James Asher, a retired member of the Queen’s secret service in Edwardian England, has settled into quietude as an Oxford professor of philology with his physician wife, Lydia. But his peace is shattered when he’s confronted by a pale aristocratic Spaniard named Don Simon Ysidro, who makes an outlandish claim that someone is killing his fellow vampires of London, and he needs James’s help to ferret the culprit out. The request also comes with a threatening ultimatum: Should James fail, both he and his wife will die.
With James’s talent for espionage and Lydia’s scientific acumen and keen analytical mind, the couple begins an investigation that takes them from the crypts of London to the underworld circles of the unliving to the grisly depths of a charnel house in Paris. Now James and Lydia must believe in the unbelievable—if they’re to survive another night in the shadow of Don Simon Ysidro.
This first book in the James Asher series is “one of the more memorable vampire novels of recent years—smoothly written, suspenseful, awash in moral ambiguity, and rich in vampire lore . . . a must-read for vampire fans” (Kirkus Reviews). Barbara Hambly gives “Anne Rice a run for her money” (Publishers Weekly) and “Don Simon is unforgettable” (Charlaine Harris).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Hambly, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from her personal collection.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Those Who Hunt the Night
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
But even before the shadows of the stairwell swallowed the last echoes of his wife's name, James Asher knew something was desperately wrong.
The house was silent, but it was not empty.
He stopped dead in the darkened front hall, listening. No sound came down the shadowy curve of the stairs from above. No plump Ellen hurried through the baize-covered door at the back of the hall to take her master's Oxford uniform of dark academic robe and mortarboard, and, by the seeping chill of the autumn night that permeated the place, he could tell that no fires burned anywhere. He was usually not conscious of the muted clatter of Mrs. Grimes in the kitchen, but its absence was as loud to his ears as the clanging of a bell.
Six years ago, Asher's response would have been absolutely unhesitating—two steps back and out the door, with a silent, deadly readiness that few of the other dons at New College would have associated with their unassuming colleague. But Asher had for years been a secret player in what was euphemistically termed the Great Game, innocuously collecting philological notes in British-occupied Pretoria or among the Boers on the veldt, in the Kaiser's court in Berlin or the snowbound streets of St. Petersburg. And though he'd turned his back on that Game, he knew from experience that it would never completely turn its back on him.
Still, for a moment, he hesitated. For beyond a doubt, Lydia was somewhere in that house.
Then with barely a whisper of his billowing robe, Asher glided back over the threshold and into the raw fog that shrouded even the front step. There was danger in the house, though he did not consciously feel fear—only an ice-burn of anger that, whatever was going on, Lydia and the servants had been dragged into it.
If they've hurt her ...
He didn't even know who they were, but a seventeen-year term of secret servitude to Queen—now King—and Country had left him with an appalling plethora of possibilities.
Noiseless as the Isis mists that cloaked the town, he faded back across the cobbles of Holywell Street to the shadowy brown bulk of the College wall and waited, listening. They—whoever "they" were in the house—would have heard him. They would be waiting, too.
Lydia had once asked him—for she'd guessed, back in the days when she'd been a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl playing croquet with her uncle's junior scholastic colleague on her father's vast lawns—how he kept from being dropped upon in foreign parts: "I mean, when the balloon goes up and they find the Secret Plans are gone or whatever, there you are."
He'd laughed and said, "Well, for one thing, no plans are ever gone—merely accurately copied. And as for the rest, my best defense is always simply being the sort of person who wouldn't do that sort of thing."
"You do that here." Those enormous, pansy-brown eyes had studied him from behind her steel-rimmed spectacles. Her thin, almost aggressive bookishness was at that time just beginning to melt into fragile sensuality. With the young men who were even then beginning to take an interest in her, she didn't wear the spectacles—she was an expert at blind croquet and guessing what was on menus. But with him, it seemed, it was different. In her sensible cotton shirtwaist and blue-and-red school tie, the changeable wind tangling her long red hair, she'd looked like a leggy marsh-fey unsuccessfully trying to pass itself off as an English schoolgirl. "Is it difficult to go from being one to being the other?"
He'd thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. "It's a bit like wearing your Sunday best," he'd said, knowing even then that she'd understand what he meant. And she'd laughed, the sound bright with delight as the April sunlight. He'd kept that laugh—as he'd kept the damp lift of morning fog from the Cherwell meadows or the other-world sweetness of May morning voices drifting down from Magdalen Tower like the far-off singing of angels—in the corner of his heart where he stored precious things as if they were a boy's shoe-box hoard, to be taken out and looked at in China or the veldt when things were bad. It had been some years before he'd realized that her laugh and the still sunlight shining like carnelian on her hair were precious to him, not as symbols of the peaceful life of study and teaching, where one played croquet with one's Dean's innocent niece, but because he was desperately in love with this girl. The knowledge had nearly broken his heart.
Now the years of scholarship, of rest, and of happiness fell off him like a shed University gown, and he moved down the narrow street, circling the row of its flat-fronted brick houses toward the labyrinthine tangle of the back lanes.
If anything had happened to her ...
From the lane behind the houses he could see the gas burning in the window of his study, though between the mists and the curtain lace he could distinguish nothing within. A carriage passed along Holywell Street behind him, the strike of hooves and jingle of harness brasses loud in that narrow corridor of cobbles and brick. From the weeping grayness of the garden, Asher could see the whole broad kitchen, lit like a stage set. Only the jet over the stove was burning—even after dusk was well settled, the wide windows let in a good deal of light. That put it no later than seven ...
Put what? In spite of his chill and businesslike concentration, Asher grinned a little at the mental image of himself storming his own home, like Roberts relieving Mafeking, to find a note saying, "Father ill, gone to visit him, have given servants night off—Lydia."
Only, of course, his wife—and it still startled him to think that after everything, he had in fact succeeded in winning Lydia as his wife—had as great an abhorrence as he did of confusion. She would never have let Mrs. Grimes and the two maids, not to speak of Mick in the stables, leave for the night without making some provision for his supper. Nor would she have done that or anything else without dispatching a note to his study at the College, informing him of changed plans.
But Asher needed none of this train of logic, which flickered through his mind in fragments of a second, to know all was not well. The years had taught him the smell of peril, and the house stank of it.
Keeping to the tangle of vine that overgrew the garden wall, conscious of those darkened windows overlooking him from above, he edged toward the kitchen door.
Most of the young men whom Asher tutored in philology, etymology, and comparative folklore at New College—which had not, in fact, been new since the latter half of the fourteenth century—regarded their mentor with the affectionate respect they would have accorded a slightly eccentric uncle. Asher played to this image sheerly from force of habit—it had stood him in good stead abroad. He was a reasonably unobtrusive man, taller than he seemed at first glance and, as Lydia generally expressed it, brown: brown hair, brown eyes, brown mustache, brown clothes, and brown mien. Without his University gown, he looked, in fact, like a clerk, except for the sharpness of his eyes and the silence with which he moved. It would have been coincidence, the undergraduates would have said, that he found the deepest shadow in the dark and dew-soaked garden in which to stow his gown and mortarboard cap, the antique uniform of Oxford scholarship which covered his anonymous tweeds. Certainly they would not have said that he was the sort of man who could jimmy open a window with a knife, nor that he was the sort of man who would carry such a weapon concealed in his boot.
The kitchen was utterly deserted, chilly, and smelling of the old-fashioned stone floor and of ashes long grown cold. No steam floated above the hot-water reservoir of the stove—a new American thing of black rococo iron which had cost nearly twenty-five dollars from a catalogue. The bland brightness of the gaslight, winking on the stove's nickel-plated knobs, and the silver of toast racks, made the stillness in the kitchen seem all the more ominous, like a smiling maniac with an ax behind his back.
Few of the dons at Oxford were familiar with the kitchen quarters of their own homes—many of them had never penetrated past the swinging doors that separated the servants' portions of the house from those in which the owners lived. Asher had made it his business to know not only the precise layout of the place—he could have passed through it blindfolded without touching a single piece of furniture, as he could indeed have passed through any room in the house or in his College—but to know exactly where everything was kept. Knowing such things was hardly a conscious effort anymore, merely one of the things he had picked up over the years and had never quite dared to put down. He found the drawer in which Mrs. Grimes kept her carving knives—the hideout he kept in his boot was a small one, for emergencies—then moved on to the archway just past the stove which separated kitchen from pantry, all the while aware that someone, somewhere in the house, listened for his slightest footfall.
Mrs. Grimes, Ellen, and the girl Sylvie were all there. They sat around the table, a slumped tableau like something from the Chamber of Horrors at Mme. Tussaud's, somehow shocking in the even, vaguely flickering light from the steel fishtail burner by the stove. All they needed was a poison bottle on the table between them, Asher thought with wry grimness, and a placard:
THE MAD POISONER STRIKES.
Only there was no bottle, no used teacups, no evidence in fact of anything eaten or drunk. The only thing on the table at all was a bowl of half-shelled peas.
Studying the cook's thin form, the parlor maid's plump one, and the huddled shape of the tweeny, Asher felt again that chill sensation of being listened for and known. All three women were alive, but he didn't like the way they slept, like broken dolls, heedless of muscle cramp or balance.
He had been right, then.
The only other light on in the house was in his study, and that was where he kept his revolver, an American Navy Colt stowed in the drawer of his desk; if one were a lecturer in philology, of course, one couldn't keep a revolver in one's greatcoat pocket. The other dons would certainly talk.
He made his way up the back stairs from the kitchen. From its unobtrusive door at the far end of the hall he could see no one waiting for him at the top of the front stairs, but that meant nothing. The door of the upstairs parlor gaped like a dark mouth. From the study, a bar of dimmed gold light lay across the carpet like a dropped scarf.
Conscious of the weight of his body on the floor, he moved a few steps forward, close to the wall. By angling his head, he could see a wedge of the room beyond. The divan had been deliberately dragged around to a position in which it would be visible from the hall. Lydia lay on the worn green cushions, her hair unraveled in a great pottery-red coil to the floor. On her breast her long, capable hand was curled protectively around her spectacles, as if she'd taken them off to rest her eyes for a moment; without them, her face looked thin and unprotected in sleep. Only the faint movement of her small breasts beneath the smoky lace of a trailing tea gown showed him she lived at all.
The room was set up as a trap, he thought with the business portion of his mind. Someone waited inside for him to go rushing in at first sight of her, as indeed his every instinct cried out to him to do ...
"Come in, Dr. Asher," a quiet voice said from within that glowing amber chamber of books. "I am alone—there is in fact no one else in the house. The young man who looks after your stables is asleep, as you have found your women servants to be. I am seated at your desk, which is in its usual place, and I have no intention of doing you harm tonight."
Spanish, the field agent in him noted—flawless and unaccented, but Spanish all the same—even as the philologist pricked his ears at some odd, almost backcountry inflection to the English, a trace of isolative a here and there, a barely aspirated e just flicking at the ends of some words ...
He pushed open the door and stepped inside. The young man sitting at Asher's desk looked up from the dismantled pieces of the revolver and inclined his head in greeting.
"Good evening," he said politely. "For reasons which shall shortly become obvious, let us pass the formality of explanations and proceed to introductions."
It was only barely audible—the rounding of the ou in obvious and the stress shift in explanations—but it sent alarm bells of sheer scholarly curiosity clanging in some half-closed lumber room of his mind. Can't you stop thinking like a philologist even at a time like this ...?
The young man went on, "My name is Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena-Ysidro, and I am what you call a vampire."
Asher said nothing. An unformed thought aborted itself, leaving white stillness behind.
"Do you believe me?"
Asher realized he was holding his intaken breath, and let it out. His glance sheered to Lydia's throat; his folkloric studies of vampirism had included the cases of so-called "real" vampires, lunatics who had sought to prolong their own twisted lives by drinking or bathing in the blood of young girls. Through the tea gown's open collar he could see the white skin of her throat. No blood stained the fragile ecru of the lace around it. Then his eyes went back to Ysidro, in whose soft tones he had heard the absolute conviction of a madman. Yet, looking at that slender form behind his desk, he was conscious of a queer creeping sensation of the skin on the back of his neck, an uneasy sense of having thought he was descending a stair and, instead, stepping from the edge of a cliff ...
The name was Spanish—the young man's bleached fairness might well hail from the northern provinces where the Moors had never gone calling. Around the thin, high-nosed hidalgo face, his colorless hair hung like spider silk, fine as cobweb and longer than men wore it these days. The eyes were scarcely darker, a pale, yellowish amber, flecked here and there with pleats of faded brown or gray—eyes which should have seemed catlike, but didn't. There was an odd luminosity to them, an unplaceable glittering quality, even in the gaslight, that troubled Asher. Their very paleness, contrasting with the moleskin-soft black velvet of the man's coat collar, pointed up the absolute pallor of the delicate features, far more like a corpse's than a living man's, save for their mobile softness.
From his own experiences in Germany and Russia, Asher knew how easy such a pallor was to fake, particularly by gaslight. And it might simply be madness or drugs that glittered at him from those grave yellow eyes. Yet there was an eerie quality to Don Simon Ysidro, an immobility so total it was as if he had been there behind the desk for hundreds of years, waiting ...
As Asher knelt beside Lydia to feel her pulse, he kept his eyes on the Spaniard, sensing the danger in the man. And even as his mind at last identified the underlying inflections of speech, he realized, with an odd, sinking chill, whence that dreadful sense of stillness stemmed.
The tonal shift in a few of his word endings was characteristic of those areas which had been linguistically isolated since the end of the sixteenth century.
And except when he spoke, Don Simon Ysidro did not appear to be breathing.
The carving knife still in his left hand, Asher got to his feet and said, "Come here."
Ysidro did not move. His slender hands remained exactly as they had been, dead white against the blued steel of the dissected gun, but no more inert than the spider who awaits the slightest vibration of the blundering fly.
"You understand, it is not always easy to conceal what we are, particularly if we have not fed," he explained in his low, light voice. Heavy lids gave his eyes an almost sleepy expression, not quite concealing cynicism and mockery, not quite concealing that odd gleam. "Up until ninety years ago, it was a simple matter, for no one looks quite normal by candlelight. Now that they are lighting houses by electricity, I know not what we shall do."
Ysidro must have moved. The terrifying thing was that Asher did not see the man do it, was not—for a span of what must have been several seconds—conscious of anything, as if he had literally slipped into a trance on his feet. One second he was standing, knife in hand, between Lydia's sleeping form and the desk where the slim intruder sat; the next, it seemed, he came to himself with a start to find the iciness of Ysidro's fingers still chilling his hand, and the knife gone.
Excerpted from Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1988 Barbara Hambly. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.