The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Part One: All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 4

 

  Grey Eminences

  'I would appreciate it if Diogenes could enlighten us about the Chateau du Malinbois,' said Lord Ruthven, admiring his diamond-shaped fingernails. His expressionless monotone always set Beauregard's teeth grinding.

  Smith-Cumming, who had doffed his disguise, deferred to Beauregard.

  He cleared his throat and began, 'There's a definite air of mystery, Prime Minister. We have Condor Squadron on the problem just now. You're familiar with Jagdgeschwader 1, the Richthofen Circus. At first, we assumed the fuss around the castle was what you'd expect of such a valued unit. The Germans are fond of their fliers. '

  'As are we of ours, sir,' declared Lloyd George. 'They are the knighthood of this war, without fear and without reproach. They recall the legendary days of chivalry, not merely by the daring of their exploits, but by the nobility of their spirit. '

  'Quite so,' Beauregard agreed, assuming the Minister was quoting one of his own speeches. 'But our heroes are, on the whole, modest men. We do not require the battery of press agents and portrait photographers the German Imperial Air Service employs to puff a Max Immelmann, an Oswald Boelcke or a Manfred von Richthofen. '

  The name of the Bloody Red Baron hung in the air.

  'It would be a good thing if this Richthofen were shot down,' said Sir William Robertson. The warm general disapproved of new-fangled contraptions like aeroplanes and tanks. 'It would show there are no short cuts in war. No substitute for a good horse and a better man. '

  'There is indubitably something to be said for the position,' admitted Beauregard, not stating what precisely could be said for it. 'But what concerns Diogenes is that the Circus have been unnaturally quiet since they put up tents at Malinbois. They log victories with monotonous regularity but the thrilling details so beloved of the German press and public have grown scarce. And JG1 has seconded unusual personnel. '

  'Unusual?' Ruthven prompted.

  'The commandant of the chateau is General Karnstein, an Austrian elder known to be close to the councils of Graf von Dracula. '

  Ruthven's cold eyes evinced interest. The Prime Minister kept abreast of the doings of fellow elders. Among his kind, he was an outcast; his attitude to the better-known bloodlines was not untainted by envy.

  'I know the vampire. The head of a blood-clan. Hasn't been the same since his dreadful daughter was destroyed. '

  Almost surreptitiously, the Minister for Munitions pulled a large, insensible rabbit from a satchel. Churchill was overfond of his tipple. His particular quirk was to inject Madeira into the blood of animals. He fixed chubby lips on the rabbit's throat, sucking discreetly.

  'Drink . . . good,' he mumbled. The rest of the room pointedly did not pass comment. Asquith, no mean imbiber himself, looked thirsty.

  'General Karnstein has been arranging conferences and parties near the front,' Beauregard said. 'Besides expected names, like Anthony Fokker, we have heard the odd vampire elder has been included. And some unusual new-borns. Gertrud Zelle has been mentioned. '

  'Your temptress, Beauregard,' Ruthven said. 'The mysterious and malign Mata Hari. '

  'She is hardly mine. '

  'You are responsible for catching her. '

  Beauregard modestly showed open hands. Though she had featured in many newspaper articles, Gertrud Zelle was not the spy she was made out to be. After all, she had been caught and was awaiting execution. Her 'victims' were mainly high-ranking French officers, most notably the ill-favoured General Mireau. Petain insisted on her ceremonial destruction, though Beauregard had asked the Prime Minister to plead for clemency. It was unlikely: as Ruthven reasoned, the Germans had burned Nurse Edith Cavell at the stake, so the Allies had to even things up and shoot Mata Hari.

  'We are all men of the world here,' said the Prime Minister. 'I, for one, can think of a reason why the German High Command would see a need for the skills of a Mata Hari at Malinbois. The Graf always likes to reward his valiant warriors. '

  Churchill, bloody rabbit back in the game bag, gurgled a laugh. With Madeira in his veins, his eyes pinked at the corners. His great face was otherwise powder-white except for the carmine of his flabby mouth.

  'There is more to it than a debauch, Prime Minister,' Beauregard said, tactfully. 'The Germans would not be so secretive about simple hell-raising. Indeed, they take pains to inflate the amorous reputations of air aces, contriving romances with famous beauties which last only as long as a pose for the rotogravure. '

  Ruthven looked at his advisers and tapped a foretooth with a fingernail. He made a great show of thinking.

  'Smith-Cumming,' he said. 'What of our old friend, the Graf von Dracula?'

  The spymaster consulted a notebook, where everything was kept in a cipher of his own devising.

  'He has been seen in Berlin. He is to meet with the Bolsheviki at Brest-Litovsk next month. We assume the Russkies will confirm their withdrawal from the war. '

  'A pity. I've always believed we should defend the British Empire to the last drop of Russian blood. '

  The generals and ministers attempted laughter at Ruthven's joke. Even the dead-faced Mr Croft flashed a manufactured smile.

  Smith-Cumming flipped a page. 'There is a suspicious consensus among our Berlin agents that the Graf has no intention of paying a visit next month to the Chateau du Malinbois. If true, it's curious such a fact should be so consistently available. After all, no one troubles to tell us when the Kaiser does not plan to visit his barber to have his moustache-tips waxed. '

  'Next month?' Churchill growled.

  'That is when the Graf will not be at Malinbois,' Smith-Cumming confirmed.

  'Has Dracula ever visited this chateau before?'

  'Not in this last century, Prime Minister. '

  'Do we draw conclusions?'

  Smith-Cumming shrugged. 'Some convoluted scheme is afoot, without doubt. We are matching wits with masters. '

  'With the Russians out of the game, the Hun will launch an all-out attack on the Western Front,' said Churchill. 'It's the juggernaut strategy Count Dragulya has always practised. ' Churchill favoured a curious pronunciation of 'Dracula'. It was not the least of his eccentricities.

  'Ridiculous notion,' blustered General Sir Henry Wilson. 'The Kaiser don't have the men or the means or the guns or the guts. Haig will tell you Germany is an arrant paper tiger. The Huns are beaten badly, their heads are off. They can only flounder in dirt and bleed to death. '

  'It would be pleasant to concur,' said Ruthven, 'but we do not just fight Wicked Willi. There are others in this business. Winston is quite right. A concerted attack will come. I know the Transylvanian brute of old. He is a veritable Piltdown Man, an unchecked Eoanthropus. He will not stop until stopped. Even then, he must be destroyed. We made the mistake once before of letting Dracula live. '

  'I agree with the Prime Minister,' said Lloyd George. 'Dracula commands the Central Powers. It is his will that must be broken. '

  Beauregard, wearily, had to concede he too believed a big push was in the offing. 'With the cessation of hostilities on the Eastern Front, a million men will be freed to fight in the west. Steel forged in the fire of battle, not green recruits. '

  'And Malinbois?' Ruthven asked. 'Might this be his forward post? He'll want to be in the field. He has a barbarian vanity about such things. He has not entered the lists, yet he must lust to do so. '

  'The castle would make a suitable HQ,' Beauregard said. 'If a ground push is to succeed, he would wish to wrest from us our superiority in the air. Therefore, he would want JG1 with him. '

  Ruthven slapped his desk, excited. His monotone became a grating whine.

  'I have it! He wants to spread his black wings and fly. He'll be up in that dirigible of his, the Attila. He, and I, we know this war comes down to the two of us. We face each other over the chessboard of Europe. To him, I am the Britain that humiliated and sc
orned him. To me, he is the past vampirekind must outlive. It is a philosophical and aesthetic battle . . . '

  Churchill's belly rumbled and Lloyd George examined the cuffs of his striped trousers. Beauregard wondered if millions of truly dead thought it a war of philosophy and aesthetics.

  'This is our duel. My brain and his. He has cunning, I'll give him that. And valour, for what it's worth. And he so loves his toys: his trains, his flying machines, his big guns. He's like a monstrous child. If he can't get his way, he will ravage the world. '

  Ruthven stood and gestured dramatically, as if posing for a portrait: the Prime Minister in Full Flight.

  'I see a way to trip the fiend, though. Beauregard, keep worrying at this Malinbois business. I want details, facts, figures. Mr Croft, this would seem a project suited to your skills. You will take Beauregard's reports and digest them. '

  The hatchet man narrowed his dead eyes.

  Ruthven continued, 'We can use Dracula's nursery enthusiasms against him, draw him into our trap and close our hands around his cursed throat. '

  Ruthven strangled the air.

 
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