The Books of Darkness
by Robert N. Stephenson
|Table of Contents|
part 1 of 2
Diana Arlyn is an author of gothic fiction best-sellers. A hard drinker with bipolar disorder, she falls in love with a mysterious woman, and the turbulent relationship draws Diana unwillingly into a legend.
Diana is haunted by questions: why did the woman pick her, of all people, and how can the Ta’ibah, the hunter of darkness, know so much about her? She is also haunted by the ghost of a dead author. She must find out what he wants, recover a lost book that belongs to someone who wants to kill her, and ultimately survive the darkness.
Drawing all the lines together was proving difficult. Dealing with humans, though easy when you dominated, didn’t work well when you tried to lead and gently influence. I had my plan, The Dark One had his.
I sat out the day in a park. Unseen, I watched; it felt good to watch the life energy people displayed as they moved past. The brightness, the blinding brightness was something I craved, needed and took whenever I wanted. No one and nothing could stop me. The Dark One didn’t understand the small spark of white still alive inside, perhaps didn’t understand the ways of any of his Ta’ibahs, and I didn’t understand his needs. What Sarina had and desired had no power over him, had no power at all. It was a symbol of the past, an effigy of a once-powerful time.
What I wanted only had power if in the wrong hands; and at the moment it wasn’t, and never would be. Need stemmed from a human desire, not mine. It would come and I hoped, it came sooner than later. Already The Dark One had acted before time and undone work I had put in place.
A dog ran up to me, sniffed the air around something beyond its feeble sight. I saw no owner. I touched its head, felt the fur under my palm. It dropped, collapsed beside the seat. The small light was enough to keep me sheltered in the day. I would need more, human more, but for now I was content. Later I would go to a retirement village; the light would still be strong and the slipping away of a few lives could be accepted. Unlike The Dark One, I was careful of my presence.
I returned to my home to get a few essentials. Sarina had purchased pretty much everything I needed, but I wanted more personal items: photos, trinkets, things I had collected over the years. Standing in my front room, TV on and filling the world I’d known for ten years with the sounds of the mundane, I felt as if I were saying goodbye to the place. If Steven weren’t haunting my home I would be still living there. I didn’t know how long it would take to get him to leave, if ever. He wasn’t there: the cold, the absence suggested he hadn’t been there for some time. I hoped it would stay this way.
I wanted to only take one bag and a box; so being selective over my things became a chore. There wasn’t time to relive snapshots, or places I’d visited over the years; taking only the necessities meant hard choices. The day dragged on and I’d only managed to pick a few things out of the mess of my life. I’d have to stay the night, finish up in the morning.
I called Sarina, let her know the plan. She didn’t approve but accepted I had to do this. I told her what the doctor had said, and it was met with approval. The stay away, though important, posed a mental risk. Her concern was placated by my agreeing to come straight back to the apartment should Steven show himself.
Once she was satisfied, I drove into Blackwood, picked up a bottle of wine and a Subway roll. With a lot of luck, Steven wouldn’t come to me tonight. Sleeping in my own bed, a pleasure waiting to be had.
The wine and roll barely lasted twenty minutes. Hunger satisfied and mind already pushed towards its usual state, I searched in the almost empty drinks cabinet. A bottle of whisky, a ribbon around its neck, probably a gift from someone I’d forgotten, gave me some pleasure. It would do wonders for the sense of fear I felt. I’d packed one bag, and half filled a box with stuff; all I wanted to take.
The phone was ringing. I turned to the clock beside the bed. Three a.m. Only the U.S. called at that hour. I picked up; the ringing was making my head throb.
“Hello.” I didn’t feel receptive.
“Diana,” the woman’s voice said. “It’s Ellen, Ellen Datlow.”
I hadn’t spoken to her in years, not since the last anthology she invited me to contribute to.
“Ellen, good to hear your voice. How’s things.” I managed to sit. Head pounding, mouth like glue.
“Good. I have a new project I’d like you to contribute to,” she said. Straight to business. She usually thought of me when a new anthology made it into the works. As my mum would say, when she could actually say something without slurring. ‘She’s a good egg’.
“Life’s a bit, well, crazy right now, but what’s the project?” Crazy wasn’t the half of it.
“The other night, maybe a few nights ago, can’t really remember. I was sitting in the dark, just thinking, when an idea came to me.” She sounded both excited and vague at the same time. Unusual for her. “The collection will be stories set in the Austria-Hungary just before the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.” I gulped. If she didn’t have my attention before she had it now.
“Why that period?” It was hard to keep the concern from my voice.
“Not sure really, but a strong vision of Bela Lugosi and Vampires came to mind. The Austrian connection, Royal family, intrigue.” She always had good concepts, but this one?
“I’m pretty tied up for the moment,” I said, feeling sick.
“It’s still early days yet, have to sell it to a publisher first, but I think I could give you a lead time of at least six months. Will that be okay?” she said.
“Thanks, Ellen,” I said. I’d have to call Sarina. This was no coincidence. “Any plans to come to Australia?” I hadn’t seen each other since a science fiction convention some years ago. Nice lady, a bit shorter than I, but sporting the same long black hair.
“Not this year; how about you come here, stay at my place for a few days? Hit the town, maybe?”
“Right now I couldn’t think of anything better to do,” I said. “Maybe in the New Year. I have to come to New York for a book signing tour. Catchup then?”
“You’re on. I’ve got a few more calls to make,” she said. “For some reason I felt you needed to be the first to know about the new book.”
“Thanks, Ellen. Be in touch.” I hung up, raced to the toilet and vomited. Had The Dark One got to her as well?
The Dark One had visited Ellen. Why? To find me? to find where I lived? I dressed, stuffed my bag and box in the boot of the car and headed back down the hill to Sarina’s. What had just happened? How did he know about Ellen Datlow? What the hell was the connection?!
It took some time to calm down enough to tell Sarina about the phone call. It wasn’t Ellen or the request. I got them often, but it was how she got the idea and what it involved. It could have been a coincidence: the setting was almost directly associated with her, and the mention of Bela, though, if I calmly thought it through, probably was coincidental as well; horror anthologies always connected to him somewhere along the line. It was just the timing.
Sarina allowed me to rave, spew all thoughts out like a water cannon. I knew I wasn’t making a lot of sense, knew I was saying stuff that didn’t really apply to what might really be going on, but it freaked me out, screwed with my brain. And I didn’t like it.
I ranted about Bela, about Steven and his fraud, the slag, Samantha. Life looked crap. The days crappier. I screamed about my drunken mother, my father who didn’t love me anymore, the depression and thoughts of suicide. Everything that existed in my head dropped over her like a blanket, a bright yellow blanket full of false joy, hatred and a child’s desire to be loved.
Nothing made sense, I didn’t make sense. I cried, yelled, screamed, abused Sarina for what she was and what I’d stepped into. I blamed her, abused her like a mad woman in a bar. There was dog crap on my shoes, I couldn’t scrape it off, get rid of the smell.
Vampires, Uttukes, blood-sucking, death, darkness, darkness, ever-increasing darkness. Where were the candles of salvation? The light so many religions spoke about in the hour of need. Nothing, everything became a nightmare just waiting to find a home, a dream to invade and screw you over. Screw me over.
“Why now?” I screamed at Sarina. “Of all the times Ellen could call, why now?”
Sarina waited until I calmed, sat and let the last of my rage sink into the comfort of the chair. I didn’t even know if I wanted an answer.
“Ellen wouldn’t have known,” she said. Her even, measured tone caused me to close my eyes, to think, to listen. “The Dark One would have created a dream for you, maybe even Orlando created it, he is capable. The dream wouldn’t have been for anyone specific, it would search the scape until it found something close to you. She was it.”
“And the references. Austria, Bela?” My hands shook so much I couldn’t get the scotch to my lips.
“Probably drawn from within you as much as anything else. I doubt Ellen would have even known what the call was about until she heard your voice and started speaking.”
I didn’t feel any better, felt worse actually. I’d told Sarina about my life, the crap I’d hidden away, kept secret. I looked over at her, sitting demurely in the other chair. Her hair, always shiny, always brushed, framed the young face I believed I was finally trusting. She looked so white amongst the black, the copper lighting creating a bloody shroud over our small piece of the world.
I’d vented on her, called her names, blamed her for everything that had happened. I bore some of the blame. Steven was mine, the book problem was mine; these were things Sarina had known nothing about. At the end of hours of releasing all I was onto her I ended up with one conclusion. Whether we liked it or not, we were in this together.
All through the ranting she’d just listened. Filled my glass and watched as the rage tore apart what remained of the normality I thought I lived in. In amongst the craziness I felt I should have felt pleasure at being asked to write something for Ellen. To be a part of one of her projects was to be held in high regard; an honour many fought to achieve.
A six-month deadline. If things didn’t get any worse, I could maybe do it. I looked at Sarina, the woman who at three hundred years old was the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on; she wasn’t human. Vampire, cemented in my psyche, just fit her so well. Six months. I could be dead in less than a week.
“Hell with it!” I said, pouring another scotch down my throat. “The lot of it.”
I’d drunk myself to sleep; well, I think I did. I opened my eyes and was in bed. Naked, warm and as messed up as I’d ever been. I’d slept until noon. Sarina had gone out for the day and evening. Though I let her feed from me occasionally, she would still need to feed on others to keep her strength up. The clubs served a purpose, I now knew. Goth just fit in with her penchant for black. Goth fit in with how I felt: the depression, the abject isolation, and the look. The look guaranteed privacy when I went out. People looked at Goths, they didn’t speak to them, which suited me just fine.
Dressed in track pants and singlet, sitting at the kitchen table, drawing rings in water on its surface, I accepted a battle was looming. One I couldn’t fight and possibly win. I’d never felt as helpless as I felt now. I could control nothing, influence nothing. What God do you call on when this happens?
Sarina had left a bag of croissants on the kitchen bench, and surprisingly there was a block of cheese in the refrigerator. I ate and drank wine, letting the smell of grilled cheese and the vibrancy of its colour wash through me like a spring rain. Black inside black and about black was no place for hope. Cheese offered hope.
I didn’t know the vineyard or vintage of the wine, only that is was red and rich. All of her bottles in the rack had no labels. Black bottles in a black racks in a black room. Easily missed when paralletic. I thought I’d work through the rack top to bottom, let to right. Might take a few days, but what the hell. If I didn’t know I was dead, what would it matter?
My mobile vibrated across the table. It didn’t recognize the number, then the number didn’t really make all that much sense either. It showed on the screen as all nines.
“What?” I said.
“Meet me at cafe Bonjourno’s in Rundle street tonight,” the man’s voice said.
“Who is this?”
“Return the book and you will be safe. Meet me at eight and we can discuss how to do this without bringing harm to yourself or Sarina.”
“Don’t be late.” He hung up.
I called Sarina, but the sound of her phone ringing in the bedroom left me alone. I couldn’t contact her, tell her what Orlando wanted me to do. I had four hours to kill, and I wasn’t going to do it drinking; or could I? If meeting with Orlando would bring an end to this nightmare, then I’d do it sober, if I had to. I had some questions of my own that needed answers.
Four hours. If I fussed a bit it should be plenty of time to get showered and changed and into the city. I ordered a taxi for seven-thirty. I wanted to write a note for Sarina, but there wasn’t any paper in the place. I hadn’t packed any in my computer case.
I grabbed her phone from the bedside table and left a message in her diary. I left the phone open in the middle of the coffee table. The black phone was only just visible. I cut open a croissant, put half in the centre of the coffee table and the phone on top of that. It looked odd, but it had the effect I desired.
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Copyright © 2009 by Robert N. Stephenson