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A SHARPNESS ON THE NECK

Fred Saberhagen

Credits

Copyright © 1996 by Fred Saberhagen

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Paper edition first published by Tor Book

E-editions published by:

JSS Literary Productions

PO Box 11243

Albuquerque, NM 87192

www.fredsaberhagen.com

JSS Literary Productions electronic edition:

ISBN-13: 978-1-937422-10-3

E-Cover: Harry O. Morris

Saberhagen’s Dracula Series

In the order they were written

Each novel is independent

and

may be read out-of-order

1. The Dracula Tape

2 The Holmes-Dracula File

3 An Old Friend Of The Family

4 Thorn

5 Dominion

6 A Matter Of Taste

7 A Question Of Time

8 Séance For A Vampire

9 A Sharpness On The Neck

10 A Coldness In The Blood

Chapter One

      The world abounds in mysteries. But some of the marvels which at first sight strike the observer as most impressive are susceptible to the most trivial explanations.

      Allow me to offer an example. Charles Dickens, famed inventor of Christmas ghosts and Tiny Tim, when visiting Rome in 1845 chose to broaden his experience of the world by witnessing the beheading of a criminal. Afterward Dickens wrote: A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear. And the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

      In fact, the cause of this seeming annihilation is perfectly simple. When the living muscles of the neck are suddenly cut in half, each end of each fiber contracts sharply, pulling with it the soft surrounding tissues, as well as the small, newly disconnected bones which had made up the spinal column. Tiny fragments are all one can expect to find of whichever vertebra lay directly in the path of the falling knife, which, at least in the classical French guillotine, is not only extremely sharp but as heavy as a small anvil.

* * * * * *

      Now that we have arrived in France, let me mention, parenthetically, a puzzle that I—I, Vlad Dracula—find somewhat harder to explain: In all the surviving bureaucratic paperwork of the Terror—I mean the French Revolution of the 1790s—in all the volumes of court orders, prison records, inflammatory speeches, in all the desperate accumulation of decrees and denunciations—the word “guillotine” does not appear even once. Newspapers, of course, are a different story. Charles-Henri Sanson, chief executioner and high priest of the device during much of that bloodstained epoch, as a rule called it simply la mecanique—”the machine.”

      I tell you that greedy and most fickle wench, la mecanique, consumed more blood in one year—nay, perhaps in a month, or even in a single day—than I in a whole century.

* * *

      The long, broad stream of human history has cast up a hundred variations on the beheading device, from the simple headsman’s axe or sword up through an infernal variety of complications. It seems safe to say that the one the world knows best is the eponymous child of Dr. Guillotin, who more than two hundred years ago, as a delegate to the French National Assembly, conceived his mechanical offspring, based on the latest humanitarian principles, in the course of an enlightened search for greater efficiency in terror.

      The guillotine in its classical French form counted its first live human victim on April 25, 1792, in Paris, when used to dispatch a common murderer and thief, Jacques Pelletier. Some three years later, a steam-powered guillotine, intended to achieve the mass production of justice, was on the drawing boards—but by 1795 the number of beheadings, after averaging around twenty-six a day in Paris alone during the previous summer, had gone into a precipitous decline. The French Revolution, a monstrous child of oppression, was choked on blood and stumbling over bodies. To the best of historians’ knowledge at the end of the twentieth century, that ultra-efficient model of la mecanique has yet to be constructed.

      Throughout a good part of the 1790s—those strenuous years which in France, at least, are never to be forgotten— Sanson and his sons and their crew (there was never a shortage of volunteers) performed their indefatigable labors, without benefit of steam, while elevated on a stage. Their Parisian theater of operations looked much like a prizefighters’ square ring, and had the same reason for its existence: to provide a good view for a large audience.

      The tall narrow frame of the guillotine, extending almost fifteen feet above the platform, was essentially composed of two stout wooden uprights a little more than a foot apart. The lunette at the bottom of the uprights consisted of two pieces of wood, each with a smooth, semicircular notch, that when clapped together formed a solid neckpiece pierced by a circular, neck-sized hole.

      This hole was at the head of the plank bed on which the subject was placed facedown. The broad, single plank, painted blood red like the lunette and uprights, slid back from the upright portion of the frame, simultaneously tilting into an almost vertical position. First, as a rule, the subject’s hands were tied behind his or her back. Then the man— frequently a woman; sometimes a child—who was to experience the full effect of the apparatus walked (or was dragged or carried) up to this plank, and was secured to it by broad leather straps encircling the waist and legs.

      The plank was then tipped forward on its central pivot, bringing its occupant to a prone position. Now a precise adjustment by the machine’s attendants, allowing for the subject’s height—perhaps I should say for the total length when horizontal—positioned the chin in a nicely calculated way, to overhang the end of the plank by about three inches. The executioners, shifting their grip, slid the whole bed forward in its greased grooves, so that the chin of the occupant just cleared the lower half of the lunette. The upper

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