Merrick, p.3

Merrick, page 3

 part  #7 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series

 

Merrick
 


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Chapter 2

 

  2

  IN THE STILL CAF¨¦, I watched Merrick take another deep drink of the rum. I treasured the interval in which she let her eyes pass slowly over the dusty room.

  I let my mind return to that long ago night at Oak Haven, as the rain struck the windowpanes. The air had been warm and heavy with the scent of the oil lamps and the busy fire on the hearth. Spring was upon us but the storm had cooled the air. She'd been speaking of the white family named Mayfair of whom she knew so little, she said.

  "None of us with any sense would do that," she continued, "go to those white cousins, expecting anything from any of them on account of a name. " She had brushed it all aside. "I'm not going to white people and try to tell them that I'm their own. "

  Aaron had looked at me, his quick gray eyes concealing even his tenderest emotions, but I knew that he wanted me to respond.

  "There's no need, child," I had said. "You are ours now, if you choose to be. We are your own. Why, it's already understood. This is your home forever. Only you can change things, if you wish. "

  A chill had come over me, of something momentous and meaningful, when I'd spoken those words to her. I had indulged the pleasure. "We'll always take care of you. " I had underscored it, and I might have kissed her had she not been so ripe and pretty, with her bare feet on the flowered carpet and her breasts naked beneath her shift.

  She had not replied.

  "All gentlemen and ladies, it seems," Aaron had said, perusing the daguerreotypes. "And in such excellent condition, these little portraits. " He had sighed. "Ah, what a wonder it must have been in the 1840s when they learnt to take these pictures. "

  "Oh, yes, my greatgreat uncle wrote all about it," she had said. "I don't know if anyone can read those pages anymore. They were crumbling to bits when Great Nananne first showed them to me. But as I was saying, these are all his pictures. Here, the tintypes, he did those too. " She had a woman's weariness in her sigh, as though she'd lived it all. "He died very old, they say, with a house full of pictures, before his white nephews came and actually broke them up¡ªbut I'll come to that. "

  I had been shocked and bruised by such a revelation, unable to excuse it. Broken daguerreotypes. Faces lost forever. She had gone on, lifting the small rectangles of tin, many unframed yet clear, from her cardboard treasure chest.

  "I open boxes sometimes from Great Nananne's rooms, and the paper is all little bits and pieces. I think the rats come and they eat the paper. Great Nananne says rats will eat your money and that's why you have to keep it in an iron box. Iron's magical, you know that. The sisters¡ªI mean the nuns¡ªthey don't know that. That's why in the Bible you couldn't build with an iron shovel, because iron was mighty and you couldn't put the iron shovel above the bricks of the Lord's temple, not then, and not now. "

  It seemed a bizarre intelligence, though she had been most technically correct.

  She'd let her words wander. "Iron and shovels. It goes way back. The King of Babylon held a shovel in his hand with which he laid the bricks of the temple. And the Masons, now they keep that idea in their Order, and on the onedollar bill you see that broken pyramid of bricks. "

  It had amazed me, the case with which she touched on these complex concepts. What had she known in her life, I wondered. What sort of woman would she prove to be?

  I remember that she'd been looking at me, as she'd said those words, gauging my reaction, perhaps, and it had only then become clear to me how much she needed to talk of the things she'd been taught, of the things she thought, of the things she'd heard.

  "But why are you so good?" she had asked, searching my face rather politely. "I know with priests and nuns why they're good to us. They come and bring food and clothes to us. But you, why are you good? Why did you let me in and give me a room here? Why do you let me do what I want? All day Saturday I looked at magazines and listened to the radio. Why do you feed me and try to get me to wear shoes?"

  "Child," Aaron had interjected. "We're almost as old as the Church of Rome. We're as old as the orders of the sisters and the priests who've visited you. Yes, older, I would say, than almost all. "

  Still she had looked to me for an explanation.

  "We have our beliefs and our traditions," I had said. "It's common to be bad, to be greedy, to be corrupt and selfseeking. It's a rare thing to love. We love. "

  Again, I had enjoyed our sense of purpose, our commitment¡ªthat we were the inviolate Talamasca, that we cared for the outcast, that we harbored the sorcerer and the seer, that we had saved witches from the stake and reached out even to the wandering spirits, yes, even to the shades whom others fear. We had done it for well over a thousand years.

  "But these little treasures¡ªyour family, your heritage," I'd hastened to explain. "They matter to us because they matter to you. And they will always be yours. "

  She'd nodded. I had got it right.

  "Witchcraft's my calling card, Mr. Talbot," she'd said shrewdly, "but all this comes with me too. "

  I had enjoyed the. fleeting enthusiasm which had illuminated her face.

  And now, some twenty years after, what had I done, seeking her out, finding her old house in New Orleans deserted, and spying upon her at Oak Haven, walking the broad upstairs galleries of Oak Haven like an old Penny Dreadful Vampire, looking into her very bedroom until she sat up and spoke my name in the darkness.

  I had done her evil, I knew it, and it was exciting, and I needed her, and I was selfish, and I missed her, and it was as plain as that.

  It had been only a week ago that I wrote to her.

  Alone in the town house in the Rue Royale, I'd written by hand in a style that hadn't changed with my fortunes:

  Dear Merrick,

  Yes, it was I whom you saw on the porch outside your room.

  It was not my intention to frighten you but merely to solace myself by looking at you, playing the guardian angel, I must confess, if you will forgive me, as I hovered outside the window for the better part of the night.

  I have a request for you, which I make from my soul to yours. I cannot tell you what it is in this letter. I ask that you meet me in some place that is public, where you will feel safe from me, a place that you yourself choose. Answer at this post box, and I'll be prompt in replying. Merrick, forgive me. If you advise the Elders or the Superior General of this contact, they will in all likelihood forbid you to meet with me. Please give me this little while to speak with you before you take such a step.

  Yours in the Talamasca forever,

  David Talbot.

  What audacity and egoism to have written such a note and delivered it into the iron mailbox at the end of the drive in the hours before dawn.

  She'd written back, a note rather tantalizing in its details, full of undeserved affection.

  I cannot wait to talk with you. Be assured, whatever shocks this meeting will hold in store for me, I seek you inside the mysteryDavid, whom I have always loved. You were my Father when I needed you, and my friend ever after. And I have glimpsed you since your metamorphosis, perhaps more often than you know.

  I know what happened to you. I know of those with whom you live. The Caf¨¦ of the Lion. Rue St. Anne. Do you remember it? Years ago, before we ever went to Central America, we ate a quick lunch there. You were so wary of us setting out for those jungles. Do you remember how you argued? I think I used a witch's charms to persuade you. I always thought you knew. I'll come early each evening for several nights in hopes that you'll be there.

  She had signed the note exactly as I had signed my own:

  "Yours in the Talamasca forever. "

  I had put myself before my love of her, and my duty to her. I was relieved that the deed was done.

  Back then, when she'd been the orphan in the storm, such a thing had been unthinkable. She was my duty, this little wanderer who had come so surprisingly, on her own, one evening to knock on our door.

  "Our motives are the same as your motiv
es," Aaron had said to her most directly on that long ago night at Oak Haven. He'd reached out and lifted her soft brown hair back from her shoulder, as if he were her elder brother. "We want to preserve knowledge. We want to save history. We want to study and we hope to understand. "

  He had made another soft sigh, so unlike him.

  "Ah, those white cousins, the Garden District Mayfairs, as you called them, and most correctly, yes, we know of them," he had admitted, surprising me, "but we keep our secrets unless prompted by duty to reveal them. What is their long history to you just now? Their lives are interconnected like thorny vines forever circling and recircling the same tree. Your life might have nothing to do with that bitter struggle. What concerns us here now is what we can do for you. I don't speak idle words when I tell you that you may rely upon us forever. You are, as David has said, our own. "

  She had reflected. It had not been simple for her to accept all of this, she was too used to being alone with Great Nananne¡ªyet something strong had impelled her to trust us before she'd ever come.

  "Great Nananne trusts you," she had said, as if I'd asked her. "Great Nananne said that I was to come to you. Great Nananne had one of her many dreams and woke up before daylight and rang her bell for me to come. I was sleeping on the screen porch and I came in and found her standing up in her white flannel gown. She's cold all the time, you know; she always wears flannel, even on the hottest night. She said for me to come sit down and listen to what she had dreamed. "

  "Tell me about it, child," Aaron had asked. Had they not spoken of this completely before I'd come?

  "She dreamed of Mr. Lightner, of you," she'd said, looking to Aaron, "and in the dream you came to her with Oncle Julien, white Oncle Julien from the clan uptown. And the two of you sat by her bed.

  "Oncle Julien told her jokes and stories and said he was happy to be in her dream. She said that. Oncle Julien said that I was to go to you, you here, Mr. Lightner, and that Mr. Talbot would come. Oncle Julien spoke French and you yourself were sitting in the canebacked chair and smiling and nodding to her, and you brought her in a cup of coffee and cream the way she likes it, with half a cup of sugar and one of her favorite silver spoons. In and out of her dreams, Great Nananne has a thousand silver spoons. " The dream continued:

  "You sat on her bed, finally, on her best quilt beside her, and you took her hand, and she had all her best rings on her hand, which she doesn't wear anymore, you know, and you said in the dream, 'You send me little Merrick,' and you said you'd take care of me, and you told her that she was going to die. "

  Aaron had not heard this strange recounting, and he'd seemed quite taken, amazed. Lovingly, he'd answered:

  "It must have been Oncle Julien who said such a thing in the dream. How could I have known such a secret?"

  I'd never forgotten his protest, because it had been very unlike him to commit himself even to ignorance, and to press so hard upon such a point.

  "No, no, you told her," the fairy child had said. "You told her the day of the week and the hour of the clock, and it's yet to come. " She had looked thoughtfully once more at her pictures. "Don't worry about it. I know when it's going to happen. " Her face had been suddenly full of sadness. "I can't keep her forever. Les myst¨¨res will not wait. "

  Les myst¨¨res. Did she mean the ancestors, the Voodoo gods, or merely the secrets of fate? I'd been unable to penetrate her thoughts to any degree whatsoever.

  "St. Peter will be waiting," she'd murmured as the visible sadness had slowly receded behind her veil of calm.

  Quite suddenly, she'd flashed her glance on me and murmured something in French. Papa Legba, god of the crossroads in Voodoo, for whom a statue of St. Peter with his keys to Heaven might do quite well.

  I had noted that Aaron could not bring himself to question her further on the matter of his role in the dream, the date of Great Nananne's imminent death. He had nodded, however, and once again, with both hands he'd lifted her hair back from her damp neck where a few errant tendrils had clung to her soft creamy skin.

  Aaron had regarded her with honest wonder as she had gone on with her tale.

  "First thing I knew after that dream, there was an old colored man and a truck ready to take me, and he said, 'You don't need your bag, you just come as you are,' and I climbed up into the truck with him, and he drove me all the way out here, not even talking to me, just listening to some old Blues radio station and smoking cigarettes the whole way. Great Nananne knew it was Oak Haven because Mr. Lightner told her in the dream. . . .

  "Great Nananne knew of Oak Haven of the old days, when it was a different kind of house with a different name. Oncle Julien told her lots of other things, but she didn't tell me what they were. She said, 'Go to them, The Talamasca; they'll take care of you, and it will be the way for you and all the things that you can do. ' "

  It had chilled: all the things that you can do. I remember Aaron's sad expression. He had only given a little shake of his head. Don't worry her now, I'd thought a bit crossly, but the child had not been perturbed.

  Oncle Julien of Mayfair fame was no stranger to my memory; I had read many chapters on the career of this powerful witch and seer, the one male in his bizarre family to go against the goad of a male spirit and his female witches over many hundreds of years. Oncle Julien¡ªmentor, madman, cocksman, legend, father of witches¡ªand the child had said that she had come down from him.

  It had to be powerful magic, but Oncle Julien had been Aaron's field, not mine.

  She had watched me carefully as she spoke.

  "I'm not used to people believing me," she'd said, "but I am used to making people afraid. "

  "How so, child?" I had asked. But she had frightened me quite enough with her remarkable poise and the penetration of her gaze. What could she do? Would I ever know? It had been worth pondering on that first evening, for it was not our way to encourage our orphans to give full vent to their dangerous powers; we had been devoutly passive in all such respects.

  I had banished my unseemly curiosity and set to memorizing her appearance, as was my custom in those days, by looking very carefully at every aspect of her visage and form.

  Her limbs had been beautifully molded; her breasts were already too fetching, and the features of her face were large, all of them¡ªwith no unique hint of the Africanlarge her wellshaped mouth, and large her almond eyes and long nose; her neck had been long and uncommonly graceful, and there had been a harmony to her face, even when she had fallen into the deepest thought.

  "Keep your secrets of those white Mayfairs," she had said. "Maybe someday we can swap secrets, you and me. They don't even know in these times that we are here. Great Nananne said that Oncle Julien died before she was born. In the dream, he didn't say a word about those white Mayfairs. He said for me to come here. " She had gestured to the old glass photographs. "These are my people. If I'd been meant to go to those white Mayfairs, Great Nananne would have seen it long before now. " She'd paused, thoughtfully. "Let's us just talk of those old times. "

  She'd spaced the daguerreotypes lovingly on the mahogany table. She made a neat row, wiping away the crumbly fragments with her hand. And at some moment, I'd noted that all the little figures were upside down from her point of view, and right side up for Aaron and for me.

  "There've been white people kin to me that have come down here and tried to destroy records," she said, "You know, tear the page right out of the church register that says their greatgrandmother was colored. Femme de couleur fibre, that's what some old records say in French.

  "Imagine tearing up that much history, the page right out of the church register with all those births and deaths and marriages, and not wanting to know. Imagine going into my greatgreat oncle's house and breaking up those pictures, pictures that ought to be someplace safe for lots of people to see. "

  She had sighed, rather like a weary woman, gazing down into the worn shoe box and its trophies.

  "Now I have these pictures. I
have everything, and I'm with you, and they can't find me, and they can't throw all these things away. "

  She had dipped her hand into the shoe box again and taken out the cartes de visite¡ªold photographs on cardboard from the last decades of the old century. I could see the high slanted letters in faded purple on the backs of these latest pictures as she turned them this way and that.

  "See, this here is Oncle Vervain," she said. I had looked at the thin, handsome blackhaired young man with the dark skin and light eyes like her own. It was rather a romantic portrait. In a finely tailored threepiece suit, he stood with his arm on a Greek column before a painted sky. The picture was in rich sepia. The African blood was plainly present in the man's handsome nose and mouth.

  "Now, this is dated 1920. " She turned it over once, then back again, and laid it down for us to see. "Oncle Vervain was a Voodoo Doctor," she said, "and I knew him well before he died. I was little, but I'll never forget him. He could dance and spit the rum from between his teeth at the altar, and he had everybody scared, I can tell you. "

  She took her time, then found what she wanted. Next picture.

  "And you see here, this one?" She had laid down another old photograph, this time of an elderly grayhaired man of color in a stately wooden chair. "The Old Man is what they always called him. I don't even know him by any other name. He went back to Haiti to study the magic, and he taught Oncle Vervain all he knew. Sometimes I feel Oncle Vervain is talking to me. Sometimes I feel he's outside our house watching over Great Nananne. I saw the Old Man once in a dream. "

  I had wanted so badly to ask questions, but this had not been the time.

  "See here, this is Pretty Justine," she had said, laying down perhaps the most impressive portrait of all¡ªa studio picture on thick cardboard inside a sepia cardboard frame. "Pretty Justine had everybody afraid of her. " The young woman was indeed pretty, her breasts flat in the style of the 1920s her hair in a bob, her dark skin quite beautiful, her eyes and mouth slightly expressionless, or perhaps evincing a certain pain.

  Now came the modern snapshots, thin and curling, the work of common enough handheld cameras of the present time.

  "They were the worst¡ªhis sons," she had said as she pointed to the curling blackandwhite picture. "They were Pretty Justine's grandchildren, all white and living in New York. They wanted to get their hands on anything that said they were colored and tear it up. Great Nananne knew what they wanted. She didn't fall for their soft manners and the way they took me downtown and bought me pretty clothes. I still have those clothes. Little dresses nobody ever wore and little shoes with clean soles. They didn't leave us an address when they left. See, look at them in the picture. Look how anxious they are. But I did bad things to them. "

  Aaron had shaken his head, studying the strange tense faces. As the pictures had disquieted me, I had kept my eyes on the womanish child.

  "What did you do, Merrick?" I had asked without biting my tongue wisely.

  "Oh, you know, read their secrets in their palms and told them bad things they'd always tried to cover up. It wasn't kind to do that, but I did it, just to make them go away. I told them our house was full of spirits. I made the spirits come. No, I didn't make them come. I called them and they came as I asked. Great Nananne thought it was funny. They said, 'Make her stop,' and Great Nananne said, 'What makes you think I can do that?' as if I was some wild creature that she couldn't control. "

  Again there had come that little sigh.

  "Great Nananne's really dying," she said looking up at me, her green eyes never wavering. "She says there is no one now, and I have to keep these things¡ªher books, her clippings. See, look here, at these clippings. The old newspaper is so brittle it's falling apart. Mr. Lightner's going to help me save these things. " She glanced at Aaron. "Why are you so afraid for me, Mr. Talbot? Aren't you strong enough? You don't think it's so bad to be colored, do you? You're not from here, you're from away. "

  Afraid. Was I really feeling it so strongly? She'd spoken with authority, and I'd searched for the truth in it, but come quick to my own defense and perhaps to hers as well.

  "Read my heart, child," I said. "I think nothing of the sort about being colored, though maybe there were times when I've thought that it might have been bad luck in a particular case. " She'd raised her eyebrows slightly, thoughtfully. I'd continued, anxious, perhaps, but not afraid. "I'm sad because you say you have no one, and I'm glad because I know that you have us. "

  "That's what Great Nananne says, more or less," she answered. And for the first time, her long full mouth made a true smile.

  My mind had drifted, remembering the incomparable darkskinned women I'd seen in India, though she was a marvel of different tones, the rich mahogany hair and the pale eyes so visible and so meaningful. I'd thought again that to many she must have looked exotic, this barefoot girl in the flowered shift.

  Then had come a moment of pure feeling, which had made its indelible and irrational impression. I'd perused the many faces laid out upon the table, and it had seemed they were all gazing at me. It was a marked impression. The little pictures had been alive all along.

  It must be the firelight and the oil lamps, I'd thought dreamily, but I'd been unable to shake the feeling; the little people had been laid out to look at Aaron and to look at me. Even their placement seemed deliberate and sly, or wondrously meaningful, I'd conjectured, as I went smoothly from suspicion to a lulled and tranquil feeling that I was in an audience with a host of the dead.

  "They do seem to be looking," Aaron had murmured, I remember, though I'm sure I hadn't spoken. The clock had stopped ticking and I'd turned to look at it, uncertain where it was. On the mantle, yes, and its hands had been frozen, and the windowpanes had given that muffled rattle that they do when the wind nudges them, and the house had wrapped me securely in its own atmosphere of warmth and secrets, of safety and sanctity, of dreaminess and communal might.

  It seemed a long interval had transpired in which none of us had spoken, and Merrick had stared at me, and then at Aaron, her hands idle, her face glistening in the light.

  I'd awakened sharply to realize nothing had changed in the room. Had I fallen asleep? Unforgivable rudeness. Aaron had been beside me as before. And the pictures had become once more inert and sorrowful, ceremonial testimony to mortality as surely as if she'd laid out a skull for my perusal from a graveyard fallen to ruin. But the uneasiness I'd experienced then stayed with me long after we'd all gone up to our respective rooms.

  Now¡ªafter twenty years and many other strange moments¡ªshe sat across from me at this cafe table in the Rue St. Anne, a beauty gazing at a vampire, and we talked over the flickering candle, and the light was too much like the light of that long ago evening at Oak Haven, though tonight the late spring evening was only moist, not wet with a coming storm.

  She sipped the rum, rolling it around a bit before she swallowed it. But she didn't fool me. She'd soon start drinking it fast again. She set the glass aside and let her fingers spread wide apart on the soiled marble. Rings. Those were Great Nananne's many rings, beautiful gold filigree with various wondrous stones. She'd worn them even in the jungles, when I'd thought it so unwise. She'd never been prone to fear of any sort.

  I thought of her in those hot tropical nights. I thought of her during those steamy hours under the high canopy of green. I thought of the trek through the darkness of the ancient temple. I thought of her climbing ahead of me, in the steam and roar of the waterfall up the gentle slope.

  I'd been far too old for it, our great and secret adventure. I thought of precious objects made of jade as green as her eyes.

  Her voice brought me out of my selfish reverie:

  "Why are you asking me to do this magic?" She put the question to me again. "I sit here and I took at you, David, and with every passing second, I become more aware of what you are and what's happened to you. I put all kinds of pieces together from your open mind¡ªand your mind's as open as i
t ever was, David, you know that, don't you?"

  How resolute was her voice. Yes, the French was utterly gone. Ten years ago it had been gone. But now there was a clipped quality to her words, no matter how soft and low they came.

  Her large eyes widened easily with her expressive verbal rhythms.

  "You couldn't even be quiet of mind on the porch the other night," she scolded. "You woke me. I heard you, just as if you'd been tapping on the panes. You said, 'Merrick, can you do it? Can you bring up the dead for Louis de Pointe du Lac?' And do you know what I heard underneath it? I heard 'Merrick, I need you. I need to talk to you. Merrick, my destiny is shattered. Merrick, I reach for understanding. Don't turn me aside. '"

  I felt an acute pain in my heart.

  "It's true what you're saying," I confessed.

  She drank another big swallow of the rum, and the heat danced in her cheeks.

  "But you want this thing for Louis," she said. "You want it enough to overcome your own scruples and come to my window. Why? You, I understand. Of him, I know other people's stories and just the little I've seen with my own eyes. He's a dashing young man, that one, isn't he?"

  I was too confused to answer, too confused to will courtesy to build a temporary bridge of polite lies.

  "David, give me your hand, please," she asked suddenly. "I have to touch you. I have to feel this strange skin. "

  "Oh, darling, if only you could forego that," I murmured.

  Her large golden earrings moved against the nest of her black hair and the long line of her beautiful neck. All the promise of the child had been fulfilled in her. Men admired her enormously. I had known that a long time ago.

  She reached out to me gracefully. Boldly, hopelessly, I gave her my hand.

  I wanted the contact. I wanted the intimacy. I was powerfully stimulated. And treasuring the sensation, I let her fingers linger as she looked into my palm.

  "Why read this palm, Merrick?" I asked. "What can it tell you? This body belonged to another man. Do you want to read the map of his broken fate? Can you see there that he was murdered and the body stolen? Can you see there my own selfish invasion of a body that ought to have died?"

  "I know the story, David," she answered. "I found it all in Aaron's papers. Body switching. Highly theoretical as regards the official position of the Order. But you were a grand success. "

  Her fingers sent the thrills up my spine and through the roots of my hair.

  "After Aaron's death, I read the whole thing," she said, as she moved her fingertips across the pattern of deeply etched lines. She recited it:

  "'David Talbot is no longer in his body. During an illfated experiment with astral projection he was ousted from his own form by a practiced Body Thief and forced to claim the youthful trophy of his opponent, a body stolen from a shattered soul which has, as far as we can know, moved on. '"

  I winced at the old familiar Talamasca style.

  "I wasn't meant to find those papers," she continued, her eyes still fixed on my palm. "But Aaron died here, in New Orleans, and I had them in my hands before anyone else. They're still in my possession, David; they have never been filed with the Elders and maybe they never will be filed. I don't know. "

  I was amazed at her audacity, to have held back such secrets from the Order to which she still devoted her life. When had I ever had such independence, except perhaps at the very end?

  Her eyes moved quickly back and forth as she examined my palm. She pressed her thumb softly against my flesh. The chills were unbearably enticing. I wanted to take her in my arms, not feed from her, no, not harm her, only kiss her, only sink my fangs a very little, only taste her blood and her secrets, but this was dreadful and I wouldn't let it go on.

  I withdrew my outstretched hand.

  "What did you see, Merrick?" I asked quickly, swallowing the hunger of body and mind.

  "Disasters large and small, my friend, a life line that goes on as long as any, stars of strength, and a brood of offspring. "

  "Stop it, I don't accept it. The hand's not mine. "

  "You have no other body now," she countered. "Don't you think the body will conform to its new soul? The palm of a hand changes over time. But I don't want to make you angry. I didn't come here to study you. I didn't come here to stare in cold fascination at a vampire. I've glimpsed vampires. I've even been close to them, in these very streets. I came because you asked me and because I wanted . . . to be with you. "

  I nodded, overcome and unable for the moment to speak. With quick gestures I pleaded for her silence.

  She waited.

  Then at last:

  "Did you ask permission of the Elders for this meeting?"

  She laughed but it wasn't cruel. "Of course I did not. "

  "Then know this," I said. "It started the same way with me and the Vampire Lestat. I didn't tell the Elders. I didn't let them know how often I saw him, that I brought him into my house, that I conversed with him, traveled with him, taught him how to reclaim his preternatural body when the Body Thief tricked him out of it. "

  She tried to interrupt me but I would have none of it.

  "And do you realize what's happened to me?" I demanded. "I thought I was too clever for Lestat ever to seduce me. I thought I was too wise in old age for the seduction of immortality. I thought I was morally superior, Merrick, and now you see what I am. "

  "Aren't you going to swear to me that you'll never hurt me?" she asked, her face beautifully flushed. "Aren't you going to assure me that Louis de Pointe du Lac would never bring me harm?"

  "Of course I am. But there's a bit of decency left in me, and that decency compels me to remind you that I'm a creature of supernatural appetite. "

  Again she tried to interject, but I wouldn't allow it.

  "My very presence, with all its signals of power, can erode your own tolerance for living, Merrick; it can eat away your faith in a moral order, it can hurt your willingness to die an ordinary death. "

  "Ah, David," she said, chiding me for my official tone. "Speak plainly. What's in your heart? " She sat up straight in the chair, her eyes looking me up and down. "You look boyish and wise in this young body. Your skin's darkened like mine! Even your features have the stamp of Asia. But you're more David than you ever were!"

  I said nothing.

  I watched through dazed eyes as she drank more of the rum. The sky darkened behind her, but bright, warm electric lights filled up the outside night. Only the caf¨¦ itself was veiled in dreary shadow, what with its few dusty bulbs behind the bar.

  Her cool confidence chilled me. It chilled me that she had so fearlessly touched me, that nothing in my vampire nature repelled her, but then I could well remember how Lestat in all his subdued glory had attracted me. Was she attracted? Had the fatal fascination begun?

  She kept her thoughts half concealed as she always had.

  I thought of Louis. I thought of his request. He wanted desperately for her to work her magic. But she was right. I needed her. I needed her witness and her understanding.

  When I spoke, my words were full of heartbreak and wonder, even to myself.

  "It's been magnificent," I said. "And unendurable. I am most truly out of life and can't escape from it. I have no one to whom I can give what I learn. "

  She didn't argue with me or question me. Her eyes seemed suddenly to be full of sympathy, her mask of composure to be gone. I'd seen such sharp changes in her many times. She concealed her emotions except for such silent and eloquent moments.

  "Do you think," she asked, "that if you hadn't taken up life in the young body, that Lestat would have forced you as he did? If you'd still been old¡ªour David, our blessed David, aged seventyfour, wasn't it?¡ªdo you think if you'd still been our honorable Superior General that Lestat would have brought you over?"

  "I don't know," I said shortly, but not without feeling. "I've often asked myself the same question. I honestly don't know. These vampires . . . ah, I mean, we . . . we vampires, we
love beauty, we feed on it. Our definition of beauty expands enormously, you can't quite imagine how much. I don't care how loving your soul, you can't know how much we find beautiful that mortals don't find beautiful, but we do propagate by beauty, and this body has beauty which I've used to evil advantage countless times. "

  She lifted her glass in a small salute. She drank deeply.

  "If you'd come up to me with no preamble," she said, "whispering in a crowd as you touched me¡ªI would have known you, known who you were. " A shadow fell over her face for a moment, and then her expression became serene. "I love you, old friend," she said.

  "You think so, my darling?" I asked. "I have done many things to feed this body; not so very lovely to think about that at all. "

  She finished the glass, set it down, and, before I could do it for her, she reached for the bottle again.

  "Do you want Aaron's papers?" she asked.

  I was completely taken aback.

  "You mean you're willing to give them to me?"

  "David, I'm loyal to the Talamasca. What would I be if it weren't for the Order?" She hesitated, then: "But I'm also deeply loyal to you. " For a few seconds she was musing. "You were the Order for me, David. Can you imagine what I felt when they told me you were dead?"

  I sighed. What could I say in answer?

  "Did Aaron tell you how we grieved for you, all those of us who weren't entrusted with a speck of the truth?"

  "From my soul, I'm sorry, Merrick. We felt we kept a dangerous secret. What more can I say?"

  "You died here in the States, in Miami Beach, that was the story. And they'd flown the remains back to England before they even called to tell me you were gone. You know what I did, David? I made them hold the casket for me. It was sealed shut when I got to London but I made them open it. I made them do it. I screamed and carried on until they gave in to me. Then I sent them out of the room and I stayed alone with that body, David, that body all powdered and prettied up and nestled in its satin. I stayed there for an hour perhaps. They were knocking on the door. Then finally I told them to proceed. "

  There was no anger in her face, only a faint wondering expression.

  "I couldn't let Aaron tell you," I said, "not just then, not when I didn't know whether I'd survive in the new body, not when I didn't understand what life held for me. I couldn't. And then, then it was too late. "

  She raised her eyebrows and made a little doubting gesture with her head. She sipped the rum.

  "I understand," she said.

  "Thank God," I answered. "In time, Aaron would have told you about the body switching," I insisted. "I know he would have. The story of my death was never meant for you. "

  She nodded, holding back the first response that came to her tongue.

  "I think you have to file those papers of Aaron's," I said. "You have to file them directly with the Elders and no one else. Forget the Superior General of the moment. "

  "Stop it, David," she responded. "You know it is much easier to argue with you now that you are in the body of a very young man. "

  "You never had difficulty arguing with me, Merrick," I retorted. "Don't you think Aaron would have filed the papers, had he lived?"

  "Maybe," she said, "and maybe not. Maybe Aaron would have wanted more that you be left to your destiny. Maybe Aaron wanted more that whatever you had become, you'd be left alone. "

  I wasn't sure what she was saying. The Talamasca was so passive, so reticent, so downright unwilling in interfere in anyone's destiny, I couldn't figure what she meant.

  She shrugged, took another sip of ram, and rolled the rim of the glass against her lower lip.

  "Maybe it doesn't matter," she said. "I only know that Aaron never filed the pages himself. " She went on speaking:

  "The night after he was killed I went down to his house on Esplanade Avenue. You know he married a white Mayfair, not a witch by the way, but a resilient and generous woman¡ªBeatrice Mayfair is her name, she's still living¡ªand at her invitation I took the papers marked 'Talamasca. ' She didn't even know what they contained.

  "She told me Aaron had once given her my name. If anything happened, she was to call me, and so she'd done her duty. Besides, she couldn't read the documents. They were all in Latin, you know, Talamasca old style.

  "There were several files, and my name and number were written on the front of each, in Aaron's hand. One file was entirely devoted to you, though only the initial, D, was used throughout. The papers on you, I translated into English. No one's ever seen them. No one," she said with emphasis. "But I know them almost word for word. "

  It seemed a comfort suddenly to hear her speaking of these things, these secret Talamasca things, which had once been our stock in trade. Yes, a comfort, as if the warm presence of Aaron were actually with us again.

  She stopped for another sip of the rum.

  "I feel you ought to know these things," she said. "We never kept anything from each other, you and I. Not that I knew of, but then of course my work was in the study of magic, and I did roam far and wide. "

  "How much did Aaron know?" I asked. I thought my eyes were tearing. I was humiliated. But I wanted her to go on. "I never saw Aaron after the vampiric metamorphosis," I confessed dully. "I couldn't bring myself to do it. Can you guess why?" I felt a sharp increase in mental pain and confusion. My grief for Aaron would never go away, and I'd endured it for years without a word to either of my vampire companions, Louis or Lestat.

  "No," she said. "I can't guess why. I can tell you. . . , " and here she hesitated politely so that I might stop her, but I did not. "I can tell you that he was disappointed and forgiving to the end. "

  I bowed my head. I pressed my forehead into my cold hand.

  "By his own account he prayed each day that you would come to him," she explained slowly, "that he'd have a chance for one last conversation with you¡ªabout all you'd endured together and what had finally occurred to drive you apart. "

  I must have winced. I deserved the misery, however, deserved it more than she could know. It had been indecent not to have written to him! Lord God, even Jesse, when she'd vanished out of the Talamasca, had written to me!

  Merrick went on speaking. If she read my mind at all, she gave no clue.

  "Of course Aaron wrote all about your Faustian Body Switching, as he called it. He described you in the young body and made many references to some investigation of the body, something you'd engaged in together, asserting that the soul had certainly gone on. You experimented, didn't you, you and Aaron, with trying to reach the rightful soul, even at the risk of your own death?"

  I nodded, unable to speak, feeling desperate and ashamed.

  "As for the wretched Body Thief, the little devil Raglan James who'd started the whole supernatural spectacle, Aaron was convinced his soul was gone into eternity, as he put it, quite utterly beyond reach. "

  "That's true," I concurred. "The file on him is closed, I'm quite convinced of it, whether it's incomplete or not. "

  A darkness crept into her sad respectful expression. Some raw feeling had come to the surface, and for the moment she broke off.

  "What else did Aaron write?" I asked her.

  "He referred to the Talamasca having unofficially helped 'the new David' reclaim his substantial investments and property," she answered. "He felt strongly that no File on David's Second Youth must ever be created or committed to the archives in London or in Rome. "

  "Why didn't he want the switch to be studied?" I asked. "We had done everything we could for the other souls. "

  "Aaron wrote that the whole question of switching was too dangerous, too enticing; he was afraid the material would fall into the wrong hands. "

  "Of course," I answered, "though in the old days we never had such doubts. "

  "But the file was unfinished," she continued. "Aaron felt certain he would see you again. He thought that at times he could sense your presence in New Orleans. He found himself searching crowds for your new f
ace. "

  "God forgive me," I whispered. I almost turned away. I bowed my head and shielded my eyes for a long moment. My old friend, my beloved old friend. How could I have abandoned him so coldly? Why does shame and selfloathing become cruelty to the innocent? How is that so often the case?

  "Go on, please," I said, recovering. "I want you to tell me all these things. "

  "Do you want to read them for yourself?"

  "Soon," I answered.

  She continued, her tongue somewhat loosened by the ram, and her voice more melodic, with just a little of the old New Orleans French accent coming back.

  "Aaron had seen the Vampire Lestat in your company once. He described the experience as harrowing, a word that Aaron rather loved but seldom used. He said it was the night he came to identify the old body of David Talbot and to see that it was properly buried. There you were, the young man, and the vampire stood beside you. He'd known you were on intimate terms with one another, you and this creature. He had been afraid for you as much then as ever in his life. "

  "What more?" I asked.

  "Later on," she said, her voice low and respectful, "when you disappeared quite completely, Aaron was certain that you'd been forcibly changed by Lestat. Nothing short of that could explain your sudden break in communication, coupled with the clear intelligence from your banks and agents that you were most definitely still alive. Aaron missed you desperately. His life had been consumed with the problems of the white Mayfairs, the Mayfair Witches. He needed your advice. He wrote many times in many ways that he was certain you never asked for the vampiric blood. "

  For a long time I couldn't speak to answer her. I didn't weep because I don't. I looked off, eyes roaming the empty cafe until they saw nothing, except perhaps the blur of the tourists as they crowded the street outside on their way to Jackson Square. I knew perfectly well how to be alone in the midst of a terrible moment, no matter where it actually occurred. I was alone now.

  Then I let my mind drift back to him, my friend Aaron, my colleague, my companion. I seized on memories far larger than any one incident. I envisioned him, his genial face and clever gray eyes. I saw him strolling along the brightly lit Ocean Avenue in Miami Beach, looking wonderfully out of place and richly like a splendid ornament to the bizarre scenery, in his threepiece cotton pinstripe suit.

  I let the pain have me. Murdered for the secrets of the Mayfair Witches. Murdered by renegade beings in the Talamasca. Of course he had not given up to the Order his report on me. It had been a time of troubles, hadn't it, and he had ultimately been betrayed by the Order; and so my story would, within the fabled archives, remain forever incomplete.

  "Was there more?" I asked Merrick finally.

  "No. Only the same song with different rhythms. That was all. " She took another drink. "He was terribly happy at the end, you know. "

  "Tell me. "

  "Beatrice Mayfair, he loved her. He never expected to be happily married, but it had happened. She was a beautiful highly social woman, rather like three or four people rolled into one. He told me he'd never had so much fun in his life as he had with Beatrice, and she wasn't a witch, of course. "

  "I'm so very glad to hear it," I said, my voice tremulous. "So Aaron became one of them, you might say. "

  "Yes," she answered. "In all respects. "

  She shrugged, the empty glass in her hand. Why she waited to take more, I wasn't certain; perhaps to impress me that she wasn't the famous drunk that I knew her to be.

  "But I don't know anything about those white Mayfairs," she said finally. "Aaron always kept me away from them. My work for the last few years had been in Voodoo. I've made trips to Haiti. I've written pages. You know I'm one of the few members of the Order who is studying her own psychic power, with a license from the Elders to use the damnable magic, as the Superior General calls it now. "

  I hadn't known this. It had never even occurred to me that she'd returned to Voodoo, which had cast its generous shadow over her youth. We had never in my time encouraged a witch to practice magic. Only the vampire in me could tolerate such a thought.

  "Look," she said, "it doesn't matter that you didn't write to Aaron. "

  "Oh, doesn't it?" I asked in a sharp whisper. But then I explained: "I simply couldn't write to him. I simply couldn't speak on the phone. As for seeing him, or letting him see me, it was out of the question!" I whispered.

  "And it took five years," she said, "for you to finally come to me. "

  "Oh, right to the point!" I responded. "Five years or more to do it. And had Aaron lived on, who knows what I would have done? But the crucial factor was this: Aaron was old, Merrick. He was old and he might have asked me for the blood. When you're old and you're afraid, when you're weary and you're sick, when you've begun to suspect that your life means nothing . . . Well, that's when you dream of vampiric bargains. That's when you think that somehow the vampiric curse can't be so very dreadful, no, not in exchange for immortality; that's when you think that if only you had the chance, you could become some premier witness to the evolution of the world around you. You cloak your selfish desires in the grandiose. "

  "And you think I never will think such thoughts?" She raised her eyebrows, her green eyes large and full of light.

  "You're young and beautiful," I said, "you were born and bred on courage. Your organs and limbs are as sound as your mind. You've never been defeated, not by anything, and you're in perfect health. "

  I was trembling all over. I couldn't endure much more of this. I'd dreamt of solace and intimacy, and this was intimacy, but at a terrible price.

  How much easier it was to spend hours in the company of Lestat, who never spoke anymore, who lay still in a half sleep, listening to music, having been waked by it and now lulled by it, a vampire who craved nothing more?

  How much easier to roam the city in the company of Louis, my weaker and ever charming companion, seeking out victims and perfecting the "little drink" so that we left our prey dazzled and unharmed? How much easier to remain within the sanctuary of the French Quarter town house, reading with a vampire's speed all the volumes of history or art history over which I'd labored so slowly when a mortal man?

  Merrick merely looked at me with obvious sympathy, and then she reached out for my hand.

  I avoided her touch because I wanted it so much.

  "Don't back away from me, old friend," she said.

  I was too confused to speak.

  "What you want me to know," she said, "is that neither you nor Louis de Pointe du Lac will ever give me the blood, not even if I beg you for it; that it can't be part of any bargain between us. "

  "Bargain. It would be no bargain!" I whispered.

  She took another drink. "And you'll never take my life," she said. "That's what makes it a bargain, I suppose. You won't ever hurt me as you might some other mortal woman who crossed your path. "

  The question of those who crossed my path was too troubling to me for any good response. For the first time since we had come together, I truly tried to divine her thoughts, but I could read nothing. As a vampire, I had great power in this respect. Louis had almost none. Lestat was the master.

  I watched her drink the rum mote slowly, and I saw her eyes become glazed with the pleasure of it, and her face soften wonderfully as the rum worked in her veins. Her cheeks were reddening slightly. Her complexion looked perfect.

  Chills ran through me again, through my arms and shoulders and up the side of my face.

  I had fed before I'd come here, or else the fragrance of her blood would have clouded my judgment even more than the excitement of this intimacy clouded it. I had not taken life, no, it was too simple to feed without doing it, attractive though it was. I prided myself on that. I felt clean for her, though it was becoming increasingly simple for me to "seek the evildoer," as Lestat had once instructedto find some unwholesome and cruel individual whom I could fancy to be worse than myself.

  "Oh, I wept so many tears for you,"
she said, her voice more heated.

  "And then for Aaron, for all of your generation, leaving us suddenly and too soon, one after another. " She suddenly hunched her shoulders and leant forward as though she were in pain.

  "The young ones in the Talamasca don't know me, David," she said quickly. "And you don't come to me just because Louis de Pointe du Lac asked you to do it. You don't come to me just to raise the child vampire's ghost. You want me, David, you want my witness, David, and I want yours. "

  "You're right on all counts, Merrick," I confessed. The words spilled from me. "I love you, Merrick, I love you the way I loved Aaron, and the way I love Louis and Lestat. "

  I saw the flash of acute suffering in her face, as though it were the flash of a light from within.

  "Don't be sorry you came to me," she said as I reached out to take hold of her. She caught my hands and held them in her own, her clasp moist and warm. "Don't be sorry. I'm not. Only promise me you won't lose heart and leave me without explanation. Don't break away from me hurriedly. Don't give in to some skewed sense of honor. If you did, my sanity might actually break. "

  "You mean I mustn't leave you the way I left Aaron," I said thickly. "No, I promise you, my precious darling. I won't do it. It's already much too late for such a thing. "

  "Then, I love you," she announced in a whisper. "I love you as I always have. No, more than that, I think, because you bring this miracle with you. But what of the spirit that lives within?"

  "What spirit?" I asked her.

  But she'd already gone deep into her own thoughts. She drank another swallow directly from the bottle.

  I couldn't bear the table between us. I stood slowly, lifting her hands until she stood beside me, and then I took her warmly into my arms. I kissed her lips, her old familiar perfume rising to my nostrils, and I kissed her forehead, and then I held her head tightly against my beating heart.

  "You hear it?" I whispered. "What spirit could there be except my spirit? My body is changed, and no more. "

  I was overcome with desire for her, the desire to know her utterly through the blood. Her perfume maddened me. But there wasn't the slightest chance that I'd give in to my desire.

  But I kissed her again. And it wasn't chaste.

  For several long moments we remained locked together, and I think I covered her hair with small sacred kisses, her perfume crucifying me with memories. I wanted to endow her with protection against all things as sordid as myself.

  She backed away from me, finally, as if she had to do it, and she was a little unsteady on her feet.

  "Never in all those years did you ever touch me in this way," she said under her breath. "And I wanted you so badly. Do you remember? Do you remember that night in the jungle when I finally got my wish? Do you remember how drunk you were, and how splendid? Oh, it was over way too soon. "

  "I was a fool, but all such things are past remembering," I whispered. "Now, don't let's spoil what's happened. Come, I've gotten a hotel room for you, and I'll see that you're safely there for the night. "

  "Why on earth? Oak Haven is exactly where it's always been," she said dreamily. She shook her head to clear her vision. "I'm going home. "

  "No, you're not. You drank even more rum than I predicted. Look, you drank over half the bottle. And I know you'll drink the rest of the bottle as soon as you get in the car. "

  She laughed a small scornful laugh. "Still the consummate gentleman," she said. "And the Superior General. You can escort me to my old house here in town. You know perfectly well where it is. "

  "That neighborhood, even at this hour? Absolutely not. Besides, your friendly old caretaker there is an incompetent idiot. My precious darling, I'm taking you to the hotel. "

  "Foolish," she said as she half stumbled. "I don't need a caretaker. I'd rather go to my house. You're being a nuisance. You always were. "

  "You're a witch and a drunk," I said politely. "Here, we'll just cap this bottle. " I did it. "And we'll put it in this canvas purse of yours and I'll walk with you to the hotel. Take my arm. "

  For a small second she looked playful and defiant, but then she made a languid shrug, smiling faintly, and gave up her purse to my insistence and wrapped her arm around mine.
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