By blood we live, p.19
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       By Blood We Live, p.19

           Glen Duncan
 

  Not least because it had taken me this long to notice him. He limped out of the shadow by the overturned trailer, took a half-dozen unsteady steps, then stood, trembling. He didn’t appear to be tethered.

  He didn’t move when I approached him. (Not knowing, quite, why I was approaching him. Except at the soft insistence—Lash-enriched—of the air around me, that even in its reek of engine oil and human shit said to approach him.) It was very quiet. One of the street lights buzzed. I was aware of time, of wasting valuable seconds and minutes in which Justine’s trail could only be cooling—but I couldn’t help it. My practical self was working through the understandable questions: How could a horse be …? Whose …? Surely a permit … And not even tied … How could …? While the rest of me had accepted the moment’s obscure gravity.

  I couldn’t remember when I’d seen an animal in worse shape. Aside from his grotesque thinness and distended belly there were unhealed gashes all over him. His left eye was swollen shut by a hot, delighted infection. There were maggots in one wound on his right foreleg. Sepsis oozing from another on his haunch. When I put my hand gently on his quivering neck, he urinated, a hot arrow of blood. Via an impenetrable association he reminded me of the old beggar man I’d seen on the drive at Las Rosas. I’d forgotten about that. The crutch, the grinning face, the cryptic remark: You’re going the wrong way.

  “Shshsh,” I said, though the horse hadn’t, beyond his laboured breathing, made a sound. I rested my forehead against his muzzle. His shivering was almost a thing of disgust.

  I don’t quite know how long we stood together like that, out of time. I was thinking of the scene in Crime and Punishment that never failed to wreck my heart, the milk-cart horse whipped to death by his driver, the crowd laughing, egging the driver on—but there was something else it reminded me of, something …

  It didn’t matter. I fetched the pistol, a Glock 32, from the VanHome’s glovebox (Justine insisted on a gun in every vehicle) and drew his head down and placed the barrel in his ear. I worried for a moment that the noise would attract attention. But the area had already made it clear that gunshots weren’t rarities here. In any case, I was resolved.

  His big skull was full of exhaustion. I embraced him, gently.

  Then stood back and pulled the trigger.

  I picked up Justine’s scent again thirty minutes later. West on West Carey Boulevard, south on Martin Luther King, west on Balzar Avenue. Warm. Warmer. Hot. Red hot. 1388. By which time I didn’t need her scar on the atmosphere. By which time the spilled blood was blaring.

  Sunrise eighty-two minutes away. I wasn’t worried. The VanHome had a built-in blackout compartment. (Justine should have taken this instead of her Jeep.) I’d go to one of the underground casino lots. There was time.

  I found Karl Leath as she’d left him (aside from the glut of circumstantial evidence there was no mistaking either my girl’s physical scent or its soul’s correlate), on his back on the bed, one pale and varicosed leg hanging over the edge, bottom jaw missing, throat torn open. His eyes were wide, showing mostly whites. His tongue lolled, lewd and frank as an Aztec god’s.

  “She made quite a mess,” a female voice said.

  At the risk of redundancy, let me tell you I’m not easily startled. It had probably been a thousand years since anyone had given me a fright. But I’d poured all my consciousness into Justine’s slipstream and left none for what was going on in my own. Therefore I started—and turned.

  “She’s new, obviously,” the vampire said.

  She was standing in the bedroom doorway, hands by her sides. Tied back blonde hair, glacier-blue eyes, white skin and a full red mouth. Red, white and blue so vivid the Tricolour flashed in my memory. Dark jeans, riding boots, black leather motorbike jacket. All of which had seen better days. She’d fed, recently. The blood-glut’s throb came through her body’s aura of dust and gasoline and burnt flesh. She wasn’t alone. Someone else was in the kitchen.

  It took me a moment—memory wobbled and flailed and wrenched itself back into balance—then I knew her: Mia Tourisheva.

  There was history. Three years ago her vampire son, Caleb, had been captured by WOCOP and incarcerated. Talulla, held at the same facility, had escaped and taken the boy with her, saving his life. Which would have left Ms Tourisheva in her debt, had Talulla not done what she did next. What she did next was threaten to torture and kill Caleb herself unless his mother infiltrated the vampire cult holding Talulla’s son and helped her rescue him. Mia had had no choice. In the rescue operation that followed (I was there—Justine had filled me in—as Marco Ferrara) relations between the two women were further complicated by Talulla saving Mia’s life—and returning Caleb to her unharmed.

  “Is she all right?” I asked her. “Do you have her?”

  “Have her? Why would I have her? We just happened to be passing. I was curious. I observed.”

  “Do you know where she went?”

  “Southeast.”

  “How long since?”

  “Two hours, perhaps.”

  “You remember me?”

  “Of course. Though I don’t believe the name Marco Ferrara is yours.”

  “It’s one of mine,” I said. “You have no idea where she was going beyond the direction?”

  Mia shook her head. She looked tired. Sensing I meant her no harm, she stepped into the room. Light from the streetlamp showed dried blood on her hands. There were holes in the jeans. One side of the bike jacket was heavily scuffed.

  “Trouble?” I asked. She’d been screening, but understood now it wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t trying. We know when someone is.

  Her smile said yes, trouble. The latest in a long run of troubles. “Idiot driver,” she said. “There’s a wrecked Harley in the desert.”

  A child’s voice said “I found some” a moment before a boy with a human age of perhaps twelve appeared in the doorway. White-blonde nest of hair, gaunt, androgynous little face, large green eyes. Also in torn jeans and scorched leather jacket—a blood-red one that set his hair and eyes off beautifully. He had an open pack of Lucky Strikes in his hand. I found some. Cigarettes.

  “We’re not that broke,” Mia said to him. Then to me: “They went up in the bike fire. With other things.”

  The boy stared at me.

  “Hello, Caleb,” I said. I felt sorry for him. I’ve seen it before: Turned before adulthood. It never works out, the body that never catches up, the body fundamentally deprived, the body that becomes a joke at the immortal soul’s expense. It was palpable between them, that he had the power to punish her for doing it to him. Palpable, too, was the love. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for him. And to her nothing she could do for him would ever be enough. Looking at them was like looking at someone resigned to a deformity.

  “How do you know who I am?” he said. He’d pocketed the cigarettes, quickly. To leave both hands free. I recognised in him Justine’s reflex readiness for flight. Or fight.

  “Your mother and I have met before,” I said.

  “Are you …?” Mia asked me.

  Who they say you are.

  “I think so,” I said.

  “You think so?”

  “It’s the only answer I have.” I felt suddenly tired myself.

  “Do you—”

  “No.”

  I interrupted her quietly, but with finality. Our eyes met. No, I don’t have any answers. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it means. Only that the conviction that it means something is a necessary disease. Not sure which sense of the word necessary. The room bristled. It had been waiting for this. The corpse wasn’t its nucleus. This was.

  Mia looked at me. I wasn’t trying to summon the length of my life for her. It came up on its own. It comes up in my eyes. In the space immediately around me. People feel it and it’s like stepping into a tomb unopened for twenty thousand years. In which there may or may not be treasure.

  “The prophecy?” she said.

  I shook my head. I knew wh
ich version of the prophecy she meant. The wrong one. The mistranslation. Not “when he joins the blood of the werewolf” but “when he sheds the blood of the werewolf.” Jacqueline Delon had been working from a (conveniently) corrupted text, one which suggested that Remshi (that would be me, yes, don’t laugh) would return and raise the vampire race to global supremacy in a midwinter ritual that demanded not the betrothal but the sacrifice of a lycanthrope.

  “I was looking for Talulla at the time,” I said. “But not for the reason you think. Not for the Disciples’ nonsense.”

  “Are you—”

  “Be quiet!”

  Are you still looking for her? Caleb had been going to say. His screen was hopeless. Stunted. Another juvenile disadvantage. As soon as he’d begun “Are—” the room’s latent store of meaning had surged. Every atom opened its mouth to say: This. Now. Pick this thread up and follow it. It leads. It leads. Mia had cut him off in Russian. But since Russian is one of the countless languages I speak, the werewolf was out of the bag. You see? It’s this story after all.

  For a moment, I remained silent. Then I said to Caleb, “Could I have one of those?”

  He looked at his mother. There was a raggedness to both of them beyond the bike accident and the ruined clothes. In Mia, particularly, the exhausted ghost of entitlement. She was almost—almost—past raging against the pain of whatever it was she’d lost. She’d almost accepted it. She looked at me. Every remaining ounce of her instinct and judgement rose up, leaned against me like a host of the dead. I remained passive. She knew I could get into her son’s head if I wanted to. She knew I was refraining. I gave it to her: I WON’T. NOT BY FORCE. LET US UNDERSTAND ONE ANOTHER.

  Her shoulders relaxed slightly. Her face said she was getting used to these capitulations, these relinquishments of authority. Caleb, taking his cue from her, extracted the pack of Lucky Strikes and brought them over to me. Lit up me, his mother, himself. All vampires smoke. Smoking’s high on the list of Things You Take Up To Pass The Time.

  “What happened to you?” I asked, very gently. It was a wretched effort not to dash off there and then in a southeasterly direction. Justine had only two hours on me, after all. But the chances of finding her before sun-up without a city to go on were risibly small. “Southeast” was still a quarter of the available compass. Which was another way of saying she could be a quarter of anywhere.

  Mia took a deep drag, rolled her lovely, cold, jewel-eyed head on its flawless neck, exhaled through her nostrils. “We fend for ourselves,” she said. “That’s all. We have no choice.”

  NOT IN FRONT OF.

  I understood. There was no way of telling their story without it sounding like it was at least partly the boy’s fault. She opened enough for me to see: She’d broken the long-standing Fifty Families law by Turning a child. And the child had got himself captured. The Family had found out. She’d been stripped of her assets. Cast out. Effectively excommunicated. There were, of course, other pariah vampires in the world, but she’d get short shrift from them: as a former member of the House of Petrov (one of the oldest and most powerful of the elite—and elitist—Fifty) she’d probably spent years scorning them. She was the bankrupt aristocrat suddenly in jail with the mob. We’re not that broke, she’d said. But you can tell a lot about a vampire’s bank balance by where she hunts, and if Balzar Avenue was any indicator, flat broke wasn’t far away. The Harley was probably the last thing of material value. Now gone. A great deal of her weariness had come from having to adjust to the loss of the countless ways wealth removes obstacles. The loss of the unimpeded exercise of the will. It had probably been hundreds of years since the world had said No to her. Now the world said No every day. No. Fuck you. What are you going to do about it? Show me the fucking money. She had been eroded. For a while her arrogance had been a substitute currency. But now even that was gone.

  “I think we can help each other,” I said.

  She knew. She’d felt me catch where Caleb’s “Are you—?” was going. Are you still looking for her? We know where she—

  “We don’t get involved,” she said.

  But she didn’t move. If she’d been alone in the world, if she’d been the lone term on her side of the equation, she would have got to her feet there and then. I felt her reflex to do just that like a small electrical discharge in the air, as if her ghost had stood up and started for the door. Only to be halted. Only to be pulled back. Because there was the child. She had made him. Now there would aways be the child. Now there would always be love.

  “Listen to me,” I said. “I can give you some of the things you need. Money that will last you … Well, not perhaps your entire lifetime, but a long time. Long enough for you to make it into other money. Enough to give you a second chance. In this country I own property in every state. I have places around the world that will be shelter for you whenever you need it. If you want a permanent home you can take your pick.” I could feel Caleb letting the vision have its way with him. I could feel her influence on him: Say nothing. Say nothing yet. And I could feel her own desperation. She was like someone who had been tortured with sleep deprivation now standing looking down at the perfect bed, crisp white sheets, soft pillows, unimaginable comfort, rest. All she had to do was lie down in it.

  “In return?” she said. Not her voice but her spirit was hoarse. For weeks, months, years now it had been screaming. “Assuming we can deal with the question of why we should trust you.”

  “In return two things. First, you help me find the person I’m looking for. Second, you tell me where Talulla Demetriou is.”

  “Yeah, but how do we know we can trust you?” Caleb said. He was excited. This was the first thing with any promise that had happened to him for a long time. What felt like a long time, to someone as young as him. “We’re just supposed to take your word for it? You’re going to have to …” He looked at his mother. But his mother was looking at me. She sat hunched forward, white wrists bent on her knees. Her cigarette had burned down, but for the first drag, unsmoked.

  “Your mother will know you can trust me,” I said, smiling at him.

  “How?”

  I looked back at Mia. She did know. Had come to know, in the last minute or so. Now she, too, through the exhaustion and threadbare hope, was letting a little excitement touch her. Like a shy cat half-accepting the first stroke of an unfamiliar hand.

  “I don’t make false promises,” I said. I promise to live as long as I can. I promise I won’t leave you, angel. (So she had left me, to leave my word intact.) “But no one trusts promises, these days, do they?” I rolled up my sleeve.

  Mia held my eye a few moments. She was old enough to recognise a turning point. And deep enough in misery to take it. It would be a relief to her, to commit to something. For too long now her life had been merely reactive. Her will bristled. Her will needed exercise beyond survival. Lights were on in her eyes whether she liked it or not. The terrible promise of the freedom she’d thought she’d never see again.

  She stood, dropped the cigarette on the floor, stubbed it out with the toe of her boot. Walked over to me and knelt.

  “Mother?” Caleb said.

  “It’s all right, angel moy,” she replied, without looking at him. Then to me: “It mustn’t be much. I’ve already—”

  “I know. Take just enough for what you need. Enough to know.”

  I thought, briefly, of the change this little house had been through in the last few hours. Leath’s years made themselves felt for a moment, decades of crammed emptiness. Then Mia took my wrist, put it to her mouth, and bit.

  48

  AFTERWARDS, SHE SAT back, breathing. For a few moments closed her eyes. Caleb, involuntarily, had come and knelt beside her. He took her hand.

  “Mat?” he said. “Mother?”

  “It’s all right,” Mia said. “I’m fine.”

  Caleb looked at me. It was the first time he’d been in a room with someone more powerful than the woman who’d made him. And a male, too
. He was fascinated by and afraid of adult males. It was his mother’s other guilt, that she’d condemned him to a life without a father.

  “He’s not false,” Mia said. “The promise is good.”

  “Then you’ll help me?”

  She got, unsteadily at first, to her feet. Caleb took her hand.

  “Aren’t you forgetting something?” she said.

  I looked at her. Probably like an idiot.

  She rolled up her sleeve.

  In Russian, I said to her: “It’s not necessary. I’ve lived long enough to know.”

  “That’s foolish. I have no love for Talulla.”

  “Me neither,” Caleb said, manifestly trying to convince himself. It warmed my heart. The sweet lawlessness of the affections.

  “It’s not blind trust,” I said, switching back to English. “We were meant to meet. This was meant. I’ll drink if it makes you happy, but I promise you there’s no need.” What could I tell her? That the rightness of this was constellated around the two of them? That from the moment they’d walked in they’d formed an all but visible necessity? That the story had grinned and winked with their arrival? “Besides,” I said. “You know enough now not to want me as an enemy. No?”

  Mia, belatedly, wiped the blood from her lips. “Who is the new girl?” she asked.

  “I’ll explain on the road,” I said, getting to my feet. “We’ve spent enough time here.” I was thinking it would be a squeeze for three in the VanHome’s blackout compartment.

  The blood was fresh enough in her to read me.

  “It’s okay,” she said. “We have a place nearby.”

  In the VanHome I got five minutes into Justine’s story before I realised both my passengers were starting to look uncomfortable.

  Not sunrise. We still had more than an hour.

  “What is it?” I asked. I felt the road drop away from beneath the wheels. Lightness. The world tilting away.

 
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