So Jason was now consulting for a vampire...
Chapter 11: Personal History
"All right," I said, "you can meet people in the daytime if necessary. Just not a good thing to do often. That's great—there are a lot of things, like signing papers, getting permits, and so on, that are close to impossible to manage if you can't get the principal to make himself available when other people are."
I was going over the notes I'd gotten that night, while Verne answered my questions and read the work-for-hire agreement. "Yes, I understand that," Verne confirmed. "I will certainly make myself available for official meetings in the daytime, but would strongly prefer such things be very few and far between. By the way, I admire your wording in this agreement—making clear that part of your job is to take into consideration my special requirements, while being so utterly generic that someone getting a look at this agreement wouldn't think anything of it."
I grinned. "Wish I could take credit for that one, but I stole most of the wording from similar agreements for people with disabilities." I stood up. "Okay, let's take a look around your house here. Sometimes what you see in a man's home gives you ideas—I'm assuming you keep at least some things around because you like them, not just for show."
"Indeed I do. Most things are for my enjoyment, or that of my people." Verne rose also and began to lead me on a tour of the house.
Verne Domingo's "house" was one of the only ones I'd ever visited that deserved the apellation "mansion." It rose a full three stories, sprawled across a huge area of land, and had at least one basement level (given my host's nature, I was not at all sure that there weren't parts of the house, above or below ground, which were being concealed). His staff numbered twelve; thirteen, if you counted Morgan. He seemed wryly amused at the coincidence of the number, and noted to me that it had been that way for at least three hundred years. "Therefore," he said, "you must forgive me for putting little stock in triskaidekaphobia."
"So none of your staff is less than three hundred years old?" I asked, trying to get my brain around the concept.
"Not precisely. What has happened is that, on the occasions I have lost a member of my household over the past few centuries, I have quickly found a replacement. This number seems to be suited to my requirements for efficiency, comfort, and security. My youngest, in fact, you have met — Hitoshi Mori is scarcely seventy-five years old, and has been in my service for forty-two years."
"Morgan, I know, can work during the day. So they aren't vampires like yourself, right?"
Verne nodded, pausing to point out the engravings which were spaced evenly around the walls of this room. "It is possible for someone such as myself to bind others to my essence—allowing them to partake of the power that makes me what I am—without giving them all the limitations of the life I follow. Naturally, they do not gain all the advantages, either."
Morgan shook his head, opening the next door for us. "No, sir. We do have a preference for meat, given a choice—our metabolism, to use the modern terms, seems to use more protein and so on. We gain immortality, some additional strengths and resistances, but nothing like the powers accorded to Master Verne."
"This is my library, Jason," Verne said as we entered another large room, with tall windows that admitted moonlight in stripes across the carpet before it was banished by Morgan's finger on the switch for the overhead lights. "One of them, to be more precise. This contains those works which might be commonly consulted, or read for pleasure, and which are not so unusual or valuable as to require special treatment."
The other three walls were covered with bookshelves—long, very tall bookshelves. A runner for one of the moving book-ladders I'd seen in some bookstores ran the entire circumference of the room, aside from the one window-covered wall. Other tall shelves stood at intervals across the room, with a large central space for tables and chairs. Two people were there now, one taking notes from a large volume in front of him, the other leaning back in her chair, reading a newspaper. "Ah, Camillus, Meta, good evening."
The two had gotten swiftly to their feet upon seeing that Verne had entered. Camillus was the one who'd led the three-man assault team that had kidnapped me; a man of average height, slightly graying brown hair, brown eyes, and the wide shoulders and bearing of a career soldier; despite a strongly hooked nose, I was sure that Syl would have rated the tanned, square-faced Camillus highly on looks. Meta was a young lady—or, I amended, a young-looking lady—whose height matched Camillus', but whose long, inky-black hair very nearly matched her skin shade. Despite that, her eyes were a quite startling gray-blue, and her features were sharp and even, giving her a look of aristocratic elegance that made questions of beauty almost inconsequential.
"No need to rise," Verne said with a smile, "But since you are up, please say hello to Jason Wood."
"Mr. Wood." Camillus' grip was as strong as I would have expected. "Domingo's spoken of you quite a bit of late. My apologies for a certain… comment on your prior meeting?"
I grinned. "As long as the threat's withdrawn, sure."
"It is forgotten, then. Let me know if there's anything I can do to assist."
"Sure," I said. "What exactly do you do?"
"I'm the master-at-arms and in charge of security here," he responded.
I noted the nature of the material scattered around his side of the table and grinned. "And how do you feel about that?"
He understood exactly what I meant and grinned back. "You have me there. By all the gods, security has changed in the past century! At least in the old days the common man didn't have access to sorcery; nowadays, you can pick up one of these," he gestured at several home electronics catalogs, "and order up something with the eyes of an eagle and the hearing of a bat that will send all it sees and hears right back to you."
"Well, I noticed the security setup you have here; it's not bad for a man who seems to still be playing catch-up on the century."
He acknowledged the comment with a bow. "Mostly done on contractor recommendations. I'm not comfortable, though, with having anything in the house that I don't understand."
"Then ask me; once I've got Verne's problem out of the way, I'll be glad to bring you up to speed; I've got plenty of resources in the security area."
"I'll do that." he said, smiling. "Oh, sir," he said, looking at Verne, "Carmichael sent a pretty pissed-off message to you. I don't like the tone of it."
The two of them went off a ways to discuss Carmichael. I turned to Meta and shook her hand. "And your position here is… ?"
"I suppose you might call me… librarian? Archivist? Something of that sort." Her grip was much more gentle, though not a limp fish by any means.
"Ah, so I'm in your territory here."
She smiled. "It is of course Master Domingo's, but I have jurisdiction as he allows."
Meta and Verne let me wander the library for a few minutes; it was rather instructive, I thought, to see just what Verne thought of as "not unusual or valuable enough" to warrant being kept elsewhere. Even with my relatively limited knowledge of books, I noted several items on the shelves that would easily bring in several hundred dollars if sold.
The next hour or so of the tour passed without notable events—the other staff might be sleeping or out for the evening, but whatever the reason I didn't run into any more.
Finally, Verne led me down a wide flight of stairs into the basement, which was as high-ceilinged and opulently furnished as the downstairs but had clearly greater security. "And here is my bedroom."
"Wait a minute. I thought you said that room on the second floor was your bedroom?"
"My show bedroom—the one that visitors of most sorts will be told is my bedroom, if they have any occasion to ask or discover it. I can rest there, if necessary, but here, enclosed in the earth itself, I am better protected."
The room was very large; I was vaguely disappointed not to see a classic pedestal supporting an open, velvet-lined coffin, but instead there was a huge four-poster bed with heavy curtains about it. Several small bookshelves stood at intervals along the walls, along with some large and oddly elaborate frames for paintings, a desk and chairs, a fair-sized entertainment center, and two wardrobes. Besides the paintings there were a few other objects on the wall, most of them weapons of one kind or another. I wandered around the room, studying these things carefully. The oddity of the painting frames became clear when I realized they were double-sealed frames—museum quality, for preserving fragile materials against the ravages of time. Probably nitrogen-filled.
"So, Jason," Verne said finally, "Does anything occur to you?"
I rubbed my chin. "I'm getting something of an idea, it's just being stubborn and refusing to gel. I need just one more thing to trigger it. Unfortunately, I haven't got any idea what that one more thing is."
"Well, I have saved the part I believe you will find most entertaining for last," Verne said. "It is of course natural that I would place those things I value most in the most secure area. Here is the entry to my vault—a small museum, if you will." He led the way to another room, relatively small and undecorated, whose far wall was dominated by a no-nonsense, massive door of the sort suitable for banks and government secure areas. Verne placed his hand on a polished area near the door, then punched in a number on a keypad and turned the large handle. The door opened onto another set of stairs going down to a landing which ended in another door – also clearly strong, though nothing like the several-foot-thick monster Verne had just swung open. I paused, but he gestured me down. "Go first, Jason. I think you will find it more effective to see it without my leading the way."
I shrugged, then went down the steps. As I reached for the door handle, I saw it turn and push inward, as though grasped by an invisible hand. I felt the prickle of gooseflesh as I realized that this wasn't any cute gadgetry, but a subtle demonstration of Verne Domingo's powers, clearly for the effect. I felt myself momentarily immersed in something mystical, standing at the edge of ancient mysteries. The black door swung open, into inky darkness. Then the same unseen force switched on the lights.
I can't remember what I said; I think I may have gasped something incomprehensible. What I do know is that I stood for what seemed an eternity, staring.
In that first instant, the room was ablaze with the sunlight sheen of gold, the glitter of gems, the glow of inlay and paint so fresh it might have been finished only yesterday. At first I couldn't even grasp the sheer size of the vault's collection; it wasn't possible, simply wasn't even imaginable that so many artifacts and treasures could be here, beneath a mansion in upstate New York.
Once more a quote from long-ago years surfaced: Lord Carnevon to Howard Carter as Carter took the first look into the tomb of Tutankhamen: "What do you see?"
And Howard's response: "Wonderful things."
There were statues of animal-headed gods, resplendent in ebony and gold, bedecked with jewelled inlay. A wall filled with incised hieroglyphics provided a sufficient backdrop to set off coffers of jewelry, ceremonial urns, royal chariots. Farther down, beyond what was obviously the Egyptian collection, were carefully hung paintings, marble statues, books and scrolls in glass cases, something at the far end that shimmered like a blown-glass rainbow…
I stepped slowly forward, almost afraid that the entire fantastic scene would disappear like smoke. I reached out, very hesitantly, and touched a finger to the golden nose of a sitting dog.
"From the chambers of Ramses II," Verne said from behind me, almost making me jump. "His tomb was looted quite early, as things go; I managed to procure a large number of the artifacts, which was fortunate since otherwise they would have been melted down or defaced for valuable inlay and so on."
I just shook my head, trying to take it in. Ramses… II? "That's the one they associate with Moses?"
I walked cautiously around this first incredible chamber, stopping at a huge sarcophagus. The golden face rang a faint bell, which was odd because there were very few Egyptian nobles I'd ever seen statues or busts of. What… I studied some of the symbology, not that I was an authority or even much of an amateur in the field, but because maybe something would trigger a memory. As an information expert, it's a matter of pride to get the answers yourself, even if it's by luck.
There! That disc, the rays…
My head snapped up and I looked at Verne in disbelief. "No. It can't be."
He inclined his own. "Can't be… what?"
"Ahkenaten. That's the Aten, and it's all over here. And I've seen a couple busts supposed to be of him. But I thought they found his mummy."
He smiled faintly. "I did hear that someone had found something they believed to be Akhenaten's mummy. Since this has never been out of my, or my people's, possession since shortly after finding out that the Sun-Pharoah's tomb was being looted, I must incline to doubt that what they found was indeed Akhenaten."
It was then that the idea finally crystallized. "Good God, Verne, I've got it."
He looked at me. "What is it?"
"Art, of course!" I waved my hands around at the treasures that surrounded us. "The art world can be tolerant of strange hours and stranger habits. You've already got stuff to sell or donate—no, wait, hear me out. You speak many languages, you certainly have various connections around the world, and, well, you appear to have taste and style which I don't have. You could deal in rare artworks, maybe be a patron to newer artists, and so on."
Verne looked thoughtful. "True. I have in fact been a student of the arts, off and on through the centuries; I could determine authenticity in many ways, not the least being firsthand experience of how many things were actually done. Even though I would not, of course, wish to reveal the source of that information, simply knowing the correct from the incorrect is something that I could justify with the proper scholarly logic."
"Yep. It's always easier to write the impeccable logical chain to prove your point if you already know where you're going."
"But selling these masterworks… I have kept them safe for thousands of years, Jason. Do not speak lightly of this."
"I'm not taking it lightly, not at all," I said earnestly. "Verne, these things would rock the archaeological world—and I haven't even looked in the rest of this vault; to be honest, I'm almost afraid of what I'll find. Stuff of this historical and cultural value should be out there for other people to appreciate. Hell, just the aesthetic value would justify putting it out there on the proper market. Okay, it's impolite at the least to go around breaking into someone's tomb and ripping off their stuff, but since it was done long ago, shouldn't the work of those ancient artists at least have the chance to be fully appreciated?"
Verne's expression was pained; a man listening to someone trying to tell him to give up his children wouldn't have looked much more upset. Then Morgan spoke.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but I think Master Jason is correct."
Verne just looked at him, silent but questioning.
"If you truly wish to open yourself up, as you once were, sir, I think this means not keeping everything locked away. Not just your feelings, sir, but those things of beauty which we treasure. We have guarded them long enough, sir." He gave another look that I had trouble interpreting; it seemed filled with more meaning than I could easily interpret, something from their past. "We already know of someone whose love of beauty and fear for its fate transformed him… in ways that I would not wish to see happen to you."
Those last words got through to Verne; he gave a momentary shiver, as of a man doused with cold water. "Yes… Yes, Morgan. Perhaps you are right." He turned back to me, speaking in a more normal tone. "Your idea certainly has merit, Jason. I shall consider it carefully, and discuss it with my household. I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to examine the best ways for me to begin on such a course of action."
"Sure," I said, wondering if I'd ever quite know what was going on there. "I suppose I'll leave you to it, then."
I cast a last, incredulous glance over my shoulder at that vault of wonders, then headed up the stairs.