By blood we live, p.30
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       By Blood We Live, p.30

           Glen Duncan
 

  My condition.

  Twenty thousand years, you think you’ve seen it all.

  A lesson to be learned in choice of phrase. Because I hadn’t seen this. “This” was a farrago of booming symptoms, from the mild—hot head, peripheral vision trippily edged with cut-glass rainbows or fizzing pixels, pins and needles in my hands and feet—to the severe—sudden, coruscating attacks of thirst, hand-in-hand with boisterous nausea at the prospect of drinking. I hadn’t drunk. Not since Randolf, which seemed an age ago.

  All of which I could have borne, had it not been for the continual avalanches of memory. I’m used to flashes, firebombs, fugues of recollection. But these were inundations. Floods of memory that rose in me like dark hallucinogenic waters and threatened to cut off my air. Objects, people, places, snippets of conversation, vast, asphyxiating upwellings of unassimilable detail I had nonetheless to assimilate. Occasional thrust-forward pairings—a dusk view from the roof terrace of a Minoan temple I’d been particularly fond of rammed into my mind’s eye along with a Salvadoran family living room, all six members decapitated, their bodies like broken mannequins under an ecstatic chorus of flies. The massage room of gold-inlaid ebony at Xianyang Palace, the little masseuse who was Qin Shi Huang’s favourite, not only for her manual skills but for her seemingly inexhaustible fund of dirty jokes; this image manacled to a fair-haired drummer boy with a muddy face wandering in tears through the Hastings dead, suddenly screaming at the sight of a crow finnickily plucking out the eyeballs from an archer’s corpse. The Paris skyline, moonlit, with the Eiffel Tower half-built—cheek-by-jowl with the face of a Sumerian storyteller, brown and glossy as an oiled saddle, toothless and laughing in the firelight. The only consistent theme was dead friends. I saw Amlek staked in the Greek market square. The viscous black remnants of Mim’s corpse surrounded by gawping Hittites in torchlight. The photo of Oscar’s head on a pole shown to me by an SS officer in Berlin. Gabil leaving the cave and crawling towards the sunrise …

  This deluge, yes, the body’s logic going walkabout, yes—but through it all the thought that if anything had happened to Justine, if any harm had come to her it would be more than I could bear.

  “He should’ve stayed at the hotel,” Caleb said. I was, from time to time, so manifestly elsewhere that he’d started talking about me as if I were deaf.

  Mia didn’t answer. We’d pulled up in the Damien-sorted Transit van (rudimentary blackout facility; a sheet of hardboard sealing the back off from the windscreen) on the road at the bottom of the hill that led up to Duane Schrutt’s bungalow.

  “Stay in the van,” Mia told Caleb.

  He ignored her. Climbed out the passenger door, then stood looking as if he’d regretted it with the rain crashing straight down on him. The boy was woefully skinny. And would never, now, fatten up. The rain woke me, slightly, forced a welcome hiatus. Gold jugs and night skies and Kojak and neoned Cadillacs and swarming starlings and slumbering camels and Shakespeare passed out with his (not bald) head on a tavern table and the floodlit Statue of Liberty and Farrah Fawcett’s smile that always looked a little as if there were two invisible fingers tucked into each cheek, tugging, and wind simmering in dark prairie grass and a Russian peasant village softly illumined by thigh-deep scintillating snow … All this and a million things more momentarily subsided. To return, I knew.

  “Are you all right?” Mia said. “Can you …?”

  Stand. Can you stand. Since I was not, truth be told, doing a very convincing job. I summoned my will. And though summoning it was like trying to lift a piano with broken wrists did, eventually, get vertical. Straightened my spine. Tipped my head back and let the rain fall full into my face for a few moments. It helped. Don’t think about it. Concentrate on getting this done.

  Don’t think about what? Knowing you know something without knowing what it is?

  “I’m fine,” I said. “Let’s go. I can feel her. She’s close.”

  She was in Schrutt’s bedroom, hunched up against the wall under a garish matador-and-bull in oils, knees under her chin, arms wrapped around her shins, staring into space. Her face and chest were covered in blood. She looked like something out of a horror movie. A slasher movie, in fact. Which of course was what she was.

  “It didn’t happen to him,” she said, apparently not the least surprised to see us. Her dark eyes were raw and lovely. “I looked in him. It happened to Leath, but it didn’t happen to him.”

  I went to her. No-fool-like-an-old-fool tears welling. Whatever it was (I knew what it was; it didn’t need telepathy) it had broken her into enlargement. When I touched her shoulder I felt all her past shrivelling, becoming hard and not quite negligible. Not quite. I was so happy she was alive. I don’t know why I’d been so certain she’d be dead. There had been such a feeling of death.

  “Come on, angel, let’s go. Let’s leave this now.” It was a pure pleasure, like falling snow in a forest, to find her physically intact. All her precious details. Thank you, I thought. Thank you, thank you.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

  It wasn’t addressed to me. It was addressed to herself. To her old self, for whom revenge had not been sweet but a sad education.

  I put my arms around her, held her close for a moment. My body’s exhaustion and throb were signals coming from a padded cell a thousand miles away.

  “We need to get out of here,” Mia said. Caleb was, I knew, feeling the awkwardness of his juvenile form afresh. As a vampire he was older than Justine, but he’d always look like a child to her. His energies of self-consciousness were live, a troubled little heat in the room.

  “We need to go,” Mia said. She was wonderfully calm.

  But Justine put her head on my shoulder, and did not cry, and for a few moments there was nothing, just the peace of holding her, alive, close, real. Caleb was poking around the room. He picked up the laptop.

  “Don’t look at that,” Justine said.

  “What?”

  “Don’t. Please. Please leave it.”

  Caleb looked at Mia.

  “Please,” Justine repeated.

  Caleb put the laptop back on the floor.

  “Are you ready?” I said to Justine. Schrutt was still flailing in her. I could feel him. She hadn’t needed to drink. She’d drunk without the thirst. The blood, therefore, was fighting her. Sitting still was the worst thing she could do. You have to move. Expend energy to encourage the conversion, to force it through.

  “My legs feel weak,” Justine said. “I’m sorry, Fluff. All this trouble for you.”

  I kissed her forehead and put my arm around her waist to help her get to her feet.

  Which was when I realised I couldn’t get to mine.

  73

  Talulla

  MOONRISE WAS CLOSE. I sat on my bed in the paradisal bathrobe, and even its soft fibres were a torturous abrasion. I thought of poor Lorcan and the trouble his body (not to mention whatever was going on in his head) gave him in the lead-up to Transformation. Zoë was, for now, without discernible side-effects or symptoms, but what if that didn’t last? As far as I understood it they were the first natural born werewolves in history. What if puberty inaugurated a whole new phase? What if adolescence had a bag of hormonal tricks ready for them that would make my monthly tribulations look like afternoon tea?

  You might not want it for yourself, but you’ll want it for your children.

  When I’d asked to speak to Devaz, earlier, Olek had shaken his head. “I’m sorry, but I’ve given Christopher a sedative,” he said. “He’s getting cabin fever, poor chap. He’ll be awake soon enough.”

  My strategist was still bullshit-testing his every utterance, but it wasn’t any use. Aside from Olek’s unreadability, I was finding it impossible to stay sharp. From the moment I’d arrived and sat down in the library it was as if I’d been breathing a tranquilizer that added a layer of numbness with every inhalation. There was a peculiar inevitability to everything I did, as if the air around me was
gently coercing my movements, from raising the Macallan to climbing the stairs to labouring through “Childe Roland” last night. I couldn’t shake the poem. It was like a maddening soft mental loop: The Dark Tower is the end … The point of getting to the end is to realise you’ve got to the end … The quest has no purpose … The Dark Tower is the end … The end is the fulfilment … My first thought was, he lied in every word …

  There was a knock at the door.

  “Are you ready?” Olek asked, when I opened it. He’d changed out of the casuals into a dusk blue linen suit and pale green cheesecloth shirt. Excitement was pushing his odour out again. Less than comfortably bearable, with my girl so close to the surface. He saw me draw back in spite of myself.

  “Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. I’ll meet you in the garden, shall I?”

  The door to the library was open. Konstantinov and Natasha were on the couch, listening to Bach’s cello suites. She was lying with her bare feet in his lap, his hands caressing her, idly. They had between them that vague, delighted pity for the rest of the world, for not having this love. They both turned and looked at me, Natasha with silent enquiry: You okay?

  I nodded. You forget what you’re nodding in affirmation of. Yes, I’m fine. Just the usual pre-murder nonsense. I was more than usually divided. The hunger was there, of course, tympanic in the blood, severity doubled by last month’s half-feed, and wulf’s anticipation was a bump-and-grind go-go dancer under my skin. But my human self was still there, heavy, static, uncharacteristically sick of itself. Conscience was there, too, withered, leprous, dragging itself along in my wake, unable to do anything but repeat that this was disgusting and I should be ashamed—but it wasn’t conscience troubling me. It was tiredness. The human tiredness of knowing your life was only going to get harder. Your life and the lives of your children.

  In the garden, Olek stood leaning against the big blue sculpture, smoking. He straightened, smiling, when he saw me. The moon was two minutes below the horizon. The bathrobe might as well have been crawling with lice or lined with barbed wire. One of my vertebrae bulged and subsided. The nerves in my fingers and toes coiled and jerked. I staggered two paces—thought I was going to fall—then righted myself.

  “You’ll find what you need just beyond the banyans there,” Olek said. “But there’s no hurry. Please take your time.” He was full of excitement that manifested itself as rich physical calm. He couldn’t keep the smile from his face. He had a terrible seductive self-delighted energy. “When you’re ready,” he continued, “come back to the house and make your way down through the lab to the lowest level, as per yesterday, and along to Christopher’s cell. There you will find me as good as my word. He will be human. All too human, as the phrase is.” He dropped the cigarette and stubbed it out with the toe of his shoe. “I’ll leave you now,” he said.

  None too soon.

  Ten paces from the banyan trees he’d indicated I tore off the bathrobe and dropped to all-fours. Big red-petalled flowers brushed my shoulders and breasts. The earth was warm and ringing under me. Wulf stopped its epileptic burlesque and turned to fluid forces that yanked my bones and rent my tissues. Ran its hand down my spine as with a showy pianist’s frill. What felt like two huge bubble-wrap bubbles popped in my knees. The monster’s head fought its way jerkily into mine—that moment when you think your skin will tear, has to tear—and I felt the skull’s blunt compression and leap as the canines burst the gums and my hot tongue swelled. A brief, shocking pain in my left wrist as ulna and radius got out of sync. Then the claws all at once, a collective shout for joy at the ends of fingers and toes. Five seconds for the last expansions, consciousness forced through a dark, tight funnel into shocking rebirth.

  You’ll find what you need.

  And so I did.

  He was perhaps nineteen or twenty, naked, slumped semi-conscious at the base of a young tree, around which his hands had been tied. I took him quickly. The drug—and the hunger’s urgency—spared him a deal of suffering. It was a wretched feed. Last month’s aborted kill had left wulf desperate, and the desperation made me rush. Past dalliance, past play, past the all but unbearable delight of making it last, of seeing him seeing it, what was about to happen, what was happening. Instead I slit his throat and dropped like a stalled jet straight down into the blood and meat dark, ate greedily, barely felt the fragments of his life—a fishing boat, his mother’s small face and missing front tooth, the warm air flowing over him, coasting down a sun-blasted street on a bike, his hand on a market girl’s bare breast, the days and days of sunlight on the water and the slap against the hull and the good feel of the warm wooden gunwale and the wind grabbing the smoke from his cigarette and the thrum of exhaustion in his calves and shoulders and wrists—before the hunger was an aching satiation and I had to stop, stop because soon it would become sickness and part of me wanted it, to push through into disgust, because everything had gone wrong and I was lost and the world was onto us and what do I do except break good men’s hearts and fail my children and what am I other than a dirty, filthy little girl who no matter what she gets is never satisfied?

  The sky was clear. The garden winked and glimmered with impassive sentience, spoke the merry silence where God’s judgement ought to be. I stood by the sculpture and let the fat moon’s light bathe me. It doesn’t wash clean. Let my breathing slow. Let the taken life find its confused way to the calling chorus of my swallowed dead.

  Then I went back into the house.

  “Go and look,” Olek said, outside the door to the room with the one-way glass. “So you know it works.”

  It surprised me that he was willing to be alone with me. His species stink, to my nose now, was dark and thick, threatened to unsettle my sated guts.

  I pointed. You first. Konstantinov and Natasha were at the top of the stairs, but deep instinct said caution. He understood. Nodded, went in ahead of me. I had to duck my head to follow him. My transformed dimensions made the small room smaller—and jammed his scent up against me.

  “As you see,” Olek said.

  Devaz was sitting on his bunk with his knees up, head bowed. Unchanged. Untransformed. Human.

  “How do you feel, Christopher?” Olek said into the intercom.

  Devaz raised his head. His eyes were raw, but apart from that he looked completely normal. He shouldn’t. He should look just like me. For a moment I wondered if the vampire had found a way of insulating a room against the effects of the moon. But I’d been deep underground myself, on more than one occasion. It hadn’t made any difference.

  “Let me out of here,” Devaz said. He still sounded exhausted.

  Olek ignored the request. He released the speak button and turned to me. “Well?” he said. “Are you impressed?”

  I didn’t respond. Just ducked back out of the doorway. He followed.

  “It’ll be tedious for you if I explain how it works now. You’ll have questions, for which, obviously, you’ll require your regular vocal skills. So in the meantime, rest, digest, consider. My home is your home, and your friends are here. Please, after you.”

  Back in the hallway above ground, he lit another cigarette. “If you prefer to be outdoors,” he said, “feel free. There isn’t another property for a couple of miles around. You won’t be disturbed. And don’t worry about the mess. It’ll be taken care of. I have some work to do downstairs, but get your friends to let me know if there’s anything else you need.”

  I did spend the night in the garden. Stuffed, objectlessly angry, going into and out of sadness. When I thought about Walker. When I thought about the future. When I thought about my kids.

  74

  Justine

  I’D SEEN HIM like this before. After London. After Crete. After Talulla. His head was hot. His limbs felt swollen. His breath stank. In and out of consciousness, and when he was in, making no sense. No strength in him. You could see the effort it was just for him to raise a hand. He couldn’t lift his head.

  “We have to
get him into the hotel,” Mia said. “We can’t spend daylight in here with him like this.”

  In the Transit van, she meant, which is where we were. Where we’d had to carry him from Schrutt’s villa. We’d pulled over halfway to the airport because suddenly he’d half sat up and seemed to be trying to vomit. But nothing had come up. Just him spasming, like someone was repeatedly punching him in the guts. There were three hours of daylight left. I was getting better at being able to tell without a watch.

  “What’s happening to him?” I asked. “Is this something that happens?”

  Mia shook her head. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. “I don’t know any more than you.”

  It was weird, us feeling each other out, mentally. I’d got enough from Stonker through the confusion of those first moments when they came in—FRIENDS. DON’T BE AFRAID. TRUST—but we were all still testing and pulling back. She’d put a screen up, eventually, but sort of politely, as in, There’s enough going on here. Let’s just talk. The kid was wide open, but I let him alone. I didn’t even know if I could screen.

  I wasn’t feeling good myself. Shouldn’t have drunk when I didn’t need to. I hadn’t needed to. But I’d had to. The air in the back of the van was heated by Fluff’s body going crazy. The kid, Caleb, had got out and was smoking a cigarette. He was quiet, freaked out, fascinated. He could feel how new I was.

  “He was sick like this two years ago,” I said. “When he went looking for … He went looking for a werewolf.”

  “Talulla,” Mia said.

  “You know?”

  She smiled, without any pleasure. “It’s a long story,” she said. “And irrelevant. Enough that I know who she is.”

  “He thinks she’s …” I stopped, didn’t know how much he’d want me to say. But her face told me she was picking up the gist anyway. Obviously I couldn’t screen. She felt me thinking how dumb and fucked-up it was. He thinks she’s the reincarnation of his dead lover. I could feel her mental reflex, too, to dismiss it as bullshit. As mumbo-jumbo. As a fairy story. But then immediately the reflex to that, too, as in, Who the fuck were we to dismiss fairy stories?

 
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