Was it murder--or something serious?
Philip Marlow in Murder, My Sweet

Friday, October 10, 2014

Verse of the Vampyre Redux

Now working on her sabbatical, Grace becomes a kind of technical advisor to a local theatrical production of a play called The Vampyre, a really awful play based on a snippet of story by Lord Byron. Right on schedule mysterious accidents begin to plague the players, and it’s only a matter of time before one of the cast falls victim.

Chapter One

In Grace Hollister’s opinion, only a character in a book—or a real idiot—would agree to a midnight rendezvous in a graveyard. So it was truly aggravating to find herself crouched behind a thicket in the Innisdale cemetery waiting for Peter Fox.
Not that this was exactly a “rendezvous,” and not that she was exactly “waiting” for Peter. No, this fell more under the heading of “spying on,” and that was truly the most aggravating thing of all. To be reduced to—but here Grace’s thoughts were cut short as the rusted gate to the graveyard screeched in warning.
Ducking back into the branches, she listened to footsteps crunching down the leaf-strewn path near where she hid. She waited, holding her breath, till the newcomer passed, his shadow falling across her face and gliding away. Grace swallowed hard.
The October night was cold and smelled of damp earth and something cloying. A few feet to her left, a tangle of wild roses half concealed the entrance to a crypt, and Grace blamed the night’s funereal perfume on the colorless flowers twisting up and over the cornices.
Cautiously, she peered through the thicket. She knew that confident, loose-limbed stride—that long, lean silhouette—even without the telltale glint of moonlight on pale hair. And with recognition came bewilderment. What in the world was going on?
What was Peter up to?
For that matter, what was Grace up to? After all, if Peter wanted to arrange midnight assignations with women…it wasn’t like he and Grace really had an “understanding.” Well, not an understanding that most people would…understand. Grace’s parents certainly couldn’t comprehend it. Her ex-boyfriend Chaz didn’t get it. Even Grace sometimes wondered if she had failed to read the fine print when it came to her relationship with Peter Fox.
Peter started down the hillside, taking himself from Grace’s view. She weighed the risk and left her hiding spot, scuttling across the grass to huddle behind a tree.
The tree offered poor concealment; so after a moment’s hesitation, she scooted over to a headstone. Peering over the top, she spotted Peter a few yards down the slope. He stood very still, apparently scanning the nightscape; then he continued along the path that jogged down the hillside. In a moment he would be out of sight.
What next? wondered Grace. The more she moved around, the greater her chances of being discovered, but there was no point in following him if she couldn’t figure out what he was doing.
She looked around, but her next move would take her into the open.
Peter gave a low whistle that could have passed for some nocturnal birdcall. Instinctively, Grace leaned forward, watching him pass through the crowd of stone lambs, sleeping marble cherubim and tilting crosses that stretched across the clearing to the dark woods beyond.
Was someone out there, hiding and watching from the dense shelter of the forest? It was a creepy thought.
Tree branches stirred in the night breeze, but no one appeared. Grace looked toward Peter, but he stepped to the right, out of her line of vision. Once again she was tempted to leave her hiding place, but the ornate headstone provided good cover. And she knew from past experience how sharp Peter’s hearing was.
Beyond the graveyard, pine trees stood in black attitude, their jagged tops resembling fangs. Grace tried to make out a shape that shouldn’t be there. If anyone was out there, she stuck to the shadows. It would be a woman. The voice on the phone call that Grace had inadvertently overheard had definitely been female. And a woman would indicate romance, a tryst perhaps; although the caller’s husky, mocking voice, while seductive in tone, had held a hint of threat. Had there been something familiar about that voice? All afternoon Grace had tried and failed to pin down the caller’s identity.
High above, the moon was veiled in mist, its diffused light shimmering on the headstones. The inscriptions wavered like incantations.
Another bird trill issued from the direction Peter had gone. At least, Grace assumed it was Peter. Maybe it really was a bird this time.
But again the signal, if it was a signal, met silence.
Grace smothered a yawn. Surveillance work was tiring. She peered at her watch. Difficult to read the tiny Roman numerals in the gloom, but it had to be late. Very late. Decent folk would be in bed. Bed. Longingly, Grace thought of her flannel sheets and goose-down comforter. It was chilly, and she had put in a full day at Rogue’s Gallery, where she worked to supplement her sabbatical income. The knees of her jeans were soaked from kneeling on the damp ground, and her legs prickled pins and needles.
She shifted her cramped position. Peter was still lost to view behind a flat box tomb. Uneasily, she glanced back to the overgrown crypt. Trails of mist were rising off the ground like ghosts taking form. She shivered.
This is crazy, she told herself. What if he catches me? How am I going to explain? The truth was, there was no explanation. Her decision to come here tonight had been on impulse, triggered by Peter’s odd behavior the last few weeks. Now that she thought about it, he had seemed to change right around the time the jewel thefts had started.
That’s right, a little voice in her head jeered. This is about saving him from a life of crime. It has nothing to do with moonlight tête-à-têtes with sultry-voiced females.
Quick footsteps returning up the path had Grace flattening herself against the sheltering headstone. Peter was coming back.
There wasn’t time to move, to find better concealment. Grace shrank down and held her breath. He didn’t pause, didn’t glance her way. He was a shade moving through the silver shadows.
Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon.
The quote from Shakespeare came unbidden; Grace bit back a rueful grin. She couldn’t believe that Peter Fox, ex-jewel thief extraordinaire, had returned to his former profession, but something was going on. If he wasn’t involved in the recent rash of jewel robberies, she bet he knew something about them.
In a few moments Peter’s footsteps died away. The gate groaned and clanged shut. Grace was left with the sleeping dead and her own less-than-comfortable thoughts.
The tree above her creaked in the wind. Grace gave it a quick look. Just her luck if she was knocked out by a falling limb.
In the distance she heard the engine of Peter’s Land Rover revving up; the hum of the engine died away, leaving only night sounds. Lonesome sounds.
Feeling very much alone, she stared up at the sky, at the milkweed dust of stars. How long did she have to wait? Absently, she massaged her thigh muscles.
Listening to the soft tick of her wristwatch, she pictured Peter driving down the country lane back to Craddock House. The cemetery was out in the middle of nowhere; so the chances of running into anyone else were infinitesimal—unless his quarry was still lurking about, and that seemed unlikely.
At last Grace moved to rise, reaching for the headstone to pull herself up. Abruptly, she realized that this was not a park; she was kneeling on someone’s grave. The thought jolted her. In the shifting moonlight she could read the words carved there.
And all is dark and dreary now, where once was joy.
It sort of put things into perspective. With a silent apology, Grace gathered herself to stand.
Midrise, a scrape of sound froze her. She listened.
Cautiously, she raised her head over the smiling cherubs atop the tombstone.
There was movement to her left. Something inside the portico of the crypt stirred. Grace’s eyes widened.
There it was again. Motion. And then, as her brain tried to assimilate this, a figure in a cape stepped out of the doorway and into the moonshine.
Grace’s hand covered her gasp.
Even across the distance of grass and graves she recognized the tall, gaunt figure of Lord Ruthven, Innisdale’s newest resident. His hair was black and lank; his obsidian eyes shone with fierce intelligence in his bony face.
Not that Grace could tell in this light what his eyes were shining with—or if they were even open—but she’d had plenty of opportunity to study the man during the past weeks.
Am I dreaming? Grace wondered. Did I fall asleep waiting? That would make sense. What didn’t make sense was Lord Ruthven, the London producer who had volunteered to help with the local theater group’s production of The Vampyre, hanging out at the village cemetery. Granted, Grace, who had been roped into acting as technical advisor to the production, had pegged Ruthven as an eccentric, but this was turning into an episode of Tales from the Crypt.
Could Lord Ruthven have been the person Peter intended to meet?
Then who was the woman who had called Peter? Lord Ruthven’s secretary? That would be some job. Grace smothered a jittery giggle. But if Ruthven had arranged to meet Peter, why would he remain hidden?
No, hard to believe as it was, it did appear as though Lord Ruthven had also been observing Peter.
As she stared at the caped figure, the moon slipped behind the tattered clouds; its lantern light flickered and went out.
Even a year ago Grace would not have dreamed of doing what she did now, but acquaintance with Peter Fox had been…empowering. (Although that was probably not the word Ms. Wintersmith, principal of St. Anne’s Academy, would have used.)
Grace slid down and began to crawl very slowly and cautiously across the wet grass for a better view. Her knees and elbows dug into the soggy ground as she moved ahead foot by foot.
But the treacherous moon glided out of its cloud cover, and the glade was bathed in radiance once more. A radiant emptiness.
Grace sat and stared.
Lord Ruthven had vanished.

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