Outside it was late summer. The red-brown leaves hung heavy on the trees in the woods beyond the house, and in the front courtyard silver water splashed down from the stone mermaids’ open mouths into the blue-grey basin of the fountain to be reabsorbed, pumped back up and out again in an endless cycle. The courtyard was empty and it was the only sound. Above, the last golden light of the sinking evening sun glinted here and there in the polished glass of the three symmetrical rows of sash windows that ran along the façade of Blackwater Hall. All of them the same, except for one window high up on the left, a window with steel bars inside the reinforced glass. Behind it Katya Osman sat at her desk writing in her diary.
She wrote sideways with her body leaning over the book as if to conceal its contents, but this was clearly from force of habit, not necessity, since there was no one else in the room and the door was locked. Her long, unbrushed blond hair fell down over the desk, and every so often she pulled it back behind her head with an irritated gesture. She was concentrating hard and she bit down on her lower lip as she wrote, occasionally looking up and out into the darkening sky beyond the bars of her window as if in search of inspiration. She had always been pretty but suffering had changed her. Her bright blue eyes, swollen from too much crying, had become larger and more luminous than ever before in her gaunt and ravaged face, and in the last few days she had almost stopped eating so that her clothes had now begun to hang off her body, as if they had grown out of her. She wore them carelessly—the buttons on her grey dress were unevenly fastened, and there were stains around the collar.
The room too was a mess. Clothes, dirty and clean, were everywhere, falling out of drawers, draped over the open doors of the wardrobe in the corner, and an overflowing ashtray competed for space with a framed photograph and a plate containing a half-eaten apple and an untouched sandwich on top of a crowded bookcase by the door.
“I cannot bear the pain anymore,” she wrote. “I feel like I’m going mad. I think it would be better to die than to carry on like this. But how? That’s the question. Perhaps I can steal the matches from Jana when she comes in to feed me and then we’ll die together she and I. Burn until there’s nothing left. There would be justice in that. But I know that at the last moment I won’t be able to go through with it; I’ll draw back—I know I will. Why? Why, in God’s name, why? It’s not fear of death that stops me. I know that. It’s hope; hope for life. Hope is my curse. It always has been. I see that now. God, how much better I would be without it. How much…”
Katya stopped writing suddenly, her pen suspended in midair. Outside she could hear footsteps. She knew the sound of them—patent leather soles clicking on the wooden floor. They were coming down the corridor toward her door. Quickly she crossed to the bookcase and pulled out a thick book from the bottom shelf. Back in happier days Katya had hollowed out its interior to create a perfect hiding place for her secret diary. And then for years it had lain there forgotten until she’d begun to keep it again in recent weeks, adding almost daily entries in her tiny, spidery writing.
She’d just finished replacing the book and got back to her chair when she heard the key turn in the lock behind her and a tall thin woman dressed entirely in black came into the room.
Jana Claes had never been pretty, but then again she’d never claimed to be. Her nose was too big and her eyes too small for her pallid face, and her lack of any figure emphasised an enduring impression of semimasculinity. She was almost fifty now, more than twice Katya’s age, and, just as she had always done since she was a girl, she wore her hair, now greying, tied up in a severe bun at the back of her head. Katya had never seen her let it down; just as she had never seen her dressed in anything but black. Unmarried, Jana wore no jewellery except a small silver crucifix that hung on a thin chain around her neck. Bloody hypocrite, Katya always said to herself whenever she saw it.
The eldest of a family of five, Jana had had domestic responsibility for her siblings since the age of thirteen, when her mother was admitted to hospital one winter afternoon suffering from scarlet fever and had never come back home again. Life was a serious business. There was no room in it for frivolity or vanity. And in all the years that she had known the elder woman, Katya had never once heard her laugh.
Jana stood in the doorway surveying the room with her thin lips drawn back in an expression of unconcealed disgust.
“Why don’t you clear this up?” she asked, speaking with the thick Flemish accent that Katya had come to dislike so much.
“Because I choose not to,” said Katya defiantly.
“It’s horrible,” said Jana, advancing into the room and closing the door behind her. “You have no self-respect.”
“Nor do you. You’re nothing but a common gaoler. That’s all you are.”
“It is for your own good.”
Katya snorted with contempt. “Have you got a light?” she asked after a moment, taking a cigarette out of a battered packet lying on the desk. It humiliated her to have to ask, but she had no choice. Jana had taken her matches away after an accident with the bedclothes a week earlier, and she badly needed to smoke. Her hands were shaking as she held out the cigarette.
“No. Not now. I need to give you something to make you sleep,” said Jana, taking a syringe out of her pocket and removing the cover from the needle. “Your uncle is worried about you. If you carry on having no sleep, you will be ill. It won’t hurt, I promise. Just a little prick—that’s all.”
Katya had gone white at the sight of the syringe. Her defiance disappeared like air from a burst balloon, and she backed away into the far corner of the room, terrified.
“No. Not that. Please not that,” she pleaded with her trembling hands held out in front of her in a gesture combining resistance and supplication in equal measure. “It made me sick last time, don’t you remember?”
“It was fine. You went to sleep and then you woke up and you felt a whole lot better,” said Jana, advancing slowly toward Katya with the syringe in her hand, the needle pointed at the ceiling. She tried to inject a soothing tone into her voice, but her words only seemed to make Katya more hysterical. She regretted coming alone now. There was a crazy look in the girl’s eye like she was toppling over the edge into madness, and Jana wished that she’d brought her brother, Franz, with her, but she hadn’t wanted to bother him. Like Titus, Katya’s uncle, he had a lot of things on his mind. She’d wanted to show her brother that he could rely on her, and last time it had been easy with Katya. She’d been ill in bed and there’d been no trouble.
Reaching Katya, Jana took sudden hold of her arm and forced her down onto the bed. Katya felt the strength in Jana’s hand. It was like a vice on her wrist, temporarily paralyzing her. She felt the prick as the needle pierced her skin, and, as if in slow motion, she watched Jana’s thumb move to press down on the stopper of the syringe. But then, at that precise moment, it was as if some outside force suddenly possessed her: a surge of adrenaline coursed through her body like a charge of electricity, filling her with an overpowering determination not to allow this withered old woman to treat her like she was nothing, a body to be drugged and starved and imprisoned in an attic room at someone else’s whim. She pulled her arm away and pushed up suddenly with all her strength into Jana’s chest, taking the older woman by surprise and sending her reeling back against the corner of the desk, where she sank down onto the floor. The syringe, half-full, fell out of Jana’s hand and rolled away under the bed.
Getting to her feet, Katya looked down at her adversary. Jana wasn’t moving. Perhaps she’d hit her head on the side of the desk. Quite deliberately Katya took aim and kicked Jana hard in the small of the back. Jana cried out and curled herself up into a ball on the floor.
“You deserved that,” said Katya with grim satisfaction. “I’m not a fool: I know why you’re trying to drug me. It’s because someone’s coming, isn’t it? Just like before. And you don’t want them to see me, don’t want them to know what you’re doing to me up here. Well, too bad. This time I’m going to talk. I’m going to tell them everything you’ve done. And when I’ve finished, I hope they lock you up and throw away the key. So you’ll know what it feels like.”
Katya felt like kicking Jana some more but resisted the temptation. Glancing out the window, she saw that the courtyard was still empty, but nevertheless she felt sure that a car would soon be pulling up. And if she was to stand a chance of telling the visitor her story, she needed to find somewhere to hide until he or she arrived. For a moment Katya remained in the centre of the room, swaying backward and forward on the balls of her feet, her brow furrowed in concentration, but then, drawing a deep breath, she seemed to make up her mind.
Crossing to the door, she smiled. The key was still in the lock. Jana hadn’t taken it out when she came in, and so she wouldn’t have to search the older woman’s pockets and run the risk of another fight. It seemed like a good omen. With one backward glance, Katya closed the door, locked it, and then, with the key in her hand, ran away down the corridor. But before she’d reached the end she felt her legs buckle beneath her as the drug started to take effect, and she had to lean on the wall for support before she turned the corner and started down the stairs.
* * *
The first thing that Jana felt when she came to was the intensity of the pain in her head. Her right temple was throbbing so hard that she felt it would burst. It terrified her. Involuntarily she put her hand up to her hairline and felt blood seeping between her fingers. She opened her eyes and the room started to turn, spinning round and round, faster and faster. Quickly she closed them again tight shut, but it was too late. She was turning herself now, and, as she felt her stomach heaving upward, she leant over to the side and was violently sick onto Katya’s ruby-red carpet. The movement and the retching made her suddenly conscious of a new hurt low in her back. For a while she lay motionless on the floor facing her own vomit while the two pains fought each other for supremacy until finally they fused together into one solid agony. And the pain was mixed up with shame and fear. She knew what she had done: she had messed everything up. She shuddered as she thought of what Franz would say when he found her. She had to get up, to warn them before this Vanessa woman arrived. Because she didn’t know where Katya was. Not in the room certainly. The terrible, shameful retching had at least cleared her head and she found she could open her eyes now without the furniture rising up to meet her. She took in the unmade bed, the syringe that had rolled away underneath it, a photograph of Katya’s dead parents on top of the bookcase, and beyond it the door. It was closed. She felt in her pockets for the key, without success. Like a fool she must have left it in the door when she came in, and, if so, Katya would almost certainly have locked her in as she fled.
The pain came back in waves, and for a moment she thought she would pass out again, and perhaps she might have if she hadn’t heard the sound of a car driving up and parking in the courtyard below. Now she knew she had almost no time left—a minute or two at most—before Titus opened the front door and brought his guest inside. And so, gritting her teeth, she dragged herself across the carpet to the door and then, putting her hand up to the handle, she found her worst suspicions confirmed. It was indeed locked. But she’d already thought of what to do. She reached down and took off her shoe and then, using all her strength, banged it on the door frame again and again, while she shouted out for help. After half a minute she came to the end of her strength and fell back in a swoon. But it was enough.
Two doors down and one floor below, Jana’s brother, Franz, was sitting on his bed, polishing a pair of expensive black shoes. They were spotless, gleaming, and clearly didn’t need polishing, but he still shined them every night, enjoying the ritual, the backward and forward strokes. He was in full evening dress, apart from his tie, and, just as he had been doing all day, he was thinking resentfully about Titus’s ill-considered association with the policeman’s wife, searching his brain for a way to get Titus to break off the relationship. Franz had his door shut, so he didn’t hear Jana fall or Katya running in the corridor up above. He did, however, hear Vanessa Trave drive up into the courtyard and Titus come out to greet her. And it was probably the way in which he strained to hear their conversation down below that enabled him to catch the sound of his sister banging on Katya’s door, crying out for help.
He ran upstairs, but he couldn’t release her straightaway. He had spare keys to all the rooms in the house, even Titus’s study, but they were back in his room, and so he had to return there to get the spare for Katya’s bedroom. Once inside, he helped his sister onto the bed and listened patiently while she explained what had happened. He wasn’t angry with Jana; instead he blamed himself. He ought to have gone with her to give Katya the injection. The fact that the girl hadn’t resisted last time didn’t mean she’d always be that way. And she’d obviously kicked Jana in the small of the back while Jana was down on the ground. He’d have a score to settle with little Katya when he found her, which had to be quickly. Vanessa Trave was downstairs, and she couldn’t be allowed to know what was going on. Once again Franz clenched his fists in angry frustration. Why wouldn’t Titus do what he asked? The woman was married to a police inspector for Christ’s sake, the same police inspector who’d asked all those awkward questions after Ethan died, poking his nose into other people’s business. So what if she and Trave were separated! They probably still talked to each other. Couldn’t Titus at least have taken her somewhere else? No, no, always no. Titus was a law unto himself.
Franz looked down at his sister, trying to decide what to do. She was too badly hurt to help with the search. That much was obvious. And there was no time to lose.
“Stay here, Jani, I’ll come back when I find her,” he said, speaking in Dutch. His voice was gruff but not unkind, and Jana picked up on her brother’s use of his pet name for her.
“Yes, I’m sorry, Franz,” she said, sounding relieved. “She went crazy. I didn’t expect it.”
“I know. Rest now. I’ll be back soon.” He picked up his sister’s hand, held it lightly for a moment, and then let it go.
It was the nearest Franz Claes could get to tenderness or affection. Such emotions didn’t come naturally to him. But he was fond of his elder sister. They went back a long way. And the idea of her being pushed around and kicked by bloody little Katya made him angry inside. He could feel the rage building like a knot in his stomach. But he had it under control. It was something he prided himself on—he was always in control of his emotions.
Franz went out into the corridor and stood there for a moment, listening intently. With his left forefinger he stroked a long white scar that ran down from the hairline above his left ear to a blotch of red puckered skin just below his jaw, but otherwise he was entirely still. Titus and the Trave woman were somewhere downstairs, too far away to be audible from where he was. It was Katya he was listening for. But he could hear nothing except the sound of his sister’s painful breathing in the room behind him. He looked from one end of the corridor to the other, trying to decide which way to go. The house was old, full of unused cupboards and recesses where Katya could be hiding, and there were two staircases going down, one at each end of the corridor. After a moment he shrugged his shoulders and went to the right.
A few minutes later he began to be seriously concerned. He’d gone from room to room, systematically searching every crevice, every corner, but he could find no trace of Katya anywhere. What if he was wasting his time? What if she had got out of the house and was even now headed down toward the gate? The doors and windows were locked, but she could have slipped out the front door and past her uncle when he went out to greet Vanessa. He knew Titus wouldn’t welcome an interruption before dinner, but he felt he had no choice. There wasn’t any time to spare, and he needed help if he was going to find the damned girl before she caused any more trouble.
As he’d anticipated, Titus and his guest were downstairs in the drawing room. It was the handsomest room in the house, with its views through high windows onto the rose garden and the valley beyond—a good place for a romantic encounter, Franz thought bitterly. As a rule of thumb, he didn’t like women, but this one he disliked more than most. She was in the way, and she was a security risk. He wished that Titus had never clapped eyes on her.
He took a deep breath, knocked at the door, and went in. They were standing in front of the fireplace. Titus was holding Vanessa’s hand but dropped it when Franz came in.
“What is it, Franz? It’s surely not time for dinner yet,” he said, glancing over at the golden ormolu clock ticking sedately beneath the oval Venetian mirror on the mantelpiece. It was just after six o’clock.
“I know. I’m sorry, Titus, Mrs. Trave. Something has come up. It won’t take a moment.”
“Oh, very well. I won’t be long, my dear.” Titus Osman made it a point never to raise his voice, never to depart from the elaborate rules of courtesy that he’d set for himself, but under an apparently unruffled exterior he was seriously annoyed by Franz’s intrusion. For several weeks now he’d felt the right moment was approaching for a marriage proposal to Vanessa. The timing had to be right, and Titus was nothing if not patient, but she seemed particularly receptive this evening. The weather helped, of course. A warm late summer evening with the sun sinking gently into the pine woods beyond the lake. Perhaps he would take her out into the rose garden after dinner. Smoke a cigar; walk the carefully tended pathways hand in hand in the moonlight; tell her how he felt. But then again—perhaps not the cigar. The smoke might get in the way, particularly if they kissed. He liked the slow courtship that they had been engaged in, and he had enjoyed planning each move forward, continually adjusting his words and suggestions depending on her response, but now it was time to take their budding relationship to another level. He felt sure of it. Tonight was the night.
Of course, if Vanessa said yes, that still wouldn’t be the end of the story. She’d need a divorce, and Titus knew how much Vanessa’s husband hated him. But he had a strange feeling that that might make it more likely, not less, that Trave would cooperate if Vanessa asked him. The inspector had too much self-love not to want to take the moral high ground if it was offered to him. He was what the English liked to call “an honourable man.”
However, Titus realised he was getting ahead of himself. First he had to deal with Franz, whose anxiety was obvious. Titus noticed how two bright red spots had appeared in the centre of Franz’s pale cheeks, a sure sign of trouble. They talked in the hall. There was no chance Vanessa could hear. Titus had been careful to shut the door of the drawing room when they left.
“Katya locked Jana in her room,” said Franz. “She attacked her when Jana tried to give her the injection. I don’t know where she’s gone. I can’t find her. I’ve looked almost everywhere.”
“Christ, Franz. Can’t I rely on anyone?” asked Titus angrily.
“We wouldn’t have had the problem if you hadn’t brought her here,” said Franz, gesturing with his thumb toward the drawing room door.
“It’s my house. I’ll do what I want in it.”
Franz met Titus’s eye but otherwise didn’t respond, and Titus paused, took a deep breath, and nodded.
“Is your sister hurt?” he asked.
“Yes, but she’ll be all right. The point is she can’t help us now. That’s why I fetched you. It needs two of us to find the girl.”
“Yes, you were right. Could she have got outside?”
“Maybe, when you opened the door. But I think it’s more likely she’s hiding somewhere. If we don’t find her, I’ll go after her in the car. She can’t get far; she’s got no money.”
“All right. You carry on upstairs. I’ll look down here after I’ve told Vanessa. I’m sorry, Franz. You were right to tell me.”
* * *
Katya stood at the back of a small closet under the stairs on the other side of the entrance hall from the drawing room. The coat rail running down the centre of the closet was only half-filled and she’d pushed the coats and mackintoshes to the front, creating a hiding place for herself at the back. One coat in particular reached down almost to the floor, and so she’d been all but invisible when Franz had peered inside a moment before. Now she stood holding on to the rail with both hands for support while she listened intently to Franz and her uncle through the half-open door. She felt terrible. Her right arm hurt constantly where Jana’s needle had gone into her vein. The bitch—Jana deserved exactly what she’d got. Katya wished she’d kicked Jana a few more times when she’d had the chance. But some of the sedative must have got into her system. She had been fighting drowsiness ever since she got downstairs, and now she felt almost grateful for the pain throbbing in her arm since it was at least keeping her awake—but for how much longer she didn’t know. Releasing her left hand from the rail, she squeezed her right wrist hard. Pain was good, and she wished that she had nails to dig into her skin, but she had bitten them all down to the quick long ago.
Damn them; damn them all! What right did they have to treat her like this? She wished Ethan was here to help her. More than two years later and she still missed him as much as ever. So much for time as the great healer, she thought bitterly. She remembered how they had stood together in this same hall and how she had put her arms around his waist and buried her head in his chest and felt for a moment that her life was perfect—nothing needed to be added; nothing needed to be taken away. Everything was exactly right. But it had all been an illusion, a chimera made of delicate crystal glass that had shattered into a thousand tiny pieces a long time ago. Ethan had died with a knife in his back and she’d gone down to skid row and ended up a prisoner in her own bedroom, starved and terrified, without a friend in the world.
Except that now she had a chance, a small chance but a chance nonetheless. If she could just stay awake and escape detection long enough to tell this woman what had happened, then maybe someone would come and help her. So what if the woman had something going with her uncle. From what she’d overheard in the last few minutes, this Vanessa sounded normal, nice even. And Franz and her uncle didn’t want Vanessa to know she was here. That much was obvious. Why else would they have got Jana to give her the injection?
Another wave of exhaustion swept over Katya. She hung desperately on to the coat rail, but there was no strength left in her arms and her legs were giving way beneath her. But then, just as she felt sure she was going to fall, she heard Franz above her head going up the stairs. She knew it was him because she could hear the unevenness of his steps; it was unmistakable the way in which he always dragged his left leg behind him as he walked. A war wound like the scar below his ear. Katya just wished that whoever had inflicted those injuries had had a truer aim and put an end to Franz Claes once and for all.
Franz was gone, but what about her uncle? Carefully she reached past the coats, pushed the closet door open a little farther and peered out into the hall. Her uncle was standing with his back to her, stroking his beard as if lost in thought. It was unbearable. He’d told Franz he was going to search for her, so why didn’t he? Instead, after a moment he turned and went back into the drawing room. Katya swayed from side to side. She needed air desperately. It was stuffy in the closet and the narrowness of the hiding place had started to make her claustrophobic. And she needed to know what her uncle was saying to this woman he’d invited over. Throwing caution to the winds, she went out into the hall and stood in a recess to the right of the drawing room door, listening. She was taking a terrible risk. She was in plain view from across the hall, and Franz or Jana would have seen her straightaway if they’d come down the stairs, but instinctively she knew that it was now or never if she was going to make her move. The sedative had taken hold, and she only had a little time left.
“I’m sorry, Vanessa. Something has come up and Franz needs my help for a few minutes. It can’t be avoided, I’m afraid. Will you be all right?” It was her uncle’s voice, and Vanessa answered.
“Of course I will,” she said. “But would you prefer me to go? We can always rearrange.”
No, thought Katya desperately, clasping her hands together in silent prayer. No, please don’t go. But she needn’t have worried—her uncle came instantly to her rescue.
“Absolutely not, my dear,” he said. “You would be breaking my heart if you were to go now. I’ve been looking forward to this evening all week.” Always the elaborate courtesy, Katya thought. He never changed.
“And so have I,” said Vanessa, sounding pleased. “I’ll be fine. How could I not be with this wonderful view to look at?”
“Thank you for being so understanding. I won’t be long. Help yourself to another drink if you want one. Everything’s over there on the sideboard.”
Katya couldn’t believe how relaxed her uncle sounded. There was not a hint of panic in his voice. But he was a different person once he was outside in the hall. He glanced quickly from side to side, but not behind him, where Katya was standing, and then headed purposefully toward his study and the rooms at the back of the house. She had no time to lose. She went into the drawing room and closed the door softly behind her.
Vanessa had moved away from the mantelpiece and was now standing in front of the far window looking out into the twilight with a glass of wine in her hand. She turned around, putting her glass down when she heard the door open, and looked shocked when she saw Katya. The girl’s haggard appearance was certainly alarming. White as a sheet, Katya stood swaying from side to side with a half-crazed, desperate look in her eye, and then suddenly leant forward, gripping the back of a sofa in order to stay upright.
Vanessa was frightened and her first instinct was to shout for help, but Katya saw this coming. Desperately she put her right forefinger up to her mouth, fastening onto Vanessa’s eyes with her own, and the cry died in Vanessa’s throat.
“Who are you?” Vanessa asked instead. And then, just as she’d finished the question, she realised she knew the answer. The girl was Titus’s niece. She’d been at the dinner party here at Blackwater Hall that Bill had taken her to after David Swain’s conviction—the first night she’d met Titus. She remembered being struck then by how pretty the girl was with her luminous blue eyes and her long blond hair arranged in an elaborate chignon. And her cheeks had been brightly flushed, perhaps from drinking too much champagne but also because she was excited at the outcome of the trial. There was nothing wrong with that. It was the reason for the gathering after all. But Vanessa remembered how it had seemed so personal for the girl. Swain, her previous lover, had killed Katya’s new boyfriend in a fit of jealousy, and she clearly hated him for it. She’d almost been saying that life imprisonment wasn’t enough, that the man deserved to hang. Perhaps she had actually said that. Vanessa couldn’t remember. Well, the girl had certainly changed since then. Vanessa thought she would never have recognized this wraithlike apparition as Katya Osman if the girl’s presence in Titus’s house hadn’t provided her with the connection.
Katya opened her mouth to speak but the words stuck in her throat. She felt sick and faint, and the room had started to revolve. Two great tears sliding slowly down her sunken cheeks bore silent witness to her inner distress.
Recovering from her initial shock, Vanessa crossed the room and put her arm around Katya, helping to hold her up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What can I get you?”
“Water,” Katya whispered. “Water.”
Vanessa couldn’t hear her the first time and had to listen hard before she understood what Katya was saying.
“Yes, of course,” she said, getting up and going over to the drinks tray on the sideboard, but as soon as her back was turned Katya collapsed to the floor, taking a small ornamental table with her. Vanessa couldn’t see any water and so she instinctively seized hold of a soda fountain, pulled down on the mother of pearl handle, and sprayed a jet of foaming water in the general direction of the girl’s mouth. After a moment Katya coughed and opened her eyes, but she hardly seemed to know where she was. Vanessa knelt down beside Katya, supporting the girl’s head in her hands. “What’s wrong?” she asked, repeating her earlier question.
Katya could hear Vanessa’s voice, but it was very far away. She was sinking to the bottom of a deep, dark pool and knew that talking would soon be beyond her, and so, with one last superhuman effort, she launched herself upward through the thick black darkness and into the light of her uncle’s drawing room. She had come too far to stop now.
“Yes?” said Vanessa, putting her ear close to Katya’s mouth so that her cheek brushed the wet soda water on the girl’s upturned face.
“They’re trying to kill me,” said Katya in a rush. But the struggle to get out the words was too much. The sedative that Jana Claes had half injected into her vein upstairs finally did its work, and Katya collapsed back into Vanessa’s arms, dead to the world.
Copyright © 2011 by Simon Tolkien