By blood we live, p.3
By Blood We Live, p.3Glen Duncan
She put the drink down and laid the cigarette in the desk’s onyx ashtray. Her hair smelled of Flex shampoo. She had a lot of mascara on. Black eyes full of her mutilated history, full of everything she’d wrapped around her past to make it survivable. I’d saved her and damned her. Therefore with her love for me was always a little hate, with the hate always a little love.
Very gently I put my arms around her. She let herself be embraced without fully softening. She was still angry. I could feel how much she wanted to rest her forehead on my clavicle. But she didn’t do it. I loved her for that, her loyalty to how angry she was. The small muscles of her back were determined. I wanted to say to her: I’ll do everything in my power to prevent anything bad happening to you ever again. But I didn’t say that. She doesn’t trust words. Actions got there first with her, violently, prematurely, indelibly. (I had a memory of Niccolo Linario saying: Is it like owning a pet, then, this business of having a human in your life? Like keeping a dog or a talking bird? We were in the low-life streets off the Mercato Vecchio, the air warm and choked with the smell of raw sewage and foully smoking oil lamps. He was new to The Lash, and flabbergasted that I enjoyed a close friendship with an old blind harper I’d picked up from the street and taken to my house, where I cared for him. I’d said to Niccolo: Do you know what it is to embrace a human in tenderness? To feel the racing blood of a body ruled by time? But he’d barely been listening. Too busy eyeing up the laced breasts and ribboned thighs of the night’s blood buffet.)
“Are you all right?” I asked her.
She didn’t answer.
“It’s been vile for you. I’m so sorry.”
She remained resistant in my arms. She was angry with herself for the relief she felt now I was back. In joining her life to mine she’d cut the ties to her kind. It had taken losing me to bring that severance home. It had aged her. She used to run on anger and damage. Now there was sadness, too.
I kissed her small forehead. She yielded a fraction, but then extricated herself. It was a soft tearing pain to lose the flicker of her mortality, the fluttering angels in her wrists and throat and groin. She retrieved the cigarette and the tumbler and moved out of my reach. Paced away. Halted and turned with her back to one of the bookcases.
“Do you want me to ask you the questions or not?” she said. Her face was directly parallel to the Grasset first edition of A la recherche du temps perdu in thirteen volumes. Of course it was.
“What is it?” she asked, seeing me registering it.
“Nothing,” I said. I sat down in the armchair again. “It doesn’t matter.”
The dark eyes calculated. “Is it the connection thing?”
“You told me when you drink from someone like that you see connections between things.” Then, with a note of disgust: “The meaning of things.” It had annoyed her when I’d first told her about it, the gift of The Lash, and I could see it still annoyed her now. If true it meant that everything that had happened to her had happened for a reason. In accordance with a design. It’s the same thing that makes her furious with me every time the book of prophecies comes up. (Yes. I’m afraid there’s a book of prophecies. I know. I can only apologise.)
“It’s nothing,” I said.
She looked at me. Then away. Then back at me. In those three looks was the pattern of our relationship. Not my daughter, not my sister, not my lover. More than any or all of them. Everything between the two of us rejects all the names for it the world has to offer. This is the strange contract between life and language: language keeps naming and life, like a woman seductively escaping her seducer’s caress, keeps just a little beyond its names.
“Do you want me to ask you the questions?” she repeated.
“Okay. Where are we?”
“Las Rosas. 2208 Carmine Drive, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California. You’re Justine Cavell. I met you eight—no ten, I suppose it’ll have to be, ten years ago in Manhattan. Your knee was bleeding. You were ready for something extraordinary.”
“What’s the IRIBD?”
“International Research Institute for Blood Disorders. Established and funded by yours truly longer ago than I care to remember. Centres in thirty countries, linked to hospitals, morgues, donor programs, universities. A meal in every port. You see? I’m up to date.”
“A midwinter night’s dream?”
“Midsummer. Procedural and declarative memory’s intact. I can still drive, thank God. I feel multiple musical instruments in my fingertips and too many languages in my tongue.”
And fear in my heart.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“You and me watching A League of Their Own and The Graduate. I’m not sure about this new hairdo, by the way. You’ve lost some of your edge.”
She was already halfway through the bourbon, and now tossed the rest of it back. Rose-gold hoop earrings. The pretty throat I’d never laid a lip on. I’ve always had a talent for random exemption. Except of course they’re never random. On The Lash, nothing’s random.
“Do you remember …” Hesitation. Difficult territory. She was treading carefully. “Do you remember being in Europe?”
“Before Geena and Dustin?”
Ah. So the last thing I remembered wasn’t the last thing that happened. Amnesiacs seized on something safe and happy and made it their last memory, the first big breadcrumb on the trail that would lead them home.
“Tell me,” I said.
She mashed the American Spirit in the ashtray, lips like a flautist’s for the downwardly exhaled and always slightly disgusting final lungful. “In a minute,” she said, eyelashes lowered. “It might not …” She shook her head, corrected herself. “Marco Ferrara,” she said. Her little face was warm and full of calculations.
“Does the name mean anything to you?”
“One of my aliases. God knows what I was thinking.”
“Another. Latin was cool in the Eighties. The nineteen Eighties.”
“Juss, there’s no need for this. I remember. Seriously. I know who I am. You’d better tell me about Marco Ferrara and Europe. Did I disgrace myself in some way?”
The feed-glow had deepened. The room’s colours thudded. Justine’s microclimate was dense, sunned melanin and Dior Chérie and bitter nail polish, flashed through by the dash of whiskey loucheness on her breath, a little cooled sweat, the sweet-salt tang of her cunt. And of course the blood, young, human, packed with her wounded and racing life. The force that through the red fuse drives the flower.
“Oh God,” she said, tipping her head back. “I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know whether it’ll …”
She thought for a moment. Then her shoulders went slack. A decision.
“Before you fell asleep,” she began—then stopped, reassaulted, I knew, by the bare fact of my being there, real, with her again. “Sorry,” she said. “This is just so fucking bizarre.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“I need another drink,” she said—and oddly, it sounded a false note between us. The Lash gives bright clues to the elusive truth, yes, but vivid flashes when lies are flying too. Her dark eyes flicked away. I didn’t say anything about it. She went to the kitchen and came back with her glass refreshed. I lit us another American Spirit each.
“Before you fell asleep,” she began again, “you got sick. We were in Europe. You don’t remember any of that?”
Well? Did I?
Something. On the periphery, until I tried to focus on it—then it whisked away. The study was live with currents of déjà vu. Shocking recognition was somewhere near, a sheer drop you wouldn’t see until you were falling through it.
“It’s in there somewhere,” I said. “Go on.”
“Okay. We were in England. You left me in London and went to Crete.”
Each place name a recognition test. So far nothing.
Or rather not quite nothing. The faintest synaptic twinge. London. Crete.
“What was I doing on Crete?”
“You were … I don’t even know. You wouldn’t tell me. You left me in London for weeks. You came back from Crete, then we were in England together, but while we were there you got ill. Don’t you remember? I had to get us home.”
“We had Damien. The jet.”
“You really don’t remember?”
She was incredulous, but there was something else underneath it. Relief.
“I got you back here,” she went on. “You couldn’t drink. You had a temperature. And your mind was … You were forgetting things. And remembering things. You said you thought if you remembered everything that had happened … Anyway, you were a mess. You kept telling me things you’d already told me. It was like you had fucking Alzheimer’s.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Stop saying sorry.”
“It’s hard not to. You’ve suffered.”
She shook her head, impatient. She’d felt pity for herself alone here in Las Rosas while I’d slept, and now the memory of it disgusted her. Her default was to be brutal with herself. When I’d seen her standing by the dumpster that night in Manhattan I’d recognised someone who could only ever take solace in the world when it was obvious the world was offering none.
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t remember Europe. Crete. London. I don’t remember being ill. And I don’t remember losing my marbles either. What happened after we got back to LA?”
“We had about a week of you getting more and more sick and confused and me getting more and more freaked out. You were in and out of fever. You couldn’t feed. You couldn’t do anything. You were weak and rambling and fucking green in the face.”
“Then it seemed to break. You seemed better. Clearer. You said you realised you hadn’t been well. We watched the movies. Then you went down to the vault and never fucking came out.” Saying it brought her loneliness back. Her eyes filled, but she didn’t, quite, cry. To Justine her own tears are unforgivable. Which makes her irresistible to me. Nothing draws me to humans like the absence of self-pity. For a while we remained in silence. A police siren went boowepp? half a mile away. I wanted to tell her about the dream but I knew it wouldn’t help. He lied in every word ear-buzzed me again, then veered away.
I got to my feet. I didn’t want to. Nor did I want the recollection of the false note when she’d said she needed another drink. Right up until I opened my mouth I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.
“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s me. I know who I am.”
“Who are you?”
In a cod Transylvanian accent I said: “My name is Remshi and I am the world’s oldest vampire. Radio carbon dates this little Oa around my neck to eighteen thousand BC. I remember watching my father carve it.” This last sentence shed the comedy accent. Again I saw my father in the firelight, my mother digging the offering hole. Two dark-skinned, longhaired people with bright black eyes and thinly muscled bodies. I was sitting between them. Peace. The last time I remembered feeling peace.
“Or I don’t remember that,” I said. “It’s possible I have a condition. They’re memories or they’re not. Either way I don’t want to die. Not while you’re around.”
This little speech steadied her. She looked at me with a flash of allegiance.
And I knew for certain there was something she wasn’t telling me.
“Granted, I’ve forgotten things,” I said, while The Lash lit the lights of deceit around her head. “But I know we have a life together. I know I care more for you than for anything else on earth. I know you.”
Her finiteness gathered, drew the mortal details together: the small body, the dark-eyed head, the heartbeat. Humans, you have no idea how deeply and finely not living forever is inscribed in your every moment.
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” she said, very quietly.
“I’m here,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You can’t know that. You could go down there now and not come out again for fifty years. I could be fucking dead.”
I don’t know what I would have said in reply to that—since she was right—but I never got the chance.
Something sharp hit me from behind and spectacular pain exploded under my ribs.
I LOOKED DOWN to see seven or eight inches of a precision-pointed wooden javelin protruding from my gut. Lignum vitae. Second in hardness only to Australian buloke. In the moment it took me to turn around, I thought: This fucker isn’t taking any chances, whoever he is. Then I had turned around (if someone had been standing next to me I would’ve clouted them with the other end of the thing sticking out of my back, like a slapstick idiot carrying a ladder) to discover it wasn’t a him, but a them, and two of them were female.
The man was in his early forties, with a large, tough, mongolian head and owlish eyebrows. To his left was a tall young woman with tied-back red hair and green eyes. She was flanked by a dark, taut girl of perhaps twenty with a satiny burn scar disfiguring the lower left quarter of her face. All three wore light combat gear and were heavily armed—I saw what looked like a nail gun, mini-crossbows, cartridges, stakes—but the redhead was wielding a sword.
“You missed,” she said, to the dark girl, quietly.
Too much was happening. Pain, first. It wasn’t a stake through the heart but the heart wasn’t stupid; it screamed the nearness of the miss. Its blared panic deafened the nerves, turned up the fire in my gut where the javelin had gone in—in spite of which a big share of consciousness was still staring moronically at whatever it was Justine hadn’t told me, and the dream, and He lied in every word, and What do you remember? Meanwhile Justine was moving towards me and the redhead had taken two more paces into the room. The study was tropical. The books were in shock.
“Get out of here,” I said to Justine.
“Let me pull it out,” she said. But I was ahead of her. I reached around (thinking, in the doolally way of such moments, of a woman reaching around to unhook her bra) and yanked the shaft as hard as I could. Appalling violation. Neurons roared. The weapon came free with a comedy squelch. Followed immediately by the inner hiss of molecular repair, the furious cellular regroup. (Pain? Yes. Fatality? No. Stake in the heart. Beheading. Fire if you get it hot enough. Nothing else. Anything else, you better run.)
“Get out,” I repeated to Justine. But she didn’t move.
Everyone else did.
Contemptuous of Hollywood, all three of them attacked at once. Four rounds from the nail gun hit me in the shoulder, buloke bullets, two of which went straight through; the other two set my heart’s klaxon off again.
Nonetheless sly joy warmed me. Because they had no idea, these over-equipped hopefuls. They had no idea.
I had no idea.
The dark girl went past me towards Justine, and my lunge to intercept her took me off-balance. There ought to have been plenty of time. We ought to have been operating according to the usual farcical discrepancy. (I watch humans trying to kill me the way McEnroe watched Connors trying to play him in the ’84 Wimbledon final, with a sort of incredulous pity.) But that’s not the way it was. The way it was was that whoever these three were someone had used them to take combat training to a new level. I got the dark girl off her feet, yes, but not before taking a deep cut across the chest and four more rounds in my left leg. She got, kicking, away from me. I could smell Justine behind me. I ducked under the redhead’s sword and broke her left femur with a single chop (a haito uchi, to be precise. It was good to feel my assault options wide awake, restive; briefly brought back Atsutomo’s tra
The redhead speed-rolled away, still holding the sword. She had an intriguing Celtic face, broad-cheekboned and wide-mouthed, and the milky green eyes like a flash of faerie. Meantime I head-butted the guy from underneath, a sharp drive upward that cracked his bottom jaw (I heard the absurd clack of his teeth hitting each other) and snapped his neck back into his shoulders. He didn’t fall, but it was all the time I needed. I wrenched the stake from him and jabbed it hard and fast into his throat, felt the trachea’s cartilage split and three or four internal carotids rupture. The incorrigible bloodstink touched me, lewdly, but I was still full from Randolf. It brought a note of disgust, and in any case to drink again so soon would be dangerous. (Stake through the heart, beheading, fire—and overdose.) All the while some backroom boys of consciousness were going through the motions of wondering who these people were, but without much conviction: You’re a vampire. Someone’s always trying to kill you. After a while it doesn’t matter who or why—only that. The dark girl had got out of my sight. I let go of the guy, who dropped first to his knees then onto his side, both hands around the stake in his throat. He was making a depressing soft gargling sound. I was thinking—above or below or alongside the combat-maths—that Justine and I would have to use what remained of the night to Get Rid Of The Bodies and proof the room against the real world’s satirically unglamorous CSI squad. I turned to make sure she was all right—and a lignum vitae bolt hit me in the chest.
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan / Horror / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes