Blood Maidens (Page 10)
Asher sent the telegram – signed with Ysidro’s name – to Lydia from Moscow’s Kursk Station, just before boarding the ten a.m. train. Further conversation in the small hours had only confirmed Asher’s conviction that it would be best to move their departure forward to daylight, an opinion in which Ysidro concurred. ‘Molchanov has many fledglings,’ the vampire remarked an hour or so before it grew light, as he packed clothing, toiletries, clean shirts – he was as fastidious as any dandy Asher had ever met. ‘His mistrust of Western “cleverness”, as he terms it, outdistances any consideration of what he would do were a foreign vampire to become stranded in Moscow because his servant had met an unfortunate end. Besides, he can think of no greater felicity than to be obliged to dwell in Russia for the rest of eternity. I think it were best, were neither you nor I in Moscow when darkness next falls.’
‘I’m not going to argue with you there.’
It would take Lydia, Asher calculated, three days to reach St Petersburg. Profoundly as he missed her, the thought of her coming here – crossing the paths of the vampires, as he had warned her not to do back in the smug safety of Oxford – filled him with dread. Yet if he and Ysidro were to trace the St Petersburg interloper – to find his name, possibly his former nest, and any account of his intentions, resources, and contacts – they would have to seek him in Germany: and Ysidro being what he was, there was no question of either he, or Asher, undertaking the search alone.
What an unaided human could do to locate the interloper in St Petersburg, Lydia knew well how to do. She had tracked down vampire lairs before and knew what to look for, not only in the numbers in bank records – in property transfer dates and the names on accounts – but in the more subtle realms of gossip, rumor, and newspaper reports. She might not know the Triple Entente from the Triple Alliance, or be able to recall the name of the Prime Minister or what party he was in, but a girlhood in upper-class London society had given her a talent for sorting usable information from the persiflage of gossip, for asking the right questions, for listening to what people said when they forgot that anyone was listening, and most of all for sniffing out where money was.
And a lifetime of using precisely those unobtrusive skills in the name of Queen and Country had taught Asher that gossip and listening, sorting chance remarks and poking into peoples’ financial records, generally yielded better results than hair’s-breadth escapes after stealing secret plans.
How long the interloper planned to remain in Petersburg, Asher did not know, nor where he would go from there; he was acutely conscious that this might be their only chance to scotch the alliance between vampire and Kaiser. Yet, every time Lydia tampered in the business end of the affairs of the Undead, it was like watching her dart across a den of sleeping lions.
‘Razumovsky can get her whatever bank records she needs,’ he had said, looking up from the telegram form at Ysidro, who was perched on the corner of the gilt-and-malachite desk in the town house’s tiny library. That was at six a.m., the first whispers of dawnlight not far off. Razumovsky – as Lydia would know from the duplicate address-book he had left with her – was the man he meant by Isaacson; any reference to Uncle William’s railway shares was the tag that meant, The following sentence is to be disregarded, it’s only for show. ‘If our interloper is German, he’ll deal with German banks. And I trust that neither of our St Petersburg rivals has the sophistication to realize that Lydia will be a threat.’
‘They are Russians.’ A world of conquistador scorn glinted like a single pale star in Ysidro’s colorless voice. Ysidro himself – upon learning how Lydia went about comparing wills and property records, payments from one bank account to another, and clandestine transfers of stocks and bearer bonds – had rearranged his own living arrangements to preclude such investigation. For a man who had died in 1555 he had become surprisingly conversant with such modern conveniences as telegraphs, foreign bank accounts, and consolidated private holding companies with headquarters in New York.
‘Moreover, they will themselves soon depart for the Crimea, for Odessa or Kiev. Within a month our interloper will have the city to himself, though how this could profit him I know not. For nigh on two months he will be a prisoner, and the cellars of the town are shallow and damp. ’Twere best, I think, did you not meet with your lady, save by daylight.’
‘That’s another statement I’m not going to give you an argument about.’
They departed Moscow by the ten o’clock train that same morning: an express, roaring through a flat world of fields where bare ground was only beginning to show. Asher closed himself into his first-class reserved compartment, and slept – the light, wary sleep of Abroad – and dreamed, uneasily, of an endlessly huge railway station with golden pillars between its platforms, like the Admiralty Hall in the Winter Palace. He and Lydia sought one another, leaping onto trains to avoid some frightful peril, riding them to terminus and then coming back in the hopes of finding one another before whatever it was – faceless, silent, smelling of rotten blood – found them.
When he climbed the steps of the Imperatrice Catherine at nine thirty that night, the dvornik handed him a note, the glue on its envelope surprisingly intact.
26, Moyka Embankment
There has been another burning.
‘I told you!’ Ellen’s voice cracked in real distress. ‘I said, didn’t I, ma’am, that if Mr James went off looking for that cousin of his, and in such terrible weather – and to Russia, of all the heathen places! – didn’t I say he’d come down ill, as he did before?’
‘Indeed you did.’ Lydia folded up the telegram, her heart beating fast.
Not because she believed for one instant that Jamie was ill, of course.
Don Simon . . .
She set the yellow paper down, aware that it gave away how badly her hands were shaking. Ellen peered at her, thick untidy brows drawing together: ‘Now, ma’am, don’t take on so,’ she said, her own anxiety shoved abruptly aside. ‘I’m sure it’s not so bad as this Mr Simon seems to think. He’ll be all right.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Lydia smiled up at the bigger woman, realizing – from the cold of her hands and feet, and the expression on Ellen’s face – that she must have gone pale.
‘It’s probably just a chill.’
‘I’m sure it is.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Would you have Mick bring down my luggage from the box room? I think there’s a train to London this evening.’
‘And then what?’ demanded her servant. ‘Us arriving at all hours of the night and having to find a hotel . . .’
Lydia opened her mouth, shut it, then managed to say, ‘Yes, of course.’ Us. The inevitable taboo against young ladies traveling alone . . .
Margaret Potton’s face rose before her, huge blue eyes blinking behind thick spectacles beneath the eaves of her outdated hat.
Don Simon told me I’d find you here . . .
Ysidro had announced, I will not have you traveling alone abroad like a jauntering slut, and, disregarding Lydia’s protests, had coolly gone about recruiting a respectable female companion for her.
A companion he had killed, because by journey’s end Margaret Potton had known too much about vampires – and about him.
And because she’d bored him. Guilt seared her, at the knowledge that this was true. She blinked quickly . . . though not quickly enough to keep Ellen, misinterpreting, from laying a hand on her shoulder and saying, ‘There, there, ma’am, he’ll be all right.’
She took another breath and patted the big, rough hand where it lay among the lace of her tea gown. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered. Ysidro liked her – loves you, her mind whispered, though she pushed the thought violently away (such creatures don’t love . . .) – among other reasons, because of her intelligence that matched his own. He had chosen Margaret because she was stupid. Had made her fall in love with him because she was lonely . . . and had disposed of her like an ink-stained glove because she was clingy, uninteresting to him, and awkward in her jealous love. Because she was everything that Lydia wasn’t.
And Margaret had known it. Their journey together had been punctuated by a dozen jealous scenes that had left the wretched little governess in tears.
And, after all that, Ysidro had killed her.
In what she hoped was a normal voice, Lydia went on, ‘You’re quite right. We’ll pack tonight, and you’ll come with me as far as London tomorrow morning. There are bureaux in London where one can hire a gentlewoman companion – I would never dream of taking you so far from your family, and into danger of sickness—’
‘I’d be all right, ma’am.’ Ellen sounded deeply dubious, however, about the whole idea of travel beyond the English-speaking world. ‘If you’d rather I went . . .?’
‘Dearest, I wouldn’t.’ Lydia pressed her hand again and manufactured a dewy smile. ‘Besides, Mr Hurley would never forgive me if I were to take you away.’ She named the keeper of the local pub on the corner, a widower with a handsome mustache.
Ellen bridled like a coy percheron. ‘Go along with you!’
Lydia finally got her out of the study, so that she could look up who the blazes Isaacson really was, whom she was supposed to find in St Petersburg. When she saw that it was Prince Razumovsky she felt profoundly cheered, as if she’d seen the Russian diplomat’s handsome, gold-bearded face in a crowd. Thus she ascended to her packing with a lighter heart: tea gowns, day gowns, evening dresses, walking dresses . . . The white-and-green shoes would go with the lavender carriage-suit, but not the blue-and-white, so she’d better take the blue half-boots also . . . Would the camel-hair coat be warm enough or should she take the gray fur? Both, to be on the safe side . . . How cold did it get in St Petersburg in April? Oh, and hats . . . and Fischer’s book on the chemistry of proteins . . . and that remarkable treatise on radiography by Curie, and the last four issues of the British Journal of Medicine, and the little set of picklocks James had gotten her and made her learn to use . . . What color gloves would go with the cinnamon-red walking-suit? Dear me, I seem to need another trunk . . .
But whenever she paused in her laying-out of petticoats and blouses, stockings and corsets among the froth of lace on the bed, silence seemed to flow into her room like deadly black water. And though the evening was barely come, she closed the curtains, as if she feared to look out into the darkness and see a pale shape in the gathering mists, watching from across the road with eyes that reflected the light of her bedroom lamps.
‘Where was this one found?’ Asher stirred the debris in the tin box with the long-snouted forceps Zudanievsky had handed him, mentally identifying the fragments among the grayish dust. Teeth, a heat-warped wing of pelvis, an exploded skull that had shrunk to the size of an orange. Toe bones and finger bones better preserved, as if the body had burned from the breast and belly outward. No corset bones or lacing tips, but the melted remains of steel shirt-and trouser-buttons: the victim had been a boy. The smell of ash filled the little room, almost drowning the building’s other stinks.
‘An old carriage-house on Stone Island.’ Zudanievsky marked the place with a yellow pin on the map. It was across one of the river’s lesser branches from the slums of the Vyborg-side, less than a mile from the dun-colored brick monolith of the Okhrana headquarters. A distance easily walked. ‘Would you like to see the place?’
‘I would. And the attic where the girl was found last autumn, if it wouldn’t be a trouble to you.’
The policeman shook his head. ‘It would be my pleasure, Gospodin. You returned earlier than you had thought – did you find what you sought in Moscow?’
‘Not a thing.’ And, remembering that he was an American in quest of an absconding wife, ‘But I think there’s got to be a connection. This Orloff – or whatever his name really is – said as how he thought someone had murdered his sister, had somehow caused this to happen to her . . . I just can’t imagine how, or why.’
Behind the thick lenses of his spectacles, Zudanievsky’s pale eyes rested briefly on his face. They were heavily lined at the corners, and smudgy looking, as if he’d slept badly. ‘There are many mysteries associated with this case, Mr Plummer. Some of them are not my affair. Others, my superiors tell me, are not my affair, except insofar as they are making the poor in their slums angry and afraid – and that the Prince has seen fit to order me to assist you in all that you would ask. I live in hope that you will find some meaning in these disappearances – these burnings – that you will be able to share with me.’
Asher replied, with proper American heartiness, ‘That I will certainly do.’
‘Very good, then. Let us see what there is to see.’
It was considerably less than a mile from the Kronverksky Prospect to Stone Island, and even in the afternoon’s sleety rain, the streets of Apothecary Island that lay between bustled with shabby women heavily wrapped, with peddlers of dolls and hot tea and chestnuts, with soldiers from the barracks nearby. The property where the carriage house stood was typical of the neighborhood, walled and quiet, as if there weren’t factories and a shipyard and street after filthy street of run-down tenements nearby.
The house – low and Italianate and painted robin’s-egg blue against the bleak grayness of the day – had been shut since Twelfth Night with its widowed owner’s departure for her son-in-law’s home in Moscow. No straw lay on the brick floor of the ornate carriage-house. The gray light that filtered through the louvers in the window shutters, the panes of the high lantern-dome of its echoing ceiling, showed Asher a low-slung victoria carriage – open to better show off Madame’s gown when she went driving through the Botanical Gardens on a summer afternoon – a handsome German brougham, the lacquer of which gleamed with polishing, and a closed sleigh.
‘The ashes were found in this corner.’ Zudanievsky signed to the caretaker who had admitted them to open the building’s shutters, then led Asher to the corner farthest away from them. ‘As you see, he gathered together all the carriage rugs he could find here, to sleep on—’
The remains of them – corners and edges surviving around a gruesome central crater in which the very bricks had been cracked with the heat – lay there still, disarrayed by the men who’d shoveled the ashes into that locked tin box. Asher stood gazing up at the ceiling lantern, whose unshuttered panes would admit moonlight in any city less consistently overcast than St Petersburg . . .
And had to close his mouth, hard, on the first thought that came to his mind:
No vampire would sleep in this place.
Zudanievsky said, ‘Yes?’ as if he’d heard the clanging of words unsaid.
Asher thought of the secret chamber beneath the Lady Irene’s town house, the medieval crypt where Lydia had once tracked Ysidro, the lightless vaults of the Constantinople vampire lair. The double-lidded travel coffins; the locked, barred, bolted, hidden hideaways of every vampire he’d ever encountered.
And, more than those, the close, cautious, wary turn of mind that vampires developed, and the single-minded obsession with absolute control of their environment. For vampires, everything that was not about the hunt was about making sure that no possibility existed that the slightest touch of the sun’s light could reach them, could ignite their friable flesh and terminate their fragile immortality.
Twenty years in the Department had effectively pulverized Asher’s boyhood faith, but the recollection of Oxford discussions of God and Eternity returned to him, and he wondered if this were some sly jest by Whoever might be in charge of the Universe: that, in order to live forever, the vampires must surrender everything that made the world desirable. Their immortality depended upon shrinking their lives down smaller and smaller, until all that existed was the craving for a truly inviolable coffin, and blood to drink.
There were men – not vampires – he knew in the Department whose whole lives had become about hedging their world with safety precautions, about watching for enemies or possible enemies or the possibility of perhaps a possible enemy knowing where they might be . . .
He passed a hand over his bald-shaved head beneath the fur of his hat.
He was one of them.
Which was how he knew, looking about him at the open vastness of the carriage house – the broken-in glass of a nearby window showing him where the boy had entered the place – that whatever else that boy had been, he had not been a vampire.
Or not one that any master had ever trained.
And why make a fledgling, only to let him die the moment he went outside? Particularly if the master would feel – as some masters did – the agony of that blazing death?
Light – gray and weak with the rain, but glaring after the filtered gloom – splashed into the carriage house as the caretaker opened the first of the shutters.
A spontaneous mutation? Asher shivered at the thought. Yet how else would a vampire come into being, who did not know even that terrible First Principle of survival?
Was that what Theiss was doing? Creating vampires? But why do that, when he had a vampire associate?
Or did the interloper refuse, like Ysidro, to create fledglings?
But, in that case, why associate with Theiss?
And where did the Kaiser and Herr Texel come in to it?
Zudanievsky knelt on the other side of the burned scatter of rags, lifting each charred hunk of fur and carefully stowing it in the rucksack he’d brought. ‘When was the body found?’ Asher inquired, and the policeman replied:
‘Saturday evening. The caretaker found it. The ashes were already cold. I ordered all to be left as it was, save the ashes themselves, knowing you would wish to see the place undisturbed.’
‘Thank you.’ Asher looked around the cavernous chamber, as more and more light came in with the putting back of the shutters, and noted the well-kept glint of the sleigh runners, the bright sparkle of silver mountings within the brougham. No sign of restraints that might have bound a doomed vampire, of ropes or chains . . . Not that ropes would hold the Undead. Or chains, unless they were either damned thick or coated with silver. ‘Did you search the room?’
‘I had not time for more than a quick – what would you call it? A brush-over? Like the maid who shakes out the antimacassars when she has not time to beat the carpets. It was near darkness when I got here, and I knew I would return with you. What is this that we behold?’ The policeman squatted back on his heels, as Asher began his own process of lifting, shaking, folding the scorched and fragile furs. ‘What is it that you expect to find, Gospodin? What is it that you know about all this, that you exhibit neither disbelief nor even surprise?’
‘If you will excuse me,’ said Asher evenly, answering in French although the policeman had spoken the last sentence in Russian, ‘my Russian is not so good.’
Don’t you try to trap ME with an old ruse like that, Gospodin.
‘Pff!’ Zudanievsky waved a gray-gloved little hand. ‘The wife and Monsieur “Orloff” and his sister . . . and that is all that you will tell me?’
‘It’s all that I know.’ Asher folded his arms around his drawn-up knee, faced the policeman across the cracked and blackened bricks. ‘Have you never met an American before who believes that there is more in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the philosophies of so-called “scientific minds”?’
‘I have. And I pray to Saint Joshua, who looks after the affairs of such as you and I, to deliver me from Americans who believe in ectoplasm and teleportation . . . Yet seldom have I met such an American who has made his own fortune in railroads and packing houses.’
‘Come to Chicago,’ retorted Asher with a grin, ‘and I’ll introduce you to a hundred, Gospodin. D’you plan to arrest me for it?’
‘I should.’ Zudanievsky returned the grin, that gray featureless face suddenly looking like a wicked little elf. ‘Just to see what consul you actually go to.’ He pushed his spectacles straight on his nose. ‘But through my skin – and after thirty years of chasing revolutionaries and anarchists who turn out to be police spies themselves – through my skin I feel that you know the truth of things that other men do not even believe in, and that if I had you thrown out of the country, I would get no answers . . . And these poor luckless boys and girls would continue to disappear.’ He turned back a fold of blanket, where a forgotten dust of ash and bone lay in a little heap. ‘And worse, I think. Here,’ he added, and at the sharpness of his voice, Asher unfolded his long legs and crossed to him in a stride.
Zudanievsky sat back, a tin box in his hand, of the sort that English rum-toffees were sold in, slightly larger and thicker than the palm of a man’s hand. He shook it, and something thudded and clicked faintly within. As Asher knelt beside him, the policeman opened it.
It contained two severed fingers of a woman’s hand. Well-kept, well-manicured, clean and without calluses, one of them circled by a pearl ring. All this Asher noted in the second or two between the opening of the box to the daylight and the moment when the fingers burst into searing and unquenchable flame.