Traveling with the dead by Barbara Hambly (read online)
Barbara Hambly. Traveling with the dead
All Souls and black rain, and cold that passed like needles through flesh and clothing to scrape the bones inside. Sunday night in Charing Cross Station, voices racketing in the vaults of glass and ironwork overhead like ball bearings in a steel drum. All James Asher wanted was to go home.
A day and a night spent burying his cousin–and dealing with the squabbling of his cousin’s widow, mother, and two sons over the estate to which he’d been named executor–had reminded him vividly why, once he’d gone up to Oxford twenty-three years ago, he’d never had anything further to do with the aunt who raised him from the age of thirteen. It had just turned full dark, and Asher drew his greatcoat closer around him as he strode down the long brick walkway of the platform, jostling shoulders with his erstwhile fellow passengers in a vast frowst of wet wool and steam and reflecting upon the lethal adeptness of familial guilt. Outside, the streets would be slick and deadly with ice.
Asher’s mind was on that–and on the hour and a half between the arrival of the express from Tunbridge Wells at Charing Cross and the departure of the Oxford local from Paddington–when he saw the men whom he would later have given anything he possessed not to have seen.
They stood under the central clock in the echoing cavern of the station. Asher happened to be looking in their direction as the taller of the two removed his hat and shook the drops from it, gestured with a gloved hand toward the iron frame into which boards bearing departure times had been slotted. Asher’s eye, still accustomed to cataloging details after half a lifetime in secret service to his country, had already been caught by the man’s greatcoat: the flaring skirts, the collar and cuffs of karakul lamb, the soft camel color and the braiding on the sleeves all shouting at him, Vienna. More specifically, one of the Magyar nobility of that city rather than a German Viennese, who tended to less flamboyance in their dress. A Parisian would have worn that smooth, well-fitted line, but probably not that color and certainly without braiding; the average Berliner’s coat generally bore a striking resemblance to a horse blanket no matter how rich the man might be.
Vienna, Asher thought, with the tiniest pinch of nostalgia. Then he saw the man’s face.
He stopped at the head of the steps down from the platform, and the blood seemed to halt in his veins. But even before his mind could form the words Ignace Karolyi in England, he saw the face of the other man.
Dear God! No.
It was all he could think.
Later he thought he would not have seen the smaller man at all had his eye not been arrested, first by Karolyi’s greatcoat, then by the Hungarian’s face. That was one of the most frightening things about what he now saw. In the few seconds that the two men spokeit was not more than a few seconds, though they exchanged newspapers, an old trick Asher had used hundreds of times himself during his years with Intelligence–Asher’s mind registered details that he should have seen before: the fiddleback cut of the small man’s shabby black greatcoat, and the way the creaseless buff- colored trousers tapered to straps under the insteps. Under a shallow- crowned beaver hat his hair was short-cropped, and he did not gesture at all as they spoke: no movement, no change of stance, not even the shift of the gloved fingers wrapped about one another on the head of his stick.
That would have told him, if nothing else did.
Three women in enormous hats, feathers drooping with wet, intervened, and when Asher looked again, Karolyi was striding briskly in the direction of the Paris boat-train.
There was no sign of the other man.
Karolyi’s going to Paris.
They’re both going to Paris.
How Asher knew, he couldn’t have said. Only his instinct, honed in years with the Department, had not waned in the eight peaceful years of Oxford lecturing that had passed since he quit. Heart pounding hard enough to almost sicken him, he made his way without appearance of hurry to the ticket windows, the small bag of a weekend’s worth of clean linen and shaving tackle swinging almost unnoticed in his hand. By the station clock it was half-past five. The departures board announced the Dover boat-train at quarter of six. The fare to Paris was one pound, fourteen and eight, second class–Asher had just over five pounds in his pocket and paid unhesitatingly. Third class would have saved him twelve shillings–the cost of several nights’ lodging in Paris, if one knew where to look–but his respectable brown ulster and stiff-crowned hat would have stood out among the rough-clothed workmen and shabby women in the third-class carriages.
He told himself, as he bought the ticket, that the urgency of not calling attention to himself was the only reason to stay out of third class tonight. But he knew it was a lie.
He walked along the platform among women in cheap poplin skirts loading tired children onto the cars, screaming at one another in the clipped, sloppy French of Paris or the trilled r ‘s of the Midi; among men huddled, coatless, in jackets and scarves against the cold, and tried not to listen to his heart telling him that someone in third class was going to die tonight.
He touched a passing porter on the arm. “Would you be so kind as to check the baggage car and tell me if there’s a box or trunk, five feet long or over? Could be a coffin, but it’s probably a trunk.”
The man squinted at the half-crown in Asher’s hand, then sharp brown eyes went to Asher’s face. “C’n tell you that right now, sir.” Asher automatically identified the cropped ou and glottal stop i of the Liverpool Irish, and wondered at his own capacity for pursuing philological points when his life was in danger. The man touched his cap. “Near killed old Joe ‘eavin’ the thing in, awkward an’ all.”
“Heavy?” If it was heavy, it was the wrong trunk.
“‘Eavy enough, I say, but not loaded like some. No more’n seventy pound all told.”
“Could you get me the address from the label? A matter of information,” he added as the brown eyes narrowed suspiciously, “to the man’s wife.”
“Runnin’ out on ‘er, is ‘e? Bleedin’ sod.”
Asher made a business of checking his watch against the station clock at the end of the platform, conscious all the while of the men and women getting on the train, of the thinning of the crowd that made him every second more visible, every second closer to a knife-blade death. Steam chuffed from the engine and a fat man in countrified tweeds, coat flapping like a cloak in his wake, hared along the platform and scrambled into first class, pursued by a thin and harried valet heavily laden with hatboxes and train cases.
He’d have to telegraph Lydia from Paris, thought Asher. It brought a stab of regret–she’d sit up tonight waiting for him until she fell asleep surrounded by tea things, lace and medical journals, in front of the bedroom fire, beautiful as a scholarly sylph. For two nights he had looked forward to lying again at her side. Foul as the weather had been, she’d probably simply assume that the train had been held up. Not a worrier, Lydia.
Still the porter hadn’t come back.
He tried to remember who the head of the Paris section was these days.
And, dear God, what was he going to tell them about Charles Farren, onetime Earl of Ernchester?
His hand moved, almost unconsciously, to his collar, to feel the reassuring thickness of the silver chain he wore beneath. It was not a usual ornament, for a man and a Protestant. He hadn’t thought about it much, except that for a year now he had not dared remove it. It had slipped into place like those other habits he’d acquired “abroad,” as they said in the Department; habits like memorizing the layout of any place he stayed so that he could move through it in the dark, or noting faces in case he saw them again in another context, or carrying a knife in his right boot. The other dons at New College, immersed in their specialties and their academic bunfights, never noticed that the self-effacing Lecturer in Etymology, Philology, and Folklore could identify even their servants and knew every back way out of every college in that green and misty town.
These were matters upon which his life had depended at one time–and might now still depend.
In the summer his students had commented, when they’d gone punting up the Cherwell, on the double chain of heavy silver links he wore on either wrist; he’d said they were a present from a superstitious aunt. No one had commented on or seemed to connect the chains with the trail of ragged red scars that tracked his throat from ear to collarbone and followed the veins up his arms.
The porter returned and casually slipped a piece of paper into his hand. Asher gave him another half-crown, which he could ill spare with his fare back from Paris to be thought of, but there were proprieties. He didn’t glance at the paper, only pocketed it as he strolled along the platform to the final shouts of “All aboard!”
Nor did he look for the smaller man, though he knew that Ernchester, like himself, would be getting on at the last moment.
He knew it would not be possible to see him.
Eight years ago, toward the end of the South African war, James Asher had stayed with a Boer family on the outskirts of Pretoria. Though they were, like many Boers, sending information to the Germans, they were good people at heart, believing that what they did helped their country’s cause–they had welcomed him into their home under the impression he was a harmless professor of linguistics at Heidelberg, in Africa to study Bantu pidgins. “We are not savages,” Mrs. van der Platz had said. “Just because a man cannot produce documents for this thing and that thing does not mean he is a spy.”
Of course, Asher had been a spy. And when Jan van der Platz–sixteen and Asher’s loyal shadow for weekslearned that Asher was not German but English and had confronted him in tears, Asher had shot him to protect his contacts in the town, the Kaffirs who slipped him information and would be horribly killed in retaliation, and the British troops in the field who would have been massacred by the commandos had he been forced to talk. Asher had returned to London, resigned his position with the Foreign Office, and married, to her family’s utter horror, the eighteen-year-old girl whose heart he never thought he had the smallest hope of winning.
At the time, he thought he would never exert himself for King and Country again.
And here he was, bound for Paris with the rain pounding hollowly on the roof of the second-class carriage and only a few pounds in his pocket, because he had seen Ignace Karolyi, of the Austrian Kundschafts Stelle, talking to a man who could not be permitted to take Austrian pay.
It was a possibility Asher had lived with, and feared, for a year, since first he had learned who and what Charles Farren and those like him were.
Making his way down the corridor from car to car, Asher glimpsed Karolyi through a window in first class, reading a newspaper in an otherwise empty compartment.
The Dorian Gray beauty of his features hadn’t changed in the thirteen years since Asher had last seen him. Though Karolyi must be nearly forty now, not a trace of silver showed in the smooth black hair or the pen trace of mustache on the short upper lip; not a line marred the corners of those childishly wide-set dark eyes.
“My blood leaps at the thought of obeying whatever command the Emperor may give me.” Asher remembered him springing to his feet in the soft bright haze of the gaslit Cafe Versailles on the Graben, the bullion glittering on the scarlet of his Guards uniform; remembered the shine of idealistic idiocy in his upturned face. “I will fight upon whatever battlefield He may direct=2E” One could hear the capital letter in he –the Emperor–and around him, his fellow beau sabreurs of the Imperial Life Guards had roared and applauded, though they’d roared louder when another of their number had joked, “Yes, of course, Igni … but who’s going to point you in the direction of the enemy?”
Even when Karolyi had hunted Asher with dogs through the Dinaric Alps after torturing to death his local contact and guide–when it was blindingly obvious that his pose as a brainless young nobleman who spent most of his time waltzing at society balls rather than drilling with his regiment was a sham–that was still the Karolyi Asher remembered.
They’d never met face-to-face in that hellish week of hide-and-seek among the streams and gorges, and Asher didn’t know if Karolyi was aware who his quarry had been. But passing along the corridor now with barely a glance through the window, he remembered the body of the guide, and was disinclined to take chances.
In any case, it was not Karolyi whom he feared most.
The third-class carriage was noisier than second, crowded and smelling of unwashed wool and dirty linen. A child cried on and on like the shriek of a factory whistle. Unshaven men looked up from Le Figaro or the Illustrated London News as Asher walked between the hard, high-backed benches. Yellow electric light jittered over cheap felt hats, wet paper flowers, plain steel pins; a woman said, “Hush now, Beatrice, hush,” in a voice that held no hope of Beatrice hushing this side of the Gare du Nord=2E
Asher kept his collar turned up, knowing Farren would recognize him. It unnerved him to realize that the man might be in this carriage and he would never so much as catch a glimpse of him. He didn’t like to think about what would happen to him in that case.
At the far end of the third-class car was a baggage compartment, given over to bicycles and crated dogs and an enormous canework bath chair. It was unlighted, and through its windows Asher could see the rain flashing like diamonds in the dirty light shining from third class. As Asher stepped through and closed the door, the cold struck him–all the windows had been opened, rattling noisily in their frames, wet flecks of water spattering through.
At his feet a dog in a cage whined with fear.
The smell of the rainy night could neither cover nor disperse the stink of death.
Asher looked around him quickly, kneeling so as to be out of the line of the window. Dim light came through the little judas on the door, but not enough; he fumbled a Lucifer match from the box in his greatcoat pocket, scratched it with his nail.
The man’s body had been folded small, knees mashed into chest, arms bent close to sides, the whole skinny tangle of him shoved tight into a corner behind a double bass in a case.
Asher blew out the match, lit another, and crouched to worm close. The dead man was young, dark, unshaven, with a laborer’s callused hands and a roughly knotted kerchief around his neck instead of a cravat. His clothing smelled of cheap gin and cheaper tobacco. One of his shoes was worn through. Only a little blood had soaked into the neckerchief, though when Asher moved it down with one finger, he saw that the jugular vein had been cut clear through, a rough, ripping tear, the edges white and puffy, mangled as if they had been chewed and sucked. Asher had a scar that size where his collar pressed the silver links of the necklace against his skin.
A third match showed the dead man’s face utterly white, blue-lipped, eyebrows and beard stubble glaring, though by the appearance of the eyelids he’d been dead for less than thirty minutes. Moving a frayed pants cuff, Asher saw the bare ankle had not yet begun to turn livid. Probably, Asher thought with a queer, angry coldness, it never would much.
He blew out the match, stowed the stub–with the stubs of the first two–in his pocket, and slithered from between the bath chair and bass fiddle case=2E He’d passed the conductor in the second-class carriage, on his way down the train. The official’s nearness had probably interrupted the murderer before he could dump the body out into the night, or perhaps Ernchester was waiting till they were farther from London. Asher left the compartment quickly, dusting his hands on his coat skirts and muttering to himself like a man who has not found what he sought. Nobody in third class gave him a glance.
By the time the train reached Dover, he suspected, the body would be gone. To call attention now to what he had found would only, inevitably, call attention to himself. He wasn’t such a fool as to think he would then ever reach Paris alive.
In the dingy second-class compartment where he had left his satchel, a lively family of homebound Parisians had made themselves very much at home. They were passing bread and cheese among themselves; the bonne femme offered him some and a blood orange, while her mari laboriously scanned a battered copy of l’Aurore. Asher thanked her and fished out his own copy of the Times, most of which he had already read on the journey up from Tunbridge Wells, and wondered academically what he was going to tell whoever was in charge of the Paris section these days.
It was going to be a long night, he knew. He dared not sleep, lest Farren sensed him through his dreams.
2/11/1908 0600 PARIS/GARE DU NORD ERNCHESTER GONE TO PARIS WITH IGNACE KAROLYI AUSTRIAN SIDE STOP FOLLOWED STOP WILL HAND OFF COME BACK TONIGHT JAMES
Ernchester. Lydia Asher laid the thin sheet of yellow paper down on the gilt-inlaid desk before her, heart beating quickly as she identified the name. Gone to Paris with someone from the “Austrian side.”
It took a moment for the meaning to sink in, mostly because Lydia, although she could have distinguished a parathyroid from a parathymus at sight, couldn’t immediately remember whether the Austrians were allied with the Germans or with England. But when it did, the implications made her shiver.
“Is it from the master, ma’am?”
She looked up. Ellen, who had brought the telegram to her with her tea, lingered in the study door, big red hands tucked under her apron. Last night’s inky downpour had dwindled this morning to a slow, steady drench from a sky like steel; beyond the tall windows, Holywell Street was a shining pebblework of cobble and wet, softened by Lydia’s myopia to a gentle sepia and silver Manet. The tall brown wall of New College across the road was nearly black with damp. Now and then a student would pass, or a don, faceless ghosts nevertheless identifiable–even as Ellen was identifiable–by their bodies and the way they moved: there was no question, to Lydia, of mistaking the little banty-cock Dean of Brasenose, with his self-important strut, for the equally diminutive but self-effacing Dr. Vyrdon of Christ Church.
Lydia drew a deep breath, blinking huge brown eyes in the direction of the dark square of the hall door, and realized for the first time that morning that she was starving. “Yes,” she said. “He was called away unexpectedly to Paris.”
“Tcha!” Ellen shook her head disapprovingly. “And in all that rain! What’s in Paris that’s more important than him coming home last night, and you so worried?”
Since Lydia couldn’t very well reply, Probably a partnership that will begin with Germany conquering England and end God knows where, she said nothing.
Ellen went on cheerily. “I told you not to worry about Mr. James, didn’t I, ma’am? With all that rain it’d stand to reason he’d be delayed, though I never did think of Paris, myself. Something to do with investments, like as not.” Ellen had worked for some years for Lydia’s father and was used to the fact that if the master of the house departed suddenly, it had to do with investments. “Though I didn’t know,” she added, with one of her occasional bursts of sapience, “as he had any.”
“A few small ones,” Lydia said truthfully, folding the telegram and unlocking a drawer of the gilt secretary at which she worked. Its contents exploded into a puffy mountain of household accounts and pathology notes. Lydia regarded the mess blankly, as if the entire desk were not awash with dissection diagrams, notes on the endocrine system, correspondence from other researchers on the subject of ductless glands, milliners’ bills, menus, silk samples, copies of Lancet, and the first draft of her article on pancreatic secretions for the January issue of British Medical Journal, on which she’d been working when Ellen had made her entrance. She shook back the cloud of lace from around her hand and determinedly stuffed the contents back into the drawer, which she then forced shut. She opened two more drawers with similar results, finally poking the telegram down into the side among a sheaf of notes concerning electrostimulation’s effect on the production of adrenaline.
Her friend Josetta Beyerly was forever joking her about not reading the newspapers even enough to know who the Prime Minister was, as if prime ministers–and in fact Balkan kings–didn’t come and go at the drop of a constituency. Reading newspapers only caused Lydia to wonder whether people like Lord Balfour and the Kaiser suffered from hyperthyroidism or vitamin deficiency and how she could find out, and she’d found that the speculation distracted her from her work.
“He says he’ll be back today.” It was unreasonable of her, she knew, to feel relief. Jamie was perfectly able to look after himself, as she had known last night, lying awake and fingering the heavy links of the silver chain around her neck. When she had dreamed, it had been of a corpse-white face upturned in the distant gaslights of a London alleyway, strangely reflective eyes, and a mouth snarling to show the glint of outside fangs. She’d awakened then and lain listening to the rain on the ivy until morning.
There had been no reason for her to be afraid.
Handing off, the telegram said.
There was no reason to be afraid now.
What was it in the telegram, she wondered, that snagged at the back of her mind like a hangnail on silk?
“Though it would be a shame,” she went on thoughtfully, “if he didn’t spend at least a little time in Paris, long enough anyway to buy himself a clean shirt and a box of bon-bons. He’d only his overnight things with him, you know, for his cousin’s funeral.”
Why did she think she’d heard the name Ignace Karolyi before?
And how on earth was he going to explain the Earl of Ernchester to the Foreign Office men in Paris?
“I wonder if you could get me some of the toast I didn’t eat at breakfast?” Lydia asked after a moment.
“Right away, ma’am.” She heard the beaming smile in the housemaid’s voice, saw it in the way her shoulders relaxed as she turned from the door. Ellen and Mrs. Grimes both considered her too thin, though she had confounded their earlier threats–when she was in school, a gawky and bespectacled fledgling bluestocking–that no girl who went around with her nose in a book and not eating enough to keep a canary alive was ever going to catch a husband. In spite of daily reminders of her undesirableness, Lydia had always been aware that as the sole heiress to the Willoughby fortune, she would be inundated with proposals of marriage the moment she put up her hair.
Jamie told her she was beautiful, the only man she had ever truly believed.
Had Jamie ever mentioned Ignace Karolyi to her?
She didn’t think so. She cast her mind back to the tall, self-effacing don who sat on the sidelines of her father’s garden parties with her, talking of cabbages and kingsher about medicine in China and how best to go about studying for responsions without letting her father know. The gentle, competent man who never made demands on her, who guessed that a completely different person hid beneath her careful facade and accepted her exactly as she was. He’d always been close-mouthed, though even as a schoolgirl she’d suspected there was more to him than that almost invisible “brown” mien of his. Reticence was still his habit; after seven years of marriage his stories, like Mark Twain’s, usually concerned men and women all named Fergusson.
That was what troubled her now. She’d heard, or read, Karolyi’s name in some other context. Read, she thought … She couldn’t put a pronunciation to the closing yi. Which meant she’d never heard Jamie say it.
She slipped her eyeglasses out from behind a pile of papers–concealing them when anyone entered the room was a lifelong habit–and rose in a rustle of lace, crossing to her side of the bookshelves, where she settled on the floor, her long red hair hanging down her back, her plans to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary’s dissection rooms that afternoon laid aside. By the time Ellen reappeared with a tray of sandwiches and onion soup–for it was well past noon–Lydia had remembered when and in what context she’d come across Karolyi’s name, and the recollection made her more uneasy still. She left the tray untouched and ascended to the bedroom two hours later to continue her researches in the back issues of Lancet and Medical Findings stored under the bed.
She might not remember whether Germany had a Parliament these days or be able to tell a Bolshevik from a Menshevik, but she could remember to within a few months when secretin had been discovered or the address of Marie Curie’s laboratory in Paris.
She was still reading at teatime when Ellen came up with another tray and bullied her into eating half an egg and part of a scone while Ellen built up the bedroom fire and turned up the gas. Lydia had tracked down the reference, which had given her, in turn, another name; she was dimly aware that she had begun to count the hours between now and midnight, when, at her best guess, James was due home.
If he didn’t elect to remain in Paris overnight.
If something didn’t go wrong.
If Ernchester hadn’t seen him …
If he’s staying in Paris, she thought, dabbing jam and Devonshire cream on a scone and then setting it on the plate to gaze at the darkening windows, he’ll wire me. He’ll let me know.
And if he didn’t?
She wondered if she could reach him by wiring the consulate or the Foreign Office–or was it the War Office that operated the Secret Service? Where was the Foreign Office in Paris, anyway? Like most girls of wealthy family, her experience of the City of Lights had been stringently limited by her preceptors to the Champs Elysees and the Rue de la Paix. If she telephoned the Foreign Office in London–would that be in Whitehall? Parliament? Scotland Yard?–they would only tell her lies.
She felt helpless, frightened, uncertain of what to do, because, unlike medical research, this was something for which she had never prepared.
And in any case, she realized, only now seeing the darkness beyond the curtain, they’d all have gone home by this time. As if to echo an affirmative, the Louis XV clock on the parlor mantel downstairs sang its five clear notes.
So all she could do was wait.
She fell asleep sometime after midnight across the foot of the bed, still wearing her fluffy rose-point tea gown, the eye of a maelstrom of medical journals that spread to the bedroom’s door, and dreamed of crumbling houses in ancient cities, their stones mortared with dark blood and cobweb; of half-seen forms whispering in shadows centuries deep.
By morning James had not returned. But it wasn’t until his second telegram that she decided to go up to London and seek out such a house herself.