Albert hummed mindlessly as he shaved then dressed in his best, though slightly threadbare, tweed suit. He had arranged to take the day off work so he could meet with the Countess, though the address in the note seemed odd. He could not remember an inn or hotel along Dalmaziquai; only a desolate park and empty waterfront warehouses. It was not the best section of town. As he tied his necktie, he mused about just who this Countess might be and how she might help him further his efforts into the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time.
Albert wondered why the meeting place was at the Maison De Fleur in the obscure waterfront. He shrugged and dismissed his thought as he locked the door to his flat.
Victoria waited impatiently for Albert to arrive. Two days earlier, she had taken the short trip from Baden-Baden to Bern and secured a hotel room. With a black veil shrouding her face and using the name Frau Schmidt, she had arranged with the proprietor of the Maison De Fleur for a buffet. If the man had been at all puzzled by her mysterious ways, he did not show it. Bern’s elite often used the nondescript accommodation for their secret liaisons. There were ten suites in a row along the avenue, each with a private street entrance.
Wanting to avoid a poor first impression, Albert arrived fifteen minutes early. He checked to make sure his clothes were correctly arranged, took a breath and knocked on the black wooden door adorned with the brass number 69.
When the Countess opened the door, the scent of the exotic French perfume from the letter he had received greeted him. Standing in a draped black silk gown and holding an ornate, golden-handled cane, she motioned for her visitor to enter. Albert stepped into the salon while she closed the door and locked it with a skeleton key. Albert took note, but quickly let any concerns slip from his mind as he looked around the large room. The intimate parlor had an antique Chippendale sofa covered in Chinese yellow satin, a low coffee table in front of it with a bottle of claret and two crystal wine glasses. At the end of the coffee table, two popular magazines and a neatly folded newspaper were tastefully arrayed. Beyond the couch was a rectangular walnut dining table with a sumptuous spread of cold meats, cheeses, fruit, butter, and bread next to two more bottles of wine and two crystal goblets. A pair of yellow satin-covered armchairs and a beautifully hand-carved desk with some papers neatly stacked on it sat in the other corner of the room. Paintings of landscapes and Oriental tapestries adorned the walls, and fresh flowers on the desk and side tables provided the suite with an additional level of elegance. To top thing off, a majestic, eight-foot-tall potted philodendron sat in a delicately ornate porcelain planter against the wall near the desk.
Victoria prepared for her performance. I will play with my prey before I deliver the coup de grâce, she thought. Albert stood near the dining table and felt his heartbeat quicken as his beautiful host limped with her cane toward him.
She smiled at him. “Thank you for coming to see me, Herr Einstein. I hoped we might relax and enjoy a quiet talk. I dislike noisy restaurants with so many nosy people. I much prefer a more... intimate setting.” She paused, letting the sentence hang, fraught with implication. Albert swallowed, starting to feel a little uncomfortable.
The Countess pressed on. “Please, help yourself to this modest fare. Would you be so kind as to pour me a glass of wine?”
“Of course, Countess,” Albert walked over and, poured two glasses of claret and handed one to his hostess. The food was impressive, but Albert’s only hunger was for financing his research. “Perhaps I will enjoy the repast later,” he said, taking the wine bottle and his glass and moving toward the armchair at the end of the dining table.
“As you will,” the Countess said, taking the second bottle of wine. Victoria strode to the armchair opposite her guest at the head of the dining table. She took another sip of wine as Albert opened the conversation. “I was surprised that anyone outside the scientific community knew of my work. Is there something specific that interests you?” Albert took a taste of wine and waited to hear the Countess’s answer. Victoria settled back into the armchair feigning nonchalance and gestured toward Albert with her wineglass. “I am interested in talent, Herr Einstein.
Albert waited, not sure where the Countess was going with this.
“Have you heard the works of Maestro Travalio?”
Albert nodded and took a small sip of his wine.
“Good. I encountered the Maestro just out of the university when he was still naïve and enthusiastic, aspiring to do wondrous symphonies. As his patroness, I paid him to compose music. I even managed his early concerts. Otherwise had I not taken him under my wing, he would have been compelled to accept dull-witted music students or take a job waiting tables. His spirit would have been crushed, and he would, today, be a nobody.” Victoria took another sip of her wine and watched Albert over the rim of her glass.
Albert raised his eyebrows. “I have heard of Herr Travalio. But I am no musician.”
The Countess nodded, taking a larger sip of her wine. She was enjoying enticing the young fool into her web of deceit and lies. “No, but my friends say you are a gifted scientist. What if you didn't have to be a clerk in a patent office? What is your real passion?”
How much could the Countess understand? Albert wondered. His mind raced, then he decided to just plunge in. “My research involves unifying concepts of electromagnetism, kinetic theory, and thermodynamics to discover unique approaches of using light and energy.” He paused, waiting for her reaction.
The Countess smiled attentively pretending to understand at least part of what he had just said. She began savoring the game and planned to prolong it a while longer. “That sounds fascinating Herr Einstein. But I am no scientist. Could you explain your research in layman’s terms?”
Albert grimaced, but if what he had just stated did not turn the Countess away, maybe there was hope of her funding his work. Albert smiled and refilled the Countess’s wine glass. The scientist took in a deep breath and continued his lecture of the essential components of his work.
As Albert droned on, the Countess found herself losing patience. The chase was becoming tiring. Even so, she told herself that she must suffer to the conclusion of his commentary to affect her plan. To endure the boredom, the Countess filled her wine glass time and again. By the time Albert had reached the end of his discourse, Victoria had decided it was time to get on with her plan to seize the compass despite having become woozier than she had planned to.
Taking the last drink from her glass, she set it down and looked at the young man. “Thank you for clarifying your work Herr Einstein,” Victoria said slightly slurring her words. “I believe the Einstein Theories are more than worthy of assistance from the Von Baden Trust.”
Albert could not hold back a smile. “I ... I’m honored, Countess.” Even though I suspect the wine had more to do with her decision than my discourse, he thought.
The Countess rose from the armchair holding the cane in her right hand. She took a few unsteady steps over to the carved desk and beckoned to Albert. "Please, Herr Einstein.”
Albert walked over to her as she pointed to the papers before her. “My lawyers prepared a contract," she said, signing at the bottom of one of the pages. "You simply need to endorse this, and we will proceed." She nudged the document toward Albert. "Please, give this your fullest attention. I expect you’ll find the terms satisfactory."
Excited by this change of fortune, Albert bent over the document and began reading. Next, to him, Victoria readied her lethal cane. The legal language was as alien to Albert as his scientific discourse had been to the Countess. Albert raised his head, and with a sheepish grin, he replied, “I’m certain everything is in order, Countess.”
"Herr Einstein, please, take your time." She gestured toward the documents, drawing out the anticipation a few minutes more. The playing with her prey was one of the best parts of a plot like this. Albert turned his attention again to the papers, but they made no more sense to him now than before After reading only a few lines, he took the fountain pen Victoria had left on the desk and began to sign his name. Before he could complete his signature, the number 33 flashed in front of Albert’s eyes. Startled, he dropped the pen and with a puzzled expression turned to Victoria. He was stunned; the number 33 confirmed his life was in jeopardy. "What is really going on here, Countess?"
Victoria was sneering, rocking slightly as she leaned toward the desk to steady herself, “You fool. I care nothing about your science. I have you here to regain my compass!”
Albert shook his head. “What do you mean your compass?” Sweat began to form on Albert’s brow as he began to realize the Countess might be mad and he might be in real jeopardy.
Victoria said as she waved her arms, “I am the reason that compass exists.”
Albert frowned trying to make sense of the woman’s ravings. “W-what do you mean?”
Victoria spat, "If it had not been for my father’s ignorance of the power of the compass your father could never have robbed me of it."
Albert’s sweaty brow furrowed, “What does my father have to do with this?”
Victoria answered, "My father traded my compass to your father for installing electric lights in our castle. "
Understanding dawned. “So, you want to take back the payment that my father earned? That’s crazy.”
Victoria rolled her eyes, "This is not about mere payment, Herr Einstein. It is about power. My mentor, Raka, is the most powerful creature on earth. He and I have been stalking you for years to regain my compass."
As he heard the name, Raka, a vision of Arka and Johann flashed in his mind so strongly that he staggered backward, away from the desk and the Countess. Memory flooded his mind, and he began to realize how much danger he was in. Fighting to regain his composure he said, “I realize that Raka has been near me many times...”
Victoria’s eyes widened, “You know of Raka?
Albert’s heart was now beating so hard he thought it would jump out of his chest. He wanted to run, but the Countess had moved between him and the door. He gulped and nodded.
Victoria responded with delight, “How droll. Raka has been my teacher for many years. He has shown me how to snare the weak and helpless,” she shook her head as if in pity, “like you. And execute them. I came after you myself because I tired of failure after failure and grew weary of waiting. So, here we are. I. Will. Have. My. Compass!”
The Countess raised the cane and slid back the metal plate that concealed its trigger. Cackling, she, pointed the stick it at a fern near the sideboard. “Here is a preview of the fate that awaits you, Herr scientist,” she said as she pulled the trigger. Albert stared, confused. Why was she pointing that cane at the plant he wondered?
A venom-coated needle struck a tall, vibrant philodendron in a large pot several feet away. Albert shook his head in bewilderment as he glanced at the Countess. Her eyes were firmly set on the plant. Albert turned to the plant again. In front of his eyes, it began to wilt. Then it blackened, its leaves shriveling and its stem drooping to the floor. As Albert watched terrified but fascinated, the plant’s vitality and life force evaporated, and it disintegrated into a pool of a viscous liquid in a matter of seconds.
Now horrified, Albert shifted his gaze back and forth between the plant and the Countess.
Victoria held out her right palm and declared, "Now hand over the compass, or you will end up like that houseplant,."
Shaken and confused, Albert glanced over to discover the unsteady Countess pointing her cane at him. Without thinking, Albert picked up the silver serving bowl cover from the nearby dining table and hurled it at the crazy woman. Drunk, the Countess reflexively held up her hands. As the massive metal dome hit her, it jarred the point of the cane down, and her finger slid along the trigger. With a snick, another needle left the tip of the rod and embedded itself in the top of her foot.
Victoria screamed in frustration and agony, “NOOO!” She flung the cane away and fell to the floor, clawing at the needle, pulling it from her flesh. Frantically she began kneading the top of her foot, squeezing out blood and venom. As the crimson pool beside her foot grew, her breathing calmed. “I think I have gotten the poison out in time. She looked up at Albert who was frozen, staring at the scene with horrific fascination.
“I will have my compass yet,” Victoria snarled at the young man, reaching toward him as she started to rise. Albert took a step backward and could only point.
The Countess frowned then looked to where Albert pointed. “Aaiieee!” she screamed as she saw that her foot was turning black and oozing with ichor. She began beating at the appendage, hoping to expel more of the toxin, “No, no, no, no…”
Despite her efforts, the blackness began crawling up her leg, accelerating with each ragged breath. In moments the foulness had traveled up her body, and Albert saw the flesh of the Countess’s neck shrivel and blacken. Her body could no longer support her, and the Countess collapsed as the toxin relentlessly ate away at her flesh, blood, and bones. In moments her body was reduced to a putrid-, gelatinous puddle, a sheer black dress in its midst.
The peril gone, Albert, horrified and nauseated, struggled to regain his wits. Emotionally exhausted, he plopped himself in the dining chair, ran his shaking fingers through his hair and strived to make sense of the horrible events of the last hours.
In a flash of insight, he realized that he needed to get out of this place and remove any trace of his having been there. The last thing he needed was to be connected to the Countess’s death – though he wondered if anyone would even know that the mess on the floor had been a human being, let alone the Countess Victoria von Baden.
Moving into his scientist persona, Albert began methodically erasing all evidence of his presence. When he had wiped clean all surfaces and objects he had touched, he snagged the dress from the puddle of slime with the Countess’s cane and carefully wrapped it in a newspaper from one of the tables. Looking over the room one last time, he satisfied himself that nothing remained that could connect him with the place. He went to the door and picked up the key from the table where the Countess had left it. He unlocked the door and cautiously glanced around. Seeing no one, he dropped the key into the bushes next to the entry and, with the cane and newspaper-wrapped dress, he stepped out onto the deserted street and walked away. In a short time, he came to an alley and threw the newspaper and clothing into the dirt.
He started to toss the cane after it but hesitated. It was beautifully crafted, and its length suited his stride. After a moment’s thought, he decided that there was no harm in keeping such a beautiful walking stick. It was an acceptable payment for spending an unproductive afternoon surviving an attempt on his life. Yes, he decided, he had earned the cane.
At the Countess’s castle, Raka, in his fresh young body, was becoming restless. He had plans to put into motion. He required his apprentice to run errands for him. Glancing at the clock for the tenth time, he bristled and wondered where she had flown.
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