By blood we live, p.23
By Blood We Live, p.23Glen Duncan
He wanted to live. He’d thought for a long time he’d take a martyr’s death, willingly. But it was there in his face, the realisation that he wanted, above all, to live. I could see all the sunsets and conversations and cups of coffee and crisp winter mornings he was imagining, that he still wanted, that were precious and that he’d never even thought of before, the absolutely huge wasted gift of being alive.
“I give you my word,” I said. “When we get there, I’ll let you go. You know I’m not lying because you can feel that I don’t want to kill you.”
We stared at each other. His hand was slightly bigger than mine. (Reminded me of Susie Carter, who I dated for a while when I was young. She was beautiful, but back then her hands were bigger than mine. It was crazy how much it had bothered me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even when she was doing something amazing to me in the sack.) “You know I’m not lying,” I repeated—and I knew he could feel it. It was a joy to him, to suddenly see that he might have all that life he’d been picturing. It was a joy and a shame, because he hadn’t known until now his faith wasn’t stronger than life.
When I brought him upstairs, Madeline and Lucy looked at me. What the fuck?
“We need him,” I said. “Let’s go.”
In the Fleetwood I gagged him again and tied him to the base of one of the bunks. He was quiet, cooperative. He’d made his decision. He knew his soul would have to deal with the consequences, but for now, God had lost. It was a relief to him. It always is, to find the edge of yourself. To know the exact limit of your strength. It’s a relief because not knowing it is an exhausting full-time job.
I called Konstantinov. The two of us had worked for WOCOP together, and eventually found ourselves on the wrong side of the organisation. Three years ago vampires (the same crackpots who’d taken Lorcan) had kidnapped his wife, Natasha, and Turned her. Mike, faced with losing her, had asked her to Turn him. She didn’t hesitate. In a movie she’d refuse because she loved him. In their reality she Turned him because she loved him. Because she knew how much he loved her. Because it was love between them, as big and dark as Mother Russia. If I’d loved Konstantinov any less than I did I’d have hated him for having that, right now.
“Mike, we need you. Where are you?”
“Fuck. Fuck. How fast can you get here?”
I could feel him working it out. Night flights only.
Not fast enough.
“You got people we can use here?”
Pause. I knew the answer. Didn’t even know why I’d asked. Madeline and Lucy were changing their clothes in the back of the vehicle. Lorcan was going through Talulla’s bag looking for his own gear. He’d pulled out a bunch of her things. A white sun-dress I loved her in. Red espadrilles. A denim jacket. It occurred to me I was still in the goddamned farmer’s overalls and cut-open sneakers. I was sweating. My hands felt ill. Lorcan tossed out his mom’s copy of Don Juan. Byron. Who I knew was someone I should know about.
“No,” Konstantinov said. “Why? What’s happened?”
Lorcan had pulled something else from the bag.
A voice in my head said: See how it all fits together?
The note from Olek slipped from its pages and wafted to the RV’s floor.
“I’ll call you back,” I said—and for a weird moment it was as if all the atoms in everything around me buzzed and glowed. “There may be someone else who can help us.”
OLEK SENT FOUR vampires to meet us two miles outside Caminata.
Only four? Not enough. And “us” was me and Lucy. Madeline was babysitting Lorcan and Mario. And keeping herself out of the way. (Did you fuck Walker? I guessed it would be one of Talulla’s first questions to her. Hoping the answer would be yes. Thanks. Take him off my hands, would you?) A force of six to take on God knew how many.
“Weapons for you. Twenty clips apiece. Heavy, but you’ll need them.”
This was Alyssia. Australian, human age mid-thirties, bleach blonde with bangs, blue eyes, supple, neatly proportioned body. Exquisitely beautiful hands with perfectly manicured purple nails. She was wearing, as were we, odour-block paste between nose and top lip—some chemical compound only marginally better than the stink of the vamps themselves (and presumably the stink of us to them); we would’ve looked fucking ridiculous to anybody watching, but without it we wouldn’t have been able to get near enough to each other for a conversation. As it was we were twenty feet apart, fighting off nausea.
“There are grenades, tear gas canisters and masks in the bag,” Alyssia said. “We won’t need the masks. They’re for you.”
No disguising the slight sneer in that. As in: We don’t need to wait for a full moon. We can deal with this shit anytime. (It’s one of the bloodsuckers’ snobberies, that we’re lunar-governed, that we’re part-timers.) “We go in hard and fast,” she said. “If it’s human, kill it—right?” This was to her crew. As in: This is not a drinking party. No stopping for a quick cocktail.
The crew, also armed with machine guns and pistols, sort of ummed and grinned and nodded. Clearly no promises. They didn’t want to be doing this, every syllable of their body-language said. They had, make no mistake, better, cooler things to be doing. Olek must have some clout, charlatan or not.
“We’re not going to be hanging around,” one of them said, “any longer than necessary.”
I didn’t like this guy, Miro. He was a tall and thin-legged Pole with a hairdo like the top of a goddamned scallion and what my mom would’ve called a butt-face. Which is to say his cheeks were a little too full and his mouth and nose seemed to sit in a vertical groove.
“We don’t need to go over it,” a third vampire said. “We know what we’re doing. Let’s just for fuck’s sake get on with it.”
She couldn’t have been more than nineteen when she was Turned—although, as Lula would’ve said, for all we know she could’ve got hammered with Shakespeare. A broad-shouldered English girl with long dark hair in a ponytail and big, bored dark eyes. Her name was Eleanor.
The fourth member of the vampire squad, Nils, a Dutchman, inspired confidence, though his stink was worse than the other three put together. He was at least six-four, not gym-muscled but solid-limbed, dense, visibly full of speed and heft. Short blond curls plastered tight over a big, tough-boned head.
“Don’t worry about us,” he said. “You just worry about keeping up.”
It was (obviously) dark. The facility was a quarter of a mile northwest of the rendezvous. Mario had described the layout—though it was plain from his description there were parts he was hazy on. Talulla and Zoë were being held below ground. Sub-level 2, Red Wing, cell numbers 4B and 17A. The numerical odds were stupid, of course, but we had—in the hired vampire help—more speed and strength than could be counted by heads. That, plus our desperation. That, plus my moments of not giving a fuck whether I lived or died.
IT WAS A BLUR. Like all combat. And yet like all combat weird details stood out. Dandelions brushing my shins on the approach. The Big Dipper tilted and winking over the installation’s roof. The moment between the first grenade toss and the explosion, when Lucy cleared her throat and checked the safety on her automatic one last time. The foot of one of the guards I shot, twitching, bootlace coming undone. A crucifix knocked crooked on a bloodstained corridor wall. One of the female Militi Christi screaming something in what sounded like Latin. The sound of a bullet going straight through Alyssia’s leg, next to me. Making no difference to her whatsoever. When she went ahead of me her ass looked good in the tight dark-blue jeans. Headfuck: attraction and repulsion at the same time—in the middle of adrenaline chaos.
Nothing works in your favour like the element of surprise. Half of them were only carrying side arms—though the shock of discharged silver was heavy in the air, a sickening combination with the nose-paste and the reek and vibe of the vampires alongside
I don’t know how many we took out. Thirty, maybe forty. The vampires were fast. They made the humans—and us, in human form—look like we were on Valium. Alyssia wasn’t confined to the ground. The first time I saw her leap and take twenty strides along the corridor wall stopped me in my tracks like a moron. The boochies were controlled and focused. They could afford to be: there was no ammunition in the place that would do them any harm. It was impossible to imagine any of the humans getting close enough with a stake.
One of the humans got close enough to me, however.
A doorway into a room we thought we’d cleared. One minute I was changing clips, the next his arm was around my throat and a knife—in the stretched moment I had all the time in the world to recognise the model, Sniper Double Edged Combat Blade by Mercworx, we used them back in the WOCOP days—was heading for my throat. I was thinking (there’s all this endless time for thinking in these moments) that it wouldn’t kill me but it wouldn’t be any kind of fun, either—and it would slow my breathing down for crucial minutes.
Which was when I felt it.
When combat brings death close you realise you never thought you’d die. Not this time, you tell yourself, before you go in. This time is always not the time. Has to be, otherwise you’d never go in.
I couldn’t see him, but the arm around my neck and the hand holding the knife said a big, powerful guy. Dark skin. Soft-haired hands. His body pounded heat into mine. It made me feel like throwing up. It took me to the moment—there always is one—where you ask yourself whether the thing to do isn’t just let them kill you, whoever they are. Death does this, asks you if you’re sure—you’re really sure—you don’t want it?
My limbs were dreaming. Full of warmth and laziness. With what felt like fucking laughable slowness I got my hands up to his wrist when the knife was three or four inches from my throat. I could feel his big rib cage pressed into my back. It reminded me of. It reminded me.
You sure you don’t want me? Death said, again. It’s probably why she left you. Not man enough.
Suddenly the weight around my neck and shoulders increased. Couldn’t stand it. Literally. Dropped to my knees, and the guy holding me went down with me. I heard him make a weird noise. For a second the weight alone felt like it was going to kill me—then the stink of Nils shot through—and the arm around my throat went dead.
I opened my eyes. I didn’t know I’d closed them.
The weight was gone. My face was wet. Blood. Lots of it. Wulf—of course—leaped up with a deafening reminder that last night I hadn’t fed. A useless bulletin—but the Curse can’t help it.
Twenty feet away Nils stood looking over his shoulder at me. He had my attacker’s severed head in his hands. He smiled and made a little gesture, as in: Jesus, you once-a-monthers. Then he tossed the head towards me, turned and loped off down the corridor.
OUTSIDE ZOË’S CELL Miro was feeding on one of the nuns. She lay on her back with her skirt up to her hips and her left leg bent and shivering. The bare flesh made it look like pornography. Like someone dressed as a nun. Miro looked up at me and grinned. His chops were covered in blood.
“Guard,” he said, swallowing. “There, that one. He’s got the keys.”
One of the guards was dead, throat ripped out. The other was sitting propped against the wall opposite the cell door, holding his abdomen. He was shivering, too. It was a weird little disturbance in the atmosphere, his and the nun’s shivering like that. He had the keys—a bizarrely old-fashioned bunch—on his crotch. When I bent to grab them I saw he was holding his intestines in. He looked at me, baffled and pleading.
I took the keys and unlocked the door.
Zoë was standing by her bunk, hands and legs cuffed, on a chain bolted to the floor. She’d heard the commotion. Her face was full of uncertainty—but the relief when she saw me was like stepping from cold into warmth.
“Hold on, honey,” I said, when I bent and she flung her arms around me. “Let’s get this crap off you.”
There were twenty keys at least on the bunch, so we had the horror movie moments of trying a dozen different wrong ones, time simmering, her little body on trembling pause. You tell yourself: Easy. Do it logically. More haste less speed. But my hands were like two birds tethered to the ends of my wrists.
“She’s here, babe. Hold still. We’re going to get her—there. Jackpot.”
The chain dropped with a soft growl. Two more wrong keys, then I had her free.
“Come on, jump up. Piggy-back. Hold tight and don’t let go, okay?”
Her face was small and warm against my neck.
“What’s that smell?” she said.
“New friends,” I said. “They stink, but they’re on our side.”
“Like Uncle Mike?”
Uncle Mike was Konstantinov. He and Natasha were the only vampires the kid had known.
Unlike her mother.
“Yeah, like Uncle Mike. You ready?”
“Keep your head down, sweetpea.”
The gashed-open guard was dead. His arms had dropped to his sides and his guts lolled in his lap. Miro was still drinking, though he’d switched his bite to the nun’s still-quivering thigh. I stepped over him.
“No rush,” he said, barely raising his head. “They’re all dead.”
He couldn’t know that, but there was no sound of gunfire up ahead. Somewhere much deeper in the building a grenade detonated. The explosion came up through the floor like a loud cough. I checked the clip on the automatic, pulled Zoë’s legs tighter around me, and set off.
Outside Talulla’s cell I found Alyssia and Eleanor with two men. One, a Militi Christi guard, was face-down on the floor in an expanding puddle of blood. The other, who looked ridiculous in the combat fatigues, was being pinned against the wall by Eleanor, who had, with one hand wrapped around his throat, lifted him several inches off the ground. At his feet were a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. And a young man’s severed head. There was no visible body it belonged to.
Talulla was unconscious on the floor of her cell. For a moment I thought she was dead. Then the scent and tremor of her life hit me, hit Zoë. In the moment it had taken I’d asked myself whether I’d look after the kids if Lula was dead. And the goodness of Zoë’s weight on me said, Yes, I would, somehow. There are these unexpected measurements of love. When you least want them.
“He’s in charge, believe it or not,” Alyssia said, indicating the guy Eleanor had by the throat, toes typing thin air. The effects of the nose-paste were wearing off. The corridor’s confined space was dense with the vampires’ reek. Zoë was pressing her nose into my shoulder to block it out. Eleanor was holding her nose with her free hand. Alyssia tossed me the keys. “Fast,” she said. “This is becoming intolerable.”
Fewer keys on this bunch, and the third one opened the cell door. Zoë slithered from my back and rushed to Talulla.
“Mommy! Mommy, wake up. Wake up.”
“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “She’s just asleep. They gave her sleep-medicine.”
“Anyone alive behind you?” Alyssia asked.
She shook her head. “Asshole. Okay. Out the way we came in.”
“Can you take the kid?”
The logistics. I’d have to carry Talulla. The vampires looked at each other. The face of the man Eleanor was holding by the throat was purple. His feet tap danced. Neither of them wanted to get any closer to me or the kid. Carrying her?
“Jesus, fuck, okay. I’ll have to take them both. Fuck.”
“All right,” Al
I liked her. She had a sexy controlled impatience. And her hands were the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Because your mind goes where it goes, regardless, I had an image of her sliding them into her panties, looking at me.
“Fuck,” she said. “I didn’t sign up for this.”
She was spared the trouble. Lucy appeared with Nils at the far end of the corridor. She looked like a miniature person next to him. The pair of them were spattered with blood.
“We good?” Alyssia called.
“Good,” Nils answered.
Lucy rushed up and put Zoë on her back. I fireman-lifted Talulla. I wondered what I would have said to her if she’d been awake. I wondered what she would have said to me. Holding her like that, unconscious, elsewhere, it suddenly felt like there wouldn’t have been anything to say. I realised how much we hadn’t looked at each other over the last few months. Or how much she hadn’t looked at me.
Eleanor hurled the guy she’d been strangling head-first at the bars of the cell. His body dropped, heavily.
“Well, that’s that,” she said, bored. “Let’s go.”
The Wrong Twilight
THE LOGISTICS, AS always, were wearisome. Daylight. Darkness. We had to make the bulk of the flight in the blackout room, to arrive in Italy after sunset. Mia and Caleb refused to take the bed, insisted on curling up on the floor. There’s ivory silk and wool shag-pile in there, mind you, and cushions aplenty from the cabin, so they weren’t uncomfortable. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a heel.
“You’re not well,” Caleb said to me, after we’d been up for half an hour. “You don’t look right.”
We were back in the main cabin. The jet was an hour from Rome. Damien and Seth were in the cockpit. Mia was taking a shower. Caleb was thrilled with the experience, though he was trying not to effervesce. The luxury was a shock to him. The cabin’s corpulent cream leather recliners, the cherry woodwork, the blackout room, the dense technology slotted snugly together like a Chinese puzzle. Every fixture and fitting said precision cut and quality finish. You forget these things until you see them through fresh eyes. In their old life his mother had had access to wealth, yes, but not like this. Not comprehensive fingertip control. He’d taken a copy of Browning’s Men and Women from the shelf (which reminded me of the Collected Works I’d never yet picked up from the floor of the study at home at Las Rosas) but he’d done little more than glance at it. He wasn’t, his aura said, a reader. I thought of all the textual pleasures he had awaiting him, if someone would only get him started. I resolved to speak to Mia about it in a quiet moment. But at the same time wondered where one did start, these days. These days young people found The Catcher in the Rye … sorta dull, kinda boring. Not to mention the new cognoscenti of all ages, for whom the test of whether a book was worth reading was whether they’d want to be friends with the protagonist.
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan / Horror / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes