The powerful, silver-grey stretch limo, familiar in itself however unusual - but less than unique - on an island of ancient Fiats and sputtering Lambrettas, bumped carefully over shifting cobbles under a baroque stone archway into the courtyard of Julio's Cafe and Restaurant in the eastern quarter of Palermo. The lone survivor of a World War II bombing raid, the walled enclosure was once the smallest of four gardens containing a middling villa. The other three gardens were rubble-strewn craters; only their outer walls had been repaired, to create something of an acceptable fagade in the district of the Via Delia Magione.
The courtyard was set out like a fan-shaped checker-board: square tables decked with white covers, standing on black flags of volcanic stone; the whole split down the middle by a 'hinge' of vehicles parked herringbone-fashion on what was once a broad carriageway. A palm-fringed gap in the wall at the point of the quadrant marked the vehicular exit into the dusky evening.
Some three dozen patrons sat eating, drinking, chattering, though not too energetically; a pair of sweating, white-aproned waiters ran to and fro between the tables, the bar and kitchens, each serving his own triangle of customers. Even for the third week in May the weather was unseasonably warm; at eight-thirty in the evening the temperature was up in the high seventies.
The east-facing wall of the courtyard contained what was left of the old villa: a two-storeyed wing three rooms wide and three deep, with a balcony supported by Doric columns that more than hinted of better times. The central, ground-floor room was fronted by a marble bar which spanned the gap between the pillars; kitchens to the left of the bar stood open to the inspection of patrons. Amazingly, in this bombed-out relic of a place, wide arches in the wall to the right displayed the sweep of the original grand marble staircase winding to the upper rooms and balcony. Better times indeed!
On the balcony - whose tables were reserved for 'persons of quality' - Julio Sclafani himself leaned out as far as his belly would allow to observe the arrival of these latest, most elevated of all his customers: Anthony and Francesco Francezci, come down from the high Madonie especially to eat at Julio's.
It was wonderful that they came here, these men of power, ignoring the so-called 'class' restaurants to dine on Julio's simple but worthy fare. And they'd been doing it for six weeks now, ever since the first signs of improvement in the weather. Or ... perhaps it was that one of them, or even both of them, had noticed Julio's Julietta? For Sclafani's youngest, still unmarried daughter was a stunner after all. And the Brothers Francezci were eminently eligible men ...
But what a shame that she wasn't at her best! It must be the pollution of Palermo's air. The fumes of all the cars and mopeds, the stagnation of all the derelict places, the breathing of dead air and the winter damp that came drifting in off the Tyrrhenian Sea. But spring was here and summer on its way; Julietta would bloom again, just as the island was blooming.
Except... it was worrying, the way she'd come down with - well, with whatever it was - just four or five weeks ago; since when all of the colour had seemed to go out of her, all the joy and vitality, everything that had made her the light of Julio's life. To be back there on her couch, all exhausted, with an old biddy of a sick-nurse sitting beside her - 'in attendance,' as it were - as at someone's deathbed! What, Julietta? Perish the thought! As fof the old crow: Julio supposed he should consider himself lucky to have obtained her services so reasonably. All thanks to the Francezcis, for she was one of theirs.
But here they came even now, smiling up at him - at him! - as they mounted the marble staircase. Such elegant ... such eligible men! Julio hastened to greet them at the head of the stairs, and usher them to their table on the balcony .. .
Almost exactly one hour earlier, Tony and Francesco Francezci had departed Le Manse Madonie in the mountain heights over Cefalu en-route for Julio's and the supposed gourmet pleasures of the cafe's 'cuisine.' The quality of Julio Sclafani's food was, ostensibly, the sole reason for the Francezcis' weekly visit to the crumbling, by no means decadent but decidedly decayed city. Ostensibly, yes.
But in fact the brothers didn't much care for the food at Sclafani's, nor for the eating of common fare anywhere else for that matter. They could just as easily dine at Le Manse Madonie, and do far better than at Julio's, without the bother of having to get there. For at the Manse the brothers had their own servants, their own cooks, their own ... people.
And so as Mario, their chauffeur, had driven the brothers down the often precipitous, dusty hairpin track from the Manse to the potholed 'road' that joins Petralia in the south to the spa town of Termini Imerese on the coast - where according to legend the buried Cyclops 'pisses in the baths of men, to warm them' - so Francesco had turned his mind and memory to the real reason for their interest in Sclafani's piddling cafe: the fat man's daughter, Julietta. Francesco's interest, anyway ...
It had been six weeks ago to the day. The brothers had been in Palermo to attend a meeting of the Dons: the heads of the most powerful Families in the world, with the possible exception of certain branches of European Royalty and nobility, and other so called 'leaders of men' or business, politicians and industrialists mainly, in the United States of America and elsewhere. Except there's power, and there's power. That of the Francezcis was landed and gilt-edged ... and ancient, and evil.
It lay in the earth (in territory, or real estate); in the wealth they'd been heir to for oh-so-many, many years, plus the additional wealth which the principal and their unique talents had accumulated and augmented; and not least in those peculiar talents themselves.
For in fact the Francezcis were advisers. Advisers to the Mafia, still the main force and power-base in Italy and Sicily; and through the Mafia advisers to the CIA, the KGB, and others of the same ilk; and through them advisers to those governments which allegedly 'controlled' them. And because their advice was invariably good, invariably valuable, they were revered as Dons of Dons, as every Francezci before them. But to actually speak of them in such a connection ... that would be quite unpardonable. It was understandable; their social standing ...
As to that last: they had the reputations of the gentlest of gentlemen! Their presence had been requested - even fought over - for every major social event on the island for the last fifteen years, ever since they came into their inheritance and possession of Le Manse Madonie. And their bloodline: there had been Francezci Brothers for as long as men could remember. The family was noted for its male twins, also for a line that went back into the dimmest mists of history - and into some of the darkest. But that last was for the brothers alone to know.
Thus the immemorial and ongoing connection of the Francezcis with certain of the island's (and indeed the world's) less savoury elements was unsuspected; or if it was it wasn't mentioned in polite circles. Yet in their role of freelance intelligence agents for the Mob or mobs - as advisers in the field of international crime, various kinds of espionage, and terrorism - the Francezcis were an unparalleled success story. Where or how they gained their intelligence in these diverse yet connected fields: that, too, was for the brothers alone to know, and for others to guess at. But to the Dons it seemed obvious that they had corrupted the incorruptible on a world-wide scale ...... Francesco's thoughts had strayed from their course. As the limo glided, or occasionally bumped, for the junction with the A-19 motorway into Palermo, he redirected his mind to that evening six short weeks ago:
After their meeting with the Dons (whom they had advised on such problems as what or what not to do about Aldo Moro and his kidnappers the Red Brigade, in Italy, and President Leone, who had become an embarrassment) the hour had been late. Driving back through Palermo and turned aside by a diversion where road works were in progress, Tony had noticed Julio's Cafe and suggested they pause a while for refreshments.
Indoors in the room of the marble staircase, the brothers had ordered Julio's 'Greek Island Specialities.' They'd picked at spicy sausages, stuffed vine-leaves, and various dips prepared in olive oil - but no garlic - all washed down with tiny measures of Mavrodaphne and a chaser, the brackish Vecchia Romagna, sipped from huge brandy-bowl glasses. By nine-thirty the kitchens had closed; the brothers dined alone. Julio had excused himself - a toothache! He'd called a dentist who, even at this late hour, had agreed to see him. His daughter, Julietta, would see the brothers off the premises when they were done.
Perhaps Francesco had drunk a little too much Mavrodaphne, too large a measure of brandy. Or it could be that in the gloom and draughty emptiness of the place, with the picked-at food gone cold on their plates, and the knowledge of lowering skies just beyond the arches, the woman had looked more radiant, more luminous ... more pure? Whatever, Francesco had looked at her in a certain way, and she had looked back. And Anthony Francezci had gone down to the limo on his own, while his brother ...
At which point the silver grey hearse of a car had swerved to avoid a dead animal in the road - a goat, Mario thought! - and again Francesco had been shaken from his reflections where he lolled in a corner of the back seat. Perhaps it was as well. They had been passing close to Bagheria; in a moment they'd be making a sharp right turn. Oh, yes, for Tony would surely want to park a while at a place he was fond of: the Vila Palagonia.
'What, drawn to your monsters yet again?' Francesco's comment had been petulant, almost angry; he was irritated that his mood and memories had been broken into.
'Our monsters!' Tony had answered immediately and sharply. For it was true enough: both of the brothers knew the inspiration behind the lunatic array of stone beasts that adorned the walls of the villa. The carved dwarves and gargoyles, the creatures with human hands and feet, and other Things that defied description. Some two hundred years ago the owner of the villa, Prince Ferdinando Gravina, had insisted upon visiting Le Manse Madonie, home to the Ferenczinis, as their name was then. Rich as Croesus, he had been interested to discover why the equally wealthy Ferenczinis were satisfied to dwell in such an 'out-of-the-way, austere, almost inhospitable sort of place.'
And Ferdinando's mania for grotesques - or his mania in general - had later emerged as a direct result of that visit.
But in any case Francesco had shrugged, saying, 'According to Swinburne, these sculptures have their origin in Diodorus's tale of the freakish creatures that came out of the Nile's sunbaked mud.' And before his brother could answer: 'Perhaps it's better if that legend prevails? It was a long time ago, after all. Too long ago, for such as you and I to remember!'
At which Tony had scowled and answered, 'Ferdinando looked into the pit, brother - the pit at Le Manse Madonie - and we both know it!' And then, sneeringly: 'Let's be discreet by all means, but in the privacy of our own car in a place like this, who is there to eavesdrop?'
Then, as at a signal, Mario had driven on for Palermo ...
And now they were there, at the Cafe Julio, and the fat little sod seating them at a table on his precious balcony and detailing his odious 'cuisine,' from which list they ordered this and that: a few items to pick at, a carafe of red wine. All a sham, a show; the brothers moved the food about their plates, waiting for Sclafani to mention Julietta. And eventually, returning upstairs from some small duty in the kitchens:
'Gentlemen, I'm eternally in your debt!' Julio bowed and scraped, plucked nervously at the towel over his arm as he sidled up to their table. 'Er, I mean with regard to your kindness in providing a ... a companion for my daughter. I cannot bring myself to call the old lady a nurse - can't admit to any real sickness in my girl - but the woman is a godsend nevertheless. She fetches and carries, sees to my daughter's needs, and I am left free to attend my business.'
'Julietta?' Francesco contrived to look concerned. 'Your daughter? Is she no better, then? We'd wondered why she wasn't around ...' He looked down over the balcony into the courtyard, casting here and there with his dark eyes as if searching.
Julio turned his own eyes to the night sky and flapped his hands in an attitude of despair or supplication. 'Oh, my lovely girl! Weak as water and pale as a cloud! Julietta will get better, I am sure. But for now ... she reclines upon her bed, with shadows under her eyes, and complains about the sunlight creeping in her room so that she must keep the curtains drawn! Some strange lethargy, a malaise, a weird photophobia.'
The brothers looked at each other - perhaps quizzically - and Francesco finally nodded. And to Julio: 'Sclafani, we have business tonight. A man of ours returns from an important trip out of the country.
Meanwhile we're out for a drive, passing a little time. It's a very pleasant evening, after all. Alas, we may be called away at any moment, which is why we didn't order more extensively from your menu. But this thing with Julietta: we find ourselves ... concerned for you.'
'Indeed,' Tony nodded. 'We Francezcis are delicate that way ourselves - with regard to strong sunlight, I mean.
Which is why we're not often out and about when the sun is up.'
'And,' Francesco went on, thoughtfully, ' - who can say - perhaps we find ourselves in a position to be of further service?' Qulio could have fainted! What, the Francezci Brothers, of service to him and his? Of further service?)
'You see,' said Tony, 'in three days a man will fly from Rome. A doctor, a specialist. You are right: there is a certain malaise or anaemia abroad. Servants of ours in Le Manse Madonie are laid low by it; we ourselves feel a definite lethargy. Our blood seems ... weak? But at least in the heights we have the benefit of clean air! While here in the city .. .' He shrugged.
Open-mouthed, Julio looked from one brother to the other. 'But what do you propose? I mean, I scarcely dare presume - '
' - That our doctor friend should take a look at Julietta, and perhaps keep her under observation a while?' Francesco cut him short. 'But why not? He's our own private doctor and comes with the very highest recommendation!
Moreover, he's been paid in advance. In such an arrangement, surely there are no losers! So, it's settled.' He nodded his head as in final confirmation.
'We shall send our car for Julietta three evenings from now -Saturday, yes. And the old woman shall stay with her at all times, of course. But that is to look on the gloomy side, for in the event that she should recover between now and then, which naturally we hope she will...'
'I... am stunned!'Julio choked out the words.
'No need to be,' said Tony, delicately dabbing at his mouth. Take our card. If your Julietta shows signs of recovery, call us. Otherwise look for our car Saturday night. After that, you may inquire after her at your convenience. But remember: we're private men. Our telephone number is restricted. And rest assured, Julietta will be attended to in every circumstance.'
It was done. Hardly believing his stroke of good fortune, the fat man went about the night's business in a daze; the brothers, apparently unmoved, continued to pick at their food . . . until Julio was observed busying himself at the tables in the courtyard below. Then: 'Watch the stairs,' Francesco said. 'If he comes up, issue a warning or distract him.' But as he stood up and moved back a pace from the balcony:
'Now who is being indiscreet?' Tony smiled up at him with eye-teeth that were white and needle-sharp in a too-wide mouth.
Francesco leaned towards his brother - leaned at a peculiar angle -and answered through clenched teeth in a voice that was suddenly as black and bubbling as tar, 'What, but can't you smell that bitch back there?' In another moment he straightened up, coughed to clear his throat, and continued in a more normal tone of voice. 'Anyway, we need to be certain the fat fool will accept our offer. So drink your wine ... and watch the stairs!'
He turned away. Two paces took him across the balcony and through a curtained archway into a corridor. He passed a gentlemen's toilet on his left, a ladies' on the right, and entered a door marked 'Private' into Julio's office.
Skirting the desk, he passed through a second door into Julietta's sick-room. And there she lay, with the old biddy Katerin, eighty years old if she was a day, in attendance. The crone was nodding. Startled, she glanced up at Francesco through rheumy eyes. 'Who? What?' Then, recognizing him, she smiled, nodded and made to rise.
'No, stay,' he told her. 'Best that you're here, in case that oily little fat man should look in.' Katerin nodded again and sat still. In the dimness of the room, the grandam's eyes were yellow as a cat's watching her master.
He sat half-way up the wide couch where Julietta lay, and his sudden weight woke her. Or perhaps she'd already been awake ... waiting. Her eyes opened big as saucers; her jaw fell open; knowledge and horror painted themselves with rapid strokes upon her lovely, oval, oddly palid face. But in no way odd to Francesco. And before she could cry out, if she would:
'Did you think I would desert you? Ah, no!' he told her. And his hand crept under her blanket, under her nightgown, to her thigh, so that she could feel his fingers trembling there. 'No, for having loved you once, I shall love you all the days of your life.' But he did not say 'my life.'
As his hand climbed higher on her thigh, so Julietta's mouth closed and her fluttering breathing steadied; she began to breathe more deeply - of his breath. His essence was in it, as it was in her. And his eyes were uniformly jet, like moist black marbles in his face and unblinking, or like the eyes of a snake before he strikes. Except he had already struck, on that night six weeks ago. And the poison had taken.
He smiled with his handsome, devil's face, and the horror went out of her as she lifted her arms to embrace him. But that could not be. 'Soon,' he told her. 'Soon - at Le Manse Madonie! Can't you wait? A day or two, my Julietta. Just a day or two, I promise.' Her sigh, and her breathing suddenly quickening; the long lashes over her dark eyes fluttering, as Francesco's cool hand discovered the inside of her hot thigh. Then her nod, and a gasp of weird ecstasy as her head flopped to one side in sudden shame, or defeat, or surrender, and her thighs lolled open.
He held her lips open with his thumb and smallest finger, and let the middle three elongate into her. His hand was quite still, but the three central fingers stretched with a caterpillar's expansion, throbbing with the effort of metamorphosis like a trio of sentient penises, with pouting lips opening in their tips. And into her body they crept, while his thumb and smallest finger closed on her bud, to gentle it like a nipple.
And with the old crone watching and knowing everything - laughing silently through a gap-toothed mouth whose eye-teeth at least were still sharp and white - so Francesco found the artery he sought and used his fingers to pierce and sip at the soft centre of Julietta's sex where the marks, if he left any, would never be found, and the blood, if any continued to flow, would have its own explanation.
Then, in a few seconds, a minute - as the girl went, 'Ah! Ah! Ah!' and turned her head this way and that, until her eyes rolled up - slowly Francesco's jaws cracked open in a grin or a grimace, allowing a trickle of saliva to slop from a corner of his writhing lips. In that same moment his own eyes turned to flame, and then to blood! Julietta's blood. But: Brother! It was Anthony; not a call as such (for the brothers were not gifted with the true art), but a warning definitely. A tingling of nerves, a premonition. Julio was coming!
A moment to withdraw from Julietta, and another to lean forward and kiss her clammy brow. Then he was out of the room, flowing from Sclafani's office into the corridor, and the door marked 'Men' closing softly behind him. And his penis steaming as he plied it in the privacy of a cubicle, once, twice, three times, before it spurted into the bowl. And even his sperm was red where Francesco pulled the chain on it ...
In the corridor, Sclafani was waiting for him. 'Ah! Forgive me! I supposed you would be in there. Your brother asked me to tell you ... Your man has returned from England ... And your driver, Mario? ... A radio message?' He fluttered his hands, as if that were explanation enough. Which in fact it was.
Francesco was cool now. He smiled his gratitude, and made for the balcony with Julio hard on his heels. 'It's been such a pleasure to have you,' the fat man was babbling. 'I can't possibly bill you. What? But I'm already too deeply in your debt!'
At the table, Mario stood by in his uniform and cap while Tony spoke into a portable radio-telephone. Francesco wheeled on Julio and almost knocked him over. 'My friend,' he said hurriedly. This is a private conversation. You understand? As for the bill: the pleasure was all ours.' He pressed a wad of notes into the proprietor's hand, more than enough to cover what they had not eaten. As Julio waddled off, Tony was standing up.
'ETA in forty-five minutes,' he said. 'Even if we go right now, still the chopper will beat us to the Manse.' He shrugged. Francesco nodded and said, Til speak to Luigi en route.'
In the limo Francesco sat up front beside Mario. Outside Palermo the static cleared up and he was able to make himself understood on the car's communication system. 'Your patient?' 'Sedated,' came back a tinny, almost casual voice. Threw up a little ... doesn't seem to travel too well. The sedative, I suppose.' From the back of the limo Tony said: 'Well, purging can't hurt.
They'll be seeing to that anyway, at Le Manse.' Francesco glanced back at him. 'I left instruction, yes.' And into the radio: 'Any problems at the other end?'
'None. Smooth as silk. Everything should be that easy!' 'Good,' Francesco was pleased. 'And this end? Control?'
They've cleared me on to Le Manse Madonie. No problem.' (Of course not. The Francezcis' man in Air Traffic Control at Catania had picked up more than a year's wages for this!) 'Our people at the Manse will see to your patient,' Francesco finished. 'We'll be along later. Oh, and well done.' Thanks, and out,' the unseen pilot answered. There were no frills, not on the air ...
At Le Manse Madonie, the brothers looked on while their people saw to the girl from the helicopter. Still sedated, she'd been stripped and bathed by the time they got there. The rest of it would take most of the night. They watched for an hour or so - the enemas, the operation of the pumps and mechanically forced voiding, the 'purification,' as it were - but after that they lost interest. The manicuring of nails, the cleansing and polishing of teeth, application of fast-acting fungicides to her various openings (lotions to be removed later in a final bathing), al of that would go on and on. Clinical but less than beneficial: health wasn't the object of the exercise. Only cleanliness.
'And all wasted,' Tony Francezci shook his head in disgust as they made for their apartments about midnight. They wouldn't sleep but merely rest; time for sleeping when it was over.
'Wasted?' his brother answered. 'Not at all. Well, the girl herself, maybe, but not the effort. He likes them clean, after all. And she can't lie to him, can't hide anything. Outside her mind, we could merely prise for clues. Inside it ... he can lay everything bare down to the electrons of her brain and patterns of her past, the memories in the mush of her grey matter.'
'Poetic!' Francesco's brother seemed appreciative, but his voice almost immediately turned sour. 'Ah, but will he divulge what he discovers? Or will he obscure and obfuscate, as he's so wont to do? He gets more difficult all the time.'
'He'll tell us something of it, at least,' the other nodded. 'It's been a while and he's hungry. He'll be grateful, and she'll make a rare tidbit. Why, I could even fancy her myself!'
Tony gave a snort. 'What? But you could fancy old Katerin, if that's all there was!' And as they parted company at the top of a flight of stairs and made for their own rooms: 'Oh, and on that same note: did you have Julietta, in Julio's backroom?'
'Something like that,' his brother leered back at him. 'If you're asking will we be sending for her . . . yes, we will. Why? Would you perhaps like her for yourself?'
'Not really,' Tony told him. 'For you've been there before me.' There was no malice in it, nor in Francesco's answer:
'It never stopped you before,' he said, evenly ...
In the hour before dawn, the Francezcis met again in the secret heart of Le Manse Madonie. Beneath extensive cellars and ancient foundations, at a place deep in the bedrock - a place known only as 'the pit' - they came together to attend personally to the final stage of the operation: the lowering of the girl into an old, dried-out well.
The mouth of the well was maybe fourteen feet across, wall to wall; the walls were three feet high, and of massive blocks of old hewn masonry; a 'lid' of electrified wire-mesh in a circular frame was hinged to the walls on opposite sides, covering the opening like a grille. But the pit was silent for now, sullen and sinister even to the Francescis. Down there somewhere, at a depth of some eighty feet, it opened into a cyst that had once contained water. Now it housed their father.
A mechanical hoist stood to one side, its gantry reaching out over the pit. Suspended by chains, a metal table slowly rotated.
The girl lay naked on the table, with her hands folded on her stomach. In her entire life she had only once been cleaner, less toxic: in the womb, in the days preceding her birth before the first human hands were lain on her. Now mhuman hands would be lain on her.
But first the interrogation; not of the girl but the Old Ferenczy, the monstrously mutated Francezci in his pit. Only the brothers were present; it wasn't work for lesser, more easily influenced or corrupted minds. But then, how might one corrupt the Francezcis?
The cavern containing the pit was a natural place, made unnatural only by its grotesque inhabitant. Rocky ledges swept back into darkness, but the pit itself was illuminated: a bank of powerful spotlights shone down on it from the nitre-streaked dripstone walls. Where the shadows crept, stone steps had been cut back into a shaft that climbed in a spiral to the Manse - the aerie - high overhead. At the foot of the steps an electrified pneumatic 'door,' a grille of two-inch steel bars, guarded the exit. The door's control panel was set well back within the brightly lit shaft. Like the cover over the old well, this door to the exit shaft wasn't designed to keep anyone or thing out.
Yet the place wasn't specifically a prison but more properly a refuge, a sanctuary ... an asylum. And just this once, perhaps the Francezcis were of a single mind where they stood at the rim of the well and Francesco quietly commented:
'It's as if the "Mad"-in Madonie were deliberate ...'
Tony at once cautioned him: 'Always remember, brother: he can hear you. Even when you're sleeping - or lost in your lust with some slut - he can be there. And he's here even now.'
And the other knew it was true. Down here their father's presence was everywhere. It was in the echoes of their voices; and despite the glaring lights - or because of them - it was in the movement of the blackest shadows back there where there should be no movement. It permeated the very atmosphere, as if the place were haunted. But the Old Ferenczy was no ghost. Nor would he ever be, so long as he was their oracle.
Francesco looked at his brother. 'Well, are you ready?'
Tony licked his fleshy lips, and nodded. He wouldn't ever be 'ready,' not really, but what must be must be. He had always been the Old One's favourite, 'spoiled' by a father who had had time for him. As for Francesco: he had been too precocious; his father had never had time for him! Knowing something of the future - indeed, of most things -perhaps the pit-dweller had foreseen the time when Francesco would relish his ... incapacity.
The electricity was off, the grille safe. 'Father,' Tony leaned over the rim of the old well and gazed down through the mesh on a receding funnel of massive blocks of masonry. 'We've brought you something. A small tribute, a gift - a girl!'
A girl. . . a girl. . . a girl, the well repeated, an echo carried on the miasma. But a miasma, here? A wisp of mist, anyway, rising from the pit. The heat of the spotlights vaporized it, turning it to stench. The thing below might not be especially active, but it was there. It was breathing, and ...
'... Listening!' said Francesco, who was sensitive to such things. 'Oh, he hears you, all right!'
'Father,' Tony leaned out more yet. 'We've brought a gift for you, but we have our needs, too. There are things we need to know ...' For a moment there was nothing, and then the well seemed to sigh! It was physical - in that a gust of foulness rushed up from below - but it was also mental: the Old Ferenczy's telepathy, which in the brothers' case had skipped a generation. And despite that they were not mentalists, still their father's power was such that finally they 'heard' him:
Only ask, my son ... after you have sent me my tribute.
But if the message was simple, its delivery was dramatic. It reverberated in their heads like a shout, and was accompanied by a tumult of tittering, crazed background 'voices' that were all their father's. He had concentrated part of his mind on his answer, but the rest of it was engaged in its own activity ... the way a madman might often seem calm on the outside, while in fact he seethes within. And the many personalities of the thing - his diverse identities - were like a bickering, uncontrollable, heckling audience to the efforts of the part which now attempted to communicate with the world outside itself; in fact with the thing's son.
Tony reeled at the rim of the pit; his brother caught his shoulder to steady him; the mental babble subsided, along with the 'echoes' of their father's true or 'sane' voice. And:
'Dangerous!' Tony muttered. 'He isn't in control.'
'Or is he simply playing with us? Francesco scowled. 'His split-personalities, multi-identities: it wouldn't be the first time he'd used them to confuse us ...'
Tony nodded, grimaced, and called down: 'Father, plainly you are not yourself. The girl will keep, and we'll try again later.' He made himself believe it - in his mind - in case his father was listening. But then, as they reached for the metal platform hanging over the pit, as if to swing the girl aside:
NO! came that enormous mental grunt from below. NO, WAIT! And a moment later - less forcefully, almost pleadingly now, as they paused - Does she come of her own free will? Is she pure? Is she ... clean?
And the brothers grinned at each other, nodding in unison. For this time there had been no background 'static,' no babble of crazed, secondary voices. When the thing in the pit desired it, he could control himself and shut them out.
Tony waited a moment, then said, 'She has no will. As for purity: it's hard to find, father, in today's world. But clean?
She's as clean as we can make her, yes. Except ...'
'She knows things, which we would know. She's yours, but before you use her, will you not first examine her? For us?'
For a long moment there was silence, until: But. . . why don't you examine her, my son? Before you give her to me? The old thing's mental voice was sly now, wickedly intelligent.
'He knows,' Francesco grunted, coldly furious. 'He knows that we can't ask her, that even the best drugs won't open her up, because she's been forbidden to speak! Her mind's been tampered with, locked from inside, and only he can get in. And he knows that, too! The old devil wants us to beg!'
And: Oh, ha! ha! ha! laughed the thing, as the 'miasma,' his breath, thickened. Oh, but I hear and know you, my son, my . . .
Francesco? The laughter ceased and the mental voice turned cold as ice. And still you have no respect...
'Hah!' Francesco scowled. 'He thinks he's a Don!'
'He was,' Tony reminded him. 'A Don of Dons, one of the first. So don't annoy him; don't even think, but let me handle this!'
And directing his thoughts and voice into the pit:
'Father, it was you who gave word of a certain threat. We acted on your word. For two centuries we have acted on it, and at last we have a lead. This girl has secret knowledge, buried in her mind. Nothing we do will give us access. But you ...?'
And in a moment - when they could almost hear the brain below working, and the body seething - / can do it, yessss!
'But will you?'
Yessss! Send her down.
'She must not be wasted,' Tony cautioned. 'Her knowledge can't be lost. It was risky bringing her here; we paid for her; we may never see another opportunity like this. And always remember, father, what threatens us threatens you...'
I understand, yessss. Send her down.
'But you are hungry, we know, and occasionaly ... impatient? And if - '
SEND HER DOWN - NOW!
There seemed nothing else for it. Francesco operated the gear to open one flap of the grile, and together they manoeuvred the platform and girl into position over the open half of the pit. Finaly Tony broke an ampoule under her nose, and she groaned and shook her head a little. But before she could wake up more fuly, they sent her on her way to hel.
Her weight was measured on a dial on the control console. She sank skty, seventy, seventy-five feet... and her weight became zero. 'Get it up!' Tony croaked, as Francesco reversed the gears. The platform came up empty. But down below:
Suddenly the mental emanations - the blasts of raw, terrible emotion - were like a gale blowing in their heads! The brothers reeled, recovered, quickly closed and activated the grile. While in their minds, despite that they were scarcely gifted in the art, and that for once they were glad of it: Flesh, bone, and bloood! The openingsss of her body, her face! The entrancesss to heaven, to hell! Oh, I am a monster! Yesss, for a man could never do thisss! But I am not a man! I am Wamphyri! Wamphyyyrrriii!
And above it all, a scream, just one - but a shriek to end all shrieks -as the girl came awake and felt. . . what? Her cry of shock, outrage, disbelief, was a sound to grate on the nerve endings forever. It came and went, as her mouth, ears, nostrils and head entire were crammed full of the thing, filled to brimming with him, as was her body.
And not only the hammerblows of the Old One's thought processes, but pictures to accompany them: of a creeping, flowing, foaming something, never a human being, but with hands - oh, a great many -and mouths, and eyes, all converging on, soaking into, and expanding within, the girl.
Then the bloating, the stretching, the rending!
And the mist over the pit gradualy turning pink, stinking where its molecules came in contact with the grile ...
A while later the Francezcis were surprised to find themselves close, touching, trembling, and slowly disengaged. Minutes had ticked by; the cavern was quiet again, or unquiet, and the pit... was just a pit, an old wel.
Francesco looked at his brother quizzicaly, but Tony shook his head. 'I won't, couldn't, talk to him right now. So let him rest. Later, maybe ... "
But as they made to pass out through the steel-barred door into the exit shaft:
HE'LL BE UP! HE WILL BE UP! HE WILL BE UP! It was almost a cry of triumph, but quickly turning to sick terror. H-h-he wil be up, yes - in just a few years, three, or four at most - and then ... then he'll seek me out. . . seek us out. . . seek us all out!
'Who will?' Tony tried to ask. But dazed as he was from the mental blast, his voice was a croak. It made no difference, for he already knew, and his father had heard him anyway.
Who? came a fading, awed, even frightened whisper in their minds. Who else butRadu? Who but Radu Lykan, eh?!
And then a ringing cry like a soul in torment, or one lost forever in outer immensities: Raaaddduuu!
And once again a whisper: Raaaddduuuuuu! ... that shivered into a shuddering silence.