The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Part One: All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 6

 

  Mata Hari

  The prisoner had welcomed Beauregard's request that he be allowed to see her. Even were he not continuing the Malinbois investigation, he would have been inclined to pay a call. He had given evidence at her trial but they had never been introduced.

  To step out of the staff car on to the parade ground was to set foot in a cemetery. The condemned woman was held in a barracks near Paris, long out of regular use, tenants gone to feed the war. The uncurtained windows of the long halls were dusty. Only one dormitory was inhabited. Eight men, pulled from the front to serve as a firing squad, slept in peace and comfort. To them, this must be a relief.

  The night was black as ink. Like a warm convict, the prisoner was to be shot at dawn. Sunset would be a more appropriate execution hour for a vampire.

  A lone light burned in an office. Beauregard rapped on a door. Lantier, a veteran with half a face, opened up and invited him in. Without a hint of insubordination, the turnkey made it clear he resented having his night disturbed by visitors pandering to the whims of an enemy of France.

  Lantier looked over Beauregard's authorisation papers, clucking at each distinguished signature. At length, he decided in Beauregard's favour and ordered that the Englishman be allowed into the cell. A lecture was delivered in rapid French about the degree of intercourse allowed with the woman. There was to be no physical contact, no object was to be passed from one to the other.

  The vampire's reputation was bound to outlive her. This fuss fed the greatly exaggerated stories they were telling. It was in the interests of the lady's 'victims' that she be considered irresistible, lest it be decided they had a degree of culpability in her feats of espionage. Surely, no ordinary woman could extract secrets from so many of the great and good. This was an extreme case of the brand of fascination vampires were popularly supposed to be able to exert over their helpless prey.

  Of the officers whose names had come up in testimony at her closed trial, most who still lived remained on active service. Only a few insignificant lieutenants had been swept down with her. Even now, the odious General Mireau planned his next offensive.

  It had been seriously suggested that the soldiers assigned to this detail be maimed veterans unmanned by the war. Following Lantier's slow progress to the cells, he wondered if the crackpot notion had been implemented. If so, it displayed an alarming ignorance of the physical act of vampirism.

  Lantier opened a stout door and stood aside, allowing him into the cell. It was an unpainted room with barely the atmosphere of a cupboard.

  The prisoner sat by a small window, looking at the last of the moon. With her hair roughly cropped and in a shapeless cotton dress, she did not resemble the jewelled seductress who had carried all Paris with her.

  She turned to look at him and was indeed beautiful. She claimed to be half-Javanese, but Beauregard knew she was the daughter of a Dutch hatter and his provincial wife. After turning, her eyes had changed. She had slit pupils like a cat. The effect was enormously striking.

  'Madame Zelle?' he enquired, politely but without need.

  She stood graciously and acknowledged him. 'Mr Beauregard. '

  He considered her extended, pale hand and shrugged.

  'Regulations,' he explained, weakly.

  The prisoner attempted a smile. 'Of course. Touch me and you would be my slave. You would overpower the guards and fight to the death to aid my escape. '

  'Something like that. '

  'How silly. '

  A chair was brought for him by the turnkey. She resumed her own chair and he sat down.

  'So you are the clever Englishman who caught me?'

  'I am afraid so. '

  'Why afraid? Did you not do your duty?'

  Before the war, he had seen her famous Javanese Dance of Death. She was no Isadora and whoever schooled her was no Diaghilev, but the powerful effect she had on an audience, whether general or private, General or Private, could not be denied.

  'You are an honourable English patriot and I am an unprincipled Dutch adventuress. Is that not true?'

  'It is not for me to say, Madame. '

  Her eyes were growing larger. There was cold, undirected anger in them. But also something else.

  'You are a warm man?'

  Had she expected him to be a vampire like her? Some nosferatu believed only their own kind could match them for brain-power.

  'How old are you, Mr Beauregard?'

  That was an unusual question. 'I am sixty-four. '

  'I would have thought younger. By five or ten years. Some vampire taint has crept into you, retarding the processes of aging. It does not matter. It is not too late for you to turn. You might live forever, grow young again. '

  'Is that such a pleasant prospect?'

  She smiled genuinely, not for effect. A tiny, shining fang peeped between her red lips.

  'Not, I confess, at this immediate moment. I am immortal and you are not, but you shall see tomorrow's sunset. '

  He tried to look at his wrist-watch without being too obvious. The dawn was two hours away.

  'There may yet be a reprieve. '

  'Thank you for considering that possibility, Englishman. I am given to understand you personally pleaded for my life. You could only do that at risk to your own reputation. '

  Unless she really could suck secrets from a mind with a single glance, she could not possibly know he had recommended lenience.

  Her fang became more prominent as her smile broadened. 'I still have sources of information. Secrets are not hard to come by. '

  'As you have proved. '

  'And so have you. My poor secrets have been yours as many men's were mine. Simply by sitting in a room and thinking, you saw through my veils and schemes. I admire that. '

  He tried not to feel flattered. It was one of her greatest weapons. Elderly officers had been her favoured prey.

  'I have had fine tutors in the whole art of detection,' Beauregard admitted.

  'You are a senior member of the Ruling Cabal of the Diogenes Club, the second or third most important man in the British Secret Service. '

  She knew even more than was determined at her trial.

  'Do not worry, Charles. I shall take to my poor grave those few of your secrets to which I am a party. '

  Suddenly, she was using his Christian name.

  I am sincerely sorry, Gertrud,' he replied in kind.

  'Gertrud?' she said, rolling the unfamiliar name around her pointed tongue. 'Gertrud,' she confessed, at last. Her slim shoulders slumped with disappointment. 'So ugly, so sad, so dumpy. Almost German. But it is the name I was born with, the name I shall die under. '

  'But not the name of your immortality,' he said.

  She dramatically framed her pretty face with long fingers, fluttering her nails in moonlight. 'No, I shall eternally be Mata Hari:

  She was parodying the American, Theda Bara. If they made a film about Mata Hari (certainly, they would make many) then Theda Bara, a professional vampire whose name was an anagram of 'Arab Death', was the only actress for the role. She was of a bloodline which took to photography. Many vampires showed up on film as a species of blurry smudge.

  'They will remember me, won't they?' she asked, suddenly vulnerable. 'My reputation will not melt like snow in the sun, surpassed by some new temptress. '

  It was possible this woman had acted all her life; underneath the veils, there was perhaps no reality. Or maybe there was a secret self she would take with her into true death.

  'There will be no pardon, Charles. No mercy at the last moment. This is true? They will kill me?'

  'I'm afraid a certain person has insisted,' he admitted, sadly.

  'General Mireau,' she spat. 'His blood was thin, you know. Like English soup. I mean no offence. Do you know how many men died through his actions? He was more lethal to his troops on his own tha
n under my influence. '

  There had been a mutiny in the general's command. Mireau was one of the worst of the uniformed fools who thought the war a firepit that could be extinguished by pouring in living men. The general believed this woman's death would cleanse the blood from his record.

  'The other side are no better,' she said. 'It was as easy to gull Germans. '

  Early in the war, Gertrud Zelle had been in the employ of the French secret service. It had not been proved, but he knew she had worked for the Russians, the Hungarians, the Turks and the Italians. Even the British.

  'At court, I was presented to the Kaiser. I was turned by the Graf von Dracula. '

  In this cold new century, the Graf was careful with his bloodline. More than any other vampire elder, he was responsible for the spread of the condition through Europe. Now he controlled rigidly the selection of those he turned. Even warm, Gertrud Zelle had been a remarkable woman.

  'I see I do not surprise you. '

  She held up her hand. It was pale in the moonlight, blue veins distinct. In an instant, it was a webbed gargoyle's claw, thorny barbs tipping thumb and fingers. Then it was human again.

  'Formidable,' he said. 'Only someone close to the bloodline could manage that trick. '

  'Maybe not,' she said, mysterious but teasing. 'But in my case, it is so. As I have played the generals of Europe as puppets, so have I been played. '

  It occurred to Beauregard that she could transform herself entirely. She could find the strength to tear through the walls. Something kept her here.

  'At the last, I shall be free of him. '

  So that was it. He felt a certain disappointment.

  'I did not give myself up deliberately, Charles. Your victory stands as an achievement of note. It is just that I'm not necessarily despondent. It is a commonplace that many things are worse than death. '

  From experience, Beauregard knew those of the Dracula bloodline often came to believe that.

  'He is a monster. Dracula. '

  Beauregard nodded. 'We have met. '

  'You British,' she continued, 'you were right to throw him out. '

  'It was not so simple. '

  'Maybe not. Yet Britain would not long tolerate Dracula and Germany has become his paradise. '

  'The Graf has the knack of gaining influence at courts. He's been at the business for five hundred years. '

  Gertrud Zelle leaned forward and reached out. The turnkey rumbled. The pistol in his belt was loaded with silver. The prisoner's hand halted, inches away from Beauregard's arm. She fixed his eye.

  'He will make of this century a killing ground,' she said, seriously. 'In his warm days, he murdered one-third of his own subjects. Imagine what he would do to those he considers his enemies. '

  'Germany is nearly broken,' he said, echoing the official position, wishing he did not know better.

  'It's hard to deceive a deceiver, Charles. '

  She sat back, straightening. A fringe of pre-dawn light haloed her cropped head. She looked more like Joan of Arc than a vampire spy.

  'Your war is over,' he said, trying to be kind.

  'You know much about us, Charles. Vampires. You must have had a remarkable teacher. '

  He adjusted his collar, sure he was flushing.

  'Who was she?'

  'You would not know the lady's name. '

  'She was old? An elder?'

  Beauregard nodded. Genevieve Dieudonne was older even than the Graf. A fifteenth-century girl.

  'She is still alive?'

  'The last I heard, she was very well. In America, I believe. '

  'Do not be vague, Charles. You know precisely where she is. You would make it your business to keep track of things. '

  Gertrud Zelle had caught him out. Genevieve was in California, growing blood oranges.

  'She was a fool to let you grow old and die, Charles. No, I take that back. That was your decision, not hers. If I had been her, I would have made you want to turn. I would have used my powers. '

  'Your "powers"? Madame Zelle, it would seem you have been reading too many of your notices. '

  'We do have powers, you know. It's not all conjuring. '

  Dawn pinked the sky. Her face was paler than ever. They had been starving her in captivity. She must be in considerable discomfort. Many new-borns would by now have been maddened by red thirst.

  'I suppose it makes her better than me, that she would not change a man's mind through underhand means, even if it were for the best. '

  'Believe me, Genevieve would not claim to be better than anyone. '

  'Genevieve? A pretty name. I hate her already. '

  Beauregard remembered pain. And more pleasant things. There was a fan of red in the sky.

  'We don't have much time left,' Gertrud Zelle said, businesslike.

  'It is regrettable,' he agreed.

  'Very well. For the sake of your vampire lady, I shall pass on to you my surviving secret. You have been kind when you need not have been, and this is my gift to you. Use it as you will. Win the war, if it can be won. '

  Was this some trick?

  'No, Charles,' she said, either reading the surface of his mind or following his obvious thought process, 'I am not the Scheherezade of the age. I shall not delay my final appointment. '

  He tried to think around this development.

  'Convince me, Gertrud. Convince me I am not to be your last victim. '

  'That is not unfair, Charles. I shall mention a place and a name. If you are interested, I shall continue. '

  Beauregard nodded. Gertrud Zelle smiled again, as if laying down face cards.

  'Chateau du Malinbois,' she said. 'Professor Ten Brincken. '

  This was what he had hoped for. Another strand of the spiderweb.

  I'm convinced,' he said, trying not to let his eagerness show.

  'See,' she said, fang glistening, 'a vampire always knows. I'll make it brief and simple. You can take notes, if you wish. The world has made of me what it would, and I make no excuses for myself. I have followed the dictates of my heart, even when such courses were patently unwise . . . '

  A small crowd of journalists and interested parties huddled around a brazier on the parade ground. The last snowfall was gone, though patches of gritty ice would have made actual parade hazardous. Beauregard looked at faces. None of Gertrud Zelle's 'admirers' thought it worth while attending this performance.

  Was her story another farewell performance? It was possible she hoped in death to spread some misleading lie, distracting him from whatever the Germans were really about at Malinbois. He was inclined to believe her. The Graf von Dracula was a Gothic thinker and her narrative was a Gothic tale, with castles and crypts and blood and doomed noblemen. He had filled the remainder of his notebook with shorthand.

  The soldiers of the firing squad stood as if for inspection. Boys with ancient eyes. After four years, not only the undead looked older than their faces. Beauregard wondered if these poilus would be happier if the prisoner at the stake were Mireau. In the ranks, the general was hated more than the Kaiser.

  'Charles,' a woman's voice cut through his musings. 'We meet in the most odd places. '

  The small vampire was dressed in jodhpurs and a Norfolk jacket, reddish hair done up under an oversized tweed cap, eyes shielded by thick blue-tinted glasses. Her clear voice retained a little Irish.

  'Kate,' he said, surprised and pleased. 'Good morning. '

  She slipped off her glasses and squinted at the fading blush in the dingy grey sky.

  'It's morning, at least. '

  Kate Reed was ten years his junior, turned at twenty-five. In thirty years of the vampire life, her eyes hadn't aged.

  The journalist had been something of a heroine in the Terror, editing an underground periodical, two hops ahead of the Carpathian Guard. She was no less critical of authority in the age of Good King Victor. A Fabian Socialist and advoc
ate of Home Rule, she wrote for the New Statesman and the Cambridge Magazine. Since hostilities had commenced, she had been twice expelled from France and once imprisoned in Ireland.

  'I thought you were recalled to London,' he observed.

  She gave a smart, sharp little smile, eyes twinkling. 'I retired from Grub Street, then volunteered as an ambulance driver. Our old friend Mina Harker is on the committee, still trying to make things right. I was shipped back on the next boat. '

  'So you're not a reporter?'

  'I'm an observer, always. It is a thing we vampires are good at. It comes from a long life and too much spare time. '

  Dawnlight speared across the ground and she put her glasses back on.

  He shared a history with Kate Reed. They were both creatures of another century. She was fitter by far to survive this new era.

  'I have always admired you,' he said.

  'You talk as if it were yourself they wanted to shoot. '

  'Maybe they should. I'm tired, Kate. '

  She took his hand and squeezed. He tried not to let her see she was hurting him. Like many vampires of comparatively recent vintage, she did not know her own strength.

  'Charles, you are perhaps the last decent man in Europe. Do not be disheartened, no matter what. The "War to End War" talk may be rot, but we can make a truth of it. This is our world as much as it is Ruthven's or Dracula's. '

  'And hers?'

  He pointed with his head. As the sun cleared the barracks, Gertrud Zelle was led out by the turnkey and two guards. At her own request she was veiled to protect her sensitive face from the light. She refused the blindfold and insisted no priest be present.

  'Madame Mata Hari has been silly,' Kate snapped. 'I've little enough sympathy for her. Good men died wholesale because of her wiles. '

  'You are a Fabian patriot. '

  'There's nothing wrong with Britain that impaling the Prime Minister wouldn't cure. '

  'Now you sound like Vlad Tepes. '

  'Another gentleman who would be much improved by the addition of a length of stout hawthorne. '

  'I read your piece on the trial, Kate. '

  She fluttered a little, trying to swallow vanity. 'And . . . ?'

  'You said what had to be said. '

  'But the warm-blooded, cold-souled General Mireau still struts like a scarfaced peacock and rattles his medals at vampire fillies, kneeling at Mass with a conscience as clear as Vichy water. '

  'You should know by now that commanders-in-chief make it a point of honour not to follow the advice of mere journalists. I am sure General Petain read your articles with interest. '

  'I have more to write. Mireau must be brought to book. '

  'And Sir Douglas Haig?'

  'Him too, and the bloody lot of them. '

  Gertrud Zelle stood against a pole as a guard tied her hands. She held her veiled head high, unafraid.

  'Queen of the May,' Kate commented.

  The sergeant of the execution party read out the verdict of the court. His thin voice was lost in the bitter wind. At least ten counts merited death. With the sentence read, the sergeant rolled up the paper and stuck it in his belt. He drew and raised his sword; eight soldiers lifted rifles and took aim. Seven silver bullets and one plain lead. Any man could have the dud and tell himself he had not fired a killing shot.

  The sword wavered and fell. Shots clustered in the prisoner's torso. A stray pocked the ground a dozen yards behind the pole. Gertrud Zelle's head hung and the veil slipped from her like a scarf, wisping away on the wind. Early-morning sun fell on her face, browning it quickly. Smoke seeped from her mouth and eyes.

  'That's that, then,' Kate said. 'Beastly business. '

  Beauregard knew it was not finished. The sergeant walked across the parade ground and stood by the truly dead woman, sword like a scythe.

  'Good Lord,' Kate said.

  With a stroke, the sergeant sank his sword into Gertrud Zelle's neck. The blade bit bone. He had to press gauntleted hands against hilt and point, forcing the silver-steel edge clear through into the post. The head fell to the ground and the sergeant picked it up by the hair, holding it for all to see. The face burned black, cat eyes shrunk like peas.

 
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