The Avenger 33 - The Blood Countess (7 page)

BOOK: The Avenger 33 - The Blood Countess
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“You’re very perceptive, old fellow,” said Cole. “I am indeed a well-to-do American. However, what I wish of you this morning is not lodging, but information.”

“Ah, that is too bad,
senhor,
because the suite I had in mind for you has a bathroom made entirely of—”

“I’m sure it does,” said Cole. “I want to talk to you about Richard Benson, who seems to have rather abruptly ended his stay here.”

“Ah,
senhor,
that is what everyone wishes to talk to me about. It is rather a shame, because I am actually well versed, in a variety of topics, due chiefly to my having read a good many American magazines and—”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“As I told the police and the American consul and the old professor with the whiskers, the last time I saw
senhor
Benson was six nights ago. I have not seen him since; his room remains empty.”

“The night you did see him . . . do you have any idea where he was heading?”

“Alas,
senhor,
no. He did not confide in me; he exited by way of that door there, and that was the last I saw of him. Some of our guests, you know, will tell me almost anything. I think it is basically because I have such an open and honest face.”

“You have honest feet, too,” said Cole. “Look, I know who the American consul is. In fact, a couple of my chums are talking to him right now. I’m even aware of who the police are, but who's this old professor chap?”

“He is,
senhor,
a professor,” replied the clerk, “and very old. He is staying, though I cannot understand why, at the Hotel Segunda on the other side of the town plaza. He’s a friend of
senhor
Benson’s, and has been quite concerned about what may have happened.”

“I don’t suppose this is the height of the old professor season at the Segunda, but to make it even easier for me to dig him up . . . what’s the old boy’s name?”

“It is Bouchey, Dr. Bouchey.”

“Might be enlightening to have a bit of a chat with him. We may have other things besides Richard Benson in common.” He moved toward the door.
“Adeus.”

“Good-bye,
senhor.
If you change your mind about that suite, I can give you a very good rate on it. And the bathroom alone is . . .”

There was dust all over the professor, on his rumpled jacket and his baggy trousers. He kept brushing at himself as he and Cole walked toward the outdoor café table. “They certainly don’t keep their archives very clean here in Mostarda,” he said. “It is a pity, too, because they have some very valuable manuscripts.” He patted his narrow chest, and a swirl of dust arose. When he seated himself in the caneback chair, several more small clouds of dust erupted from his clothes.

Seating himself opposite the old man, Cole asked, “So you knew my friend Richard Benson?”

“We became acquainted on the train from the capital,
senhor
Wilson,” replied the professor. He signaled the sleepy-eyed waiter and ordered coffee for both of them. “A very intelligent and well-read man, your young friend.”

“That’s Richard, sure enough,” said Cole. “As I told you, we’re here hunting for him.”

Dr. Bouchey nodded his wrinkled head, which produced more flumes of dust. “Yes,
senhor
Wilson,” he said, resting his sharp elbows on the table top. “And I can tell you what happened to him!”

Cole’s eyebrows climbed. “That would be quite helpful.”

A long sigh, accompanied by whiffs of dust, issued from the professor. “It is very sad,
senhor,
but I am very much afraid our friend is dead.”

Fingers gripping the table edge, Cole leaned toward the old man. “Is this a guess—a conjecture—or do you really know?”

“I
feel, senhor.
I feel that something terrible has happened to
senhor
Benson.”

Cole’s grip on the table relaxed somewhat. “I’d like to hear your reasons, professor.”

“I have made a life-long study of the subject of . . .” He stopped talking while the waiter set down their cups of coffee.
“ ’Brigado.
A lifetime study of vampirism. It was that interest which brought me here to Mostarda. There has been here in the past few weeks a series of brutal murders, murders which I strongly believe are the work of a vampire. Perhaps you, like many young people today, think a belief in vampires is only so much foolishness.”

“The Wilson clan, Dr. Bouchey, are noted for their open minds. Pray continue.”

“These killings, and I have been able to study the police reports on all but the last of them, are beyond doubt being committed by a vampire. A creature who must have blood to survive.”

“Okay, I’ll grant your premise. What does that have to do with Dick Benson?”

After a sip of his hot coffee, Dr. Bouchey said, “Before I come to that, I must provide you with a bit of background,
senhor
Wilson. There was born in Hungary in the year 1560 a woman named Elizabeth Bathory.”

“We’re really going back for our background.”

“If you will bear with me. Elizabeth, a very pretty girl, grew up in the Carpathian mountain country, vampire country,” continued the old man, his eyes burning brightly in their wrinkle-rimmed sockets. “She became a countess by marrying one Count Ferencz Nadasdy. After his death, she had the run of Castle Csejthe, which had been her husband’s. It is fairly certain that by this time she was already a practicing vampire. Now, ruling the area, she gave full vent to her desires. Unspeakable things were done, for she lived only for blood. And thus they came to call her the Blood Countess. She is supposed to have been finally found out, and for her punishment she was bricked up within her own chambers in the castle.” He stroked his beard. “I do not believe that is what really happened. I have unearthed evidence to indicate that Elizabeth Bathory substituted a servant girl in her place . . . that she escaped. I am certain that the Blood Countess is still alive.”

“I’ve got a couple of great-aunts who are pretty tough old birds, but I don’t think I’d be afraid of a four-hundred-year-old wench.”

Bouchey shook his head. “She has never aged,
senhor
Wilson,” he said. “The blood keeps them young in appearance and they live, though actually it is a living death, on and on through decades and through centuries.”

Remembering his coffee, Cole drank some of it. “What you’re leading up to, professor, is that this countess is flapping around Mostarda.”

He wiped more dust from his sleeve. “Yes, I have seen her.”

“At work?”

“What is more, your friend has seen her, too.”

Cole straightened up in his chair. “He told you that?”

“I told him,” said Dr. Bouchey. “I have learned, since his disappearance, that
senhor
Benson was visiting the castle known as Pedra Negra. It was there he—”

“Whoa, now. You’re suggesting that Elizabeth Bentin and your countess are one and the same?”

“For the past two days I have been digging into the records of this area,” said the old man. “I have established definite links between the people who have owned the castle for generations and the heirs of the Bathory estates in Europe.”

“As I understand it, Miss Bentin is one of the people Richard stood up when he vanished. So I don’t see—”

“His car, as you must know, was found abandoned only a few miles from the castle. There is nothing else in that direction save the ruined temple. And I doubt a man would be going there alone late at night.”

“In the
vicinity
of the castle isn’t the castle,” Cole pointed out. “Seems to me the fact that the car never got there proves Richard didn’t, either.”

“We have only the girl’s word that he never got there,
senhor
Wilson,” reminded the professor. “He may have met her at the castle and then driven elsewhere. Or she may have met him on the road before he reached it. There are many explanations. But the important point is . . . this girl is a vampire. And I fear our missing friend has been her latest victim.” He turned his gaze on Cole’s face. “Have you met the girl yet?”

“No, but I’m going to remedy that situation at once.”

CHAPTER XV
A Secret Meeting

The man who called himself Bulcão climbed down the metal ladder into the stone room. His heavy boots clanged on the rusty rungs.

The room was thick with the smell of the oil burning in the hurricane lamp that sat on a rough-hewn table in the room’s center. The lamp made a flickering yellow globe of light; the corners of the stone room were lost in shadows.

“That’s an offensive smell,” said Bulcão as his foot touched the stone floor. He was a small man, compact, wearing a suit of military-style dungarees. His .38 revolver hung from the gun belt buckled tightly around his waist.

“Perhaps we can hold our next meeting at the banquet room of the Hotel Segunda,” said the other man in the room.

“Humor is uncalled for,” said Bulcão, striding to the center of the room.

“But it does help one endure life,” said the other man, whose name at the moment was Ensolardo. “And what have you learned?”

Bulcão seated himself in the room’s only other chair, a lopsided wooden thing. “They have arrived.”

“How many of them?”

“Three.”

“Very good, very good,” said Ensolardo, nodding. “Which ones?”

Loosening his gun belt a notch, shifting in the chair, Bulcão said, “Fergus MacMurdie, Cole Wilson, and Algernon Heathcote Smith.”

“By killing them we will pretty well destroy Justice, Inc.,” said Ensolardo. “It will leave them with only two women and a black man. They’ll no longer be much of a threat.”

“Let’s remember,” said Bulcão, “that at the moment they are still alive and breathing.”

“I want you to put Ferro onto the job of getting rid of them.” Ensolardo massaged an elbow, watching the flame of the lamp. “He is to arrange it so it looks like an accident . . . or perhaps as though they were killed by some of the fellows who rob tourists.”

“Ferro is one of our own. Until now we’ve been hiring—”

“Yes, and until now your hirelings have not been very successful,” said Ensolardo. “Put Ferro on the job.”

Shrugging, Bulcão said, “Very well, but I feel—”

“Don’t worry so much, my friend. I’m supposed to be the pessimistic one.”

“The way Leonard Rodney was killed . . . It wasn’t . . . I don’t like it. Killing in our line of work must be done quickly, efficiently. Not with so much—”

“The method was necessary, as it will also be for the Avenger. He must die the same way Rodney did.”

Bulcão looked back toward the ladder and crossed himself. “Some things . . . some things are not right. Some things should not be done.”

“Anything is right if it serves our cause.”

“She delights in that sort of killing. I can see it in her face. Those others who were killed. There was no need to—”

The stone trapdoor in the ceiling of the room had opened. A figure began to climb down the rusted metal ladder now. “I’ve just been looking in on our guest,” said Erika Mowler. “He is sleeping peacefully.”

“He ought to be,” said Ensolardo, “with all that stuff you’re shooting into him. You’re sure he’s not going to—”

“Please, Ensolardo,” said Erika. “I was a nurse long before I was a spy. I know how to take care of someone in a coma, even a coma that is drug-induced.”

Ensolardo watched the sooty smoke spiral up from the glass lamp. “Our plans seem to be going extremely well.”

“They usually do,” replied the blond girl. “Elizabeth’s earlier acquaintance wth Richard Benson, the so-called Avenger, gave us an excellent opportunity to be of further service to the homeland. Not only can we prevent Elizabeth’s information from reaching the Americans, but we can destroy Justice, Inc. As you know, the Avenger and his earnest associates have often interfered with the plans of our country. But no more.”

“Justice, Inc., has a formidable reputation,” said Bulcão. “Let’s be sure we don’t underestimate them.”

“Are you perhaps,” asked Erika, “a bit afraid of them?”

“I am afraid of nothing, but I’ve seen over-confidence ruin many a plan.”

The big blond girl smiled at the small man. “There’s nothing to worry about. I have just the right degree of confidence to take care of the Avenger and all the fools who’ve come down here in hope of finding him. I knew he’d make very good bait for our trap.” With a mock bow at the men, she backed away. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I must get back to the castle before anyone misses me.”

“When,” asked Ensolardo, “will the Avenger die?”

“Very soon,” she answered as she climbed up into the darkness.

CHAPTER XVI
Hunting

It happened at sundown.

Smitty was scuffling along a twisting downhill street, grumbling. “Blank walls, blank walls. Thats all we come up against.”

“Aye,” agreed MacMurdie, “ ’tis not verra encouraging.”

“The cops don’t know nothing, that McClurg guy don’t know nothing. Geese, I hope old happy-go-lucky Cole is having better luck than we are.”

“The lad seems ta be onto something. The note he left for us at our hotel would seem to indicate he’s got a good lead.”

“A dame,” said Smitty. “It involves a dame, I bet you.”

“I’m commencing to think that the late Mr. Rodney mayhap had something ta do with leaking information to the birkies on the other side.”

BOOK: The Avenger 33 - The Blood Countess
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