The queen of the damned, p.18

The Queen Of The Damned, page 18

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 15




  Very little is more worth our time than understanding the talent of Substance, A bee, a living bee, at the windowglass, trying to get out, doomed, it can't understand.


  Untitled Poem from Pig's Progress (1976)


  LONG CURVING LOBBY; THE CROWD WAS LIKE liquid sloshing against the colorless walls. Teenagers in Halloween costume poured through the front doors; lines were forming to purchase yellow wigs, black satin capes- "Fang teeth, fifty cents!"-glossy programs. Whiteface everywhere he looked. Painted eyes and mouths. And here and there bands of men and women carefully done up in authentic nineteenth-century clothes, their makeup and coiffed hair exquisite.

  A velvet-clad woman tossed a great shower of dead rosebuds into the air above her head. Painted blood flowed down her ashen cheeks. Laughter.

  He could smell the greasepaint, and the beer, so alien now to his senses: rotten. The hearts beating all around him made a low, delicious thunder against the tender tympana of his ears.

  He must have laughed out loud, because he felt the sharp pinch of Armand's fingers on his arm. "Daniel!"

  "Sorry, boss," he whispered. Nobody was paying a damn bit of attention anyway; every mortal within sight was disguised; and who were Armand and Daniel but two pale nondescript young men in the press, black sweaters, jeans, hair partially hidden under sailor's caps of blue wool, eyes behind dark glasses. "So what's the big deal? I can't laugh out loud, especially now that everything is so funny?"

  Armand was distracted; listening again. Daniel couldn't get it through his head to be afraid. He had what he wanted now. None of you my brothers and sisters!

  Armand had said to him earlier, "You take a lot of teaching. " That was during the hunt, the seduction, the kill, the flood of blood through his greedy heart. But he had become a natural at being unnatural, hadn't he, after the clumsy anguish of the first murder, the one that had taken him from shuddering guilt to ecstasy within seconds. Life by the mouthful. He'd woken up thirsting.

  And thirty minutes ago, they'd taken two exquisite little vagabonds in the ruins of a derelict school by the park where the kids lived in boarded-up rooms with sleeping bags and rags and little cans of Sterno to cook the food they stole from the Haight-Ashbury dumpsters. No protests this time around. No, just the thirsting and the ever increasing sense of the perfection and the inevitability of it, the preternatural memory of the taste faultless. Hurry. Yet there had been such an art to it with Armand, none of the rush of the night before when time had been the crucial element.

  Armand had stood quietly outside the building, scanning it, waiting for "those who wanted to die"; that was the way he liked to do it; you called to them silently and they came out. And the death had a serenity to it. He'd tried to show that trick to Louis long ago, he'd said, but Louis had found it distasteful.

  And sure enough the denim-clad cherubs had come wandering through the side door, as if hypnotized by the music of the Pied Piper. "Yes, you came, we knew you'd come. . . . " Dull flat voices welcoming them as they were led up the stairs and into a parlor made out of army blankets on ropes. To die in this garbage in the sweep of the passing headlights through the cracks in the plywood.

  Hot dirty little arms around Daniel's neck; reek of hashish in her hair; he could scarcely stand it, the dance, her hips against him, then driving his fangs into the flesh. "You love me, you know you do," she'd said. And he'd answered yes with a clear conscience. Was it going to be this good forever? He'd clasped her chin with his hand, underneath, pushing her head back, and then, the death like a doubled fist going down his throat, to his gut, the heat spreading, flooding his loins and his brain.

  He'd let her drop. Too much and not enough. He'd clawed at the wall for a moment thinking it must be flesh and blood, too, and were it flesh and blood it could be his. Then such a shock to know he wasn't hungry anymore. He was filled and complete and the night waited, like something made out of pure light, and the other one was dead, folded up like a baby in sleep on the grimy floor, and Armand, glowing in the dark, just watching.

  It was getting rid of the bodies after that had been hard. Last night that had been done out of his sight, as he wept. Beginner's luck. This time Armand said "no trace means no trace. " So they'd gone down together to bury them deep beneath the basement floor in the old furnace room, carefully putting the paving stones back in place. Lots of work even with such strength. So loathsome to touch the corpse like that. Only for a second did it flicker in his mind: who were they? Two fallen beings in a pit. No more now, no destiny. And the waif last night? Was somebody looking for her somewhere? He'd been crying suddenly. He'd heard it, then reached up and touched the tears coming out of his eyes.

  "What do you think this is?" Armand had demanded, making him help with the paving stones. "A penny dreadful novel? You don't feed if you can't cover it up. "

  The building had been crawling with gentle humans who noticed not a thing as they'd stolen the clothes they now wore, uniforms of the young, and left by a broken door into an alley. Not my brothers and sisters anymore. The woods have always been filled with these soft doe-eyed things, with hearts beating for the arrow, the bullet, the lance. And now at last I reveal my secret identity: I have always been the huntsman.

  "Is it all right, the way I am now?" he'd asked Armand. "Are you happy?" Haight Street, seven thirty-five. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, junkies screaming on the corner. Why didn't they just go on to the concert? Doors open already. He couldn't bear the anticipation.

  But the coven house was near, Armand had explained, big tumbledown mansion one block from the park, and some of them were still hanging back in there plotting Lestat's ruin. Armand wanted to pass close, just for a moment, know what was going on.

  "Looking for someone?" Daniel had asked. "Answer me, are you pleased with me or not?"

  What had he seen in Armand's face? A sudden flare of humor, lust? Armand had hurried him along the dirty stained pavements, past the bars, the cafes, the stores crowded with stinking old clothes, the fancy clubs with their gilded letters on the greasy plate glass and overhead fans stirring the fumes with gilded wooden blades, while the potted ferns died a slow death in the heat and the semidarkness. Past the first little children-"Trick or treat!"-in their taffeta and glitter costumes.

  Armand had stopped, at once surrounded by tiny upturned faces covered in store-bought masks, plastic spooks, ghouls, witches; a lovely warm light had filled his brown eyes; with both hands he'd dropped shiny silver dollars in their little candy sacks, then taken Daniel by the arm and led him on.

  "I love it well enough the way you turned out," he had whispered with a sudden irrepressible smile, the warmth still there. "You're my firstborn," he'd said. Was there a catch in his throat, a sudden glancing from right to left as if he'd found himself cornered? Back to the business at hand. "Be patient. I am being afraid for us both, remember?"

  Oh, we shall go to the stars together! Nothing can stop us. All the ghosts running through these streets are mortal!

  Then the coven house had blown up.

  He'd heard the blast before he saw it-and a sudden rolling plume of flame and smoke, accompanied by a shrill sound he would never before have detected: preternatural screams like silver paper curling in the heat. Sudden scatter of shaggy-haired humans running to see the blaze.

  Armand had shoved Daniel off the street, into the stagnant air of a narrow liquor store. Bilious glare; sweat and reek of tobacco; mortals, oblivious to the nearby conflagration, reading the big glossy girlie magazines. Armand had pushed him to the very rear of the tiny corridor. Old lady buying tiny carton of milk and two cans of cat food out of the icebox. No way out of here.

  But how could one hide from the thing that was passing over, from the deafening sound that mortals could not even hear? He'd lifted his hands to his ears, but that was foolish, useless. Death out there in alley
ways. Things like him running through the debris of backyards, caught, burnt in their tracks. He saw it in sputtering flashes. Then nothing. Ringing silence. The clanging bells and squealing tires of the mortal world.

  Yet he'd been too enthralled still to be afraid. Every second was eternal, the frost on the icebox door beautiful. The old lady with the milk in her hand, eyes like two small cobalt stones.

  Armand's face had gone blank beneath the mask of his dark glasses, hands slipped into his tight pants pockets. The tiny bell on the door jangled as a young man entered, bought a single bottle of German beer, and went out.

  "It's over, isn't it?"

  "For now," Armand had answered.

  Not until they'd gotten in the cab did he say more.

  "It knew we were there; it heard us. "

  "Then why didn't it-?"

  "I don't know. I only know it knew we were there. It knew before we found shelter. "

  And now, push and shove inside the hall, and he loved it, the crowd carrying them closer and closer to the inner doors. He could not even raise his arms, so tight was the press; yet young men and women elbowed past him, buffeted him with delicious shocks; he laughed again as he saw the life-sized posters of Lestat plastered to the walls.

  He felt Armand's fingers against his back; he felt a subtle change in Armand's whole body. A red-haired woman up ahead had turned around and was facing them as she was moved along towards the open door.

  A soft warm shock passed through Daniel. "Armand, the red hair. " So like the twins in the dream! It seemed her green eyes locked on him as he said, "Armand, the twins!"

  Then her face vanished as she turned away again and disappeared inside the hall.

  "No," Armand whispered. Small shake of his head. He was in a silent fury, Daniel could feel it. He had the rigid glassy look he always got when profoundly offended. "Talamasca," he whispered, with a faint uncharacteristic sneer.

  "Talamasca. " The word struck Daniel suddenly as beautiful. Talamasca. He broke it down from the Latin, understood its parts. Somewhere out of his memory bank it came: animal mask. Old word for witch or shaman.

  "But what does it really mean?" he asked.

  "It means Lestat is a fool," Armand said. Flicker of deep pain in his eyes. "But it makes no difference now. "


  Khayman watched from the archway as the Vampire Lestat's car entered the gates of the parking lot. Almost invisible Khayman was, even in the stylish denim coat and pants he'd stolen earlier from a shop manikin. He didn't need the silver glasses that covered his eyes. His glowing skin didn't matter. Not when everywhere he looked he saw masks and paint, glitter and gauze and sequined costumes.

  He moved closer to Lestat, as if swimming through the wriggling bodies of the youngsters who mobbed the car. At last he glimpsed the creature's blond hair, and then his violet blue eyes as he smiled and blew kisses to his adorers. Such charm the devil had. He drove the car himself, gunning the motor and forcing the bumper against these tender little humans even as he flirted, winked, seduced, as if he and his foot on the gas pedal weren't connected to each other.

  Exhilaration. Triumph. That's what Lestat felt and knew at this moment. And even his reticent companion, Louis, the dark-haired one in the car beside him, staring timidly at the screaming children as if they were birds of paradise, didn't understand what was truly happening.

  Neither knew that the Queen had waked. Neither knew the dreams of the twins. Their ignorance was astonishing. And their young minds were so easy to scan. Apparently the Vampire Lestat, who had hidden himself quite well until this night, was now prepared to do battle with everyone. He wore his thoughts and intentions like a badge of honor.

  "Hunt us down!" That's what he said aloud to his fans, though they didn't hear. "Kill us. We're evil. We're bad. It's perfectly fine to cheer and sing with us now. But when you catch on, well, then the serious business will begin. And you'll remember that I never lied to you. "

  For one instant his eyes and Khayman's eyes met. I want to be good! I would die for that! But there was no recognition of who or what received this message.

  Louis, the watcher, the patient one, was there on account of love pure and simple. The two had found each other only last night, and theirs had been an extraordinary reunion. Louis would go where Lestat led him. Louis would perish if Lestat perished. But their fears and hopes for this night were heartbreakingly human.

  They did not even guess that the Queen's wrath was close at hand, that she'd burnt the San Francisco coven house within the hour. Or that the infamous vampire tavern on Castro Street was burning now, as the Queen hunted down those fleeing from it.

  But then the many blood drinkers scattered throughout this crowd did not know these simple facts either. They were too young to hear the warnings of the old, to hear the screams of the doomed as they perished. The dreams of the twins had only confused them. From various points, they glared at Lestat, overcome with hatred or religious fervor. They would destroy him or make of him a god. They did not guess at the danger that awaited them.

  But what of the twins themselves? What was the meaning of the dreams?

  Khayman watched the car move on, forcing its way towards the back of the auditorium. He looked up at the stars overhead, the tiny pinpricks of light behind the mist that hung over the city. He thought he could feel the closeness of his old sovereign.

  He turned back towards the auditorium and made his way carefully through the press. To forget his strength in such a crowd as this would have been disaster. He would bruise flesh and break bones without even feeling it.

  He took one last look at the sky, and then he went inside, easily befuddling the ticket taker as he went through the little turnstile and towards the nearest stairway.

  The auditorium was almost filled. He looked about himself thoughtfully, savoring the moment somewhat as he savored everything. The hall itself was nothing, a shell of a place to hold light and sound-utterly modern and unredeemably ugly.

  But the mortals, how pretty they were, glistering with health, their pockets full of gold, sound bodies everywhere, in which no organ had been eaten by the worms of disease, no bone ever broken.

  In fact the sanitized well-being of this entire city rather amazed Khayman. True, he'd seen wealth in Europe such as he could never have imagined, but nothing equaled the flawless surface of this small and overpopulated place, even to the San Francisco peasantry, whose tiny stucco cottages were choked with luxuries of every description. Driveways here were jammed with handsome automobiles. Paupers drew their money from bank machines with magic plastic cards. No slums anywhere. Great towers the city had, and fabulous hostelries; mansions in profusion; yet girded as it was by sea and mountains and the glittering waters of the Bay, it seemed not so much a capital as a resort, an escape from the world's greater pain and ugliness.

  No wonder Lestat had chosen this place to throw down the gauntlet, in the main, these pampered children were good. Deprivation had never wounded or weakened them. They might prove perfect combatants for real evil. That is, when they came to realize that the symbol and the thing were one and the same. Wake up and smell the blood, young ones.

  But would there be time for that now?

  Lestat's great scheme, whatever it truly was, might be stillborn; for surely the Queen had a scheme of her own, and Lestat knew nothing of it.

  Khayman made his way now to the top of the hall. To the very last row of wooden seats where he had been earlier. He settled comfortably in the same spot, pushing aside the two "vampire books," which still lay on the floor, unnoticed.

  Earlier, he had devoured the texts-Louis's testament: "Behold, the void. " And Lestat's history: "And this and this and this, and it means nothing. " They had clarified for him many things. And what Khayman had divined of Lestat's intentions had been confirmed completely. But of the mystery of the twins, of course, the book told nothing.

  And as for the Queen's true intent, that continued
to baffle him.

  She had slain hundreds of blood drinkers the world over, yet left others unharmed-Even now, Marius lived. In destroying her shrine, she had punished him but not killed him, which would have been simple. He called to the older ones from his prison of ice, warning, begging for assistance. And effortlessly, Khayman sensed two immortals moving to answer Marius's call, though one, Marius's own child, could not even hear it. Pandora was that one's name; she was a lone one, a strong one. The other, called Santino, did not have her power, but he could hear Marius's voice, as he struggled to keep pace with her.

  Without doubt the Queen could have struck them down had she chosen to do it. Yet on and on they moved, clearly visible, clearly audible, yet unmolested.

  How did the Queen make such choices? Surely there were those in this very hall whom she had spared for some purpose. . . .

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