Blood Maidens (Page 24)

TWENTY-FOUR

As a general rule, the Department didn’t go in for disguises. Most of its employees were long-timers like McAliester and Bickern, permanently part of the local landscape. Their disguise was simply that they were the Germans they would have been, had they been born and brought up in Germany rather than Britain. If an alteration in appearance was rendered necessary by circumstances, it was usually effected by simple change – standing differently, a different mode of speech and behavior: I know I look a little like the person you’re looking for, but as you can see I’m really not anything like him . . .

Nevertheless, a great deal could be accomplished in an emergency with a change of raiment and accent, and one of Bickern’s jobs was to provide the wherewithal, if needed, for quick exits. This could extend to hair dye, eyeglasses, spirit gum, and what Shakespeare referred to as ‘an usurpéd beard.’

Resplendent in the most nondescript of German suits – and no German’s suit ever fit him the way a Frenchman’s or Englishman’s did – and a close-cropped beard reminiscent of the Tsar’s, Asher took a public tram out to Potsdam and walked to the Charlottenstrasse at about the time when the maidservants in those handsome houses – behind the sandstone porters’-lodges, the sweeping brick driveways – were ‘doing’ the bedrooms and their smooth-haired mistresses were embarking on the third cup of after-breakfast coffee. An occasional Palladian facade or Mansard roof spoke of landed wealth, of Junkers who controlled the peasants on their land exactly as if those peasants were still the medieval serfs they had been up until the days of Napoleon. But, for the most part, these were the houses of the wealthy industrialists whose factories worked day and night to provide weapons and munitions for Germany’s armies, and the marketable goods for the colonial empire that Germany intended to enlarge with victory.

Carriage horses, matched down to the height of their white stockings, drew shiny victorias under the new-leafed trees: young ladies in stylish furs, rigidly guarded by chaperones, on their way for an ‘airing’. No vulgar motor cars here. Nannies in black marched well-mannered toddlers firmly along the paths. Asher heard one admonish her charges not to dawdle, though what was the point of taking children for a walk if not to let them linger over tadpoles in the ditches or unfamiliar flowers by the wayside? Nevertheless, he recalled his own nanny had had precisely the same attitude about walks. We must step out quickly if we are to reach the park in time to turn around and come home for lunch.

Kleinerschloss was an ostentatious brick villa set back from the road among elm trees. Through ornamental metal railings, Asher glimpsed stables in the back. There was no porter in the lodge, however, and Asher, finding the gate closed but not locked, pushed it open and ascended the graveled drive to the door. As he neared it, the porter, uniformed in dark blue livery, emerged from around the corner of the house and begged his pardon with polite suspicion: could he be of assistance to the gnädiger Herr?

‘My name is Filaret,’ said Asher – that was the name on his new set of identity papers, at any rate – ‘and I have a message for Colonel von Brühlsbuttel.’ The man wasn’t in mourning, he observed, so at least Ysidro hadn’t murdered the head of the house.

‘You may give the message to me, Honored Sir.’ The porter bowed with military precision. Ex-cavalry, Asher guessed. And not long out of the service, either. ‘I will see that he gets it.’

‘A thousand pardons.’ Asher, who had taken the precaution of actually writing out and sealing a completely meaningless message in the back room of the Golden Inkstand, returned the bow. ‘I have been commissioned to place it into the hand of Colonel von Brühlsbuttel only.’

The front door opened; the butler came out, who was likewise ex-cavalry, and the porter’s height to an inch. Someone must have matched them like the carriage horses, except that the butler was adorned with a moderate-sized paunch and an enormous fair mustache. ‘I am afraid this is not possible, Herr Filaret. The Herr Colonel has gone.’

‘Gone?’

‘This morning.’ A look of concern clouded the man’s blue eyes. ‘He had a telegram, which he showed to no one, but which upset him very much. He packed a few things and left by the early train.’

‘Left for where?’ asked Asher, and he managed to radiate the air of a man vexed by additional difficulties in delivering his letter, instead of confronted by potential disaster.

The butler shook his head, baffled, and replied, ‘St Petersburg.’

‘Are you feeling better, Madame?’ Dr Theiss took her wrist gently in one hand, angled his little mirror to the window light to peer into her eye. ‘Very good – how many fingers do you see?’

Though she was, in fact, feeling considerably better, Lydia made a show of flinching from the light, whispered, ‘I don’t know – three? Four? My head . . .’

‘It’s all right. Can you not eat?’ He looked at the untouched porridge, then poured her out a glass of the weak lemonade that had been left with it.

Lydia shook her head. Though profoundly queasy, she could have done with the lemonade, but feared it might be drugged. Or worse, she thought, remembering the vicious glint in Petronilla Ehrenberg’s eyes.

Theiss, she thought, was remembering it as well, to judge by the hushed tone of his deep voice and the way he kept glancing back at the door, which he had, she noticed, shut carefully behind him.

‘Do you feel strong enough to speak with me a little?’ he asked. ‘Tell me, please . . . This vampire who was with you in the cottage – who is he? Why did he come to you there? Genia Greb tells me that the izba was attacked by the other vampires of St Petersburg, three others, she says, and that this one – your friend—’

‘He isn’t my friend.’ Lydia turned restlessly under the light blanket. She saw that she now wore a man’s loose nightshirt, and that her hair had been taken down and brushed. She wondered if Theiss had done that, and she shuddered at the thought that it might have been pale fishy-eyed Texel.

‘She said that he bore you down the stairs to the cellar when you were hurt. That he spoke to you – behaved towards you – with great tenderness. Is this man English? Did he come here with you? How is it, that you know one of the Undead? It is imperative that I know these things,’ he added urgently, taking her hands. ‘Imperative that we bring him in. Petra –’ he hesitated on her name, then corrected himself – ‘Madame Ehrenberg mistrusts him – fears him. I think she must be shown that his intentions are as good, that his heart is as pure as her own. Otherwise—’

‘Otherwise she’ll kill him,’ Lydia murmured weakly. ‘The way she killed Lady Eaton?’

The physician’s face hardened. ‘Lady Eaton, as you call her,’ he said, ‘was a murderess. A common vampire, who has killed her way down through the years—’

‘And Madame Ehrenberg has not?’

For an instant shock and anger made him draw back; when he leaned forward again, his voice was pitying. ‘Ach, how should you know, Madame?’ he said. ‘She has turned her back on all that. It has been twenty years since she has drunk human blood—’

‘Is that what she’s told you?’ demanded Lydia, struggling a little to sit up. ‘And have you known her through that twenty years? Have you been with her every minute of that time?’

‘I know her as I know myself,’ replied Theiss gently. ‘No, I have only known her these two years. Yet I feel that we have known one another for decades. She is not an untruthful woman – she has grown past that. I know what she is capable of, and I would trust her with my life.’

‘You do,’ said Lydia. ‘Every time you are together.’

‘As you do your vampire . . . acquaintance?’ He gave her a quizzical look. ‘Perhaps we should not have killed Lady Eaton. Perhaps if we’d had the serum in its completed form then, we could have injected her with it, and after a time her own cravings for the kill would have subsided, as Petra’s have. But she was intransigent. Like a wild beast, Petra said. She broke free of her restraints, attacked Petra – Madame Ehrenberg . . .’

‘Were you there?’ asked Lydia. ‘Or is this only something Madame told you?’ And, when Theiss stammered a little, she laid a hand on his wrist and went on: ‘What has she told you she wants, Dr Theiss? Is it only to be able to walk about in the daytime? Can she still affect the minds of the living? That’s something vampires can only do if they’re feeding on human blood – on human deaths.’

His eyebrows dived down over his nose; even without her spectacles she could see that. ‘Who told you that?’

‘Who told you it was otherwise?’ she returned. ‘Go down to the canal some night, by the old watergate, before the tide scours it, and drag in the shallows, if you think she isn’t still killing . . .’

He was shaking his head, the same look in his eyes that she remembered had been in Margaret Potton’s, when the little governess had been under Simon’s spell.


She went on: ‘And Lady Eaton may have been intransigent because she had the idea that since you’re a German, and Madame is a German – and since Madame’s been in correspondence for the past three years with some Colonel in Berlin – her desire to appear more human, while keeping the powers of the Undead, had more to do with getting on the good side of the Kaiser than with feeling the sunshine on her face.’

He jerked to his feet. ‘That is outrageous! Petra feels as I do about the “Kaiser” and his so-called “Reich”! All she wants – all I want – is to have human happiness, human love . . .’

Lydia sat up, though her head throbbed abominably, and she had to catch her balance against the wall with one hand. ‘And is that what comes next?’ she said. ‘You make it possible for vampires to walk around in the daytime, then she makes you a vampire and you live happily forever and ever?’ She couldn’t see his face well enough to know what effect her words had, but he stood frozen, a massive blur in his white coat. ‘Dr Theiss, they are seducers. That is their power. It’s how they hunt. It’s how they work. The man I was with – the vampire . . . I’ve seen him do it. I’ve seen him get into peoples’ dreams, the way Madame got herself into Evgenia’s and Kolya’s and probably those of all the other poor children she’s been turning into vampires so that you have a source of vampire blood—’

He put his hand quickly to his temple. ‘Who said anything about dreams?’

Lydia only sat, looking up at him. ‘Ask her about her friend in Berlin.’

He took a step forward, reached out. ‘You poor child—’

‘No.’ Lydia pushed his hand aside. ‘You poor man. And while you’re asking her, ask her how it is that a member of the German Intelligence Service ended up knocking on your door asking for a—’

She stopped.

Petronilla Ehrenberg was in the room.

Lydia hadn’t seen her enter . . . Not that one ever did. She couldn’t make out her face, but didn’t need to. The anger that radiated from her rigid body was almost palpable, like waves of heat. Lydia’s face must have told Theiss what was behind him because he turned swiftly, held out his hands . . .

‘Dearest one.’

Deadly quiet, she asked, ‘Did I not make it clear to you that you were not to see this woman – nor the girl Evgenia – without me being present in the room?’

‘I searched for you, my beautiful one, and I am sorry—’

‘I told you to wait.’ There was an edge to Petronilla’s voice that prickled the hair on Lydia’s head.

‘Indeed you did—’

‘If I cannot trust you, who can I trust?’ she cut in shrilly over his words. ‘I placed my life in your hands, Benedict, because you assured me that you loved me . . . Were you lying, then? I turned against my own kind for your sake. Am I next to find out that what you say is in the serum you’re giving me is something entirely different than I think? Is that what’s causing this?’

With a swift gesture, she ripped open the top of her dress, claw-like nails shredding the fawn-colored silk to show mottled red spots on her breasts’ perfect whiteness, as if Satan had pressed his burning thumb into snow and left blisters behind.

‘Petra, please—’

‘Or this?’ As casually as one of Lydia’s aunts ripping up a piece of notepaper, she tore her sleeve free, to show more marks. ‘Is that the reason for the voices I keep hearing? For the lights?’

‘My beautiful one.’ Theiss stepped over to her, and she was close enough that Lydia could see the queer gleam in those terrible eyes; the fixed stare that gave her the feeling that Petronilla’s words were not addressed to the man before her, but to someone entirely different. Like a husband confronted with a beloved wife’s temper tantrum, Theiss pulled the torn silk back up over Madame’s shoulders. ‘You said you burned yourself on a lamp. When did—?’

‘Are you calling me a liar?’ She slithered from his embarrassed, fussing touch. ‘Are you planning to turn me into a – a thing, like that latest boy, or like that silly girl whose skin all came off—?’

‘Liebling, no, of course not. Those were mistakes, terrible mistakes! But I do see now that the serum overexcites you sometimes—’

‘Don’t touch me!’ She screamed the words, rounded on him, struck him full force, sending him sprawling like a rag doll, and the next instant she was on him.

Lydia heard his shirt rip; he screamed ‘NO!’ and she buried her fangs in his throat.

Nothing exists but the kill, Simon had told her once, and Lydia hoped that was the truth as she rolled from the cot, gathered up the baggy nightshirt in hand, and ran – stumbling, reeling, every second terrified that she would collapse, still in the room or in the chapel or somewhere Madame would see her. Behind her she heard Theiss scream again, and this time there was nothing human in the sound.

Simon, she thought, I can’t leave Simon behind in this place—

And the next moment, in her mind, she heard Ysidro’s soft calm voice saying, Don’t be an imbecile, Mistress . . .

She found a flight of stone steps, railless, steep . . . Whatever you do, don’t fall . . .

The last of the milky summer twilight was visible from the bottom, and she crawled, clinging to the wall. An open door, she prayed. Please let it be an open door . . .

The arched door that led into the flagged central courtyard was open, but a grille was locked over it, gleaming silvery in the dusk. Through it, across fifty feet of open flagstones, she could see the iron sheeting of the front gates, which faced towards the railroad tracks. She rattled the silver-plated grille, but it was locked.

Picklocks. In the pillow. If I can remain hidden till she leaves . . .

The floor dipped and swayed beneath her as if she were in an earthquake, as if the whole monastery were a very small box adrift on a rough sea. She clung to the stones of the archway, forced herself to breathe deeply. There has to be a way down to the crypts somewhere. Genia – or maybe it was Madame Muremsky – said there were miles of rooms and hallways and vaults down there . . .

She waited until her balance returned, then hurried along the corridor, bare feet patting the stone. Thank Heavens it’s summer and not the dead of winter . . .

She was reaching for the handle of the nearest door when it was opened suddenly from the other side, and she found herself face-to-face with young Mr Texel.

‘Mrs Asher,’ he said, with no appearance of surprise, and caught her arm in a brutal grip as she turned to flee. ‘You’re just the woman I wanted to see.’