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An exclusive extract from By Blood We Live, the latest novel by Glen Duncan and the final part in the trilogy that began with The Last Werewolf.
My cellphone rang. Factory setting ringtone. Our days of thinking it a hoot to have ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘Werewolves of London’ are over.
‘Talulla?’ a man’s voice said.
It was just after sunrise. I was standing, naked, in the kitchen of the falling apart villa we’d taken in the hills outside Terracina. The window showed a coarse back garden of long grass and peach trees and sunlit floating dandelion seeds. My phone had been left out on the dining table (Jesus, woman, shape up) amid empties and ashtrays and the remains of Cloquet’s blanquette de veau. The table itself looked like a post-apocalyptic city.
I felt like shit. Less than seventy hours to transformation wulf was all muscle-jab and neural snap, the peppy violence to remind me, redundantly, who’d be running the upcoming lunar show. Walker and I had got smashed on tequila and grass last night to take the edge off. Bludgeoned awake by dehydration (and the now predictable dreams of misbehaviour) I’d come down for water.
To this. A stranger’s voice. Adrenal flash-flood and the hangover’s blur washed away, instantly. Even with the sweat coming out in my palms like stars I thought: Serves you right: All this and it’s not enough.
‘Who is this?’ I said.
‘There’s a package for you. If you go to the front hall you’ll see it on the doormat.’
I scrolled the known voices, got nothing. The accent might’ve started in the Middle East but it had picked up tonal infections on promiscuous travels.
‘Happily,’ he went on, ‘it fit through the letter-box. Otherwise we would have had, God help us, logistics to negotiate.’
Wulf thickened in my wrists, the ghost-claws split my nails. Trying it on. This close to full moon, my girl took any heightened state as an invitation.
‘Hello?’ the voice said.
I ran for the stairs.
‘Are you in the hall yet?’
‘Shut the fuck up.’
‘Oh. You’ll be worried about the children. I understand. But can you at least see the package?’
I had, in fact, glimpsed a small Jiffy bag on the front doormat, but panic owned all of me. Actually not quite all. The voice had conjured, whether I liked it or not, Omar Sharif, Persian carpets, mint tea, a perfumed moustache, that big male ease that looks genial but is really just a habitually gratified ego on autopilot. Years ago when we were teenagers my friend Lauren had said: My mom likes this guy, Omar Sharif? He’s one of those guys looks like he’s got an invisible woman permanently sucking his cock.
‘I’ll give you a minute,’ the voice said. ‘But if it’s any comfort I’m several thousand miles away as we speak. I promise you, no one in your house has anything to fear from me.’
My tongue was dry, knees liquid. Lose possession of your child once and the fear it’ll happen again becomes your resident hair-trigger insomniac. Once a bad mother, always a bad mother. It’s like being an alcoholic: you only ever haven’t fallen off the wagon yet.
‘What?’ Walker said, when I arrived, hot, at the top of the stairs. He was standing – also naked – in our bedroom doorway, scratching his lean belly. Lycanthropy hasn’t touched his human charms, green-eyed dark blond boyishness, the look of readiness to laugh at himself. (I’ve wondered when it was I first saw the finiteness of us, us as a specific portion of wealth to be gone through. Maybe from the beginning. Certainly from the night two years back when the vampire came to call. The vampire came to call and left behind him spores of sadness, irritation, desire.) Beyond Walker the curtained window was an oblong of sunlight. The room had the fatigued smell of the night’s drunk and silently argumentative sex, shot through with the ribald stink of our share in imminent wulf.
I ignored him and went straight to the twins next door. Zoë and Lorcan were both in their beds, sleeping, Lorcan (whose pre-transformation symptoms were getting worse: nightmares, tantrums, a shocking malice towards everyone except his sister) with unchildlike composure, arms by his sides, Zoë with hers up above her head, as if someone had just relieved her of a little dumbbell. Both here. Both safe. Thank God. Gods. Ex-gods. Nothingness.
‘Stay with them,’ I told Walker, unnecessarily, since species telepathy was giving him the gist. He grabbed a Beretta from under our mattress and went to the window between the children’s beds, cracked it an inch to check for scent, peeked round the edge of the curtain for a sweep of the back garden. Throbbing blue sky and an anarchy of birdsong. All clear. He nodded: I’ve got this. Be careful. I clamped the phone between my shoulder and chin (thinking, since consciousness can’t help it: violinists must really fuck their necks up), pulled on last night’s jeans and shirt and plucked the Smith & Wesson from my purse.
‘Who is this?’ I said into the phone. ‘Answer me or I’m hanging up right now.’ In the old life I would’ve been wondering how a stranger had got my number. Not any more. Privacy’s an illusion. In my world it’s always only a matter of time. Yours too, if you want the truth.
‘My name is Olek,’ he said. ‘I’m a vampire— but please try not to hold that against me. I’m not your enemy. I have a mutually beneficial business proposal I’d like to discuss.’
I was hurrying on tense bare feet back down the stairs, hugging the wall. Kept hugging it all the way to the locked front door, which was oak, thick enough, I reminded myself, to stop a bullet, silver or otherwise. The Jiffy bag was addressed simply to ‘Talulla’ in black italic marker. Neat, perfectly straight printing.
‘Do you have the package?’ he said.
‘Do you seriously think I’m just going to pick it up and open it?’
A pause. A cigarette being lit. Again the image of Omar Sharif, the cuboid head and plump black eyes and gap-toothed smile. ‘Well,’ he said, exhaling. ‘I’ll leave that to you. I imagine your instincts are good. Consult them. It’s not a bomb, or silver, or anything that will do you or anyone you love any kind of harm. I can only give you my word, but believe me, I’m old enough for that to mean something. If it helps I can tell you it’s a document. One Jake would have wanted you to see.’
Lucy and Trish had appeared at the top of the stairs, Lucy in a pale green silk nightie, Trish in boy-cut panties and Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt. Both slapped awake by my fear. Cloquet, my familiar and the only human member of the household, hadn’t stirred.
A document. One Jake would have wanted you to see. Jake Marlowe. My ex. My late ex. My late werewolf ex. The love against which all others were measured. Ask Walker.
‘Take your time,’ Olek said. ‘I’m not going anywhere. In the package you’ll find a note from me and a number to call when you’re ready to talk. And again, I swear to you: you have nothing to fear.’
The line went dead.
Look at her, I imagined my Aunt Theresa saying, disgusted. She’s excited. Like when the Twin Towers went down. Like with the riots in those ugly English towns. She sees another serial killer victim in the newspaper and it gives her a sick thrill. She’s not normal. (Well, Aunt, no, she’s not. Not now.)
‘What the fuck?’ Trish said, starting down the stairs. At twenty-four she’s the youngest of the pack, not counting the twins. Short, punkily chopped maroon hair and big green eyes and a supple little body full of delighted and occasionally catastrophic energy. I motioned her to stay put. Caught myself thinking: It doesn’t look like a bomb— followed immediately by the admission that aside from cartoons and war footage I had no clue what a bomb looked like. For all I knew they could be making them the size of postage stamps these days. A werewolf can survive a lot of damage, but I doubted I’d come back from being blown to pieces. I had a vivid image of myself in bits, one severed hand walking on its fingers to find my eyeballs, a doomed attempt to put myself back together. Like the beginning of Iron Man. Or that scene in The Thing. Or was it The Faculty? Whatever it was it was like something I’d already seen. Four hundred more years of things being like other things you’d already seen. The effort finding the new would demand. I could see how Jake ended up the way he had: tired. Ready for death. Until he found love. At which point death was ready for him.
‘Who was that?’ Lucy asked, holding her elbows, hip bones pressing against the pale green silk of her nightie. She’s an angle-poise Englishwoman of forty-three with dark auburn bangs and a broad delicate freckled face which in the absence of make-up her features are in danger of dissolving into. She would have been voted by all her (Cheltenham Ladies’ College) school friends pupil least likely to become a werewolf. I’ve seen her punch through a man’s sternum, rip out his heart and gobble it in two bloody bites. It’s quite something to be able to say that and not be speaking figuratively.
‘Lu?’ she said, since I remained static, staring at the package. ‘Who was that on the phone?
‘A vampire,’ I said. ‘Nobody do anything for a minute. We need to think about this.’
Something like this happens and you realise you’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. It turns out things can’t go on as they have been and you admit you’d been thinking things couldn’t go on as they had been. At which point you can yield or fight. Wars start like this. Cultures gamble decadence and death will win them rebirth, watch themselves sliding into it, knowing it’s an all-or-nothing bet. Last night I’d felt Walker thinking, while I changed positions so we wouldn’t be face to face: Why are you wrecking this a little more every day?
Half an hour after the call I sat on the bottom stair, smoking a Camel, alone. The Jiffy bag remained where it had dropped on the doormat. The hallway was still and cool and delicately conscious: white floorboards; round convex mirror; hat stand. I’d sent the household – Cloquet, Lucy, Trish and the twins (Lorcan protesting, violently rejecting every adult’s helping hands) – out to what I judged safe distance at the bottom of the back garden seventy metres away. Walker had tried to stay with me. A calm argument, same outcome every time: No. It’s got my name on it. Whatever it is I’m not exposing anyone else. Certainly not you. And besides… No need to complete the sentence. And besides, if I get blown up, who else will take care of the kids? He wasn’t their father (that would be the late Jake Marlowe) but he was the closest thing they had to one. That love had knit easily, even if ours hadn’t. It was a deep pleasure to me to watch them with him, clambering, pestering, yanking his hand to come and look at something. They didn’t call him Dad. They called him – as everyone did, including me – Walker.
I’m a vampire— but please try not to hold that against me.
Species enmity. Mutually Assured Detestation at the cellular level. To the werewolf the vampire smells, as Jake was wont to put it, like a vat of pigshit and rotten meat. God only knows what our kind smells like to theirs. But circumstances had forced me to spend time close to them. Two years ago a lunatic vampire religious sect kidnapped my son for use in an idiotic ritual. In the struggle to get him back I was captured, incarcerated and tortured, not by vamps, but by the all too human WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena); one of my fellow inmates was a vampire boy, Caleb, Turned when he was twelve years old. For the first twenty-four hours in prison the stink of each other had made us both spectacularly sick. But over time the effect had lessened.
And then of course there was the other vampire. Yes. The one who’d been watching me in Alaska the night I gave birth to the twins. The one who’d come to see me, briefly, two years ago, then disappeared. The one who’d been alive, allegedly (hard to think this with a straight face; to think it was to more or less dismiss it), for twenty thousand years. The one who, according to (his own) ancient prophecy, would reach apotheosis when – and I quote, kidding you not – ‘he joined the blood of the werewolf’.
The one I couldn’t get out of my head.
I’d dreamed about him last night. Again. Always the same dream: Impossible protracted transcendent sex that morphed into the two of us walking on a beach at twilight. With a feeling of sickness. With a feeling of seeing the dismal punchline of a long-winded joke.
For a moment on the phone I’d thought it was him. But the voice was different. I remembered his voice very clearly. I remembered all of him very clearly, skin the colour of milky coffee, dark eyes and unkempt hair, an expression of chimpish mischief, battered clothes, the look of having just done five thousand miles on a motorbike. Beautiful hands and filthy fingernails. (What are you thinking about? Walker still annoyingly asked. Too easy lately to lie. A couple of times, fascinated by my knack for casual bankruptcy, I’d answered, ‘Jake’. Which did its job. Closed the subject. For a while. Walker loves me but the in-awe days are over. Sooner or later he’ll get tired of ghosts. Or shadows. Or secrets. Or the growing conviction that not all of me belongs to him, and never will. The lover’s tragedy and triumph, Jake wrote, is that he is always bigger than love. So is she, Jacob. So is she.)
The hallway held its portion of light and silence very still.
Cognitive dissonance because a Jiffy bag on the doormat in the old life meant a gift, an Amazon order, Greek sweets from my dad.
I’ll finish this cigarette, then I’ll open it.
I finished the cigarette.
There was no decision. In the abstracted way of these things I found myself getting to my bare feet (toenails last night painted L’Oreal ‘Scarlet Vamp’, since there’s no end to one’s tawdry acts of self-collusion), walking the dozen paces, bending, and, with only the slightest delirium in my fingertips, picking up the packet.
In a few seconds of near complete blankness I tore it open.
Diary, rather. Old-fashioned. And in fact old. Soft pale calfskin stained and scratched, damp-buckled pages with green marbling. A gap between the last sheet and the back cover said some were missing. Exposed binding where the excision had been made. My nose expected mould, the sour of old leather. Instead got pharmacy. Medicine. Chemical.
A document Jake would have wanted you to see.
For a few moments I stood there on mindless pause.
Then all my abstractedness shrank back to sudden, tight, bristling consciousness. My skin livened. I was very aware of the dimensions my body occupied, standing in the hall, the villa, the town, the hills, boot-shaped Italy, the big aching curve of the planet, space and time that used to dissolve into God but now went eventually via the Large Hadron Collider into a pointless looped nowhere and nothingness. I was very aware of stilled, wide-eyed wulf’s for once almost perfect fit inside me.
Because in an intuitive leap I’d realised (plot-addicted Life hopped from foot to foot with excitement) whose diary this was.
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By Blood We Live is released on 6th February 2014 by Canongate Books, and is available from Foyles and all good bookshops.