One thing Professor Philosophus Stone has always told me -- the world is a weird place. Sometimes that's a bad thing, as we've learned over several years of battling cults and madmen and monsters and things from beyond the veil. But a lot of times, it's not bad. Fortunetellers in the wilds of Romania, spectral knights guarding ancient tombs, lost tribes in the Amazon communing with their ancestors, desert-dwelling sun worshipers, car mechanics in Philadelphia with the gift of second sight -- they're not working evil, they're just doing their jobs and living their lives -- or unlives, as the case may be.

On the other hand, a lot of the time, the benign weirdness ends up going really bad. Like those desert-dwelling sun worshipers I mentioned? Turns out they've just recently decided to destroy the world.

"It's a box canyon, Sam, so we need not fear their escaping," Professor Stone shouted to me from where he crouched behind some rocks. "But we must disrupt their ritual before the sun is at its zenith!"

That's my boss, Professor Philosophus Stone. He's a police consultant for the Las Vegas cops -- and probably for the FBI and the Secret Intelligence Service and who knows who else. We went to some little town in India last year, and we still found cops to talk to who knew who Professor Stone was, so I guess he's known all over the world. He's a pretty good boss, aside from using $5 words like "zenith."

"I'm doing all I can, Professor," I said. "But you know I've never been a crack shot, especially not under pressure like this!"

And that's me. I'm Sam Johnson, assistant to Professor Stone. I figured majoring in Comparative Occultism at good ol' Darkmoor College would be my ticket to a cushy library job, not getting shot at by sun cultists. I'd ask the professor for a raise, but I'm not entirely sure I'll be around to collect it after this.

"You two shut up," growled Captain Brockhard. "Leave the gunplay to the experts."

That's Captain Phillip Brockhard of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He's not a big fan of consultants who specialize in what he calls "mumbo-jumbo" -- but he always listens to what the professor has to tell him. Captain Brockhard and four of his officers were our backup on this case, which isn't a lot when we're facing over a dozen chanting cultists.

"Captain Brockhard, this is of utmost importance," Professor Stone said. "If we can't halt the ritual of the Sacred Society of Apollo before noon, the high priest will be empowered with the abilities of the Greek sun god Apollo himself! He could lay waste to Las Vegas, possibly the entire world!"

"Sun gods?" snorted Brockhard. "You're worried about some idiot with delusions of grandeur? Why aren't you worried about the goons with tommy guns?"

"I assure you I am very concerned about the gentlemen with the tommy guns, Captain," said Professor Stone. "Even your relentless skepticism must acknowledge the fellow casting beams of concentrated solar light at us, can't it?"

"Is that your high priest?" asked Brockhard. "Gilhooley, give 'em a couple of those new smoke grenades, will ya?" While the police officer hurled the smoke bombs into the fray, Brockhard said to another officer, "Okay, Donovan, you're our sharpshooter. While we've got the smoke cover, aim for the loon with the lights."

"Captain, that man should be taken alive for questioning."

Brockhard said a harsh word I never imagined an officer of the law using. "My men are under fire," he continued. "Take the shot, Donovan."

There was a crack of gunfire and a scream, quickly followed by the wails of the cultists. "Master!" they shouted. "Master!" Without their high priest, the fight went out of them, and only minimal violence was needed to take the rest of the cult into custody.

Professor Stone remained upset with the police captain. "There must have been some way to take him alive," he fumed. "I met the man mere months ago -- he was sane as a lord then, and we'll never learn what caused him to snap."

"You know we don't shoot to wound, Stone," said Brockhard. "And you know there's no way to guarantee a minor gunshot injury anyway. It was him or us -- don't forget that. As for the motive? Well, that's why we'll be questioning all his followers. There's always someone these nuts confide in."

"Bah, I know, Brockhard," said the professor. "You know police business better than I do. I just wish -- enough. Let's let bygones be bygones. Come to Rancho Mysterioso tonight for dinner."

"Ahh, you tempt me, Stone," said the Captain. "It'd sure beat whatever they're serving in the canteen. I'll make it if I can, but don't set a plate for me. The paperwork and interviews for these cult loons will probably take all night."

And so Professor Stone and I made our departure. I was glad to leave, too. It was a punishingly hot day, and we had all spent a few hours getting shot at by sun cultists. My mouth was already watering imagining the cold pitcher of lemonade in the electric icebox in the professor's palatial home.

We spent just over a half-hour motoring through the Nevada desert in Professor Stone's Plymouth P-2. The professor was silent, gazing out the back seat window, clearly thinking about the case that had just been concluded with so much violence.

"Sorry that whole situation wasn't able to be settled more peacefully, sir," I said when I finally turned the car into the long driveway to the professor's Spanish ranch house.

He shook himself out of his contemplation. "Nothing to be done for it, Sam," he said. "Brockhard was right about this much -- the cult posed an immediate threat to all of us, and taking down the high priest was likely the proper decision. I do wish he could've survived to be interviewed. I would like to know what turned them from peaceful to violent."

"It's just the way cults are, once they get into sorcery, isn't it?" I asked as I shut off the engine. "Magic always seems to lead them astray."

"Magic can be a corrupting influence," he replied, getting out of the car. "But there are many who resist the temptation to misuse it. Still, at least today was not a complete loss."

He tossed me a bright yellow disc. It was heavy, almost a quarter-inch thick, and embossed with the image of an angry, howling sun.

"Isn't this the Medallion of Apollo Iratus?" I asked. "How did you get it away from the high priest?"

"Some simple sleight of hand while I was checking him for a pulse," the professor said. "I'm quite sure we don't want an artifact this powerful sitting in the police department's evidence locker."

"Sir, there are times I suspect you of being devious and crafty," I said with a smile.

"Let's hope I remain that way, Sam. Now shall we see what Mrs. Sloane has prepared for lunch?"

As it turned out, Mrs. Sloane, the professor's housekeeper, hadn't prepared anything yet, and she met us at the door to give us a piece of her mind.

"Mercy gracious, how you do tire an old woman out!" she exclaimed. "You go on these projects with the police, and I've no idea whether you can even survive against these hardened criminals! What's to become of me if you're all killed by bandits? I'd have to move back to Iowa, and they won't have me back."

"Now Mrs. Sloane, we're just fine," Professor Stone said. "We were very safe with the police there, I promise you, and even if we weren't, you have the skills to take over any restaurant, hotel, or manor house in the nation."

"What nonsense!" she said. "As if I could leave the desert anyway. Well, as long as I know you haven't been murdered by anarchists, I suppose I should put some lunch together so you don't starve in the meantime."

Is wasn't long before Mrs. Sloane cooked up a stack of those quesadillas we enjoyed so much during our case in Mexico last year. Topped off with a glass of that wonderful lemonade, and I didn't even mind when Professor Stone assigned me to sketch the medallion and make some notes for his artifact files.

Once I'd finished my notes on the medallion -- recording the disc's dimensions and weight, recording the runes along the edges, etc. -- the professor put me to work rearranging the library. That's a chore I wouldn't wish on anyone, as the library in Rancho Mysterioso was stocked with a lot of painfully heavy reference works which the professor seems to prefer on the topmost shelves. By the time evening rolled around, I was probably only half done with the task.

It was almost dinner time -- the enticing aromas of Mrs. Sloane's herb roasted pork loin, grilled asparagus, and award-winning cherry pie filled the entire house -- when there came a loud knock at the front door.

"By St. George, I'll bet that's Captain Brockhard!" said the professor. "He was able to make it to dinner after all. Mrs. Sloane, would you please go see Captain Brockhard in?"

I cleaned up the library a bit -- put my notes into a desk drawer, dropped the medallion into my jacket pocket, stacked some reference books on the table -- and started down to the dining room. I was surprised to discover that Captain Brockhard was not there. In his place were two large and unpleasant-looking men wearing cheap suits and holding impressively large handguns.

"Gentlemen," Professor Stone said. "I take it you're not here on a social visit. I can show you where I keep my money, but most of the contents of the house are not items you can fence at the pawn shop downtown."

"This actually is a social visit," said one of the men in a surprisingly soft voice. "You're being invited to dine with Mr. Oliver Gambini at his club in Las Vegas."

"Invited?" said the professor. "With guns?"

"Didn't have no engraved invitations," said the other gunman, a much bigger man with a much bigger voice. "Only had the guns."

"I already have dinner almost ready in the kitchen," said Mrs. Sloane.

"Don't want it to burn, do we?" said the first man. "Vincent, go turn the stove and burners off."

"Gotcha," said Vincent. He lumbered off into the kitchen, and we were left to stare at just one gun instead of two.

"I would very much like to know what this is all about, sir," the professor said.

"Like I said, Mr. Gambini would like to meet you, pay for your meal, have a little pleasant conversation."

"I am not in the habit of having pleasant conversations with gunmen."

"Pleasant or unpleasant," said the man. "The choice is yours."

Vincent returns from the kitchen. "Okay, Bruno, the oven's off," he said. "Burners are off. The food's been moved into the icebox, ma'am. You can heat it all up tomorrow."

"Well, there's no need to involve Mrs. Sloane or young Sam in all this," said the professor. "Mr. Gambini wants to meet with me; I'll come along quietly."

"Mr. Gambini requested everyone in the house come to dine," said Bruno. "I don't think he knew Mrs. Sloane was in the house, but I'm sure the invitation will be extended to her. No more arguments, Professor Stone. You're not going to argue us out of our instructions."

And that was really all there was to it. They had guns, we didn't. They frisked us for weapons and found nothing. Luckily, they didn't realize that Professor Stone's walking stick was perfectly weighted to serve as a bludgeoning weapon, or that he carried the mystic Lens of Alhazred, which could also be used as a weapon. Of course, if it came right down to it, even with the professor's walking stick and amulet, they still had guns, and guns are much more deadly.

So we climbed into the back seat of an extremely large Rolls-Royce, and Vincent drove us into Las Vegas. None of us said anything. As much as I would've liked to ask what Mr. Gambini's motives were, I didn't think the request would be received well. So I tried to be content with watching the scenery go by.

I still couldn't say I was used to living in the Nevada desert, or that I was comfortable in Las Vegas. I spent my formative years back on the East Coast, where everything seemed bigger and more sophisticated. Las Vegas was certainly not the smallest place I'd been to -- it seems as if every month or so, Professor Stone and I decamped for some remote village in a foreign land -- but the town was certainly more rustic than I would prefer. Professor Stone believes it has the potential to become a great city, but I have my doubts. The city fathers -- and other less scrupulous persons -- are working hard to capitalize on the construction of the Hoover Dam and the legalization of gambling in the state. But the dam will eventually be completed, and I cannot imagine gambling becoming anything that would attract residents to the desert.

Still, it is interesting to see how the area has grown. Several of these new casinos have been built around town, part restaurants, part performance venues, part gambling dens. They're lit up in garish neon lights and are, in their way, almost attractive. The police suspect organized crime hopes to establish a foothold in the casino business, but I'm sure the law will eventually be able to keep the mob out of the area.

Anyway, the car finally pulled up outside the front door of the Indigo Crown Club, a fairly quiet restaurant carefully decorated in blue, purple, and white neon lights. Our car doors were opened by a pair of men dressed like Bruno and Vincent, who escorted us quickly and efficiently into the building. We were hustled into a door just outside of the hat-check booth and down a lengthy curving corridor. Bruno knocked sharply on a nondescript door and opened it without waiting for a response.

On the other side of the door was a small dining hall, no more than six tables and a small, lightly-appointed bar. The room was decorated tastefully but perhaps a bit cheaply, like an old English gentleman's club down on its luck, and the lighting was dim and subdued. Aside from the bartender quietly polishing glasses, the only person in the room was a middle-aged, pale-complexioned man wearing a tailored suit.

"Professor Stone," he said with a thin smile. "And Mr. Johnson, is that correct? And the famous Mrs. Adelia Sloane. My chef may want to bend your ear for some pie-baking tips. Welcome to the Indigo Crown Club. My name is Oliver Gambini."

"Yes, so your associates informed us," said the professor. "And we don't appreciate being shanghaied at gunpoint."

"To be honest, I simply don't care about that," said Gambini. "They brought you here politely, correct? Those were my orders. The guns were my orders, as well. I prefer people to know who's calling the shots, and that's me."

"You can't simply go pointing guns at everyone you want!" I said.

"At the very least, sir, threatening people with guns is not how one expects a person of power and means to conduct business," said the professor. "I have had dealings -- reluctantly -- with the organized crime outfits in New York and Chicago, and though brutal and violent, they tended to enter negotiations with smiles and handshakes, rather than loaded guns."

"I don't care how New York and Chicago do things," said Gambini. "I'm gonna run Vegas, and soon they'll do what I tell 'em to. Don't make me angry, mister. You wouldn't like me when my blood gets hot."

"Very well, let's start this over," said the professor. "Why did you ask us here? What do you want from us?"

"Fine, fine, everyone sit down," said Gambini. "Edgar, some menus."

A waiter appeared behind us, and distributed menus to all of us, though Gambini waved his away.

"I'll just have wine, Edgar," he said. "My private vintage."

The rest of us ordered quickly, barely paying attention to the menu. I ordered a cut of some fish. It was the first thing on the menu after the appetizers and soups. I never have much appetite when I fear I'm in mortal danger. The professor ordered a plate of spaghetti. Mrs. Sloane requested roast duck.

Professor Stone turned to Gambini as soon as the waiter left the room. "Now, sir, I think you've put us off for long enough. If nothing else, relieve us of the suspense -- what does a member of Las Vegas' organized crime cartel want with a pair of academics and a chef?"

"Not mere academics," he said. "Consultants for the police and experts in occult phenomena."

"All the more reason to want to know why you think we could aid you," the professor said.

"A fair question," Gambini said. "I've already told you I intend to take over all the Mafia activity in Las Vegas, right? Did you know I also intend to take over the business in the rest of the country?"

"An ambitious goal," Professor Stone replied. "And one which, frankly, I doubt any single person in the nation could accomplish. And I've studied enough about the Mob's infiltration in Vegas to know you're not even at the top of the feeding chain. You're a captain, am I right? An important position, but four or five steps from the top, isn't it?"

Gambini smiled thinly. "I have an advantage," he said. "I think it'll put me in charge here soon, and I don't think anyone else will be able to match it. It'll make me the King of the Mob -- not just in America, but all over the world."

"An advantage," the professor said. It wasn't a question. He knew Gambini was keen to tell and waited for him to talk.

"Yes," said Gambini. "An advantage I think only you would truly understand."

"Then spill it already," I said impatiently.

He smiled, for the first time showing his teeth. Then his smile got wider, showing off a lot more of his teeth.

"A vampire," the professor said disapprovingly. "For goodness sake."

"You'd be surprised how hostile the Mafia can be to innovators," Gambini said. "Especially when they're taking the responsibility of executing extra robberies and shakedowns, just to pad the organization's wallet. The capo agreed to let me travel overseas to explain my methods to the Sicilian bosses -- I'm sure they would have appreciated my revolutionary methods."

"Oh, no doubt," the professor murmured.

"But that trip to Italy was certainly not to my satisfaction," said Gambini. "I had been there mere hours before I found myself shot by some unknown person! It was apparently a fatal wound, and my body was placed in the depths of the Catacombs of Rome. And it was there that my savior arrived. He restored me to life -- or unlife, if you prefer -- with his own blood!"

His tale was interrupted by two servers bringing us our meals. I was, however, not in a mood to begin eating yet. I don't think any of us were.

"That makes two vampires you've encountered, Professor," I said. "You owe me five dollars!"

"Bah, gambling is a filthy habit," he said. "And I should know better than to make casual bets about the supernatural -- it is far more common than I would prefer."

"So... is he, you know?" asked Mrs. Sloane. "Those aren't just fake teeth?"

"He is," said Professor Stone. "There are other signs, as well."

"You're not afraid of me, Professor?" asked Gambini.

"I'm more wary of your underworld connections than I am of any supernatural concerns," the professor said. "If you meant to kill us, you could've done that when we walked in the door, or back at Rancho Mysterioso. No, you clearly wanted us here, alive, and willing to talk to you, though I still do not know why."

"Very well," said Gambini. "I intend to use these vampiric powers to take over the Mafia on a local, national, and maybe international level. And I need your help to do so."

There followed several seconds of silence from myself, the professor, and Mrs. Sloane. I didn't expect any particularly wholesome plans to come out of a vampire's mind, but I wasn't expecting something quite so silly. Did he truly think we would want to assist him in his unholy goals?

"You are stunned by my proposal," Gambini said with a smile. "The chance to work side-by-side with the ultimate in magical warriors is an opportunity of uncommon rarity, isn't it? But rest assured -- we can all share in my future success!"

"You actually intend to vampirize everyone in La Cosa Nostra?" asked the professor. "That's... quite some goal."

"Oh, no, that's not my plan at all," said Gambini. "Perhaps a trusted lieutenant or two, a few molls. But trying to drink that much blood would be too much even for me. I would prefer a bloodless coup, as it were. With your assistance, of course."

"Well, I'm sure we're quite excited about the prospect of sharing in your future success," said Professor Stone. "This should be our number-one project."

Mrs. Sloane and I didn't react, except to nod and agree. "Number-one project" is one of the professor's code phrases to let us know we should follow his lead -- in this case, we should agree to help Gambini while being careful not to actually give him any real aid. There are times it's necessary to lie to criminals, cultists, masterminds, and similar folk long enough to make sure they won't try to kill you. And yes, Mrs. Sloane may be our housekeeper and cook, but she'd faced danger often enough -- even before she came to work at Rancho Mysterioso -- for the professor to make sure she knew about all our code phrases.

"That's excellent!" Gambini said, clapping his hands and flashing his fangs in a joyful smile. "I'm so relieved we are in agreement! So much simpler than having to hypnotize you like I did with some of my crew!"

"And that's certainly something we'd like to avoid as well," said the professor. In truth, the last time we tangled with a vampire, our plans against him were nearly undone when our Romanian guide was hypnotized by the bloodthirsty baron. Since then, Professor Stone has acquired some artifacts to fend off vampiric spells, but those were in a safe back home -- no use to us at that moment!

"Now I know you must possess great wizardly powers," Gambini said. "Can you use your magic to make me even more powerful? If I'm going to dominate the Mafia on a global scale, it may be that even a master vampire's abilities would need augmentation!"

"Ah, well, magic is much more involved than you may suspect," said the professor. "It isn't a matter of waving a magic wand and making the impossible occur. Successful magic requires careful preparation, precise rituals -- and always with a cost that must be paid. For me to cast a spell enhancing your powers? It would require more than a little time."

And that was another lie. Professor Stone doesn't know any magic and couldn't cast a spell if he wanted to. We have artifacts and relics at the house. We have books about magic and some spellbooks. But neither the professor nor I cast spells -- we'd both seen sorcerers destroy themselves more often than not. It was a risk we'd never dare undertake.

But Gambini didn't need to know that. It would be best for him to drop his guard and give us an opportunity to call for aid. It was better to let him think we need lengthy preparations and complicated rituals.

"Of course, I completely understand," said Gambini. "However, you do work as a consultant for the police and are known to travel the world putting an end to those you consider to be supernatural threats. So I created a ritual room for you in the basement. It's stocked with a number of spellbooks containing vampire-enhancing spells. Can I trust you to cast your spells properly? Well, just to be sure, there's always vampire hypnotism."

"Come now, I thought we were past nonsense like that," said the professor.

"No need to place your associates in a trance, Professor Stone," said Gambini with a toothy grin. "So much better to have the true expert under my control. Wouldn't you agree? I say again, wouldn't you agree?"

"Y-Yes, Master," the professor said. "H-How may I serve you, M-Master?"

"Kill your little minions, Stone," said Gambini. "Then we can get down to the real business."

You may be thinking that's the end of the story. The Vampire King of organized crime gets the world's greatest occult detective in his thrall -- that's the end for the whole human race, right?

I like Professor Stone a lot. He's an incredible mentor and teacher, one of the wisest and bravest men in the whole world. But he's over 30 years older than I am. His walking stick makes a nice weapon -- but I was Darkmoor College's boxing champ for three years straight. Would I hit my friend? I've done it to him before -- like the time he was possessed by the spirit of Ra-Mon-Khan -- and he's done it to me -- like the time I was caught up in the hexes of Lady Arachnia.

So I punched him in the nose, kicked his chair out from under him, and grabbed his walking stick. And Mrs. Sloane, bless her, threw the professor's entire plate of piping hot spaghetti into Gambini's face.

I turned to run through the door back into the hallway, but Mrs. Sloane grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into the kitchen.

"Probably too many guards in the hall," she said. "Let's hope there's an exterior door in here."

The chef and his staff gave a start as we barreled in. Someone knocked a pan from the stove, and the waiter dropped a bottle of wine. Mrs. Sloane grabbed a carving knife from a table. I did the same as we sprinted through a side door into a back hallway.

"You've done this before," I said.

"Not this specific thing, no," Mrs. Sloane said.

"It must've been something close," I said.

"The Boxer Rebellion did not have vampires," she said. There were footsteps and angry voices behind us, but not yet close enough to be an imminent danger. "But you learn to look for exits when you're in hostile territory. Come on, that looks like the way out."

We pushed through a large metal door into a fenced-in parking lot. Unfortunately, there were a trio of mobsters leaning against a couple delivery trucks. They weren't expecting to see us, but they all drew pistols when we emerged.

"Fire!" I said. "There's a fire in the kitchen! Run!"

"What, did ya try to fight the fire with a knife?" said one of the gunmen. "Drop the pig-stickers and put ya hands up. The walking stick, too, hotshot."

Well, it was hard to dispute the argument. Mrs. Sloane and I reluctantly threw the knives down, I dropped the professor's walking stick, and we both raised our arms. "You realize Gambini is a vampire, right?" I said. "And you're still willing to serve him?"

"Speak no ill of the Master," said one of the gunmen.

The first mobster rolled his eyes. "What ya gonna do?" he said. "Maybe Gambini gets his throne in Sicily, he'll leave us alone out here in Vegas."

"Sounds like a fool's dream," said Mrs. Sloane.

"Keep your lip zipped, lady," said the third gangster. "You're already in enough trouble if you've got the Boss mad at you."

At that moment, the back door burst open. In fact, it was literally sprung from its hinges when Gambini threw it open. He was closely followed by Professor Stone, Bruno, and Vincent. Gambini's face was still only partially wiped free of pasta and, interestingly, was somewhat burned and smoking.

"I wondered if you'd told the kitchen to stop adding garlic to meals," said Mrs. Sloane.

"Silence!" Gambini shouted, fangs flashing in the moonlight. "You attack me -- ME! In my place of power! The future Vampire King! I will make you suffer more than anyone in history!"

By this time, I had gotten more than my fill of treating this idiot like someone I had to respect. I didn't care what power he had, and honestly, if he got angry enough to kill us quickly, so much the better.

"Do you have the brains to make someone truly suffer?" I said. "You don't strike me as the creative type."

"Be silent!" he shouted.

"Isn't it forbidden for the Mafia to associate with the police?" asked Mrs. Sloane. "I know I've read that. It's one of the things the Sicilians insist upon. When they find out you offered a meal to a police consultant -- well, I'm sure the Boss of All Bosses would be interested to hear about that." She nodded significantly to the other mobsters.

Faster than lightning, Gambini was at Mrs. Sloane's side. He grabbed her by the collar and lifted her in the air. "Don't you dare try to turn my own minions against me!" he shouted, his fangs and claws lengthening. "I will destroy you!"

I grabbed his arm and shouted, "Put her down, you maniac!"

He did drop her -- but as he did, he spun and raked his talons across my chest, knocking me to the ground and ripping my jacket apart. My wallet, keys, and the solar medallion we collected that afternoon bounced across the parking lot, but it didn't feel like I'd been severely injured.

The medallion rolled to a stop against Vincent's foot. "Hey, lookit this, Mistah Gambino," he said as he picked it up. "Is this gold? That fella's carrying gold necklaces around?"

Gambini rocketed next to Vincent even faster than he did to Mrs. Sloane. He snatched the medallion from his hand and gazed at it greedily.

"A magic amulet!" he shouted gleefully. "A symbol of pure power! It must be! Stone! I command you to tell me what this is!"

"The Medallion of Apollo Iratus," said Professor Stone in a low, sluggish voice. "It possesses many powers, but chief among them is the ability to allow the undead to stand unharmed in the glare of the sun."

"Yes!" Gambini laughed. "I knew there was a good reason to go after you! I knew it! You must tell me how to access this power!"

"Professor, no!" I shouted. "You have to resist this! You can't do this!"

"Do it!" said Gambini. "I command you!"

"You must put the medallion around your neck," said the professor.

"Done!" Gambini quickly slipped the chain of the medallion around his neck.

"Now read the inscription around the medallion," the professor said. "Read it loudly."

Gambini seized the golden disc in both hands and lifted it before his eyes. "Apollo roborus patefactus accendere!"

The medallion immediately began to glow more brightly golden.

"Behold!" Gambini laughed. "I've conquered the sun! I'll be able to walk in the day! Uhh, is it supposed to be this hot, Stone?"

"Excellent thinking with the spaghetti, Mrs. Sloane," said the professor. "I hadn't even considered the garlic factor, but the shock it gave his system broke the hypnosis charm instantly."

"What is it doing?!" Gambini screamed. "It's burning up! Get it off me! Get it off!"

The medallion was glowing with painfully bright light, and Gambini's clothing and skin had already caught fire. Everyone backed away -- even if anyone had wanted to rescue the vampire mobster, it was quite impossible. The heat was so great, we all had to back away or risk being burned.

Gambini was quickly fully engulfed in flames and had entirely lost the ability to scream. He burned for several minutes, much longer than I had expected, and when the flames and heat began to die down, leaving little but a blackened skeleton behind, Bruno and Vincent picked up my wallet and keys and the professor's walking stick and brought them all to us.

"We're going to take you home," said Bruno. "This never happened. We don't want the cops finding out. We don't want anyone else in the Family finding out. It never happened. You and us, we've got no beef. Sound good?"

"I'll want that medallion back," said the professor.

Vincent turned to the other gangsters and barked, "All of you, head inside. Private dining room. We gotta talk. Move it!"

After everyone else was gone, Vincent picked up a large tire iron, fished around inside Gambini's skeleton, and pulled out the still intact and still burning medallion.

He scowled at it and dropped it on a patch of bare pavement.

He found a water faucet, filled a bucket with water, and dropped the red-hot medallion into the water.

"Hey, prof, you think this is gonna be safe to take in the car?" Vincent asked as steam erupted from the bucket.

"It should be fine," said Professor Stone. "It should cool normally. I'll carry the bucket, if you'd prefer. If there are any problems I'll be the person directly affected, correct?"

"Sure, that'll work," said Vincent.

"So, uh," said Bruno. "What should we do with the skeleton?"

The professor glanced down at the smoldering bones of the vampire. "When it stops burning, I think I'd have the bones destroyed. Smashed, cremated, whichever destroys them most completely. Scatter them in the desert. Or in the ocean."

Bruno nodded. "We can do that. You all ready to go?"

We drove all the way back to Rancho Mysterioso in silence. Once we got home, Bruno and Vincent shook hands with all of us, reminded us "Not one word," got back into the Rolls-Royce, and drove away.

"Well, sirs," said Mrs. Sloane as we walked back into the house. "The pork loin and asparagus are in the icebox. I can heat them up if you'd like, but after watching someone burn to death, I think I'd prefer to save the asparagus for tomorrow and eat some cold pork sandwiches tonight."

"Cold will be just fine, Mrs. Sloane," said the professor. "I expect we'll all be fine with cold food for at least a few days."

As Mrs. Sloane disappeared into the kitchen, I turned to the professor. "Did you know the medallion would cause Gambini to catch fire like that?"

"Yes, I did," said Professor Stone. "The sun cult had already charged it up with magical energy. If they'd performed the ritual correctly, the medallion would've essentially become a piece of the sun empowering the high priest. Reading the inscription alone would've channeled some of the sun's power, but without the full ritual, it could only burn the wearer. I knew I could trust you not to read any inscriptions aloud while you were cataloging the piece, so you were in no danger."

"I wish you'd told me about that before," I said. "I could've tried to get him to wear the piece earlier."

"I suspect the ruse worked only because Gambini believed I was under his power," said the professor. "Even so, we were quite fortunate. If he'd had been less of a fool, he might've realized he should have one of us test the inscription first."

"Well, I'm glad it's all over," I said. "I'm glad Gambini's dead. I'm glad we don't have to worry about the Mafia coming to kill us."

"I'm not so sure it's entirely over, Sam," said the professor. "The vampire who raised Gambini from the dead is still out there in Rome. We don't know who he is. We don't know why he chose a low-level thug to resurrect. And we don't know what other plans he has for the future."

"That sounds incredibly ominous, doesn't it?" I asked. "There could be armies of the undead hidden beneath Europe."

"I think that's probably unlikely," the professor said. "But it is concerning that Gambini knew to come looking for us, rather than some more high-profile occultists. Our roles as investigators of the unknown are not particularly well-known outside of police circles. So who sent Gambini to our doorstep? Was it his vampiric patron?"

"Sir, you're making me increasingly nervous," I said.

"No, let's not start frightening ourselves," said the professor. "I'm merely speculating. Though I do fear we have one more blood-red challenge in our immediate future, my boy."

"What's that?" I asked, my heart in my throat.

"How could you forget Mrs. Sloane's award-winning cherry pie, Sam?" Professor Stone said with a wink. "I think we certainly deserve a celebratory slice after a day like today."

Professor Stone and I walked into the kitchen. Fortune was with us -- Mrs. Sloane already had two slices of pie ready for us.



For reQuest 2018
(I want Jet-Poop to fill Philosophus Stone vs. the Vampire King!)

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