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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

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


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Adrienne Brézé liked the s5un. Her Second Birth would come in less than a century, and then she wouldn’t be seeing sunlight ever again, not if she outlived the planet. Now she sat relaxed with her face to the sky on the park bench, legs crossed at the ankle and hands in the pockets of her long duster-style astrakhan coat. Pigeons cooed; there was a slight murmur of traffic, but the narrow streets around Santa Fe’s central plaza mostly held a pleasant smell of spicy local cooking from the restaurants.

People bustled around the little stretch of grass and cottonwoods centered on the Civil War memorial, parcels in their hands. More wandered down the long portico of the Palace of the Governors behind the pine-log pillars, looking at the jewelry the Indians in from the pueblos sold, or prowled the expensive shops on the other three sides; their emotions were almost as predatory as hers. Northward reared the towers of Bishop Lamy’s cathedral, tall Norman Romanesque-Gothic in a low-slung and obsessively Southwestern town, and beyond that the snow-capped peaks of the Sangres.

What... do... you... seek... Daughter... of... the... Night?

She stiffened at the mental touch, then relaxed, closing her eyes and letting the world fade. The feel was unmistakable; like the smell of rock and dust, like watching sunset fading on a wall and eyes glittering in the gathering dusk. One of the Old Ones, a master.

An effort like a push behind the eyes.

I... hunt... our... enemies... Father... of... Darkness.

If... the... traitor... slays... you... we... will... not... aid... or... punish. He... knows... this. We... would... not... lose... the... children... of... your... children... or... his. Much... effort... many... years... and... much... magic... went... into... your... breeding. You... are... Shadowspawn... as... of... the... great... days... and... there... is... Power... in... your... very... blood.

This form of speech conveyed your true emotions unless you were very careful. She was, and kept it neutral as flowing water:

I... have... children.

Only... two... and... you... cannot... bear... after... your... body’s... death. Their... blood... is... questionable... also.

I have deposited... many... ova... with... NewGen... Reproductive... Services... master.

Now he let emotion show: confusion. Oh. Very... well. Slay... or... be... slain.

Her eyes opened; she let out a breath of exasperation that flapped her lips and startled a pigeon at her feet.

“Nice to know I’m valued for more than my womb, you antique sexist pig!” she muttered.

A homeless man was approaching, ready to ask for a handout; leathery skin and rank scent and layers of tattered cloth. She glared at him and found the weakness—a blood-vessel in the brain ready to rupture, weakened by drugs, bad feeding, alcohol and stress from the untreated chemical imbalances that rode him more savagely than even her kind could do. She pushed. The world shifted slightly as might-be switched to is, like a breath of cold air up the spine and a tightness that went click and released around the brows. The man collapsed.

Adrienne rose and stepped by him; it would probably be minutes before someone noticed it was more than the usual unconsciousness. She’d planned on spending the afternoon at the O’Keefe Museum, or possibly shopping for jewelry, but...

But I had to expend energy talking to Mthunzi, damn it! And now I should get back.

A little prickle urged her; now was the time, and no later. Now.

Ah, well, there goes the afternoon anyway.

She bought a burrito and ate it as she walked eastward, enjoying the whimsical wooden statues along the Santa Fe river—what they’d call a creek somewhere wetter. The tangy carne adovada was warm and bit at her tongue as she wandered up Canyon Road. Perhaps the earth-colored adobe and faux-adobe of the galleries could become monotonous in time, but for the present she liked it; it reminded her somehow of the uniformity of Umbrian hill towns in Italy. The sculpture ranged from cowboy-kitsch to weird. One attracted her eye, done in the pseudo-Hopi style; a stick-thin figure with antlers and a long blunt muzzle or mask, raising its arms to the sky.

A memory tugged at her; a recollection of early childhood, sitting on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon and watching—

“It’s Bullwinkle!” she chuckled to herself. “Or close enough for government work. Bullwinkle the Shaman!”

That made her feel a little better as she reached the two-story apartment building and let herself in. Her nostrils expanded as she sprang up the stairs, taking in scents of blood and sweat and fluids; that triggered a delicious trickle of awareness as she opened the door. Pain, throttled rage, endless uncomprehending fear...

And is that a thread of desperate hope? Can’t have that disturbing the harmonies.

“Sweetie! I’m back!” she called cheerfully, and gave a little skip at the shock of despair.

The apartment was small, but so was the building, and it occupied the whole of the second story; a kitchenette, a living-dining room, bedroom, bath and tiny balcony with a decorative string of chili peppers. Even so, it had probably been fairly expensive this close to the plaza and the gallery strip on Canyon Road, and there were a couple of excellent local landscapes on the walls. The telephone was on the divider between the kitchen counter and the living room couch, and it was ringing as she came in. The bruised, naked form of the human was out of the closet where she’d left her and three-quarters of the way across the floor, wriggling desperately towards the telephone despite the gag and the wrist-to-ankle padded cuffs and chains.

Conveniently located in that remarkably naughty collection of bits and pieces under her bed.

The third ring, and then—

Click.

“I can’t come to the phone right now—”

Adrian’s voice broke in: “Ellen, pick up. I’m not playing head-games. You’re in danger, your life is in danger. Remember I told you I have enemies? They’re in town and they’ll try to get me through you. If you won’t call me, just get out of town. I’ll square it with Giselle at the gallery and cover the tab, no strings, don’t even tell me where you’re going, just pick somewhere far away and go. Call me when you’re across an ocean.”

Click.

Ellen stopped her rolling wiggle and slumped. Tears tracked silently down her oval straight-nosed face, joining the marks of others. She snuffled again and again, struggling to breathe.

“Now the telephone,” Adrienne said. “That is a civilized means of communication.”

She checked; three messages from Adrian, the alarm increasing with each one. More left on the cell, and a quick check on the PC showed email as well.

“And you would have gotten to it on the next call if I’d been any later. Impressive determination.”

She threw her coat over a chair, grabbed the other by the slack in the chain and dragged her to the edge of the sofa. The haunted blue eyes stared at her as she sat and pulled her loose gray blouse over her head.

“You can never get blood out of silk, and this outfit is a Dominique Sirop original. Are you listening to me? I get upset when people don’t. It’s a weakness of mine.”

A frantic nod, and she went on: “You know what I was doing, when I could have been in the O’Keefe or shopping or back here torturing you? I was talking to Master Mthunzi, head of the Council’s breeding program. He’s in that ridiculous Zulu witch-doctor’s shack he keeps in the Drakensberg. And how did we have our little intercontinental chat? Did he—”

She pulled an oblong object out of a clip on her belt and held it up before she tossed it onto the chair with the coat and blouse.

“—phone me or instant-message me or text me or send an e-mail on my very expensive fifth-generation everything-but-a-vibrator Blackberry? No, he did not.”

She unclipped the small holster and automatic from the small of her back, threw it on the chair and waggled a finger in the bound woman’s face.

“Nooooo. We had our little conversation by long-distance telepathy. And... you... end... up... talking... like... this... and... do... you... know... why?”

Her voice rose. “Because... at... that... range... telepathy has shit bandwidth! So much for the lost Golden Age of the Dread Empire of Shadows.”

She sighed. “Why, why, why do we have these relics, these fossils, these Pleistocene cave-painting wannabes running the Council of Shadow?”

Then she put a hand to her forehead and let her eyes widen in mock surprise.

“Oh. We’re immortal. That’s why. You would not believe what the low turnover does to middle-management career paths.”

Ellen began sobbing again, low and quiet and desolate. Adrienne shut her eyes and shivered with a delight that made the tiny hairs down her spine stand as the skin crept and her breath come faster. Her tongue came out and touched her lower lip.

“Oh, now you’re making me hungry, you flirt, you. Well, enough about politics and my working day. Time to have a snack.”

The human began to squeal like a trapped rabbit as she was heaved effortlessly onto the sofa, shrill even through the rubber-ball gag. Adrienne knelt on the floor and slapped her face back and forth. When she was quiet again:

“Now, if you promise to scream quietly, I’ll take that gag out and let you blow your nose before I feed on you. All right, chérie?”

A nod.

“You promise?”

Another. She unbuckled the leather strap and tossed it aside, ignoring the lung-stretching breath the other was taking.

HEL—”

Only one syllable broke free before her hand clamped on the throat. Just a touch of thumb and little finger, but she could feel the nerve impulses running beneath the sweat-damp skin. So and so.

Ellen bucked and heaved. Her face turned dark with blood as the throat clenched, and her eyes began to bulge. Her heart hammered louder and louder as the awareness of death surged up from the hindbrain. Adrienne bent over her, lips parted.

Yes, oh God, yes... no, no, not yet. Was that Help or Hell? But later, later. You can only kill them once.

A whooping gasp as the muscles around the trachea relaxed. Adrienne waited until awareness returned, and then dabbed at the blond woman’s face with a Kleenex from the end-table.

“Ellen! You promised!” she said. “Mutual trust and reciprocity are very important to a successful relationship! Now, you’re not going to break any promises again, are you?”

“No.”

A breathy whisper, but there was sincerity behind it.

“Then let’s get these ridiculous chains off you. There, that’s better, isn’t it? Here. Blow. Your tears and blood are delicious, but I draw the line at snot.”

She held out her hands over the human’s body and wiggled her fingers, running them through the air from knees to chin and back.

“Where, where, where shall I bite? Yes, the neck is traditional but the marks might draw attention. I thought we’d go out to La Casa Sena on Palace afterwards, the Insight Guide recommends the food there highly. Fiber and bulk are important for me too and you should get plenty of protein to keep up your red-cell count. No, hands above your head. Stretch, that’s it. My, you are in good condition. I do hate the way the obesity epidemic produces deeply buried veins and over-sweetened blood. It’s like drinking second-hand McDonald’s toadburgers. And you have such delicate skin. I can see your pulse all over.”

“Please, please don’t hurt me any more. I’ll be good, I promise, I’ll do anything. Just don’t hurt me, please.”

“Oh, are you going to beg and plead? Why, you saucy minx! I absolutely love that! You know, we’re not in a hurry... but there are those who argue that it’s immature to play with your food. You don’t think that, do you?”

A whisper: “No.”

“Good.”

She reached out a finger and touched the other’s navel, tickling.

“Because to them I say... well, actually, I don’t say anything to them. I just make their heads explode.”

 

@@@

 

“God, that tastes like absolute shit,” Adrian said, and spat into the sink to clear his mouth. “Merde. Scheisse. Mierda. Shǐ dàn. There are no words.”

“That never stopped you before,” Harvey said. “You always were an articulate little bastard. Give it a try. I’ve only heard your bitching and moaning about blood-bank surplus a couple of hundred times.”

The younger man nodded. “Like eating week-old roadkilled skunk on a hot day.”

He threw the emptied blood-bag into the waste disposal and gripped the rough edge of the granite countertop, barring his teeth as he fought against a surge of nausea. The blood burned its way down his throat like the cheapest raw bathtub hooch ever made, edged with sandpaper, and coiled in his gut like a burning snake. His breath hissed out, and then the contents of his stomach stopped trying to climb back up his gullet.

“Glad to see you’re not enjoying it,” Harvey said dryly.

“It’s dead, it’s cold, and worst of all it’s from someone who was calm and relaxed as they did their civic duty at the blood bank and listened to fucking New Age water music. But I need the oomph.”

He laughed mirthlessly and reached for the glass of red wine. It cleared his mouth, but the effect of the blood was hitting his nerves now. He could feel them like a metallic web beneath his skin, more alive but jangled with a nails-on-slate quiver from the crown of his head to the tips of fingers and toes. The warning flutter of a migraine started at the back of his brainstem, telling him what the payment for the foul blood’s sudden strength would be.

“Shadowspawn make a big thing of how we’re like wolves and tigers and whatnot, heap bull-goose top predators, but you know what we’re really like? Mosquitoes.”

Adrian looked through the open well in the kitchen wall and into the dining area. The horizon was darkening in the east, but it wasn’t quite night yet. The coming of it thrilled along sharpened senses, an impulse to run through the sage and juniper, to hunt and howl and stalk. To leave the prisoning flesh behind. He snarled at the thought.

“Woah, boy,” Harvey said, and he realized it must have been a literal snarl as well.

“She’s got Ellen,” he said grimly.

“Not proven. The girl could just be so pissed off with you she won’t return your calls. Remember, if she hasn’t met your lovely sister, what you’re saying sounds like conspiracy-theory rants.”

“I know Adrienne. It’s a taunt. She always stole my toys.”

“Let’s get ready. Sunset’s coming.”

“Hour travel time to Santa Fe. We could leave about now.”

“No, too chancy. I’m not going outside my protections without full dark to work with—that’ll equalize things. We should be able to get to Ellen’s place by around seven-thirty, and at least pick up the trail.”

Harvey hesitated, then said. “She got you spooked?”

“Yes,” Adrian said frankly. “It’s not just the thought that I might lose. It’s the way fighting her makes me more similar to her, inside my head. She knows that, too.”

“Well, fightin’s the only alternative we got, right now.”

The older man opened his traveling case and dressed from it; boots and pants and belted high-collared tunic of loose black leather, with gloves and close-fitting hat. Adrian could feel the mesh of ultrathin silver wire within, like the sensation of having a tooth drilled when the painkiller didn’t quite work.

“Christ, I don’t know how you can stand that,” he said. “Besides looking as if you’re cruising for rough trade, or scouting for Ming the Merciless.”

“In San Francisco, I look positively restrained. You do the Power stuff. I shoot.”

He took a weapon out of the case. It was a double-barreled shotgun cut down to a massive pistol, an old-fashioned model simple as a stone axe with external hammers and all the metal parts silver-inlaid. Adrian winced and extended a hand towards it.

“Gelatin slugs?”

“Silver nitrate and a trace of radioactive waste in liquid silicone,” Harvey said. “If there were Shadowspawn elephants, this would knock ‘em down. It wouldn’t do a renfield anything but harm, either.”

He slid it into the loops inside the skirt of the leather coat, and added a box of shells to one pocket.

“Nasty. I notice you’re not trying to use revolvers any more.”

Harvey shrugged. “Failure rate got too high, like the way it did with automatics back in the ‘40’s. The more probability gets warped—”

“—the easier it is to warp,” Adrian finished.

“I’ve got the blades, too,” the older man said, tapping the insides of his forearms. “They always work.”

“Good. If I really had to do it and didn’t care how much it hurt, I think I might be able to screw the action on that monster-truck coach gun. Or possibly the charge in the shells. And if I can do it, she can.”

“Shit. We’ll be back to crossbows, next.”

“Yeah, only they will still be able to shoot you with machine-pistols. Now, what was that about them not really winning?”

Adrian was already in what he intended to wear; nearly-new hiking boots, jacket and trousers of charcoal-grey denim and roll-topped shirt, casual-smart enough for street wear but tough and nonbinding and giving reasonable protection to his skin if he had to move fast. He went to the Cassatt in the hallway and swung it back. The safe beneath the picture-frame had no handle, only a blank disk of steel in its center. He placed a palm against it, and let the rhythm of the circuits resonate. When they did, he thought a phrase in a language that had been long dead when Stonehenge was new.

Click-clunk.

The thick steel wedge swung open. The interior was bigger than you might expect. He reached in and took out a Glock, checked the magazine and snapped it home. There were bundles of various currencies inside the safe as well, passports in several different names, and a leather case that held ranked SD memory cards and small sealed vials. He took out a black nylon knapsack and checked the contents; colored chalks, artist-style markers, three steel hypodermics shaped to be used as daggers and loaded with a mixture much like the filling in the slugs of Harvey’s coach gun. And a sheathed knife, with a curved nine-inch blade and a hilt of dimpled black bone, next to a rolled-up black right-hand glove of a heavy soft material. He set his hand to the knife, hissing slightly at the twinge of pain through the insulation.

“Like old times,” Harvey said with a crooked smile.

Adrian put his arms through the straps of the knapsack and tucked the blade beneath the tail of his jacket.

“No. In the old days we’d have had more backup. And so would Adrienne. It would have been official, part of the war. There’s something wrong here. She’s left me alone for years, since I retired. Why now?”

“Crazed bloodlust and twisted sexual obsession? Hate? Monstrous cruelty?”

“Oh, sure, and backatcha, standard Shadowspawn family dynamics. But there’s something happening here I can’t put my finger on. The Council may not stop her but it isn’t going to thank her for this.”

“The Brotherhood isn’t going to be all that happy with me, Adrian. They don’t really like you all that much these days and we don’t have resources to spare.”

Adrian faced him and made a gesture—what would have been a fist against the shoulder, if he hadn’t been wearing the silver-strung leather.

“I appreciate this, Harv. You always were stand-up.”

A shrug. “If we’re going to commit suicide, let’s get it over with.”

 

@@@

 

“—tzin!

Ellen Tarnowski stood exactly where she’d been told. She swallowed and tried to make her legs stop shaking, and fought against the fog that threatened to roll in from the corners of sight.

I thought I was as afraid as I could be. I was wrong. This feels... bigger. It’s the way you’d be afraid of an avalanche.

Her apartment felt wrong now; somehow the whole world did, a sensation that the smell of stale sweat and blood and musk magnified.

All the furniture had been pushed back against the walls. Adrienne Brézé stood in the center of the living-room wearing only a black lace thong, legs and arms outstretched to make a chi-cross, an outline against the faint light leaking from the nearly-closed bathroom door. It caught on her eyes in an occasional glitter of golden-brown, or on a sheen of sweat against olive skin. Her fingers moved in small, intricately precise motions and her face had the blank intensity Ellen had seen before on artists lost in their work.

Now and then she spoke. At first it had been in Latin, and then in a language Ellen didn’t even recognize much less understand, full of clicks and whines and buzzing sounds and restless sibilants. Several times she took a piece of colored chalk and marked a glyph on the floor, odd spiky shapes that made the insides of Ellen’s eyes itch until she let her gaze fall out of focus. One last word, a sound that refused to render itself into syllables at all; she made herself stop trying when it began to circle around inside her head like a wasp.

What is that? she wondered. It doesn’t really sound like speech.

The eyes swung her way, and she tried to freeze even her thoughts.

 “It’s Mhabrogast,” the deadly velvet voice said. “According to legend, it’s the language spoken in Hell. The native tongue of demons. Adrian really has been keeping you in the dark, eh?”

Ellen whimpered. Adrienne smiled with a catlike turn of the lips.

I didn’t ask! Ellen cried silently. I just thought it. Can she read my mind? Oh, God, can’t I even think?

Adrienne sighed and relaxed her stance.

“There, that will do it. Read your mind? Emotions, intentions, sensations, oui, easily. But for verbal thoughts, well, telepathy’s a quantum entanglement process and it takes time.”

“Quantum entanglement?” she said, bewildered.

“Do I look like a physicist? Damp towel, dry towel, my new clothes. Quickly! Soon this won’t be a good place anymore, however happy the memories of it we share.”

She obeyed. Adrienne’s eyes remained abstracted, with none of the cat-playful malice of the past day. Somehow that was just as terrifying.

“Now, pick up the bags and walk precisely behind me until we’re out on the road.”

They went out into the cold of early evening. The moon was a thin-pared tilted sickle and Venus was bright in the east, but the dying sun still washed most of the stars out from the dark-blue arch of heaven. Ellen let the suitcases thump to the ground and hugged her fringed wrap around her shoulders, conscious of things not seen out of the corners of her eyes.

A faint gleam of light showed through the window that had been her home. Adrienne put her hands on her hips and grinned; her eyes seemed to follow patterns in the air above the two-story building.

Damn, but I am good!” she said, the mad cheerfulness back in her voice. “Now, let’s go before my brother shows up.”

“He’ll rescue me,” Ellen said, then whimpered as she heard the words.

“He’ll certainly try,” Adrienne agreed. “It’s not that I don’t love you for yourself, chérie, but you make the most wonderful bait. How are you feeling?”

“Weak. Shaky. Sore all over. I don’t think I can drive now. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t. I’m afraid I’d wreck the car.”

“Well, then,” Adrienne said, putting an arm around her waist and helping her to the Prius. “Let’s get you something to eat.”

She sat curled shrimp-fashion, hugging herself in the passenger seat. The sun was declining in the implausible crimson-green-blue-gold glory that Santa Fe alone seemed to have. As Adrienne drove towards the bridge over the river she began to sing softly:

 

“Elizabeth Bathory

Draining her girls in the night so no one will hear

No one comes near

Look at her bathing, splashing her toes

In the night when there's nobody there

What does she care?

All the bloodless bodies

Where do they all come from?

All the bloodless bodies

Where do they all belong?”

 

As they passed the streetlights came on and died above them, each with a slight discernable pop.

 

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


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