B L A C K D O G S
The label on the prescription vial in Lilian's hand felt like close-shaved suede, blankly white and uninformative beneath her thumb. The mist that had retreated from the park before the dawn began a stealthy reprise, full of the brindle smell of aging, dew-soaked verdure while far above the sky was glimpsed in powder-blue vignette. It cast her reflection on the surface of the pool, the image looking back at her in defiance of the suspicion she had always accorded it. The pheasants shook out their wings and planed down together from the balcony behind her, joining the wild birds in quartering the lawn.
William walked through them toward her, hands deep inside the pockets of his black coat while she shook a flotilla of particoloured capsules into the water. They stood in stony dissociation, her refusal pushing his failures and deficiencies back at him as though he had grasped a handful of thorns while the birds chimed all around, urging them toward the use of their own voices.
"At least I'm not fucking crazy." she observed bitterly, glancing down at the bottle in her hand. "How long have you known?"
"I saw you with him by the gate, when you were first here... I knew then."
Lilian took a while to accept his despondent candour.
“So were you just like, shit... it’ll be more fun if no one tells her?” She watched him drag his hands down over his face and let them fall to his sides where they hung like dead white animals, wrung of all their customary expression.
"I didn't know what to say or when to say it, and I was too scared..."
"You told Susan though, right?"
She barely acknowledged the attention he paid to the pair of associate shapes she had left on the grass, her handbag and the little black gun that seemed to gestate within its private confines.
"All this time, you were my boy... you never did me wrong. I felt like such a judge of fucking character..." Lilian took the weapon from his hand and put it to her temple, depressing the trigger three times and smiling darkly before lifting it to his face and working the jammed mechanism again. "You know how this shit goes. When you're born to hang, you can't fucking drown."
Susan shrank from the spluttering shower rose, then forced herself beneath it, rubbing the frigid water over her hair and skin and hoping the white flowers in the soap would kill the stink of the Black Moth and all the cigarettes that she had smoked in William's car. She glanced up in surprise as the head scurled loudly and issued rust-stained warmth, like blood flushed from an open wound, the colour streaming from her nose and hair and ponding in her open palms. William returned as she stepped into her robe, shrugging off his clothing in an abject expression of his mood and taking her place beneath the shower. Lowering the toilet lid and slumping down on it, she sat in silence, watching the water pour from his chin as he stood with his eyes closed.
"Lilian hates us." she sighed.
“She doesn’t hate you, she hates me.”
"Whoever Nyāti is, she hates me..."
"She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth... it stunts your fucking growth. Susan..." She looked up warily at the sound of her name. "I said I would buy you a ticket out of here and I meant it. Take the car, my cards... whatever you need to get clear.”
Her hands closed on her knees as the offer settled around her. It was a while before she could trust herself to speak.
“I don't want to go, William. Do you... want me to?”
They gazed at one another until he relented, exclaiming softly as he wound a towel around his waist.
"Fuck, no, I'll have a breakdown." She dropped her face into her hands and cursed his reticence. "I'm sorry... I'm not trying to push you out the door, cloudcheeks, but what I want is the last fucking thing you should worry about."
"All I can think about is Caleb and Annick. Every time I blink I see the pictures."
William looked back at her from the speckled glass.
"My brother didn't have anything to do with that." He could not answer the dread she so plainly attached to the absentee and did not attempt to. "Those dogs at the Moth refuckulated half my baby teeth though, so er... jungle orthodontics... its not really a spectator sport..." he added, clapping the veterinary pliers together.
"Isn't that what you call the ones you lose?"
Susan shook her head wearily as she stood up and came to look at him more closely.
"You've got monster eye."
"Have you ever wanted me more?" he inquired dryly.
"If you ask me to leave you again, I will refuckulate you." she promised, the sweet taste of his blood prompting her to step back from kissing him and pick something from her lip, finding a gleaming point of white upon her finger. “A while ago, I would have rated finding pieces of your teeth in my mouth as very to extremely disgusting, but now it's just... moderately unsatisfactory, and I don't even know if that's good or bad.”
At his request she handed him the knife from his coat pocket and remained, deeply engrossed, at his side while William closed the pliers on a tooth and wrenched it free with a violent downward motion. He used the tip of the blade to prise shards of broken enamel from its vacant socket; the glassy, grating sound of the procedure caused her shoulders to contract though she remained transfixed, and he fumbled, rode the blade over his gum and expressed a string of rueful expletives, glancing sideways at her scrutiny. Susan relented, returning to the bedroom where she pulled a jersey over her damp shoulders and unlocked the doors, stepping out to stare along the hall in both directions. A low, droning hum made her look to the ceiling and a dark mass of bees crawling against the cornice, streaming in from a crack in the water-stained molding.
Dregs of mist clung about the trees leaning over the boundary wall where Edward studied the mud and torn grass of the verge, their details almost dissolved by the overnight downpour; a vehicle had backed off the seal and spun its wheels on the sticky ground before heading back toward the city, but the rest was lost, even to his learned eye. He followed the wall toward the gates before which he stood silently, examining the house through the iron bars. Turning, he eased his body between two black uprights, conforming briefly to their slight diagonal and sliding through without disturbing the heavy chain.
From inside the garage he could hear Lilian lie down on his bed through the intervening timbers, the smell, both sharp and darkly rounded, of burning opium fading with the cooling of the pipe she had abandoned. Susan had left the Jaguar's passenger door ajar in her haste the night before. From beneath the oil-stained bench alongside it he took a small cache bundled in black kid leather and laid it on the bonnet, rolling it out with one hand and selecting components with the other, fitting them together with an efficiency drawn from the carbon-dark machinery of his unconscious.
Susan waved a hand across her face against the bees that dripped from the lath in William’s grasp and filled the air around them with noisy disaffection. The young day still vacillated between cloud and open sky, favouring one and then the other.
"Where's Petrouchka?" she asked, picking fumitory burrs from the legs of her tights.
"Making herself scarce with Auberjonois... not that a dead Russian cupcake's going to make Kala'amātya roll the acid barrels back into the garage." William mused. She sat down on the trunk of a fallen pear amid the long grass.
"I feel like I'm waiting to be run over by a train."
"Avai'sahdi, please don't say that. I know I didn’t see Rana coming, and I punch myself in the head for that daily, but I've got my shitstorm goggles on now."
"I'd almost forgotten about her." The grass decanted its tissue-weight seeds into her lap as she plucked the stems and wound them into a wreath. "Did she not go mad at you for Gideon?” He shrugged.
“No competitive vagina. And like you said... crazy, not stupid.” Confident he had secured the lath amid the branches of an apricot, he began to blow the bees from his hands.
"Where did you find him?"
"Auberjonois? Acre... three in the morning, top of the north wall during a siege. I was climbing in, he was bugging out. He looked at me, fixed his hair and said... tu m'impressionnes."
She shook her head again.
“God, how easy are you?”
“I think we both know."
"How long were you with him?"
William reckoned briefly.
"A long time when I think about it... he kicked me out eventually, but we've been cool... except when he's being a gros con d... a macho cockhead. I rode with his crew right up til the Crimea.”
She allowed his voice to lead her from her more troubling idée fixe.
"I don't think you were born a troublemaker." she said quietly, frowning up at him. "Why did you have to be doing that all the time?"
"It paid, poupée."
"Could you not have opened a fruit stall or something?"
"The crusades were like an ATM jizzing hundred dollar bills onto the footpath... all the alujha cartels were into it, running crews down to Palestine and Granada, up to the Baltic... the first few were fucking disasters, no logistics, no nothing, but after that they started bringing in mercenaries to do passagium particulaire. The cartels would finance your trip and take half of whatever you ripped off, so it behoved you to be first through whichever door was getting kicked down. It wasn't political or anything, and I am sorry if I accidentally, er... slaughtered your ancestors for financial gain... but it was just ce qui se fait... everyone was doing it." He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke onto the bees. "Ed came in sometimes, but he drinks alone and hates splitting the take, so he was always a per diem bitch. We wintered in Alexandria, or Shiraz... I love Shiraz... hit Outrémer in March, then on to Florence for May Eve with enough money to party for the rest of the year. C'est super... ça déchire."
“People are still blowing each other up over that.”
“You and your neocolonialistic propaganda.”
“You don’t know what neocolonialism is... it's not the right word anyway. If all that was so amazing, why aren’t you doing it now?”
“Because of that fucking horrible time where everyone started using artillery but hadn’t stopped using horses." William closed his eyes. "I love horses.” he admitted. “Auberjonois fell out with the Catalans anyway... some alujha shit... they're always chewing one another. He bought a place in Gévaudan and started a home for difficult, furry young men. Back in the day when you started hearing the woods... hahdri á ijhun... you found a cartel, they jumped you in and you served for your keep. Now all they do is kick the shit out of each other, and they’re all in the pocket of that fucking bloodsack in Prague anyway." For a moment she suspected that he was distracted by sound and watched him intently, but he continued. “Gideon hung up his spurs and started ripping off high-end antiquities, selling it on, distribution. You probably weren’t even born, but there was this thing where some French archaeologists found a temple in Laos... really early Buddhist stuff, just before the war. As soon as they packed up, Auberjonois went in with a team and yoinked the whole fucking building out from behind the facade. It paid out so hard they could afford my brother for six months, to keep the American black op arseholes off their backs. If the local juntas had walked into them, it would have been bamboo slivers for everyone. That's balls of steel."
"You could do what he does." Susan contended, without looking up from the grass.
“Five fingers good, six fingers bad... he can put on a suit and eat canapés and not freak people out of a deal twenty five days a month. I’m always the big spooky gook who couldn’t look corporate if he wore a fucking suit made out of CEOs. That, and I can’t fucking work with vampyres. If you’re fencing their old shit, you need to be able to ignore a lot of holocaust jokes and sobbing from wall cavities.”
"There's something about him that's strange... that makes me feel... odd."
“C’est le loup. You might be talking to Auberjonois, but you’re never just talking to Auberjonois.” He reached up and slid his hand carefully into the busy, crawling swarm, withdrawing it with equal circumspection to reveal an errant queen, darkly blonde and smoky black, her slender length resting on the back of his palm. "La Reine." he smiled, watching her lean over her knees and study the miniature sovereign for herself, enjoying the moment of pleasure it granted her before replacing the pristine principal amongst her amazonian retainers, murmuring a slow chant to settle them around her.
“You were doing that when I first saw you... right here, I think.” she told him, to which William shook his head
“It was by the Du Comice.”
He nodded down the row to an older tree, laden with ripening, copper-blushed fruit. She waded backward in her head, gratified that his memory was more faithful than her own, then stood and walked between the trees toward the venerable pear. Choosing one from the branches, she turned it in her hand and watched its bloom dusting her fingers, her voice losing something of its melancholy tenor.
“I thought you were the strangest thing I’d ever seen. For some reason, this thing my granddad used to say came into my head, something about always costing the taxpayer money. I think it was my brain trying to warn me... I bet it's nutting itself against a wall somewhere now, the poor thing.” The soft flesh dissolved between her teeth like a spoonful of nectar while wandering, mutable thoughts of him painted her face a telling, sunlit colour.
“So... when I’m meeting people for the first time, I should make more of an effort to look less... what’s the word? Starts with D...”
Susan regarded the pear with an expression that blossomed behind her hand.
"Oh... I was thinking déshabillé..."
"And that. I think, if you’re going to be meeting girls, you should definitely wear more clothes... and never let them smell you... or do that thing with your eyes. The opposite of monster eye. Angel eye...” Her own smile vanished again suddenly, falling from her face with the hand that dropped to her side, and she turned toward the end of the row, the strange sound of his laughter drifting over her shoulder. “If we stay together, one day I'll have to watch someone else look at you like that, when I'm old... and you'll want them, not me...” Her hands fell to her skirt and she stood, staring down at the ground. “Whoever it is... they might not be born, but I hate them. I don’t know if I can hand you over. That just.. it feels like dying twice.”
“Christabel, I’m not something you'll have to give up.” Her throat closed as she swallowed air in a small, dark, half-choked exclamation; Susan bent and pushed her way through the pleached trees, stumbling over a branch buried in the grass and walking in a circling daze toward the house. He called to her once, but let her go.
She stooped under the dripping clematis depending from the door frame and stood for a moment inside the drawing room, hardly able to see past her own burning eyes. Despite them, she knew in the time it took to blink that she had walked in her incaution into a bind, as surely as if her foot had tripped a wire. Locked in airless immobility, her instincts cast around her for the source, the sinister discrepancy between its power and obscurity finally united in the shadow by the door. Kala'amātya sat in the darkness on a kitchen chair, looking back at her through eyes she barely recognized, full of golden absence, the lidless stare of a Hindu demon. A pistol lay in the hand upon his knee, the inelegant shape of its suppressor lending it a dreadful specificity. She looked back up into his gaze; its naked, transfixing radiance was gorgonian, destined for the same fatal obscurity as its victims. Inwardly, he felt his finger work the cold slope of the trigger and saw her head fall sideways against her shoulder, her death little more than a shiver under skin that slowly whitened until her gaze burned through the frames of that familiar sequence. The twining shadow of the vine that lay against the window drew its blue and violet cursive on her features; he regarded her from somewhere distant in the vastness of his own terrain, moved or unmoved, resolute or undecided, her fear of tempting him across its nameless divide conquered by exigencies of her own.
"Caleb and Annick are dead." she told him. "Everyone thinks it was you." She did not hear his brother step in through the doors behind her or feel his hand closing on her arm. When he could not persuade her toward him, William slowly interposed himself between them, offering his back to the judgement chambered in the weapon. "Did you do it?" Susan insisted, incited by Edward's ascent from the chair and towing William after her as she pursued him toward the hall, repeating her demand to his impermeable silence.
Finally impressed by its futility, she submitted to her companion's direction, saying nothing as he swept her back into the drawing room and out into the white glare of the morning, around the corner of the house into the damp shade of the elms. William kept hold of her wrist as he recovered, heaping whispered admonitions upon himself as she stared toward the placid waters of the swimming pool.
"I walked right into him... he could have done it, a hundred times." she murmured.
"He let you go."
Susan frowned at the unlikely nature of the assertion and looked to him finally as he straightened up from leaning on his knee.
"What does that mean?"
He shook his head, face still brightly fraught.
"I have no idea."
Sparks flew from the fire that William rearranged compulsively with his bare foot, kicking back the brands that slithered from the overflowing grate while he stood with an elbow on the mantlepiece and a phone pressed to his ear. Susan scowled up from her hunch in the chair at the restive shadow commanding half the drawing room around them; the polyglot intensity of his curses increased with every interrogative phone call, interspersed with the random shotgun crack of pyrotechnic sap. Petrouchka roosted alongside her in a heavy fur like a child burdened by some oversized theatrical costume. The vampyre's interest in the slow decline of her patience rasped like measured breathing in Susan's ear and she hissed an exasperated sigh.
"If you’re that bothered about Bede, just go into town and find him."
William shook his head.
"I’m not leaving you alone here.”
“I'm not alone."
He punched another number, muttering again to himself.
"Christabel, you can't count the psychopaths you've angered recently as company."
"Will you please either go and look for him, or leave it.” she snapped. Sparks flew past his legs and settled on the carpet behind him. She pressed a hand to her forehead.
“Sachiin...” Petrouchka purred. “We need balshoy box of vodka... go in your car for this, then maybe we talk.”
He swore at the battery warning beeping in his hand before setting off with his phone still to his ear, keeping an injunctive finger pointed at the vampyre and almost walking into his brother. Edward had descended the stairs before Lilian and Susan was surprised to see them through the doorway in their coats. She leant back out of sight as he held out his hand; without interrupting his call, William dug the latter’s keys from his pockets and tossed them at him, preceding him into the garage.
When both vehicles had pulled out through the gates Susan withdrew the two small books she had concealed beneath her skirt, sighing to herself and easing one open in the firelight, striving once more to disregard the attention of her remaining companion.
“You want to push Sachiin into fire?” the vampyre speculated.
“It’s lucky I didn’t think of that while he was standing there.”
"Sometime I feel him in my bones, like I am old man."
“At least you don't have Edward staring at you with his lizard eyes... that's like being in a room with something that’s going to bite you if you blink." she muttered, glancing sideways at her own unfortunate simile though Petrouchka's stare expressed no offence. The ensuing silence was punctuated by the complaints of the damp wood chewed over by the flames while the creature observed her, eyes grown narrow.
“You take this book?” she asked, stroking her own hair thoughtfully as she peered down into the lampblack text and deeply-graven woodcuts in Susan's lap.
“I think a bit of research is well overdue.”
“I could not steal from Kala'amātya when he is happy...”
“Yes, well... he should have killed me when he had the chance.” The soft, dusty smell of the vampyre's fur lay heavily on them both, the warmth from the fire holding no sway in the depths of her ash-grey gaze; from studying the flamed-flushed length of the complainant's neck, Petrouchka nodded downward once again.
“Die Kinder der Hölle... ugly stupid book, but we think amuse to have. Is like Jew, having Nazi book.” Susan decided not to express her opinion of the comparison and relented, giving over the shabby volume to the vampyre's covetous, bird-boned hands. They let the pages fall open, then swept them over slowly to expose the title and its blurred, quill-penned inscription. The whipping characters of Helaine de Marchand's signature resolved themselves before Susan was prepared for them.
"Imagine being Lilian and finding this..." she whispered. "I’m going mental and it’s not even me.”
“What is mental?”
"I think she is crazy, to want Kala'amātya, but Helaine was crazy also. I tell her... two bad thing don’t make a good one, but she have no ears." The vampyre gazed down into the hearth. "She was my great friend... such a witch as you will never see these day... she break the ground, and call the blood out of your bone until it pour from your mouth onto your feet..." Petrouchka's voice sank with the shade of her expression. "I don’t like him, for only watching her die. Is not fair she did not see these times... you, you are too lucky. You don't deserve." A disturbing smile moved her features from their slough; her little hands arched and came together in her lap as she found something to relish in her own account. “In our time, if you were woman, you could be slave and live in cage, or escape régime, be free, and have nishto... nothing. Helaine and I, we were queens of this nishto... it was our own. Sometime men would come from town, to put chain on us... we wait for them, and catch, drink their blood and give them to the moon... chase and beat them, screaming, through the woods, and call to the alujha... I hear them still sometime, begging for their life, weeping, like orphan... their terror is a feast for you, you can take breath from it...” Her account was lopped by a belated discretion that tempered the atrocious brilliance of her grin. Petrouchka lifted the book in both hands. “Priest write this book... chush' sobach'ya... you don't find the children of hell from a man who believe heaven. We speak with our own tongue." She turned the volume over slowly. "When Kala'amātya put his gun on you, he speak. And when he let you go, he speak again. Is good to listen.”
“All I do is listen." Susan muttered.
“You don't like to be told? No, I don't like either. But you don't know, so someone must tell you." Leaning forward to set another piece of wood onto the sagging coals, Susan spied a predatory motion of intent that seized the vampyre within the slim, unwitting opportunity her inattention had presented, collared as quickly as it emerged, the culprit sitting back in her chair and sliding her hands into her thick sleeves. Helaine's book remained in her lap. “You like Gideon?” she inquired as though artless. “I like. Dark, but still so séduisant. I know him from Sachiin... four hundred year now. Four hundred, and still we go to restaurant and laugh and curse en Provençal. I think sometime he is tired and maybe want to leave us, but then I see him drink champagne and chase the flesh like he still have heat in his bones... I hope is true... I think is possible... he is twice as old as I, and Kala'amātya, three time as old as that, and we know he is not a buddha.” Petrouchka reached across to pat the volume that Susan had reserved. “This is good book. You read. I think I will go for bath, if there is water. You don't know in this place.”
Her bloodlust departed with the flesh that it commanded. Susan relaxed, avoiding the dead witch’s relic in favour of the other book, a translation from a French work, its worried cotton binding alluding to rough usage. Given Petrouchka’s recommendation, it came as no surprise to see that it was crowded with the vampyres of most known lands, strutting, leering, spilling forth on their crepuscular offensives. They were accompanied by those creatures supposed to haunt the wastes and forests, lissome nymphs reveling in treacherous, indelible beauty, werebeasts devoured by the needs of a binary flesh, sharing the tongue of their witch sisters and consorts, addicted to ecstatic, shameless rites and trances. Other bogies of less certain character rejoiced in lengthy pseudoscientific epithets, but were left largely to the obscurity they most probably desired. The text dripped with sly, admiring apologia, granting the undead the power of flight, the ability to profit from the ages, growing more vital with each passing year, evolving ever toward some remote, transcendent perfection. She set aside perfection as superfluous, but was moved to ponder transcendence, finding an allegory in the flames that worked the dully inert wood into the light that coloured her face and hands.
A car pulled back into the garage, rousing her, and two figures emerged instead of the one she had expected. She glimpsed them in section through the half-closed door, Edward securing his belt buckle, his dark shirt open beneath his jacket while Lilian closed her coat about herself. Neither spoke, but ascended the stairs in the thick of the goad that had driven them back to the house.
Another hour had passed before the presence at the French doors registered on the back of her neck, declaring itself officially with a scratchy little knock. Susan recognized the caller through the glass and slowed her approach, raising her hands to her hips and stopping short. Siobhan’s smirk left no exhalation on the glass, but it perceived her intransigence and crouched lower, chuckling through the keyhole.
“William's not here.” she muttered. “But the other one is, so bugger off before he gets wind of you. He's not in a good mood.” The vampyre shook its little head in mockery of her warning.
“Do ah look like a fuckin stranger t’ tragedy?"
"I told you he's not here."
"Ah cal-clate ye precious petal’s downtown en-dearin himself t’ th’ fuckin populashun as per usual, an ol Ed’s up there, makin Streetwalker Barbie wish she weren’t never fuckin born. Ah know that hoe bah repu-tashun, an she’s wern nasty fuckin glass a bad news. Word is she durn shot out a pimp's brains, but, so she kint beh all bad, heh heh heh... ah’d a payed handsome ta git a peep at that shit. Bitches venta’latin bawds... s’what fuckin Jesus woulda wanned if he'd stuck around. Anyweys... it aint them ah durn peddl’d out t' see.”
She frowned, skeptical as she attempted to digest its discourse.
“You're here to see... me?”
“Ye ketch on quick.”
“Well hell, ah got mah reasons, but if ye sweeter on critter dick then ye are on th' fuckin tea ah got fer ye, don’t let me tear ye away fr’m sittin on ye lonesome cooch suckin down crispeh cremes!” Siobhan sneered, clutching its glittering shoulder cape to its chin and turning to shuffle off. The gibbous moon glared like a spotlight, arranging the garden into layers of funereal colour; the dead wood that William had massed at the foot of the house lay like sticks of giant kindling in their lazy pile. She rubbed her arms while the visitor trundled on over the cold grass toward the orchard, the coruscations playing across its beaded black cape drawing the lines and hollows of its bony shoulders with ruthless precision, the corpse beneath the doleful finery never more wasted or pathetic.
“If you’ve got something to say, let’s just be having it.” Susan advised, closing the door behind herself and standing with her arms folded. Siobhan swung in a U-turn and came back toward her in one conjoined motion.
“Item... ah deal credit where it’s fuckin due. Ah fuckin seen ye, frontin 's well as any homely piece a pink with a taste fer strange'n nasty... got meh thinkin... she don't look too fuckin crazy bout goin down fer th’ count when th’ tahme comes round. An whah shud ye? Aint no fuckin shame in shiftin fer ye’self.” Its features lost something of their pinch as it satisfied itself that they were not overlooked from any window.
“You came all the way out here to tell me I’m a minger and I’m going to die?” she laughed.
“Ah weren’t fixin t’ put it on th’ table without a fuckin ribbon on it. Truth is, ahm comin down hard on th' bitches comin cryin t’meh fer it, thinkin it’s gonna git em outta saggy paps n’ hot flashes... there aint much worse in th’ whole fuckin world then some dead hoe whinin bout how she jest kint suck no more.” Siobhan reassured itself of her attention before continuing. “But that aint yew now, is it? Ye got what ah lahk t’ fuckin call po-tenshul.”
From somewhere on its repellant person it produced a gold-tone tube of lipstick and circled its sunken mouth in the strangely compulsive gesture Susan had already come to revile, looking so much like a Reformation caricature that she almost expected flames to gush from its mouth and ears. Despite the moonlight’s unflattering clarity, whoever the vampyre had once been remained completely imperceptible, buried as surely as an ember under a yard of mud. Susan shuffled her feet against the sudden sense of lassitude that had settled on her, weighting her clothes like dew as she complained.
"I cannot understand a word you're saying."
“Well ye aint hangin off meh lahk a ten buck slut cause ye lahk mah fuckin per-fume.” Siobhan chuckled, reaching under its cape and slipping the catch loose. “But seein as ye are...”
Susan had barely moved before the vampyre was on her like something lunging out of water, securing handfuls of her hair and clothing even as they crashed backward onto the wet grass. She lay winded; its thin arm prised her head back from her shoulder when she hunched against it and opened her mouth to scream, clamping her windpipe closed until she could neither breathe nor utter sound. Kicking and twisting in its grasp, she saw the stars and moon swim thickly on blurred white tails, knowing the coldness of the ground and rage at the hand sealing her throat as suddenly distant forces while the dead face watched her struggle fade. With its knees stamping its bedstone weight into her stomach, the vampyre fastened its gape on her neck, punching teeth so deeply into her flesh that their dry gums bruised the skin between them. It shook its head to worry the wounds open, the hot taste of her blood shot against the roof of its mouth by the pounding of her heart.
A vacuum scoured her brain, licking at her spine and organs like low flame creeping over liquor. The grip on her neck slackened slowly as the vampyre gorged, greedily ingesting throatfulls of her blood until it sputtered and ran from its ragged nostrils and she sucked a single choking breath, the air like acid in her starving lungs, her ear cupping the stream from her throat as her head fell back. The creature snarled against her skin, cursing her ruined vein and forming words that rattled in her windpipe, pushing the arc of her neck so far that she heard her small bones shriek and grind against each other as it tore at her again. Pain slapped at her, shaking her awake and she lifted her hands, fumbling for purchase and digging her heels into the grass, pitching herself toward the house until they fell together against the woodpile and were struck by toppling branches. She rolled free of the tangled wrack, blood draining away into her dress, rising again to swing at the vampyre with one of the broken branches and catching its shoulder as it swayed in crapulous disorder. The creature staggered as hopelessly as she did, unused to the uncontaminated potency of the blood rolling in its gut, cackling brokenly and pawing the air as it lay like the cape it had abandoned. Still clutching her neck, Susan went down on one knee, then keeled onto the grass, the scents of damp earth and broken green departing on the tails of consciousness.
It was in this attitude that Petrouchka discovered her, the cloying stink of Susan's wounds rising as though fuming from a brazier, bending the vampyre like a charmed serpent. She knelt and rolled the girl onto her back, hissing exclamations; Susan opened her eyes, accepting the agony of being dragged by a single arm to the house and propped against the plaster as a disinterested observer. The white linen of the vampyre’s peignoir exposed both the delicacy of her limbs and the caruncular scars that encircled both her knees and elbows where someone had long ago used a thick blade in a rough attempt to partition her. She turned quickly from the supple crimson pooling in the hollows formed by Susan's flesh and took up the length of red-greased timber she had abandoned, towing it toward Siobhan and using it to batter the stirring predator's prone form into a gratifying silence.
"Kala'amātya...” she entreated, returning to its victim. "Biyastra!" Bending low, the latter pressed his fingers beneath Susan's jaw in search of her pulse, studying the volume of blood still coursing from her injuries. Siobhan had vanished, leaving a dark trail of its own upon the grass. Susan brought a hand up to her neck.
“Go away.” she murmured hoarsely, beginning to cry as the pain closed its fist, her sobs squeezing more blood between her fingers. “I’m cold...”
"Get my phone." he told the vampyre.
"Ni khuya sebe! Pozhalujsta... do what you must, I beg you..." Petrouchka entreated, her arms held laxly before her as though they were not her own. "Finish this... think of your brother..."
Despite the vampyre's despairing appeals Edward leant forward and lifted Susan from the ground, shaking her briefly when her eyes rolled up behind their lids.
“Stay awake.” he instructed. Her head lolled in the curve of his elbow, allowing her a blurred glimpse of Petrouchka hunched over her own hands, sobbing to herself as she sucked the blood from her fingers.
When her eyes opened again it was into flame-lit darkness thick with the stench of sweat, burning flesh and hair, and her own clotting injuries. Over her head swung the struggling form of a fowl grasped by its scaled legs, the royal lustre of its wildly flailing wings flashing black and blue and green as they struck her face, its lifeblood streaming from the stump of its headless, dripping ruff. When she moved she felt cold clinging to her, and her hands closed against black plastic, the rustle growing around her legs when she remembered them, even beneath the twinned chant of the women, one white-haired, the other brunette, naked to the waist and daubed in black; they passed the headless bird between them, lifting it to their mouths, the draughts they took from its severed neck swelling their cheeks. Leaning over with their blank black eyes they spat down hard onto her body, the blood swinging from their chins in thick wattles as they roared out the names of the invoked and slapped the smoking flames in their hands over her skin, dousing her with searing embers. Red-stained saliva flooded the back of her throat and she choked on it until someone, stationed at her head, lifted her shoulders from the ground onto their knees. Her gaze fell backward and she saw that it was Edward who knelt behind her. Her blood had dried in wide, crazed streaks upon his white skin, on his side and on his bare arms; they were riven with a dense and plaid-like hatching that seemed to blur and mingle as it crept back toward his body from something approaching order at his wrists. A painted line divided and consecrated his features as he looked down at her, embers falling slowly from his shoulders. He brushed the brands from her hair.
The rhythm of the chant pulsed through the dead oak and the white floor of the bathroom overhead, through Lilian's bare feet, along the bones of her legs and into the depths of her body. She lay down to meet the sound, hands and ribs and hips pressed to the glassy, ice-like tiles, her cheek sliding as she stroked her face against them.
Josephine depressed the remote button again, sitting alone in the climate-controlled darkness of the briefing room long after the senior technicians had departed. On the sleek white screen and on the surface of her dark eyes, the playback began again at her behest, silent enamel blue and black, printing itself into her memory. The fact of the creature sitting immured in its transparent, retrofitted cell lit such diffuse and indemnifying satisfaction that she felt almost luminous, elated beyond all experience. It sat on the floor of its exclusive enclosure, its back to the rear wall, the elegant form of its arms arrested somewhat by the tangled mass of steppe iconography inked into the skin over its hands and wrists. They were such a rude departure from the cryptic, scarified formality of the figures on its back that their rebel intent was declared even to her. In reality, the footage offered a paucity of meaningful detail, suggesting rather than informing, but her private archives overpainted the deficit.
“It is breathing, but it doesn’t use much O2.” O’Connor told her, his long face flexing into a dishonest smile, his ingress having escaped her notice. He sat down on the table beside her with his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his grey trousers, commentating the footage as it played out again. “They deliver another round of inoprophenol...” She watched the long, slender dart device being introduced to a sliding partition in the front of the enclosure, and saw the little missile strike the subject high on its left arm. “Waited twenty minutes... went in...” He took the remote from her and slowed the projection, emphasizing the caution exercised by the two large orderlies on entering the cell, densely ponderous in their body armour beside their lightly-clad objective; though the account contained no audio track, it was apparent that the two men were issuing instructions to the creature. “It’s totally passive... won’t talk, won’t look, will not respond on any level.” The orderlies shook their heads at each other and then reached down to hoist their subject from the floor. “Until you try to impose contact. At least now we can cross inoprophenol off the list of effective agents.”
The creature emerged from its fugue in a moment Josephine blinked away, seizing and swiftly dismantling its tormentors as though they were intrinsically modular, in a process that, while horrifically graphic, was rendered almost abstract by the dispassion of the offender and the employment of its vastly superior strength in the imposition of its will, as though completing the task to a game-show deadline. It left the resulting pieces where they lay, standing with its arms by its sides, strafed by the arterial spray that was rendered in solid navy blue by the camera.
“Look at the total lack of inhibition as it goes for the debrachiation. This thing will literally rip your arm from your body without thinking about it. When have we ever seen this kind of arousal and reaction time, even from a lycanthrope?” His voice trailed off as he shook his head in wonder, reversing and playing the process over. “As much as I hate to admit it, Bateman was right... this thing needs to be written up and registered yesterday. It’s incredible.”
Josephine looked from the screen to the controlling unit in his grasp.
“What did the lab say?”
“They can’t say anything. The samples taken when it entered the system were as unstable as anything we’ve gotten... turns to dust, just like everything else. If we didn’t have the whole thing for context, we’d be back to square one.”
The creature’s submission to their unwitting ambush played over in an endless loop inside her head, vindicating her suspicion of its apathy.
“When can I put in for access?” she asked.
He suspended the inmate's image in the act of walking back to the rear of its cell between the dismembered orderlies, who had ceased to jerk or rock in the midst of the blood that had pooled at the foot of the transparent panel.
“There's a tight circle for now... no one without a special-issue clearance.” The anger in her gaze relegated him in a swift and peremptory process that he did not care for. “Never demand where you can negotiate, Ms Jones." he added, removing his glasses and sliding a little cloth from his pocket to wipe them perfectly clean.
"Thus spoke Arjuna in the field of battle, and letting fall his bow and arrows, he sank down in his chariot, his soul overcome with despair, and grief.”
William’s unheeded narration died a lonely death amid the quiet of his rooms. Rain hissed against the panes behind the heavy red drape, though he had forgotten the inclemency of the night outside, sitting with his back to it; in his hand the little book from which he read had folded closed almost of its own accord. He stared at the talismans stitched into the ancient felt he had laid over Susan’s legs in the low-burning light of the candle, her body almost lost beneath the blankets. The scent of her blood recalled the damage done; he gave over trying to read, and sank more deeply into the chair, letting his eyes drift shut.
They opened again to deep, glowing fuchsia and the sensation of something aliform against his face and hands. Long pink plumes, gently bouffant, slid across his eyes, one after another; he turned his head and saw they formed the recherché raiment of a double line of lissome show girls as they passed by on either side, heads held proud. They were crowned with cocktail-coloured festoons, shimmering diamanté chains swinging from the cups of their bustiers, powdered flesh spilling over the seams. He was bewildered, by their number and their silence, buffeted all the while by the glitter-dusted shoulders and outstretched arms that rose and fell with the count of their routine, their gazes fixed to the distance, eyes outlined in peafowl blue. As they danced, the shadows on their faces swung upward and immersed them; William closed his eyes again, since they were no longer of any use to him.
Another light waxed roe-red over a course of buildings, strung in the distance across a broad lagoon. The air was densely moist; insects danced atop the water, and doubtlessly in the dim lacunas before the distant porticoes. The city lay beneath an idle sunset, its blazing colours lying heavily upon the domes and spires that formed the long spine of its profile. Looking down, he saw that his bare toes lay only inches from the tongues of water that licked toward him over a narrow, silty beach, straining the bounds of a full tide.
He recognized the famous lagoon, and the flank of the crowded city lying some small part of a mile distant, but not the cemetery isle on which he sat. The mausoleums of bronze and marble were crammed as closely as the houses of the living across the passive shoal, testament to the affluent merchant caste interred within, though their seals were undone by saline mist, their walls washed with streaks from the greening corners of their plaques. He sat down on a grave, perplexed. One of the tombs before him stood cracked and leaning, its door prised open. By its footings lay a white gull’s severed pinions.
A female figure appeared, gliding as if borne on air. She leaned forward in an expectant manner, hands clasped at her breast as she neared him, though her features darkened slowly with disappointment and she halted a few graves distant. A rattle scorched his ears, as harsh and sere as a gale whipping salt from a soda lake, dying away into a sullen, hissing chatter.
“Have we met?” William asked. Discerning the style and substance of her garments proved difficult; her dress altered with her movements, appearing one moment as faded palladian drapery, the next as some quilted court gown blurring into fleur-de-lys brocade, then patterned velvet. Her hair fell past her shoulders, its true colour as furtive and indefinable as her clothing in the twilight. Her frown proved more substantial.
“Will you never remember my name?” she sighed, voice dulled by boredom. Her face was a gentle, rounded oval, her skin the colour of sugar melting over fire.
“Sorry...” he admitted.
“I am the lamia Amernis.”
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?”
“When we meet I know that I am dreaming.” she remarked, raising a hand to her mouth as she yawned. She stepped around the stone between them, leaving in the earth behind her a tapered furrow, as though something trailed in her wake, and she took a seat beside him on the grave. “A woman with the look of you about her brought you across the water, and when her demands did not prevail, she treated you roughly and flung you to the ground, naming you the worst of all earth’s creatures. She rejoices at the misfortune of your mistress, and hopes that she may perish while you are sleeping.” the lamia informed him. “Perhaps she is your wife.”
Jumping up, William seized an intagliated headstone and ripped it from the ground, wielding it in both hands to smash a pair of slate crosses, then flinging it at the head of a porphyry cherub. He continued his destructive spree until there was little left of the stone in his hands, coming to a breathless standstill. The lamia toyed with a strand of her own hair, twisting it around her fingers as she observed his frenzy.
“What would I not give to have a lover curse me with such conviction?” she lamented.
“It’s fucking overrated.” William assured her bitterly.
They looked up at a strange, attenuated grunting. To his surprise, a glabrous, pithecoid creature shuffled out of the salty mist and halted before the sepulchre, blinking and snuffling like an idiot cast from a dungeon. Its head was broad, planate and bald; tufts of coarse black hair protruded from its wing-like ears, and its thickly-fleshed arms reached almost to the ground. It came closer upon twisted legs, peering at them with eyes like balls of lignite, grasping half of a human arm in its right paw. It was certainly the most olid beast to have troubled William’s senses; it pressed the knuckles of its free hand to the ground and lowered itself onto the moss before Amernis as though invited to, where it took to crunching on the dismembered limb, stripping it of flesh and regarding William opprobriously in the midst of its gnathic labours.
“This is Dadjin.” said the lamia, watching it ingest both flesh and bone. “He is a Khorezmian ghoul, but comes here, for he esteems its dead above those of other folk. They are kept savoury by wine, usury, and whoremongering, even into their dotage.” William nodded, opening his mouth to breathe so that the visitor’s odour would not sicken him.
“I’d offer you my hand but it’s got sentimental value.”
The ghoul snorted, and addressed him in a thick pidgin of corrupted Latin and his own ancient tongue.
“Why should Dadjin desire your rude thews while a seasoned bounty lies all around?” He recommenced his unsightly repast; Amernis watched him fondly, and the trio sat together for some time, William watching the fabric of her dress change from mazzarine to royal purple.
“For the first time in my life I don't give two fucks about Rana. It’s Susan... every time I look at her I think... what the hell am I doing?” He let his arms fall laxly. “She gets eighty years, I get ten thousand. Pourquoi? I can't even keep a vampyre off her. I’m such a fucking loser.”
“For shame, that you did not guard her against this night creature.” Dadjin scolded.
“Who will defend her if you can not?” the ghoul insisted.
“You don’t have to rub it in.”
“I know not how you can speak of this disgrace.”
“She had told me to fuck off...”
“Do you follow a woman’s word in everything?”
“Yes.” William declared, glaring wide-eyed at the censorious creature. Amernis interrupted her colleague’s reply, leaning forward to cough gently into her hands, then shake spittle from her fingers, in which sparkling diamanté chips and fuchsia feathers were inextricably immured. The ghoul concluded its own meal and bent forward to wipe his face upon the pillowy moss, first one cheek, and then the other.
“Why do you never bring me happy tales?” the lamia complained, frowning down at William as he lay his head in her lap. Her eyes were called toward the water, and a small, shallow-bellied boat of dark wood drew up into the shoal, its prow pushed against the sand by an unseen current. She cast him from her lap and slid down over the beach, wading out into the water and clasping her hands to her chest as she peered into the hull. It was empty.
“I would leave this island, but what of Amernis?” the ghoul confided in a voice like the slow grinding of a hinge. “Few come to seek their doom with her, but she will not join me in my victuals. Dadjin says let it be your need that steers your hand, for soon your wants will follow, but she will hear nothing of this, and in her pride she does surely suffer.” He scratched his side with claws blunted by excavation. “These black dogs come to us all. It profits no beast to wring his hands on their account.”
The furrow carved in the lamia's wake began to fill with seeping water. Across the lagoon the buildings seemed to sink into the horizon as the evening consumed its mantled hues, narrowing the spectrum until only black and blue survived, like smoke steeping from the ashes of a bonfire. Amernis spoke with her face half-turned toward them.
“As for your wife, the dead are best left buried. Dadjin will tell you. And of Susan... her brief years are blessed as yours and mine are not. We are stone... she is a new thing every morning. Remember always, in your foolish imperfection, you are her beloved ideal. Now, go back, Sachiin. You are missed.”
Tilde brushed the blankets on his bed with a rustling sprig of sage and shook it toward the south, while William sat hunched over his legs, sloe eyes reading the creases in the witch’s face as the latter withdrew from her inspection of the patient. Reaching past him, she glanced behind the curtains at the morning that still glistened with the dew arrayed the night before.
“You say four days, and no sign?” she asked.
“Nothing.” he assured her. She shrugged and clapped her calloused hands together softly.
“If she was to turn, should it be from being bitten by this wickedness outside your door?” She let him plead silently with her for a moment longer as part of the penitence she considered due. “But you are lucky, child... I think you will keep her.” the witch pronounced with a gap-tooth smile. He whispered to himself and rested his head on his arms. “Someone has chase this evil out of her for you. And that is dralna handwork.”
“You’re one hundred percent sure she’s going to be alright?”
Tilde shrugged again, gathered up the hem of her purple, braid-trimmed dress and worked her feet back down into her sandals.
“Ja, well, put her in the sun and you will know. I think she will be good... that is my word on it.” She reached out and patted his face, smiling back down at the figure beneath the bedclothes. "Such a lovely girl, so strong and blooming... a shame you won't make her fat and happy, on a farm with pretty babies."
"I know, alright? I'm a worthless incubus... might as well be a vampyre myself..." he sighed dramatically, to which the witch rolled her eyes.
"Chocolate, milk with honey, and gravlax with juniper. You feed this to her, and pancakes. Honest food. Don’t turn your nose or I will come back here and make you eat it. And keep her away from your brother... when we are healing, we don't need his sort of energy.”
"He's the one who helped her."
"Hm!" she murmured, patting the top of her own head. "I suppose we all must begin somewhere."
Beneath the blankets Susan listened to the witch lead William into the hallway, rolling over onto her back with the caution previously instructed by her wounds, still troubled by the ghostly delay between her own commands and the faltering obedience they exacted, as though she floated in her own flesh. The bandage taped to her neck and shoulder tugged her skin but there was nothing of the drumming pain that had woken her the day before. She lay still, her idea of the bed as a land of insulated absolution blackened by thoughts of confinement to that very state, prompting her to throw back the covers with both hands.
Edward’s gaze awaited her as she burst into his suite. Though he stood before the bed with a newspaper in both hands, Susan lunged at him from beneath a cashmere blanket and secured his arm, hauling him down the stairs and slowing only in the grip of vertigo, reliant upon fervour to deliver them to her intended destination. She marched out into the bright morning and stood staring about herself from beneath her cowl; the cold ground under her bare feet made her wince in its shelter, the weave glowing pink at the edges where it shielded her from the sky. He stood where she had left him in the doorway.
"I want you to... if I'm... just do it quickly, if you have to..." she called, exclaiming at his laconicism. “You were going to kill me anyway, so don’t stand there like it's never crossed your bloody mind!” Her face grew smaller, circumscribed by her grasp on the blanket as it tightened under her chin.
"Exsanguination or decapitation?"
“I can decapitate an adult human inside five seconds.” he replied. She stared blankly.
"What, like... one pineapple, two pineapple?" Edward folded his arms and Susan screwed up her frown. “But will I... do you really burn?”
“You become thermoreactive. The skin blisters on exposure to sunlight, at any point on the body. Your ankle might burst into flames before anything else.” She swallowed the bilious mass that rose in her throat and stared down at her amorphous shadow on the grass. “You might have asked if I had a knife.”
“I never really feel as though I have to.” she assured him ruefully. “Alright... if it goes badly, I just want to say thank you... for helping me... I know it was you, and I'm grateful that you tried.”
She loosed her hold on the blanket and threw it to the ground.
From the balcony William watched her stand in the midst of the grass in her T-shirt, looking back to his brother; Susan shed her few items of clothing while her companion turned his back, recommending she inspect herself. He turned again at her repeated insistence to look over her back and shoulders, parting her hair and searching her scalp before declaring them asymptomatic. As a final test she looked up and sought out the white disc of the sun, finding it no more dreadful than before and scrabbling at the dressing on her neck, ripping it free; it stuck to her fingers while Edward handed her garments back to her.
Once more clothed, she stepped forward and seized his hands, holding them tightly in the violence of her gratitude. Though he did not fend her off the sunlight made his features almost intolerably effulgent; in spite of it she glimpsed in him an expression divergent from the cool dissociation that he wore like skin, and further still from that behind the gun that he had held on her, and in a moment of chastening insight it occurred that he was neither as uncommunicative nor impervious as ignorance had insisted. William put his hands on his hips as he came to them.
“Don't do that, Christabel, you’ll get lead poisoning." he warned. "And if you were wanting someone to cut your head off, you could have come to me.”
“Oh shut up and be overjoyed that I’m alive!” she grinned, turning to grasp him comprehensively, then exhibiting the lesions on her neck. “Look at this scar... it’s fucking Evil Dead... at this rate I'll be so hideously ugly in a year’s time I’ll have to start living in the attic with a mask or something... you can tell people I don’t exist and I’ll jump up and down on the ceiling while you’re having sex with models.”
“She’s turned." Edward remarked, leaving them to one another. "There’s an axe in the garage.”
She called thanks to him again, but he did not look back.