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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

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


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

Átahsaia!”

The old Pueblo woman who’d been offering the tray of silver knickknacks stared at Adrienne and backed away, slowly. There was naked terror in her eyes, pouched in the wrinkled brown face. The dying sunlight brought the folds out in stark relief, like desert canyons, as it cast the pair’s shadows over her.

Adrienne spoke in something that wasn’t English or Spanish; Ellen thought it was an Indian language, and she could see the street-vendor understood it. She turned and ran in a lumbering shuffle with her long bulky skirts swaying, shouting:

Átahsaia!

“I’d have to be really hungry,” Adrienne said dryly. “Though in the end blood is blood.”

Ellen blinked. “What’s Átahsaia?” she said.

There was no point in not asking, not when even her mind’s privacy wasn’t her own. It was less disturbing than having unasked questions answered.

Adrienne chuckled. “A cannibal demon. Everyone has legends about us.”

“Are all the legends true?”

“Only the bad ones. The others... wishful thinking on the part of you humans, I’m afraid.” A grin, and: “I love explaining things to you.”

“Why?”

“To feel the way your mind leaps when you realize just how bad things are, and then the squirming as you run through the implications and they sink through layers of your consciousness. Stupid people are boring that way. Anyone can feel agony when you violate their bodies, but only the intelligent can know true mental torment.”

They walked through the tunnel-like entrance and into the courtyard; Ellen felt her stomach growl at the smells, despite the taste of acid at the back of her throat. The body went on functioning, even when the world dropped out from beneath your feet.

La Casa Sena was only a little way up the street from the Palace of the Governors. It had started out as the town place of a wealthy hacendado more than a quarter of a millennium ago, the blank outer walls a sign of times when a rich man’s house on the remote New Mexican frontier had to be a fortress and a workshop and a barracks as well as a dwelling. Inside two tall stories of adobe made a courtyard around a flagged garden. The planters were bare with winter and the stone bowl of the fountain was dry, but huge cottonwoods laced with lights towered above the roof level.

The maitre d’hotel greeted them at the door, beside a little glassed-in cover that showed the deep original household well.

“Ms. Brézé and guest, for five thirty,” Adrienne said. “I requested a corner table.”

He didn’t know her, but he could read her platinum and tanzanite necklace and her clothes—a soft draped black dress by Kokosalaki, with a high waist and a pleated front, the sort of thing that only that sort of slender androgynous figure could bring off. And Adrian was a regular customer, who’d brought Ellen here more than once.

“Your table is ready, Ms. Brézé. And how do you do, Ms. Tarnowski? It’s good to see you again. Will Mr. Brézé be joining you ladies this evening?”

“I don’t think so, not here,” Adrienne said. “We’re expecting him to drop in at a little housewarming party I’ve arranged in a few hours, though.”

Within was handcrafted Taos-style furniture and museum-quality local landscapes on the pale walls. Aromatic split piñion crackled in an arched white fireplace. Waiters’ heels clacked softly on the tile floors, and there was a murmur of conversation and the gentle bell tones of well-wielded cutlery.

This can’t be happening, Ellen thought. I’ve come here before. People know me here. What if I screamed—

Adrienne smiled at her. “I like it when you scream, chérie,” she said. “But carrying you out when you had a fit, and telling everyone about the way you’d skipped your medication... tiresome. It would mean missing dinner.”

The smile grew broader. “Then I would have to punish you. Would you like that?”

“No. Please, no.”

“I didn’t think so.”

The waiter returned with a basket of warm bread and rolls and garlic-herb whipped butter as she took up the menu.

“The paprika-crusted sea scallops first, I think; ancho chile truffle butter sounds amusing. You could have the pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras, ma douce. Then... the Colorado lamb shank for me, and the Sika venison and wild-boar sausage for you. Followed by the lavender crème brulee, and the six-layer dobosh torte.”

The waiter’s eyebrows rose. “An excellent combination for you and your friend, madam. And your lamb?”

“Oh, rare, certainement. It’s not food unless it screams in despair when you bite it.”

The waiter chuckled dutifully. “Has madam had time to examine our wine list? We’re proud of it.”

“It’s quite impressive,” Adrienne said graciously. “I think a glass of the Rombauer Carneros with the scallops for me. Mildly chilled. One of the 1975 Chateau d’Yquem to accompany the foie gras for my companion. Then a Burgundy with the entrees; a bottle of the 2005 Richeborg, and open that now, please. And we’ll both have a glass of the Cru d’Arche Pugneau with the deserts. Coffee then, of course, but I’m afraid we’ll have to be absolute barbarians and leave at around seven-thirty—previous engagement—so do bring me the check early, if you would?”

“I... don’t feel hungry,” Ellen said.

The man ignored her and left with a little skip in his step; a fifteen-percent tip on that order would be more than his salary for a month.

My stomach is clenched tight and I’m woozy. I’d throw up if I tried to eat. Please.

“I know you are a bit stressed, ma petite,” Adrienne said, making a graceful gesture. “It’s been a difficult twenty-four hours for you. I admit, I can be demanding—perhaps even a little needy, at times. Give me your hand. Yes, I think I can—”

Ellen made herself stretch her hand out across the white tablecloth, palm down. Adrienne took it in hers, fingers interlocking with fingers; she smiled into Ellen’s eyes, and lowered her lips to the knuckles. The soft touch seemed to warm her hand, then spread up the arm—up the nerves of the arm, like some heated oil, or like a sauna and spa massage at Ten Thousand Waves up in the mountains. Ellen felt muscles relax she hadn’t know existed, and her back slumped against the high rear of the chair, head rolling helplessly.

Gold and blue crept in around the edges of sight as waves of warmth reached her solar plexus and radiated out to ends of her limbs and back, building on themselves. Her toes curled and her eyes rolled up as tension peaked and released.

“Oh, God,” she breathed, surprised into a long, soft involuntary moan. “Oh, no, please, God!

She didn’t know how much time had passed when she came back fully to herself. La Casa Sena’s staff were elaborately not noticing anything whether they had or not, and it wasn’t the sort of place where customers would stare too openly. But half a dozen were looking in her direction, if only out of the corners of their eyes. One man moved his hands in a discreet double thumbs-up gesture as she caught his eye.

And Giselle Demarcio was staring at her from two tables over, eyes wide with disbelief, mouth open, a forkful of adobe-baked trout poised forgotten halfway from plate to lips.

Giselle. Manager of Hans & Demarcio Galleries. My friendly boss. The biggest motormouth gossip in town just watched me cream my pants in public. Santa Fe’s a small town. Three hundred galleries or not the art scene’s even smaller. Everyone will know inside twenty-four hours.

The deep flush she could already feel turned fiery crimson with embarrassment and spread from breasts to earlobes, and she was achingly conscious of how it would show with her skin, and this off-the-shoulder dress displayed a lot of it.

Oh, God! This is a white dupioni silk sheath! It shows everything!

She squirmed in the seat, and then stopped when she realized that would make it worse.

When I stand up... and everyone will be watching to check!

“You’re humiliating me!” she hissed.

She stared at the linen of the tablecloth with one hand still locked in the other’s grasp.

“Ellen, Ellen, you complain when I make you feel pain; now you complain at pleasure. Some people are never satisfied. I fear I may become exhausted trying to live up to your expectations.”

Adrienne turned her hand and kissed the palm. There was a soft wet contact of lips and tongue; then a small quick pain at the base of the thumb, and a steady suction. It seemed to cool away the last of the languorous warmth, but made it impossible to do anything but sit, passive and relaxed. Then she lifted her face away and let go her grip.

Ellen jammed her napkin into the palm of her cut hand and clenched both in her lap, glaring to one side where the wall held no faces. She suppressed the impulse to wipe the light film of sweat off her face or adjust the bosom of her dress against the hypersensitive skin.

“Some say mental torment is bland compared to physical pain and the fear of it. Nonsense. It is subtle. Ecstasy spiced with humiliation and shame... it makes your blood taste like warm banana fritters with thick vanilla whipped cream and just a touch of sharp ginger. And now you are hungry, eh? Really you were hungry to begin with, but I distracted your mind long enough to stop blocking it.”

In fact she was ravenous, more so than she could remember being in all her life, enough that she had to make herself not gobble the entire contents of the bread basket. The appetizers arrived, and she gave another small involuntary sound—much quieter—at the rich complex taste of the seared foie gras, with its toasted pistachios and saffron oil. The forty-year-old d’Yquem was a shock; sweet, but with an underlying acidity and tastes of vanilla, mango, pineapples, honeyed peaches and grilled almonds. The feeling that the inside of her body was quivering with cold died away slowly. In a way that made things worse; the more grounded she felt, the less dreamlike the predicament became and the more real the fear. But...

If I’m going to die horribly or be tortured by a monster, I might as well enjoy dinner and get my blood sugar level back up first. I can’t do anything but collapse into a jelly if I’m in shock. The physical affects the mental as well as the other way ‘round.

“A most sensible way of looking at things. I knew Adrian must have good taste. After all, he is my twin.”

The entrees arrived, and the Burgundy. The waiter made a small production of pouring the sample glass. Adrienne swirled it, sniffed, held the glass tilted so that the candleflame shone through it, then tasted in a breathy sip.

“Perfect. Nine years, and perfect. Ah, the check.”

She dropped her debit card on the tray and the waiter left again. Ellen swallowed a mouthful of the boar sausage and sampled the wine with defiant slowness, then stopped and looked down for a second as the ghosts of cherries and lilac and spices flooded her mouth.

“You’re nothing like Adrian,” she said quietly, and bit into a piece of bread.

The smooth shoulders shrugged. “Adrian would agree with you, or at least hope you were right. But I suspect from that interesting array of paraphernalia at your apartment—”

“That’s just a game! It’s the one who’s tied up that’s in charge.”

A chuckle. “Not when it’s my game. Ah, Adrian, though... did he never go... a little far? Did things never become... strange? The poor boy is a mass of inhibitions, but he has the same genes, the same needs, the same abilities, as I do.”

I think I’ll change the subject.

“How do you do... what you do?”

Adrienne reached into her handbag and pulled out a coin. “Flip this. Keep your hand over it each time until I call the toss, then reveal it.”

She did. The other spoke every time the coin came down and was covered by her other palm:

“Heads. Tails. Tails. Heads. Tails.”

Ellen stared down at the coin. “Adrian... said he made investments by flipping a coin. I was angry because he wouldn’t talk seriously with me about his work. I thought he was joking, flipping me off, pushing me away.”

“Not in the least. He was avoiding lying by telling you a truth you wouldn’t believe. Now, again.”

A slight frown of concentration, and Ellen’s eyes went wider as she flipped and revealed.

“Heads. Heads. Heads. Heads. Heads.”

Adrian’s sister took the coin back. “Each time, there is a chance of one or the other. Below the muscles of your fingers, below the weight of the coin, below even the decisions you make about how hard to move your thumb... down far enough... there is a... churning. And—”

She flipped the coin into the air herself and moved her hands aside. It struck the candleholder, a butter dish, teetered... and came to a stop upright on its edge. Ellen’s eyes grew wide. The coin teetered again, and fell.

“—there was a slight chance of that happening. The stuff of your mind—“ she tapped her temples with her forefingers “—operates on that level, as well. Some scientists have begun to suspect it, though we discredit them.”

“And... you’re not supernatural?”

Adrienne shrugged, in a palms-up way Ellen thought made it as certain as her accent that she hadn’t been raised entirely in the United States. She filled her wineglass and Ellen’s again, sipped, ate a piece of the reddish-pink lamb and some of the whipped potato, went on:

“Let me tell you a story. Perhaps it is literally true, perhaps only poetically. A long time ago, when humans first spread out from Africa—which was far longer ago than the archaeologists think—a small band of hunters was trapped in the mountains of High Asia, a few families, perhaps twenty or thirty in all. Each year the glaciers rose around their plateau, and the food was less, and the cold was more. It was most likely that they would merely eat each other and die. But one was born who was lucky...

Ellen shivered as the other finished: “And then the world became warm and the ice melted, and we were freed and set loose, and for a hundred thousand years we ruled the earth with your breed as our playthings and our prey.”

“Legends,” Ellen whispered.

Adrienne nodded, resting her elbows on the table and her chin on her knuckles, smiling happily.

“Yes. In those days we believed them ourselves. We were the cruel gods who demanded the blood of men, and carried off their children and tormented their nights. We were Lamashtu and Sekhmet and Smoking Mirror; we were the evil sorcerers and the ogres and the goblins, the lamia and vatalas, incubi and succubae, impundulu and nagual, vampire and werewolf and leopard men. We were why your kind still fears the dark. We call ourselves the Shadowspawn, and for the last century we have ruled the world once more in secret.”

“Then you’re doing a pretty damn poor job of running it!” Ellen blurted, then clamped her lips shut.

Adrienne laughed. “Chérie, has anything I’ve said or done given you the impression that we care about the greatest good of the greatest number? And as for running the world—I said we rule it.”

She uncurled her fingers for a moment, and held her hands as if framing her face like a picture with the thumbs beneath the chin.

“Do I look like a bureaucrat? To run the world would be to spend all our time at meetings, or reading reports, or standing in ridiculous costumes in front of faux-Egyptian temples bellowing platitudes to crowds of groveling worshippers, like a bad science-fiction film. And while you beg and plead and grovel charmingly, my sweet, it’s much more enjoyable on a personal one-to-one level. No, no, we rule by ruling the men who run the world. Run it for us.”

She turned both hands palm-up to her left, in a gesture like a visual behold.

“They do all the work.”

The same gesture to the right.

“We have all the fun. It’s the natural order.”

Silence fell as the waiter returned with their deserts.

“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” Ellen said when he’d gone. “That’s why you’re telling me all this. You don’t care what I know, because nobody will hear.”

Another laugh. “Oh, I may kill you someday, slowly and beautifully and cruelly. Or not, if you continue to amuse. But if you were to escape, per impossible, who would you tell?”

“I’d tell everybody! These days you can’t keep things secret.”

“Would you start a website? www.MutantVampiresDrinkOurBlood.com? Why, seventy years ago a writer here in New Mexico stumbled on some of the truth, and wrote a book around it... and we let him live to an implausibly old age. Though we made sure the publisher wouldn’t buy a sequel.”

“Adrian would believe me,” Ellen said.

“Yes, and you two could sit and tell each other about it. But I have no intention of losing you, chérie, not when our relationship is just blooming.”

“Why do you do that?” Ellen said.

“Do what?”

“Talk as if we were lovers. Talk as if you loved me. Talk about our relationship.”

“Ah, but we do have a relationship. Granted, it’s a predator-prey relationship, but those are very important ecologically.”

She took a spoonful of the dessert, ate it with slow relish, then tapped the spoon on the edge of the dish.

“And I do love you. It’s a very much more complex form of the way that I love this crème brulee. But none the less sincere. And the more often I taste of you, the more I love. You might call it a devouring passion. Have you never wondered why human beings sometimes feel that way? It’s because you all have a trace—sometimes more than a trace, like poor Jeffrey Dahmer—of our heredity. As if deer were part wolf, or antelope part tiger.”

She reached into her handbag and took out a cigarette case, tapped a pale ivory-colored cylinder into a holder, and bent over to light it from the candle. An off-white tendril rose, scented with rum and something else added to the tobacco. Even then, Ellen was shocked enough to blurt:

“You can’t smoke here!”

Heads were turning at nearby tables, but not towards them. A man sniffed and coughed, then shrugged and went back to his soufflé. Ellen had the sudden feeling that she was invisible, that if she stood and shouted and threw dishes nothing would happen.

“Delicious one, I can do anything I want. Anywhere, at any time, to or with anyone. I could rip out the chef’s throat if I wanted to... though that would be a criminal waste. You’d better get used to the concept.”

She looked at her watch, then tucked seven hundred-dollar bills under a wineglass for the tip.

“Time to go. Adrian should be charging in to your rescue about now. Let me see... yes, good shielding, but there’s that don’t-notice-this feeling.”

“Adrian really loves me,” Ellen said stubbornly, as they rose; she draped the shawl casually around her hips.

“Which is why you were running away from him in tears when we met?” Adrienne laughed. “Chérie, remember that he has my instincts. He just won’t admit it.”

“What did you do to my apartment?”

“I set a trap. The equivalent of wiring a grenade to the door.” She shrugged. “He won’t be killed, I think, not if he deserves to be my brother. It’s not my plan that he die. Not yet, possibly never. Now, allons-y!”

A limousine was waiting outside. Beside the door was a young Asian man, dressed in dark windbreaker and black t-shirt and baggy pants and trainers. There was a button microphone in his ear with the slender thread of the pickup alongside his jaw, and one hand rested inside the coat. Ellen hesitated as he opened the door; the interior loomed dark, as if this was some threshold across which she could never return. A hand pushed firmly at her back, and the man said something in Chinese. Adrienne replied in the same language, her tone sharp.

Then her head came up just as she put one foot inside the door; her eyes pointed eastward past the Cathedral, towards the apartment.

“Oh. The clever boy has brought a friend with him. Yes, we’d better get going. After all, helping Adrian is going to take us quite a while.”

“Helping him?”

“Helping him with his identity confusions. You and I are going to help him... get down with his bad self.”

Softly: “I want my brother back. My brother, my lover, my other self.”

 

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


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