Chapter 5

 Scott Westerfeld

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:
Chapter 5
Dick's Bar hadn't changed all that much, but I had.
It wasn't just my superpowers. I was older, wiser, and had lived in New York for just over a year now. I had grown-up eyes.
It turned out that Dick's Bar didn't get a lot of female patronage. Not much at all. Just a lot of guys playing pool in their leather chaps, drinking beer and swigging the occasional Jell-O shot, listening to a mix of country and classic disco. A typical West Village bar.
It was a relief, really. I could hang out here without having to stare into my drink, trying to avoid contact with any hot girls. Even better, any woman who was a regular would stick out like a banana in a highball glass. Surely someone would remember a tall, pale-skinned creature wearing a long black dress and picking up wayward Texans.
"Drink?" the bartender asked.
I nodded. A little stimulus for my fugitive memories wouldn't hurt.
"A Bahamalama-Dingdong, please."
The bartender raised an eyebrow, then turned to ring a bell over the bar. A few guys playing pool in the back chuckled, and something dislodged itself from the cloudy sky of memories inside my head.
Ding! said my brain, as I recalled that whenever anyone ordered a Bahamalama-Dingdong, they rang a special bell. Hence the "dingdong" part of the name.
Well, partly. I watched the bartender take a banana from the freezer. He put it in a tall highball glass and poured rum over it, then mystery juice from a plastic container marked BID, and finally a careful layer of red liqueur across the top. I detected a scent like cough medicine rising up.
"Nassau Royale?" I asked.
The bartender nodded. "Yeah. Do I remember you?"
"You mean, from before the Health Department shut you down?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "You don't look so familiar, though."
I nodded. "I've only been here once, actually. But I had a friend who used to come all the time. Named Morgan?"
"Yeah. Tall, dark hair, pale skin. Black dresses. Kind of gothy?"
Pause. "A woman?"
He shook his head. "Not ringing a bell. You sure you got the right place?"
I looked down at the Bahamalama-Dingdong, the Nassau Royale-stained banana looking back at me like a bloodshot eye, and took a sip. Tropical fruit sweetness poured over my tongue, textured by strips of rind shedding from the frozen banana. That night of more than a year before began to flood back into my mind, carried on pineapples and the burnt taste of dark rum.
"I'm positive," I said.
There wasn't much to do but get drunk.
The bartender asked around, but no one remembered Morgan or even vaguely recalled a gothlike woman who had hung out here in the old days. Maybe, like me, she'd randomly wandered in off the street that night.
On the other hand, if her inner parasite had been pulling her strings, making her desperately horny, then why had she chosen a gay bar, the place she was least likely to get lucky? (Had she been as clueless as my younger self? Hmm.)
I let the drinks take hold, ringing more bells, bringing back stray fragments of memory from that night. There definitely had been a river involved; I recalled reflected lights rippling in boat wakes. All the Bahamalama-Dingdongs that Morgan and I had drunk had put a little stumble into our step. I'd been worried she'd go over the rail and I'd have to leap into the cold water to save her, even though I wasn't fit to walk a dog.
We had strolled out to the end of a long pier and stood looking at the river. The Hudson or the East River, though?
Then I remembered: At some point I'd checked my compass and announced that we were facing northwest, which made her laugh. Definitely the Hudson, then. We'd been looking at New Jersey.
What had happened next?
I tried to press the hazy memories forward in time, but my mind was stuck on that image of New Jersey reflected in the river - Hoboken already teasing me from across the water. No matter how hard I concentrated, I couldn't recall a single step of the route we'd taken back to Morgan's apartment.
A guy came up next to me, back here in the present.
It took a few moments to pull myself out of my Bahamalama-Dingdong reverie, but I could tell from his scent that he'd just come back into the bar from catching a smoke outside. His leather vest was cow-smell new, and he wore an intrigued expression. Maybe he'd heard I'd been asking about Morgan.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey. What's your name?"
"Cal." I reached to shake his hand.
"I'm Dave. So ... what are you into, Cal?" he asked.
I paused for a second before answering.
I couldn't tell him what I was really into: finding the woman who had turned me into a superhuman freak, taking the next step in destroying my bloodline - dealing with my progenitor, then hunting down any more peeps she had created, and then delving further into the endless, knotted tree of the parasite's spread. So I cast my mind back to the homework I'd been reading in the diner that morning as I'd waited for the clouds to clear.
"Hookworms," I said.
"Hookworms?" He took the seat next to me. "Never heard of that."
I sipped from my third Bahamalama-Dingdong.
"Well, they burrow in through your feet, using this enzyme that breaks down skin tissue, then travel along the bloodstream till they get into your lungs. They mess up your breathing, so you cough them up. But you know how you always swallow a little bit of phlegm?"
One of his eyebrows raised, but he admitted he did.
"Well, a few hookworm eggs get swallowed along with the phlegm and travel down into your intestines, where they grow to be about half an inch long." I held up my fingers a hookworm's length apart. "And they develop this circle of teeth in their mouths, like a coil of barbed wire. They start chomping into your intestinal wall and sucking your blood." I realized I was going into drunken detail here and paused to check if he was still interested.
"Really?" His voice sounded a bit dry.
I nodded. "Wouldn't lie to you, Dave. But here's the cool thing. They produce this special anticlotting factor, kind of like blood antifreeze, so the wound doesn't scab over. You become a sort of temporary hemophiliac, just in that one spot. Your intestines won't stop bleeding until the hookworm gets its fill!"
"Hookworms, huh?" he asked.
"That's what they're called."
Dave nodded gravely, standing back up. He grasped my shoulder firmly, a serious expression on his face. His thoughtful features seemed to reflect for a moment the hard road I had in front of me.
"Good luck with that," he said.
I figured seven Bahamalama-Dingdongs would do the job.
That was probably more than I'd drunk my first time at Dick's, but these days I was older and more superhuman. I did a professional job of getting off my stool, and my feet got into a pretty good rhythm after shuffling a bit at first. My metabolism may be peeped up, but there's only so much rum even my body can process before it starts to sputter. All in all, I'd managed a pretty fair reconstruction of my first really wicked buzz in New York City.
I headed off to retrace my stumbling path from a year before.
The bartender watched me go with an impressed-looking nod, and Dave waved from behind the pool table. As the evening had progressed, he'd sent some of his friends over to ask about hookworms, and they'd all listened attentively. I'd thrown in some stuff about blood flukes, too. So it hadn't been like drinking alone.
Outside Dick's Bar, the streetlights wore coronas of orange, and the glassphalt shimmered like sugar crystals on top of lemon meringue pie. My breath curled out steamy, but the warmth from inside Dick's still saturated my jacket, its fingers nestled around me like a cluster of liver worms.
Okay, bad image. But I was a little drunk.
My feet carried me toward the river automatically, but I wasn't remembering the route to Morgan's yet. It was just gravity doing its job.
Skateboarding around the city, I'd noticed the Hump, how the ground rises in the center of Manhattan and falls away toward the rivers, like the slippery back of a giant whale emerging from the harbor. A really giant whale: The slope is barely perceptible - you only feel it on a board or a bike, or if your stride is lubricated by seven or so Bahamalama-Dingdongs.
My feet had wheels, and I rolled toward the water effortlessly.
Soon I glimpsed the river at the end of the street, sparkling as it had that night. A walkway stretched along the water. By instinct, I turned north. It was a little tricky staying between the pedestrian lines, though. A few bikers and skaters whirred around me, leaving annoyed comments in their wake. I commented right back at them, my words a little slurred. Outside the warm company of Dick's Bar, my Bahamalama-Dingdongs had made me antisocial.
But my mood lifted when I saw the pier.
It stretched out into the water, as long as a football field. Mismatched beats from various boom boxes echoed across the water from it, and bright lights beamed down from high posts.
Was that the same pier Morgan and I had stood on that night?
There was one way to find out. I shambled to the end of the pier, trying to ignore kissing couples and a group of very cute roller-dancing girls, and pulled my trusty compass out. The needle steadied itself to magnetic north.
I was facing northwest, the exact reading I'd taken a year before.
I breathed in deeply, tasting ocean salt, green algae, and motor oil in the air, all familiar from that night. This had to be the place.
But what now?
I gazed out onto the river. On either side of me, the timbers of abandoned piers rose up from the water like rotting black teeth. More pieces of my memory were falling into place, like a blurry picture downloading in waves, gradually becoming clearer.
Then I saw the dark hulk of a building across the Hudson, its three giant maws open to the river. The Hoboken Ferry Terminal. Without knowing it, I'd had a glimpse of my future that night a year before.
My peep-strength eyes caught a flicker of lights in its second-story windows. Dr. Rat was still up there, probably with a dozen or so of her colleagues from Research and Development, studying the nesting habits of Sarah's brood. Weighing and measuring poisoned alpha rats and punks. Maybe looking for a rare "rat king" - a bunch of rats with tangled-up tails who travel in a pack all tied together, like dogs being walked by a professional dog walker, ten leashes in hand.
With Sarah gone, her brood would be disintegrating over the next few days, scattering into nearby alleys and sewers like runoff from an autumn storm. I wondered if the rats would miss her. Did they get something more than leftovers from their peeps? A sense of belonging?
The thought of all those orphaned creatures depressed me, and I turned back toward Manhattan.
My heart drunkenly skipped a beat.
Before me, just across the highway, a razor-thin high-rise stood.
Buildings get their personality from their windows, just like people express themselves with their eyes. This building had a schizophrenic look. Its lower floors were cluttered with tiny balconies, but along the top floor stretched floor-to-ceiling windows, wide open with surprise. I remembered Morgan pointing the building out to me, giggling and squeezing my hand...
"That's where I live!" she'd said, thus marking the exact moment when I had been absolutely positive I was going to get laid.
How the hell does anyone forget a moment like that? I wondered.
Shaking my head in amazement, I stumbled back up the pier.
The first trick was getting in.
Funny. I hadn't remotely remembered that Morgan lived in a luxury building: river views and duplex penthouses, a lobby encased in marble and brass, the uniformed doorman watching six TV monitors.
Give a boy the loss of his virginity and much else is forgotten.
I watched from across the street, hiding behind a cluster of newspaper boxes, waiting for just the right bunch of residents to follow through the door - my age or so, a little bit drunk, and enough of them for me to follow along unnoticed.
Of course, if I was really lucky I'd see Morgan herself. But what was I going to say to her? Hey, do you know you're carrying vampirism? What's up with that?
The minutes passed slowly, the night growing steadily colder. The wind roaring off the river stopped being invigorating and veered over into cruel. My Bahamalama-Dingdong buzz began to wear off, and soon my system started demanding more blood sugar. It occurred to me that the only solid food I'd had for dinner was seven frozen bananas, not enough for my voracious parasites.
Bad host. Hungry parasites can provoke crazy behavior.
Worst of all, I felt like I was being the stalker now, stuck between anathema and obsession.
Just after midnight, I spotted my ticket inside.
They were three girls and two guys, college-aged, dressed for a night out. They shouted jokes at one another, their voices still pitched for whatever loud bar they had spent the evening in.
I left my cover and started across the street, timing my move to reach the outer door just as they did.
They hardly noticed me, still arguing about what kind of pizza to order. "Lots of cheese. Hangover helper," one guy was saying. The others laughed and voted their way to a split ticket of two large - one mushroom and one pepperoni, both with extra cheese. Sounded pretty good to me, after all those drinks. As we approached the door, I tried to look interested in the conversation while hanging at the back of the pack.
Through the glass, the doorman looked up with a smile of weary and indulgent recognition, and the inner door buzzed as one of the women reached for its handle. Warm air rushed over us, and I was inside.
As we crossed the lobby toward the elevators together, the woman who'd opened the door glanced back at me. A questioning look troubled her expression. I returned her gaze blankly. With four friends around her, she shouldn't be so nervous about a stranger, but sometimes normal humans get a weird feeling from us predator types.
Of course, I was getting a weird feeling about her too.
She wore a leather jacket over a short plaid dress that left her knees bare to the cold. Her hair lay across her forehead in a jet-black fringe that had grown out too long, ending just above her dark brown eyes. It took me a moment to realize that in the days before I lusted after all women all the time, this girl would have been my type.
She kept watching me as her friends prattled on, her expression more thoughtful than suspicious. When she ran her tongue between her lips in a distracted way, a little shudder went through me, and I tore my eyes away.
Bad carrier, I scolded myself, snapping a mental rubber band against my wrist.
The elevator dinged and opened, and the six of us crowded inside. I tucked myself into the corner. The pizza consensus had become unglued, and everyone besides the girl in the leather jacket was arguing again, the reflected sound from the shiny steel walls sharpening their voices.
Then a smell reached me - jasmine shampoo. I glanced up and saw the girl pushing her fingers through her hair. Somehow, the fragrance cut through the cigarette smoke clinging to their clothes, the alcohol on their breath; it carried her human scent to my nose - the smell of her skin, the natural oils on her fingers.
I shuddered again.
She pressed seven, glanced at me. "What floor?"
I stared at the controls. The array of buttons covered one through fifteen (without the thirteen), in three columns. I tried to imagine Morgan's hand reaching out and pressing one of them, but my mind was in turmoil over the smell of jasmine.
The Bahamalama-Dingdong memory injection had finally let me down.
"Any particular floor?" she said slowly.
"Um, I uh..." I managed, my voice dry. "Do you know Morgan?"
She froze, one finger still hovering near the buttons, and the rest of them fell into a sudden silence. They all stared at me.
The elevator meeped away a couple of floors.
"Morgan on the seventh floor?" she said.
"Yeah ... I think so," I answered. How many Morgans could there be in one building?
"Hey, isn't that the - ?" one of the boys asked, but the other three shushed him.
"She moved out last winter," leather-jacket girl said, her voice controlled and flat.
"Oh, wow. It's been a while, I guess." I lit up a big fake smile. "You don't know where she lives now, do you?"
She shook her head slowly. "Not a clue."
The elevator slid open on the seventh floor. The doors stirred the air, and I caught something under the cigarettes and alcohol on their breath, an animal smell that cut through even the jasmine. For a moment, I smelled fear.
Morgan's name had scared them.
The other four piled out efficiently, still in silence, but leather-jacket girl held her ground, one fingertip squashed white against the Open Door button. She was staring at me like I was someone she half recognized, thinking hard. Maybe she was trying to figure out why I set her prey hackles on fire.
I wanted to drop my eyes to the floor, sending a classic signal from Mammal Behavior 101 I don't want to fight you. Humans can be touchy when they feel threatened by us, and I didn't want her telling the doorman I had snuck in behind them.
But I held her gaze, my eyes captured.
"Guess I'll just go, then." I settled back against the elevator wall.
"Yeah, sure." She took one step back out of the elevator, still staring.
The doors began to slide closed, but at the last second her hand shot through. There was a binging sound as her leather-clad forearm was squeezed; then the doors jumped back.
"Got a minute, dude?" she asked. "Maybe there's something you can explain for me."
Apartment 701 was full of dj vu.
The long, narrow living room had a half kitchen at one end. At the other, glass doors looked out onto a tiny balcony, the river, and the ghostly lights of New Jersey. Two more doors led to a bathroom and a small bedroom.
A classic upscale Manhattan one-bedroom apartment, but the devil was in the details: the stainless steel fridge, sliding dimmers instead of regular light switches, fancy brass handles on the doors - everything was sending waves of recognition through me.
"Did she live here?" I asked.
"Morgan? Hell, no," the girl said, slipping off her leather jacket and tossing it onto a chair. The other four kept their coats on, I noticed. Their expressions reminded me of people at a party right after the cops turn the lights on, their buzz thoroughly killed. "She lived down the hall."
I nodded. All the apartments in the building must have looked pretty much the same. "So you know her?"
She shook her head.
"Lace moved in after," one of the boys volunteered. The rest of them gave him a Shut up! look.
"After what?" I said.
She didn't answer.
"Come on, Lace," the boy said. "You're going to show him the thing, aren't you? That's why you asked him in, right?"
"Roger, why don't you call for the pizza?" Lace said sharply.
He retreated to the kitchen muttering. I heard the manic beeps of speed-dialing, then Roger specifying extra cheese in a wounded tone.
The rest of us had filtered into the living room. Lace's three other friends took seats, still keeping their coats on.
"How well do you know Morgan?" Lace asked. She and I remained standing, as if faced off against each other, but out of the confines of the elevator, her smell was more diffuse, and I found it easier not to stare so maniacally.
To distract myself,T cataloged the furniture: urban rescue, musty couches and other cast-offs, a coffee table held up by a pair of wooden produce boxes. The tattered dcor didn't go with the sanded floorboards or the million-dollar views.
"Don't know her that well, really," I said. She frowned, so I added, "But we're related. Cousins."
Kind of a fib, I know. But our parasites are related, after all. That has to count for something.
Lace nodded slowly. "You're related, but you don't know where she lives?"
"She's hard to find sometimes." I shrugged, like it was no big deal. "My name's Cal, by the way."
"Lace, short for Lacey. Look, Cal, I never met this girl. She disappeared before I got here."
"Moved out."
"Oh. How long ago was that?"
"I got in here at the beginning of March. She'd already been gone a month, as far as anyone knows. She was the weird one, according to the other people in the building."
"The weird one?"
"The weirdest on the seventh floor," she said. "They were all kind of strange, people tell me."
"The whole floor was strange?"
Lace just shrugged.
I raised an eyebrow. New Yorkers don't usually bond with their neighbors, not enough to gossip about former tenants - unless, of course, there are some really good stories to tell. I wondered what Lace had heard.
But my instincts told me to back off for the moment. The five of them were still twitchy, and there was something Lace didn't want to say in front of the others. I could smell her indecision, tinged with a weird sort of embarrassment. She wanted something from me.
I opened my hands, like I had nothing to hide. "In the elevator, you said you had a question?"
Lace bit her lip, having a long, slow think. Then she sighed and sat down in the center of the couch. The other two girls scrunched into its corners to make room for her.
"Yeah, maybe there's something you can tell me, dude." She swallowed and lowered her voice. "Why am I only paying a thousand bucks a month for this place?"
When the shocked silence finally broke, the others were appalled.
"You told me sixteen hundred when I stayed here!" Roger screamed through the kitchen doorway.
Lace rolled her eyes at him. "That was just so you'd pay your long-distance bill. It's not like you were paying any rent!"
"A thousand? That's all?" said one of the girls, sitting bolt upright on the couch. "But you've got a doorman!"
Hell hath no fury like New Yorkers in someone else's cheap apartment. And what with the elevator, the doorman in his marble lobby, and those sunset views across the river, I reckoned the place should be about three thousand a month at least. Or maybe four? So far out of my league I wouldn't even know.
"I take it this isn't a rent-control thing?" I said.
Lace shook her head. "They just built this place last year. I'm only the second tenant in my apartment, like everyone else on the seventh floor. We all moved in around the same time."
"You mean all the first tenants moved out together?" I asked.
"From all four apartments on the seventh floor. Yeah."
"A thousand bucks?" Roger said. "Wow. That makes me feel a lot better about the thing."
"Shut up about the thing!" Lace said. She looked at me, rolled her eyes again. "It never made any sense. I spent all last winter sleeping on my sister's couch in Brooklyn, trying to find a place to stay closer to school. But everything in Manhattan was too expensive, and I was way over roommates."
"Hey, thanks a lot," Roger said.
Lace ignored him. "But then my sister's super says he's got a line on this building they're trying to fill up fast. A whole floor of people totally skipped out on their rent, and they want new tenants right away. So it's cheap. Way cheap." Her voice trailed off.
"You sound unhappy," I said. "Why's that?"
"We only signed up to finish the previous tenants' leases," she said. "There's only a couple of months left. Everyone on seven's talking about how they're going to raise the rent, push us out one by one."
I shrugged. "So how can I help you?"
"You know more than you're saying, dude," she said flatly.
The certainty in her eyes silenced me - I didn't deny it, and Lace nodded slowly, positive now I wasn't some long-lost cousin.
"Something happened here," Lace said. "Something the landlords wanted to cover up. I need to know what it was."
"Because I need leverage." She leaned forward on the couch, fingers gripping the cushions with white-knuckled strength. "I'm not going back to my sister's couch!"
Like I said: hell hath no fury.
I held up my hands in surrender. To get anything more out of her, I was going to have to give her some of the truth, but I needed time to get my story straight.
"Okay. I'll tell you what I know," I said. "But first ... show me the thing."
She smiled. "I was going to anyway."
"The thing is so cool," Roger said.
They'd done this before.
Without being told, the other two women turned off the lamps at either end of the couch. Roger flicked off the kitchen light and came through, sitting cross-legged in front of the white expanse of wall, almost like it was a TV screen.
It was dark now, the room glowing with dim orange from distant Jersey streetlights, accented by a bluish strip of night-light from under the bathroom door.
The other guy got out of his chair, scraping it out of our way, turning around to get his own view of the blank white wall.
"Is this a slide show?" I asked.
"Yeah, sure," Roger said, giggling and hugging his knees. "Fire up the projector, Lace."
She grunted, rooting around under the coffee table and pulling out a fat candle and a pack of matches. She crossed the room carefully in the darkness and knelt beside the blank wall, setting the candle against the baseboard.
"Farther away," Roger said.
"Shut up," Lace countered. "I've done this more than you have."
The match flared in her hand, and she put it to the candle's wick. Just before the scent of sandalwood overpowered my nostrils, I detected the human smell of nervous anticipation.
The wall flickered like an empty movie screen, little peaks of stucco casting elongated shadows, like miniature mountains at sunset. The mottled texture of the wall became exaggerated, and my peep vision sharpened in the gloom, recording every imperfection. I could see the hurried, uneven paths that the rollers had followed up and down when the wall had been painted.
"What am I looking at?" I asked. "A bad paint job?"
"I told you," Roger said. "Move it out a little."
Lace growled but slid the candle farther from the wall.
The words appeared...
They glowed faintly through the shadows, their edges indistinct. A slightly darker layer of paint showed through the top coat, as often happens when landlords don't bother with primer.
Like when they're in a big rush.
The wall said:
so pRetty i hAd to Eat hiM
I crossed to the wall. The darker layer was less noticeable up close. I ran my fingertips across the letters. The cheap water-based paint felt as dry as a piece of chalk.
With one fingernail, I incised a curved mark in the paint, about the size of a fully grown hookworm. The dark color showed through a little more clearly there.
I brought my fingertip to my nose and sniffed.
"Dude, that's weird," Roger said.
"Smell is the most sensitive of our senses, Roger," I said. But I didn't mention the substance humans are most sensitive to: ethyl mercaptan, the odorant that gives rotten meat its particular tang. Your nose can detect one four-billionth of a gram of it in a single breath of air.
My nose is about ten times better.
I also didn't mention to Roger that my one little sniff had made me certain of something - the words had been painted in blood.
It turned out to be more than blood, though. As I incised the wall again with my steel-hard fingernails, breathing in the substances preserved under the hasty coat of paint, I caught a whole range of tissues from the human body. The iron tang of blood was joined by the mealy smell of ground bone, the saltiness of muscle, the flat scent of liver, and the ethyl mercaptan effluence of skin tissues.
I believe the layman's term is gristle.
There were other, sharper smells mixed in - chemical agents used to clean away the message. By the time they'd found it, though, the blood must have already soaked deep into the plaster, where it still clung tenaciously. They had painted it over, but the letters remained.
I mean, really: water-based paint? What is it with New York landlords?
"What the hell are you doing?" Lace said softly.
I turned and saw that they were all sitting there wide-eyed. I tend to forget how normal humans are made uncomfortable by the sniffing thing.
"Well..." I started, searching for a good excuse among the dregs of rum in my system. What was I going to say?
The buzzer sounded.
"Pizza's here!" Roger cried, jumping up and running to the door.
"Sounds good to me," I said.
For some reason, I was starving.