London-based lesbian translator and part-time sleuth Cassandra Reilly is on the move again. Her latest trip is to China, via Eastern Europe, where, upon receiving a call about a murder in a run-down Transylvanian health spa, she suddenly finds herself embroiled in a murky and wholly unusual investigation. The woman accused of the murder, Gladys Bentwhistle, had previously met Cassandra on the train. She begs Cassandra for help and, unable to resist her own insatiable curiosity and hunger for adventure, Cassandra says yes.
As the mystery unfolds, Cassandra and her cohort, including her friend Jacqueline and potential love interest, Eva, are steeped in the history of Romania, from the devastating relics of Ceausescu’s tyrannical reign to the vampire folklore born in the region centuries ago.
Surprising, gripping, and funny, Trouble in Transylvania is the second book in the Cassandra Reilly Mystery series, which begins with Gaudí Afternoon and continues with The Death of a Much-Travelled Woman and The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists.
About the Author
For more information visit www.barbarasjoholm.com and www.barbarawilsonmysteries.com.
Read an Excerpt
Trouble in Transylvania
A Cassandra Reilly Mystery
By Barbara Wilson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Barbara Wilson
All rights reserved.
I WAS ON my way to China, by way of Vienna and Budapest, when I first met Gladys Bentwhistle, her granddaughter Bree, and most of the Snapp family. Not everyone knows this, but an open-ended roundtrip ticket from Hungary to China on the Trans-Mongolian Express is one of the least expensive ways to visit Beijing. The only drawback is that you must first go to Budapest and reserve your ticket via Moscow, and then apply for the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian visas at their embassies—all this before suffering nine days of bumping across steppe, taiga and desert. Still, it's cheap if you have the time, and this trip I had particular reasons for not minding a possible stay of several weeks in Budapest. My old friend Jacqueline Opal, whom I had seen in London only two or three months before, had dropped me a postcard at my Hampstead mailing address, a postcard of the Danube which announced, in breathless capitals, that she was now co-owner of a secretarial agency in Budapest. This was so manifestly unlike Jack, a high-spirited Australian drifter who had held nothing more taxing than a series of temp jobs in London, and those only in order to finance a series of low-budget, maximum-risk world adventures, that I felt I had to see what she was up to.
It was an April evening, darkly green and rainy. I'd arrived in Vienna from London, via jetfoil and a high-speed train that had propelled me through dozens of European cities so quickly that I'd hardly had time to read the station signs, much less distinguish enduring national characteristics, and had gotten off for a few hours to stretch and catch up with myself.
It had never been sunny during any of my brief visits to Vienna; I'd never seen its icing sparkle, had never gotten the least hint of its waltzing and prancing, its operettas and operatics. Grandeur was there, you couldn't really avoid it, in the enormous Habsburg palaces and Imperial museums and theaters all around the Ringstrasse, but it always seemed magnificence of a particularly pointless kind. Vienna had once been the capital of an empire of fifty million, a large family estate (some said a prison) composed of a dozen nationalities, all struggling to assert their historical identities. After defeat in the First World War the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, and Vienna was left, with all its pomp, head of nothing more than a rather small country called Austria.
But my Vienna wasn't the Imperial city of the Habsburgs, nor was it fin de siècle, decadent and glittery. Much of what I liked about the city came from the uncertain but lively period sometime after the First World War, after the elegance had begun to thin, but before the political chaos of the thirties. My Vienna was intellectual, melancholy and neurotic, well-suited to damp days, to walking through small squares with trees coming into leaf, which is what I did that particular afternoon, after I had made one important stop.
In every city I find an anchor. Sometimes it's a café, sometimes a street, sometimes a painting in a museum. It's what I claim as mine, what I visit when I pass through, what makes me feel at home. In Amsterdam it's a pub on the corner of two canals, where the sun strikes a worn walnut tabletop in an elegiac way on late afternoons in autumn. In Mexico City it's Frida Kahlo's blue house. In Bangkok it's the Chao Phraya River with its network of brackish canals and spicy floating markets.
In Vienna, my anchor is very small. She's a reddish-brown statue less than five inches tall, though photographs make her look enormous and overwhelming, with her pendulous breasts and ample belly. She lives in a glass case in a room next to gigantic dinosaur skeletons in the Museum of Natural History. I'm not sure why I like her so much, or why I find her so powerful. The Venus of Willendorf is thirty thousand years old, the oldest thing, besides the dinosaur bones, that I have ever seen.
It satisfied something in me to visit her again, and afterwards I stayed in a good mood for a long time, drifting around the wet streets of the inner city. Eventually I rediscovered the Café Museum, with its marble-topped tables and sills of potted plants, its lace-draped windows against which the rain streamed down. I ordered soup with liver dumplings and began to read Elias Canetti's memoir of the twenties. From time to time I looked up and saw myself in a large mirror with a Jugendstil frame: a tall, restless woman, middle-aged, in a black beret and a leather bomber jacket, a scarf muffling her neck and chin, freckles that had never quite faded, hazel-green eyes and a nose that seemed to grow ever more prominent.
I began to relax, to feel my mind and my senses wake up. I was on the road, moving again, traveling light, ripe for adventure. And just in time. Since the past November, I'd been cooped up in London, translating from Spanish a series of research papers for an environmental group, Save the Amazon Basin. Publishers weren't taking many chances on the literary work that had previously been my bread and butter. The luxuriously overdone magic realism of Gloria de los Angeles continued to sell, of course, but other authors of mine—the recondite, manic-depressive Uruguayan Luisa Montiflores, for instance—were out of favor and out of print.
The winter dragged on; I grew gloomier. My love life was non-existent, and my friends were in sour moods, talking of emigrating, of suicide, of getting jobs in Brussels. The flu season came on and I felt wearier and older every day. I reminded myself often that I didn't live in London—it was only one of my bases, just as Oakland was another— nevertheless, I kept having terrible fantasies of ending up in some lonely little bed-sit in Wood Green, not having gotten out in time.
As March came whistling through and the days grew longer, I became restive and longed to be off somewhere. The travel section at Foyle's beckoned every time I got off the tube at Tottenham Court Road to walk to the SAB office in Soho. I found myself spending long half-hours staring at maps of Madagascar and atlases of Antarctica. I needed to go somewhere, anywhere, but preferably somewhere vast and strange and as far away from Charing Cross Road as possible.
The crisis came when SAB offered me a permanent part-time position. My dear friend Nicola, the prominent bassoonist, whose hospitality I had availed myself of pretty much continuously for the last twenty-five years, said sternly, "Well, now perhaps you'll settle down and make a contribution to the world."
Two days later, I was on the train to China, by way of Budapest.
At seven I went to the Wien-Süd train station and continued my journey into the heart of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was the only one in my compartment of time-softened maroon corduroy seats and slightly dusty drapes. What luxury to sit alone and gaze out at the darkening, rain-soaked landscape, reading Canetti's account of Vienna in the twenties, when anguished, voluble, oversexed poets and painters sat around talking psychoanalysis and avant-garde art. If I had lived then, my companion certainly would have been a woman called Anna, her father an architect of the International School, her mother a concert pianist with tuberculosis. Anna herself designed one-of-a-kind books; she wore men's clothing and used a cigarette holder. We would have lived in a modern flat with nothing comfortable to sit on, analyzed ourselves relentlessly and drunk only champagne, in spite of being ardent socialists.
"Evening," a voice boomed. "Mind if we join you?"
I looked up from my book as the glass door to the compartment slid heavily open. An American woman in her seventies, wearing twill slacks, an appliquéd Western shirt, and a bolo tie in the shape of two raspberry-colored dice, hoisted a backpack onto the overhead rack. Her white hair was cut severely; she had a sharp, fine nose, reading glasses slung around her neck and, I thought, dentures.
"My pleasure," I said, steeling myself for company.
"This way, Bree," she called down the corridor.
She dragged another bag inside, so it almost blocked the door, and began to distribute a variety of possessions around the compartment. Soon, all I had for myself was my seat by the window.
She settled herself across from me and leaned forward with an outstretched hand. "Gladys Bentwhistle. Coyote's Pet-n-Wash. Tucson, Arizona."
I shook her hand. "Cassandra Reilly. Romance Translator. No Fixed Address."
"On your way to Budapest, hon? Me too. It'll be my ninth or tenth country this trip. I've been traveling alone for two months now, but my granddaughter just caught up with me. We're going to Romania, going to stay in a spa. I'll tell you, I'm going to be ready for a spa by then!"
"Gram, I wish you wouldn't rush off like that!" A young woman, not yet twenty, slipped into the compartment. She was wearing a full, flowered skirt over leggings, red Doc Marten boots, and a Queer Nation tee-shirt under a black leather jacket. Her hair was dyed black and fell tangled to her shoulders. She had a nose ring and pale freckles, the color of weak chocolate milk, scattered over her soft, pretty face. She was carrying a camcorder and a state-of-the-art backpack, suitable for climbing Mount Everest.
The train whistle sounded its haunting farewell and we slid smoothly off into the twilight. More latecomers were bumping and pushing and staggering their way through the corridor, but they kept passing our door.
"I learned this from a gal in Spain," said Gladys. "You don't lie. If someone opens the door and asks frei or libre or something, you say ja or oui, but if you spread enough stuff out, they won't bother to ask."
"I can see you're a seasoned traveler," I said.
"It's my first trip to Europe," Gladys said. "I always planned to come sooner, with my friend Evelyn, but we never got around to it. Evelyn was in bad health for a couple of years and last year she passed away." Gladys paused. "Well, you get old. I'm working on a way around it, but so far, no luck."
"Here are three places, Dad," said another American voice out in the corridor. "Hurry up, Emma, come on."
I put Elias Canetti away.
An adolescent girl, rangy and awkward in Levis and a sweatshirt with the mournful profile of Virginia Woolf screened upon it, barged through the door to our compartment and, ignoring Gladys's denim jacket on one seat, her Herald Tribune on another, and her string bag of fruit and crackers on a third, shoved a big suitcase inside and called again, "Hurry up, Emma. Dad, where are you?"
Gladys gathered up her items and immediately switched into a welcoming tone. "Going to Budapest, hon?"
"Yes." The girl stuck out her lower lip. She had a strong nose pushing its way out of childish features, and blue eyes half-hidden under thick bangs of darkening blond hair. Fourteen, I guessed, maybe fifteen.
"Hello, everybody!" A man with a tan, soft felt hat pushed back from a good-natured, perhaps overzealous face was shepherding a small girl of about four into the compartment and dragging a large suitcase behind him. Compact and muscular in a sports jacket that strained a bit at the shoulders, he looked like a Little League coach or something equally athletic and wholesome.
"I'm Archie Snapp," he said, shaking everyone's hand. "And this is little Emma. And you've met my other daughter Cathy."
"Hi," Cathy said expressionlessly. She opened her backpack and took out a thick paperback edition of The Magic Mountain. Although the compartment had eight seats, suddenly it seemed much too small. Only Gladys and Archie seemed truly enthusiastic about our chance proximity; they obviously belonged to that gregarious American subgroup: people-people.
"Sit down, Emma," said Cathy from behind her book. "You're kicking me."
The little girl had on a pastel-pink cardigan, jeans and sneakers with white socks, and her black curly hair was tied by a pink ribbon. She had plump, downy cheeks and dark, uncommunicative eyes. The small case she was holding close to her chest was shaped like a violin.
"Hello, Emma," said Gladys. "Is this your first trip to Europe?"
There was no answer. Emma put her thumb in her mouth and her father quickly pulled it out again.
"Our Emma's not much of a talker," said Archie hastily. "But it's not her first trip to Europe by any means. You could say that ..."
"Emma, I'm going to peel you an orange," Cathy interrupted, and proceeded to do so. The sharp, sweet tang of citrus bloomed around us.
"I'm Gladys," the dog-washer persevered. "Coyote's Pet-n-Wash in Tucson, that's my business, had it for thirty years, my assistant is running it while I'm gone. This is my granddaughter Bree. It's her first trip to Europe, too. She's a college student at Berkeley, majoring in Film Studies, whatever the heck that is. Mostly sounds like it's a lot of sitting around watching old movies that you could see on late night television anyway."
Bree tossed back her tangled black hair. "Hi," she said to the compartment, making sure not to make eye contact with Cathy. The five years that separated them was an enormous gulf of time and experience, and she needed to make sure everyone knew that.
"And this is Cassandra Reilly," Gladys said. "I don't know where she's from."
"Kalamazoo, Michigan is where I started out."
"That's not too far from us," Archie said, warming to thoughts of the Midwest. "We live just outside Ann Arbor. My wife Lynn is in the physics department at the university, though right now she's in Munich at the Max Planck Institute, that's why we're over here for a few months. Back home, I'm the editor of a small newspaper."
That explained the felt hat then. I knew I'd seen Archie before—in a film from the thirties about a small-town reporter on an important assignment to save Western Civilization. All that was missing was the cigarette dangling from his lip as he leaned forward with his steno pad and said ...
"It's a local kind of thing, The Washtenaw Weekly Gleaner. Mostly advertising, but I manage to fill it up with whatever strikes me. Interviews, opinion pieces, human interest kind of stuff. Fresh angles on the same-old same old."
Behind The Magic Mountain there was an audibly rude sigh.
We were traveling through the last suburbs of Vienna. The rain was falling faster. It was dark now, and our compartment seemed small and bright and close. I felt as if we were hurtling through the universe in a booth at a Howard Johnson's restaurant. In truth, it wasn't that unpleasant. Even a hardened expat like myself gets a longing for her countrymen and women from time to time. For the flat midwestern accents of some Snapps, for the western bluffness of a Gladys, even for the sulky rebellion of overindulged children dragged to Europe to accompany their relatives.
A conductor bustled his way in and asked to see our tickets and passports. The blue ones came out along with my burgundy one. The conductor gave the blues a cursory glance but looked carefully at mine.
"Oh, very good. Ireland," he said, and he quoted from Yeats:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone It's with O'Leary in the grave.
He departed with a bow.
"I thought you came from Kalamazoo?" said Archie, sensing a story.
"I travel a lot and an Irish passport is often more useful than an American one. It's saved me a couple of times. In fact the only place I have trouble is Heathrow."
"But that's fascinating," said Archie. "Are you married to an Irishman?"
"I got it through my grandparents. The Irish government doesn't consider that a family has left home until a couple of generations have passed. My grandparents were born in County Cork, so I was eligible for citizenship."
"You said you were a translator," Gladys remembered. "From what to what?"
"Mostly I translate from Spanish to English, but I've also taken stabs at French-English, Italian-English, and even (this was not entirely successful, though friends in Lisbon assured me it was quite amusing), English-Portuguese."
Excerpted from Trouble in Transylvania by Barbara Wilson. Copyright © 1994 Barbara Wilson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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