By blood we live, p.6
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       By Blood We Live, p.6
 

           Glen Duncan

  “What?” Walker said, when I arrived, hot, at the top of the stairs. He was standing—also naked—in our bedroom doorway, scratching his lean belly. Lycanthropy hasn’t touched his human charms, green-eyed dark blond boyishness, the look of readiness to laugh at himself. (I’ve wondered when it was I first saw the finiteness of us, us as a specific portion of wealth to be gone through. Maybe from the beginning. Certainly from the night two years back when the vampire came to call. The vampire came to call and left behind him spores of sadness, irritation, desire.) Beyond Walker the curtained window was an oblong of sunlight. The room had the fatigued smell of the night’s drunk and silently argumentative sex, shot through with the ribald stink of our share in imminent wulf.

  “Lula?”

  I ignored him and went straight to the twins next door. Zoë and Lorcan were both in their beds, sleeping, Lorcan (whose pre-transformation symptoms were getting worse: nightmares, tantrums, a shocking malice towards everyone except his sister) with unchildlike composure, arms by his sides, Zoë with hers up above her head, as if someone had just relieved her of a little dumbbell. Both here. Both safe. Thank God. Gods. Ex-gods. Nothingness.

  “Stay with them,” I told Walker, unnecessarily, since species telepathy was giving him the gist. He grabbed a Beretta from under our mattress and went to the window between the children’s beds, cracked it an inch to check for scent, peeked round the edge of the curtain for a sweep of the back garden. Throbbing blue sky and an anarchy of birdsong. All clear. He nodded: I’ve got this. Be careful. I clamped the phone between my shoulder and chin (thinking, since consciousness can’t help it: violinists must really fuck their necks up), pulled on last night’s jeans and shirt and plucked the Smith & Wesson from my purse.

  “Who is this?” I said into the phone. “Answer me or I’m hanging up right now.” In the old life I would’ve been wondering how a stranger had got my number. Not anymore. Privacy’s an illusion. In my world it’s always only a matter of time. Yours too, if you want the truth.

  “My name is Olek,” he said. “I’m a vampire—but please try not to hold that against me. I’m not your enemy. I have a mutually beneficial business proposal I’d like to discuss.”

  I was hurrying on tense bare feet back down the stairs, hugging the wall. Kept hugging it all the way to the locked front door, which was oak, thick enough, I reminded myself, to stop a bullet, silver or otherwise. The Jiffy bag was addressed simply to “Talulla” in black italic marker. Neat, perfectly straight printing.

  “Do you have the package?” he said.

  “Do you seriously think I’m just going to pick it up and open it?”

  A pause. A cigarette being lit. Again the image of Omar Sharif, the cuboid head and plump black eyes and gap-toothed smile. “Well,” he said, exhaling. “I’ll leave that to you. I imagine your instincts are good. Consult them. It’s not a bomb, or silver, or anything that will do you or anyone you love any kind of harm. I can only give you my word, but believe me, I’m old enough for that to mean something. If it helps I can tell you it’s a document. One Jake would have wanted you to see.”

  Lucy and Trish had appeared at the top of the stairs, Lucy in a pale green silk nightie, Trish in boy-cut panties and Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt. Both slapped awake by my fear. Cloquet, my familiar and the only human member of the household, hadn’t stirred.

  A document. One Jake would have wanted you to see. Jake Marlowe. My ex. My late ex. My late werewolf ex. The love against which all others were measured. Ask Walker.

  “Take your time,” Olek said. “I’m not going anywhere. In the package you’ll find a note from me and a number to call when you’re ready to talk. And again, I swear to you: you have nothing to fear.”

  The line went dead.

  Look at her, I imagined my Aunt Theresa saying, disgusted. She’s excited. Like when the Twin Towers went down. Like with the riots in those ugly English towns. She sees another serial killer victim in the newspaper and it gives her a sick thrill. She’s not normal. (Well, Aunt, no, she’s not. Not now.)

  “What the fuck?” Trish said, starting down the stairs. At twenty-four she’s the youngest of the pack, not counting the twins. Short, punkily chopped maroon hair and big green eyes and a supple little body full of delighted and occasionally catastrophic energy. I motioned her to stay put. Caught myself thinking: It doesn’t look like a bomb—followed immediately by the admission that aside from cartoons and war footage I had no clue what a bomb looked like. For all I knew they could be making them the size of postage stamps these days. A werewolf can survive a lot of damage, but I doubted I’d come back from being blown to pieces. I had a vivid image of myself in bits, one severed hand walking on its fingers to find my eyeballs, a doomed attempt to put myself back together. Like the beginning of Iron Man. Or that scene in The Thing. Or was it The Faculty? Whatever it was it was like something I’d already seen. Four hundred more years of things being like other things you’d already seen. The effort finding the new would demand. I could see how Jake ended up the way he had: tired. Ready for death. Until he found love. At which point death was ready for him.

  “Who was that?” Lucy asked, holding her elbows, hip bones pressing against the pale green silk of her nightie. She’s an angle-poise Englishwoman of forty-three with dark auburn bangs and a broad delicate freckled face which in the absence of make-up her features are in danger of dissolving into. She would have been voted by all her (Cheltenham Ladies’ College) school friends pupil least likely to become a werewolf. I’ve seen her punch through a man’s sternum, rip out his heart and gobble it in two bloody bites. It’s quite something to be able to say that and not be speaking figuratively.

  “Lu?” she said, since I remained static, staring at the package. “Who was that on the phone?”

  “A vampire,” I said. “Nobody do anything for a minute. We need to think about this.”

  12

  SOMETHING LIKE THIS happens and you realise you’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. It turns out things can’t go on as they have been and you admit you’d been thinking things couldn’t go on as they had been. At which point you can yield or fight. Wars start like this. Cultures gamble decadence and death will win them rebirth, watch themselves sliding into it, knowing it’s an all-or-nothing bet. Last night I’d felt Walker thinking, while I changed positions so we wouldn’t be face to face: Why are you wrecking this a little more every day?

  Half an hour after the call I sat on the bottom stair, smoking a Camel, alone. The Jiffy bag remained where it had dropped on the doormat. The hallway was still and cool and delicately conscious: white floorboards; round convex mirror; hat stand. I’d sent the household—Cloquet, Lucy, Trish and the twins (Lorcan protesting, violently rejecting every adult’s helping hands)—out to what I judged safe distance at the bottom of the back garden seventy metres away. Walker had tried to stay with me. A calm argument, same outcome every time: No. It’s got my name on it. Whatever it is I’m not exposing anyone else. Certainly not you. And besides … No need to complete the sentence. And besides, if I get blown up, who else will take care of the kids? He wasn’t their father (that would be the late Jake Marlowe) but he was the closest thing they had to one. That love had knit easily, even if ours hadn’t. It was a deep pleasure to me to watch them with him, clambering, pestering, yanking his hand to come and look at something. They didn’t call him Dad. They called him—as everyone did, including me—Walker.

  I’m a vampire—but please try not to hold that against me.

  Species enmity. Mutually Assured Detestation at the cellular level. To the werewolf the vampire smells, as Jake was wont to put it, like a vat of pigshit and rotten meat. God only knows what our kind smells like to theirs. But circumstances had forced me to spend time close to them. Two years ago a lunatic vampire religious sect kidnapped my son for use in an idiotic ritual. In the struggle to get him back I was captured, incarcerated and tortured, not by vamps, but by the all too human WOCOP (Worl
d Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena); one of my fellow inmates was a vampire boy, Caleb, Turned when he was twelve years old. For the first twenty-four hours in prison the stink of each other had made us both violently sick. But over time the effect had lessened.

  And then of course there was the other vampire. Yes. The one who’d been watching me in Alaska the night I gave birth to the twins. The one who’d come to see me, briefly, two years ago, then disappeared. The one who’d been alive, allegedly (hard to think this with a straight face; to think it was to more or less dismiss it), for twenty thousand years. The one who, according to (his own) ancient prophecy, would reach apotheosis when—and I quote, kidding you not—“he joined the blood of the werewolf.”

  The one I couldn’t get out of my head.

  Remshi.

  I’d dreamed about him last night. Again. Always the same dream: Impossible protracted transcendent sex that morphed into the two of us walking on a beach at twilight. With a feeling of seeing the dismal punchline of a long-winded joke.

  For a moment on the phone I’d thought it was him. But the voice was different. I remembered his voice very clearly. I remembered all of him very clearly, skin the colour of milky coffee, dark eyes and unkempt hair, an expression of chimpish mischief, battered clothes, the look of having just done five thousand miles on a motorbike. Beautiful hands and filthy fingernails. (What are you thinking about? Walker still annoyingly asked. Too easy lately to lie. A couple of times, fascinated by my knack for casual bankruptcy, I’d answered, “Jake.” Which did its job. Closed the subject. For a while. Walker loves me but the in-awe days are over. Sooner or later he’ll get tired of ghosts. Or shadows. Or secrets. Or the growing conviction that not all of me belongs to him, and never will. The lover’s tragedy and triumph, Jake wrote, is that he is always bigger than love. So is she, Jacob. So is she.)

  The hallway held its portion of light and silence very still.

  Cognitive dissonance because a Jiffy bag on the doormat in the old life meant a gift, an Amazon order, Greek sweets from my dad.

  I’ll finish this cigarette, then I’ll open it.

  I finished the cigarette.

  There was no decision. In the abstracted way of these things I found myself getting to my bare feet (toenails last night painted L’Oreal “Scarlet Vamp,” since there’s no end to one’s tawdry acts of self-collusion), walking the dozen paces, bending, and, with only the slightest delirium in my fingertips, picking up the packet.

  Not heavy.

  A book?

  In a few seconds of near complete blankness I tore it open.

  A book.

  Diary, rather. Old-fashioned. And in fact old. Soft pale calfskin stained and scratched, damp-buckled pages with green marbling. A gap between the last sheet and the back cover said some were missing. Exposed binding where the excision had been made. My nose expected mould, the sour of old leather. Instead got pharmacy. Medicine. Chemical.

  A document Jake would have wanted you to see.

  For a few moments I stood there on mindless pause.

  Then all my abstractedness shrank back to sudden, tight, bristling consciousness. My skin livened. I was very aware of the dimensions my body occupied, standing in the hall, the villa, the town, the hills, boot-shaped Italy, the big aching curve of the planet, space and time that used to dissolve into God but now went eventually via the Large Hadron Collider into a pointless looped nowhere and nothingness. I was very aware of stilled, wide-eyed wulf’s for once almost perfect fit inside me.

  Because in an intuitive leap I’d realised (plot-addicted Life hopped from foot to foot with excitement) whose diary this was.

  13

  QUINN’S.

  Impossible.

  I wanted to sit down. Didn’t. Just stood there, holding it in both hands as if I were about to make a presentation of it to an invisible dignitary.

  It’s a ridiculous story, Jake had written, but history’s full of ridiculous stories.

  The story of Alexander Quinn, an amateur archeologist who went to Mesopotamia in 1863 and discovered, by accident, the oldest account of the origin of a near worldwide myth—the men who became wolves. Told to him by a dying man, translated by Quinn’s guide, recorded by Quinn in his journal. But Quinn had been killed by bandits in the desert and his journal lost. Jake had spent forty years searching for it. In the end gave up. In the end told himself finding it wouldn’t make any difference: Suppose I found it and it said werewolves came on a silver ship out of the sky five thousand years ago, he wrote in his own journal, or were magicked up out of a burning hole in the ground by a Sumerian wizard, or were bred by impregnating women with lupine seed—so what? Whatever the origin of my species it would make no more cosmic sense than the origin of any other. The days of making sense, cosmic or otherwise, are long over. For the monster as for the earthworm as for the man the world hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain, and we are here as on a darkling plain …

  By the time I met him it had petrified into dogma: Don’t bother looking for the meaning of it all, Lu, he said. There isn’t one. I’d inherited it. Repeated it verbatim to Walker when he was still new to the Curse.

  But as soon as I’d pulled the book from the Jiffy bag I’d known. Quinn’s journal. Maybe the truth of how it all began. Maybe the truth of what it all meant. A dizzying rush, and under the rush, boredom: This was Life, at it again, trying to flog you connectedness, pattern, structure, trying to flog you a plot. (It’s Life’s suppressed Tourette’s: months, years, decades of clean contingent smalltalk—then a sudden foul-mouthed explosion of X-rated coincidences and symbols and narrative hooks, a frantic and ludicrous claim for story.) But I repeat: the boredom was under the rush. The rush was no less real. My hands were nerve-rich, face full of soft heat. I’d grown up Catholic, and though the Curse doth make existentialists of us all (monthly murder will do that; watching your victims’ lives end, feeling all their lights go out in the darkness, all their hopes of heaven met by … by the vast mathematical silence) my childhood self kept its stubborn flame burning. Suppose Quinn’s book reopened the questions? Suppose there was a magical architecture, transcendence, a supernatural scheme of things? Design, intent, meaning. Morality. Suppose there would be, after all, consequences?

  There was a folded slip of paper sticking out from between the pages like a bookmark, about a third of the way in. I opened it there. Forced myself to avoid what was on the diary pages (in spite of which I registered beautiful sloped handwriting in sepia ink and the words “Enkil” and “in tents” and “sacrificed to the gods”) and focused on the sender’s note:

  Dear Talulla,

  Here, believe it or not, is the last journal of Alexander Quinn, and in it is contained the oldest known account of your species’ beginnings. It isn’t complete. As you can see I’ve removed some of the pages and retained them—for reasons which will become clear when we next speak. I have, as you will by now know, a mutually profitable proposal to put to you, but it won’t make much sense until you’ve had a chance to read this.

  I suppose it’s possible you’ll doubt the authenticity of the document—yet something tells me you won’t. A superficial examination by an antiquarian will at least confirm it fits the period, and more rigorous analysis will only strengthen its claim. But my gut tells me you won’t need any of that. Let me at least tell you that the previous owner—Mme Jacqueline Delon (who is well known to you, I realise)—has no idea she’s been relieved of it. I have no love for her, but that’s another story, and really, if you don’t believe me about the book, why should you believe me about anything else? Let me nonetheless also tell you that with this book belongs a stone tablet, the second part of Quinn’s strange legacy. This I also have in my keeping. Fortunately for both of us.

  Listen to my idiom! I sound like a solicitor. God only knows why. Presumably the content determines the style. Anyway, I don’t sound like this at all, normally. As you’ll discover
if and when we meet.

  Call the number below when you’ve read the journal. Keep this to yourself. It isn’t meant for anyone else. Not yet, at any rate.

  Yours,

  Olek

  Keep this to yourself.

  Impossible. Everyone had seen the package. And even if they hadn’t there’s only so much wulf telepathy will miss. Details, yes, but not the fact of the thing. Plus there was Walker. I might scam pack consciousness, but there’d be no fooling him. Keep fucking the same werewolf and mental privacy suffers.

  And wherefore, dear Lula, I could imagine Jake saying, all this talk of fooling and scamming and keeping it to yourself?

  Yes. Thank you, Mr. Marlowe. Because I had to be in control of it. Whatever it was. And it was something. My nose for Life’s addiction to plot insisted: This is something. This is dangerous. This will throw out effects like the spars of a spiral galaxy. Be careful. Knowledge is power, someone said. (Who? Jake would’ve known.) Knowledge is power. Yes. And if there was power to be had it was better to have it than not.

  But there was more to it than that. Irrationally more, nonsense more—but nonetheless, more. I believed—why? why?—it was connected to Remshi. Wishful thinking. Desperate thinking, derived from nothing more than him saying I’ll see you again and then not seeing me again. Two years, the repeated dream, this. This has something to do with him. Me and my savvy rational self sneered at our intuitive partner (bagged with astrology, dowsing, faith healing, crystals) but we both knew she’d win this one.

  My phone rang again.

  “So?” Walker said.

  “Well, it’s not a bomb.”

  I could hear Lorcan kicking-off in the background.

  “Great. We’re coming in.”

  “Wait.”

  He didn’t ask why. He’d already heard it in my voice. The appeal to collusion. The appeal for a partner in crime. My heart softened. It wasn’t perfect between us, but it was very, very good. It needed a specially perverse soul for it not to be enough. At which thought I pictured Jake and my mother watching me from the afterlife (for the two of them a place like a Vegas casino, bottle blonde waitresses, booths, the murmur of happy gambling) smiling and shaking their heads. A specially perverse soul? Oh, Lula!

 
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