Blood Maidens (Page 18)

EIGHTEEN

And there it was.

Lydia thumbed the tightly-folded packet of counterfoils for the third time, seeking a note of explanation, but found none. Jamie must have parceled this up in a terrible hurry, not even to have enclosed word of where he’d found all these things. Knowing Jamie, she guessed he’d burgled Petronilla Ehrenberg’s house . . .

She wondered if he’d burned it down afterwards, to cover his tracks. It would be like him.

It appeared that Petronilla Ehrenberg owned property on the north bank of the Neva across from Elaghinskoy Island: the former monastery of St Job. Lydia’s sense of St Petersburg geography was good enough by this time to place it, on the outer edge of the grimy ring of factories that surrounded the city, within walking distance of the Vyborg-side slums. There was also a town house on the Sadovaia Oulitza in the Smolny district, as well as the ‘small factory building’ at the familiar address on Samsonievsky Prospect.

And she’s clearly found a woman willing to serve her, to BE Petronilla Ehrenberg by daylight. That must have been what Rasputin saw.

She shuffled the stiff law-hand documents into chronological order, noting names, dates, bank-account numbers.

Juggling identities was nothing new for a vampire. Petra Ehrenberg – the real Petra Ehrenberg, who had become Undead in 1848 – had taken over the name and identity of her ‘niece’ Paulina, and then made a new identity as Petronilla years later. Did the woman she had spoken to at the clinic – this green-eyed woman in the Doucet suit and sables who flirted by daylight with Benedict Theiss in Petronilla Ehrenberg’s name . . . Did she realize that it was the custom of vampires to murder their servants when they were done with them? Or does she think she’ll be the exception to that rule?

For a moment, the recollection of Margaret Potton lying dead on their bed in Constantinople overwhelmed her: the waxen face, the blue eyes staring, the mouth agape, as if she’d died gasping for the oxygen her lungs were no longer getting . . .

If I pound on her door and tell her, thought Lydia, she’ll only turn that information over to the REAL Petronilla, hiding in her dark crypt somewhere . . .

She knew from her dealings with Margaret and Ysidro how intransigent the victim of that seduction could be, when asked to consider any explanation other than the one that the vampire had planted in the victim’s dreams.

Besides, I promised Jamie that I wouldn’t.

Lydia took some deep breaths. It was a few minutes before Margaret’s image retreated.

But what I CAN do is have a look at the place.

Unlike many so-called ‘country dachas’ on the properties of the rich, the cottage behind Razumovsky’s palace really was a cottage. True, its four rooms were furnished more like a rustic stage-set for a pantomime fairy-tale than the dwelling of actual peasants, but at least it didn’t have its own ballroom and marble-tubbed baths, like the ‘cottage’ owned by the Baroness Sashenka’s husband. Lydia sought out Rina – the sturdy little cook – in the cellar, a gloomy rabbit-hole beneath the kitchen, which was, like every cellar in St Petersburg, as damp as a well; she’d never gotten used to the high-handed way the Petersburg ladies had of leaving the servants to guess whether they’d be in for dinner or not. Rina’s French was limited to ‘coq au vin’ and ‘Joyeaux Noël’, but Lydia had made notes for herself of important phrases in Russian, such as, ‘I will not be here for dinner,’ and, ‘Please ask Sergei to draw me a bath.’ (A European bath was also different from a Russian bath, which was what was known in England as a Turkish bath, more or less. Even in Turkey, Lydia had not had a Turkish bath, and she was not sure – despite the languorous urging of Razumovsky’s sister Natalia – that she felt up to utilizing the log-built banya at the end of the graveled path near the river.)

Dinner having been arranged for, Lydia changed her lacy ‘at-home’ gown for a very dashing carriage-dress, a Paquin medley of dark and pale greens that Natalia had supervised the purchase of (‘Those English things make you look like someone’s virgin sister, darling . . .’), made sure she had her little packet of picklocks buttoned to the lower edge of her corset, then walked the fifty yards or so through the woods to the stables, which rose, like a minor Versailles of gold-and-cream-colored stucco, before one reached the Razumovsky palace itself. Ivan – the only member of the stable staff who spoke French – chided her like a good-natured father for not having sent one of the maids with an order to get the carriage ready and bring it to the izba’s door, but let her sit on the bench in the yard to watch the harnessing-up. ‘I should send you back to the izba, to wait like a respectable lady, Gospozha,’ said the coachman with a grin, as he re-emerged from his private door a few moments later, very trim and un-Ivan-like in his conservative ‘day’ livery of maroon piped with pale blue. ‘What would His Excellency say, eh? Now, where is it that you have the wish to go?’

It was clear to Lydia that the Monastery of St Job had originally been built in the countryside, a mile or two back from the Neva, at some point early in the preceding century, when St Petersburg had been much smaller and the world much cleaner; Lydia was not in the slightest surprised that the monks had moved out. A factory producing rolling stock for Russia’s railways stood a hundred yards away, drearily excreting smoke that yellowed the air and made Lydia’s eyes burn as Ivan steered the team among the oozing ruts of the unpaved street. From the gates of the factory, from the doorways of grubby taverns or the steps of those endless, rickety wooden tenements, bearded, filthy men in faded clothing watched the gleaming vehicle pass with eyes that smoldered with resentment. As the brougham approached the dreary wasteland of railroad spur-lines and factory sheds that covered what had once been the monastery’s orchards, a child ran from an alley and flung a handful of horse dung at its shining side.

‘Are you sure of your directions, Gospozha?’ asked Ivan doubtfully, leaning back to the communicating window.

Though considerably intimidated at the thought of getting out of the carriage, Lydia replied firmly, ‘I’m sure that it’s the Monastery of St Job that I was asked to inquire at.’ I have walked into vampire nests and survived rioting Turks in the back alleys of Constantinople, she told herself. Each of those men has a liver, a spleen, two kidneys, two lungs . . . I’ve taken apart the corpses of men like them and they all look the same inside . . .

The coachman shook his head and said something in Russian. Ahead of them, in the midst of a rut-creased field of waste ground, the old monastery’s walls rose, soot black and leprous with lichen and decay. A couple of men – bearded bundles of rags – crouched beside a fire built on the other side of a muddy lane nearby, but no one and nothing seemed willing to go anywhere near the walls themselves. There had apparently been a lane leading to the gates at one time, but it was barely visible, as a series of gravel patches and potholes in the gluey muck. The gate itself – old wrought-iron in a strange severe pattern – was backed with sheet iron, both forbidding and unspeakably desolate.

‘Gospozha—’ Ivan protested, as at Lydia’s signal he reined to a halt.

‘It’s quite all right,’ said Lydia firmly. She removed her spectacles and stepped down, gingerly holding up her skirt hem. ‘I’m just going to have a look round.’

‘There is no one here, Gospozha.’ The coachman flung his arms wide in exasperation. ‘You can see, the place has been deserted many years.’

‘I was told there was a man living here that my husband wished me to find.’ Lydia had found – she did not know why – that the fabrication of a mission undertaken at a husband’s behest made more sense to most men than a woman undertaking action on her own. ‘I may have been misled, but I do need to at least knock on the gates.’ Across the unpaved lane, and beyond the corner of the walls, stretched several more acres of waste ground, in places fenced with boards, the torn-out sections of which showed a gaggle of makeshift huts at the far side – apparently deserted – and sheets of water and mud. In the grimy light – it was seven in the evening, but the sun stood disorientingly high in the sky – it looked ghastly beyond description, but not actively menacing. ‘Stay here with the carriage, if you will, please.’ She turned her back on Ivan’s arguments – and he couldn’t really follow her if he ever expected to see horse or carriage again, in this neighborhood – and, holding up her elegant skirts, she approached the squat arch of the gate.

It was, as she had expected, locked. What surprised her a little was that the lock was new – she put on her spectacles again once she was close – the steel bright and unrusted. There was little rust on the iron backing-sheet, either, and the welds that held it to the older ironwork looked recent as well.

Petronilla Ehrenberg – according to Jamie’s pilfered counterfoils – had arranged for the purchase of this place two years ago, in the spring of 1909.

Lydia moved off to the left, trying to remember whether it was bad luck to walk around a church to the right or to the left – does a deconsecrated monastery count as a church? – towards a tower-like irregularity of the wall, hoping to find another gate or door. The place was much bigger than it appeared to be, sprawling away into what looked like it had been another orchard, the trees now mostly cut down for firewood. A stagnant canal bordered it on the north – Lydia recalled passing a disused watergate just beyond the big Naval stores factory – and, even at the distance of many yards, the stench was overpowering. On its bank, as in the field opposite, a couple of dirty camps had been set up, but the sheds seemed empty, trails of looted trash seeming to ooze from their grimy entrances. ‘The monks have to have kept farm animals,’ said Lydia to herself, ‘and that means . . . Ah, here we are.’

The remains of a ruined barn – picked nearly clean of its planking by the frozen poor in wintertime – backed against the monastery wall. Stepping cautiously into the dilapidated shadows, Lydia saw at once the smaller gate, which led through, presumably, from the kitchen quarters. It, too, was locked – the lock also new – but above it, where the loft floor had been, another door pierced the wall. A little searching revealed the remains of the steps that had once led to the loft, and Lydia climbed up and made her way – keeping warily to such flooring as remained over the huge beams, since the planks elsewhere looked rotted and treacherous – to that upper entrance.

It was closed, but the rusted lock had been broken. A hinge had been loosened as well, making the off-balance door hard to push, but the door of the bicycle shed at her Aunt Faith’s country place had been similarly crippled, and Lydia remembered the knack of lifting and pushing. Once she got it open enough to slither through, the smell inside was worse than the sewer stink of the streets, a miasma at once metallic and chemical. That much struck her instantly – that, and the fact that the single window which once had lighted the round, bare little chamber immediately within had been boarded over, rendering the room pitch dark.

Only the bleak light of the open doorway showed her a second door on the far side of the round room, leading into the monastery itself.

Beyond that door she heard the scuff and pat of footsteps, fleeing down stairs.

Lydia called, ‘Hello?’

You imbecile, whoever’s here probably doesn’t speak English . . .

‘Alors? Qui est lá?’

Would Russian monks speak French? Father Gregory certainly didn’t . . .

She fished in her handbag for the stub of a candle she’d formed the habit of carrying, lit it. By the dim yellow glow she saw that the inner door wasn’t locked or bolted. When she pushed it open, it was to find herself on a spiraling staircase, rising above into blackness, descending before her feet into an abyssal night.

Dark or light, vampires won’t even be awake at this hour . . .

Through her collar lace she quickly touched the heavy silver links of the chain she wore around her neck. The footfalls might, of course, be one of those horrible bearded factory-workers she’d seen in the streets outside. But if Petronilla Ehrenberg slept in the crypts here, even part-time, Lydia was willing to bet that the dispossessed of Petersburg gave the place wide berth. She descended the stair, left hand pressed to the central column of moist stone, candle held high in her right. ‘Qui est lá?’ she called out again, and her voice echoed in the low vaulting just over her head. Despite the relative warmth of the lengthening days, in here the damp cold was arctic. ‘Je m’appelle Madame Asher . . . Je cherche Madame Ehrenberg . . .’

Another small round room; a door firmly locked with a new American Yale. The walls here had been painted at one time, a hideous procession of peeling faces and boneless bodies in the stiff, unreal style of the old Russian icons. Only somber eyes and upraised hands remained. After a bare yard of landing, the stair continued down, and the smell that breathed from below was rank with the seepage of half a million slum cesspits.

Curiously, Lydia saw no rats.

The yellow light glinted on water below. An inch or so deep, she saw as she neared it, over a floor of broken brick. A door stood open to the blackness of deeper hell. She gathered her skirts, elevated the light.

I’m only going to have a look inside to tell Jamie . . .

Eyes flashed in the darkness. Reflective as a rat’s, human-high in the ghost-white blur of a human face.

Lydia’s breath froze in her lungs.

It must be later than I thought . . .

She’d seen vampires before, had also seen what she thought of as partial or incomplete vampires: horrible unfortunates in whom the process of physical change from human to vampire had gone appallingly awry. The thing standing in the doorway bore the signs she’d seen in poor Dennis Blaydon: the grotesque growth of the teeth – three of them, in this case not the eye teeth, but cuspids and bicuspids, grown out long enough to shred the lips – and the erupted, blistered look of the skin.

This earlier experience was the only reason she neither screamed nor ran.

And, as with the case of poor Dennis, the horror was made worse by the fact that she recognized the boy. He was the dark-haired youth – or, at least, he wore the same red-and-blue striped shirt, the same second-hand American boots – who had been speaking so earnestly to the so-called Madame Ehrenberg at the clinic. Who had gazed after that lady with his young heart in his eyes.

It was clear that he recognized Lydia.

He stretched out his hands, mumbled something around his outgrown fangs that could have been, ‘Gospozha,’ as Lydia stood, staring at him in shock and pity. ‘Gospozha, pomogitye—!’

‘It’s all right,’ said Lydia steadily. ‘Don’t be afraid – blast it – N’ayez pas peur. Je vous aiderais—’

She took a step closer, held out the candle to better see. Whether it was this gesture, or whether the boy heard something in the inky blackness behind him – or whether, at that distance, he somehow sensed the silver she wore around her throat and wrists – she didn’t know. But he flinched from her, beating at the air with his hands, and seemed to drop back into the darkness. She reached the inner door in two strides in time to hear his footfalls splashing, the candle’s tiny gleam touching black water underfoot, threading with an edge of light the stumpy groins of cistern or cellar . . . ‘Attends!’

Her voice echoed in some great space, like the midnight of the inter-dimensional abysses that Madame Muremsky and her friends were always talking about, but far smellier . . .

She stopped, heart pounding. James might have sanctioned her entry into the monastery from the ruined barn, on the grounds of seeing what was there. He might even have agreed that an investigatory probe of the stairway was allowable, to ascertain whether a second, more serious, and better accompanied visit would require a rope ladder, for instance, or a hammer and spanner.

But he would unhesitatingly have ordered her not to go through this door and, worse, her friend Josetta Beyerly would have looked down her nose and said, Oh, Lydia, that’s PRECISELY the sort of thing those birdbrained girls are always doing in novels! Come out of there at once.

Lydia backed to the stairway, hoping that someone else hadn’t come and shut one of the doors behind her.

They hadn’t.

She didn’t start shaking until she was halfway across the creaking weather-savaged beams of the old barn, in the cool milky light of the disorientingly endless afternoon. Her trembling, and the panicky sense of having only narrowly averted death, persisted all the way back to Krestovsky Island.

Stillness fell on the cells, on the day room at the end of the corridor, on the whole – Asher thought – of the Köln police station, at two. Even in the depth of the night this was unusual. In the cells there was always some sort of sound, and the previous evening a socialist student group had been taken in, young men who argued incessantly as to whether syndicalism could be trusted not to hand the whole of the movement over to the stinking bourgeoisie lickspittle pigs and abandon the true principles of anarchy . . .

They didn’t drop silent one by one, as they had in the small hours, but all at the same moment. The sudden hush seemed to echo: no other sound stirred from the watch room, or from anywhere in the building.

Asher – head throbbing from the fourth or fifth dose of Solomon Karlebach’s powder – felt the hairs rise on his nape.

The powder was almost gone. He scraped his finger around the sides of the tin, reapplied it to his tingling gums, hating its taste as he’d hated it through three nights already. Hating the ache in his bones, the hollow pain in his skull from trying to sleep in the daytime with Tweedledum and Tweedledee shouting at one another about l’Affaire Dreyfus and the Rape of Alsace and Lorraine. At the same time, he felt a gray, buzzing pressure on his mind, like a warm weight smothering him . . .

They’re here.

He got to his feet, swaying a little. He’d been searched when first arrested, and the guards had relieved him of the silver chains that protected his throat and wrists, along with his watch, Karlebach’s pincer band, and the silver-bladed knife. He stumbled to the bars and leaned against them, forced his attention to focus on the watch-room door at the end of the corridor. Thus he actually saw them come through it, a man and a woman. The man was small, sturdily built, and dark, dressed with the usual German dearth of fashionableness. The woman was taller, lush-breasted and striking, though she had never been pretty: heavy chin, hooked nose, large somber eyes, darkness reflecting light. They saw him waiting for them at the bars, and the pressure against his mind was like being drowned in laudanum. He knew he should back away and couldn’t. The woman – suddenly close – took his wrist through the bars as the man unlocked the door with one of the guardroom keys; she held him until the man was inside the cell, then came in herself while the man shoved Asher around with his back to the bars.

His mouth barely able to frame words, Asher managed to say, ‘Petronilla Ehrenberg has sold her services to the Kaiser.’

His mind cleared, sleep draining off as if from an unstoppered basin. The male vampire’s hand tightened on his shoulder, long nails digging through Asher’s shirt; his other hand gripped him by the hair at the back of his head. ‘Where is she?’

‘St Petersburg, I think. She’s working with a man in Berlin.’

‘His name?’

Asher shook his head. ‘I need to talk to him.’

It might have been the reflected gleam of gaslight in the corridor; it was as if fire flickered in the deeps of those dark, reflective eyes. Though the vampire’s face was a young man’s face, it was wrinkled all around the eyes and eyelids. His mouth was nearly lipless, curiously puckish, with an evil sidelong smile.

‘We’ll talk to him.’

‘After I do.’

Close by his ear the woman said, ‘T’cha,’ and he felt her nail trace the skin of his throat, but the man sniffed with laughter.

‘You’re going to bargain with me?’ He sounded incredulous. As well he might, Asher reflected.

‘It can’t hurt to try.’

The man’s grip tightened on his shoulder, in his hair, drawing him closer. Fangs glinted in that little smile. ‘Oh, but it can. You have no idea how much it can hurt, Herr . . . And whom have I the honor of addressing?’

‘James Asher.’ Night after night of incomplete sleep, of exhaustion, had put a dreamlike haze on everything, as if he were short of oxygen. ‘And you are—?’

‘You may call me Todesfall. And where is your Spanish friend?’

‘I don’t know. I hope he reached Berlin safely—’

‘If he did it was two days ago, and he has not troubled to return for you.’

‘I think he would have done – one way or the other – had he found the man we sought.’ This was in fact a lie, since Asher hoped – and guessed – that Ysidro had gone straight on to St Petersburg to protect Lydia, possibly without even lingering in Berlin long enough to look for Colonel von Brühlsbuttel. He could feel his heart hammering and knew that the vampires could as well; was acutely, overwhelmingly conscious of the woman standing at his shoulder, watching the beat of the pulse in his throat.

Todesfall said softly, ‘We can make you tell.’

‘Could you trust what I said?’ And he saw the dark eyes flicker, gauging that thought.

‘More importantly, could you trust what he will say . . . if you find him. Do you know enough about the workings of the Auswärtiges Amt to be able to distinguish lies from truth? Do you really want to have the Kaiser recruiting fledglings—’ He gritted his teeth against the angry clench of the vampire’s fists, and kept his voice steady with an effort. ‘Or have Petra Ehrenberg running those fledglings as her own?’

‘Bitch.’ Todesfall rammed him back against the bars with a violence that knocked the breath from his lungs. ‘Sly whore. I never trusted her—’

Asher had the good sense not to wonder aloud why, in that case, Todesfall had made her vampire, if in fact he had. He rubbed his shoulder and held his peace.

The vampire woman stepped around to the other’s side, and the two of them traded a glance; it was like feeling the cold wing of Death’s shadow cross his face. Then Todesfall grinned his sidelong grin again and nodded towards Asher’s two sleeping cell-mates: ‘Which one of these two do you want me to kill? Don’t look away like that,’ he added, catching Asher’s jaw in his hand and turning his face back, so that their eyes met again. ‘If you don’t choose one I’ll take both: two widows, how many orphans . . .? How many children do you think that one has?’ He poked the German with his knee; the man didn’t even move. ‘Five? Six? Maybe a widowed mother and a couple of ugly sisters depending on his support? What about our skinny friend over there on the other bunk? He’s older . . . Maybe his wife is in poor health? Or perhaps she minds her grandchildren . . . Little babies crying for the supper he brings—’

‘Stop it.’

‘Which one?’

Their only crime was sharing a cell with him. And keeping him awake.

He could tell Todesfall would really kill them both if he didn’t choose.

‘The older one,’ he said, and he turned his face to the wall.