B L O O D
Alcohol suspended in generic cola slapped against Susan’s green dress from the cup in her hand and she scowled at the man seated before her; he sank from the noisy demonstration that had startled her, thick arms clenched in associative triumph. Beyond him, some few metres distant in a tall, octagonal, chain-link pound, a toothless parolee with gang insignia tattooed on his battered head saluted the crowd while his unconscious victim was dragged from it by his ankles. White light bleached the fight cage floor and made its neighbour colours vivid beyond toleration, the red and orange trunks favoured by the string of warm-up fighters glowing like the sun through cathedral glass. She handed her cup to Lilian and wrung the soda from her clothing. They sat close enough to experience the thudding reverberation and shots of red-laced saliva that flew out through the wire mesh, and more than close enough to dampen her palms and fill her chest with hammering anticipation. The mothballed ice-rink stunk of vinyl and armpits, split beer and cigarette smoke, senior members of the ruling gangster tribe enjoying the spectacle while their subordinates monitored the undercard and watched the crowd for trouble. Three rows down from their lofty seclusion, a lone woman sat amongst an assortment of professional gamblers and seedy, murine agents, her ash-blonde pony tail tucked beneath the collar of her puffer vest. Josephine lifted her private phone and took pictures of the women seated beneath her, the shots concealed amid those directed at the cage.
Petrouchka had disappeared two fights previously, secretive and sinister in a dress of murky Tyrian crépe and a little belle epoque brooch of dead white diamonds, but she made her way back toward their tier alone, ignoring the flesh banked on either side. She smoothed her skirt beneath her and sat down beside Lilian, falling to gazing at the latter's profile, her grey stare fixed and brilliant, as though wiped clean. Susan had already succumbed to the same wondering scrutiny. Lilian's nails were painted sombre rosewood brown, matching the discolouration encircling her wrists, if not the pink abrasions on the right side of her throat and running down beneath the neck of her black dress, powdered over, though still apparent to the particular observer. There was a darkness, half-suggested and half apparent, about her mouth, disguised by the deep shade of her lipstick. She seemed either weary or preoccupied. Petrouchka leaned over and dug a finger into Susan's ribs.
“Look...” the vampyre exclaimed down at the cage. “I think I recognize!”
On the floor of the pen stood the protagonists they had awaited, the first an enormous Chechen exile with close-combat scars recorded on his elephantine limbs and a light brown crop so flat it seemed to have taken the dome of his skull along with his hair. He stood in the midst of the ring and roared like a hormonal stag, forming his great arms into a sarcous arc from which the vessels bulged as though attempting to escape his lobster-coloured skin. The second wore a silver gimp hood perforated at the crown to expose a haughty hoplite plume of scarlet hair and decorated with thunderbolt appliqués. Framed within a martial context, William’s proportions found a sudden and unmistaken raison d'être, all the more intimidating for the white strobe that rendered him arrantly radiant, his variance redoubled by both the flushed and sweating density of the neighbouring flesh and the swimming disparity posed by his own lamp-black tattoo. Its restless, almost painful contrast shifted against his back when he turned. His bare chest was emblazoned with her first name in huge black letters, some awkwardly inverted during their mirrored application. Petrouchka cackled, delighted.
“Lucky he put on chest.”
“Oh god..." Susan groaned. "That had better be magic marker." Through her hands she allowed herself another taste of William's flagrant, almost dizzying otherness while he stoked the crowd’s enmity with a circuit of the wire, careful to provide those ringside with a view of the insulting fingers he held up to their faces. A bloc of intoxicated Chechens chanted football songs and smashed their fists against the chain link as he drew closer; standing before them, he dragged the zip across his mouth, releasing a disturbing length of tongue and using it in an even more provocative manner between his fingers than the uncomplimentary gesture he had already offered. His contumely greatly amused Petrouchka, who stood up to catcall imperialist slogans.
The notional referee called William back and motioned to the bunny-eared card girl; she swayed into the ring in a glittering green bustier so tight that her breasts almost met her pancaked chin. On her exit, the match was declared and the veteran lurched forward, shooting a massive fist at William’s gloved head. He took it glancingly and roped his opponent’s neck with an arm, raising thick wrinkles with the lock exerted on his jowls and nape until its victim began to paw at him frantically; William let him go, eyes bright as he watched him stumble backward, a deep, throttled colour darkening his head. When the man lumbered again toward him he weathered the blows swung at his mask with his arms by his sides, inviting more. Petrouchka shrieked at him, small fists balled against her throat in an attitude of fierce elation. Susan clutched the hem of her dress and compelled herself to breathe, blinking away the sight of the impacts, tasting the brutality that displaced the air around them like exhaust fumes. The behemoth snapped William’s head back over his shoulder, snarling in ursine fury as it rolled forward again to stare at him; beside her, Lilian lay one leg over the other as she gazed down at the cage, William's opponent trailing him as the latter walked in reverse, conducting them both past the man’s compatriots where he came to a halt and lay prone against the wire. The Chechen fell on him in an impressive flurry, thudding his fists into his midriff with grunting dedication but in the midst of the assault the masked figure lifted his arms and leapt up, catching hold of the links and swinging out to loop both legs around the man's neck, dragging him against the mesh. Blinded by the black silk groin that had taken possession of his face, the contender flailed while his supporters heaved the cage wall en mass to shake William loose, until his head twisted toward them in a manner so startlingly demonic that some of them let go and stumbled back. Planting his feet on the man’s shoulders, he kicked the Chechen backward, slamming him into the ground and splattering the canvas with his sweat.
William dropped, smoothing back the tail of hair that crowned him and circling the man who climbed slowly to his knees, seizing his head suddenly and sinking his teeth into his bawling victim's cheek. With a mouthfull of blood he turned to spray the howling supporters like an expectorating fire eater, splattering red into their rage-flushed faces until the bleeding man wiped blindly at his leg and brought him down; Susan stood up, slapping her hand to her mouth as William was pinned to the mat and pounded with a mortar-like fist until his hooded head should have given way into a fractured pulp. She shouted at the men who bayed against the wire and threw her cup of ice and cola on them while her favourite tired of the beating and butted his opponent viciously, hurling him sideways and flipping back onto his feet. The knee he swung into the Chechen’s features flattened his nose across the side of his face and snapped his peg-like teeth; Susan felt it in the base of her spine, the vampyre rejoicing, whistling through her fingers. Lilian leant forward to light a cigarette even as Susan swore to herself.
“You wouldn't want it so bad if it didn’t flip off half of fucking Grozny.” the former assured her, standing and making her way toward the bookmaker that had accepted their wagers along with those other punters versed in William’s technique.
The latter concluded his performance with a showboating roundhouse kick, whipped from a turn into the staggering Chechen's profile, felling him as though he were a rotten cedar. Blood polished the lower half of his silver mask and ran into the black letters smeared across his chest, gleaming on his pointed teeth when took the card girl’s bunny ears and placed them on his head to walk a victory lap of the cage. Lilian returned with their winnings, frowning behind her cigarette and apportioning the money between them.
Small throngs of groupies and sweating, pink-faced fans crowded the corridors as they made their way through the battered backstage stalls. Lilian hived off without explanation, phone against her ear, leaving Susan and Petrouchka to locate William. They found him in a stainless steel cubical performing primitive ablutions with a black, patched hose, aiming the water into his face and spitting at the drain. Susan stood against the wall with his fresh clothes folded on her arm, her stare wide and unblinking while he chuckled in Russian with the vampyre. Emerging, he punted Petrouchka a portion of his elastic-banded winnings; she drew a note to hand to Susan.
“Kotik... buy new dress.” she urged. “Really, you are pretty girl... why do you wear these thing, like babushka?” The little vampyre handed her another and patted her hand sympathetically. William sucked back a smile, though Susan's stare grew wider still as she beheld the left side of his face, prompting him to consult the shard of mirror glued to the wall beside him. The eye had been fixed in that state provoked by violence, lurid chartreuse green around a sliver of pupil while the other had returned to a more equable appearance.
"Whoops." he murmured, flicking at the lid. "Monster eye... stays like that if I take too many on one side." He glanced at her sideways, stepping into his trousers. "Ça va, Christabel?"
"No, I... yes..." Susan replied, both arms clutching the winnings secreted in her handbag, her concerns clumping together in her throat. "How can you just... walk out there like that? Everyone can see you..."
"I think the take would drop if I made them turn the lights off."
"But... you look so... obvious, god... it does my head in. I thought you had another fight...”
“The guy bailed.”
“He probably didn’t want to get battered into intensive care by a masked fruitcake.”
“It was good enough for Ramzan.”
“I think you've still got Ramzan stuck in your teeth.”
He ran his tongue over them as he buttoned his green shirt then leant over the sink, sucking a draught of hand sanitizer from the plastic bottle.
“Where’s Frost?” he inquired through a mouthful of suds. Susan shrugged and glanced behind them. “Shit... we're supposed to be keeping an eye on her...”
“I don’t think she’d let us tie her up.” she muttered. "But while we actually have money we should go to the shops... we're out of almost everything." When she turned to question Petrouchka the vampyre was as absent as the subject of his query, having melted back into the heavily-fleshed darkness outside the changing room.
Though Susan could not perceive the squeal emitted by the wheel of their trolley, William found it insupportably offensive and gave it a swift kick with his boot. She sat on the soft folds of his black afghan coat in the uppermost shelf of the cart, clutching her mirror bag as though it were bent on escape. It bulged with rolls of notes and she glanced down at them from staring at his face, flashing the money at him periodically, his patient acknowledgement slowly combating her disbelief. The midnight supermarket was sparsely populated with a host of nocturnal genera; ravers hung before the wall of caffeinated soda and drifted along the avenue of hypercoloured confectionary with red-rimmed stares, batting at tics, oblivious to furloughed whores, fretful hoarders and the peculiar elderly, the latter piloting their mobility scooters as though negotiating the floor of a sea trench. Susan waved him to a halt in the first aisle and leant out toward a packet of chocolate biscuits, frowning to herself and then replacing it in favour of a luxurious version usually beyond her resources, climbing up to stand and select two related flavours. He stood a foot on the cart to balance her weight and lifted a shoulder to rub at his whining ear; when she looked back at him, the sight spliced pieces of the bloody bout into her deliberations, and she murmured something that he missed.
“I am listening, but I’ve been punched in the head fifty times by a chernozhopyi." William admitted.
“I said... tell your rubbish alter ego not to let a giant idiot batter him like that in future.”
“We only communicate through lawyers and El Resto's always alienating his legal team.”
Susan shook her head, plucking a packet of Scottish shortbread from the shelf and balancing it on top of the baked goods already teetering in her lap.
“Nutella... the big jar..." she urged. "Did you have to bite him?”
“You probably couldn’t see it, but he was going for my dingaling with his overbite.”
“You were humping his face.” she laughed.
"In self defence." he promised, smiling at her as he swung them around a corner and parked before the sloping banks of produce, standing with his arms slack by his sides in an attitude of almost metaphysical receptivity to the mirrored array of imported and tropical fruit.
“Is it... fun?”
"Too much like work, but I'm not good at anything else, so, you know... c'est comme ça." he yawned, reaching on her behalf for the best hand of bananas. "You don't like it, do you?"
She paused as she leant over the cart.
"It's not that I don't appreciate the effort... it's just that I've never had a... a violent boyfriend before." Susan admitted. He frowned, rolling an orange in his hand, then smiled brightly.
"So I am your boyfriend..."
"Yes." she groaned.
"Say Sachiin, you are officially my boyfriend." William urged.
"I'll dump you if you're not careful." she laughed, gathering lemons in the crook of her elbow; he took them from her and replaced them with Tahitian limes. Behind them a skinny youth with silver glitter pasted around his eyes and naked plastic action figures dangling in a spangled corsage from his neck hovered as though anxious for some item in the display before them. When they stepped out of his way he looked up from his heavy, level stare in bright suspicion of their motives, then darted forward, seizing two handfuls of tiny mandarins and stuffing them down his trousers before dashing away in an attitude of frenzied triumph.
"It does explain a few things, you being punched in the head so often." Susan remarked.
"Hey... I was born this way."
"It looks incredibly painful."
"You only really feel the first one. I had my pain threshold kicked into orbit back in the good old days anyway." The pineapples attracted William's attention and he rolled half a dozen into the cart. "The only thing I like about the cage is being up against some fucking huge industrial piece who thinks you're the bitch they’re going to floss with. You can see it in their faces, when they’ve tried everything and nothing’s working, and they realise there’s something wrong with you... that never really gets old... I don't know why. I suppose I am related to my brother.”
Susan raised her brows at his interpretation, lifting a waxy purple ball dressed with a strange quatrefoil brooch of leathery remnant petals to her nose and finding herself stumped.
"What is this?" she demanded.
"Manggustan. Glad you asked." he replied, lifting the entire box from which she had taken it and setting it down into the trolley, along with two crates of ruby-blushing pomegranates. Their expense began to trouble her intrinsic parsimony and she glanced down into her purse once more in a visible expression of it. "I can book some more gigs if you like." he added.
"No." she said swiftly.
"Five grand... that's a shitload of Nutella and manggustans..."
"Don't... not for a while." The gravity of her expression inspired a small frisson that he allowed through the width of his shoulders. "What?" she inquired, lowering her voice self-consciously.
"Your caring what happens to me feels like someone licking the back of my neck." he confessed.
They smiled at one another and studied the vegetables together.
"Is there a special word for what vampyres... do... when they bite people?”
“In alujha, it's dujju la isdr... red into grey.”
“I think Petrouchka dujju la isdr’d someone at the fight. Is she really your friend?”
“She’s always liked me... we lend each other money. She plaits my hair.”
“She drinks blood.”
“I know, but in all honesty, almost no one gets taken by a neckfucker who wasn’t wearing a big dumb eat me sign on their forehead.” She seemed patently unconvinced. “Tell me you’d get into the back of a car with Pet or fucking Opal.” he insisted. “I’m not saying they’re not good at what they do, because they can suck you out a mile before you even know you’re in the water, but vampyres still need you to be stupid.” Susan wheeled them into the next aisle, its shelves stocked past head height with a hedonic profusion of breakfast cereals; the smell of bleached, sugar-drenched corn and printed cardboard prompted him to commandeer the cart and hurry onward. “I couldn’t snow you, and I wasn’t even drooling and hanging off your neck.” he added.
"All that much." she smirked. "I'd probably still be running if I hadn’t been tackled on the lawn, though.”
“Poupée, if you’d been running any slower you would have backed right into me.” William laughed, inclining his head to kiss her. An old lady trundled past with her two-tiered trolley overstuffed with tins of catfood and jelly crystals; Susan leant back from him, grimacing and scuffing her tongue on the back of her hand.
"Don't ever gargle liquid soap again."
He shook his head resolutely.
"I’d wrestle drunk gorillas for you Christabel, but I’m not putting toothpaste in my fucking mouth any time soon.” William told her as he pressed on. “You can have mint, or you can have me.”
Laughing at his strange aversions, she emptied his grasp of the fruit that he was surreptitiously consuming and dropped it into the trolley, climbing back up to her former station and sucking in a sharp breath at the importuning hand that wandered beneath her skirt. Susan called another halt before a wall of feminine appurtenance and chose hair clips for herself from a bewildering array of configurations, reaching up to sweep his hair behind his ears with a diamanté-studded headband and sitting back to admire the effect.
"My god, that is absolutely terrifying... wear it to your next fight." she smirked while he picked out a packet of applicator tampons.
"I can't help but think these are a disruptive influence."
"Can you slow down please?" she complained as he wheeled her swiftly past the rows of candy-hued deodorant.
"That stuff makes girls smell like they arrived by UPS and don't have a name yet but are possibly already ribbed for my pleasure. I am willing to... er... forego all death matches, for as long as you agree to smell as nature intended." He leant over her, sliding her hair from her nape and inhaling the warmth that rose from the neck of her dress. Shrugging her assent, she allowed him to steer them away from the meat counter before contesting the measure.
"I just saw you bite half of someone's face off so don't start with your vegan bollocks." Susan scolded as they halted before the display, looking over the various cuts until the shudder passing through his body was transmitted to her vehicle. "What is so bad about that?" she demanded, gesturing down at the neatly-primped arrangements.
"Il s'ylth nais sa'ama." he murmured, turning his face from the counter. "Sha'a'inii'tra... everything is wrong. Everything."
They stood for a short while in an impasse that grew from the inarticulate nature of his objections; in response to the depth of her own sentiments he placed his hands flat against the protective glazing, absorbing its damp, leaden scent and grim stasis before closing them on her cheeks. Her gaze fell to the frosted glass, the carnal shapes beneath recanting their blinded and attenuate passivity, becoming limbs and lost effects, the cabinet a shallow morgue, her perception of it rolled almost prismatically toward his own. She took his hands from her face and warmed them under her arms in silence, and did not contest their removal into an aisle devoted to convenience food. Still immersed in the implications of his elliptical communique, she chose an item from each category they coasted past and presented it to him, concerning herself closely with his reactions.
"Mmm, trash barge..." William grimaced to the rustling packet of pot noodles she held to his nose.
"Are you not worried about Caleb and his mates?"
"No... I love Cay." Her favourite brand of coffee exacerbated his expression. "Angry millipedes." he declared. Peanut butter fared no better. "Arse grease." he laughed, turning his head from the pottle. She lifted a brightly-coloured jar of raspberry jam from which he at first leant away as though avoiding some innominate peril, succumbing only as she pressed it on him, clasping it to his cheek and rolling the bottle across his face with his eyes closed. "Mmm, paradisiaque... savoureux... sssexuel... not as good as yours, though."
"I don't know how I feel about you eating two kilos of sucrose in one sitting. You don't even know what that is, do you?"
"It's fucking delicious, I can tell you that much. Take it away... I'll get the jar stuck in my throat."
"You're a bit of an addict, really, aren't you?" she laughed.
“It's low self esteem.” William assured her. "Just so you know, if at some point you do decide to leave me, my fragile sense of self worth would suffer such a fucking blow that I would probably find it preferable to return to an abusive relationship than to face the world alone.”
She pushed her foot into his groin.
“I would tell you to shut up but since we're on that, how long was your brother actually with this Helaine woman? And if she was as bad as you say, what was the attraction?”
“Ten long years, and come on... when you’re as likely to perforate someone for queue-jumping as he is, your boo's muti trade is all just part of life’s heavily-soiled tapestry. They're two evil peas in an evil fucking pod. Domestic evil peas. She bought his shoes."
“I know. Things might have been different if it hadn't been the Thirty Years War... but then again, probably not... everyone in Europe was going hard... catholics, lutherans, Swedish freaks, the fucking frogs... crazy Dutch people... Gustaf and Richelieu were paying us to stay home at one point, which was awesome, I have to say. Helaine's place was never more than a few days ride from whichever bloodbath was paying out, so the oversharing devil on Kala'amātya's shoulder was eight hundred pounds and fused to its fucking chair by the time that shit was over. When he wasn't depopulating Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, he was home with Helaine practicing facial expressions. It was a perfect perverted storm, if you were a bloodthirsty pervert."
“When are you going to tell them about all this?”
“When I stand still it sounds like you said something about just letting sleeping logs lie.”
“It's sleeping dogs.”
“The sleeping dog that rips your arm off when you tell it things it doesn’t want to hear."
"Who is that calling you all the time?" Susan sighed, reaching down and extracting his phone from his pocket.
“Avi'ashān...” he said quietly. “Bede." She read a few of his plaintive messages; her expression prompted him to sigh an explanation. "He fucking knew about Rana being here... they might have even brought her with them."
Her mouth dropped open.
"It's his wife, Nyāti... she’d love nothing more than to padlock me to Rana’s arm because divorce plays havoc with her seating plan.”
“Are you close?”
William held up two adjacent fingers.
“Like this. Always... always. But he knew she was here all along, and I asked him, and he said nothing.”
They passed through the checkout and walked down through the car park, sitting together in the humming silence, the glowing signs over the bunker's exits painting the mottled slab walls a sickly, dream-like shade of green. When she looked at him again he was made to wonder if he had ever seen her face more clearly, despite the gloom, her person limned entirely within it as though by the hand of a determined artist.
"So... you're the last to know?"
"Looks like it." he sighed.
"How does it feel?"
William stared up at the concrete ceiling, its ponderous suspension conspiring with the ineluctable nature of her logic.
"It feels like I should be talking to Frost about something important." he conceded.