Oct 5 2012 1:00pm
An excerpt of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, the third book in the Anno Dracula historical thriller series by Kim Newman (available October 9, 2012).
Rome. 1959. Count Dracula is about to marry the Moldavian Princess Asa Vajda—his sixth wife. Journalist Kate Reed flies into the city to visit the ailing Charles Beauregard and his vampire companion Geneviève. Finding herself caught up in the mystery of the Crimson Executioner who is bloodily dispatching vampire elders in the city, Kate discovers that she is not the only one on his trail.
DRACULA CHA CHA CHA
Alitalia offered a special class for vampires, at the front of the aeroplane. The windows were shrouded against the sun with black curtains. It added to the cost. The warm could pay a supplement and share the space—none did on this flight—but Kate couldn’t be seated in the main cabin at the lower fare. The airline assumed the undead were all too wealthy to care, which was not in her case true.
The flight departed an overcast Heathrow Airport in mid-afternoon and was scheduled to arrive in Rome at sunset. In the air, she read well into Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. She didn’t take personally the motto, ‘don’t let the bloodsuckers grind you down,’ and identified more with Arthur Seaton than with the vampires who ran the bicycle factory where he worked. Alan Sillitoe was using a metaphor, not stirring up hatred against her kind. That said, England had pockets of real intolerance: she’d been caught in the Notting Hill blood riots last year, and was fed up with the crucifix-waving teddy boys who hounded her in the launderette.
She’d visited Venice in the 1920s and served in Sicily and the South during the Allied invasions, but never before been to Rome. Geneviève had offered to meet her at Fiumicino Airport, but Kate preferred to make her own way into the city. Geneviève was best off staying close to Charles. These were their last days. They deserved time together alone before Kate arrived to shoulder part of the burden and, incidentally and unavoidably, play gooseberry.
What was between Charles and Geneviève had always shut her out, even in 1888 when she was a warm girl and Geneviève was his first vampire. Kate loved him, of course, which made her silly and sad and would soon make her lost and alone. She was always last in line with Charles Beauregard: after Pamela, his wife; Penelope, his fiancée; Victoria, his queen; and, hardest to take because she’d be around forever, the sainted Geneviève Dieudonné.
Kate had to remind herself often that she liked Geneviève. It probably made things worse.
Toward the end of the flight, a snack was offered—a live white mouse. Not liking to feed in public, she declined. Looking up at the smartly uniformed hostess, she noticed a sky-blue scarf wound between her collar and her throat. Kate sensed the warm girl’s bites and wondered if she were required to offer her neck to Alitalia’s important vampire customers. More likely she had an undead boyfriend without much in the way of self-control.
‘May I have yours as well?’ asked another passenger, a thin-faced elder. ‘I am peckish.’
He already had one wriggling mouse in his left hand.
Kate shrugged, politely. He reached over the aisle into the hostess’s little cage.
‘Thank you, Signora,’ he said, claiming his prize.
The vampire opened his mouth like a python. Red membranes unfurled as his jaws unlocked, revealing double rows of fang-needles. He popped both treats into his maw and crunched out the tiny lives. He chewed the mice like gum, working the furry pulp into his cheek, sucking down juices in minute dribbles.
The elder wore full soup and fish: ruffled white shirt, black dickie bow, velvet morning coat, brocade waistcoat, Playboy Club signet ring, buckled boots, Patek Lioncourt wristwatch, black opera cape lined with red silk. He looked like a middle-European hawk: black patent-leather hair brushed back from a widow’s peak; white face, red eyes, scarlet lips.
‘Or is it Signorina?’ he asked around his mouthful.
‘Miss,’ she admitted. ‘Katharine Reed.’
The elder discreetly spat fur and bones into a paper napkin, which he folded into a small parcel and gave to the hostess for disposal.
Nodding a formal greeting, he introduced himself.
‘Count Gabor Kernassy, of the bloodline of Vlad Dracula, late of il principe’s Carpathian Guard.’
In his Italian exile, they called Dracula ‘il principe’, the Prince. He was born to the title, which distinguished him from the numberless counts—like this one—who floated around in his wake. Sly reference to Machiavelli’s handbook for genial tyrants was also intended.
‘This is my “niece”,’ Count Kernassy gestured at the vampire woman in the window seat next to him, ‘Malenka.’
A glance suggested what species of niece Malenka was to the Count. She was dressed for an entrance, in a floor-length scarlet evening gown, cut to display an enormous outcrop of bosom. The neckline was more like a nipple-line, with a deep valley that almost reached her navel. Diamonds sparkled on the upper slopes of her breasts. Her growth of bright blonde hair was equally enormous, and her razor smile was a credit to either bloodline or Swedish dentistry. Her maroon eyes sparkled and dazzled with boredom, contempt and amusement.
Kate chided herself for unfairly detesting Malenka on sight. She had her down as a nouveau, one of those new-born vampiresses who attach themselves to convenient elders and try to pass among gentlefolk three hundred years their senior.
She waved tiny fingers at the woman. Malenka arched plucked eyebrows.
They were the only three vampires on the flight. Kate had an idea she might like the old rogue of a Count, who was on some level aware of the impression Malenka made. Kernassy paused sufficiently in a recitation of his part in several centuries’ of court intrigue to ask her what she did and why she was going to Rome. She avoided the latter question by answering the former.
‘I’m a journalist. For The Manchester Guardian and the New Statesman.’
‘Journalisti,’ Malenka spat, the first word Kate had heard from her. ‘Ani-malss!’
Malenka smiled as if she were fond of animals, and enjoyed killing and eating them.
‘My niece has been pursued by your press. She is highly visible.’
Kate didn’t pay much attention to the society pages but had an idea she’d seen photographs in the Tatler of Malenka looking gorgeously bored at a coffee bar in Soho, or supporting a mushroom-cloud hat at Ascot. It was part of her job to keep up with all manner of publications. Also, she liked to know what people were wearing these days.
‘Motion pictures are interested in her,’ continued the Count. ‘She photographs.’
Many vampires didn’t. Only a few, like Garbo, were film actors or models. Monsieur Erik, angel-voiced spectre of the Paris Opéra, not only would not photograph but could not be recorded for gramophone records.
‘So I imagine,’ Kate snipped.
‘Your accent? It is not English,’ observed Kernassy. ‘You are perhaps Canadian?’
‘I am perhaps Irish.’
‘They loave me in Ire-land,’ Malenka declared.
‘Malenka has performed a season at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. She was a very great success.’
Kate stopped herself from laughing at the image of Malenka as Molly Bloom.
‘Many Ire-land men loave me,’ Malenka announced.
‘I’m sure,’ Kate agreed. ‘I can see that.’
Kernassy shared a secret smile. He liked being seen as a rakish ‘uncle’ to this spectacular but brainless creature. Kate wondered if he’d found her warm and turned her, or inherited her from another exhausted father-in-darkness.
‘I do believe you will be much loaved in Rome,’ Kate ventured.
‘You hear that, Malenka?’ said the Count. ‘Our Miss Reed predicts formidable success for you.’
Malenka thrust out her breasts in a kind of seated bow, nodding sharply at unheard applause.
‘She is to be in a motion picture, in a leading role.’
‘I am... Medusa,’ she said, touching long fingernails to her snakeless tresses.
Kate could just about see the casting.
‘No, mia cara,’ Kernassy chided. ‘You are Medea.’
‘There is difference?’ Malenka looked to Kate for support.
‘One had adders in her hairdo and froze men to stone with a glance,’ Kate said. ‘The other helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece but got chucked and bashed their children to death.’
‘I think they change ending in script,’ Kernassy said. ‘The original is – how was it put to me? – “not box office”. And who would, as you say, “chuck” Malenka?’
‘Who care for box orifice?’ Malenka smiled. ‘They will just care for me.’
Count Kernassy shrugged. The pilot announced they were near their destination and asked that all seat-belts be refastened, per favore. Malenka had to be helped with the buckle. The belt lay loose in her lap. Trapped in the corseted gown, her waist was tiny.
‘You are in Rome for the wedding?’ the Count asked.
Kate was startled. She didn’t imagine anyone would think that, though the royal engagement had been thoroughly covered, even by the papers she worked for.
‘I might write something,’ she said, noncommittally.
Until now, she’d blocked the wedding from her mind. While she and Geneviève tended Charles’s deathbed, the creature they thought of as blighting their lives for the last seventy years would, amid unparalleled pomp, be taking another wife. There were political and emotional ramifications. In the end, if she could control her hatred, she might indeed write something about it.
‘We shall be at wedding,’ Malenka said. ‘Personal guests of il principe.’
Kernassy’s eyebrows made Satanic V signs. Like many cloaked Carpathians, he seemed a cut-down imitation of his principe. Did Malenka intend to abandon him for a more distinguished uncle? If so, she’d have to best the Royal Fiancée. Kate gathered that Asa Vajda of Moldavia—la principesa?—was not the sort to be seen off by a gold-digger.
‘Perhaps you have other affairs?’ the Count remarked, with an elder’s insight. ‘Mamma Roma has many eternal attractions, some dolorous, some joyful.’
Dolorous? Curious word.
The plane touched down smoothly and taxied to the terminal.
Kernassy courteously let Malenka and Kate leave the plane before him. Naturally, Malenka went first and posed at the top of the movable steps.
There were explosions and flares. Kate thought she was being greeted by a fusillade. It would not have been the first time. Cold bright light battered her. Dazzled, she covered her eyes. Flashes danced in her skull.
A small orchestra struck up a tune. Incongruously for a welcome, it was ‘Arrivederci Roma’.
Shouts came out of the darkness beyond the popping lights. ‘La bella Malenka ... Signorina ... swinging, baby ... bene, bene ... va-va-voom!’
Kernassy helped Kate back into the cabin. She took off her glasses and rubbed her burning eyes. Kodak were marketing a new film for photographing vampires. The flashbulbs that went with it produced nuclear sunbursts.
‘Everywhere Malenka goes, there are paparazzi,’ explained the Count.
Questions were shouted in several languages: ‘Are you searching for love in Roma?’—‘What do you sleep in?’—‘Has your figure been surgically enhanced?’—‘What of the wedding?’—‘Do you favour the blood of Italian men?’
Malenka gave no answers, but outdazzled the flashguns with her smiles. She swivelled her torso to make a distinct silhouette, and bent forward to blow kisses, raising an animal roar of approval. Another battery of cameras went off.
Kate had attended press calls at London Airport. They weren’t much like this: ‘Will you attend any cricket matches, Mr Sinatra?’—‘How do you like our English weather, Miss Desmond?’—‘Would you mind awfully posing for a few snaps for our readers, Mrs Roosevelt?’
The aisles filled with baggage-laden passengers wanting to get out of the plane. The hostess explained they would have to wait. La bella celebrity took precedence.
Malenka descended the steps as if entering an embassy ball, generous hips swaying. Photographers lay on the tarmac to shoot her from below, wriggling on their backs like up-ended beetles. Kate let Malenka get out of the way and off to one side, surrounded by her press, before leaving the plane again.
The orchestra finished their welcoming goodbye to Rome and began to pack their instruments.
‘We are to be met by a woman from the House of Dracula,’ the Count told her. ‘She is to arrange transport into the city. You will come with us?’
‘That’s very kind, Count...’
‘I insist. You have hotel?’
‘A pensione, Count. In Trastevere. Piazza Maria, 24.’
‘You will be delivered safely, Miss Reed. I give you the word of a Kernassy.’
The elder probably thought nothing of slaughtering peasant babies to slake his red thirst, but wouldn’t leave an unaccompanied woman adrift in a foreign city. It was easier to go along with him than make an argument.
Malenka continued her performance. Behind still-popping bulbs, a troupe of photographers and reporters tumbled like acrobats. Kate had learned to look away from the flashes. There were newsreel cameramen and roving wireless reporters. Had she skipped a few too many pages in Picturegoer? Either Malenka was the new Marilyn Monroe or anybody who decorated an orgy scene rated this treatment in Rome.
‘Tangenti have been paid so passports will be processed swiftly at customs,’ said Count Kernassy, steering Kate past Malenka’s act and toward a thinner crowd. ‘Stay close, and you will go through under my cloak.’
For a moment, she thought he meant it literally.
Among the waiting people was a tall, slim vampire woman in a smart violet jacket and skirt, raising a hand in a matching glove. She wore black, horn-rim sunglasses and a Chinese-pattern headscarf, like someone in disguise. A double rope of pearls wound around her slender neck.
‘This will be our galoppina,’ Kernassy said. ‘As you say, our fixer.’
The woman took off her dark glasses. Her tiny mouth opened in astonishment, showing piranha teeth.
‘Katie Reed,’ she exclaimed. ‘Good grief!’
Kate supposed she knew Penelope was part of il principe’s household and was therefore in Rome. But, trying to give Penny as little thought as possible, she’d never considered she might be the first person she ran into in the city.
‘Penny,’ she said, lamely. ‘Hello.’
‘You are old friends, I see,’ Kernassy deduced, not entirely accurately.
‘Count Kernassy, this is Penelope Churchward. We knew each other, a long time ago.’
‘A long time ago means nought to such as we,’ he said, gallantly taking Penelope’s hand.
The Englishwoman put on a smile that was significantly more convincing than Malenka’s efforts. One had to know her well to distinguish its flaws.
‘How you do turn up, Katie,’ she said. ‘You’re here to see Charles, of course.’
At the time of her death, Penelope had been engaged to Charles. Her turning vampire ended the arrangement. Geneviève had something to do with it too, though not poor four-eyed Katie Reed. She wondered if Penny wasn’t in Rome at least partly because of Charles. He certainly had a knack of keeping vampire ladies about him. Much like il principe.
‘Have you seen him?’ Kate asked, hating to.
‘Not recently. He is an invalid. He must turn soon or be lost to us.’
Kate was hoping to persuade him of something similar. That Penelope should mention such a treatment wasn’t encouraging. If it was Penny’s idea, he’d probably be dead set against it. Surely he’d see sense as the last clouds gathered and the reaper sharpened his scythe?
Malenka swanned over, all teeth and teats. Paparazzi kept up with her. Discarded flashbulbs shattered like glass confetti. Penelope put her sunglasses back on and was introduced.
As the Count had promised, an official escorted them past the scrum for passport control. Half of the passengers on the flight were British and formed the beginnings of an orderly queue. Italians wedged themselves at the front, genially tutting at the eccentricity of a race that believed in waiting for turns rather than scrambling for position.
Kate was still too surprised by Penelope’s presence to feel guilty about the slight corruption gaining her preference. She knew tangenti—bribes—from the War, when the black market and the open palm were the only way to get anything done. Peace hadn’t changed Italy much.
The Count escorted Malenka. A large warm man in chauffeur’s livery—Penelope addressed him as Klove—carried their many bags. Malenka’s matching luggage was by Vuitton, Kate noticed. She and Penny walked together, wondering what to say to each other.
It had been decades.
‘Thank you for the condolence card, Katie. It was a kindly gesture. You were always thoughtful.’
‘I was fond of your mother.’
Mrs Churchward had died in 1937.
‘Mama always liked you,’ Penelope admitted. ‘You were the sensible one.’
‘I’m not sure of that.’
‘Do you have get?’ Penelope asked, smiling sharply.
Kate shook her head. She had chosen not to pass on the Dark Kiss, to extend her bloodline. Only someone special, she had vowed. And someone special had never come along.
‘I made a brood of sons and granddaughters in darkness. It’s a fearful responsibility, my dear. I’m obliged to further the Godalming bloodline. In poor Art’s memory.’
Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming, was Penelope’s father-in-darkness, the vampire who had turned her. Like Kate and Penny, he was one of the new-borns of the ’80s. Like many of their peers, he hadn’t outlasted his natural lifespan. Kate should be closer to Penelope. They were almost sole survivors of their world.
‘I would found my own house,’ Penelope continued, ‘but I have duties. Whatever you think of him, we owe il principe a great debt, Katie. I know you were one of the firebrands who got him kicked out of England. But, like it or not, he’s our leader.’
Neither Kate nor Penny were directly of the Dracula bloodline. They were free from some of the taints that had poisoned most of their generation.
‘You must call at the Palazzo Otranto,’ said Penelope, making Kate shiver. ‘Things are hectic just now, what with wedding arrangements and ambassadorial conspirators. He would receive you, I’m sure. Charles is even invited, and that woman. If Dracula can forgive them, he’ll overlook your little revolutionist enthusiasms.’
During the struggle to oust Dracula from the throne of Great Britain, Kate had spent seven years as an outlaw. Hiding from Carpathians who wanted to impale her, she’d edited an underground newssheet. Later, in the First World War, she’d been buried under one of il principe’s marvellous toys, the first breed of tank. She wasn’t sure she could be as forgiving of him as the monster could afford to be of her. She also resented Penny’s implied suggestion that political agitation was a passing hobby, something to fill out boring years of an eternity not spent furthering her bloodline.
She caught herself. Penelope was working her strings, as ever. Kate was not going to be that goggle-eyed wallflower again, scandalised by her prettier friend but hanging on every barbed word. When they were alive and Kate was often her chaperone, Penny was already a manipulative child. Now she had a great many more years of practice in the art of getting to people.
‘Here are the cars,’ Penelope announced.
They had hustled through the airport and out onto the road. Parked at the verge were a red two-seater Ferrari and a hearse-like black Fiat. The Ferrari was a setting for Malenka.
More bulbs popped as Malenka was assisted into the tiny sports car. She stood tall and blew more kisses at the gathered crowd.
Penelope laughed quietly and shook her head, which made Kate think better of her.
‘I’m reminded of twin torpedoes, Katie, thrusting.’
They had been friends, once.
‘The rest of us shall ride out of the wind,’ Penelope said. ‘The bus is a lot roomier than the milk-float.’
A warm man loitered by the cars.
‘Katie, this is Tom,’ introduced Penelope, trailing fingers across his lapel to display ownership. ‘He is a lost American in Europe.’
The young man was attached to the party in a subservient, unofficial fashion. His handshake didn’t give anything away. Kate guessed he was a satellite, and noticed red scratches on his neck. She saw him thinking as he looked her over, and intuited he was totting up the cost of her clothes. His current job was to drive the Ferrari and duck low to stay out of the pictures.
Klove held open the rear door of the Fiat and Kate got in, daintily followed by Penelope. They sank together into a deep, leather seat. Someone already sat opposite, smoking a cigarette. Count Kernassy gathered his cape and slipped in to join them. The chauffeur silently shut the door and went up front.
The Count embraced the smoker, kissing him on both cheeks without disturbing his cigarette.
‘This is Signorina Reed, a discovery of our flight,’ the Count explained. ‘She is in your profession, Marcello. A reporter. From Ireland.’
The reporter leaned forward into the light. He was strikingly handsome in a bored, tired sort of way. His dark, wavy hair had a trace of unearned grey at the temples. Like Penny, he wore big black sunglasses. He was a living man, so Kate assumed the shades were an affectation.
Marcello extended a hand and took hers.
Electricity leaped between them.
She must watch herself with this Roman reporter. His casual, fag-dripping smile was insinuating. He was trim and smooth, but with an incipient plumpness that might be quite delicious. Under cologne and the tobacco was a scent of sweet blood. His neck was clean of bites.
He held her hand a few seconds longer than necessary, then turned to the Count and gabbled with him in Italian, ignoring her a trifle too deliberately.
Her heart beat faster. She knew Penelope quietly noticed her new interest. That would come back to haunt her. Penny was always good at storing ammunition for a rainy day.
Still, Kate was in Rome. And opposite was a beautiful man.
The sun was down by the time they were in the city proper. Kate realised the Count would be staying in the centre of Rome. Her pensione was in Trastevere, through which they were driving. He tried to persuade the elder to let her out, but he waved the request aside.
‘Absolutely not, mia cara Signorina Reed. We have not done with you yet. I insist you join our party this evening. You and Signorina Churchward have much to talk of. And you must experience Via Veneto by night. It is the most exciting street in the world.’
Kate’s rented flat was in the Holloway Road. Not even the most exciting street in North London. She allowed Count Kernassy to overwhelm her.
‘You will escort Signorina Reed, Marcello,’ Kernassy said, suavely commanding.
‘But of course,’ Marcello said, his first words of English.
‘I’m rather afraid Marcello despises us,’ Penelope said, politely. ‘He’s gathering material for a novel which will put us all in our places. His subject is the empty night-lives of the eternal rich.’
From the set of his mouth, Kate knew Marcello understood what Penelope had said. He had some fluency in English, which was a hopeful sign.
‘Do you still write for the papers, Katie?’
‘I thought so.’
Penelope sat back. Kate feared she was reddening.
‘Will you write about Malenka?’ she asked Marcello.
Kate wondered why her stomach was tight. And whether she could have come up with a more inane question.
Marcello shrugged and expressively tilted his head.
‘She is like a big doll,’ he said, trying to sneer.
Kate knew at once the reporter was smitten with the starlet and felt unaccountably betrayed. The city was doing something to her. It was a hypnotic spell in ‘Arrivederci, Roma’. She was turning into an idiot.
Her throat prickled with red thirst.
‘But of course he will write of mia cara,’ the Count said, arm snaking around the Italian. ‘There must be tiny little words to put under the great big photographs. It is a legal requirement.’
Kate wondered if Marcello disliked the Count’s patronising purr. There was steel in Kernassy’s velvet, as if he had a hold over the reporter. Perhaps it was as easy to buy an Italian newspaperman as a passport official.
The Fiat crossed the Tiber at the Ponte Sisto and followed the Ferrari through the crowded streets of Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza della Rotunda. Traffic horns honked a Spike Jones symphony, punctuated by rude shouts and appreciative cries. Couples on motor scooters zipped in between crawling cars, scarf-wearing girls grinned sweetly at stalled motorists. Pedestrians ambled along in the road rather than the pavement, squeezing between vehicles, talking blithely among themselves. There were even herds of sheep, blinking under the streetlights, driven by sharp-eyed children.
‘Italian cars are for speed,’ said Marcello, ‘but Italian cities are not for cars. One can only drive through them at the pace of a walk.’
In the Largo di Torre Argentina, a football game was in process. Three-dozen youths booted a ball about among strolling crowds. When the Ferrari drove into the square, the match was abandoned and the players clamoured around. Kate wondered which chassis they worshipped most, that of the car or that of la Malenka.
There was a great deal of whistling and stamping. Malenka stood up in the car and waved.
Everyone wanted red kisses. Malenka bestowed a few on favoured lads, nipping slightly. She licked blood off her lips, and made a gesture which parted the sea of people. They were able to drive on.
Hoots followed them.
Kate’s teeth were sharp and her mouth watery. Inconvenient need nagged. Being a vampire meant living with something like an addiction. To blood, and all that came with its letting. The warm were addicted to food and drink, of course, and to air? But the vampire’s need was stronger, crueller, more insistent.
‘For whom do you write?’ she asked Marcello.
He rattled off names of publications she vaguely knew. Lo specchio, Oggi, Europeo.
‘Marcello once sold the exact same story to Paese sera and Osservatore Romano,’ Kernassy said, laughing.
‘She won’t understand why that’s amusing, Count,’ Penelope said, sweetly. ‘Katie, Paese sera is the newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and Osservatore Romano is the Vatican paper.’
Marcello shrugged, showing no shame.
‘They are deadly enemies, you see, the priests and the reds,’ Penelope explained further.
Kate wondered if anyone would mind if she killed Penny.
Copyright © 2012 by Kim Newman
Kim Newman is a well known and highly acclaimed author. He has been nominated for the Hugo, International Horror Guild, and World Fantasy Awards and has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and British Science Fiction awards.