Authors: Adrienne & Scott Barbeau,Adrienne & Scott Barbeau
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
So I wrapped my arms around my body, dipped my head, and headed down the mountain. I’d taken maybe a dozen steps when it felt as though something pushed me from behind. I knew there was nothing there; my hearing is too acute, even over the sleet and rain, not to hear someone coming near. But when I turned to look behind me, I slipped.
And continued to fall. Sixty feet down the side of the mountain. Rolling over and over again on scree and razor-sharp shale until I smashed against a huge boulder and landed ass over teakettle in a river of mud.
The lacerations were excruciating. My left arm was shattered, although strangely enough I didn’t feel pain there. My left leg had snapped in two midway up my calf, the bone jutting out at an impossible angle. Two of my ribs were cracked, one had punctured a lung, and a third felt like it was lodged in my diaphragm. My collarbone was broken.
My body went to work immediately. Lying broken in a muddy grave, organs and flesh began to pulse and stretch, muscles blossoming, tendons coiling around pliable bones as they began to reconnect and my vampyre physiology attempted to heal itself. It was only seconds before the process started, but I swear, just like the movies, my life flashed in front of my eyes. Well, parts of it. Not all four hundred and fifty years. That frightened me more than the pain. I’d been wounded and hurt many times before, but I always knew instantly that I’d recover. Now, if I was seeing pieces of my life, what did that mean? Was this the time I wouldn’t heal?
Cities flashed through my mind: Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh. All places I’d lived and been happy. And I immediately regretted the countries I’d never seen. Tibet, Peru, Chile, the Galápagos Islands, Argentina. Was I never going to see the turtles or ride the Pampas?
The healing process was more painful than the injuries. I would have screamed with the pain but I didn’t have the strength. Then the cold set in and with that, no sensation at all. Brittle cold but no pain. I could hear flesh rend and meld, bones grind and knit, but I grew to realize I wasn’t going to heal; the damage was too extensive. The last time I’d really fed had been weeks before, and I didn’t have the nutrients I needed to sustain the healing process. The energy my body was expending trying to heal was so great, the effort alone was killing me.
Once I died, no one would know what had happened to me. The cliché that vampyres turn to dust is not so far from the truth. When those of us who live past our first century die, putrefaction sets in immediately. The same heightened metabolism that sustains us over hundreds of years breaks down with extraordinary rapidity. Not into some dusty, desiccated form, but rather into a liquid, gelatinous sludge. If anyone came looking for me, they’d find nothing but an unexplainable luminescent goo slithering down the mud streams to the ocean.
I don’t know how long I lay there retracing my past, every memory taking me closer to death. I sensed when the images reached the middle of the sixteenth century and my Armenian homeland I would die.
I was somewhere in the early seventeenth century, in Constantinople, when Maral found me.
She’d gone in search of me as soon as the skies opened up and had found my rental car in the car park at the bottom of Slieve More. There were several trails she could have taken, but knowing me as well as she did, she took the steepest, the one that went all the way to the peak. Later, she would say that as she started to climb the muddy track that meandered up the side of Slieve More, she heard what sounded like a young woman crying, the sound a cross between a piteous sob and a howl of triumph.
It was probably just the wind.
Lying on my back, staring up into the heavens, I saw her shape appear before me. I will remember the look on Maral’s face until the day I die—a palette of horror, fear, love, and rage. I watched her mouth move, but her words were lost; my hearing was fading with the rest of me. She pulled off her coat and draped it across me as she frantically pulled out her cell phone. The last thing I wanted was to be examined by a doctor. With a tremendous effort of will I caught hold of the hand holding the phone and pulled it away from her face.
Her lips moved and, although I was unable to hear her, I got the gist. She thought I was raving and was prepared to ignore me. I’m not sure what caught her attention, but suddenly she was no longer looking at my face: she was staring at my left arm. I couldn’t move my head to see what she was seeing, but I had a good idea. The sleeves of my T-shirt had ripped away as I scraped down the shale in my fall. Maral was watching movement beneath my skin as my muscles and bones shifted and attempted to fuse back together. It would have looked like fat worms crawling beneath my skin. She looked into my face, then pressed two fingers of her right hand against my cheek. I was unaware until that moment that I had shattered my cheekbone. Maral could see—and feel—the delicate bones moving together, desperately trying to fit back into place. Together we both looked down at my leg, and Maral’s face paled as the protrusion angled back toward the top of my tibia, cells reaching for cells to reconnect. She turned back to face me, staring at the twitch and curl of my broken ribs as they writhed beneath my skin. Then she leaned forward, her face inches from mine. I could see my eyes reflected in hers—the whites of mine were suffused with red. And although I still could not hear her words, I could trace them on her lips. “What are you?” she asked.
“Vampyre,” I said eventually. “Dying,” I added.
I was beginning to lose detail from my vision. My sight was darkening around the edges, so I knew the end was on me. I saw Maral lift a ragged triangle of scree—the same stone that had sliced my flesh—and slash it across her wrist. Even through my numbed senses, I caught the meaty-rich odor of fresh blood…and then Maral pressed her wrist to my mouth.
That moment, that sensation was indescribable. I will carry the vivid, indelible memory of it to my final grave.
I couldn’t control myself; I started Changing. My fangs slipped into place, my red eyes disappeared into slits, my nails elongated into claws as the fresh blood coursed through me. The sight would have terrified a lesser person, driven them back, but Maral kept her hand pressed against my mouth…and later she told me that my fangs, both top and bottom, had locked into her flesh, so even if she had wanted to get away, she couldn’t.
Deuteronomy 12:23 is right: blood is life. And Maral’s blood healed me.
My highly specialized vampyre metabolism did what it was designed to do—extract the nutrients from the blood trickling from the cut in Maral’s wrist, nutrients necessary to sustain and maintain my form. In less than twenty minutes, bones had healed, ribs knitted, torn flesh visibly melted shut, bruises faded away to leave pristine skin. Later, we worked out that I must have fed on close to two pints of blood—enough to leave Maral reeling with shock and dizziness, but by that time I was strong again, stronger than I’d been for a very long time, perhaps in half a century or more. I cradled her in my arms when she swayed and now our positions were reversed. I held her gently against me on the wet ground.
This time when she spoke, I heard every word. “You’re a vampyre?”
“Yes.” I took her coat from my shoulders and draped it over her, careful not to touch her wrist, which was bruised and swollen with my puncture and the ragged slash she’d inflicted on herself. I brought her hand to my lips and licked at the damage, the natural antiseptic in my saliva healing the wound.
“Another few moments,” I said, “and I would have been gone. You saved me. How did you know what do to?”
Her skin was deathly pale, and for a moment I feared I had taken too much. “Everyone knows what an injured vampyre needs,” she muttered, eyes flickering.
“You see it in the movies all the time.”
We’ve been inseparable ever since.
Her name was Milla Taylor.
It wasn’t her real name, but that was to be expected; this was Hollywood, after all. Where Bernie Schwartz became Tony Curtis and Krekor Ohanian is Mike Connors and Reginald Keith Dwight is Sir Elton John. She’d been born Prudence Hotchkiss in Dillon, Montana, where there were more women than men in a population totaling less than four thousand and the average household income was $26,389. Working for Thomas DeWitte in Beverly Hills, California, making $1,500 a week, must have been like winning the lottery in comparison. She was twenty-three years old, looked about seventeen from her photo ID, and didn’t have so much as a traffic ticket on record.
I sat outside the apartment on Chandler and scanned the brief statement she’d made. It was stark enough, written in that peculiar language people use when talking to officialdom. Watch
you’ll see ordinary people turn into Perry Mason. Milla Taylor said that Ovsanna Moore had forced her way into the Anticipation offices, threatened Anthony, the bodyguard, pushed her way into DeWitte’s office, called him a
—I couldn’t argue with that—and then told him that if he fucked up one more time he was gone. “Gone and never coming back” was the direct quote. It was hardly a death threat, but unfortunately DeWitte
gone and never coming back and so now it took on a new significance.
Taylor’s apartment building was a nondescript grey stucco two-story box with a brown Japanese pagoda-style roof. A double set of glass doors formed a security entrance, with the renters’ names and apartment numbers in a metal frame on the side wall. You picked up an intercom, keyed in the apartment number, and the phone rang in the apartment so the tenant could buzz you in. At least that’s what you were supposed to do if you wanted to gain access. The broken doorjamb on the interior door made it a moot point. I checked for Taylor’s apartment number, grabbed the handle, and pulled the door open.
I was facing a central courtyard. Directly in front of me was a fountain in the shape of a Buddha, spitting water out of his smiling mouth into the little leaf-clogged moat around him. Behind him was a kidney-shaped swimming pool with a few nylon-webbed chaise lounges lined up, three on one side, two on the other. A bleached blonde with skin the color of old leather sat with her back to me on one of the lounges, copies of
spread out in front of her. Her hair was in curlers and she was wearing a lime green one-piece bathing suit and high-heeled mules. In December. Only in L.A.
Taylor’s apartment was number 27, so I started up the staircase to my left. I’d taken four steps when the blonde stopped me with Selma Diamond’s voice.
“Help you?” She was out of the chaise and at my back before I even turned around, standing at the foot of the stairs with her hand on the railing. She could have been doing movie trailers; this was a forty-cigarette, bottle of whiskey a day voice, and even from four feet away I got the yeasty odor of something malt and alcoholic.
I also got a better look at her…she must have been sixty-five if she was a day. From the back I’d placed her at forty, but the crêpelike skin on her arms and legs gave her away. That and the face that was slightly off-kilter.
“I can tell.” She squinted at me. “Help you?” she asked again, peering at me in the way shortsighted people do when they don’t wear their glasses.
“Yes, ma’am….” I stepped back down to her level. “You live here?”
“Show me a badge first, Officer. I’ve lived here long enough to know you’re not going up those stairs without some identification.” Well, she may have had a few beers in her, but she sure wasn’t out of it.
“Yes, ma’am.” I badged her and she actually took the time to lean in and read it, something most people don’t do. “I’m Detective King.”
She smiled, a perfect, probably twenty-thousand-dollar smile in a ten-dollar face. “Peter King, Angela’s boy? The one that pulled that kid out of the river?”
“Why, yes, ma’am. You know my mother?”
“Angie and I were in the business together, young man. You don’t recognize me, do you?”
Even without the lift, I’d never seen her face before. But I needed her cooperation, no sense in hurting her feelings. “You know, I do. But I’m terrible with names. Unless I’ve got them written down in my notebook, I just can’t remember. You were on that sitcom, weren’t you?” If she was sixty-five, there had to have been some sitcom on the air when she was working.
“Oh, I did a couple a spots on
, just under-five stuff, but you probably remember me from
. Those were guest star roles. Your mom and I did a couple of features together. How is she?”
“She’s just fine, ma’am, thank you for asking. I’ve just had lunch with her.”
“You be sure and tell her Marie Chilcote said hello.”
I snapped my fingers. “Of course, I remember now. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Chilcote.” I pulled out my notebook. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“Not at all. What do you need to know?”
“You live here, right?”
“I own the building, young man. My husband, Alfred, passed away six years ago and left me to manage it. I’m right there in Number One, facing the pool.”
“I’m here to talk to one of your tenants, Milla Taylor in Twenty-seven, but maybe you can tell me a little about her first. I guess not a lot goes on here that you don’t know about.”
“You got that right. I keep my shades open and I can see out from my living room and my kitchen. I like to know what’s going on.”
“Do you mind if we sit down?” I followed her back to her chaise lounge and pulled up another one next to it. “What can you tell me about Ms. Taylor?”
“Well, when I first met her she’d just moved here from one of the cowboy states—Wyoming, Montana, one of those maybe…South Dakota? It was someplace she wanted to get away from, she said. Didn’t know a soul in town. Came for the glitter, you know. Reminded me of myself. I’m originally from Cody, Wyoming, just west of Bighorn. I offered to cut her rent down a bit if she wanted to help me manage this place, but she wasn’t interested. Wanted to work in the business. So I made a few calls, fixed her up with a friend of mine at the D.G.A. who uses temps to input data on the computer all day. Next thing I know she’s got a good job working as Thomas DeWitte’s secretary at Anticipation Studi—” She stopped, eyes widening. “That’s what this is about,” she said, in a voice they could hear down the block. Unless Milla Taylor was deaf, she’d know by now I was downstairs. “DeWitte turned up dead in that S&M place.” She leaned forward and I buried my head in my notebook to stave off the reek of alcohol and old cigarettes. “Is she a suspect?”
“I’m just taking statements, Mrs. Chilcote.”
“It’s Kater. Chilcote was my maiden name and that’s the one I worked under. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s a suspect. She sure changed once she got that job, and not for the better, let me tell you.” Her voice got even louder. I was surprised Ms. Taylor hadn’t stepped out on the balcony to shut her up.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, the way she dresses, the way she looks. I think that Thomas DeWitte was a bad influence. And she went from not knowing anybody in town to knowing some pretty creepy-looking characters. Suddenly she wanted to be an actress. Got herself a manager.” She turned the statement into an accusation. “We didn’t have managers in my day. Most of us didn’t even have agents. Now, even nobodies have managers, agents, and entertainment lawyers.”
For my brief flirtation with fame, I’d once had all three. Did that make me a nobody? “Well, you did say she wanted to be an actress. Maybe she thought a manager would be able to get her some work. What about these disreputable looking people? Drug addicts, working girls, that type of person?”
“Oh no, hell no. Everything is aboveboard here…not like just down the road where they shoot porno in two of the upstairs apartments. You should raid that place.”
“I’ll make a note of it. What about Ms. Taylor?” I persisted. “What sort of people does she hang out with?”
“Well, there’s one guy; he’s real freaky. There’s just something about him that bothers me. Every time he sees me watching him, he disappears. I don’t know if he waits for her outside the building or what, but he’s like a ghost the way he shows up and then he’s gone. And it doesn’t help that he’s so white. Creeps me out.”
“He’s so white? You mean, he’s conservative? Waspy? Republican?” She was pretty observant for a daytime drinker; I’ll give her that. Maybe she’d like a job as a profiler.
“No, white. Skin. An albino.”
Something cold gripped the pit of my stomach. “An albino. You’re sure?”
Da Vinci Code.
You know, the monk. White hair, red eyes. White skin. He was a good actor, that guy. Paul somebody. Married to that beautiful actress.”
“Bettany. Paul Bettany, married to Jennifer Connolly,” I said absently. “And this man you’ve seen with Milla Taylor is an albino?”
“You’re not listening, Detective King. I haven’t seen him with her; I’ve just seen him hanging around her apartment waiting for her.”
I had my gun out and was moving before she finished her sentence. Eva Casale, the effects girl, had been seen with an albino, and now she was dead….
Halfway along the second-floor balcony I knew I was too late. The door to Apartment 27 was open and the eye-watering stink of blood and feces fought with the Valley smog. I pressed my back against the wall to the left of the door and pushed it farther open with the barrel of my gun. A score of flies buzzed out, swirled in the air, and then flew back into the room again. I risked a quick darting look inside before I stepped in and cleared all three rooms.
Milla Taylor was waiting for me in the living room, but she wouldn’t be giving me a statement. She wouldn’t be going back to one of those cowboy states, either. At least, not in one piece. Her body was stretched out on one of three overstuffed chairs facing a chrome and glass entertainment center.
Her head, perched on top of the JVC 26-inch TV and dripping blood down its screen, was the entertainment. Well…Milla Taylor finally got her wish to appear on TV.