The Tale of the Body Thief


Page 1



ONE

MIAMI-the vampires' city. This is South Beach at sunset, in the luxurious warmth of the winterless winter, clean and thriving and drenched in electric light, the gentle breeze moving in from the placid sea, across the dark margin of cream-colored sand, to cool the smooth broad pavements full of happy mortal children.

Sweet the parade of fashionable young men displaying their cultured muscles with touching vulgarity, of young women so proud of their streamlined and seemingly sexless modern limbs, amid the soft urgent roar of traffic and human voices.

Old stucco hostelries, once the middling shelters of the aged, were now reborn in smart pastel colors, sporting their new names in elegant neon script. Candles flickered on the white-draped tables of the open-porch restaurants. Big shiny American cars pushed their way slowly along the avenue, as drivers and passengers viewed the dazzling human parade, lazy pedestrians here and there blocking the thoroughfare.

On the distant horizon the great white clouds were mountains beneath a roofless and star-filled heaven. Ah, it never failed to take my breath away-this southern sky filled with azure light and drowsy relentless movement.

To the north rose the towers of new Miami Beach in all their splendour. To the south and to the west, the dazzling steel skyscrapers of the downtown city with its high roaring freeways and busy cruise-ship docks. Small pleasure boats sped along the sparkling waters of the myriad urban canals.

In the quiet immaculate gardens of Coral Gables, countless lamps illuminated the handsome sprawling villas with their red-tiled roofs, and swimming pools shimmering with turquoise light. Ghosts walked in the grand and darkened rooms of the Biltmore. The massive mangrove trees threw out their primitive limbs to cover the broad and carefully tended streets.

In Coconut Grove, the international shoppers thronged the luxurious hotels and fashionable malls. Couples embraced on the high balconies of their glass-walled condominiums, silhouettes gazing out over the serene waters of the bay. Cars sped along the busy roads past the ever-dancing palms and delicate rain trees, past the squat concrete mansions draped with red and purple bougainvillea, behind their fancy iron gates.

All of this is Miami, city of water, city of speed, city of tropical flowers, city of enormous skies. It is for Miami, more than any other place, that I periodically leave my New Orleans home. The men and women of many nations and different colors live in the great dense neighborhoods of Miami. One hears Yiddish, Hebrew, the languages of Spain, of Haiti, the dialects and accents of Latin America, of the deep south of this nation and of the far north. There is menace beneath the shining surface of Miami, there is desperation and a throbbing greed; there is the deep steady pulse of a great capital-the tow grinding energy, the endless risk.

It's never really dark in Miami. It's never really quiet.

It is the perfect city for the vampire; and it never fails to yield to me a mortal killer-some twisted, sinister morsel who will give up to me a dozen of his own murders as I drain his memory banks and his blood.

But tonight it was the Big-Game Hunt, the unseasonal Easter feast after a Lent of starvation-the pursuit of one of those splendid human trophies whose gruesome modus operandi reads for pages in the computer files of mortal law enforcement agencies, a being anointed in his anonymity with a flashy name by the worshipful press: "Back Street Strangler."

I lust after such killers!

What luck for me that such a celebrity had surfaced in my favorite city. What luck that he has struck six times in these very streets-slayer of the old and the infirm, who have come in such numbers to live out their remaining days in these warm climes. Ah, I would have crossed a continent to snap him up, but he is here waiting for me. To his dark history, detailed by no less than twenty criminologists, and easily purloined by me through the computer in my New Orleans lair, I have secretly added the crucial elements-his name and mortal habitation.

A simple trick for a dark god who can read minds. Through his blood-soaked dreams I found him. And tonight the pleasure will be mine of finishing his illustrious career in a dark cruel embrace, without a scintilla of moral illumination.

Ah, Miami. The perfect place for this little Passion Play.

I always come back to Miami, the way I come back to New Orleans. And I'm the only immortal now who hunts this glorious corner of the Savage Garden, for as you have seen, the others long ago deserted the coven house here-unable to endure each other's company any more than I can endure them.

But so much the better to have Miami all to myself.

I stood at the front windows of the rooms I maintained in the swanky little Park Central Hotel on Ocean Drive, every now and then letting my preternatural hearing sweep the chambers around me in which the rich tourists enjoyed that premium brand of solitude-complete privacy only steps from the flashy street-my Champs Elysees of the moment, my Via Veneto.

My strangler was almost ready to move from the realm of his spasmodic and fragmentary visions into the land of literal death. Ah, time to dress for the man of my dreams.

Picking from the usual wilderness of freshly opened cardboard boxes, suitcases, and trunks, I chose a suit of gray velvet, an old favorite, especially when the fabric is thick, with only a subtle luster. Not very likely for these warm nights, I had to admit, but then I don't feel hot and cold the way humans do. And the coat was slim with narrow lapels, very spare and rather like a hacking jacket with its fitted waist, or, more to the point, like the graceful old frock coats of earlier times. We immortals forever fancy old-fashioned garments, garments that remind us of the century in which we were Born to Darkness. Sometimes you can gauge the true age of an immortal simply by the cut of his clothes.

With me, it's also a matter of texture. The eighteenth century was so shiny! I can't bear to be without a little luster. And this handsome coat suited me perfectly with the plain tight velvet pants. As for the white silk shirt, it was a cloth so soft you could ball the garment in the palm of your hand. Why should I wear anything else so close to my indestructible and curiously sensitive skin Then the boots. Ah, they look like all my fine shoes of late. Their soles are immaculate, for they so seldom touch the mother earth.

My hair I shook loose into the usual thick mane of glowing yellow shoulder-length waves. What would I look like to mortals I honestly don't know. I covered up my blue eyes, as always, with black glasses, lest their radiance mesmerize and entrance at random-a real nuisance-and over my delicate white hands, with their telltale glassy fingernails, I drew the usual pair of soft gray leather gloves.

Ah, a bit of oily brown camouflage for the skin. I smoothed the lotion over my cheekbones, over the bit of neck and chest that was bare.

I inspected the finished product in the mirror. Still irresistible. No wonder I'd been such a smash in my brief career as a rock singer. And I've always been a howling success as a vampire. Thank the gods I hadn't become invisible in my airy wanderings, a vagabond floating far above the clouds, light as a cinder on the wind. I felt like weeping when I thought of it.

The Big-Game Hunt always brought me back to the actual. Track him, wait for him, catch him just at the moment that he would bring death to his next victim, and take him slowly, painfully, feasting upon his wickedness as you do it, glimpsing through the filthy lens of his soul all his earlier victims . . .

Please understand, there is no nobility in this. I don't believe that rescuing one poor mortal from such a fiend can conceivably save my soul. I have taken life too often-unless one believes that the power of one good deed is infinite. I don't know whether or not I believe that. What I do believe is this: The evil of one murder is infinite, and my guilt is like my beauty-eternal. I cannot be forgiven, for there is no one to forgive me for all I've done.

Nevertheless I like saving those innocents from their fate. And! like taking my killers to me because they are my brothers, and we belong together, and why shouldn't they die in my arms instead of some poor merciful mortal who has never done anyone any willful harm These are the rules of my game. I play by these rules because I made them. And I promised myself, I wouldn't leave the bodies about this time; I'd strive to do what the others have always ordered me to do. But still... I liked to leave the carcass for the authorities. I liked to fire up the computer later, after I'd returned to New Orleans, and read the entire postmortem report.

Suddenly I was distracted by the sound of a police car passing slowly below, the men inside it speaking of my killer, that he will strike soon again, his stars are in the correct positions, the moon is at the right height. It will be in the side streets of South Beach most certainly, as it has been before. But who is he How can he be stopped

Seven o'clock. The tiny green numerals of the digital clock told me it was so, though I already knew, of course. I closed my eyes, letting my head drop just a little to one side, bracing myself perhaps for the full effects of this power which I so loathed. First came an amplification of the hearing again, as if I had thrown a modern technological switch. The soft purring sounds of the world became a chorus from hell-full of sharp-edged laughter and lamentation, full of lies and anguish and random pleas. I covered my ears as if that could stop it, then finally I shut it off.

Gradually I saw the blurred and overlapping images of their thoughts, rising like a million fluttering birds into the firmament. Give me my killer, give me his vision!

He was there, in a small dingy room, very unlike this one, yet only two blocks from it, just rising from his bed. His cheap clothes were rumpled, sweat covering his coarse face, a thick nervous hand going for the cigarettes in his shirt pocket, then letting them go-already forgotten. A heavy man he was, of shapeless facial features and a look full of vague worry, or dim regret.

It did not occur to him to dress for the evening, for the Feast for which he'd been hungering. And now his waking mind was almost collapsed beneath the burden of his ugly palpitating dreams. He shook himself all over, loose greasy hair falling onto his sloping forehead, eyes like bits of black glass.

Standing still in the silent shadows of my room, I continued to track him, to follow down a back stairs, and out into the garish light of Collins Avenue, past dusty shop windows and sagging commercial signs, propelled onward, towards the inevitable and yet unchosen object of his desire.

And who might she be, the lucky lady, wandering blindly and inexorably towards this horror, through the sparse and dismal crowds of the early evening in this same dreary region of town Does she carry a carton of milk and a head of lettuce in a brown paper bag Will she hurry at the sight of the cutthroats on the corner Does she grieve for the old beachfront where she lived perhaps so contentedly before the architects and the decorators drove her to the cracked and peeling hostelries further away

And what will he think when he finally spots her, this filthy angel of death Will she be the very one to remind him of the mythic shrew of childhood, who beat him senseless only to be elevated to the nightmare pantheon of his subconscious, or are we asking too much

I mean there are killers of this species who make not the smallest connection between symbol and reality, and remember nothing for longer than a few days. What is certain is only that their victims don't deserve it, and that they, the killers, deserve to meet with me.

Ah, well, I will tear out his menacing heart before he has had a chance to "do" her, and he will give me everything that he has, and is.

I walked slowly down the steps, and through the smart, glittering art deco lobby with its magazine-page glamour. How good it felt to be moving like a mortal, to open the doors, to wander out into the fresh air. I headed north along the sidewalk among the evening strollers, eyes drifting naturally over the newly refurbished hotels and their little cafes.

The crowd thickened as I reached the corner. Before a fancy open-air restaurant, giant television cameras focused their lenses on a stretch of sidewalk harshly illuminated by enormous white lights. Trucks blocked the traffic; cars slowed to a stop. A loose crowd had gathered of young and old, only mildly fascinated, for television and motion picture cameras in the vicinity of South Beach were a familiar sight.

I skirted the lights, fearing their effect upon my highly reflective face. Would I were one of the tan-skinned ones, smelling of expensive beach oils, and half naked in friable cotton rags. I made my way around the corner. Again, I scanned for the prey. He was racing, his mind so thick with hallucinations that he could scarce control his shuffling, sloppy steps.

There was no time left.

With a little spurt of speed, I took to the low roofs. The breeze was stronger, sweeter. Gentle the roar of excited voices, the dull natural songs of radios, the sound of the wind itself.

In silence I caught his image in the indifferent eyes of those who passed him; in silence I saw his fantasies once more of withered hands and withered feet, of shrunken cheeks and shrunken breasts. The thin membrane between fantasy and reality was breaking.

I hit the pavements of Collins Avenue, so swiftly perhaps I simply seemed to appear. But nobody was looking. I was the proverbial tree falling in the uninhabited forest.

And in minutes, I was ambling along, steps behind him, a menacing young man perhaps, piercing the little clusters of tough guys who blocked the path, pursuing the prey through the glass doors of a giant ice-cooled drugstore. Ah, such a circus for the eye-this low-ceilinged cave-chock-full of every imaginable kind of packageable and preserved foodstuff, toilet article, and hair accoutrement, ninety percent of which existed not at all in any form whatsoever during the century when I was born.

We're talking sanitary napkins, medicinal eyedrops, plastic bobby pins, felt-tip markers, creams and ointments for all nameable parts of the human body, dishwashing liquid in every color of the rainbow, and cosmetic rinses in some colors never before invented and yet undefined. Imagine Louis XVI opening a noisy crackling plastic sack of such wonders What would he think of Styrofoam coffee cups, chocolate cookies wrapped in cellophane, or pens that never run out of ink

Well, I'm still not entirely used to these items myself, though I've watched the progress of the Industrial Revolution for two centuries with my own eyes. Such drugstores can keep me enthralled for hours on end. Sometimes I become spellbound in the middle of Wal-Mart.

But this time I had a prey hi my sights, didn't I Later for Time and Vogue, pocket computer language translators, and wristwatches that continue to tell time even as you swim in the sea.

Why had he come to this place The young Cuban families with babies in tow were not his style. Yet aimlessly he wandered the narrow crowded aisles, oblivious to the hundreds of dark faces and the fast riffs of Spanish around him, unnoticed by anyone but me, as his red-rimmed eyes swept the cluttered shelves.

Lord God, but he was filthy-all decency lost in his mania, craggy face and neck creased with dirt. Will I love it Hell, he's a sack of blood. Why push my luck I couldn't kill little children anymore, could I Or feast on waterfront harlots, telling myself it's all perfectly fine, for they have poisoned their share of flat-boatmen. My conscience is killing me, isn't it And when you're immortal that can be a really long and ignominious death. Yeah, look at him, this dirty, stinking, lumbering killer. Men in prison get better chow than this.

And then it hit me as I scanned his mind once more as if cutting open a cantaloupe. He doesn't know what he is! He has never read his own headlines! And indeed he does not remember episodes of his life in any discerning order, and could not in truth confess to the murders he has committed for he does not truly recall them, and he does not know that he will kill tonight! He does not know what I know!

Ah, sadness and grief, I had drawn the very worst card, no doubt about it. Oh, Lord God! What had I been thinking of to hunt this one, when the starlit world is full of more vicious and cunning beasts I wanted to weep.

But then came the provocative moment. He had seen the old woman, seen her bare wrinkled arms, the small hump of her back, her thin and shivering thighs beneath her pastel shorts. Through the glare of fluorescent light, she made her way idly, enjoying the buzz and throb of those around her, face half hidden beneath the green plastic of a visor, hair twisted with dark pins on the back of her small head.

She carried in her little basket a pint of orange juice in a plastic bottle, and a pair of slippers so soft they were folded up into a neat little roll. And now to this she added, with obvious glee, a paperback novel from the rack, which she had read before, but fondled lovingly, dreaming of reading it again, like visiting with old acquaintances. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Yes, I loved it too.

In a trance, he fell in behind her, so close that surely she felt his breath on her neck. Dull-eyed and stupid, he watched as she inched her way closer and closer to the register, drawing out a few dirty dollar bills from the sagging collar of her blouse.

Out the doors they went, he with the listless plodding style of a dog after a bitch in heat, she making her way slowly with her gray sack drooping from its cut-out handles, veering broadly and awkwardly around the bands of noisy and brazen youngsters on the prowl. Is she talking to herself Seems so. I didn't scan her, this little being walking faster and faster. I scanned the beast behind her, who was wholly unable to see her as the sum of her parts.

Pallid, feeble faces flashed through his mind as he trailed behind her. He hungered to lie on top of old flesh; he hungered to put a hand over an old mouth.

When she reached her small forlorn apartment building, made of crumbling chalk, it seemed, like everything else in this seedy section of town, and guarded by bruised palmettos, he came to a sudden swaying stop, watching mutely as she walked back the narrow tiled courtyard and up the dusty green cement steps. He noted the number of her painted door as she unlocked it, or rather he clamped on to the location, and sinking back against the wall, he began to dream very specifically of killing her, in a featureless and empty bedroom that seemed no more than a smear of color and light.

Ah, look at him resting against the wall as if he had been stabbed, head lolling to one side. Impossible to be interested in him. Why don't I kill him now!

But the moments ticked, and the night lost its twilight incandescence. The stars grew ever more brilliant. The breeze came and went.

We waited.

Through her eyes, I saw her parlour as if I could really see through walls and floors-clean, though filled with careless old furniture of ugly veneer, round-shouldered, unimportant to her. But all had been polished with a scented oil she loved. Neon light passed through the Dacron curtains, milky and cheerless as the view of the yard below. But she had the comforting glow of her small carefully positioned lamps. That was what mattered to her.

In a maple rocking chair with hideous plaid upholstery, she sat composed, a tiny but dignified figure, open paperback novel hi hand. What happiness to be once more with Francie Nolan. Her thin knees were barely hidden now by the flowered cotton robe she had taken from her closet, and she wore the little blue slippers like socks over her small misshapen feet. She had made of her long gray hair one thick and graceful braid.

On the small black-and-white television screen before her, dead movie stars argued without making a sound. Joan Fontaine thinks Gary Grant is trying to kill her. And judging by the expression on his face, it certainly did seem that way to me. How could anyone ever trust Gary Grant, I wondered-a man who looked as though he were made entirely of wood

She didn't need to hear their words; she had seen this movie, by her careful count, some thirteen times. She had read this novel in her lap only twice, and so it will be with very special pleasure that she revisits these paragraphs, which she does not know yet by heart.

From the shadowy garden below, I discerned her neat and accepting concept of self, without drama and detached from the acknowledged bad taste that surrounded her. Her few treasures could be contained in any cabinet. The book and the lighted screen were more important to her than anything else she owned, and she was well aware of their spirituality. Even the color of her functional and styleless clothes was not worth her concern.

My vagabond killer was near paralysis, his mind a riot of moments so personal they defied interpretation.

I slipped around the little stucco building and found the stairs to her kitchen door. The lock gave easily when I commanded it to do so. And the door opened as if I had touched it, when I had not.

Without a sound I slipped into the small linoleum-tiled room. The stench of gas rising from the small white stove was sickening to me. So was the smell of the soap in its sticky ceramic dish. But the room touched my heart instantly. Beautify! the cherished china of Chinese blue and white, so neatly stacked, with plates displayed. Behold the dog-eared cookbooks. And how spotless her table with its shining oilcloth of pure yellow, and waxen green ivy growing in a round bowl of clear water, which projected upon the low ceiling a single quivering circle of light.

But what filled my mind as I stood there, rigid, pushing the door shut with my fingers, was that she was unafraid of death as she read her Betty Smith novel, as she occasionally glanced at the glittering screen. She had no inner antenna to pick up the presence of the spook who stood, sunk into madness, in the nearby street, or the monster who haunted her kitchen now.

The killer was immersed so completely in his hallucinations that he did not see those who passed him by. He did not see the police car prowling, or the suspicious and deliberately menacing looks of the uniformed mortals who knew all about him, and that he would strike tonight, but not who he was.

A thin line of spit moved down his unshaven chin. Nothing was real to him-not his life by day, not fear of discovery- only the electric shiver which these hallucinations sent through his hulking torso and clumsy arms and legs. His left hand twitched suddenly. There was a catch at the left side of his mouth.

I hated this guy! I didn't want to drink his blood. He was no classy killer. It was her blood I craved.

How thoughtful she was in her solitude and silence, how small, how contented, her concentration as fine as a light beam as she read the paragraphs of this story she knew so well. Traveling, traveling back to those days when she first read this book, at a crowded soda fountain on Lexington Avenue in New York City, when she was a smartly dressed young secretary in a red wool skirt and a white ruffled blouse with pearl buttons on the cuffs. She worked in a stone office tower, infinitely glamorous, with ornate brass doors on its elevators, and dark yellow marble tile in its halls.

I wanted to press my lips to her memories, to the remembered sounds of her high heels clicking on the marble, to the image of her smooth calf beneath the pure silk stocking as she put it on so carefully, not to snag it with her long enameled nails. I saw her red hair for an instant. I saw her extravagant and potentially hideous yet charming yellow brimmed hat.

That's blood worth having. And I was starving, starving as I have seldom been in all these decades. The unseasonal Lenten fast had been almost more than I could endure. Oh, Lord God, I wanted so to kill her!

Below in the street, a faint gurgling sound came from the lips of the stupid, clumsy killer. It cleared its way through the raging torrent of other sounds that poured into my vampiric ears.

At last, the beast lurched away from the wall, listing for a moment as if he would go sprawling, then sauntered towards us, into the little courtyard and up the steps.

Will I let him frighten her It seemed pointless. I have him in my sights, do I not Yet I allowed him to put his small metal tool into the round hole in her doorknob, I gave him time to force the lock. The chain tore loose from the rotten wood.

He stepped into the room, fixing upon her without expression. She was terrified, shrinking back in her chair, the book slipping from her lap.

Ah, but then he saw me in the kitchen doorway-a shadowy young man in gray velvet, glasses pushed up over his forehead. I was gazing at him in his own expressionless fashion. Did he see these iridescent eyes, this skin like polished ivory, hair like a soundless explosion of white light Or was I merely an obstacle between him and his sinister goal, all beauty wasted

In a second, he bolted. He was down the steps as the old woman screamed and rushed forward to slam the wooden door.

I was after him, not bothering to touch terra firma, letting him see me poised for an instant under the street lamp as he turned the corner. We went for half a block before I drifted towards him, a blur to the mortals, who didn't bother to notice. Then I froze beside him, and heard his groan as he broke into a run.

For blocks we played this game. He ran, he stopped, he saw me behind him. The sweat poured down his body. Indeed the thin synthetic fabric of the shirt was soon translucent with it, and clinging to the smooth hairless flesh of his chest.

At last he came to his seedy flophouse hotel and pounded up the stairs. I was in the small top-floor room when he reached it. Before he could cry out, I had him in my arms. The stench of his dirty hair rose in my nostrils, mingled with a thin acidic smell from the chemical fibers of the shirt. But it didn't matter now. He was powerful and warm in my arms, a juicy capon, chest heaving against me, the smell of his blood flooding my brain. I heard it pulsing through ventricles and valves and painfully constricted vessels. I licked at it in the tender red flesh beneath his eyes.

His heart was laboring and nearly bursting-careful, careful, don't crush him, I let my teeth clamp down on the wet leathery skin of his neck. Hmmm. My brother, my poor befuddled brother. But this was rich, this was good.

The fountain opened; his life was a sewer. All those old women, those old men. They were cadavers floating in the current; they tumbled against each other without meaning, as he went limp in my arms. No sport. Too easy. No cunning. No malice. Crude as a lizard he had been, swallowing fly after fly. Lord God, to know this is to know the time when the giant reptiles ruled the earth, and for a million years, only their yellow eyes beheld the falling rain, or the rising sun.

Never mind. I let him go, tumbling soundlessly out of my grip. I was swimming with his mammalian blood. Good enough. I closed my eyes, letting this hot coil penetrate my intestines, or whatever was down there now in this hard powerful white body. In a daze, I saw him stumbling on his knees across the floor. So exquisitely clumsy. So easy to pick him up from the mess of twisted and tearing newspapers, the overturned cup pouring its cold coffee into the dust-colored rug.

I jerked him back by his collar. His big empty eyes rolled up into his head. Then he kicked at me, blindly, this bully, this killer of the old and weak, shoe scuffing my shin. I lifted him to my hungry mouth again, fingers sliding through his hair, and felt him stiffen as if my fangs were dipped in poison.

Again the blood flooded my brain. I felt it electrify the tiny veins of my face. I felt it pulse even into my fingers, and a hot prickling warmth slide down my spine. Draught after draught filled me. Succulent, heavy creature. Then I let him go once more, and when he stumbled away this time, I went after him, dragging him across the floor, turning his face to me, then tossing him forward and letting him struggle again.

He was speaking to me now in something that ought to have been language, but it wasn't. He pushed at me but he could no longer see clearly. And for the first time a tragic dignity infused him, a vague look of outrage, blind as he was. It seemed I was embellished and enfolded now in old tales, in memories of plaster statues and nameless saints. His fingers clawed at the instep of my shoe. I lifted him up, and when I tore his throat this time, the wound was too big. It was done.

The death came like a fist in the gut. For a moment I felt nausea, and then simply the heat, the fullness, the sheer radiance of the living blood, with that last vibration of consciousness pulsing through all my limbs.

I sank down on his soiled bed. I don't know how long I lay there.

I stared at his low ceiling. And then when the sour musty smells of the room surrounded me, and the stench of his body, I rose and stumbled out, an ungainly figure as surely as he had been, letting myself go soft in these mortal gestures, in rage and hatred, in silence, because I didn't want to be the weightless one, the winged one, the night traveler. I wanted to be human, and feel human, and his blood was threaded all through me, and it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough!

Where are all my promises The stiff and bruised palmettos rattle against the stucco walls.

"Oh, you're back," she said to me.

Such a low, strong voice she had, no tremor in it. She was standing in front of the ugly plaid rocker, with its worn maple arms, peering at me through her silver-rimmed glasses, the paperback novel clasped in her hand. Her mouth was small and shapeless and showing a bit of yellow teeth, a hideous contrast to the dark personality of the voice, which knew no infirmity at all.

What in God's name was she thinking as she smiled at me Why doesn't she pray

"I knew you'd come," she said. Then she took off the glasses, and I saw that her eyes were glazed. What was she seeing What was I making her see I who can control all these elements flawlessly was so baffled I could have wept. "Yes, I knew."

"Oh And how did you know" I whispered as I approached her, loving the embracing closeness of the common little room.

I reached out with these monstrous fingers too white to be human, strong enough to tear her head off, and I felt her little throat. Smell of Chantilly-or some other drugstore scent.

"Yes," she said airily but definitely. "I always knew."

"Kiss me, then. Love me."

How hot she was, and how tiny were her shoulders, how gorgeous in this the final withering, the flower tinged with yellow, yet full of fragrance still, pale blue veins dancing beneath her flaccid skin, eyelids perfectly molded to her eyes when she closed them, the skin flowing over the bones of her skull.

"Take me to heaven," she said. Out of the heart came the voice.

"I can't. I wish I could," I was purring into her ear.

I closed my arms around her. I nuzzled her soft nest of gray hair. I felt her fingers on my face like dried leaves, and it sent a soft chill through me. She, too, was shivering. Ah, tender and worn little thing, ah, creature reduced to thought and will with a body insubstantial like a fragile flame! Just the "little drink," Lestat, no more.

But it was too late and I knew it when the first spurt of blood hit my tongue. I was draining her. Surely the sounds of my moans must have alarmed her, but then she was past hearing... They never hear the real sounds once it's begun.

Forgive me.

Oh, darling!

We were sinking down together on the carpet, lovers in a patch of nubby faded flowers. I saw the book fallen there, and the drawing on the cover, but this seemed unreal. I hugged her so carefully, lest she break. But I was the hollow shell. Her death was coming swiftly, as if she herself were walking towards

me in a broad corridor, in some extremely particular and very important place. Ah, yes, the yellow marble tile. New York City, and even up here you can hear the traffic, and that low boom when a door slams on a stairway, down the hall.

Good night, my darling, she whispered.

Am I hearing things How can she still make words

I love you. Yes, darling. I love you too.

She stood in the hallway. Her hair was red and stiff and curling prettily at her shoulders; she was smiling, and her heels had been making that sharp, enticing sound on the marble, but there was only silence around her as the folds of her woolen skirt still moved; she was looking at me with such a strange clever expression; she lifted a small black snub-nosed gun and pointed it at me.

What the hell are you doing

She is dead. The shot was so loud that for a moment I could hear nothing. Only ringing in my ears. I lay on the floor staring blankly at the ceiling overhead, smelling cordite in a corridor in New York.

But this was Miami. Her clock was ticking on the table. From the overheated heart of the television came the pinched and tiny voice of Gary Grant telling Joan Fontaine that he loved her. And Joan Fontaine was so happy. She'd thought for sure Gary Grant meant to kill her.

And so had I.

South Beach. Give me the Neon Strip once more. Only this time I walked away from the busy pavements, out over the sand and towards the sea.

On and on I went until there was no one near-not even the beach wanderers, or the night swimmers. Only the sand, blown clean already of ail the day's footprints, and the great gray nighttime ocean, throwing up its endless surf upon the patient shore. How high the visible heavens, how full of swiftly moving clouds and distant unobtrusive stars.

What had I done I'd killed her, his victim, pinched out the light of the one I'd been bound to save. I'd gone back to her and I'd lain with her, and I'd taken her, and she'd fired the invisible shot too late.

And the thirst was there again.

I'd laid her down on her small neat bed afterwards, on the dull quilted nylon, folding her arms and closing her eyes.

Dear God, help me. Where are my nameless saints Where are the angels with their feathered wings to carry me down into hell When they do come, are they the last beautiful thing that you see As you go down into the lake of fire, can you still follow their progress heavenward Can you hope for one last glimpse of their golden trumpets, and their upturned faces reflecting the radiance of the face of God What do I know of heaven

For long moments I stood there, staring at the distant night-scape of pure clouds, and then back at the twinkling lights of the new hotels, flash of headlamps.

A lone mortal stood on the far sidewalk, staring in my direction, but perhaps he did not note my presence at all-a tiny figure on the lip of the great sea. Perhaps he was only looking towards the ocean as I had been looking, as if the shore were miraculous, as if the water could wash our souls clean.

Once the world was nothing but the sea; rain fell for a hundred million years! But now the cosmos crawls with monsters. He was still there, that lone and staring mortal. And gradually I realized that over the empty sweep of beach and its thin darkness, his eyes were fixed intently on mine. Yes, looking at me.

I scarce thought about it, looking at him only because I did not bother to turn away. Then a curious sensation passed over me-and one which I had never felt before.

I was faintly dizzy as it began, and a soft tingling vibration followed, coursing through my trunk and then my arms and legs. It felt as if my limbs were growing tighter, narrower, and steadily compressing the substance within. Indeed, so distinct was this feeling that it seemed I might be squeezed right out of myself. I marveled at it. There was something faintly delicious about it, especially to a being as hard and cold and impervious to all sensations as I am. It was overwhelming, very like the way the drinking of blood is overwhelming, though it was nothing as visceral as that. Also no sooner had I analyzed it than I realized it was gone.

I shuddered. Had I imagined the entire thing I was still staring at that distant mortal-poor soul who gazed back at me without the slightest knowledge of who or what I was. There was a smile on his young face, brittle and full of crazed wonder. And gradually I realized I had seen this face before. I was further startled to make out in his expression now a certain definite recognition, and the odd attitude of expectation. Suddenly he raised his right hand and waved.

Balfling.

But I knew this mortal. No, more nearly accurate to say I had glimpsed him more than once, and then the only certain recollections returned to me with full force.

In Venice, hovering on the edge of the Piazza San Marco, and months after in Hong Kong, near the Night Market, and both times I had taken particular notice of him because he had taken particular notice of me. Yes, there stood the same tall, powerfully built body, and the hair was the same thick, wavy brown hair.

Not possible. Or do I mean probable, for there he stood!

Again he made the little gesture of greeting, and then hurriedly, indeed very awkwardly, he ran towards me, coming closer and closer with his strange ungainly steps as I watched in cold unyielding amazement.

I scanned his mind. Nothing. Locked up tight. Only his grinning face coming clearer and clearer as he entered the brighter luminous glare of the sea. The scent of his fear filled my nostrils along with the smell of his blood. Yes, he was terrified, and yet powerfully excited. Very inviting he looked suddenly- another victim all but thrown into my arms.

How his large brown eyes glittered. And what shining teeth he had.

Coming to a halt some three feet from me, his heart pounding, he held out a fat crumpled envelope in his damp and trembling hand.

I continued to stare at him, revealing nothing-not injured pride nor respect for this astonishing accomplishment that he could find me here, that he would dare. I was just hungry enough to scoop him up now and feed again without giving it another thought. I wasn't reasoning anymore as I looked at him. I saw only blood.

And as if he knew it, indeed sensed it in full, he stiffened, glared at me fiercely for one moment, and then tossed the thick envelope at my feet and danced back frantically over the loose sand. It seemed his legs might go out from under him. He almost fell as he turned and fled.

The thirst subsided a little. Maybe I wasn't reasoning, but I was hesitating, and that did seem to involve some thought. Who was this nervy young son of a bitch

Again, I tried to scan him. Nothing. Most strange. But there are mortals who cloak themselves naturally, even when they have not the slightest awareness that another might pry into their minds.

On and on he sped, desperately and in ungainly fashion, disappearing in the darkness of a side street as he continued his progress away from me.

Moments passed.

Now I couldn't pick up his scent anymore at all, save from the envelope, which lay where he had thrown it down.

What on earth could all this mean He'd known exactly what I was, no doubt of it. Venice and Hong Kong had not been coincidence. His sudden fear, if nothing else, had made it plain. But I had to smile at his overall courage. Imagine, following such a creature as me.

Was he some crazed worshiper, come to pound on the temple door in the hopes I'd give him the Dark Blood simply out of pity or reward for his temerity It made me angry suddenly, and bitter, and then again I simply didn't care.

I picked up the envelope, and saw that it was blank and unsealed. Inside, I found, of all things, a printed short story clipped apparently from a paperback book.

It made a small thick wad of pulp pages, stapled together in the upper-left-hand corner. No personal note at all. The author of the story was a lovable creature I knew well, H. P. Lovecraft by name, a writer of the supernatural and the macabre. In fact, I knew the story, too, and could never forget its title: The Thing on the Doorstep. It had made me laugh.

The Thing on the Doorstep. I was smiling now. Yes, I remembered the story, that it was clever, that it had been fun.

But why would this strange mortal give such a story to me It was ludicrous. And suddenly I was angry again, or as angry as my sadness allowed me to be.

I shoved the packet in my coat pocket absently. I pondered. Yes, the fellow was definitely gone. Couldn't even pick up an image of him from anyone else.

Oh, if only he had come to tempt me on some other night, when my soul wasn't sick and weary, when I might have cared just a little-enough at least to have found out what it was all about.

But it seemed already that eons had passed since he had come and gone. The night was empty save for the grinding roar of the big city, and the dim crash of the sea. Even the clouds had thinned and disappeared. The sky seemed endless and harrowingly still.

I looked to the hard bright stars overhead, and let the low sound of the surf wrap me in silence. I gave one last grief-stricken look to the lights of Miami, this city I so loved.

Then I went up, simple as a thought to rise, so swift no mortal could have seen it, this figure ascending higher and higher through the deafening wind, until the great sprawling city was nothing but a distant galaxy fading slowly from view.

So cold it was, this high wind that knows no seasons. The blood inside me was swallowed up as if its sweet warmth had never existed, and soon my face and hands wore a sheathing of cold as if I'd frozen solid, and that sheathing moved underneath my fragile garments, covering all my skin.

But it caused no pain. Or let us say it did not cause enough pain.

Rather it simply dried up comfort. It was only dismal, dreary, the absence of what makes existence worth it-the blazing warmth of fires and caresses, of kisses and arguments, of love and longing and blood.

Ah, the Aztec gods must have been greedy vampires to convince those poor human souls that the universe would cease to exist if the blood didn't flow. Imagine presiding over such an altar, snapping your fingers for another and another and another, squeezing those fresh blood-soaked hearts to your lips like bunches of grapes.

I twisted and turned with the wind, dropped a few feet, then rose again, arms outstretched playfully, then falling at my sides. I lay on my back like a sure swimmer, staring again into the blind and indifferent stars.

By thought alone, I propelled myself eastward. The night still stretched over the city of London, though its clocks ticked out the small hours. London.

There was time to say farewell to David Talbot-my mortal friend.

It had been months since our last meeting in Amsterdam, and I had left him rudely, ashamed for that and for bothering him at all. I'd spied upon him since, but not troubled him. And I knew that I had to go to him now, whatever my state of mind.

There wasn't any doubt he would want me to come. It was the proper, decent thing to do.

For one moment I thought of my beloved Louis. No doubt he was in his crumbling little house in its deep swampy garden in New Orleans, reading by the light of the moon as he always did, or giving in to one shuddering candle should the night be cloudy and dark. But it was too late to say farewell to Louis ... If there was any being among us who would understand, it was Louis. Or so I told myself. The opposite is probably closer to the truth . . .

On to London I went.</