This story appeared in the April 1996 issue of Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, edited by Algis Budrys. Please see Rights and Permissions before redistributing it in any form.
"Her little friends call her Morticia," said her stepmother, exhaling the words within a cloud of stinking blue smoke. She dropped the butt into the dregs of her Chivas Regal. Then she signed the check, tore it loose from the book, set it neatly on top of the commitment papers, and extended the pile to me with a snap of her bony wrist.
I took the sheaf of flimsies by a corner, avoiding contact with her liver-spotted hand. "Where is she?"
"Downstairs. In the wine cellar." She set her sweaty glass down on the marble-topped bar, squarely atop an unmounted eight-by-ten portrait of a little redheaded girl wearing a huge pair of very dark sunglasses. "She's dug herself her own little hole." With the precise motions of a mantis biting the head off its mate, she lit another Virginia Slim.
"Would you mind if I took these?" I asked, removing the glass and wiping the cold wet ring from the photo. Pictures from kindergarten through eighth grade littered the table, always a formal portrait of the same girl, always in dark glasses. Each year came with the full, expensive package: group shots of each class, plus numerous sheets of five-by-seven, three-by-five, and wallet-sized photos.
None of the sheets were cut. Not one of the wallet shots had ever made it into a wallet.
She stared at me, her face blank, her mind tallying up all the options and calculating the best possible move. My research had shown that she was forty-eight; she looked at least sixty. Her hair was a lacquered helmet of a flame-red color not found in nature. Her face was a tightly stretched mask of lifted, peeled, collagen-injected technology, booth-tanned to pigskin brown and painted with European placenta-enhanced makeup.
Her teeth were a brown-stained horror.
"No. Not at all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have other business to attend to. Marta will see you out." And she vanished in a swirl of Chanel and smoke.
"I may need to sedate her...." My voice trailed off as I realized I was speaking to the air.
Marta, thin, scared and most probably illegal, gathered up the pile of photos and report cards and vaccination records. She handed it to me and I shoved it all into an empty compartment of my instrument case.
"This way, please," she said in a liquid Bolivian accent, her skittish stare all over me but never quite meeting my eyes. I followed her down a long gray-carpeted hall, past ice-cold Nagel prints and an ebony baby grand, past picture windows with a spectacular view of the valley, and down a set of narrow steps that followed the contour of the hill.
Car-shaped bulges under snug but dusty dropcloths filled the garage. Teasing hints of fat tires on alloy rims whispered money into my ear once more.
Loose black landscaper's plastic guarded one wall, the kind they lay over the ground to seal the seeds of weeds away from the light of the sun. Marta's wounded gaze crawled over me once more as she raised a corner of the tarp.
Beneath the plastic sheet waited a raw, unfinished hole in the wall, patient and mouthlike.
I raised my eyebrows at Marta and she shook her head with sudden vehemence. No. She would not be going any farther. Her free hand crept up the front of her starched gray uniform to touch something tiny and gold on a chain around her neck.
A second black tarp guarded the other side of the thick foundation wall, heavy with condensation. Wine cellar was an overstatement; it looked like someone had rented a concrete saw for an hour, cut out a square opening, and dug a narrow tunnel along the other side of the wall, under the floor of the living room. Shoddy engineering, that--undermining the retaining wall was a terrible idea, especially on the side of a hill.
Someone else had put in a few upgrades since then. The rich, spoiled smell of spilled wine rolled out in a thick wave, carrying something else, something earthier and musky. Flattened cardboard wine cases covered the lumpy dirt floor on the other side of the opening.
"Thank you. I can find my way from here." I clambered through the hole and sat down on the dirty cardboard, setting my case down in front of me. She lowered the tarp behind me, murmuring something that might have been vaya con dios.Darkness closed its cool, damp hands around me.
"Jessica?" Something in the dark absorbed the sound of my voice. It felt like screaming into a pillow. I crawled forward, feeling my way along.
A third curtain of black plastic barred my way. I pulled it aside. "Jessica?"
"Don't call me that," she whispered, in a voice like dead leaves blowing over concrete. On her knees in the dirt, she crouched over a book. The inner chamber of her sanctuary was lit by the thinnest possible trickle of light from the other end, filtered through what looked to be a dark green garbage bag. The oval shape of her face, dyed a sick cheesy color by the light, floated in the dim black cloud of her hair. "You're here to take me away." It wasn't a question. Before I could answer, she reached back and did something. The tunnel went completely, utterly black.
I sighed. "You're not making this any easier." I listened. She moved towards me, quiet as a stalking cat. "Your mother just signed paper on you, Jessica--"
"Stop calling me that!" Something heavy and many-toothed--a baseball bat with nails driven through it, perhaps--screamed past my face. Combat reflexes took over. I thrust the heavy instrument case straight out in front of me with a quick two-handed popping motion and dove after it. The case and I both struck her at the same time. The spiked club missed, hit an earthen wall, and went flying.
Suddenly I was wrestling an angry wildcat.
She had done something to her nails that made them claw-sharp and blade-strong. Her teeth snapped like a rat trap in my ear. Her breath smelled of spoiled meat.
In spite of myself, I became ... excited.
We flailed like lovers in the dark, digging into the loose dirt, sending empty bottles crashing in every direction. Young and strong, she was phenomenally fast, faster than I ever was.But I was stronger, and far more experienced, and at least double her weight. She tired quickly. I wound up sitting on top of her with her wrists grinding bone-to-bone in one hand. The other was tangled in a fistful of filthy, matted hair. I swallowed grit, panting, and tried to speak. "Morticia, then? That's what your mother recommended." She bucked under me again, every muscle turning to wire in my grasp.
"She's not my mother." She twisted again, the tension jumping around inside her like a rabbit still alive after being swallowed by a snake.
"I know." She relaxed, just a bit. "I'm going to let go of your hair and show you something. Can you be a good girl for just a second?" She nodded, trembling like a wild bird beneath me.
A side pocket of the instrument case contained my contact lens carrier. I removed it, snapped it open one-handed, and set it down on a fairly level spot somewhere in the dark. Then I reached up and removed my right lens.
Cool gray light, like bright starlight, flooded one half of my vision. I dropped the lens into the carrier and removed the other one. Then I replaced the carrier and shut the case once more, preventing her from looking inside.
"Ah. Much better. I can see you now." I released her wrists and looked around. The floor joists were barely a foot over my head. The place was filthy, choked with rubbish, mostly empty soup cans, milk cartons, and wine bottles. Hundreds of wine bottles, lined up in ragged ranks against the rough-dug walls.
Textural intolerance, I noted. A classical symptom among the visually impaired; left untreated, many of us would go our entire lives unable to stomach anything more solid than yogurt.
Most telling, she had books. The books made it more than just another feral's den. There were books everywhere, lurid horror paperbacks, gloss-black and shiny silver covers, dripping with blood and talons and sharp-edged letters. Vampire books. "This isn't so bad. A little wallpaper, maybe some futons--"
"What do you mean, you can see me now? Nobody can see down here, nobody but me...." Her voice trailed off. Her eyes flicked down to my hands. They were long, slender and very strong, just like hers. I found a trio of dry bottles that had once held a Gewurztraminer of overinflated reputation. I held them, two in one hand and one in the other. Then I started to juggle, a simple three-club shower.
Her mouth dropped open, revealing broken horror.
It looked like someone had taken a file to her teeth, leaving a ragged mess of her front incisors, upper and lower. Only her canines--offset forward, as were mine--were left whole, long and shiny and white against the brown dead stumps. I lost my concentration at the sight, dropping one of the bottles with a thud. She caught me staring and closed her mouth. Her jaw muscles flexed and bulged and I heard a low grinding sound.
Involuntary bruxism. Another classical symptom, born of liquid diet, poor electrolyte balance, and desperation. Gods, but it must have been painful, especially while she slept, every dream grinding inevitably into dull, throbbing nightmare.
Looking away, I scanned her titles. "I see you've been doing some research. The complete Anne Rice. Overblown, but useful. And the Stoker, of course." She said nothing, watching, waiting. "But the rest of this is such dreck-- Tell me, sweetling, have you drank anyone yet? Anyone ... human?" I watched her eyes carefully. The eyes always told the truth.
There. The barest flicker, towards a gouged-out niche in the earthen wall. I lifted my nose into the air, inhaling theatrically, pretending to catch the scent.
"Ah." A silver-girdled magnum lay in state in the hollow, half-full of something thick and dark. She tensed for another charge as I lifted the bottle free. "No, no, darling. If you rush me again, I'll hurt you."
The cork was stuck fast; I'm afraid I flashed my own canines as I broke the scab and yanked it loose with my teeth. I spat the dirty-tasting thing out into the dimness. I tilted the bottle and took a sip of the cold, clotted liquid. Then a mouthful. It tasted of foul memories, of desperate midnight hunts through moonless, shell-shattered villages. Rat. How I loathe the stink of rat.
But I swallowed it, and smiled.
"Hmm. Earthy. Good bouquet. Nice dry finish, decent enough for a blend. Let's see ... I'm getting domestic rabbit, a trace of rat, and a strong taste of dog. Large dog--retriever, perhaps? Labrador, let's say. And female. Definitely a female in heat."
"Who are you? What do you want?" Her face told the tale. I was right, on all counts. Best of all, she was still pure, innocent in one vital, special way--there wasn't a drop of human blood in that bottle. The Master would be pleased.
"Tell me, small one. Why did you change your hair?" I reached up and touched a dry lock. It felt dead, like the tail of a stuffed horse. "Black is such a ... dramatic choice."
"So I wouldn't match her any more. That's why she picked me. I went with her outfit. I accessorized well." She shook her head, yanking her hair back from my grasp. A few strands came loose and stuck to my fingers. She was clearly malnourished, the poor thing--properly fed, what a tigress she would be! "You didn't answer me. Who are you?"
"Your name is Amalia Antonescu."
Suddenly she sat very still. The relevant papers were in my case; I'd memorized the facts, however, as I always do. I had a feeling, however, that documentation wouldn't be necessary, not in this case. "You were born 3 December 1989 in Bucharest, to Margid and Nikolai Antonescu, midrank functionaries of the Romanian Communist Party. Your diagnosis was incomplete at that time; multiple congenital abnormalities, most notably severe cone dystophy, extreme oversensitivity to light." Her hand moved unbidden in the direction of her eyes. "Your parents went missing and were presumed dead in the uprising; you remained in hospital until your adoption, three months later." I paused, noting her elevated pulse rate, her controlled breathing. "Your illegal adoption."
Overdeveloped muscles twitched at the sides of her head and the corners of her jaw. A single molar-grinding crack emerged. "I'm going to ask you one more time. Who are you, and what do you want?" Her control was remarkable, really, for one so young.
"I am ... a cousin. A fellow sufferer. A friend, if you'll allow it." One of her severely-plucked eyebrows arched at me. She said nothing. Even without her heritage, living with her stepmother would have taught her control. "I am here to take you home, if you'd like to go."
"And if I won't?"
"Are you familiar with a place called the Agnew State Developmental Facility?" She knew the name of the local asylum, judging from the way she shrunk into herself. "I have commitment papers here, signed by your mother." She flared again at the word; I'd used it intentionally. "Poor woman. Her husband watched her grow old and traded her in for a newer model, and left her alone with this psychotic little girl-creature who thinks she's a vampire, of all things--"
"Stop it!" Her voice would shatter bone someday, after training. "That's enough. I'll go."
"Yes. You will." I gestured around the dusty cavern. "Is there anything you'd like to bring along?"
"From here? No." She produced a floppy black sun hat and a pair of dark green plastic glasses, one of those cheap drugstore sets that retired people wear over their spectacles. It completely encased her eyes, hiding her expression once more.Then she smiled at me and yanked a rope I hadn't spotted. Plastic rustled. Plywood fell away. And brutally bright afternoon sunlight blasted in from the other end of the tunnel, heralding her escape.
Clever, clever girl; I should have known the hole would have a back door. The light hit my eyes like boiling acid. I growled, clenched my eyes shut, grabbed my instrument case--no time to replace the lenses--and ran after her.
Fast as she was, she still ran like a clubfooted cow. Eyes screwed tight against the bright red glare, I heard her crashing through the iceplant that covered the side of the hill. Her scent alone--sharp dirty terror, ratlike and rancid--would have been enough to lead me straight to her, even if she hadn't made the grievous tactical error of turning at the end of the driveway and running straight down the road, towards the car.
Her cheap rubber-soled shoes flapped against the hot asphalt, beating counterpoint to her ragged respiration. Every fifth or sixth step, her breathing grew strained, as though she was looking back to find me closer. Timing it carefully, I grinned, a horrible sight. She ran faster. Then, at the critical moment, I called her name. Her true name.
Her stride faltered once more--
--and I heard quick metal-on-metal sounds and a hollow thud as she ran full tilt into the Volga's open door. Risking retinal damage, I shaded my eyes and opened them a crack.
My employer's thin, black-gloved hands dragged her, feet first, under the door and up into the car. She spasmed as her head went under the edge of the door and into shadow, clipping her forehead on the gray steel. Her hat and sunglasses fell away, revealing wide, terrified eyes that no longer minded the burning rays of the sun. She moaned once, softly, as though she was dreaming. Then she was gone behind the bulletproof door, which thunked shut with a soft, insulated sound.
My eyes felt like dull red coals. I closed them and made my way to the car, navigating by memory, the feel of the road beneath my feet, echolocation, and subtle olfactory hints. Once there, I stumbled over her sunglasses and tried them on. She'd inserted a piece of silvery plastic that seemed to be cut from a potato chip bag; the result worked almost as well as my contact lenses.
The Volga rocked once on its specially-stiffened springs; I smiled to myself, knowing the force it would have taken to do such a thing. Little Amalia was learning her first lesson: strength, speed, youth, and experience pale in comparison to the power of the Blood. I'd learned it myself in Vichy, a century ago and more, when the Master plucked me from an orphanage and set me by his side.
Over all, truly and finally, the Bloodline always ruled.
I brushed grit from my knees and elbows, straightened my tie, and slid behind the wheel. Behind heavily-tinted glass, the interior of the car was dim enough for me to remove Amalia's sunglasses. Then I carefully cleaned and reinserted my lenses. During the time-consuming process I was dimly aware of two or three more gentle swaying motions and an imperfectly-muffled thump against the black glass behind my head; the girl, I presumed, was putting up a struggle.
Strange. The Master had only mentioned his belief that Amalia's parents were half-Blood, as I was. When I'd been in her place he'd subdued me almost instantly, pinning me to the ground, opening my throat, and owning me completely from that moment forward.
I'd never had the temerity to ask the Master what percentage of the Blood flowed through his own veins. It wasn't sufficient to win him a throne in one of the ruling houses of Europe or Asia. It was more than enough, however, to grant him complete dominion over his hidden American empire.
Ah. Something was happening; the black glass partition that divided the car's front and rear compartments began to slide down on silent bearings. I straightened and placed my hands on the wheel at two and ten o'clock, assuming the chauffeur's ever-ready position. The dank brown aroma of the Master's native soil came rolling into the forward compartment. It smelled wetter than usual; perhaps I needed to turn down the humidifiers, before mold began to grow.
"Yes, sir?" I wondered why he hadn't used the intercom, but thought better of asking.
I spun in the seat. She sat in the Master's lap, gently cradling his ancient, hairless head in her arms in an obscene parody of a lover's embrace. Her face was black with blood, none of it hers. She laughed again, a horrible, inhuman sound, and released him. His head lolled back, revealing the sawed-apart ends of trachea, esophagus, and arteries. A stubby little knife glinted in her hand, serrations clogged with bits of flesh and skin.
"He bit me," she said, a ghost of a frown passing over her face. She held up one thin white wrist, showing me the Master's careful signature, a quickly-healing laceration. I felt a stab of jealousy; he hadn't taken nearly as much care not to scar me. "Then he freaked out, and I cut him."
The Bloodline had ruled again, patient, eternal. After an unknowable span of centuries, the Master had made the simplest possible error: tasting Blood purer than his own.
I'd actually managed to open the instrument case and get a hand inside before she saw what I was doing. She sprang upon me in a flash, moving faster than my eyes could follow. I heaved in the seat, once, and felt the cold metal kiss of the blade against my neck.
"Hold still, darling. This won't hurt. Much." Her head whipped around, swift as a striking snake. Her teeth met in my jugular.
A long time later, she sat back, pushing the Master's empty shell away with a backhand gesture. Her eyes danced, glowing with unholy life. "What's your name, sweetling?" I recognized my own mocking tone but was too weary to give anything back but what she demanded.
"Agh." I licked my lips. "Philippe."
"Philippe ... ah ...." Try as I might, I was unable to remember my family name. But that wasn't what she wanted.
"Mistress. Madame. Or milady."
"That's better." She released me, vibrating with life, glowing with possibilities. The Bloodline ruled; hers was stronger than the Master had believed, it seemed. "Philippe, old boy, do me a favor and hand me my sunglasses."
Suddenly she sounded exactly like her stepmother. Dear lord, I thought, what have I done?
I leaned forward and scooped them off the dashboard, wincing at the pulling sensation in my neck. "Madame? Are you, ah, going somewhere?" I cringed inside, mentally berating myself for asking the question. The Master would have flayed me for that impertinence. But she only smiled, wiped a smear of my blood away from her lips, and reached into my instrument case, open on the seat beside me.
"Only a minor delay, Philippe. Then we'll be on our way." She found what she wanted and pulled it back through the opening into the rear of the car. She opened the door and stepped daintily out, adjusting her sun hat. "I'll be right back."
And then she skipped up the road towards the house, mallet swinging from one hand, wooden stake held firmly in the other.