plate of toast and jam sat beside the Pontiff’s letter on a table at a small inn. Father Molinari nibbled between sips of black coffee and reading. His heartbeat throbbed in his wounded hand, a clean and proper bandage tight to his skin. The innkeeper’s wife, Daphne, had insisted on attending to it for him. Bad enough it seemed every adult in town had stopped in to thank him, but Pascal refused to accept payment for his lodgings or food.
Neither he nor Daphne would hear a word of protest that they deserved to earn their livelihood. As if his unwanted celebrity had not been enough to unsettle his nerves, the pope’s letter to Cardinal Benedetto requested a personal debriefing of the events in Vienna. It disturbs me more His Holiness does not question the existence of such creatures at all, but wishes to know the details. He closed his eyes and rested his face in his unwounded hand. What secrets we keep from the world.
The ring of a tiny bell announced a new arrival. From his seat, his back to the wall of a plastered archway, he could not see the front. Yet out of reflex, Father Molinari braced for more enthusiastic villagers. A pair of country priests in plain black walked in, a young blond followed by a shorter, paunchier bald man who appeared a decade or two his senior. As they approached, he folded the Pontiff’s letter and tucked it into his sacred book.
“Good morning, Father,” said the younger priest, in Italian. A wooden cross tilted from his chest as he bowed. “May we join you?”
“Good morning, Fathers,” Molinari replied in kind and gestured at the three empty chairs at his table. “Please.”
“I am Father Callini, and this is Father Renault. Our church is in Briançon to the south.”
The older priest bowed and took a seat. “It is an honor, Father Molinari. I pray the Baudin girl is well?”
“She will be at the chapel three times a week for months seeking absolution.” Father Molinari shook his head. “Her soul is safe.”
Both local priests made the requisite sign of the cross as Daphne walked over and set down a cup of water for each man. Her gaze lingered a little too much on Molinari for his comfort, and he looked down with a cough. The woman had to be in her later forties, not to mention married, not to mention he was a priest.
Daphne smiled at the new arrivals. “Would either of you care for coffee?”
Fathers Callini and Renault politely declined, but thanked her for the water.
“May I ask what happened to your hand?” asked Father Renault.
His Italian felt far worse than Molinari’s French, so he answered in the man’s native tongue. “There were complications during the exorcism.”
The men nodded.
“We have heard you are considered an expert in investigating claims of miracles, demons, and other beasts.” The young priest leaned in, eyebrows rising.
Father Renault eagerly drained his glass; the water seemed to exude from his bald scalp as soon as he swallowed it.
“I have often investigated claims of that nature, though most bear little authenticity.”
“What of the Baudin girl?” asked Father Callini. “They say she spoke in tongues.”
Father Molinari took a long, slow sip of his coffee. “All claims are not from those who seek notoriety.”
“It was authentic?” Sweat ran in trails over Father Renault’s jowls. “A demon, here?”
Molinari raised his unhurt hand. “Some manner of unclean spirit that the Holy Father saw fit to banish. I can say no more. Mademoiselle Baudin would appreciate your discretion.”
Both priests nodded.
“We have found something you should see.” Father Callini glanced to his right at Renault, with the expression of a boy who wished to please his parent. “We have captured a creature.”
“What sort of creature?” Father Molinari eyed his remaining toast, but decided not to eat in front of those abstaining.
Father Renault leaned close and lowered his voice to a whisper. “A vampire.”
Molinari blinked. “You two”―he gestured with his coffee cup at the men―“subdued and captured a vampire, intact, without so much as a scratch on you?” He suppressed a chuckle.
“It is sick and weak,” said Callini. “I believe only recently turned. It came to us. Perhaps it seeks release from its torment.”
“A perfect opportunity for study.” Renault’s chair creaked as he twisted to get Daphne’s attention. “Please, Madame, might I ask you for a refill?”
Molinari leaned back, teasing at his chin with his index finger. Once the innkeeper’s wife had poured the water and walked out of earshot, he shook his head. “I must confess I find it somewhat implausible that two men, even priests, with no prior experience could have bested such a creature. I have had encounters with them before. Recently, in fact. Vienna, less than a month ago.”
Father Renault, despite looking close to fifty, gaped with the wide eyes of a child enthralled in a story. “What happened?”
“I sent its soul, if it had one, to wherever it is that the souls of such beasts go.” He seized a bit of toast, waving it about. “They dwell in the shadow of Satan, out of the sight of God.”
“You destroyed it?” Father Callini stared at him with awe. “You seem in good health, less the hand.”
“Only a fool confronts a vampire on its own terms. They are far less dangerous at three in the afternoon.” Father Molinari chuckled, and took a bite of toast.
“We would be honored if you would validate our find,” said Renault. “We do not crave fame, merely greater knowledge for His work.”
“I was to depart today, to return to Rome.”
“We are from Briançon, which is closer to Italy,” said Father Callini. “You could stop on the way. At worst, you tell us we have made a mistake, and you enjoy a bed for the night. At best, you will not have passed an opportunity to examine another such fiend up close.”
Father Molinari studied the pattern of light glinting through the jam on his toast. As tired as he was, as much as he craved a night or two of peace in his room at the Vatican, he could not deny the sudden interest that sprang up within him. “All right. I will accompany you.”
The priests popped up in their seats, smiling.
“Excellent!” Father Callini grinned. “God has truly sent you to us.”