Siren, p.1

Siren, страница 1

 часть  #5 серии  Makedde Vanderwall

 

Siren
 


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Siren


  To new beginnings…

  siren

  —noun

  a device that makes a loud prolonged sound as a signal or warning: a police siren.

  Classical Mythology. One of several sea nymphs, part woman and part bird, who lure mariners to destruction by their seductive singing.

  a seductively beautiful or charming woman, esp. one who beguiles men.

  a woman who is considered alluring or fascinating but also dangerous.

  Security is mostly a superstition.

  It does not exist in nature.

  HELEN KELLER

  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  siren

  Epigraph

  PROLOGUE

  CHAPTER 1

  CHAPTER 2

  CHAPTER 3

  CHAPTER 4

  CHAPTER 5

  CHAPTER 6

  CHAPTER 7

  CHAPTER 8

  CHAPTER 9

  CHAPTER 10

  CHAPTER 11

  CHAPTER 12

  CHAPTER 13

  CHAPTER 14

  CHAPTER 15

  CHAPTER 16

  CHAPTER 17

  CHAPTER 18

  CHAPTER 19

  CHAPTER 20

  CHAPTER 21

  CHAPTER 22

  CHAPTER 23

  CHAPTER 24

  CHAPTER 25

  CHAPTER 26

  CHAPTER 27

  CHAPTER 28

  CHAPTER 29

  CHAPTER 30

  CHAPTER 31

  CHAPTER 32

  CHAPTER 33

  CHAPTER 34

  CHAPTER 35

  CHAPTER 36

  CHAPTER 37

  CHAPTER 38

  CHAPTER 39

  CHAPTER 40

  CHAPTER 41

  CHAPTER 42

  CHAPTER 43

  CHAPTER 44

  CHAPTER 45

  CHAPTER 46

  CHAPTER 47

  CHAPTER 48

  CHAPTER 49

  CHAPTER 50

  CHAPTER 51

  CHAPTER 52

  CHAPTER 53

  CHAPTER 54

  CHAPTER 55

  CHAPTER 56

  CHAPTER 57

  CHAPTER 58

  CHAPTER 59

  EPILOGUE

  A Note About The Grand Guignol

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Other Books By Tara Moss

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  PROLOGUE

  A brief glow peeked through the curtains, washing the crowd in crimson light, before the little theatre plunged into shadow. There were murmurs, and then renewed silence, ears straining for sounds beyond the curtain.

  Shhhh…

  It was late in Paris, and the infamously unsavoury streets of Pigalle were dark, though anything but quiet. Tucked away inside the venue at the end of Rue Chaptal, the audience was fully immersed in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Le Théâtre des Horreurs. Men and women sat quietly in their seats, some holding hands, some sitting tensely with crossed arms, all overlooked by a pair of two-metre carved angels hanging above the neo-Gothic wood panelling of the interior. In the stygian darkness, the angels seemed to glow with a sickly green light, the origins of which were not clear. The theatre had once served as a church, but those gathered this night had come to find entertainment in acts of iniquity and horror, not divine solace. Rather than lighten the spirits of those present, the ghostly angels added to the sensation of a tomb-like proximity with death.

  A stark spotlight hit the darkened stage, and a delicate dancer emerged into the pool of light, toe first, as if stepping into water. She was dressed in the corset, fishnet stockings and top hat of burlesque tradition, her chapeau set at an artful angle atop a wavy platinum-blonde wig: a nod, perhaps, to the nearby Moulin Rouge. The eyes of each silent audience member followed the fragile beauty as if mesmerised. She held aloft a painted placard, which in elaborate script declared the final ghoulish act of the evening’s program:

  Le Baiser Dans La Nuit

  With a wink for the tourists, she turned the placard over to reveal the English title printed on the other side:

  The Final Kiss

  In moments the young woman had vanished, and the red velvet curtains parted. The audience found themselves peering voyeuristically at a small lounge room in the centre of which a male character—ominously bandaged from chin to forehead—sat grimly while a doctor and a nurse changed the dressings on his face. The young man’s back was to the audience, fists clenched at his sides. His laboured breathing communicated wordless agony.

  ‘I’ve never seen anything as appalling as these injuries,’ the doctor was saying to his nurse. ‘And I hope I never see anything like them again. Sulphuric acid.Vitriol. That’s what caused this. An acid attack…’

  Acid.

  With the patient’s back still to the audience, the extent of his wounds was left to their imagination, by now active with horror.

  ‘They happen too often, sir,’ the young nurse replied through a voice half swallowed by revulsion. She was dressed in the black-and-white uniform of her profession, a Catholic red cross emblazoned on her cap. From her unnerved expression, it was clear she was deeply troubled by the patient’s appearance.

  ‘Light…light burns my eyes,’ the man complained sullenly, naked of his bandages. A number of audience members craned their necks in hope of a better view.

  ‘It was so calculated,’ the doctor continued, addressing the nurse as if his patient was not there or perhaps was not even fully human. ‘Often with this kind of attack, the perpetrator throws the acid from too far away or too quickly, or they lose their nerve and their hands shake. But in this case, it was done with absolute precision.’ The doctor stabbed the air with a quick, violent motion, and one could clearly imagine the acid’s terrible trajectory. ‘Every drop hit the intended target—Henri’s face.’

  The young man’s hands clenched again. Still he did not turn.

  ‘The attacker had a very cool head. Exceptionally cool,’ the doctor finished.

  ‘He wanted to maim him,’ the nurse commented nervously.

  ‘He?’ the doctor rebuffed. ‘It was a lady.’

  Low murmurs rippled through the audience.

  ‘Our patient Henri’s estranged fiancée,’ the doctor explained with disgust.‘Should’ve given her the death penalty …a great performer in court, so I hear. She got off lightly…probably free already. He forgives her. If anything, he helped her get a light sentence.’

  The nurse appeared moved. Her mouth hung open as she considered Henri’s magnanimous response to his attacker.‘Love!’ she declared, and looked off into the distance melodramatically, her gaze above the audience, her large eyes catching the light. ‘To forgive like that! No desire for revenge. Just forgiveness! Underneath the pain, you must have great peace to forgive like that…’ The admiration was clear in her voice.

  Finally their patient could take no more. He moaned with discomfort, and in strained syllables begged them to hurry with the changing of his dressings, and leave him alone. They hastened their care, and eventually the door shut with a gentle click.

  He was alone.

  Henri struggled to his feet, swaying slightly from the effects of opium and whatever pain his drugs could not dull. He faced the audience, head heavily bandaged, with only slits for his eyes, nostrils and mouth, a look reminiscent of The Invisible Man. He was an image of pity and horror, simultaneously a victim and something from a nightmare. Standing before them, seemingly lost in dark thoughts, he looked to his watch and then felt for something in his dressing gown pocket. Once, twice, he checked for it, and finally held the object up to admire its quiet violence. Light revealed it to be a vial of som
e substance, made clear by a strain of violin to be a force of destruction. He slipped the vial back into his pocket and looked at his watch with impatience.

  There was a knock at the door.

  Enlivened, Henri moved across the room, then paused, bandaged head bowed, his hand lingering above the doorknob. A laboured breath, then he turned the knob and stepped back. There emerged from the doorway an actress of startling, ageless beauty. Her presence was felt throughout the theatre, as if the collective heart of the audience began to beat faster. This was Bijou, the infamous scream queen, the face of the troupe called Le Théâtre des Horreurs. Her shoulder-length hair was ebony, and framed an exquisitely formed face of large, expressive eyes, smooth pale skin and high cheekbones. She wore a silk dress that draped elegantly over her curves, cut on the bias.

  She stood rigid, reluctant to enter.

  ‘Is it…? It is you! At last!’ Henri cried, recognising Jeanne, his estranged fiancée, through his damaged sight. This was the woman responsible for his agony and disfigurement, the woman he loved so much that he had forgiven her and helped her avoid a harsh sentence despite the irreversible damage she had inflicted on him. How would it be to see her now? And how would it be for her to view her gruesome handiwork? Gently, Henri convinced the woman to enter. She took three steps in, and he closed the door.

  ‘I’m so glad you agreed to come.’

  ‘It’s the least I could do,’ she managed, her voice quavering.

  ‘You’re trembling. Am I so disgusting?’

  ‘No, I’m cold,’ she lied, eyes riveted to his bandaged face.

  ‘If you removed my bandages you’d be horrified. People shudder when they look at me. Give me your hand. I want you to touch me…I’m a thing without form…or name. I have suffered…and I’m scared,’ he told her.

  ‘I didn’t want to hurt you!’ she blurted, though clearly this could not be true. She recoiled from him, and inched her way back towards the door.

  ‘You’re shaking. I can understand why. But don’t worry,’ Henri told her, his voice even. ‘Relax.’ He coaxed her away from the door and did his best to put her at ease. He asked her what she would do now that she was free.

  ‘I don’t know. Look, I need to get going. I have to see my mother. She’s expecting me,’ she said.

  ‘Stay a few more minutes. I beg you. I have missed you.’

  He gestured to his couch.

  Jeanne sat stiffly, and Henri took a spot near her. It was she who had done this to him, and she could not even look.

  Henri leaned in. ‘You’d never agree, but…I want to kiss you,’ he told her frankly. ‘There…I’ve said it. One kiss. The last time. I’d be so happy, and I’d ask nothing else from you. You could go.’ He was close to her now, only inches from her face. ‘Would you let me kiss you?’

  The audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, some peeking through laced fingers.

  ‘All right, just don’t hold me so hard,’ Jeanne pleaded. ‘Let me go!’

  ‘I’m going to punish you!’ Henri cackled triumphantly, pulling the vial from his pocket.

  There followed magnificent screams, and gasps from the audience, perverse yet familiar music to the carved angels leering overhead.

  Jean-Baptiste had heard all this before.

  The little troupe Le Théâtre des Horreurs performed two short Grand Guignol plays a night, interspersed with vaudeville acts, including a magician, sinister twin contortionists who doubled as actors in the plays, and a titillating burlesque dance. They were now performing the concluding scene of violence in The Final Kiss, and soon the shocked audience would applaud, the curtains would close, and Jean-Baptiste’s lover would invite him back to her dressing room, for pleasure and carnal seduction, as she did most evenings. She was the troupe’s undisputed star, Bijou—La Femme Assassinée, billed as ‘the most assassinated woman since Paula Maxa’, the darling of the Grand Guignol’s heyday: variously attacked, tortured, shot, strangled, hanged, raped, devoured by a puma, electrocuted, poisoned with arsenic, whipped, stabbed, cut into pieces, executed by the guillotine, terrified by supernatural horrors or buried alive every night to the exquisite horror and morbid delight of her audience.

  As Jean-Baptiste watched, the ex-lover she had disfigured was enacting his carefully planned revenge.

  The final kiss.

  Some in the crowd would be familiar with the gruesome 1912 play by Maurice Level, and those who were not would have sensed the nature of the horror to come. Every play in the Grand Guignol tradition promised violence; it was only a matter of when and how. Versions of the revenge tale had been performed countless times in the very same theatre back in its glory days as the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, but, a century after the play was written, the shock value of the genre had diminished. Gone were the days when royalty would brave the wrong side of town to sneak a glimpse of the shocking performances and experience a frisson of ghoulish terror. No longer could an enterprising promoter drive the press wild by claiming to need nurses on call during the show to care for the frequently fainting audience members. To Jean-Baptiste’s knowledge, no members of any royal family had snuck in to watch Bijou. No one in the audience had yet fainted.

  Still, the plays retained their infamy and their power to unnerve and disturb. And most importantly for him, they were to provide his promised introduction to the stage.

  Jean-Baptiste was twenty years old, and had dreamed of being an actor ever since, aged eleven, he’d attended a production of Le Malade Imaginaire with his parents. It had been the applause that had grabbed him—such exhilarating praise—and when the opportunity to be the one in the spotlight emerged, he had jumped at it. That it was his new lover who had encouraged him was all the more exciting. She had spotted him waiting tables at Chez Paul, and assured him he had ‘the look’. He was a handsome young man, with wavy blond hair and a classic nose, and was regularly in receipt of compliments on his beauty. The first role she had in mind for him was from the play The Ultimate Torture, where he would have the significant role of D’Hemelin’s colleague Gravier, but not many lines. Despite his dreams of fame, he had no acting experience, but his lover promised he would be eased into bigger parts, eventually taking over the lead roles, currently played by an actor named Michel, right now inhabiting the disfigured and less-than-magnanimous Henri. Michel had been a fixture with Le Théâtre des Horreurs for numerous years. Jean-Baptiste wondered if he and the rest of the troupe would accept his addition.

  And so, with hopes of stardom, Jean-Baptiste waited patiently for his lover to be tortured for the pleasure of the audience, so that he might see her backstage when it was all over.

  ‘Do you honestly think I got you here for a cosy little chat?’ the disfigured Henri shouted. He had removed his bandages to reveal the full horror of his disfigurement to the horrified audience, and his even more frightened former fiancée. The effect of a simple nylon stocking and painted sponge gave his wounds a lifelike quality, the horror of which was enhanced by sickly-green stage lighting.

  ‘…To say nice things to you? To beg you for a final kiss? You’ve lost all sense of reason if you think I could ever forgive you for what you did to me. I will take my revenge!’ he cried, and with this held Jeanne down, triumphantly pouring the liquid from his vial directly onto her beautiful face while she thrashed violently beneath him like a wounded snake. It was an eye-for-an-eye revenge he could never have enacted had she been incarcerated for life.

  ‘We’ll be the perfect lovers…we’ll be made for each other! You’re like me now…’ he declaimed maniacally.

  ‘Like me! Like me! Like me!’

  Love, it seemed, was not always beautiful.

  It was well past midnight, two hours after the curtain call.

  Tipsy and spent, the aspiring actor Jean-Baptiste was sent out to the streets of Pigalle to make his way home, seen off by his lover with a lingering kiss and the promise of more lovemaking to come.

  ‘Bonne nuit, mon chéri…’
r />   One foot in front of the other, the young man thought as he slid out the theatre’s stage door into the narrow cobblestone street outside. One foot in front of the other…

  Cool night air shocked his warm cheeks. The crowds for Bijou’s show had long since dispersed, and the little cul-de-sac was still. There was the faint smell of perfume in the air, either hanging around his nostrils after his lover’s final embrace, or wafting down from a nearby open window. He could hear the main strip still buzzing with revellers a few blocks away, near the Moulin Rouge: the rows of sex shops, brothels and the Musée de l’Érotisme. Pigalle would not settle just yet.

  Jean-Baptiste’s feet traced a weaving, wandering path, and it took some measure of concentration for him to stay in motion across the uneven cobblestones. Such was his absorption that when he was approached in the alley beyond the theatre, he took some time to notice he was not alone. His footsteps in his stiff new leather shoes, already irregular, were joined by other, softer soles; a lighter, quicker step. He expected them to pass, but the footsteps stopped with his.

  He turned just in time to see the outline of a figure haloed in a streetlight, thin and cloaked in black.

  ‘Bonsoir,’ he managed to say, feeling expansive and friendly to the world in his post-coital stupor, but nonetheless confused by this unexpected company. Do I know you? he thought to say, but did not utter. His brain and tongue felt sluggish. He stumbled and went over, letting out an animallike grunt of surprise, and it was some seconds after his elbows had jarred painfully against stone, breaking his fall, that he realised he had been pushed.

  ‘Hey!’ he began, but before the words left his lips, they were cut off by an excruciating burning, something like a liquid fire hitting his mouth. His instinct was to shield himself from the source of this fresh agony, but it was too late, the fire was everywhere: dark, acrid and smelling sharply of vinegar.

  Choking.

  Writhing on the ground, Jean-Baptiste clawed at his face and felt his palms burn as they too melted. Acid! Just like in the play. Only this is real, this is happening. Behind eyelids shut against a bright kaleidoscope of pain, he recalled vivid flashes of Henri’s face in The Final Kiss—the primitive stage makeup with its appearance of festering death, layers of raw skin and exposed bone—and he knew in that moment that he was melting, his face was melting, he was becoming that thing on the stage, the creature stripped of humanity, the living monster. Screams reverberated through his body and into the alley, infinitely more jarring than the trained shrieks of his lover Bijou on her stage.

 
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