Blood Maidens (Page 8)
On the way along the Nevsky Prospect in a cab, Asher recounted where and how he had seen Herr Rissler – now, apparently, Monsieur Texel – before. ‘That’s another piece of information that I shall keep to myself for the time being,’ he added, drawing the cab’s lap robe more closely around himself against the night’s brutal cold. The local population didn’t appear to mind. Carriages passed them as if it were four in the evening instead of four in the morning, and in the windows of elegant apartments above the marble-fronted shops, lamps still glowed through the raw Neva fog. ‘It was a joke in the Department, how obvious it was when the Okhrana started following one of us: one chap used to send his mistress’s footman out with hot coffee for them on cold nights. By Lydia’s list, there are nearly a dozen German specialists in blood disorders operating in Petersburg alone. It won’t take our vampire long to find another, once he learns one is blown.’
‘In truth,’ Ysidro murmured. ‘Even allowing for the fact that some of those dozen may be in Petersburg because they cannot stomach the Kaiser and his aims, as Theiss apparently claims to be. At least we know in which direction we should be looking at the moment . . . if this Theiss is indeed the man Irene saw.’ He folded his gloved hands, relapsed into silent consideration of those muffled figures on coachman’s boxes and footman’s perches, those jewel-box windows.
‘I’ll vet the others.’ Asher drew from his pocket the solid little pack of visiting cards that had been pressed into his hands in the course of the evening, at least half of them bearing scribbled invitations to tea, seances, soirées. ‘It shouldn’t be difficult, the way these people talk about each other. I’m booked for luncheon with the Circle of Astral Light on Friday . . .’
Yet in his heart he knew this was only caution. A clinic on the Samsonievsky Prospect . . . An ideal cover. Is Rissler – Texel – his only henchman? Any of the men in that enormous gold-and-crimson hall might have been German agents also. It was purely chance that I recognized Texel . . .
Would the AA send more than one agent?
They would if they believed Theiss. If they believed they could have at their call a shadow agent whom no sentry could stop, no picket see.
A German doctor here whose studies strike me as remarkably similar, the Lady Irene had written.
As if Asher had spoken her name, instead of merely thought it, he became suddenly conscious of Ysidro’s silence. Without turning from his contemplation of the street, the vampire said, ‘It is absurd to suppose that, were she still able to do so, the Lady would not feel my presence in Petersburg and contrive to get in touch with me. This policeman you spoke to – I commend your accent, by the way – said there had been ashes found, and a woman’s shoe.’
‘In the autumn,’ said Asher quickly. ‘Your friend’s letter was written in February.’
Ysidro turned his head, the tiniest human flex to his brows: evidently surprised, and – surprisingly – touched, at the offer of comfort. ‘Such being the case,’ he said after a time, ‘whose, then? Golenischev spoke of no such loss among his nest.’
‘And, in any event, it wasn’t our pro-German Undead, either. Would Golenischev have lied? Or would the girl have been a fledgling of this Prince Dargomyzhsky they spoke of?’
‘Had she been, I cannot imagine Golenischev would not have thrown the fact at his little rebels last night, in the midst of all that drama and blood. And while we who hunt the night distrust our own kind, ’tis almost unheard of for a vampire to kill another vampire or engineer his death.’
‘Would Lady Eaton have written to you, had one of the Petersburg vampires come to grief? Or of the rebellion in the Petersburg nest?’
The slight tilt of the Spaniard’s head would, in another man, have been sharply raised eyebrows, an elaborate scoff, and – in the case of the fragile old Warden of New College – an upflung hand and a disbelieving cry of, My DEAR Asher—! ‘She had little use for the other vampires of Petersburg,’ said Ysidro, as the breaking ice on the Moyka flashed below them, jeweled by the reflected lights on the bridge. ‘Never in her letters to me did she so much as mention the names of Golenischev’s fledglings. And the letter she sent me at the time of the assassination of the present Tsar’s grandfather made no mention of the event, and she only touched upon the rioting here six years ago insofar as it inconvenienced her hunting.’
His scarred forehead tugged into the tiniest ghost of a frown, and for an instant Asher recalled the rusted harp and the long-dried leather of those book covers, a library of mathematics and scientific theory that had not been updated in the course of nearly a century.
‘As to this traitor to the ranks of the Undead, and whether Golenischev is lying for some reason – and indeed whether this division in the Petersburg nest has any connection at all to the conference that Irene saw – I suspect that, for answers, we will be obliged to travel to Moscow, to ask these things of the vampires there. Can you be prepared to leave tomorrow night – this coming day’s night? There is a train at midnight, from the Warsaw Station.’
Which should arrive – Asher did some rapid mental calculation – at two the following afternoon. ‘I’ll be there.’ Arguing with Ysidro was a waste of time at best, when he had made up his mind. ‘Is there anything about this journey that I need to know?’ The scars that tracked Asher’s throat and forearms under the protective silver chains had been acquired the first time he’d gone to Paris with Ysidro.
‘The less you know the better.’ The cab squeaked to a halt by the lodge of the Imperatrice Catherine; Asher stepped down, letting Ysidro pay. ‘Vampires have preternatural skill in knowing when the living are on their track. I think it best, after you have left my trunks at the address I have hired for myself, for you to go directly to your own rooms and remain there.’
‘I agree,’ said Asher. ‘And does the Master of Moscow speak French?’
Ysidro’s eyes narrowed – he had clearly heard something about the Master of Moscow – but an evening in the company of the Petersburg vampires, and another strolling among the haut ton of the Theosophical Society and its hangers-on, had probably led him to believe that most Russians spoke French . . . Which, Asher was well aware, was not the case. Upper-class Petersburgers did – in many cases, better than they spoke Russian.
But Moscow wasn’t Petersburg. Its master, Asher was uncomfortably aware, might well be some bearded boyar who had defied Peter the Great and considered French merely the language of Napoleon’s vanquished troops.
‘I shall remain at your lodging,’ said Asher, ‘and trust that if it so happens that you do need my services as a translator, you’ll protect me from the consequences of overhearing the conversation.’
For King and Country? To keep the horror of the falling bombs, the slow-oozing gas, in his dreams, where it had lurked for a dozen years?
Or for the friend who had written, ‘By the love I bear you . . .’ to a woman who had disappeared?
‘I will do all within my power –’ there was no trace of the usual light irony in Ysidro’s voice – ‘to keep you from harm. I thank you,’ he added, almost hesitantly, ‘for your assistance in this matter. The Lady Irene—’
Asher thought, later, that the vampire had been about to speak of just why it was that he had come nearly a thousand miles to the Arctic circle – that he was about to admit that it had little to do with the governments of the world availing themselves of the services of vampires. Instead, there was one of those disconcerting moments of mental blindness, from which Asher jerked, blinking, a minute – or two minutes – or five minutes – later, to find himself alone on the flagway before the handsome bronze doors of the Imperatrice Catherine, with no Ysidro in sight.
As he climbed the steps to where the dvornik waited by the open door (doubtless noting when Jules Plummer came in, for the benefit of the Secret Police), Asher wondered if Ysidro – raised in Toledo at the height of the Counter-Reformation – believed in Hell.
‘One reads of cases now and then.’ Gospodin Zudanievsky’s French was not the pure unaccented Parisian of French governesses and expensive education abroad, but sounded, to Asher’s trained ear, like a painstaking schoolboy familiarity, built upon by years of dealing with foreign visitors to the Russian capital. All sorts of inflections cluttered it: Italian, German, English, American. He longed to sit the policeman down and take notes.
The corridors of that solid brick edifice across from the Peter and Paul Fortress had not changed since ’94. They still stank of smoke and sweat and the lingering back-taste of mildew. Cheap pine tables narrowed the hallways, heaped with the decades-deep backlog of Russian paperwork – forms, reports, permissions, requests for permissions, requests for further information before permission could be granted . . . When last Asher had been brought this way, there had been no Entente Cordiale between the Queen’s Empire and the Tsar’s. He spent an extremely unpleasant seventy-two hours in a small chamber in the basement before the Okhrana had finally believed his totally mendacious story and let him go. He knew how close he’d come to never being heard from again.
Had Zudanievsky been with the department then? He didn’t recall the man, but nevertheless increased his swagger and his drawl. ‘Well, what I always think is, like Hamlet says, there’s more things than meet the eye.’ He puffed on his very American and extremely foul-smelling cigar. ‘Things that can’t be explained. I admit, a lot of ’em are total horse-hockey. That woman in Paris they always talk about, back in whenever it was, seventeen hundred and something . . . You can’t tell me it wasn’t her husband that soaked her in gin and lit a match. But some of those others . . .’ He shook his head. ‘I just don’t know.’
‘And this Orloff—’
‘Or whatever his name was.’
‘Precisely. He said that a relative of his—?’
‘His sister,’ agreed Asher somberly. ‘He told my— Well, I happened to be party to a conversation where this kind of thing came up, and another of the folks there kind of scoffed at it, and he said no, that it really could happen because it had happened. His sister caught fire, he said, out of the clear blue, with no fire in the room nor nothing to burn, and she sure wasn’t no drinker, the way some of these poor folk here was. He said the fire was so hot it burned up even her bones. He said— He was damn shook up about it. You could see it. Now, I’ve traveled some, and I do know how much fuel it takes to make a fire that hot and reduce a grown woman’s body down to nothing.’
‘And did he say,’ inquired Zudanievsky, pale eyes sliding sidelong to Asher behind the fish-eye spectacles, ‘if his sister had been involved in any . . . any curious activity, prior to her immolation?’
‘Is pourin’ vodka over her own head what you’re talkin’ about?’ If he could have kept his heart from beating quicker at the question he would have – the policeman had the look of a man who could have heard such a thing. Curious activity???
They turned a corner and passed through a narrow door. Asher felt his hair rising on the nape of his neck at the smell of the low-ceilinged corridor, dingy with gaslight and seeming to sweat fear from its walls. The stair they’d taken him down was at the far end . . . But Zudanievsky turned almost at once and unlocked a little office.
‘Nothing of that kind.’ There were shelves in the room and boxes on the shelves. Zudanievsky lowered the gasolier down closer over the central table – battered, stained, with the air of careless uncleanness so familiar in the offices of Russian police – then fetched a stout tin lock-box from a shelf. ‘Was Devushka Orloff mixed up in any club or organization, in the months before the . . . incident? Did her brother ever mention the Circle of Astral Light, or the Cult of the World Soul?’
Asher laid his cigar on the edge of the table. ‘Now, that I don’t know. It was only the one time he talked about this, and he was a little drunk – and, like I said, his name might not have been Orloff. He did say he hadn’t seen much of her . . .’
Asher pulled a face of mild frustration. ‘You know, if he said it I just don’t recollect. This conversation was about six months ago. He said, I hadn’t seen her, but I don’t know whether that meant he was away, or she was away, or they just wasn’t speakin’—’
‘How old was the girl?’
Asher shook his head once more.
‘And did he say he was in the same house with her – the same building – when she burned?’
Asher considered the matter – trying to look as if he were calling back the conversation, but in fact debating what would sound the most convincing – then said, ‘It sounded like it. I got that impression, but to be honest, I don’t recall what he said that led me to think it. Why d’you ask, sir?’
Zudanievsky lifted the lid of the box. It contained about a quart of grayish dust, mixed with chunks of what Asher recognized as teeth and bone. On top lay a little oilcloth packet, wrapped loosely enough that he could see a pair of brown, low-heeled pumps inside.
‘Since midwinter of 1908, seventeen young men and women have disappeared from the slum district north of the river called the Vyborg-side. Seventeen.’ The policeman produced a magnifying glass and a pair of forceps from one pocket, held them out to Asher, and reached up to angle the gasolier so that its light fell more clearly into the box. ‘It is one of the most vile slums in Petersburg. People vanish there all the time. They freeze, they starve, they get drunk and fall into the river . . .’ The policeman’s cold, pale eyes rested consideringly on Asher’s face.
‘It’s the factory district, isn’t it?’ Asher frowned as if he’d barely heard of the place.
‘One of them. Factories, tenements . . . hovels that would disgrace a Chinese village.’ Sudden anger, startling after the man’s flat calm, flared in the policeman’s voice. ‘And they wonder why the strikes start there, why the riots start there, why half the troublemakers in Petersburg come from there . . .’ His mouth pinched up, as if catching back unwise words, tucking them away where his superiors might not come upon them.
With the same gray evenness, he went on, ‘But these who have been disappearing are young: thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. Some of the boys were care-for-nothing toughs who worked at the armaments factories; some of them were good little lads who slaved in the navy rope-works and brought their paychecks home to matyushka. A couple of the girls were part-time streetwalkers, and others did nothing but look after their baby brothers and sisters all day and take in sewing for a couple of kopecks at night.’
Asher put on his gloves to pick up the shoes, turned them over in the gaslight to look at the soles. ‘New,’ he murmured. He turned back the uppers as far as they’d separate, took off his pince-nez to examine the lining through the magnifier. ‘Was the flesh in them consumed?’ The lining was stained and discolored, the leather barely charred. A vampire. Either Golenischev was lying, or . . .
‘Yes. Not as badly, and all of the bones survived.’
Asher – reaching for one of the teeth with the forceps – realized he had slipped for an instant back into his true self, set the instrument down, picked up his cigar, and frowned as if he hadn’t the slightest idea what to make of it all. ‘Lordy.’
‘Did your Gospodin Orloff ever say what his sister’s name was?’
‘Not that I recollect, sir,’ Asher scowled for a time at the boxful of ashes, filled with the calm familiar chill of the chase that had made Abroad so delicious in the early days. Like putting together a glass jigsaw-puzzle that could explode in your hands. Then he glanced at his companion from beneath heavy brows and asked, ‘What do you make of it, Mr Zudanievsky? I can’t see no factory girl wearing that shoe.’
‘No – they generally do wear hand-me-downs from their mothers and sisters. Yet it is not an expensive shoe. It’s the sort of thing factories turn out by the thousand.’
‘The girl could have stolen it, if she worked where they made ’em. I take it she was no relation to anyone who lived in the building where she was found?’
‘Not that anyone knew of. The room was only empty by chance, because the old man who’d died there a few days before had died of scarlet fever, and the fear of contagion was still fresh. Generally, there are people renting sleeping space even on the floors of the hall.’
Asher chewed silently on a corner of his mustache. There were tenements in the East End of London of which the same could be said. He was aware of Zudanievsky watching him again, sizing up this ‘friend’ of Prince Razumovsky’s for whom it behooved him to do a favor.
The policeman led him to a map on the wall, the loop of the Neva and the maze of streets interspersed with the dark blocks of monasteries, churches, factories, railway stations . . . and, towards the islands of the gulf, the wider open spaces where those graceful palaces stood among the birch groves, behind their walls and their lodges. Those private fairylands and ‘peasant’ dachas where the pillows on the simple beds were wrought of China silk.
As Zudanievsky had said, And they wonder . . .
‘The black pins mark where the boys lived, who have disappeared,’ said the policeman. ‘The red pins, the girls. Those are the dates written in beside them.’
Asher was silent, studying the penciled marks. Even given a major war between Undead factions, this didn’t sound like anything any sane vampire would do. ‘Between March and May,’ he said at last. ‘A few in the summer months, but nothing after the first of September – not last year, nor the year before.’
‘What does that say to you?’
Asher considered the map, seeking a pattern and finding none. ‘Longer daylight hours? They could walk farther?’
‘So I thought.’
‘And these are all? None from other districts?’
‘None,’ said the policeman. ‘They are children who would not be missed. Or rather, children who are missed by people whose missing children do not matter.’
‘Except to yourself?’
‘It isn’t my business.’ The set of Zudanievsky’s mouth belied the words. Asher guessed that this was something he had been told, by someone he had asked. ‘The first one wasn’t, nor the second, nor the third . . . But when eight go missing, and then nine . . . Then people become angry. Stories start to circulate – ridiculous stories, but dangerous. Then it becomes my business.’
Silence again, the two men considering the scatter of red and black. Like droplets of blood and beads of night.
‘And this year?’
‘One,’ said Zudanievsky. ‘Last week. Evgenia Greb, fifteen years old. She worked in a boot factory near the artillery depot. On the fifteenth of March—’
Asher, startled, mentally readjusted his calendar to the Julian.
‘—she simply didn’t come home.’
‘Has anyone spoken to her family? Her friends?’
Zudanievsky sniffed. ‘Those who would ask them would get no answers, because people in the Vyborg-side know who half of our informers are . . . and the other half dare not ask, for fear of being revealed for what they are. I hoped we’d be lucky, this year . . . I understand you’ve purchased a ticket for Moscow tonight.’
‘Just making enquiries about Orloff or . . . or someone else I’m looking for.’ Asher knit his brows and made a dismissive little gesture, trying to look like a man who wasn’t perfectly aware that the Okhrana knew all about his allegedly absconding wife. ‘I should be back Monday. I’m not sure where I’ll be staying, but if another of these young people disappears – or if you learn anything further about this poor girl – I’d be grateful if you’d leave me word at my rooms. I’m at the Imperatrice Catherine – though I suppose you know that already?’
The policeman made a little bow, like a fencer acknowledging a hit. ‘Anything to oblige a friend of the Prince, Gospodin. I shall indeed send word.’