It had happened again.
A body had been found; a body which had been drained of blood through two puncture marks on the victim's neck.
Could this be the work of a vicious animal?
There were no such animals in or around the small town of St Andrews, its inhabitants knew. Therefore, a new solution, a more plausible explanation to the problem was making its way around town, overshadowing the rumour of Mr and Mrs Turner wanting to get a divorce.
However, it was a small band of students who were the ones committed to finding the murderer rather than gossiping about it. Being students, they approached the issue as students are usually taught to solve problems – via research.
In their age, a world where the word internet had never even been thought of, this meant going to the library. Consequently, when the exciting project began to feel too much like school work, it meant the leader of their little club, Robert McIntosh – the only one interested enough to keep pursuing this mystery – pestered his friend, Andrew McCoy, who just so happened to be a very conscientious student of the medical profession.
"Surely, you must have come across something similar in one of your studies," he insisted.
"If you mean the fact that excessive blood loss is fatal, I knew that before I arrived at university."
"But the puncture marks –"
"Those could have been caused by a number of –"
"Don't lie to me," his friend pleaded. "I know you went to see the corpse with one of your professors."
McCoy eyes widened. "Nobody was to know of this. You must not tell anyone."
"I promise," Robert agreed eagerly. "I swear not to tell anyone if you tell me what you found out."
His friend glanced about as if anyone could have overheard their whispers over the prattle of the nearby students, chattering in-between classes.
"I cannot tell you," McCoy said. His eyes had the look of a horse about to bolt. Shifting his weight nervously from one foot to the other and back, he continued, "I might lose my scholarship if I did."
"You never did tell me who it was that awarded you this gracious scholarship."
"And it is better this way," McCoy clutched his satchel against his chest. "If you are my friend at all, you will not speak of this matter again, not to me and not to anyone."
Robert, being an honourable gentleman's son and having been brought up as such, tried to heed his friend's request. But he simply could not, especially when he noticed his friend's behaviour had changed.
McCoy, quieter than ever, would creep from his bed at strange hours of the night and not return until dawn. When Robert enquired whom his secret beau was, McCoy's eyes widened to such proportions, Robert thought they might pop from their sockets. Stammering McCoy had mumbled something about the library and dashed away.
Therefore, Robert decided, rather than trying to goad his friend out of his mysterious silence, he would follow him the next time he vanished and find out where he went.
The next night, when McCoy had slipped from the room, Robert counted to ten and followed him. McCoy may have thought himself stealthy but his eyesight certainly wasn't improved by the darkness.
Therefore it was no matter of difficulty for Robert to locate him. All he had to do was listen out for a thud, accompanied by a groan and he knew exactly where his friend had collided with a wall.
Thus Robert pursued McCoy at a sluggish pace. At last they left their dormitory building behind them. This strange procession of McCoy stumbling through the dark and Robert jogging after him, only to duck behind a building or cart, lest his friend notice him, continued through the small village. They passed by the ruins of the ancient cathedral and castle, walking over pebbles, which had been the pathway of great men and women of history. Yet where did it all lead them?
McCoy turned around and Robert jumped behind one of the many university buildings around town. His side collided with something soft, which let out a pained yelp.
Robert focussed his eyes on the figure and identified her as the oldest daughter of one of the professors of the biology department. It had been quite the scandal when Professor Flanders had returned from his decades of expeditions with a wife of such curiously dark skin and three daughters only a little lighter in colour. However, the villagers had soon been convinced of their impeccable character and had accepted them as part of their community.
"Miss Flanders," he exclaimed, looking about for any companions she might have brought.
"Shush," she said. "You didn't see me here, good sir. I am…merely a dream-like appearance. You really should not drink so much."
"Are you alone outside?" Robert asked, forgetting for a moment about his friend's mystery, now he was presented with this one. "At night?"
"Nothing passes your astute judgement, does it?" She drew her bonnet closer into her face, so she would be unrecognisable unless she looked at one directly. "What is the price for your silence?"
Robert was startled she should think him capable of blackmail but since she was asking…
"How about a kiss?" he asked boldly, knowing very well he could not be the first man to pose this question to this beautiful young woman.
"I see, the young gentleman fancies himself a romantic," she said. Mockery sparkled in her eyes and she added sarcastically, "God have mercy on us all."
"I would never presume such a title…let me think of another price."
"It seems the act of thinking does tax you quite badly. Why not swear to me you shall never mention a word of having seen me here tonight, not in speech, nor writing, nor any other method your nefarious little mind comes up with. Then we can both go back home."
"I am insulted by the lady's poor assessment of my character," he said.
"You can try challenging me to a duel," Miss Flanders suggested. "Though I have to warn you I'm a much better shot than any of my brothers."
"I have thought of the price for my silence."
"Then make no great mystery of it," she urged.
"Seeing as we are already in each other's confidence, keeping each other's secret. I think of us as friends and as such –"
"Friends," Miss Flanders laughed. "Why I know nothing about you; not even your name."
"So you deny having spent any length of time you sat in the department's courtyard, reading looking at me?"
She cocked her head. "How would you know such a thing? I might as well have been contemplating my book."
"Because, whenever my eyes fell upon your lovely face, I was so entranced I could not look away."
"I fear you have lied to me good sir," she said after a short moment of contemplation. "It seems you are a romantic after all."
"You are not an admirer of the romantic then?"
Robert stared, confused his methods of romancing had no effects whatsoever on this lady. But he had been so sure she had looked his way. Maybe it was McCoy she had been staring at?
A strange sensation, akin to jealousy filled him when he considered the lovely Fanny Flanders was the reason McCoy snuck out at night.
"My price," he said, with a tone cold with disappointment and rejection, "is to know why you are out this night, all by yourself. I imagine there is an interesting story behind this mystery."
"I…I cannot say," she said, lowering her head. "I could not if I wanted to. You see, another gentleman is involved in this mystery. Therefore it is not in my authority to share that person's secret without their permission."
"Of course," Robert said dully.
He thought himself a fool, before believing he was the first to try and capture her heart. Certainly she had had suitors much more amiable than him?
But what did she see in McCoy? And how had he ever taken notice of her, being such a studious lad he did not lift his head from his book often enough to avoid walking into walls?
"I know it is not my place to say so but since we are friends," he said, this time pronouncing the last word with bitterness. "I advise you not to risk walking about on your own at night. It is not for your reputation that I fear for because I know your character to be of impeccable nature. I fear for your life. Surely you have heard, too, of the gruesome deaths which have plagued the town in recent weeks?"
She studied him carefully. "Then, as your friend, I should extend the same piece of advice to you seeing how terrified you are by these grisly deaths I cannot help but wonder myself, what could be the reason for your solitary night walks."
It seemed silly now how worried he had been about McCoy, when it all made sense now. If Fanny Flanders' heart had belonged to him, she could have spirited him from the warmth of his bed like a siren as well.
He would have followed her gladly and spend his days in silent contemplation of her beauty and character, as McCoy must have been doing. How easy this explained his silence.
"Mr McIntosh," she said, betraying she knew exactly who he was. "If you do not wish to part from your secret, then by all means say so."
He stared at her, still lost in his gloomy thoughts.
"Mr McIntosh?" she repeated, her angelic voiced tinged with amusement. "Am I right to assume your silence means you know more about these deaths than you like to admit."
His consciousness immediately returned to their conversation. "Why are you so interested in these deaths? Aren't there any more interesting topics for a young gentle lady like yourself?"
"Your flattery has no effect on me as you should have learned by now. Nevertheless, I shall be truthful with you, although you do not deserve it."
"I am all ears," Robert said, leaning against the wall of a house.
He could not help but spend more time in the company of this captivating woman, even if his affections never stood a chance against the harsh judgement of his character.
"It has come to my attention," she said speaking so softly it was almost a whisper, "that you mean to investigate these deaths."
"Who –" Robert stopped himself, seeing in his mind's eye the face of a man who was becoming less and less of a friend to him. Probably, McCoy had complained about him to her.
"I am simply wondering," Miss Flanders continued, twirling her umbrella in her delicate hands, "if these investigations have revealed anything of interest yet."
"My investigations," Robert repeated, remembering a certain episode, which involved him loudly professing to his colleagues that once someone applied their educated minds to the task, finding the case of the death would be no lengthy quest. "I am afraid they have not yielded the desired results yet."
"Do you know what it was that so cruelly killed the victims?"
Robert hated to disappoint a young woman, whom he had meant to impress with his intellect and charm with his humour.
Miffed, he replied, "I relied on a dear friend for this particular question but he snubbed me. Maybe you should ask McCoy yourself?"
Her doe-brown eyes looked at him with innocent confusion. She certainly was a good actress.
"No one," Robert replied briskly.
Maybe he had been mistaken in his assessment of her character. She had such an entrancing personality, he felt quite sympathetic with Ulysses in his encounter with the sirens.
"I believe it were better if both of us return to our beds, before one of becomes the next victim."
Was she mocking him with the look of disappointment? He tried to shake his thoughts from this path.
Miss Flanders nodded and bowed her head. "Good evening, Mr McIntosh."
"Good night, Miss Flanders."
She looked irked he had cut off the conversation so suddenly but said nothing more herself. Straightening her shoulders, she marched off, her umbrella swinging at her side as she vanished around the corner.
Robert took a deep breath and set out to follow her if she risked her reputation for her love, McCoy could at least have the decency to walk her home, especially in the light of recent events.
Miss Flanders was much stealthier than clumsy McCoy. She turned around corners with a flourish of her skirts, resembling a shadow.
Once they had reached the street she lived in, he slunk back and watched her enter the house. Since he was reassured of her safety, he took steps to ensure his own by walking back to his own dormitory.
McCoy had not returned. Robert glared at the empty bed in anger and went to sleep.
The next day he did not see McCoy and he was glad for it. He could not stand the presence of the man who kept so many secrets from his best friend and dared to court the woman he knew his best friend to have fallen in love with.
At night he could not sleep. Whenever his eyes closed, Miss Flanders' face appeared, smiling at him in all its loveliness.
He turned around and his eyes fell on the un-made bed of his roommate. The image of Miss Flanders smiling merged into a look of horror, as he realized McCoy might have left her alone in the dark, same as last night.
Robert dragged his tired body out of bed and dressed. The streets of St Andrews were quiet, not that they were particularly lively on such an evening. The cold drove the revellers into the warmth of pubs. But even they would have closed by now. Nothing but the cold night wind kept Robert company, as he stumbled half-awake through the cobbled streets.
He arrived at the spot where he had met the lovely Miss Flanders last night but she was not here. At first he waited. Then he roamed the surrounding streets and alleys. No sign of her or of McCoy.
Unsure, whether to be disappointed or pleased by this turn of events, he returned his mind, which was drunk with sleepy confusion, back to his bed. He only woke when there was insistent knocking at his door.
Robert dressed himself on the way to the door. Upon opening it, he was met with the saddened face of Professor Flanders.
Fear pierced his heart. Had something happened to Fanny? He regretted every ill thought he had ever had about her and McCoy. He was wrong. She was an angel; innocence personified. She –
"I am so sorry, Mr McIntosh," Professor Flanders said. "Seeing as I was the one to find the body they asked me to deliver the grave news myself."
"The body," Robert whispered, sinking to the ground. His poor Fanny.
"Mr McCoy fell victim to the same mysterious malady which seems to have been haunting our town."
"McCoy," Robert repeated.
Fanny was safe. His heart soared only to be plunged into the deepest abyss of grief by the news of his best friend's death.
He had not even talked to him in these past few days. On the contrary, he had turned his cold shoulder toward him.
"I am terribly sorry," the professor repeated.
In spite of all his grief, there was one thought burning in his mind. This was the chance to find out more about these deaths. This was the opportunity he had been waiting for, though he would have preferred to continue the torture of not knowing to having to sacrifice a dear friend.
But what's done was done and he could only move forward from this point.
"Can I..." He paused to compose his countenance. "Would it be possible to see the body?"
"The police have yet to finish their…investigations." Professor Flanders looked genuinely sympathetic. "However, the pathologist in charge of the morgue is an old friend of mine. I could ask him to make an exception."
Robert eagerly took him up on the offer. There they were two hours later; Robert, accompanied by the gentle professor, stood above the corpse of his former friend.
This conglomeration of dead cells did not look like the Andrew McCoy he knew.
Yes, the haircut was the same but the skin was so pale, the body so motionless with his chest not heaving with breaths. His face was frozen in such an emotionless expression it showed not even a feature reminiscent of life.
"What did he die of?" Robert asked with a trembling voice.
The pathologist shot Professor Flanders a questioning look. The latter nodded and the pathologist pulled back the sheet enough to expose McCoy's neck.
There were two puncture marks with tiny blood droplets crusted over them. The sight made Robert feel sick to the stomach.
"It's the same cause as these other mysterious deaths?" he asked, although he knew the answer to the question.
Robert dragged a tired hand through his hair. Secretly, he had hoped he would find McCoy had died from a different cause, even if this might have destroyed his investigations.
Now however, there was no chance at denying his guilt. He had not only neglected talking to his friend, he had also, rather than making sure McCoy was okay, stood guard outside Fanny's room.
"It was indeed the same cause," Professor Flanders explained, pointing out the puncture marks. "Through this wound the poor soul was relieved of all of his body's blood."
Robert reached for his friend's cold hand, which peeked from underneath the sheet again.
"I'm sorry, lad."
The pathologist pushed away his hand and covered McCoy with the sheet again.
"So he was killed," Robert concluded with a hoarse voice. "But by whom? You make it sound as if he was killed by some kind of…vampire."
Professor Flanders peered at him from underneath his spectacles.
"Indeed." Then, he addressed the other man. "Sean, I believe Mr McIntosh might require a little something to sleep tonight. I'm sure you would not object?"
"Then I shall bid you both, goodbye."
Once Professor Flanders had left the morgue, Sean the pathologist, patted Robert's shoulder. "I am very sorry about your loss, son. I could give you laudanum or some such thing but I think this might be much better." He rummaged in one of the cupboards and handed Robert a small bottle. "There you go, son. One of the finest whisky you'll ever taste; straight from my hometown."
Robert took the bottle and returned to his room. Staring at McCoy's part of the room, he held the whisky bottle in his hands, feeling numb.
The funeral was surprisingly soon, considering the circumstances. Professor Flanders and his lovely daughter were in attendance as well. She looked a little sad but not grieved like one would expect her to be, after having lost the man she had been in love with.
Maybe Robert had been wrong on the account of their affair, too. He really should have made an effort to talk to his friend, before jumping to conclusions.
"I am sorry for your loss," Miss Flanders said, when she approached him after the service.
Her father stood a little further away, talking to his colleagues, so they were out of earshot of him and anyone else.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Fanny asked softly.
"I think the only thing to help right now would be to find out the truth," Robert replied, although he knew it was hopeless.
"About his death, you mean?" Fanny gave him a pitying look. She reached out as if she wanted to touch his hand but remembered the rules of propriety and retracted it again.
"Sometimes," she continued. "It is a better solace to be left in the dark than to be confronted with the gruesome truth."
"I am not so faint-hearted –"
"I never accused you of such a thing," her soothing voice interrupted him. "I am merely stating that, trust me because when I say this, I mean it from the depths of my heart, you do not wish to know."
Robert's eyes lit up. "Are you implying you know the truth? Why haven't you spoken to anyone about this?"
"I do not know what you are speaking of," she said, shooting nervous glances in the direction of her father.
"Again, I present you with my condolences and must advice you to remain indoors at night from now on, for your own safety or you might find yourself sharing the fate of your friend. Good day, sir."
Before Robert spoke another word, she had returned to the side of her father, who gave him a reproachful look.
That night Robert could not sleep, no matter how many time he tossed and turned in his bed. The bottle of whisky still stood untouched on his bedside table.
Again and again Fanny Flanders flashed before Robert's eyes and he kept thinking, why would she walk about the town alone at night if she knew the truth about the deaths, a truth so terrible she did not dare tell him?
Robert sighed and turned over again, so he was facing the empty bed of his dead best friend.
What if she was foolish enough to go out into the darkness tonight? What would stop the monster responsible for all these deaths from attacking her?
Sheer terror filled him at the thought of her being faced with the same fate as McCoy. He could not let it happen. Robert refused to be responsible for another death of one of his friends.
He pulled on his boots and walked outside. The air was crisp but the sky clear enough of clouds to illuminate his path. It might have even been full moon.
Lost in his contemplations, he walked through the village. He did not pay any attention to where his feet were leading him, as long as it was not right into the deadly cold sea.
Some time later, it could have been minutes or hours, he found himself standing in front of a familiar house. In his innermost thoughts, he was still obsessed with the mystery of Fanny Flanders, for it was her house, in front of which he found himself.
A movement near the door tore him from his contemplations. Nothing more than a hedgehog. At least that was what he had wanted to believe.
Then the door opened and a figure in a dark gown and a large bonnet emerged. Whatever was Miss Flanders up to?
She had not seen him as she hurried past where he stood leaning against a tree. He decided to follow her and uncover her secret.
Fanny moved in the shadows, her skirts were raised so high they revealed her ankles, stealthily as ever. Robert stopped at the entrance to the graveyard, into which had she vanished. There were other cloaked figures waiting for her.
One of them handed her a strange object Robert could not identify, although it was illuminated by the torches her companions carried.
Then Fanny joined the others around the recently dug grave of McCoy. Robert could not see what happened then. There were too many of them and his sight was blocked by the ruins of the cathedral.
Robert rubbed his hands together. Due to the lack of movement, the cold was creeping into his bones. Maybe he should have brought the whisky after all. Robert was shifting his weight restlessly to warm himself, by the time something interesting was happening in the graveyard.
The figures moved into a line, before they set out to leave the graveyard in single file.
Robert jumped behind one of the low stonewalls and watched them as they walked past.
At the front were two men, marching solemnly with torches in their hands. In-between them, leading this strange procession, was Fanny Flanders. In her hands she carried what looked like a trowel.
Behind her followed four men who carried a small coffin on top of a stretcher. At the rear, Professor Flanders and his friend Sean the pathologist walked. They each had a Bible clutched against their chests.
Stunned by this strange occurrence, Robert followed them some yards behind.
Eventually, they reached an empty piece of meadow, next to the Flanders' house. Reminiscent of the church, which once stood there, was one single archway with a cross engraved on it.
The procession walked through this very archway, stopping for a moment to watch the coffin pass through it with worried glances.
They sat down the coffin and dug a hole, before lowering the coffin into it and covering it in earth again. Afterwards, they stood in a circle and it looked like Professor Flanders was reading from his Bible.
The men left. Professor Flanders spoke with his daughter, patted her hand and walked away, too. When they had all gone, Fanny knelt on the ground. With the aid of the trowel, she planted flowers she had pulled from her voluminous overcoat.
Robert decided to approach her. She must have known he was there, for when he came to stand behind her, she was not startled.
"I thought I advised you to stay at home tonight, Robert," she said, while planting a flower, which might have been red but it was difficult to tell in the darkness.
"Why did you not take your own advice?"
"Oh Robert," she said and patted down the earth around the freshly planted flower. "I tried so hard to shield you from this truth."
"I don't want to be shielded," he protested.
"And this is why I have to tell you the truth."
Robert looked at her in surprise. He had not expected her to acquiesce so easily.
"Let's sit." Fanny took a seat on a bench against their wall and waited for Robert to follow suit, before she continued, "Have you ever heard of the Free Lodge of the Gardening Society?"
Robert shook his head.
"It would have surprised me. We are a highly secretive and exclusive society. It is against our strict rules to reveal our identity to any outsiders. However, I shall make an exception for you. I hope I can trust you to keep our secrets safe?"
"I swear," Robert promised, eager to finally find at the truth, no matter under what conditions.
"Very well," she stared at the trowel she twirled in her hands. "Usually, we are an exceedingly peaceful society, dedicated to brightening the world with our gardening. Through an intricate history of events, with which I shan't confuse you, another responsibility has fallen into our hands. It's to keep people safe from vampires."
"Vampires?" Robert repeated.
He wanted to laugh but Miss Flanders looked entirely serious.
"My father tells me you guessed as much at the morgue."
"McCoy was killed by vampires?"
While the sentence was grammatically correct, its contents made no sense to Robert.
"Not quite," Fanny elaborated. "There was an unfortunate accident with one of the victims he examined, resulting in him becoming a vampire himself."
Robert could not believe his ears. Vampires were a legend and yet it seemed more logical than any other explanation he had encountered.
"I am so sorry, I really am," Fanny said and took his hand.
Her skin was warm, in spite of the cold air. Her touch was soothing to his confused mind.
"Mr McCoy agreed it was for the best," Fanny said and squeezed his hand. "I made sure it was a quick death and as painless as possible."
"You…killed…McCoy," Robert blurted out the words separately in disbelieve.
"I am very, very sorry," Fanny repeated. "Mr McCoy agreed it had to be done."
This must have all been a nightmare, Robert thought and yet continued to pry out the truth. "Who was the vampire who started this misery?"
"Do not concern yourself with their identity," she said, stroking his hand. "Let yourself be assured they were dealt with in a dignified and just manner."
"But why do you do it?" Robert asked. "Killing vampires?"
"We are one of the few to know. Therefore it is our duty to ensure in a just manner that vampirism does not spread."
"Is this what this procession was about tonight?"
Fanny did not look surprised he had witnessed the event.
"For a vampire to be killed, their head has to be separated from the body. We buried it here on sacred ground to ensure McCoy's live-less undead body does not haunt anyone."
"You planted those flowers to mark his grave, then?" Robert observed.
"They are to symbolize, although the body dies, the spirit lives on and from every tragedy something beautiful can come to life."
She turned toward Robert, the trowel still clutched in her right hand. "Unfortunately, all lives end and some sooner than we might expect."
With forceful movements, she stabbed Robert's neck with the surprisingly sharp tip twice, creating two puncture wounds over his carotid artery.
Robert reeled back. Instinctively, he pressed the palm of his left hand against his neck to stop the blood flowing.
"Why?" he croaked.
"Tsk, tsk, still so dim-witted and yet unendingly curious," Fanny chastised as she wiped the blood from her trowel by rubbing against the corner of Robert's coat.
His bloodied hand began to slip from his neck. With a gurgling sound, he rasped once more. "Why?"
"Is it not obvious?" Fanny pocketed the trowel. "I already told you our secret mission must be kept silent at all costs. In fact, I warned you repeatedly against trying to find out the truth but you wouldn't listen. Once you voiced your suspicions in the morgue, it became clear that we would have to kill you."
His vision blurred. With immense effort, he managed to croak, "Could…have…trusted…me."
"Trusted you?" Fanny gave a dark laugh. "I'd be a fool to trust you. You should be grateful I was merciful enough to tell you the truth, before killing you."
Dazed from the speedy blood loss as his blood flowed and sprayed from the wounds, Robert wheezed, "But…Fanny…my love."
"I am not your love," Miss Flanders snarled and with a well-placed foot at the centre of his chest, she kicked him to the ground.
There, Robert remained, lying motionlessly. His blood spilled unto the recently planted flowers, watering them with crimson droplets.
As life completely left his body, his last thought was of Fanny Flanders, gardener and vampire hunter.