By Diana Killian
Verse of the Vampyre
Now working on her sabbatical Grace becomes a kind of technical advisor to a local theatrical production of "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 its only a matter of time before one of the cast falls victim.
......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 womenit 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 crouch 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 down the path which jogged along 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.
......She tensed as 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 forest? It was a creepy thought.
......Tree branches stirred in the night breeze but no one appeared. Grace looked to 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 had 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. The knees of her jeans were soaked from kneeling in 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 tete-a-tetes 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 were knocked out by a stray tree 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.
......Mid-rise, 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 nervous giggle. But if Ruthven 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 beenempowering. (Although that was probably not the word Ms. Winters, 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 cloud cover and the glade was bathed in radiance once more. A radiant emptiness.
......Grace sat and stared.
......Lord Ruthven had vanished.
......"You're late," Peter said when Grace arrived at Rogue's Gallery the next morning. He was wielding a crowbar on a wooden crate with the nonchalance of a man who had more than a casual acquaintance with proper crowbar usage.
......Rogue's Gallery, the antique shop where Peter now earned an honest living, took up the lower level of Craddock House. Peter lived upstairs.
......The gallery was a magical place. Everything in it was beautiful, rare or amazing, from the carved mahogany mermaid suspended from the vault ceiling to the man-sized Tsubo jar that took up an entire corner of the floor.
......And the framed antique maps with their delicate tints and exotic place names seemed to promise all who entered the door that adventure lurked just around the next corner. This had certainly proved true for Grace.
......She said, "I know. Sorry, boss." Avoiding his keen blue gaze Grace headed for the stock room. She shrugged out of her mac and hung it behind the door. Peter must have received a shipment. There were several pieces of Staffordshire creamware sitting on the floor. She placed the pieces on the desk. Not that Peter ever dropped or broke anything. She had never met anyone more surefooted (or light-fingered) than the owner of Rogue's Gallery Antiques and Books.
......Grace made herself a cup of tea using the hot plate in the back room. She refilled Peter's mug, joining him on the shop floor. He took the mug with absent thanks, busy examining the contents of the wooden crate.
......Books. More books. The entire landing of the shop's second story was devoted to books. Old books, rare books, beautiful books. What had started out as a private passion had developed into a lucrative sideline. This lot looked to be mystery books. Vintage paperbacks with lurid and inviting covers. Peter smiled faintly as he read the back of Silken Menace, its cover decorated by a reclining blonde in naughty purple undies.
......Grace stared out the bow windows overlooking the front garden and the road. It was raining, one of those misty autumn rains that did wonders for the garden and very little for hairstyles. Especially Grace's, as a quick glimpse in a foggy antique mirror confirmed. Her French knot was slipping and her cheeks looked hot and pink.
......She tucked a damp chestnut strand behind her ear and said briskly, "I guess I'll finish cataloging the Stark collection."
......Peter caught her wrist as she moved past him. "What's up?"
......She stilled. "Nothing. What do you mean?"
......"I've never known you to be late. And you seem rather" he considered her for a moment. "Edgy this morning."
...... And she thought he wasn't paying attention? She steeled herself to meet his gaze. Grace was no good at lying and Peter was a difficult man to fool. He studied her now, his eyes curious, his thin mouth quirking in that unreadable half smile. His long fingers circled her wrist lightly, but she could feel his touch in her bones.
......It was hard to believe that she had once thought he wasn't handsome-but perhaps handsome was too weak a word. Elegant bones, the contrast of dark brows and pale hair, startling blue eyes beneath eyelids as hooded and mysterious as an Egyptian pharaoh's. Maybe striking was a better word.
......"You look guilty," he murmured. "What have you been up to?"
...... "Oh, the usual. Murder and mayhem."
......"When did you take up the mayhem?" Peter queried, and Grace laughed, slipping her hand free.
......She glanced through her notes on the Stark library. She was about halfway through cataloging the two-hundred book collection, a tedious process of noting each book's title, author, subject, publisher, date of publication and ISBN number-although most of the books in the estate's library were too old to have ISBN numbers.
......While Grace worked, she unobtrusively kept an eye on Peter. She thought if anyone seemed edgy, he did. She caught him staring out the window a couple of times, as though watching the road, and each time the phone rang, she was sure he tensed.
......What's wrong? she wanted to ask. But she had already asked during the past weeks, and each time Peter had acted as though he didn't know what she was talking about. It was as though they had reverted to the initial days of their acquaintanceship, when neither quite trusted the other. If she forced the issue, she might make matters worse, but Grace feared that day by day they were slowly growing apart.
......Perhaps because of the rain, or maybe because October was the off-season, they had few customers that day. Generally Grace loved such mornings. She and Peter bantering with each other or working side by side in comfortable silence. Peter usually fixed lunch or they went down to the pub together. It was friendly and relaxed. Companionable. She had begun to believe that this was the way she was supposed to spend the rest of her life.
......Most evenings were spent with each other. And Peter made no secret that he found her attractive. He wined and dined her, kissed her and flirted with her, but he had yet to attempt-in the vernacular of the young ladies of St. Anne's-to put the move on her. That had been fine with Grace. She wasn't a woman to rush into anything. Knowing Peter's reputation with the feminine populace, she had found his restraint flattering. At least until recently.
......At noontime they retreated upstairs to Peter's living quarters and shared a "ploughman's lunch" of crusty hot bread, a thick slab of farmhouse cheddar, pickled onions and a pint of ale from one of the small local brewers.
......Grace loved this kitchen with its gleaming kettles hanging from convenient hooks and old oak-leaf china sparkling behind glass-fronted cupboards. The hardwood floors shone like glass. The scrubbed pine table and chairs nestled in a cozy nook overlooking the garden where roses and peonies made bright splashes of color.
......The rain pricking against the kitchen windowpanes had a forlorn sound. Grace looked up from her plate to find Peter studying her.
......"What?" she inquired.
......He said at last, "How's the play coming?"
......Her thoughts a million miles away, Grace had to rack her brain for a response. "Oh," she said finally. "Well, there's been another program change. Now we're doing Polidori's The Vampyre." Or rather, a play based on JR Planche's play based on the short story by Polidori.
......"Dr. John William Polidori? I thought you were doing Byron?"
......"It turns out Byron doesn't have a version of the play. There's a fragment of a story but it's not enough to base a play on."
......Peter seemed more amused than sympathetic. "Bad luck. Still, I can't imagine most of the others care whether the play is based on Polidori, Byron or Wes Craven. Are the Ives still committed to the project?"
......"Theresa is. I think Sir Gerald is beginning to resent the time she's spending away from the home fires. He's stopped coming to rehearsals. Not that any rehearsing is going on at this point."
......"Fox hunting season officially opens a week Monday," Peter commented, and it was not an inconsequential remark given that Sir Gerald Ives was Master of Hounds of the Innisdale Pack. In these parts, fox hunting was more religion than sport. The hills and fells of the Lake District were home to the legendary Six Fell Packs and birthplace of Sir John Peel, immortalized in the Eighteenth Century folk song "John Peel."
......"I don't think he's going to convince her ladyship to abandon the boards. She definitely seems to have the bug." Privately, Grace suspected that the bug Lady Ives (fifteen years younger than her hunt-obsessed husband) had was less for the stage and more for Derek Derrick, one of the other actors. It wasn't hard to see why. Not only was Derek capable of talking about something besides whelping, foaling and cubbing, he was as gorgeous as a Saturday matinee idol. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed
......"Your eyes are glazing over," Peter remarked.
......"Hmm? Oh. Well, the truth is," Grace admitted, "it's not the greatest play in the world."
......"No!" Peter leaned back, quoting in mock dramatic tones, " 'But when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey's sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!' "
......Grace chuckled. Although the Romantic period in literature was her field, Grace had been unaware of Dr. John William Polidori's contribution to the genre. In fact, her impression of Lord Byron's doctor was solely based on unflattering cinematic portraits in films like Ken Russell's Gothic. Greater familiarity with Polidori's creative efforts reinforced her sympathy if not her critical respect for the tragic figure of whom Byron had written, "A young man more likely to contract diseases than cure them."
......"I know, I know. I guess it's sort of a classic, but it's melodramatic and overwrought andgoofy." She thought it over. "And it is kind of a weird coincidence that our producer/director has the same name as the title character. It would be one thing if his name was Lord Smith."
......"I don't believe in coincidence," said Peter.
......What was it in his tone? Something
......"But what else could it be? Maybe Ruthven is a stage name and he was attracted to the material because of the PR opportunity."
......Peter raised a skeptical brow. "Photo ops from a provincial production?"
......"Don't ask me. He's supposed to be very well-known in London theater circles. Derek Derrick has done some television at least. He thought the project was worth his time. "
......"Ah yes. Who can forget his stirring portrayal of the devoted spouse of an allergy sufferer?"
......Peter didn't own a television, so it was unlikely he had seen Derrick's work with his own eyes. Someone besides Grace was keeping him updated on the cast and crew of The Vampyre. The entire village of Innisdale was probably snickering into its collective pint.
......She would have liked to tell Peter about Lord Ruthven's peculiar behavior in the cemetery, but she would have had to confess her own peculiar behavior.
......"Well, why else would they-?" But the downstairs buzzer proclaimed that a customer had finally discovered them on their quiet country lane, and the conversation ended. Peter went downstairs and Grace cleaned up the remains of lunch.
......"So how is it that you don't ride to hounds but you're still invited to the Hunt Ball?" Grace inquired later that afternoon as she was finishing up the Stark catalog.
......"Eligible bachelors are welcome at any social event," Peter informed her.
......"Eligible?" she mused.
......He corrected, "Willing to dance with anyone."
......"Uh huh." She laid aside her note pad. "What was it Kipling said about men who dance too well?"
......"I have no idea."
......"I can't remember myself," admitted Grace, "but I believe it was fairly scathing."
......"Consider me duly scathed." He studied her. "Your first Hunt Ball. My, my. You are moving up in the world."
......"I know it's old hat for you, but I'm very excited."
......"I know you are. It's rather sweet. Did you buy a new frock?"
......Frock. He really was something of a throwback.
......I met a traveler from an antique land
...... "I can't afford to. The riding habit was expensive, even getting the jacket second hand."
......Peter shook his head.
......"I don't expect you to understand," Grace said.
......"I understand. You're suffering an acute case of Anglo-mania. If I find you buying champagne glasses with the queen's portrait I'll have to take steps."
......"I probably watched too many episodes of Masterpiece Theater at an impressionable age," Grace agreed. "I used to dream about going to balls and fox hunts and village fetes."
......"My dear girl, you can't really tell me that your life's ambition is to rub elbows with overfed, undereducated boobs whose aim in life is to kill small animals with as much pomp and circumstance as they can afford." He had gone back to scanning a bill of lading, so perhaps the grimness in his voice had to do with freight charges.
......"Since you put it that way, no. But if I'm here it seems a pity not to experience everything offered."
......" 'Everything' covers a lot of ground. Your sabbatical is nearly over, isn't it?"
......She didn't know how to take that. She knew her sabbatical was nearly over as well as he did. And she remembered, if he did not, why she had taken this sabbatical.
......Anything she might have said was cut off as the shop door opened with a jingle of bells. Mrs. Mac, Peter's "char lady," backed in, shaking out her dripping umbrella.
......"Afternoon, dearies!" she chirped.
......An apple-cheeked dumpling of a woman, with a mop of gray curls, Mrs. Mac could have passed for the grandmotherly type except for the sharp cold of her faded blue eyes.
......"Wet through, I am." Mrs. Mac dropped her umbrella and heavy carpetbag on the counter. "Such a to-do in the village!" Her eyes twinkled with wicked pleasure. "I could do with a cuppa." She started for the stock room, shedding her black raincoat as she went.
......"Neither rain nor wind nor sleet nor snow," said Grace.
......Peter said, "I was thinking more along the lines of 'In thunder, lightning or in rain.' "
......Grace chuckled at the reference to MacBeth. Mrs. Mac did look a bit like a witch.
...... "What's happened in the village?" she asked when Mrs. Mac returned, mug in hand. Grace always bit, she couldn't help herself.
......Mrs. Mac made an unlovely sucking sound at her tea before pronouncing, "Vandalism. Someone spray painted the side of the chapel."
......"Obscenities?" Grace inquired. Peter had already lost interest. Vandalism was not his idea of crime.
......"No, no." Mrs. Mac chortled. "It said, 'The vampire walks'!"
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