The Books of Darkness
by Robert N. Stephenson
|Table of Contents|
part 2 of 2
I was sitting in Bonjourno’s cafe. The place, all old wooden tables and chairs was alive with the Friday night crowd. Coffee and pizza smells would have usually pleased me, but this wasn’t a pleasant meeting. I sat in the centre of the cafe, couples and groups ate and talked around me. I felt protected and safe to a degree.
Could this man take me without anyone seeing? It was a question I asked myself all the way up Anzac Highway and into the city. It was a warm for early August, and I’d opted for jeans and a light shirt and blue suede jacket. Tonight wasn’t a night to look attractive.
I toyed with my scotch, not sure whether to down it in one hit or sip it and let the bite ease away the nervousness.
“Good evening,” a man said, looking down at me. He was all in black, hair neatly cropped and stylish. “I believe you are waiting for me.”
He wasn’t what I’d expected and I felt taken a back by his politeness.
“May I sit?” he asked, taking off his long coat. I couldn’t speak. “Thank you,” he said, taking the seat opposite. He folded and placed his coat on the seat to his right.
Sitting in his presence the cafe seemed to fade away in to insignificance, the noise became muted and the strong scent of roses pressed about my face. It took a few breaths to settle myself, to concentrate.
“I have that affect on women,” he said. The accent, minor, suggest culture and wealth. “I must admit, I am surprised that you came.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The man, who looked to be in his late twenties, placed both hands flat on the table, then slowly moved them apart until he was able to grip the table’s edges. I studied his face, the lack of lines around the eyes and lips, the paleness of his skin and the darkness of his equine eyes. I felt I’d seen him somewhere before, or had I just overlaid his face to the one I imagined Orlando had.
“Someone of great age,” he said.
“Sarina called you Orlando,” I said, not feeling all that brave.
“So that is who she thinks I am,” he said, a smile, a genuine sign of pleasure, split his face. “It is good she has a name for me.” His teeth were small, whitish-yellow and even.
“Your name isn’t Orlando?” Despite confusion, I decided that now was a good a time as any to get to the bottom of the mystery. “Why does she think you are?”
“Forgive me,” he said, extending his right hand. “Let us start off with formal introductions. I rarely have such meetings, you understand?” I didn’t feel like taking his hand, I didn’t want to be courteous.
His hand hovered over the table, his smile stayed fixed and his eyes commanded the appropriate greetings be made.
“Diana,” I said, lightly shaking his hand. The touch was cold, not ice cold, but winter-skin cold.
“I am Bela,” he said. “Bela Lugosi.”
As soon as he said his name I connected his appearance with the posters on Sarina’s walls. The connection might have been made, but the shock and surprise were no less weakened. The crowd pressed in around us at that point, the noise rose, drowning out the jumble of thoughts cramming my mind. How could he be here, be alive? Was he really a vampire?
Bela raised his hand, the place silenced immediately, all movement ceased. People sat or stood, stopped in mid-sentence, mid-action. A man pouring beer from a jug at the next table froze while filling a glass. The jug emptied, spilling over the edges of the glass and across the table. Bela reached across the table and pushed my chin up, closing my mouth. He looked at the beer, pouring from the table to the floor.
“Always have a problem with liquids,” he said.
“You’re dead.” I downed the scotch, this wasn’t happening.
“In a way, I am.”
I was shaking, the cafe felt cold, the total silence unnerving.
“The Dark One made me an offer, and I took it.” Bela turned to one of the tables nearby and took a glass of liquid and placed it before me. “You will need this one as well.”
I didn’t need to be encouraged. I drank the liquid. Brandy. I choked and spluttered, but it did send a sensation of warmth through me. The man, well-groomed, looked far too young, younger than the man on the bedroom walls, younger than the man in the films.
“She must never know,” he said, his tone softened. “I refused her offer in 1951, as I had in the 1920s and 30s.” He stared into my eyes. A power held me. “She didn’t know I had made my deal back in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Dark One helped me recover from injuries sustained during the war. I couldn’t tell her.”
“Then why are you following her?” The question was hard to form in my mind and harder to ask.
“The Dark One wants something she has; my part of my deal is to get it back. ” Bela sounded grave. “I have been following her since my burial in August 1955, watching out for her and protecting her, trying to find a way to get what he wants.”
“She still loves you, you know?” I said, feeling my own emotions for her come under assault.
“That is nice, but it can never be.” He straightened his cuff, fussing about his appearance. “I am part of The Dark One, Diana. I am a Ta’ibah. I am here to protect the interests of the darkness, to keep its secrets secret..” He paused. “Sarina is one of the most powerful Uttukes in the world.”
“Why the interest in me?”
“I was to kill you because he saw the book. The book I wrote in 1973.”
“But the name on the manuscript...”
“My real name, well, part of it. Steven Opie stole the story and made it his own. The Dark One took his life energy.” Bela took my hand. “I still do not know where the book is, but I did learn that you had seen it. No one can know what is in that book. It was a mistake of Uri’s to think I wanted it edited.”
“You killed Uri?” Was I next? Would the cafe come to life to find me dead at the table?
“No.” He was firm. “I do not know who killed him. Uri was an old man who had served me well for many decades. I would never have harmed him. The Dark One would have, but he didn’t.”
“Then who did?” Bela shrugged. A comical look.
“Jacko? The boy under the bridge?”
“The Dark One,” he said. “He also discovered you had seen the book. I couldn’t stop him for fear of giving Sarina away. The boy? Well, The Dark One takes; no reason.”
“What about Steven, the ghost you control? The ghost that has been haunting me for the last two years.” I was getting more questions than answers. If Bela didn’t kill Uri, didn’t kill Jacko, then I was in far more danger than I realised.
“He has occupied the vessel that was Steven, but he does not know where you live. The vessel can only give messages, The Dark One cannot track him. That is why creatures like me exist.” He spoke slowly, time had been stilled. “Has she told you that I am a Ta’ibah?”
“You are going to kill me, aren’t you?” If this man could stop time, then I would have no hope of escape.
“Not at all,” he said. “To do so would harm someone I care about. Used to care about.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sarina is in love with you.”
“And how do you know that?” She’d never told me as much.
“You remember the feedings?”
“Yes, what of it?”
“You share her apartment? Dine with her?” I nodded. “She has only ever done this with one other person in her long life.” He smiled.
“Never?” Deep down something changed in me. Sarina trusted me. I hadn’t really considered this fully before.
Bela leaned forward, elbows on the table. “And I think you love her.”
Confronted with the suggestion, I was about to deny it, but he might have been right. I didn’t know if I loved her. Though, the only reason I decided to have this meeting was to protect her.
“Can you get me the book?”
“Not right away, but I know who has it.” I felt at ease. I wasn’t going to die.
Bela closed his eyes, pressed his fingers to his brow. I’d seen that pose before in his movies. He took a deep breath, everything shimmered about us. His sigh felt like the groan of the wind through an old building. I shivered. Goose bumps sprang up on my skin. Cold. Ice cold embraced me. What was he doing? He looked up. Eyes no longer brown but black. Two black shiny balls turned on me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the lights.” He moved his chair back, turned to the woman sitting at the near table. Starting at her head his right hand disappeared into her skull, he dragged his hand down, through her neck, through her back. A cloudy essence moved about his wrist.
She came to life for a few seconds. Her body snapped rigged, relaxed, then snapped rigid again. Bela pulled his hand free, a stream of whiteness, like smoke flowed from her to him. Another deep sigh, only this time it penetrated my chest, rubbed against my heart. Pain shot thought me. I grabbed my chest. I couldn’t breath.
I fell forward on the table, drawing hard breaths, sucking air into my lungs. Darkness had touched me. I saw its depths, I teetered on the edge of nothing.
Soft hands touched my face. Cool hands. Bela helped me up. His eyes were once again brown. I could see the woman behind him lying face down on the table. He’d fed from her, taken her life energy right in front of me.
“I almost slipped from the light,” Bela said. “Sitting close to me you would have been touched by the edges of my influence, the strength of my feeding.” He must have noticed my confusion. “If I hadn’t have fed immediately you would have been sucked clean of life as everyone in this building would have been; such is my power. The Dark One is this and much, much more.”
“Why?” I rubbed my chest, the pain gone. “Why stay in the light?”
“I needed to be in the light in order to find you, the book; in order to stay close to Sarina, to watch over her.” He folded his hands on the table. “I have three days to deliver the book, after then, he will take you and there will be nothing to stop him, Diana. Once his darkness comes it comes forever.”
I didn’t like the sound of this. Three days to get the book. Maybe we should just pay Samantha and be done with it. At least I wouldn’t be worse than dead.
“What about the call from Ellen Datlow?” I asked. “What did it mean?”
“She’s an editor in the USA, she called me this morning with an offer. Mentioned you as inspiration.”
“Ah, the dream,” he said. “I don’t know who received the dream. It was cast. The person who received it would know who you were, call, create the directness I needed. Triangulation; easy once you know how.”
“You tracked her to get to me?”
“That is how our meeting came about.”
“She isn’t in danger?” I liked Ellen and already too many people had died over the book.
“No, she’s just a point of reference. She and a close friend.”
I shook my head.
“I could have followed you of course,” he said. “But as you are with Sarina most of the time I had to find a better way.” He offered his even-toothed smile again. “I couldn’t be seen near your house either. You have quite a nosy neighbour.”
“He looks after things when I’m not about.” I felt protective of him. Some good did come from having a neighbour who couldn’t keep out of my business.
“I must go,” he said. “Remember. The book. It will be the only thing to appease The Dark One when I tell him I lost Sarina’s trail.” He grabbed his coat from the chair and stood.
“I’ll get it,” I said.
“I thought you might. I think you also need to talk to Steven.” He slid into the coat. “Now free, I believe he has something to tell you.”
“You know something?”
“Let me say I also require a sense of justice for something done.”
“Three days,” I said. He nodded. Not much time.
He walked around the table, placed his hand on the back of my chair and offered his hand. “Time to go,” he said. “It would be better if you aren’t here when time restarts.” He indicated the woman.
I took his hand and allowed him to help me out of my chair. “Why don’t you act? You seem to know more about what is going on than I do, Bela.” If he knew Steven had the answer, then why didn’t he ask him? If he knew where the book was, why didn’t he just get it?
“I want to do one last good thing for Sarina,” Bela said, staring me hard in the face. “And that involves your dealing with your own demons.” Bela led me from the cafe and out onto the street. Everything was still and silent. Someone stood, half-exiting a taxi, pedestrians in mid-stride littered the footpath.
“How do I contact you?” I asked.
“You don’t.” Bela kissed the back of my hand. “I will visit you. All you need to do is agree to allow me to enter your light. A welcome mat, so to speak.”
“I will be safe?” He nodded, still holding my hand. “You can visit me, Bela.” In that moment he was gone.
Life erupted around me, the sounds of people talking, the sounds of the cafe, the traffic closed in around me. What had just happened?
Copyright © 2009 by Robert N. Stephenson