The Blood Countess, страница 1
Tara Moss is the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels Fetish, Split, Covet, Hit and Siren. Her novels have been published in seventeen countries in eleven languages, and have been nominated for both the Davitt and the Ned Kelly crime writing awards.
Born in Victoria, BC, Moss is a dual Australian/Canadian citizen. When not writing her next novel she enjoys reading voraciously and riding her motorcycle (though never at the same time), spending time with her pet python, Thing, collecting morbid memento mori and Victoriana, and serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and ambassador for the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children. She is married to Australian poet and philosopher Dr Berndt Sellheim. Visit her on the web at www.taramoss.com
First published 2010 in Macmillan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
1 Market Street, Sydney
Copyright © Tara Moss 2010
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
National Library of Australia
The blood countess / Tara Moss.
Author photograph: Elizabeth Allnutt
Typeset in 12/18 pt Baskerville by Midland Typesetters, Australia
Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group
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These electronic editions published in 2010 by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd
1 Market Street, Sydney 2000
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
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The Blood Countess
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For my husband Berndt
My mysterious host did not greet me. Instead, I found a tall, expressionless chauffeur.
I arrived at the sprawling airport with my maps and directions and dreams, animated with an uneasy cocktail of excitement, relief and . . . terror. I had finally escaped my small hometown of Gretchenville for one of the biggest and most famous cities in the world. This oft-imagined fantasy of mine was now reality; a reality of unknown circumstances and vast possibilities. Everything was new and unfamiliar. Everything was changed. And it was all thanks to the offer of a lifetime.
My plane was late, delaying this triumphant life change by half an hour. When I finally disembarked at JFK I found myself faced with an aggressive throng of strangers. They were talking on cell phones or shouting at airline staff, striding this way and that, swinging briefcases and bags. Amid this clamorous human maelstrom stood a tall figure dressed in an impeccable black suit and dark sunglasses. This man had a deathly pallor, I thought, and he seemed eerily still and silent despite the chaos around him. He held a white sign marked with my name.
When you see P. English you immediately assume P is for Patricia, right? Or Penny? Well, you’d be wrong. My mother was an archaeologist, my father was an academic and these two otherwise intelligent people had the combined wisdom to name their only child Pandora. That’s right, I share my name with the lady in Greek mythology who opened a box and let all the evil into the world. And if you picked up the past tense when I was telling you about my parents, you would have guessed that they are either retired, or I am an orphan.
It’s the latter.
My parents died in an accident in Egypt when I was eleven. I’d had a bad feeling about the trip beforehand, but of course I was only eleven, so I could hardly stop them going. I wasn’t with them when it happened. I was with my Aunt Georgia, and there I stayed. I was already considered weird (for a number of reasons), and growing up as the ward of my father’s older sister did nothing to increase my popularity with other kids my age. Aunt Georgia is a good, decent woman, but she is the math teacher at the only school in Gretchenville, and known for being strict. The older townsfolk call her a ‘spinster’, and the kids call her something less kind. Aunt Georgia thought it best not to remind me about my parents or the accident, so as not to upset me, thus there are no photos of them around her house. And to ‘avoid embarrassment’ (hers, not mine) caused by the negative associations with my name she insists on calling me ‘Dora’.
(Please don’t call me Dora. I really hate it.)
‘That’s me. Pandora English.’ I smiled cheerfully at the stranger to disguise my excited panic. Though of average height, I barely came up to the man’s chest. Maybe it was just my nerves, but I thought, He is so still. If he’s breathing, I can’t tell.
Without a word of acknowledgment the towering chauffeur took my briefcase and walked off. I followed the man through the part he formed in the horde of airport patrons. He led me to the baggage carousel, and grabbed the suitcase I indicated – still without a single utterance. This lack of conversation was, I figured, either due to my being too important to converse with, or too unimportant. I would like to think it was the former, but that would be unlikely. I’m a nineteen-year-old who went to a small town high school. I’m not rich, not famous and not influential. I don’t currently have a cell phone or a blog or a BBF (Best Best Friend or is it BFF? Anyway, I don’t really have one). My suitcase is not Louis Vuitton, or whatever the cool big city people use to transport their things these days. No, mine is a battered suitcase of faded and scratched leather, marked with some of those stamps and stickers you used to find on old steam trunks. It’s not battered from my own adventures. I haven’t had my own adventures yet. (Though just between you and me, that is about to change.) The suitcase belonged to my mother, the archaeologist, and I treasured it and the idea of all the adventures it had seen with her.
I followed in the wake of this silent chauffeur and arrived at a long black car parked at the kerb outside. A bit like the sunglasses the man didn’t take off, the car gleamed with a sleek foreign quality, tinted and impenetrable-looking. Everything here gleamed, I thought, compared with home. He opened the right rear door for me and passed me my briefcase. I took his meaning and got in, and sat with my briefcase in my lap, while he placed my mother’s tattered suitcase in the back and closed the trunk with a neat click. I was surprised and frankly flattered that anyone would deem me worthy of a chauffeur. I’d never so much as seen a chauffeur before, except in the movies, and here I was being driven by one in this city, of all places – the city of my dreams.
I sat in the back of this clean, impress
I would be a famous writer.
We battled through a swarm of traffic that honked and stopped and started in ways I had never seen back home. Eventually our sleek black car escaped the airport and flew down wide, fast-moving roads on a maze of freeways. As we crossed the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan I gasped in awe at my first glimpse of New York, a sight I had been waiting so long to see. Before me was the postcard image of ‘The Big Apple’, an island of giant monoliths built of concrete and glass. This was the concrete jungle where King Kong had swatted planes from the pinnacle of the Empire State Building. This was where countless Woody Allen protagonists lived out their socially awkward lives. This was the romance of an Affair to Remember and the terror of Cloverfield all on one island. I could make out the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. It was nearing sunset, and my fabled Manhattan throbbed with an electric buzz, the skyline glowing with thousands (millions?) of cubes of lit windows, a red sky looming above.
Over the bridge and into the maze of its skyscrapers we went.
I stared wide-eyed out the car window as tight grids of traffic swallowed us. Street after street, buildings sat shoulder to shoulder. Strangers were shoulder to shoulder, too, moving in erratic patterns across the winter sidewalks, in a scene every bit as chaotic as that I’d witnessed at the airport. There were neon signs, advertising posters and billboards. Cars honked. People shouted and walked and stood, wielding umbrellas and shopping bags, talking on cell phones or to themselves. I spotted the kind of subway grilles Marilyn Monroe once posed over. (They weren’t so glamorous without her.) We headed uptown along Madison Avenue and into what I knew from my maps to be the Upper East Side, where skyscrapers gave way to five- and six-storey walk-up apartment blocks with fire escapes trailing down the outsides. We turned left and crossed the unexpected green oasis of Central Park along a single-lane road that weaved through the trees and benches, and eventually we entered a small tunnel, dark and filled with a curious fog. When the strange fog lifted perhaps a minute later we were on a dark residential street. The homes seemed older here, and quiet. The driver slowed and pulled up to the kerb of a gothic-looking corner building.
Number one, Addams Avenue.
The engine stopped.
This was the tiny Manhattan suburb of Spektor, the one I hadn’t been able to locate on my maps. This was the home of my Great-Aunt Celia, my mother’s mother’s sister, my only living relative apart from Aunt Georgia. I had not met Celia and I’m pretty sure my Aunt Georgia hadn’t met her either. From what little I did know of her, I expected a very old and quite possibly eccentric woman who had long ago lived the high life as a fashion designer for Hollywood movie stars and now lived a quiet life holed up in her New York penthouse. She’d be in her nineties by my calculation.
‘It’s generous of her to take you,’ Aunt Georgia had explained. ‘But you’ll have to earn your keep. Help her across the street, get her medications and bring home the groceries. She’ll be very old and frail . . .’
These warnings had sounded depressing, sure, but the excitement of starting my career in New York and the chance to strike out on my own seemed more than a fair trade for any geriatric unpleasantries. It wasn’t every day that a letter arrived in the mail offering an orphan a new life in Manhattan. Aunt Georgia had taken some convincing, but she knew I wanted desperately to live in New York, and this was the only way I could do it. This was my ticket out of Gretchenville. It was also my chance to break free of Aunt Georgia’s incessant algebra and the oppressive weight of my little family tragedy. From age eleven I pretty much had ‘Poor Little Orphan’ tattooed on my forehead, along with the aforementioned ‘weird kid’ tag, so if this generous relative I hadn’t met happened to be a geriatric stranger in her eighties living in a pocket of Manhattan that didn’t exist on the maps I looked at (and was about as lively as a ghost town by all appearances) I didn’t care. The main thing was, I had escaped Gretchenville (population now 3999, with my unprecedented departure).
I got out of the big black car and fumbled for some money to tip the driver, who silently refused with a shake of his pale, expressionless head. He effortlessly deposited my suitcase at the jaws of the strange old building where I would live for the foreseeable future. And then he strode back to his car, got in and drove off.
I peered upwards.
The building appeared narrow and stretched to the dark sky, pointing up in a series of stone arches, turrets and spikes. It stood five storeys in total, with ancient-looking heavily embellished window arches placed in twos and threes across the front. The details of the intricate stonework had faded to stained variations of grey, and the overall effect was a little eerie to behold, especially as – unless it was a trick of the light – it appeared that the windows on the middle floors were boarded up.
Right . . .
I found the bell panel next to the arched, iron-gated entrance, and rang the top floor. In mere seconds there was a cheery but indecipherable reply and the gates unlocked with a buzz. I tried to haul open the wooden door inside the archway but it was heavier than the entry of a tomb, and seemingly as often used. Could that be? My mysterious driver had already vanished, so I put down my briefcase and gave the door a yank with both hands and all of my questionable muscle. How could an old lady live beyond such a door? How could she leave the house? Or perhaps she didn’t leave the house. Perhaps she couldn’t. Maybe that’s where I came in.
Dear me. What am I getting myself into?
I pulled again. ‘Oh, please open . . .’ I murmured in frustration, and managed to crack open the door. Inch by inch I pushed inside; one foot, then an ankle, a leg, and my slim torso, until my suitcase, my briefcase and I had gained entry. The thick door creaked shut as soon as I let go, and sealed me in with a dull thud and a puff of dust. The temperature inside was several degrees cooler than on the street, which was hardly balmy. I found myself standing in an oval entranceway with a high ceiling, decorated with once-majestic tilework and gilded wall sconces, now in a state of dusty disrepair. A circular staircase snaked up towards the sealed wooden door of a mezzanine floor, and the presence of an old lift was announced by a call bell and an elaborate cage of ironwork, including spiked fleurs-de-lis, one of which was broken and balanced on an angle. Above me, a cobweb had formed across an impressive crystal chandelier, which hung slightly askew. It was the only source of light.
It seemed my Great-Aunt Celia’s building was as creepy inside as it was out, not that I have anything against creepy, particularly. After all, I’d been obsessed with old cemeteries for a while. I’d photographed the one in Gretchenville perhaps a hundred times. One grave in particular.
In the tomb-like silence there was the clink and grind of old machinery, and in minutes the iron lacework of the lift doors slid back to reveal a slim woman. She stepped into the dim circle of light thrown by the dusty chandelier; a sophisticated figure dressed in a black and blood red silk dress cinched at the waist by a thin, glossy belt. For a surreal moment it seemed as if a Vogue fashion image from the 1940s or 50s had come to life. She wore Mary Jane heels, not flats. Not compression stockings – silk stockings. Her long fingers were cased in dark suede gloves, fashioned with a little cut-out at the wrist and fastened with a red leather button.
‘Darling Pandora! Is that you?’ the woman sang with more vitality than I had anticipated of anyone’s great-aunt. Her lips were varnished in a dark, glistening red lipstick, held wide in a smile. ‘Pando
‘I’m Celia,’ she confirmed just when I was sure it had to be someone else sent to greet me. She extended her gloved hand and I blinked.
‘Um, I’m Pandora. Thank you so much for having me,’ I replied awkwardly and shook her hand. The suede felt velvety under my fingertips.
Doubtless I’d mixed up my histories. Was she my Aunt Celia, perhaps? My mom’s sister? She didn’t have a walker or anything, though now that I was looking, I noticed there was a cane in her left hand. It was made of carved mahogany and polished silver, and it shone. Somehow, though, it had the air of a prop, rather than an aid.
‘Welcome. Please come,’ Celia said, and beckoned me to the elevator. ‘I trust my driver found you without difficulty. I hope you weren’t waiting here for long?’
‘Not at all. You were so quick.’ She had been somewhat quicker than I’d expected. ‘Thanks so much for sending the driver. That was very generous of you.’ He’d seemed so strange and silent. Perhaps that was normal. I wasn’t used to New Yorkers, after all, and I’d heard they could be a bit impersonal.
‘Generous?’ Celia replied. ‘Nonsense. That’s what he is for. I can’t very well leave my driver idle, can I?’