By blood we live, p.34
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       By Blood We Live, p.34

           Glen Duncan
 

  “Where is he?” I said.

  “Ah, you’re awake,” he said. “You slept very long, my girl.”

  “Where is he?”

  He paused, and though his smile didn’t shift I could tell he was put-out by my manners. I wondered how old he was. Whether manners would still matter to me in a thousand years. Every time I thought about the time ahead it was like the last few paces before plunging off a cliff into total darkness.

  “He’s with Talulla,” he said. “They have …” he laughed, “gone out.”

  “Where?”

  “I’m afraid I don’t know. But I can tell you he was manifestly much better. I do wish everyone would stop being so hysterical.”

  “What do you mean? Was he all right?”

  He closed the book he was reading and got to his feet. I thought: He’s only being nice to me because he’s scared of Fluff. He’d have ripped my head off by now, otherwise.

  He went to the window and looked out. Dawn couldn’t be more than an hour away. I couldn’t believe I’d slept so long. Almost the whole night.

  “Let me give you the full state of play,” Olek said. “Your maker has absconded I know not where with Miss Demetriou. You’ll have to fill me in on what’s going on there, I might add. Mia and Caleb fed from my larder when they woke several hours ago and went out to enjoy the night. I expect them back momentarily. Our Russian lovebirds, infected by the same anxiety that has you in its grip, dashed off in search of Talulla. Now, are you content? Can I offer you anything?”

  “Which way did they go?”

  He sighed. Put his hands in his pockets. “Second star to the right, straight on till morning,” he said. “You know, considering the openness of my home, considering the hospitality … Ah, well. I really don’t have a clue. They left from Talulla’s window, if that’s any help, but beyond that I’m no wiser than you. You’re very young. I forget. You’ll live in a world I can’t imagine. How sad everything turns out to be.”

  I went to the door.

  “I wouldn’t wander too far, little cat,” he called after me. “Sunrise in one hour and thirty-six minutes.”

  But I was already running.

  Not that I knew where to go. I went down the driveway to see if I could pick up his scent—or hers. But they were too long gone. Or I just wasn’t good enough yet to catch it.

  Then I saw the guy with the binoculars.

  He was standing a hundred metres away at the side of the road with his back to me, but even in silhouette he looked vaguely familiar. The shape of his head, the big rounded shoulders. I imagined a paunch. He was wearing dark combat fatigues. He looked weirdly wrong in them. There was an automatic rifle slung across his back, holsters on either hip. As far as I could see he was alone. But seeing had nothing to do with it. I knew there would be others.

  It would take a matter of seconds to get back to the house and tell Olek. But for all I knew Olek was in on it. Whatever it was. Whatever this was.

  Whatever this was, it was nothing good.

  Don’t kill him. Get him to talk. You need to know how many are with him, where they are.

  Oh God, Fluff, please be all right …

  Silence was like something that came out of my body. It was so easy to move through the trees without making a sound. In spite of everything there was still the thrill of the huge gap between what I was capable of and what he was. A human. Humans. Fluff used to use the word with me as if I wasn’t one. As a joke. Not a joke anymore. The darkness was tense around me. Tense because it knew we didn’t have much time.

  I drew parallel with the armed man. It was as if the jungle was dying to tell him I was there, but knew it wasn’t allowed to. I’d reach him in a single leap. I could imagine what it would look like as a scene in a movie. They’d shoot it from the other side of the road: him in profile, looking through the night-vision binoculars; the wall of dark lush trees beyond him; me suddenly bursting out, the curve of my jump, the second of pure silence. Then contact.

  It was all there in my haunches and bent knees. The way the distance between us would become nothing. I flexed my fingers.

  At which moment he lowered the binoculars—and I saw the surgical dressing across his nose.

  It was the guy from the Sofitel lobby in Bangkok.

  I guess it might have made a difference if I hadn’t hesitated just then, my mind racing backwards to try to make the connection, figure out who the fuck he was, why he was following me or even if he was following me—it might have made a difference, I don’t know.

  What I do know is that I straightened up when I recognised him.

  Which meant the first half-dozen wooden bullets went through my guts instead of my heart.

  87

  Talulla

  WHEN I OPENED my eyes, the stars were faint and different. Too much time had passed. He was asleep, but woke when I shook him. I watched him go from complete blankness—no idea where he was, when it was, who he was—through the shockingly reassembled history. Three blinks, four, five, the last hours coming back to him in a series of explosions. I thought: He shouldn’t have been asleep. That’s not normal for him.

  My voice, when I spoke, sounded alien, as if I were hearing it with my ears blocked. I said: “It’s late. We … You have to get back.”

  The gentle abrasions of dressing. I had a humble gratitude for my body, its finite uniqueness, fingerprints, lips, nipples, eyelashes. I thought: That’s the gift the void gives you, the knowledge, when you come back, of how good it is to be mortal flesh and blood. We didn’t speak. He was busy with his own confused enrichment. It would take three or four more times before we could begin to talk about it, about how it was. The filament-ghost, desperate to resume normality, desperate to establish that nothing had changed, offered things like So, was it worth the wait? Or You sure you haven’t been practising? There would be time for playfulness, for bringing it gently into language, but it wasn’t now. Now there was just the big raw darkness, the new reality, the changed world. There would be time for everything. There would be time.

  And the fear, like a whispering virus, that I was wrong. That whatever this meant to me it meant something different to him.

  On the way down the hill, he collapsed. His legs went out from under him. He got up straight away, with jittery, unnatural speed.

  “Are you all right?” I said.

  He smiled. Took my hand and drew me gently to him. Put his arms around me. Held me. I didn’t know why I was crying. But there was the feeling of fracture in my chest. The mental doors were open again. The whole dreary mob of questions free to enter. Yet now they were, they didn’t. They stayed put, staring, confused, as if they’d just received news of their own collective pointlessness. As if the monster they’d come to kill had turned out to be already dead.

  “Come on,” I said. “We have to move.” It pressed on the fracture, that I was the one bothered about how late it was. I knew I could go on getting him to do things, for a while, but not forever. There was a simplicity and calm in him that I worried would get away from me, eventually.

  The real world reimposed itself by degrees, via the sound of our tread through the grass, the receding simmer of the trees, the crickets, the soft whir of a bat. (The filament-ghost was waxing, too, a little vengefully: A bat! Ha!) He still hadn’t spoken. It was as if some huge, peaceful mathematical problem was working itself out in his head. He didn’t have to do anything. Just watch it resolve.

  I was thinking I should drive, but when we got to the BMW he took the wheel. I didn’t remember the way, anyway, and it was hard to imagine him calling directions out of his trance. The car’s interior smelled good, new leather and vinyl and carpet. It said continuity, the human determination to keep making things possible. Which pressed the fracture again, the thought of how long that had been going on, and how the word “human” had separated itself from me. How I’d lost my entitlement to it. There was a sadness to the little facts of the key in the ignition, the sound of the engine sta
rting, the lights suddenly wrecking the privacy of the dust and the tarmac and the pale dry grass.

  88

  Justine

  I WOKE TO loud birdsong and the sweet smell of blood. For a moment I couldn’t understand the sudden tip and swing and gravity all wrong—then I realised someone was lifting me over their shoulder. When I opened my eyes, not just sight but all my other senses seemed to rush into a kind of focus. Daylight was close. I was looking down past whoever’s back and legs these were onto the bloodstained forest floor. A pulled-off human arm lay there. Combat fatigues. Militi Christi. I lifted my head (not easy) and looked around. Bodies and body parts. Impossible to tell straight off how many. Half a dozen at least.

  “Put me down,” I said.

  “She’s awake,” Caleb said.

  “I can walk. Seriously. Put me down.”

  Mia bent forward and I slid to my feet.

  “We have to hurry,” she said. “You sure you can walk?”

  “We have to find him,” I said. “He’s out there somewhere.”

  “There’s no time,” Mia said. Her aura was still thrumming from what had happened. There were two faint pink flushes under her blue eyes. In the seconds when the first bullets had hit me I’d thought: And still you’re stupid, stupid, stupid. They’d seemed to come from every direction at once. I’d gone into a kind of dream. Killed two of them without even really being aware of it. A confusion with bits of detail. My fingernails going clean through a guy’s throat. A young woman’s silver crucifix and neckchain flying through the gloom. Caleb’s little voice going: Fucking hell. The sound of Mia snapping a neck. I’d never seen anyone move that fast. One guy’s head had come off with a terrible wet tearing noise, her pale hand wrapped in his hair. The bullets had hurt like hell. A dozen tiny explosions in my gut, three or four in my left leg. I remembered a bolt going like a line of fire through my left arm. The wood in your flesh made your heart suddenly like a buried alive person trying to pound her way out of a coffin.

  “Easy,” Mia said, when I took a couple of steps and nearly went over. “Easy.”

  “The guy with the binoculars,” I said. “Did we get him?”

  “He got in a car,” Caleb said. “I said we should’ve gone after him.”

  “If they know about us, they know about Remshi. We can’t leave him out there!”

  “There’s no time,” Mia said. “Minutes. We go now or we die. And I have no intention of dying.”

  She was right. The sun was close. I could feel it like a wall of sound, rising. My body screamed the need to get underground. It feels like all your cells or molecules or whatever are pulling, billions of little creatures straining at the leash.

  “If they find him, they’ll kill him,” I said. “In his state … In his …” But it was no good. Mia was already thirty feet away. Caleb was tugging at my sleeve. His pale hands were covered in blood. I felt sick. The sun was so close.

  “Come on,” Caleb said, pulling me almost off my feet. “Why are you crying?”

  I went quicker with every step. My wounds rushing to heal themselves were like things quietly chattering. In spite of everything there was a sort of sick pleasure in knowing that when I woke I’d be good as new. Good as new and wide awake in a world where the only person I’d ever loved might be gone forever.

  89

  Talulla

  THE CAR BRAKING woke me.

  No memory of falling asleep.

  I opened my eyes to see him staring at something up ahead. A person. An old man dressed in layers of ragged clothes, leaning on a crutch, roadside, just at the edge of the headlights’ reach.

  “What?” I said.

  He didn’t answer, but I felt his aura gone suddenly rich. The old man—dark-skinned, filthily bearded, with one completely bloodshot eye—shifted his weight onto his good leg and raised his crutch, as if pointing to something. He was smiling. I thought: Does he want a ride? What is this?

  But he lowered the crutch, turned, and limped away into the darkness.

  “What is it?” I asked again.

  “That hoary cripple,” he said, and laughed.

  “What?”

  He sat, smiling, both hands on the wheel, staring out of the windscreen. He looked bright with tiredness.

  “What did you say?”

  The headlights of another car came bumping towards us. The road was wide enough—just—for it to pass. A Land Rover with mirrored windows.

  He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t looked at the Land Rover. I knew if I asked him he might not even have registered it, though it had gone by with only inches to spare. He was still busy with what looked like a kind of empty delight.

  “Hey,” I said, putting my hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”

  But he just put the car in gear and eased it forward until we were more or less level with where the old man had been standing. There was a narrow road off to the left. The old man had been pointing it out.

  “Is this the way?” I said. The fracture in my chest swelled again. I felt afraid, though I didn’t know of what. “Is this the way back?” The sky definitely wasn’t wholly dark anymore.

  “I think it might be,” he said. “Yes.”

  The road wound between shaggy, unidentifiable trees for a couple hundred metres, then narrowed into a sandy track not wide enough for the vehicle.

  “This isn’t the way back,” I said. There was a searing distance and closeness between us.

  “It’s all right,” he said. “It’ll be all right.”

  The smell of the ocean hit me as soon as he opened the door. Not just the smell. I had a sickening sense of its size and depth and darkness. Its weight. I thought of a black, rusty container big enough to hold all of it, how big that would be, how awful it would be to climb up and look over the edge into it. All the billions of fish in there, sharks, wrecks. The tiny fleck of Cloquet’s rotting body.

  “This isn’t right,” I said. “This is crazy. Look at the sky.” I was full of frantic weakness, legs, wrists, hands. I’d thought the invisible coercive choreographer had drawn off. But it hadn’t.

  “We need to turn around,” I said. “Right now.”

  But he was already moving.

  “Wait. Wait! Fuck.”

  I went after him. He was following the track, which broke first into bits of knolly, long-grassed turf, then soft sand dunes that eventually flattened into the beach. It was like entering a vast empty amphitheatre. The water was dark in the twilight, though every time a wave broke on the shore its pale foam ruff morphed out of the gloom.

  He took his shoes off. Smiled when his toes gripped the sand. “That’s good,” he said. “One forgets the goodness of these things.”

  I looked out over the black water. It was lighter on the horizon.

  “Let’s walk a little,” he said. His voice sounded small in the big space of the beach.

  “Why are you doing this?” I said, though I thought I knew. Soft invisible weights slipped from me with every step. The lightness when they’d gone would be unbearable. Unbearable. There was a line in one of Jake’s journals: The word “unbearable” makes a liar of you—unless it’s followed by suicide.

  “I’ve been dreaming of this place,” he said, after we’d walked a little way. The sound of the waves was a steady, benevolent depletion. Every one subtracted something. Repeated, painful acts of mercy. “Being in this place with someone.”

  The breeze blew his hair back a little. His dark eyes were big and bright.

  “So have I,” I said, though saying it made my mouth feel defeated.

  “I read somewhere that only the dead understand their dreams,” he said.

  “Why did you say that about the old man? Why did you call him that?”

  He shook his head, smiling again. Happy incredulity. At himself. At how he’d missed something so obvious. “ ‘My first thought was, he lied in every word,’ ” he recited:

  That hoary cripple, with malicious eye

  Askance to watch the wor
kings of his lie

  On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford

  Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored

  Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

  “I know that,” I said. Another soft weight dropped from me. Another mouth-defeat. “It’s from ‘Childe Roland.’ I just read it, here at Olek’s.”

  He nodded. Smiled again. Unsurprised. I looked east. The twilight was paling.

  “ ‘Yet acquiescingly,’ ” he continued,

  I did turn as he pointed: neither pride

  Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,

  So much as gladness that some end might be.

  “But of course—”

  His legs gave way again. I helped him up. I could feel the warmth of what had gone into me from him in my loins. I wondered if I was pregnant again. The thought hurt me with a stab of premature loss.

  “Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

  “Please let’s go back. Please.”

  “What I was going to say was: But of course it’s not a lie, is it? ‘The workings of his lie’? Because the old man really does point the way. The road he shows really does lead to the Dark Tower.”

  “You don’t have to do this.”

  “In the dream,” he said, “I always saw this twilight as just after sunset. Didn’t you?”

  I didn’t want to answer. Every answer, everything I said or did would shed another of the soft weights. Out of disgust, I forced myself. “Yes,” I said.

  “But that was the wrong twilight, wasn’t it? One forgets there are two. One forgets so many obvious things.”

  Twenty paces on, the dunes and broken turf on our right gave way to dark rock. Cold came from it. Touched all the exposed parts of me from which the soft weights had gone. And there, of course, adding its own innocent portion to the dreary, deadening déjà vu, was the little rowboat.

  He went to it and began pulling away the seaweed.

  “You don’t have to do this,” I repeated. Saying it was perverse proof of its own falsehood.

 
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