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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

Ellen Tarnowski pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine; utter silence fell, save for the pinging sounds of hot metal contracting. With the car stopped she could rest her forehead on the wheel and let the tears flow.

“I love him. I loved him. And he never let me in, he never told me the truth. Oh, shit, shit, shit!”

When she raised her eyes again the glow of the headlights broke in rainbows for a moment from the drops on her lashes.

“And I hope the flying gravel ruined his stupid Ferrari!”

The thought made her hiccup laughter and then choke on another sob. Then she rubbed a hand across her eyes and started at the sight of a human figure standing at the edge of the pool of light. Her foot hesitated over the gas pedal and her hand was on the shift when the half-seen shape walked towards the car—towards the passenger side. She turned her head to follow, and her left elbow slipped down on the lock and window controls.

Chunk. Whrrrrr.

The high-desert chill poured into the slightly steamy warmth of the car and the overhead light came on. Ellen felt a cleansing surge of anger as an infinitely familiar countenance stooped to look in at her.

“If you think you can talk me around again, you fucking—”

That’s not Adrian, she realized an instant later. It’s not even a man. Get a grip, girl! Start separating and stop obsessing!

But the resemblance was eerie. The same oval sharp-chinned face on a long skull, lobeless ears, the same wide forehead, the same yellow-flecked brown eyes and smooth olive complexion. The hair was raven-black and silky too, but far longer than Adrian’s ear-length. And she was in her mid-twenties, like Adrian, like Ellen herself. Embarrassment gave her a little strength; she knew her face must be streaming tears.

“Excuse me,” she managed, after clearing her throat and swallowing. “I thought you were someone else.”

She couldn’t see another car and this was a long way from anywhere, unless you were a coyote. The city-glow of Santa Fe was barely visible eastward through the high-desert night, the blaze of stars almost undimmed.

“Are you in trouble?”

“No, you are,” the other said.

“What?” Ellen said, wiping at her tears with a wad of Kleenex.

“My, my,” the woman went on, in a voice like warm velvet stretched over the edge of a knife. “How could Adrian bear to give up such sensitivity? Your emotions have a bouquet like steak tartare with a little chopped wild onion and a touch of horseradish. Marvelous!”

The words were English—with a slight trace of an accent and foreign diction; French-but-not-quite, she thought, like Adrian’s except stronger. But they made no sense. Ellen felt as if she’d run down stairs and expected one more at the bottom that wasn’t there. The stranger leaned forward through the window, with both her elbows on the upper edge of the door-ledge.

She’s got the same sort of hands, too, Ellen realized suddenly. Long fingers but the first three all the same length. Pianist’s hands. Strangler’s hands.

Her teeth were white and even and a little disquieting as she smiled cheerfully.

“You’re subject to muscle cramps, aren’t you? Especially when you’re under stress. High probability, at this point.”

“I think you’d better go—”

The sick pain gave just enough warning for Ellen to grab at her neck and bend away from it to relax the knot. It felt as if the muscle were about to tear loose from the base of her skull and her shoulder at the same time. A breathy gasp escaped her. She could see the stranger open the door and slide into the other seat through a blurred gaze. Then her knee jerked up as another cramp knotted into the sole of her foot. But that was impossible; they never came more than one at a time.

The third hit in her thigh, just above the back of her knee. Her diaphragm locked on a retch and her eyes rolled up in her head as her hands locked and the fingers curled in spastic quivers. There was nothing in all the world but her flesh trying to writhe off her bones like snakes.

She never lost consciousness, not quite, but everything blurred away. When she came fully back to herself she was hunched across the wheel making small snuffling sounds. The humiliation of feeling strings of drool dangling from her lips made her wipe frantically with the Kleenex; there was nothing she could do about losing control of her bladder except get home. It had never been that bad before, or not since she was a child.

Even without the agony that had left her trembling and weak she wouldn’t have been able to resist the hands that gripped her right arm at wrist and just below the shoulder, turned and locked it. The stranger’s face bent towards the inside of her elbow, hidden by the fall of black hair, but dull curiosity was all she could feel. There was a sudden icy pain in the thin skin there, a mere flicker compared to what the cramps had done but sharper somehow.

The fog lifted from her mind, but the weakness remained; that gradually gave way to a glassy, almost pleasant calm where she didn’t want to move. She slumped against the door, unable even to look away.

Someone is drinking my blood, she thought. Some remote objective part of her decided: This is gross.

“Marvelous,” the other said when she sank back, licking her lips.

Her face was glowing with delight, as if lit from within. She touched a finger to the small wound, and it clotted with unnatural speed.

“Properly prepared the right emotions give these layers of taste. I don’t care what our biochemists say, it’s not just pheromones and seratonins and analogues to MDMA. There’s a deeply spiritual aspect. Don’t you think so? Forgive me if I’m babbling but to me that was like a really massive hit of snow. Or pure crystal meth.”

“Who are you?” Ellen whispered; the calm was thinning, but it lay like melting ice across panic. Her breath came faster. “What are you?”

“Well, on the what front I don’t need to be afraid of perky cheerleaders with sharpened broom-handles,” she said. “And my name is Adrienne. Adrienne Brézé.”

That gave her mind something to grasp at. “You’re his sister?”

A peal of laughter. “I’m his evil twin!”

Adrian isn’t a monster, she thought; the odd clarity still held her a little. He’s an asshole but he’s not a monster.

“Do you mean he actually never... oh, the poor boy is even more troubled than I thought!”

Ellen screamed and tore at the door-handle. It snapped in her hand; that was enough to jar her to silence, staring at the little curved shape of metal. She released it, and it fell to the carpeting with an almost inaudible thud.

“There’s always a possibility of that happening,” Adrienne said. “Fatigue in the crystalline structure. And you were pulling very hard. Now drive us to your place. We have so much to talk about. After all, we both want what’s best for Adrian, don’t we?”

“No! Get out, get out—”

The other’s hand gripped her jaw with brutal, astonishing strength and pulled their faces together until they almost touched. The velvet tone turned to a hiss:

Drive, she-ape. Or I’ll peel you like a tangerine!”

 

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“Thank you, Herr Müller,” Adrian Brézé said, in German. “Most comprehensive and detailed.”

Thank you for making me do this with a hangover, he added mentally, blinking in the bright late-afternoon sunlight that poured through the great windows behind him and reflected off the pale stucco of the wall and the backs of the books.

One might argue it’s my fault, but it’s also far too painful for me to be fair, he went on to himself as he hit the button and the drapes swept across to put the room in shadow.

The man on the other side of the video call was square-faced, with thinning blond hair and an immaculate suit. If he found Adrian’s bathrobe odd for what was technically a business meeting, he didn’t say a word. The commissions probably ensured that, even for an anal-retentive German broker in Frankfurt.

“I believe the quarterly report is satisfactory,” Müller went on. “Especially considering current market conditions.”

“It will stay satisfactory as long as my instructions are followed precisely,” Adrian said. “That was why I parted company with Willoughby’s in London. They took time arguing with me in ’09, and cost me a good deal.”

“There will be no problems of that nature with us, Herr Brézé.” A hesitation. “Although I would appreciate some idea of the procedure you use for your selections.”

“I look at the listings and flip a coin,” Adrian said succinctly. “It’s a subconscious process.”

A slight sour smile rewarded him. “As you wish, Herr Brézé.”

When the screen on the wall returned to its drifting colors he rose and walked down the long corridor to the pool room. It wasn’t large, but it did have a wave function that let you swim against an artificial current. And it was gratefully dim, which helped with his throbbing headache.

He’d tried to drown his sorrows in a bottle of Camus Cuvée 3.128. Getting drunk on that miracle of the Grande Champagne country was mildly blasphemous, and hadn’t solved his problems. It didn’t make the house less echoingly empty, or chase away the shadows of Ellen’s presence that would haunt it now.

Cognac didn’t make me feel less cold.

But at least the brandy had delayed having to think about it, and the pain did the same now.

I wouldn’t have been good for her in the long run, anyway. You shouldn’t be around real people, Adrian. You know that. You know why you didn’t try harder to make it up. Keep that thought in mind. Ellen... deserves better. All you can do for her is let her go, and make it plain it’s all your fault.

“Which evidently she does. Throwing a decanter at your head is a hint, Adrian.”

He drank four glasses of water, did some stretches and slipped into the pool. Tylenol, rehydration and exercise made him feel—

“Halfway human,” he said as he toweled off, laughed and swept back the drapes.

He was still hungry after scrambled eggs with chives, three rashers of Canadian bacon and pumpernickel-rye toast.

“But then, I’m always hungry,” he murmured to himself, the habit of a man much alone.

The hunger never went away, but you could learn to act as if it had; just as he could put aside the ache that he’d never be seeing Ellen again

“You have experience with enduring cravings that can never be satisfied, eh?”

His mood was mellow enough after the second cup of Blue Mountain coffee and first cigarette that he only cursed mildly when the doorbell rang. It was someone who knew the code, too.

There was a screen over the sink in the kitchen. He looked at the man standing outside his front door and sighed; medium-tall, tanned, cropped white-and-brown hair, very fit for sixty, dressed in jeans and boots and windcheater, and holding up an elevated middle finger to the should-have-been-invisible video pickup. Adrian sighed again and stacked the dishes in the washer.

“Harvey!” he said, opening the door without standing aside. “How not glad I am to see you again after so long!”

“You’d rather have a giant pink rabbit on your doorstep?”

“I can do that. You can’t.”

“Stop being an asshole and let me in, Adrian,” Harvey said.

The gravelly voice held a hint of Texas, smoothed and overlain by a lifetime of travel. His eyes went up and down the younger man’s form, from silk polo shirt to handmade kidskin shoes.

“Still dressing like an Italian pimp, I see.”

“Like a very expensive French gigolo, actually. Come on in, and don’t stay as long as you like. Mi casa es mi casa.”

Harvey Ledbetter walked through and stopped for a moment to look at a gold-and-umber toned painting of a woman in a long dress, sitting with her back to the viewer and reading before a dresser.

“Souvenir from the London thing in ’02?”

“They’d only take it again if I returned it to the museum,” Adrian said.

Harvey grunted agreement, then went on into the glass-walled living room.

“Still living in this silicon-birdcage piece of sub-Corbusier shit,” he said. “I wouldn’t, if I had your money.”

Looking down his gaze swept over a steep tumbled wilderness of ravines and piñion and juniper and patches of old snow. In the middle distance two mule deer sprang out of bare cottonwoods along a creek, and a red-tailed hawk went by just below the retaining wall at the edge of the cliff. Beyond lay a ragged blue immensity, rising to the snow-capped Sangre del Christo range.

“I send you a lot of my money. Besides, I’m a Shadowspawn, remember, Harvey? I’m evil. Of course I like Modernist architecture.”

“You bought it for the view. And you’re not evil, you just have a lot of relatives who are,” Harvey said.

A low table in rough-cast glass held a malachite box. Harvey opened it and took one of the slim brown-banded cigarettes within and lit it.

“And anyway,” he went on, sinking into a leather-cushioned chair. “A lot of Shadowspawn hate Modernist stuff.”

“That’s the old Moustache Petes. Some of them still wear opera cloaks all the time. For God’s sake, Brâncuşi sleeps in a coffin!”

“You’re not keeping up with the war news,” Harvey grinned.

“No, I’m not. I told the Brotherhood I was resigning after that monumental cluster-fuck in Calcutta and made it stick when they threatened me.”

“As I recall, I backed you up on that.”

“You did. I thank you again. You’re still not going to talk me into coming back. What part of retired don’t you understand, Harv? We’ve had this argument before.”

“Thought you might want to know about Brâncuşi. He’s dead.”

Adrian raised an eyebrow. “He’s been dead since 1942, and it hasn’t slowed him down much.”

“No, I mean really dead, not just his birth-body. I took a team in there and we got some plutonium wedges into his coffin. That’ll teach him to use a mausoleum without an escape tunnel just because it’s authentic.”

Adrian froze for an instant. The ghost of a pain worse than silver shivered along his nerves.

“Christ. Now I’m impressed,” he said. “It’s been... a long time since the Brotherhood got one of the masters.”

“Since we got one, Brézé and Ledbetter, best team in the business. Remember Zhuge Jin? Good times, right?”

Adrian remembered naked terror, the pain of knives slashing at his body, the rage that could not be contained and the face of a killer beast staring at him from his own mirror.

“Not exactly,” he said dryly. “And it didn’t accomplish anything. The bad guys won a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, I can turn on CNN.”

“You’re even more optimistic than usual, Adrian. What happened, a truck run over your puppy?”

Adrian went to stand before the window, looking over the hills and letting smoke curl out of his nostrils as the sight soothed him.

“Well, my girlfriend left me last night.”

“She throw a bottle of brandy at your head, or did you just crawl into one?” Harvey said, his nostrils dilating. “Smells like good stuff.”

“Both.”

“She’s OK?” Harvey’s voice was careful.

Adrian’s mouth quirked up. “As far as I know, unless she went off a curve driving back to town. And the police would have contacted me if that happened. Call it a learning experience.”

The other man relaxed. “And what did you learn?”

“That masochists don’t really want to be treated badly. They just want to play at being treated badly. And that the more I knew Ellen, the more I liked her; and more I liked her, the more I knew I was bad for her. It’s... not a problem with any solution that’s good for me. I hope she can be happy, but that meant letting her go. Driving her away.”

The banter dropped out of the other man’s voice. “You’re part human, Adrian. Never forget it. You’re not a bad person. You’ve got problems but you try hard to work around them. Dammit, I raised you for ten years. I know.”

“I killed my foster-parents, Harvey. My egg hatched and I know what came out.”

Harvey shook his head. “I don’t think you did kill them, Adrian. I think that was your sister. And... she’s back in town. That’s what I came to tell you.”

Adrian whirled. His cigarette fell from his fingers to the rough flagstone of the floor.

“You’re sure?” he whispered. “Adrienne?”

“Pretty sure. We’ve got a hack on the face-recognition program Homeland Security is running on the surveillance cameras at Albuquerque Sunport. I can’t think of anywhere else in New Mexico she’d be interested in. She’s not one of their watchers at Los Alamos and they don’t have anyone that high-powered working the State government. Their renfields handle that.”

“Christ! I thought the Council were going to leave me alone if I stayed out of things!”

Harvey stared at him, his faded blue eyes steady. “Like, you trust them?”

“Well... no. More like trusted their self-interest in keeping me retired.”

“The Brotherhood don’t think she’s here on an official errand for them, anyway. She still has a major jones for you.”

“Tell me about it.”

He picked up the cigarette, crushed it out, tried to light another. That fell from his hands onto the floor. He forced himself to breathe, in and out, in and out.

Fear is natural. Let it pass without feeding on itself.

“And she might not give a damn what the masters thought. Shadowspawn...”

“Aren’t team players, yeah,” Adrian said, keeping the raw terror out of his voice by main strength. “Especially not us concentrated pure-strain types.”

He scrubbed his hands across his face, feeling his brains begin to work again.

I hate that deer-in-the-headlights feeling. Fuck, she hasn’t killed or turned me yet, and it’s not because she didn’t try! The honors were about even in Calcutta.

A little voice whispered at the back of his mind:

But since then she’s been practicing, growing stronger, and you’ve been trying to deny what you are. You both have the genes for the Power, but that only means so much. You were a warrior then. What are you now?

“I can’t very well appeal to the Council to call her off, either,” Adrian said. “Not if it’s a family matter—and they’d think it was.”

“She is your twin sister, biologically speaking,” Harvey pointed out.

Adrian turned and shook his head slowly. “No. She’s my anima. My own personal nightmare. She’s the mirror I can’t break. How long has she been here?”

“A little less than two days. Probably sniffing out the lay of the land.”

Then Adrian’s face went fluid; he could feel the blood draining from it, with a shock greater than fear for himself.

Ellen!

 

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Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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