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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

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


 

CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

“I’m still worried,” Adrian said.

“Hey, ol’ buddy, it’s the mook this is aimed at who’s got something to worry about,” Harvey said.

He spread the parts on the heavy plastic groundsheet he’d laid over the bed with methodical neatness. The west-facing window still had a line of eye-hurting brightness at its top, and the room was flooded with the last light of day. When he was finished he rubbed his hands with satisfaction.

“Once Sheila says yes, she ain’t coy. This is the latest and best. Beautiful!”

Adrian nodded, more as a placeholder than agreement. Harvey had a lifelong fascination with firearms; one of the things he most resented about the Power was the way it could make failures happen in complex machinery. Adrian found guns satisfying tools if they worked and could use them well—Harvey had taught him with endless patience—but they didn’t give him a hobbyist’s pleasure, the way really good cars did, or gliders, or kitchen gear. If he had to fight with anything but the Power or his hands and feet, a knife was more...

Aesthetic. Satisfying, he thought. Then: Name of a black dog, am I going conservative in my fifties?

The room was smaller than in a modern hotel in this price-range, but not uncomfortable; the ceilings were very high, of antique pressed steel, and the wallpaper was hand-printed, a bamboo-spray pattern. The natural linen and floral smell was an intriguing contrast to the fruity gun-oil and sharp metallic steel and tooth-hurting silver of the weapon Harvey was checking, although it took a little effort to prevent his nerves from jangling.

Harvey went on: “See, the problem with my good friend the Monster Truck gun, incidentally that’s a fine label—”

Harvey nodded to the cut-down shotgun monstrosity, lying alone on one corner of the groundsheet as if sulking and jealous of the new lover.

“—is that it’s very effective for a close-range takedown of a Shadowspawn, in body or out, but it sorta makes surprise difficult. And it’s real difficult to hit a Shadowspawn who’s decided to go elsewhere and fight another day. And when they come out of the wall right behind you—bad news. Y’know, that design feature is just so fucking unfair it makes you want to cry.”

“Life, my old, is unfair.”

“Plus some contract soldati cuts loose with a thirty-round mag of 5.56 from a hundred yards and I am well and truly fucked up. And I mere human ape scum that I am, don’t get to rise again. Have I mentioned life is unfair?”

His big scarred hands moved on the pieces of the rifle, with a swift hard authority. There were snick-click-chunk sounds as things fitted together.

“Now this has a whole bunch of selling points. For one thing, it’s just as good at killing ordinary people as the original, which is a Brit sniper rifle, the L96A1 in .338 Lapua magnum. Only this has a carbon-fiber stock with an ultrapure silver-thread mix. A little silver in the steel of the barrel and action, and surface glyphs and Mhabrogast protectives in International Phonetic Alphabet. Pre-activated protectives, of course.”

“God!” Adrian blurted, shocked out of polite interest into alarm. “I hope they were careful!

“Ultra, ol’ buddy. Not to mention it cost a lot of the conscience money you’ve been wafting the Brotherhood’s way. Jacketed lead-silver alloy bullets—high AG—with active waste filler, pre-fraged so they disperse as long as the target’s tangible at all. I had two good shooters backing me up with these when we fixed Gheorghe’s wagon. Caught a couple of his people while we were clearing out.”

“Shadowspawn or renfields?” Adrian asked sharply.

“We didn’t stop to run an Alberman,” Harvey said dryly. “Things were a mite hectic. But these rounds do about three thousand feet-per-second. That’s under two seconds to impact at max effective range.”

Adrian’s brows stayed up. “Not much time to do anything, if you’re not expecting it,” he said slowly. “You’d have... a small fraction of a second to realize what the silver was, and react. By then—”

Give the man a big cigar.”

“I’m impressed.”

Then he yawned and looked out the window. “Would you like to get something to eat? I’m not very hungry, but if I have to take blood tonight I want something for it to hit on the way down.”

“I was thinkin’ of room service,” Harvey said.

“Well enough—”

“No, room service with another friend who’s coming over. You’re not invited.”

A little hurt, Adrian nodded. They hadn’t seen each other in years... Harvey grinned.

“The friend in question is not a brother-in-arms like you, ol’ buddy,” he said. “But she’s a natural redhead and certifiably female, which in this town you can’t count on from first impressions. I figure if I’m going to be dead in a week, or if your sister is going to make my eyeballs pop, or my balls, or set my entire skin on fire or use my spinal cord to play a violin concerto or any other of the things she has been known to do when feelin’ bitchy... there’s things I want to do one more time first. And not with you. Sorry.”

“No offense, my old,” Adrian laughed. “I’ll go for a walk.”

“Next door’s fine. Might be safer.”

Adrian snorted. “Not with only a wall in between us. I can’t afford to close my senses down completely. And good friends though we are, Harv, there are certain things I don’t care to share with you either. Even only telepathically.”

Harvey grinned. “You could go exercise your sinister vampiric charm on some high school girl with perky tits longing for a pale and interesting demon lover.”

Adrian frowned in solemn thought, then shook his head. “No, she would expect me to reject anything but kissing and cuddling, no matter how much she wanted more and how tortured I was with desire. Also there would be much conversation about our feelings.”

“Talk about inhuman. God, the thought’s enough to make a man swear off women. Ones that young, at least.”

“Besides, that’s the incubus part of the legend, not the vampire. I shall walk the night, commune with my soul, and think wistfully of what might have been.”

“The things some men do when they could be fucking. See ya. Watch out for muggers.”

Adrian shrugged. “The worse for them, in my current mood.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. We want to keep you calm ‘till we can get you and Ellen back to your mountaintop.”

 

@@@

 

 Will Ellen want to share my mountain? Adrian thought two hours later. Perhaps... now she knows the secrets I could not tell her. That would make a difference. Perhaps her kind and mine can share a life, if we know, if we work to... make accommodations with each other honestly.

Then: But after Adrienne, will she want to come within a thousand miles of anyone who looks like me? Who is like me? All I can do is set her free, and convince her the rest is up to her.

Tendrils of fog lay along the street; a heavy dew beaded on the surface of his grey anorak. It carried a raw chill, and he could sense the restless power of the ocean on three sides of the city, and smell the salt above the city stinks. There was an aloneness to the brightly-lit night greater than running beneath the stars in his own mountains.

This was Geary Street; he could see the five-story tower of the Peace Pagoda ahead.

Why not? he thought, and turned into the Japanese-style baths. Heat, and a cold plunge. Then I’ll get some noodles.

It was men’s night, and for a wonder there wasn’t a lineup. A few minutes later he was relaxing in the heat of the dry sauna, feeling the sweat break out over his body in a single impalpable rush. He imagined it taking the poisons of the blood out of his body, the savage necessities of the Power.

A shock of very slightly colder air, under the scent of cedar. Two men came in, both young and both Asian—with a little more body hair than most, so they were probably Japanese, and with bands of colorful tattoo over their torsos. Adrian sighed and prepared to block the trickle of consciousness that came through his shields...

They had towels over their arms. Both twitched them aside at the same instant, revealing the shielded gloves and the glinting edges of the knives. Tantos, twelve inches of slightly curved steel glinting with the silver inlay as the men drew them and flicked aside the sheaths.

“Michiko sends greetings,” one of them said in Japanese.

Ellen, he thought in one fractional instant, as his body prepared for combat. She needs me.

Then he gathered himself to leap.

 

@@@

 

Ellen rested her face in her hands and elbows on the table for minutes after Giselle’s face left the screen, trying not to think. When she looked up again she was alone except for the sound of the Shadowspawn children romping in the courtyard, and an occasional deep whurf! from the dog. The Blackberry beeped again, from beside a set of house keys:

The rest of the day is your own. Bear in mind...

Then it began to play a song—no, it was Adrienne singing, her voice full and sweet:

 

“Look around and all you see

 Are sympathetic eyes,

 Stroll around the grounds

 Until you feel at home.”

 

“I’m in the thrall of Countess Comic-ula,” she murmured. That made her feel better, somehow.

Then: Your new place is Number 5 Lucy Lane. All should be ready for you by four o’clock. Take a tour around town first.

“And apparently we’re not going to be sharing a room. I am so totally OK with that. It’s messy taking your cookies to bed with you anyway.”

This time she took her time walking to the front door. The house felt old, by American standards at least. Not in the least run-down, it was immaculately maintained and there were discreet signs of periodic refits, but like a building that had been inhabited for generations by the same family. There were touches you hardly ever saw in recent designs, even historicist ones; genuine groined vaulting in ashlar masonry, for starters.

It smelled that way too, of old stone, wax-rubbed paneling, hints of lemon and clean ancient rugs. In structure it was a set of linked E-shapes, and designed to take advantage of the varying levels to look a little less massive than it was; she suspected it was the sort of place where you could discover new rooms for years. Staff went by her now and then, usually with polite nods. She went down a curling formal staircase and out under a portico of columns and arches. The size of the stone-pines and palms and live-oaks, citrus trees and olives outside and the thick bases of some of the espaliered vines confirmed her guess.

The outer gateway in the solid circumference wall had an archway of wrought iron above it, making words: Rancho Sangre Sagrado.

“I guess the sense of humor is hereditary,” she said; it meant Ranch of the Holy Blood and had obviously been there a good long while.

Though it could be a perfectly genuine Hispanic place-name, come to think of it, possibly dating right back to Mexican California or even the Mission era when Spain’s flag flew here. Her lips quirked. She’d picked up a fair bit of conversational Spanish in her time in Santa Fe, and if you changed it just a little to Rancho Sangrón it meant Ranch of the Asshole.

There was a strip of parkland, green grass and leafless oaks and solid blocky cypresses fifty or sixty feet high sheltering the wall from easy outside view, and then the town proper, a little place of a couple of thousand people along half a dozen streets, lined with cherry trees now blossoming in a froth of pink and rose. The only really odd thing about it was the near-uniformity of style, and the fact that there were no boarded-up shops and not many for-sale signs. A civic center had a municipal pool and library and tennis courts; notices on the boards before the steps included those for a farmer’s market, the meeting of the local chapter of the SPCA—

I wonder if we get included? she wondered, then saw the fine print: Sponsored by Brézé Enterprises.

—and every other little bit of civic self-organization you’d expect, from the Lions and Elks through aromatherapy clubs. A biggish high school showed southwards, a golf course, and after that a tangle of minor industrial stuff, fruit-packing plants and wineries, repair shops and a dairy that had a big: All fresh! All organic! All local! sign, one of the few advertisements she could see.

To the east of town were rolling fields fading into the middle distance with the occasional farmhouse or crossroads hamlet sheltered in its trees. Vineyards marched in geometric rows and silvery-green olives flickered; there were low bare-branched brushy orchards of trees she couldn’t name, and flaming apple and almond and apricot in white and pink, interspersed with intensely green fields of grain. The higher pastures to the west, above the mansion, were green too with the winter rains; tongues of forest ran down the low points, growing denser on the high hills or modest mountains that separated this area from the sea.

The people were dead-on small-town California-normal; about half Anglo, more than a third Hispanic, the rest bits and pieces of everything with an accent on Asian and lots of mixing. They bustled in and out of shoe-stores and bakeries—the buttery odor of fresh pastry made her mouth water—and stationers and the post office and electronics shops. Mothers wheeled babies, toddlers clutched hands, kids ran, elderly men sat sunning themselves and reading papers or watching the world go by. Teenagers rollerbladed the brick sidewalks with immersive buttons in their ears, bopping to sounds only they could hear, or stood in groups at the corners.

No, there’s one thing odd. You’d expect at least one big Catholic Church in a rural town this size, and a couple of others.

She wasn’t religious herself, but the thought made something clench a little inside. There was one building that looked like a church in the elaborately carved Churrigueresque style, but it had Sangre Community Theatre on the front, with a banner announcing a Shakespeare revival.

And a little like selling your soul to the devil, she remembered Theresa saying.

And that her parents and grandparents before her had made the same bargain. This was effectively a settlement of hereditary not-quite-Satanists.

I wonder when they tell their kids? What was that Theresa said about... initiation?

Suddenly she didn’t want to sight-see any more, for all the charm that would have had a New Urbanist drooling.

“Excuse me,” she said to a middle-aged man sitting on a bench outside a café, eating ice-cream from a cardboard cup with two teenagers similarly occupied. “I’m looking for Lucy Lane?”

He smiled at her, and she gritted her teeth. The kids were smiling too, and one nudged his slightly-younger companion; it was more than the usual teenaged-male leer.

Oh, yeah, they know. They know.

“Just another block north up Brézé Avenue; left on Armand. It turns into Lucy after the intersection with Auvergnat.”

“Thank you,” she said between clenched teeth.

Lucy Lane was a cul-de-sac curling around the hill the mansion rode, backing against the perimeter wall. The sidewalk was the same herringbone-pattern brick, and the houses were overshadowed by old plantings that included orange trees in fair-sized front gardens and little walled inner yards. She passed one man sitting on a bench with a set of weights nearby. He was black, tall and impressively built without being bulky, which she could see because he was stripped to exercise shorts, and he had a shaved head and narrow hook-nosed face.

“Hi!” she said brightly.

He looked at her impassively, then lay down on the bench again and began a series of vertical lifts.

Well, that wasn’t too successful.

Number Five had a newish Volt in the open garage, with the hood up and the charger cord extended and plugged into a pole-mounted outlet by the garage door.

“You Ms. Tarnowski?” a young Latino said around the opened hood when she halted uncertainly.

He was about twenty, in jeans and cowboy boots and a white t-shirt that showed his taut-bodied build, an inch or so under six feet. He let the hood fall with a clunk and wiped his hands on a rag; when she shook she felt workingman’s calluses.

“Don’t mind Jamal,” he said, nodding towards the black man two houses up. “He doesn’t talk much. I’m Jose Villegas. I’m in Number Three. Just checking your car. Welcome to Lucy Lane!”

“I get a car?” she blurted.

He grinned, white teeth in a light-brown face. “Sure, Ms. Tarnowski—”

“Ellen,” she said automatically.

“All the fixings, Ellen,” he said in perfect California English of a small-town, blue-collar variety. “Me, I’m a mechanic when I’m not... you know. So I was checking it for you. Looks good. You need anything done, though, just bop over. Come on in.”

The house had the feel of a place that had been cared for but vacant until recently; it was about two thousand square feet, with a living room that gave on a rear court through sliding glass doors and restrained furniture of the type that American Home Furnishings tried to imitate. A slender blond man a little below her height was finishing the connections on a wallscreen TV. He had a handsome triangular face and pale green eyes, and dusted off his hands before offering one.

“Hi!” he said. “Peter Boase, in number two. TV and display here, PC in the study, omnidirectional Bose speakers here, there and in the bedroom. All networked to the content library. You’ve got a high-capacity fiberoptic Internet connection. Hey, it’s the President’s plan, right?”

“Peter’s an egghead,” Jose said. “Forgets his own name sometimes. But he sure can make anything electronic dance and sing.”

The slender man shrugged. “PhD, physics, so I should be all thumbs and baffled by putting a CD in a player. But you need to be able to handle equipment the way grants are... were... these days. Come on in. Monica will—”

“Coming through!” a woman’s voice said.

She came through the front door with a baking tray in gloved hands. Ellen judged her to be the oldest person present, thirty or a hair either way, dressed in slacks and shirt and a checked bib apron. She had pleasantly pretty features that reminded Ellen vaguely of someone, and curling dark-brown hair held back by a barrette. She was very slightly shorter than Ellen’s five-six, and very slightly heavier; they might have been sisters as far as face and figure went, coloring aside.

“Hi! Monica Darton, in Number One,” she said. “Come on through to the kitchen. That’s where a house starts to turn into a home!”

“Monica’s our den mother,” Peter said. “She’s been here longest, eight years.”

Peter, Jose, Monica, Ellen thought; she had a good memory for names, and you needed one dealing with the public at the gallery. And Jamal is the black guy. With me that makes five, so that’s all five houses on Bloodbank Row... pardon me, Lucy Lane.

The kitchen was south-facing, with a glassed-in breakfast nook, and a small dining room separated from it by a pierced screen. Monica set the tray down on a counter. Then she took off the oven mitts and shook hands in turn.

“Do you want us all to clear out?” she said. “While you settle in peacefully?”

“Ah... no, no,” Ellen replied hastily.

So I could sit and look at the wall and try not to scream? Call Giselle and lie to her? Wonder where Adrian is? End up lying face-down on the floor drooling with an empty fifth of vodka in my hand? Seriously consider slitting my wrists? So...

“Please, stay for a while.”

“Good. I’ll make some coffee to Christen your machine... unless you prefer decaf?”

“No, premium grade is fine.”

“... and these are the best homemade brownies in town! All local ingredients. Except for the chocolate and vanilla and sugar, of course, but the nuts and flour are, we have the most wonderful farmer’s market. I’ve stocked your pantry and fridge with a few basics and staples, bread, butter...”

She bustled them into seats and set out plates and cups and cut the brownies into squares, then brought the pot over from the filter machine. Ellen felt her nose twitch; there was some seriously good coffee in there, and if she couldn’t have a stiff drink, she could use a cup. Monica went on:

“And I put a lasagna and a salad in the fridge too, in case you just want to throw something in the oven for dinner instead of cooking or going out. There’s laundry stuff and basic linens and so on, and a few clothes, jeans and sweats and underwear in the bedroom, and toiletries. You can get the rest of what you need anytime, of course, but we wanted to, you know, help.”

Ellen looked at her beaming smile and dazedly bit into one of the brownies. They were good.

It’s June Cleaver and the Welcome Wagon of Nosferatu Manor, she thought.

“Ah...” If resistance is futile, so’s tact. “You’re all...”

“Lucies?” Jose said cheerfully. “Yeah.”

I’m not surprised. You’ve all got something about the eyes, this haunted look. I think I probably do too, now.

Lucy is an exclusionary stereotype. I prefer to think of us as helpers,” Monica said, a slight trace of primness in her tone for a moment.

Yeah, helper as in Hamburger Helper, Ellen thought.

“It’s not as much of a hard-and-fast distinction as the renfields like to think, either,” Peter said.

Ellen went on: “This place was empty? Who was here before?”

A ringing silence fell. Everyone looked away for an instant, except Peter who coughed and explained:

“Mmmm, there’s sort of a Lucy Code; you don’t ask questions like that, about people who are... gone. Though in fact Dave used to live here, before he got promoted.”

“He’s up at the Company Security barracks now, teaching unarmed combat to the rent-a-cops,” Jose said. “And the Doña takes him along as muscle sometimes. Good riddance.”

A laugh. “Though Peter kicked his ass!”

She looked at the slight blond man with surprise. He smiled slightly and shrugged:

“Only because he was surprised I knew anything at all. I could never have taken him if he hadn’t gotten overconfident. He’s a professional.”

“That’s how he ended up here. Came to a tournament up in Paso Robles, and the Doña was there. Decided hey, I want some of that and what she wants she gets. No accounting for tastes, I guess,” Jose said.

“David could be difficult,” Monica conceded.

Her smile broadened and she leaned forward to pat the newcomer’s hand.

“I’m so glad there’s another girl here now! Some people in town are very nice, but some are a bit standoffish with people who, you know, live on this street. I’m sure we’ll be such great friends, Ellen!”

Yeah, Ellen thought. We can exchange recipes and do each other’s hair and compare fucking bite-marks, maybe. ‘Can I borrow a cup of sugar? Or a pint of blood, I’m out’?

“So,” Peter said. “What do you think of our little town?”

Impulse made her honest: “It’s like Stephen King, illustrated by Norman Rockwell with ads from Town & Country magazine.”

Peter coughed, apparently choking on a crumb of brownie. Jose pounded him helpfully on the back, looking puzzled but good-naturedly so. He rose and went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer as an alternative to the coffee; it was some local microbrew with an Art Nouveau label that incorporated part of a Mucha poster.

“OK?” he said, raising it and glancing at her.

“Sure,” Ellen said, and he popped the cap and drank with a satisfied ahhh!

“Norman Rockwell is right!” Monica nodded, apparently utterly without irony. “I love it here. It’s a wonderful place to raise kids.”

Ellen blinked. “You... have children?” she said neutrally.

“Two. Joshua, he’s ten, and his sister Sophia is nine. They’re the cutest kids! Adrienne... the Doña, we usually call her... thinks so too and they adore her. I’m dying for you to meet them.”

Peter evidently heard the quiver in Ellen’s question and understood the sudden tension of her hand on the thick porcelain of the cup. He leaned close and whispered:

They don’t feed on children. The blood doesn’t taste right. Sour. Green.”

Ellen let out a little grunt of relief; it was a welcome alternative to starting a scream she wasn’t sure she could stop and trying to kill the other woman with the mug.

Monica went on without pausing; Ellen judged she was the sort of person who found it easier to talk than listen, anyway, in a pleasant-enough fashion:

“I knew that it was the best place right away. Well, after a little while, I was a bit scared at first. It’s so quiet and pretty here, and there’s no crime, and the streets are safe for children and the schools are just wonderful. All charter, you know, with free preschool, and the best facilities in the state, no cutbacks. And there’s the health plan, too.”

The very best straw and turn-out pasture, and the stable is so comfortable, and silver horseshoes, and kindly Doctor Duggan for vet...

“That’s... ah... why you moved here?” Ellen said aloud.

The lucies—the other lucies, let’s be honest, she thought — laughed.

“I ran out of gas!” Monica crowed. “Well, Tom left us after he lost his job and couldn’t find work, he wasn’t a bad man but he was weak, this was down in Simi Valley where we lived, and we lost the house, and Mother wanted to try and move in with her sister in San Jose but we just ran out of gas outside town. And this lady in a Land Rover pulled over, it was about sundown, and asked if we needed help. That was Adrienne. I thought it was so kind of her to put us up.”

“Until she dropped by your room that night for a snack, maybe a little hubba-hubba too,” Jose said with a grin.

“I thought it was all dreams at first. Nightmares. Everything was so strange. And it was kind, I still say. Just... there were other reasons, as well.” Coyly: “She says my blood smelled attractive.”

Ellen sat slowly upright. “Wait a minute!” she said. “You’ve been here eight years?” Monica nodded.

Then how old is she? How old is Adrian, for God’s sake?

She took another bite of the brownie.

Maybe these would be better with hash, she thought. Oh, Christ...

“Me, I was born here, went to school here, graduated Sangre High here,” Jose said. “Theresa, you met her, she travels with the Doña? She’s my mother’s cousin, but she went away to CalPoly for a while, she’s got most of the brains in the family and I got all the charm. We’ve been here since before the Brézés came—

“1862,” Monica filled in helpfully. “That was Don Justin. He was from France. I’ve been doing a little local historical pamphlet for the library. I work there as a volunteer.”

“—yeah, we were vaqueros and all that good sh... stuff, before they bought the Rancho. Hell, the Indio part of us has been here forever. My uncle was a lucy here for a while on the lane; I figure with any luck it’ll be a couple of years for me, then I get a pat on the fanny and told to go get a girl and make some babies to work for the next generation. Meantime I work on the cars and stuff uphill, when I’m not, um, busy.”

He grinned. “Hey, you know, some of the girls, they sort of think it’s cool for a guy to be a lucy for the Doña. Think you pick up stuff.”

His smile died for a moment and he took another swig of the beer.

“And no money worries making your stomach twist up so you shake every month. And then there’s the travel,” Monica went on. “I’ve been to, oh, London and Shanghai and Paris and Rome and Cairo and everywhere. On that wonderful plane.”

Taken along for snakkies, Ellen thought. For those midnight cravings when room service is over and you can’t go out.

“I did my graduate degree at MIT. I was at the National Lab in Los Alamos when I started getting some anomalous results,” Peter said.

He grinned ruefully. “And I wouldn’t stop trying to get people interested, no matter how heavy the hints were. They sent Adrienne in to kill me with a nice little perfectly genuine heart attack or stroke or getting hit by a truck, since she was in the neighborhood on personal business—they’re informal about things like that, I’m told. But she decided to give me another option instead. You bet I said yes! Actually I’ve done some more work here, for her. She can get me all the computer time I need and I’m mostly a theoretician.”

“Do you have any outside interests, Ellen?” Monica asked brightly. “I got married right out of high school, myself. More coffee?”

“Thanks. I, um, BA in Art History from NYU. Worked in a gallery in Santa Fe. I was... involved with Adrian. Adrienne’s brother. She... took me away.”

Another ringing silence. Monica coughed into her fist and pushed the plate of brownies over.

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty to do. There are just infinite amounts of art up the hill. And they send some down to the high school and the civic center, now and then, too. Exhibitions.”

Bet they don’t tell them it’s all genuine, Ellen thought. Or... it’s a renfield town. Maybe they know that too.

“I’m sure you’ll be happy here,” Monica said. She sighed. “Jamal... he’s from LA... isn’t fitting in well. I’ve tried to be friendly and help him, honest, but...”

“Don’t think he’ll last long,” Jose said bluntly. “Man, you can see it in his eyes! And he screams a lot.”

“Don’t we all!” Monica said lightly; then her smile became almost a simper for an instant. “Why sometimes, I’m hoarse for days, when things get, you know, a little wild with Adrienne.”

“No, he screams when he’s alone sometimes too. Give you odds, the Doña’s going to... remove him from here, know what I mean?”

“Well, maybe it’s just a phase he’s going through. I remember my first few weeks here, I cried a lot, before I realized how lucky I was. Just sobbed and sobbed and oozed like a puddle. I was, like so silly!”

Getting really creeped out now, Ellen thought. She’s got odd body language. Look at the way she fidgets, and pats her hair. Like a smoker who can’t... oh. The bite’s addictive. Addictive as nicotine, and Adrienne’s been away. I’m feeling nervous myself. Is that just because I’ve got really good reason to be nervous, or...

“Hey, there’s pain in life,” Jose shrugged. “A man’s got to deal, unless he’s a...” he glanced at Monica and amended what he’d probably been going to say into a form less blunt. “A sissy.”

“Besides,” Monica said. “It’s not always that bad. Sometimes... it’s just nice and fun or fun-scary, doing what she wants, and then you cuddle and the feeding... it’s almost like nursing. You can feel how you’re helping this need.”

Ellen sipped at her coffee again, remembering Adrienne’s face on the plane, laughing with blood on her teeth and chin. Hearing her say: I may kill you someday, slowly and cruelly and beautifully.

“And she says that then, those times, my blood tastes like warm milk and cookies before you go to bed.”

Creeping out getting closer to total, now.

Jose looked out the window as he finished his beer. Peter spoke gently, but his tone was dry:

“It’s not a tame tiger, you know, Monica, even if it purrs sometimes. Usually, there’s plenty of screaming involved.”

“Oh, Peter, you’re such a complainer! That’s not always all bad either. It can be sort of... exciting, once you’re used to it. And when it’s, well, very wild and you feel so... sometimes then she touches me, you know, there, and does that extra-special thing with her mind only she can do. And that feels so good!”

Oh, icky-poo yuk, total crept-outness achieved. A thought: That thing in the restaurant was with her kissing my knuckles. I wonder if it were... could Adrian do... stop that, Ellen!

Monica’s Blackberry chimed. The tune had words:

 

“See my eyes so gold

 I could stare for a thousand years—”

 

She opened it and said: “Yes? Oh, Doña Adrienne! Yes, of course.”

For a moment she closed her eyes and whispered: “Thank God!”

Then: “Shall I make dinner?” A giggle. “Just me? At seven? I’ll see you then!”

A brilliant smile at all of them. “Speak of the devil!”

She keyed another number. “Mom? Oh, hi, Mom, I need you to pick up Josh and Sophie from the Judo and dance classes and take them overnight. Yes, I’ve got company coming. I don’t know if I’ll be up to bringing them home tomorrow, no. It depends on, you know, how wild things get. Call me in the afternoon. OK? Love you too, Mom! Bye!”

She left with a smile and a wave. Jose washed out his beer-bottle and left it upside down in the drainer.

“Well, I’m going to go visit my folks,” he said. “It was really nice meeting you, Ellen. You have any trouble with the car, the plumbing, just let me know. The guys from up hill are on call, but I’m on hand! We usually have a potluck BBQ on Sunday, it’s my turn next.”

He left; Peter sat in companionable silence for a moment. Ellen drank the last of the coffee, looked down and realized she’d also eaten the last of the brownies without even noticing, which wasn’t like her.

“That was David Bowie,” she said eventually. “On the ringtone. But aren’t the words to that song See my eyes so green? I’ve heard it a couple of times, Giselle... my boss at the gallery... likes him.”

“The Doña had him cut a special version for her,” Peter said.

Silence fell for another few moments. At last:

“Monica...” she said. “Monica’s completely insane, isn’t she?”

Peter shrugged. “I prefer to think of it as excessively well-adjusted. She really is as nice as she seems; the Susie Homemaker thing isn’t put on, either. And her four-cheese lasagna is to die for.”

He grinned. “Though sometimes I feel I should become a vegetarian. It would be appropriate, somehow...”

Then he did an alarmingly realistic: “moooooooo!”

Ellen laughed, despite the crawling sensation between her shoulderblades.

“It does give you more sympathy for their position, doesn’t it? God, I feel bloated. I don’t generally eat as a displacement activity, but this has been a rough couple of days. Forty-eight hours ago, my only problem was figuring out how to tell my boyfriend it was over with us and worrying about how he’d react. Is there any place you can run, around here? I usually do three miles a day minimum.”

“There are some great trails in the hills, if you don’t mind steep.”

“Hey, I’m from New Mexico too!”

“Meet you in half an hour, then?”

 

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