The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Part One: All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 7



  The whisper Kate had heard in Paris was true: Mata Hari had refused the offer of a priest to hear a last confession, but was willing to pass the night before her execution in conversation with Mr Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club.

  Early in her career as a journalist, she had learned that following Charles at a discreet distance was an infallible way of hooking a story. Wherever found, he was the calm centre of a maelstrom of intrigue. If he told all he knew, history books would be rewritten. Probably, governments would fall, colonies revolt, duels be fought, marriages end. Charles was the linchpin of Britain; Kate was often sorely tempted to take hold of him and give a good pull.

  What a vampire he would have made.

  She was careful not to quiz Charles too much. He was too canny a customer to be duped like a subaltern by a girly simper and a casual question. Also, he knew her of old. The scatterbrained twit act, her primary tool in the trade of deceit, would not wash with him.

  The sergeant in charge of the execution found a sack for the cinder that had been the spy's head. He made a solemn business of posing for photographs, holding the sack. The firing squad stood to order, presenting arms. At each explosive puff of flash- powder, young veterans cringed, remembering.

  Kate watched Charles watching the photographers. His high collar was not the sign of old-fashioned temperament but a cover for the unfading purple on his throat. A line of wine-coloured bruising fringed his collar. He was more handsome in age than youth, his hair was white but his chin was firm. He stood straight and years had smoothed rather than crinkled his face.

  The elder Genevieve Dieudonne had been Charles's lover during the Terror. Some of her blood must have got into him. He had resisted the Dark Kiss, but it was impossible to be with a vampire for any time without tasting her blood, even if just a smidgen. Some warm men paid for tiny transfusions to keep their hair or tighten their tummies. It was a sounder rejuvenation treatment than monkey glands. Patent medicines hinted vampire blood was a secret ingredient.

  The firing squad were dismissed. Reporters tried to interview them. Sydney Horler, a tub-thumper for the Mail, was in the melee.

  'They love the war,' she said. 'Gives them something tastier to write up than provincial murderers and municipal adulterers. '

  'You have a low opinion of your profession. '

  'I like to think I'm not in the same line as the scratching vultures. '

  'How does it feel?' shouted Horler, 'shooting a woman?'

  If any of the squad understood the question, none was inclined to answer.

  'A pretty, wanton woman?' the Englishman emphasised. 'Would you say she was a fiend in human shape who deserved no more mercy than a deadly cobra?'

  The sergeant shrugged. A singularly French gesture.

  'You would say she was a fiend in human shape who deserved no more mercy than a deadly cobra, then?'

  The soldiers started to walk away.

  'I'll write that down then. Fiend in human shape. No more mercy. Deadly cobra. '

  The excitable Horler began scribbling.

  'I believe we have witnessed the birth of an evening edition headline,' she said.

  Charles was too weary to respond. He consulted his pocket- watch and touched his hat, preparing to leave.

  'Strange. A warm man who hustles to his bed at cock-crow. Are you sure you haven't turned?'

  Charles summoned a smile. 'Kate, I've kept vampire hours for most of my life. '

  His was a night-time profession, even in this topsy-turvy century where wars were fought and peace pursued after dark.

  'With Mata Hari gone, you can rest now, surely. Your war is won. '

  'Very amusing, Kate. '

  She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. His face was very cold. She held back in her hugging, so as not to crack his ribs.

  'Goodbye, Charles. '

  'Good day, Kate. '

  He walked to a car and was driven away. She licked her lips and could taste him. His blood was strong. A mere brush of his skin was enough to give her an impression of his mood. She was excited, because she knew Charles was excited. Something had passed between him and Mata Hari that was important. She could read nothing more, nothing concrete. A shame. If she were an elder like Genevieve, she could suck his mind like an orange and know everything there was to be known.

  If the trick were within her capabilities, the temptation would be too great to resist. As vampires lived through centuries, they gained strength and power. Many elders became monsters. They could do as they wished without fear of the consequences. The taste of Charles evaporated and her heart throbbed with red thirst.

  In the early years of her afterlife, she had constantly tested her limits. Now she took them, along with her undead needs, as simply a part of night-to-night existence. Strangely, she still needed spectacles to correct the fearful myopia that had been the plague of her warm days. Most vampires overcame their infirmities upon turning, but she was a freak.

  Her vision blurred as she tried to conquer her thirst. This was her own fault. If she had not tasted Charles, she would not now be suffering these pangs.

  She did not care to consider herself dead but knew that was self-deception. Some, like Genevieve, turned without suffering true death. But Kate had certainly died. Mr Frank Harris, her father-in-darkness, liked to suck his get dry before dripping life-giving blood into them. She recalled the stopping of her heart, the queer silence inside her head. That had been death.

  Her heart eased and she could see again. The day was overcast, so there was little direct sunlight to trouble her. She was not the species of vampire which shrivels and frizzles at dawn. She was of the bloodline of Marya Zaleska, an aristocratic parasite who claimed to be a by-blow of Count Dracula. In Kate, the fading Zaleska line was spiced by the powerful spirit of Frank Harris. In 1888, the famous editor had told her physical love was the gateway to womanhood and, on a divan in a private room at Kettner's restaurant, enthusiastically escorted her through the gateway. Having made a woman of her, he was obliged to make a vampire of her too.

  Many young women succumbed to Harris's persuasion, but she was his only surviving get. Others had proved too fragile for such a strong line. Harris was gone too, murdered by Carpathians during the Terror. She was sorry; though a profligate who took little responsibility for his children-in- darkness, Harris was a good newspaperman. She was not ashamed to have him as her sponsor in the world of night.

  Charles's car drove away, nestling secrets in a well- upholstered interior. The firing squad evaporated and the other journalists drifted off, filling in blanks in already-written stories. Jed Leland of the New York Inquirer, a rare competent American, touched a pencil to the brim of his straw hat. She returned the wave, worried he would delay her in unwanted conversation. Leland ambled along with the rest of the crowd, in search of an estaminet where they could scrawl out copy between ants and cat-blood.

  Shortly after turning, her pierced ears had healed and, rather shockingly, she found herself a virgin again. The condition was swiftly, permanently, remedied. At the time, being 'ruined' was a bigger scandal than turning vampire.

  She was still adapting, learning. It was hard to tell what she would become. She vowed not to be a monster.

  Alone on the parade ground, she walked around to the guardhouse, keen senses alert. She did not want to share her lead. And she did not want to be involved with anyone above the rank of corporal. Her condemnation of General Mireau had won her many friends in the French army, but few in the officer class. Her articles about the Dreyfus case had predisposed them against her, and her recent writings had hardly regained their affections.

  There was a French staff car parked in the road outside, just visible through a failing hedge. Its windows were dark. Had one of Mata Hari's conquests come to pay a secret farewell? Or to be sure she was truly dead?
  Corporal Jacques Lantier was waiting for her in his pokey office. His face was an angry tangle of scar. After two days in which the enemy inflicted an 80 per cent casualty rate on exposed Frenchmen, the remnant of General Mireau's command had defied his 'to the last man' order and retreated across the hundred yards of dirt they had taken but been unable to hold. Lantier, alive and maimed, was one of the fortunate. In one piece, he might have been among the dozen men Mireau had had shot for cowardice. He was eligible for a place in the unofficial veterans' club of the disfigured, the Union des Gueules Cassees, the Brotherhood of Broken Mugs.

  Lantier opened a hole in his lower face with the end of his little finger and stuck a cigarette into it. Kate accepted his offer of a cigarette and they both lit up off a single match-flame.

  The corporal coughed and smoke clouded around him. He was, of course, grateful to one of the few journalists to condemn General Mireau but there were other considerations. Before the war, twenty francs might have purchased a horse. Now it might stretch to a slice of horse meat.

  'They spoke softly, mademoiselle,' Lantier said, excusing himself, 'and my hearing is not so good . . . '

  One of his ears was sheared off entirely, the other an inflamed lump.

  'But you heard something. '

  She added more notes to the sheaf in his fist.

  'Scraps here and there . . . a few names . . . Chateau du Malinbois, Professor Ten Brincken, Baron von Richthofen, General Karnstein . . . '

  Each name unloosed another ten francs.

  'Enough,' she said. 'Just tell me what you heard. '

  Lantier shrugged and began . . .

  It was nearly midday when Corporal Lantier finished. Kate had filled a notebook but was not sure what to make of it. There were gaps. Some she could fill in with her own intelligence but most were true blanks.

  She had expected new light on the perfidy of General Mireau but this was entirely fresh. She would have to read up on the Richthofen Freak Show. If Charles was interested enough to hear Mata Hari out, there was certainly a story in it.

  Lantier escorted her outside. Without its sole prisoner, the barracks was dead. The firing squad were on leave in Paris and would be back in the trenches by tomorrow's dawn.

  They walked across the parade ground. She paused to examine the pole where Mata Hari had died.

  'After the beheading,' Lantier said, 'young men pressed around and dipped handkerchiefs in the blood. For souvenirs. '

  'Or to taste. It must be heady stuff. The blood of Mata Hari. '

  Lantier spat and missed the pole.

  'Vampire blood could help . . . ' she began, indicating Lantier's face.

  He shook his head and spat again. 'Curse you all, you bloodsuckers. What good have you ever done?'

  She had no answer. Many Frenchmen, especially outside Paris, felt as he did. Vampirism had not taken hold quite as it had in Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary. France had its elders - Genevieve, for one - and a growing swell of newborns, often self-styled 'modems' and 'decadents', but vampires were still not entirely welcome in the best circles. Alfred Dreyfus had been a scapegoat because he was at once a Jew and a vampire.

  She bade Lantier goodbye and left the parade ground. Her trusty Hoopdriver bicycle was against an old cavalry hitching post by the main entrance. The staff car was still in the road outside.

  Kate knew there was danger. During the Terror, she had developed the sense. Her nails slid out like cat's claws.

  She stepped past the hedge into the road and looked at the car. There was a chauffeur in the front seat and the rear door was slightly open. Someone looked out at her with piggy eyes.

  'Ego te exorcisat,' a voice shrieked. 'Suffer, foul harlot, suffer the torments of the damned!'

  A black-robed man vaulted a low fence and rushed at her. A wild-eyed, white-haired priest had been crouching out of sight. She recognised him but had no time to summon a name from memory. Berating her in bad Latin and gutter French, the priest sloshed liquid in her face. Her glasses spattered with blurry blobs.

  Her thought was that the lunatic had thrown oil of vitriol. Acid ate vampire flesh to the bone. She would recover, but look like Lantier for the next fifty years. There was no burning, no hissing.

  The priest waved with his flask. Another splash struck her forehead and dribbled down. She tasted plain water. No, not plain water, she realised. Holy water.

  She laughed in surprise. Some Catholic vampires were sensitive to such things, but she was an Anglican of long standing. Her family were Prod to the marrow; when told Kate had turned, her father commented, 'At least the fool girl hasn't embraced the foul Antichrist of Rome. '

  The priest stood back smugly, prepared to enjoy the dissolution of a corrupt creature of hell. He pressed a large, crudely detailed crucifix to his breast and held up a fistful of Communion wafers.

  Her cap had come off and her hair flew loose. She picked her headgear up and patted her face with it.

  'I'm all wet, you idjit,' she said.

  The priest tossed the Communion wafer at her. He seemed to expect it to bite into her skull like a Japanese shuriken. The biscuit stuck to her damp forehead.

  Annoyed, she crunched the wafer in her mouth and spat out the fragments.

  'Where's the wine? I've the red thirst on me, now. Transubstantiate a bottle and I'll have blood to drink. '

  This attack had spurred her bloodlust. She must feed soon.

  The priest shook his cross and poured the curses of heaven on her. She saw a face dart back into the interior of the car. It had worn a French officer's kepi with a great deal of scrambled egg.

  'You are Father Pitaval. You were at the trial of Mata Hari. '

  Pitaval, some kind of renegade Jesuit, was Mireau's confessor. Also, it seemed, his tame vampire-killer.

  'You'll have to do better than this poor showing, Father. '

  He shoved his crucifix at her face and she pushed it away.

  'Look to your own conscience,' she shouted, at Mireau as much as the priest.

  He raised his crucifix like a dagger and stabbed at her chest. The end was jagged enough to serve as the proverbial stake, but she deflected the blow. Her tinted glasses fell off and she was in a world of blur. She saw a black shape coming for her and stepped aside. She pushed hard, catching the priest and tossing him towards the car.

  Scrambling in the grit, she found her glasses and replaced them. Pitaval crawled for the car. The door slammed shut before he could get there. The dark window rolled up, fast. Moving with vampire swiftness, she overleaped the priest and exerted an iron grip on the car door-handle. She wrenched the lock open, enjoying the popping of the mechanism.

  In the dark inside. General Mireau sat stiffly, staring hatred. He had a companion, a little new-born in a froth of white shroud. The minx had rouged her wrists where Mireau bound her with a rosary, misleading him about the effect of religious artefacts on vampire flesh. The general's taste for undead girls was predictable. Kate hoped this one was cunning enough to rob him blind and drain him dry.

  She shook her head. Mireau shoved behind his companion.

  'Sister,' Kate said, 'you have very poor taste in blood. '

  The new-born wriggled. She was probably a dancer or an actress. Even more probably another spy.

  Kate bent to get her head into the car. Mireau's cold eyes held flames of fear. He pushed the new-born forward, encouraging a reluctant dog to fight. The vampire poodle opened her mouth to show tentative fangs. She attempted a hiss.

  Kate considered hauling the foolish girl out and giving her posterior a sound spanking. It would be cruel: she might rot to nothing in the sun.

  Father Pitaval was on his feet again, somewhat sheepish. The general was not getting value for his patronage.

  'Mireau, have you no shame?' she asked.

  Turning, she walked away from the lot of them. She heard shouting as the general abused
his subordinates. A little spark of satisfaction warmed her heart. She had accomplished little, but at least Mireau was hurt enough to want to strike back. If she kept at it, she could have him.

  Perhaps there were more worthwhile bones to worry. Especially the bone marked Chateau du Malinbois.

  She got on her bicycle, and pushed off. On the road to the railway station, she whistled the 'Barcarolle' from Tales of Hoffmann, thinking of dancers and fliers.

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