items of power… it can influence the Game but, I don’t know just how.  It’s connected to the will of the user.  That much I know.  It can help you though, and you’re going to need it.  Our closing spell is pathetic.  We don’t have the ingredients we need to really push it through.  And we still don’t know where the event is going to take place.  I don’t have a mind for lines and calculations… that needs to be you.”

“It vas never about vhat I can offer the closers.  It vas about vhat I could take avay from the openers.”

He tended to his wound, forcing the bone back into place with a clinical detachment, available to him thanks to his morphine-bolstered pain tolerance.  Abraham took a swig from a bottle of potent-smelling alcohol and splashed a good amount into the open gash.  Then he sutured the jagged split  with steady, expert hands.  Finally, he splinted his arm and wound long loops of clean linens around it.

By the time he was done, I couldn’t talk with him anymore.  That seemed to suit him though, because he set his head down on his uninjured arm and fell asleep without another word.

October 30th

Abraham had been hard at work trying to turn the information that the Detective had provided into a location for the final ceremony.  A map of London sprawled across the table, the edges tacked down.  Several lines of brightly-colored yarn were tacked down as well, as he put years of occult research to work.  I had seen better calculators, but he was far better than any with comparable experience.  He had a gift for theurgy and mystic theory.  It was a shame he came into it so late in his life.  I believe he could have been one of the greats.

I was nervous.  The end game was about to start.  My master’s plan was suicidal but it was the best we had.  There was really no way that Abraham could have forced his way into the game as another player.  There wasn’t enough time.  Our only recourse was to have him play out someone else’s hand with a different end game in mind.  That was going to take a lot of cunning, a lot of luck and – the pessimist inside of me chimed in – a lot of stupidity.

I paced incessantly across the wooden floor, mindful of my master’s path as he hurried about his work.  He went over to Hase’s cage, lifted the cover – he kept it covered during the day for Hase’s protection – and drew several vials of the rabbit’s blood while he slept.  Cluttered masses of beakers, maps, and journals orbited and merged into each other on the table.  I wish I had known more about calculations or science; it was torture not knowing how things were progressing, made worse by not being able to ask.  My master only spoke to himself when he worked and he preferred German.

The Detective stopped by around midday in his guise as the amiable woman with fine taste in roosters.  ‘She’ had ‘her’ companion, who I recognized was the friend from the night Abraham met the peculiar man, bring in a tailor’s mannequin that had been covered by a thick white sheet.  When the Detective removed it, I could see that there was a very close reproduction of the Count’s outfit beneath, including the billowy dark black cloak with the brilliant crimson inner lining.  The mannequin was crowned with a dark black wig that reminded me of the slick, smooth coif the Count sported.  He gave Abraham some tips on maintaining the disguise and when he was through with that the Detective offered Abraham the last piece of the puzzle.

“I know where the ceremony shall take place.” The Detective moved over to the map and instantly pointed it out.  Abraham had been off by about half a kilometer.  Not a terribly large amount, by terms of calculation.

“How?” asked my master.

“I have a reliable source, an inside source, as it were.”  The Detective nodded. “I trust him.” he assured us. “I also took the liberty of wandering about the wilderness in costume.” He gestured towards the be-caped mannequin. “I ensured that I was seen by gipsies and animals alike.  There will be talk of the Count’s miraculous resurrection.  No doubt they will consider it quite clever that he ‘falsified’ his own demise.”

“No doubt.” Abraham smiled. “I could not have done this vithout your help.  You are a true friend, Detective.  I fear that I have little to offer you in return.  Nor, do I believe I vill ever get the chance to repay you.”  My master’s smile dimmed. “Vhich is vhy it pains me to ask you for yet another boon.”

“Doctor, you are fighting directly against the forces of chaos.  You are owed for your sacrifices.  Ask, and I shall endeavour to see your requests met.”

Abraham thanked him and handed him several parcels of letters.  Either way he wasn’t going to have a chance to send them out.  The three men – my master, the Detective and his friend – shared a drink and said their goodbyes.

“It has been a pleasure, Detective.”

“Likewise, entirely.  We may yet meet one final time.  You see, I have my own rather drastic measures in place.  Extremis malis, extrema remedia.”

“Ja, das is vhat they say.  Good fortune, mein freund.”

“Good luck.” offered the Detective before adopting the mannerisms of a woman once more and stepping out into the street.  A carriage conveyed him out of sight and out of our lives.

There was only one final drastic step in a long parade of drastic steps that needed to be taken.

I followed my master into the cellar.  It was dark and the earth was soft.  The lantern light reflected eerily off of the hypodermic needle that contained Hase’s blood mixed with the chemical concoction of Abraham’s transfusion formula.  Outside, the sun was setting, the dusk casting its deep shadows across our apartment.

I knew he wouldn’t understand me, but I wished him luck all the same.  Abraham caught my gaze and nodded grimly before finding himself the darkest corner of that dank hole.

At the end of the night, the needle was empty and my master was dead.

October 31

The sun set and I could hear Abraham stirring in the cellar.  He moaned a dark, mournful cry and I knew that there was a large part of him that regretted ever waking up again.

But there was no time for regret or reservations: this was the big night.  Everything we had worked for would culminate in the preservation of the earth and humanity.  It was too horrible to think of what would happen if we failed.

I saw Abraham’s hand wrapping about the door frame as he dragged himself out of the cellar that had become his grave.  He was pale, but the injury on his arm no longer seemed to be bothering him.  I knew he had a whole mess of other troubles to worry about now, though.

He looked over at me with an alert, nearly feral stare.  There was a battle raging behind those eyes and I’m ashamed to say that for several moments I considered running.  But just as quickly as it had begun, it was over.  Abraham’s iron will had held out.  He raised himself up, but it was an alien and unnatural motion, his body drifting upwards at odd angles until he stood straight and tall.  He forced a smile at me and I noticed the elongated canine teeth he now sported.  Abraham tore the bandages and splints off of his arm.  There wasn’t any sign of his injury on his undead body.  My master flowed towards the mannequin and the outfit that the Detective had put together half slid, half appeared upon him as he moved in tight flickering bursts.  It was hurting my eyes to watch him, but I found myself transfixed.

“I can feel his familiar in my mind.  Of course he vould have chosen a bat.  So easily controlled, his…” my master began speaking in an eerily uncanny copy of the Count’s Eastern European accent. “Children of the night!”  He pulled the wig from the mannequin and brought it over to the the mirror that was hanging on the wall by the mantle.  “The familiar vill do as I…” His voice died on his lips as he stared at himself in the mirror, or, more appropriately, his lack of self.  “Ah.  Right.  Ja, that makes sense.”  Abraham made do without his reflection as he tucked his locks under the dark, straight-haired wig.  He pinned it into place before raising his arm – cape draped over it – and hid the lower part of his face as he prowled towards me.  My heart quickened as I stared at him.  He wasn’t a hunter anymore, he was a predator, in the spitting image of the predator.

I took a step back and he stopped, turning a shameful gaze down towards the ground.

“I am sorry, I should not have frightened you, Hahn.  I vear his image but I vill never be him.  Nor vill I ever have his centuries of experience.  I… I feel a certain strength… but also veakness.  Mein Gott, I am so hungry… thirsty.  I do not remember vhen I have ever been so ravenous.  But even this I can endure… for just vun night.”  He whispered.  He locked his eyes with mine. “I make an offering to the fire that vill be in the middle of the circle and declare my allegiance.  Anything that the openers attempt, it vill be up to me and any other closers to counter?”

I nodded once.

“Alright, then..it is time for my opening night performance.”

I scratched at the floor with my silver spurs and looked away.

“Poor choice of vords.  I must go.  Mind the house vhile I’m avay, Hahn.  I vill see you soon, Ja?”  He slipped the dark stoned ring onto his finger.

I really hoped so.

And with that, Count Abraham flowed out the door.  He was like a shadow, darting quickly across the moonlit road and off, towards the damned hill where it would all play out.

I was left alone.

The cages rattled.

No, not quite alone.

“Stop it.” I said.  Even I wasn’t in the mood for playful banter with the girls or Hase’s somewhat lax ‘Master of the Night’ routine.

“No, Hahn, we won’t.”  The girls chirped their soft, sarcastic little chirps. “You don’t get to tell us what to do… and the old man is gone now…”

For several moments, the only sound was the howling of the baleful wind rattling against our apartment and then the cage jumped in place as I heard the girls impact forcefully against the metal rungs.

I moved forward, leaping onto the desk and stood at the cage’s side.

“You smell so good, Hahn… oh we just want a little taste… we’re oh so peckish…” The cage jerked towards the edge.

“No!  Don’t!” I crowed, pushing myself between the cage and the long fall to the hardwood floor. I braced against the cover and was met with the knife-like jabs of their beaks.  They tore through the leather as if it were paper.  Sharp spikes of pain erupted along my body.  I backed away in surprise, falling from the desk.  I landed heavily on the ground, too shocked to beat my wings fast enough to cushion against the impact.

“Deliciousdelicious…delicious!”  They sang in chorus, hissing and laughing.

I watched in stunned terror as the cage teetered over the edge above me and with one final push from the girls, launched itself over the precipice.  I flapped and jumped out of the way with barely enough time to avoid being smashed into the ground beneath it.  The cover had been partially dislodged from the cage and they were busy tearing through the wreckage.  I heard the metal bars snapping and I could see their glowing red eyes peering out from the inky darkness within.

“Save some for me!”  shouted a voice from above.  Hase probably thought he was commanding them, but it came out sounding more like he was begging for scraps.  Scraps of me.

My mind raced.  The girls were getting out and the first thing they were going to do was kill me.  I had to focus.  I had spent the last several months in the company of the most prolific vampire hunter in the world.  Some of that had to have rubbed off!  My head darted quickly back and forth as I scanned the room.  I caught sight of Abraham’s satchel, my carrying case – the one with his supplies in it – lying by the door.  Once I had a goal, I was off.  My footfalls punctuated the girls’ taunting; something flew silently overhead and I tried not to notice it.  I had to get in that bag!  I admit, as far as life saving plans go, ‘get to the bag‘ wasn’t a great one, but I liked to think of it as a work in progress.

One of the girls skimmed over me just as I got to Abraham’s tools.  I caught a flash of ivory feathers before she disappeared high above me.  Suddenly, things had become far too quiet.

I pushed my beak up under the flap and began to climb inside.  I felt exposed with my tail feathers hanging out of the bag while I groped blindly past the wooden stakes and the mallet, which wouldn’t do me any kind of good.

“Don’t hurt us, Hahn, please don’t hurt us…” Their voices were muffled, but I could hear the scorn in the girls’ tweets.  Nobody can pull off scathing derision like a cockatoo.  I felt something at the very bottom of the bag, my beak scraping along beads as I tried to get a grip on them.

Pain.  Something ripped into my hind quarters and dragged me out of the bag.  It was too strong.  I made one last desperate grab for what I hoped would be my salvation as I was torn away from Abraham’s bag of tricks and dumped onto the ground like so much rubbish.  I saw the beautiful, deadly, lithe girls rushing forward, their wings extended over their heads and their eyes wild and hungry.  I tossed my head to the side from my position on my back and felt the swing of the beaded loop as I jostled the rosary in my beak from left to right.  The crucifix at the end flew in ungainly arcs but the girls recoiled long enough to allow me to get my footing.

They began circling me, more like vultures than cockatoos.  They hissed and tried to dart at me, but I was fast too.  I shifted my weight, using the rosary like a shield.  Every brandish was rewarded with them retreating.  But every time they withdrew, they gained more room to separate.  They surrounded me and it became harder to keep tossing the rosary in their way.

“Hahn, the great hunter… do you really think that’s what they’ll say?  Come on, you know just where you belong…don’t you want us?  We want you…There’s only one way this can end.”

I took a long slow breath and realized that they were exactly right.  I jerked the beaded loop back so that it would wrap around my neck and I’d have my beak free again.

They rushed me, all at once, and it was in that instant that I let my instincts guide me.  All we ever have in this world are our instincts, our reason and our tools.

I kicked at one of the nearly identical cockatoos behind me and I felt my silver spur gaining purchase in her body.  She screamed as the others descended upon me, their talons and beaks driving into me, but the pain became an afterthought.  It didn’t matter what they did to me anymore.  It only mattered that I fought them.  Another flash of silver and the one I had wounded fell back, decapitated.

The remaining two screeched their torment at me and lifted me into the air.  They didn’t seem to have to flap their wings to fly.  I struggled against them.  One of the two drove her beak into my side and I could feel her start to drink.  I cawed out in agony.  The other stared eye to eye with me and I could feel my mind getting fuzzy, until I struck forward and tore out one of her hellish red orbs with the sharp point of my beak.  I reared up and kicked, dragging both spurs down across her brilliant white breast and she fell away, her meat sizzling from the silver.

I was left hanging in mid air, growing weaker as the remaining monster drank my lifeblood.  I tried to pull away but she had a vice grip on my wing and she used my movements against me, wrenching it out of place with a series of pops.  I twisted so that the crucifix hanging along my chest would be pressed against the back of her head.  She tensed, pulling away from me, and I saw that her once-yellow beak was painted in my blood.

She was fast, spinning in place and tearing at my head with her long, sharp claws.  I only barely managed to move my eyes out of the way.  She raked my comb excruciatingly, but had left herself open.  It was then that I had a startling realization.  These weren’t soldiers.  They were victims of a disease.  My spurs dug into her and we fell to the ground.  One of the girls was still and headless.  The other two were still fluttering around, shrieking pain and surprise.  I pushed my aching body off the floor and I felt a terrible sadness.

There was only one treatment left for these poor souls.  The final two decapitations were the easy part.  Abraham’s custom spurs saw to that.  I had never removed a heart with my feet before.  It was slow going at first, but by the last creature I was starting to feel like a real professional.

November 1

I don’t know when I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, but I awoke in my master’s cold grip.  I can’t imagine I looked much better than he did.  He noticed that I was stirring and he offered me a pale smile.  The wig had been removed so that his curly orange-yellow hair with white streaks hung down along the sides of his head once more.

“It vent better than I feared.”  he said wearily. “Quite the experience.”

I nodded and felt a wave of relief flood through me.  It was over.  I looked around at our surroundings.  We were out along a meadow, the dark night sky was brightening to a soft lavender in the distance.  Birds had begun to sing their good mornings to the world.

“So they escaped?” he asked, knowing I couldn’t respond. “I’m sorry I left that to you, truth be told mit all the excitement, they slipped my mind.  But I had left things in good hands, Ja?  You did vhat you had to do.  I left the cover off of Hase’s cage.  It vas the only mercy I could offer the poor creature.  It is never easy, but for vhat its vorth, you have made me very proud.  I vish ve could have had just vun more talk.”

I stared at him.  We could have one more talk, he could just get somewhere dark.  He was a doctor, maybe he could have found some kind of cure?  I didn’t know much about medicine but I knew that such a thing could take decades if it was even possible at all.  I knew Abraham.  He could never bring himself to feed on another soul.  The hunger would have driven him mad.

He walked for a little longer, before settling down on a quiet hillside that overlooked a peaceful brook.  The sun was breaking in a long bright line that traced the horizon for as far as I could see.  It was in so many ways the most beautiful sunrise that I would ever see.

“And, at least for another turn, the vurld continues.  Men and vomen everyvhere vill see this very sunrise that ve are sharing, blissfully ignorant of just how close the end of it all had been.”  he chuckled softly. “It doesn’t matter what condition you are in at the end of the fight.  All that matters is that it vas fought.”

He was right.  My wing hung useless at my side, I ached everywhere, but I have never felt better in the entire span of my existence.

“Oh, Hahn.  Are you vatching this; have you ever seen anything so vunderful?”  he gestured towards the approaching sunlight as it crawled across the meadow.  The darkness was forced back further as the light captured territory speedily. “You vill sing for me today.  And everyday after that, vill you not?”

I swallowed and turned my gaze from my dearest friend down towards the cold grass.

“I know, mein freund.  Some days you vill not feel like singing.  But it is on those days vhen it is the most important to do so anyvay.  So please, for me, vun last time, ja?”

I stared forward at the rising sun and I crowed.  I crowed as loud as I could and though every fiber in my being suffered, I sang for my friend and I sang for me and I sang for the whole damn world.  Abraham never screamed.  He never fought, not even when he was engulfed in the fires that were ignited when the sun’s rays touched upon him.  He just sat and listened to me with a kind smile and closed eyes.  Attention, world.  We are here and we are unbowed.

Auf wiedersehen, mein freund.

Derek says: A Night in Lonesome October, what a story, huh? I loved it from the moment I discovered it, devouring the whole book in one sitting. It had everything: the delightfully skewed narrative perspective of Snuff, a cast of characters that would put the Avengers to shame for sheer star power, mystery, murder, deception, a cat-powered tour of the dream-realms and all this blended liberally with all the horrors-that-lay-beyond a young Lovecraftian could ever want. It was an inspired work by a monumentally gifted author. And that is exactly what the greatest authors do with their stories. They inspire. This collection of work is testament to that fact. A Counting Game is my own humble effort to honor Roger Zelazny. I really hope you’ve enjoyed Hahn’s adventure! It was an incredible amount of fun spending time in such a rich world, one of my favorites, hands down. For its part, A Counting Game is my own twist on derivative pieces like Grendel and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I’ve always had a soft spot for works that help you look deeper into classic stories we all know so well. I’m very proud of A Counting Game and my heartfelt thanks goes out to Roger Zelazny for helping me discover my love of the genre what seems like aeons ago!

Derek E. Ferreira has always found himself drawn to Lovecraft’s mythos. A Rhode Island resident and an employee of the Miriam Hospital in Providence, he has often wondered what resides across the veil of human perception. He speaks Portuguese and has worked as an actor, a counselor and a baker. His work has been featured right here at the Lovecraft eZine (Issue #8) and in the print collection Crossed Genres Quarterly #3.

If you enjoyed this story, let Derek know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Mike Dominic.

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13 responses to “A Counting Game, by Derek Ferreira

  1. Thank you all so much for the kind words! I appreciate that you all took the time to let me know you enjoyed my story. It really means the world to we humble wordsmiths. :)

    -Derek

  2. just delightful and so well done, muito obrigado! though I’ve always loved RZ’s twist in having The Count be a Closer, this was excellent and made me tear up at darling Van Helsing’s end, excellent! :)

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