Gregor began opening his daughter’s bedroom door, then backed up and knocked. This had to be done correctly from step one.
“Yeah?” Connie asked.
Gregor opened the door to Connie’s bedroom, a word that wasn’t entirely accurate anymore. It was a room and there was a bed in it, but the place had become something of a temple to the delusion that Dr. Murry feared. Gregor feared it too. Movie posters covered one wall. Posters for the books covered another. A shrine to Robert Pattinson grew from beside the bed, covered in scented candles and crowned by a poster of him. He was a person, a normal, human person, and Gregor wouldn’t have minded so much if Connie had a crush on him. Gregor had been known to crush on Pamela Anderson back in those mythic days when he was a teenager. But Connie wasn’t interested in Robert Pattinson. He was simply an idea given flesh, a conduit for the delusion, and even Gregor knew the movies were falling out of the light for Connie and her friends. They wanted the real thing.
Connie glanced up long enough to see that her visitor wasn’t her mother and then her eyes sank back to the little screen in her hands. “Can you not yell at me if you gotta be in here?”
“Anything for you,” Gregor said, and he meant it more than he sounded. He was trying. He wanted to make small talk with her, but all that came to mind was playful ragging about how staring at the smartphone so long would shrivel her eyes. He wanted to ask about school, but she only told her mother about that side of her life. There was nothing to do but jump straight in.
“I talked to a travel agent a minute ago,” he said. “Pack a bag.”
Now he had her eyes. “Am I getting sent to the loony bin?”
“We have loony bins locally.” Gregor smiled. “You and I are going on a trip. To Italy.”
Connie’s eyes sparkled. “When?”
“Tomorrow morning, right away. Your mom okay’d it and gave me your passport. Last minute trip. Just like in that movie you like, right?”
“And the book. Just us?”
“Because we need it.” Gregor glanced away. He was so unused to Connie’s giving eye contact that her gaze felt overpowering. I need it.
They left Baltimore in the early morning, transferred in France, and landed in Verona International Airport. For the first time in a long time, Connie scarcely touched her smartphone, and even when she did, it was only to take photos. Gregor wondered if he should have brought her a camera, but it was all too short notice. That was the point. This was supposed to be an adventure, the kind of trip that would hopefully bring father and daughter closer and maybe prove that Dr. Murry’s degree didn’t mean she understood people.
Connie bounced onto the hotel bed. “Are we getting a driver?”
“No, I can handle the left side of the road,” Gregor said, setting their bags down.
“How about me?”
Gregor smirked, then Connie smirked, and then they both laughed. He wasn’t known for great ideas, mostly for a booming voice and a hard head, but every dog has his day. Gregor was greedy enough to have a weekend.
“We’re not gonna see a lot in two days,” Connie said.
“There’s too much for even a month in this country,” Gregor said. “My father took me three times and we barely scratched the surface.”
“Can we visit Volterra?”
“You know, I’m not sure that’s a real place. Why don’t you look it up and tell me, and if it is, we’ll make that our third day. That’s Connie’s day. We’ll do whatever you want.”
Connie beamed and didn’t dive for her smartphone. “What about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, we have some sights to see, kiddo. Family stuff. And we have an early start, so let’s get some food and try to get our sleep straightened out from all that time zone crap.”
Connie giggled and hurried past him, into the hall that led to the hotel’s dining room. Gregor watched her a moment before following. It felt so nice to do something right for a change. Nobody warned him before he became a father just how hard it was to get anything right when you have kids. He had to savor every moment before they went back home where he seemed to fare daily.
By mid-morning the next day, Gregor was pulling a white rental car toward a scattering of empty, shattered wooden houses in an overgrown field of the Italian countryside. He parked in the grass and stepped out of the car.
“This used to be the center of a farming community in your great-grandfather’s time,” Gregor said.
“And now it’s nothing,” Connie said. “Why are we seeing this when there’s so many famous places to see?”
“Because this was where your great-grandfather lived.”
Connie quietly exited the car and approached the village. Tall grass scraped her jeans. “These were the buildings?” she asked, kneeling. Her hands reached for a hunk of wood at her feet and then she snapped them away with a yelp, sticking one finger in her mouth.
“What was it?” Gregor asked.
“A wood beam,” Connie said. “I’m okay. It’s sharp.”
“Some of the wood is newer,” Gregor said, watching Connie wipe her finger on a tissue. “Every decade or two, some rich moron or development company buys the land and tries to build on it. They never can. What they build falls apart, their men get sick. Nothing goes right, so they abandon the project, sell it back to the real estate company, and eventually the next guy will call along and make the same mistake.”
“Why can’t they build?”
Gregor smiled. Connie’s tone didn’t sound bored. She genuinely wanted to know. “Because Great-Grandpa Russo did something here that cursed the spot. There are plenty of cursed places in Europe, and a few in Italy. The penalty for doing what he did on Italian land was excommunication from the church and expulsion from the country. This place here is why you grew up in the U.S. and not Italy. My grandfather had to leave, and he took his wife with him.”
“So what was it?” Connie asked, growing impatient. “An orgy?”
Gregor laughed. “No.”
“Did he kill a person?”
“Close. He did kill, but it wasn’t a person. It was a vampire.”
Connie’s eyes widened. “He killed a—”
“A vampire.” Gregor brushed aside a patch of tall grass. “That wasn’t the problem. It was how he killed it that the Bishop didn’t like. Hunters were supposed to trick them into sunlight, where they would be weaker and easier to kill, and then stab the monster’s heart with a wooden or silver blade. Your great-grandfather was in a hard place. The vampire had been here for days already, had two women marching to his tune. It was too well-entrenched to be lured into sunlight through starvation. There had to be a night fight, when the vampire was most potent. Your great-grandfather cut off its feet, its arms, cut into its guts. He killed its two women and eventually cut off its head.” Gregor turned to Connie and gazed into her attentive eyes. “He lost an eye and three fingers. Got half his body covered in burns. Nerve damage killed the motor function in his left arm. None of that mattered to the Bishop. He was excommunicated before he was even strong enough to stand. One of the only men who stood up to a vampire at night and not only lived to tell about it, but won, and he was punished for it.”
Connie lowered her head, taking short breaths. “So they’re real? Vampires are for real?”
“Yes.” Gregor knelt and spread apart a twisted nest of weeds. “It was right here.”
Connie couldn’t scramble over fast enough. Amid the bent stalks and roots stood a silver peg six inches tall, dug into the ground.
“That goes down several feet, down to where they buried its remains. This is our family’s legacy. Your great-grandfather visited to tell your grandfather and he told me. Now I’ve told you. Our family used to hunt monsters.”
“Yes.” Gregor stood. “I’m sorry I waited so long to tell you, but things have changed. I was eight when my dad brought me here and I thought it was cool. Since then, there hasn’t been a need for hunting. So I didn’t tell you and I wasn’t going to. It didn’t seem necessary. I know it must be hard at your age.”
“You could’ve told me at home,” Connie said. “You didn’t need to show me a silver stick in the ground. I would’ve believed you. You brought me all this way for something else.”
Gregor nodded and his mouth opened. He wanted to say he’d brought her because he loved her, which was true, and he wanted to spend time with her, which was also true, and that he wanted to have a trip that might bring them closer together, which was absolutely, undeniably true. But that wasn’t what Connie meant and he knew it. “We have one more sight to see.”
White walls gazed at Gregor from beneath a burning bright sun, and told him his family wasn’t welcome. He showed his identification to a guard, who said otherwise. The white walls surrounded two small doors. Gregor pushed them open and entered. Connie followed. She hadn’t spoken on the trip from the field with a forgotten name to the building that officially never had one and could be found on no map. The men here dubbed the place the Ivory Monastery. They were not monks.
Gregor didn’t bother his daughter on the way. She needed some space to process what she had learned. That she had asked that magic question, “Vampires are for real?” was a hope that she hadn’t even believed in them until that moment. Dr. Murry was wrong. Connie wasn’t so far gone. Her father was beating down the delusion and the Ivory Monastery would provide the final blow.
“My father took me here too,” he said as they entered. “Just once, and years after he and your great-grandfather told me about the family history. I wasn’t old enough to be here on my first visit to Italy, but you are.”
“Can I ask Grandpa about this stuff when we go back?” Connie asked.
“I don’t know how much he would want to say, but he would love a phone call from you. Maybe you can coax him into talking.” And then we could stop being a family of loners, Gregor thought.
The two men at the front doors wore black robes. Gregor didn’t tell Connie that they hid semi-automatic machine guns under their monk guises. The less she had to deal with these men, the better. They came from all over—ex-cops, ex-military, ex-bounty hunters, ex-mercenaries, ex-con. None of them officially had professions anymore, but they were well-paid and their families would be cared for should they die defending the Ivory Monastery from the outside world.
The inside appeared small and humble, a suitable environment for a cluster of monks disconnected from society and the modern world. Hardly anyone noticed the lack of farmland that Benedictine monks would’ve relied on centuries ago or the solar panels on the roof, and no one noticed the elevator hidden at the back of the main room. Gregor led Connie inside what had looked like an open alcove and she grabbed his arm when the descent began.
A guard joined the two at the bottom and walked beside Gregor, forcing Connie behind him. He wasn’t dressed in a monk’s robe, but black combat fatigues. He asked Gregor a few intrusive questions, raising his voice once, but didn’t stick around long.
“You speak Italian?” Connie asked.
“I do,” Gregor said. “Though that was Romanian. There are facilities like this all over Europe, more in the east.” He glanced back at Connie and slowed down so she could walk beside him again. “Do you know what it’s for?” She shook her head. “People like your grandfather and great-grandfather aren’t needed these days. Vampires don’t roam the world anymore, and if any do, they’ve blended in with people.”
“There probably aren’t any, but that doesn’t mean they’re extinct. Most have been killed.” Gregor looked at her. “But we have one here.”
“The last vampire in the world,” Connie said.
“There are more, but it’s too dangerous to keep them together. One per facility.”
“Why? What do they do?”
“They’re kept to be studied, to be punished. To make sure they can’t hurt people.”
“Aren’t they people?” Connie asked.
Gregor paused in his step. “You need to see it. When you do, you’ll understand.”