There were many things one did not see on the streets of Königsberg.
One of those was a stack of books, every one of them leather bound, topped by a patched felt hat.
Even though Alfred was already late to join his friends at the inn to celebrate the end of studies for the summer, he paused. No one else seemed to have noticed the books, which surprised him, as they looked valuable. He cautiously picked one up, half-expecting to find an irate owner bellowing at him, but no one called.
“Professor Abronsius,” he murmured, reading the name inscribed inside the cover.
The name was familiar. Any student at the University would have known of the eccentric Professor, who had last been heard exclaiming that he did not believe in any fancy nonsense such as spirits and nymphs, but he was of a certain mind that there were dark forces, particularly to the south east.
Vampires were his topic of choice, according to Hermann, Alfred’s fellow student, who once had the misfortune of running into the Professor while tending a bloodied nose. It had taken three students to prise Abronsius off the startled youth.
All the same, the Professor was hardly young and it would hardly be a surprise if he had put down his books for a moment and forgotten to pick them up again.
Alfred pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it. If he ran, he thought, he would still be in plenty of time to find a stool in the bar. He picked up the books and the hat, and took to his heels, running through the streets. A round-hipped woman called after him in indignation when he knocked her basket, but he kept running, only shooting back a quick, almost apologetic smile.
He reached the lodging houses shared by several of the Professors and knocked. The door swung open under his hand, which he took to be an invitation, and stepped inside, calling out a polite greeting.
From the upper level, there was the sound of someone moving around. Rather than leave the books untended, Alfred ran up the stairs and knocked on the door.
The door was opened by Abronsius himself. The man was probably tall once, but age had shrunk him, and he peered at Alfred suspiciously over half-moon glasses. “You are late, young man,” he said sternly, then caught Alfred by the arm and pulled him into the room.
Alfred started to protest but it died on his lips at the sight of the laboratory laid out before him, fitted with more materials than he had seen in any of the study halls.
“Sir, your books,” he managed to say, shaking off the Professor’s wiry hand. He held out the bundle. “I…”
“Ah, good boy,” Abronsius said. “Much more efficient than the last idiot who assisted me. I was looking for those, and there you have them. Much obliged.” He patted Alfred on the shoulder. “Now, off with your coat. I have some work I need you to do.” Watery brown eyes, magnified by the spectacles, looked up at him. “Tell me, boy,” the Professor said, “do you have any experience with stakes?”
Half-bemused, half-intrigued, Alfred shed his coat. “Steaks? You mean meat, sir?”
Abronsius flapped a hand dismissively. “Not at all, boy! Not at all!” he exclaimed. He turned away, then swung back, waving a sharpened shaft of wood in Alfred’s face. Alfred yelled in surprise and stepped back. “A stake, boy! A stake!”
“Only as part of a fence,” Alfred said, blushing at such a display of folly.
“These are to be my primary weapons,” Abronsius said happily. “I will need a good many of them, you see.”
“If I may ask, sir, why?”
Abronsius beamed at him. “Why, I am surprised you have not been informed of the details of our plans…” The Professor paused, a finger raised, then inquired, “What did you say your name was?”
“Alfred, sir,” Alfred replied. “What plans were you talking about, sir?”
“Alfred!” The Professor set the books down on one of the few empty patches of tabletop. “Ah, yes. As I was saying. We will need a good number of stakes. I have taken the precaution of purchasing several crosses, and I have a set of mallets to be delivered today.”
“But what for, sir?” Alfred persisted, amused and curious. “Do you intend to make some holy fences?”
Those watery eyes gave him a long, slow stare. “Why, to deal with vampires, of course,” the old man said. He prodded Alfred in the middle of the chest. “You should know this. Michael said he would send someone who was a student of my theories. Do you know my work?”
“I know of it,” Alfred said with a generous smile. “I hear there is none like it in the field.”
The Professor beamed at him. “Quite so, quite so,” he agreed. “Now, Albert…”
“Alfred,” Alfred corrected.
“Alfred,” Abronsius agreed, “about Transylvania…”
In the end, Alfred never met his friends at the inn.
When they heard of the fate he had strolled into, they raised a glass to him and his amused interest in the quite mad professor, called him a merry fool, and set him on his way to the south east with his pockets filled with garlic.
And, true a friend as he was, upon his return from Transylvania, he made sure to find every one of them and introduce them to the pleasures of Transylvanian hospitality and taste.