Friday, 23 December 2011

All Things White & Beautiful

The closest thing to a Christmas story you're going to get from me this year.
Taken from one of the abandoned drafts of the sequel to White Vampyre.

The bar was mournfully quiet; its lights were dimmed low, with only one remaining customer.  It was late; a time to be cuddled close with a loved one, if you had a loved one.  The barman had successfully ejected all of his customers over an hour previously with the exception of this last, lone drinker.  His full repertoire of subtle and not so subtle hints had failed to persuade this maudlin patron that it was time to leave, and the barman, who had hoped to go home early for a romantic evening with his girlfriend, had resolved himself to remaining to the bitter end.  Under law he was obliged to continue serving as long as he had customers, or until six am when all licensed premises were required to close for a minimum of two hours.
At five minutes to three in the morning the overflowing ashtray and half-completed pyramid of empty shot glasses implied the bar’s unwelcome final customer had no intention of going anywhere any time soon.  These suspicions were confirmed an instant later when he produced a credit card and slid it across the bar.
“Another shot of tequila.”
“Don’t you have a family to go home to?  I do, if you don’t.”
The man rewarded him for his pains with a dirty look.  He searched through the pockets of his overcoat and produced a battered Zippo, a pack of cigarettes and a leather wallet.  Shaking out a cigarette, he flicked open the Zippo with practised ease and lit it.  The tip of the cigarette glowed red as he took a long draw, the paper burning with a slow hiss.  As he exhaled he snapped open the wallet to reveal a SPF officer’s shield.
“No, I don’t have a family waiting for me.  I had a girl once - she asked me to choose between my career and her.  I’m still police - figure it out for yourself.”  He took a sip of his tequila and grimaced.
The barman decided to try and reason with him one more time.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  But I do have a girl waiting for me.  Y’know what I mean?”
“Well hooray for you!”  A dangerous glint shone in the officer’s eyes.  “Let me tell you what I have.  I’ve got a big fucking H&K scattergun in my patrol car that’d shred your little dive real quick.  So why don’t you just cut it with the mouth and serve me my drinks?  Does that sound fair to you?”
The barman had not survived his many years in Europa City by not knowing when to back-pedal.  “Hey, no need for that, man.  A tequila, wasn’t it?”
The officer nodded.  “Yeah, make it a double.”
The barman poured the shot, the faintest of nerves shaking his hand, though his fear was moderated by self-righteous indignation.  He cursed his misfortune.  Of all the bars in the city, of all the nights of the year, this psycho-cop burnout case had to choose his bar to drown his sorrows in.  His one solace was that the evening was unlikely to get any worse.
A polite cough made Sykes look up from the pitted surface of the bar.  The woman was dressed in an ankle length white fox fur coat, with a matching astrakhan hat.  Here and there, melting drops of snow added highlights to the coat’s luxuriant pelt.  Her skin was almost as pale as the fur, it contrasted sharply with the ebony black plait of hair that curled around her right shoulder and breast.  The only other colour about her was her lips and eyes, carnelian and sapphire respectively.  It was the eyes that captivated; sucked the soul from your body and the spirit from your heart.
The SPF officer froze, the colour draining from his face.  It was the only emotion, other than maudlin regret, he had felt all night.
“I know you.  I know you!”
The woman sniffed.  “Of course you do, Edward.  You stopped me for a traffic violation about a year ago.”
“No.  You can’t be her.  It’s not possible.”
“All things are possible, Edward, with a little faith.  Now, how about buying a lady a drink for old time’s sake?”
“What are you drinking?” Sykes asked, not so much surprised by the sound of his voice as by the question asked.  It was certainly not the one foremost in his mind.
Cognac,” the woman whispered.
Cognac it is then, a large one.”
The barman gave Sykes a sidelong glance as he picked up a balloon glass and pressed its rim against the optic.  He repeated the procedure and set the glass in front of Sykes before retreating to the far side of the bar.
With the barman a discrete distance away, Sykes managed to voice the question that had haunted him these long months.  “Why?”
“Why what?”
“Why show up now?  Why humiliate me in the way that you did?”
The woman shrugged.  “I didn’t realise you felt humiliated by our meeting.”
“No?  How’d you expect me to feel after being found stark bollock naked in the back seat of my own patrol car?  Christ, I was lucky not to be chucked off the force.  As it was I spent a month undergoing psychiatric evaluation and another three months on probation.  Shit, lady, you all but trashed my career.  If Guyon Sajer hadn’t taken a personal interest in me I’d have been royally fucked.  And that was only because a woman matching your description was linked to the death of one of his officers.  Not that they found any record of a ‘Meledy Raindeth’ in the city of course.  So the question remains - who the hell are you and what do you want?”
The woman who had called herself Meledy Raindeth shrugged.  “What does anyone want in this god-forsaken city, Eddie?  Something to keep them from hunger.  Something to keep them from the cold.  Someone to love.  You ask what do I want, but the real question is what are you searching for at the bottom of a bottle?  Your humanity?  Some lingering shred of decency?  A sign that there’s more than a brass badge separating you from the scum out there?”
The colour, which had been steadily draining from Sykes’ face suddenly returned in a flush of anger.  “Fuck you, bitch!  I don’t know what you think you know about me,” he exploded, spraying flecks of spit across the bar, “and I don’t care how you came by it.  I was acquitted.  It wasn’t my fault.  She ran out in front of the car.”  He wiped a string of saliva from his chin and tossed back his tequila.  “Barman - another.  Better still, just leave the bottle.”
The barman, who had been listening intently to a sports cast, jumped.  “What?  Shit.  Sure.  But let’s see some credit first.”
Sykes tossed him his card.  The woman slid on to the barstool next to him.  She crossed her legs, causing the fox-fur to fall open, exposing a milky-white expanse of thigh.  She picked his cigarettes up from the bar and took one.  Her eyes bored into him as she picked up his lighter and snapped it open.  Exhaling, she replaced the lighter and said, “You can scream it wasn’t your fault as loud and often as you like but deep down inside you we both know you don’t believe that for a minute.”
Sykes’ jaw dropped.  He snapped his mouth shut and stared at his nemesis, trying to organise his thoughts.  Then he said, “You’re beginning to bore me, lady.  I don’t know what your purpose in coming here tonight is, whether you just want to bust my balls, or what, but I’m about two seconds away from arresting you.”
She smiled.  “For what?  Speaking truths in a public place?  I know it’s unfashionable but I wasn’t aware it had been made a crime.”  She swallowed some of her cognac and smiled.  “So much pain.  It’s eating you up like a cancer, and yet you could let it go just like that if you chose to.”
Sykes shook his head, bemused.  “Just who the hell are you?  You’re one scary lady, that’s for sure.  They used to burn women like you at the stake.”  He grabbed himself another cigarette and picked up his Zippo.  He stared at the SPF shield and lightning flash engraved into its case - it had been a graduation gift.  Back then, fresh from the academy, things had seemed so much simpler.  He had been young and hot, a rising star in the department.  He and three other officers from his graduating class had formed their own cadre within the SPF.  Faced with a rising tide of vehicular crime, the Council had given them carte blanche on the roads.  As long as their reports were clean they were free to take whatever steps they deemed necessary to police the city’s autobahns.
Playing games of terminal chicken with the biker crazies and car-jackers, they had blazed their own brand of justice across the city.  But administrations and their attendant politics change, and one by one they had fallen as quickly as they had risen.  Shiltz was doing ten for vehicular homicide; Voigt would never walk again and Connors - there had barely been enough of her left to fill an ashtray.  If Sykes had not been undergoing psych while on probation at that time the odds were that he would have finished up dead as well.
“You can’t go back, Eddie.  Times change.  You either adapt or you die.”
He lit his cigarette.  “Yeah, and sometimes you do both.”  He picked up the tequila bottle and took a slug.  “So, come on, lady, what are you really here for?  You got a purpose in raking up the past, or are you just out to push my buttons?”
“I came here to save your soul.  To show you the error of your ways, if you will.”
“No shit.  It’s a little late for ‘A Christmas Carol’ isn’t it?”
She smiled, but there was no warmth or tenderness in her eyes, they remained icy, impassive.  “That’s right.  I’m the ghost of Christmas Fast.  C’mon, Eddie, let’s go for a ride in that big black phallic symbol of yours.”
Sykes sat back on his stool and regarded her thoughtfully.  He pushed the bottle away from himself and stood up.  Swaying slightly, he said, “Hell, why not.  You’re probably the best offer I’ll get all night.  And you’re certainly a looker.”
“Try not to confuse that with hooker.”
“Sure, sister.  Whatever you say.”
Sykes’ car was parked a hundred metres from the bar.  They trudged arm in arm through the falling snow, their feet slipping in the slush.
“That barman was certainly glad to see the back of us.  Couldn’t shut the place up quick enough.”
“Unfortunately he won’t live happy ever after.  When he arrives home he’s going to discover his next door neighbour mid-coitus with his girlfriend.  Never a good scene to begin with, this sordid little affair becomes even more tragic.  He murders them both in a fit of passion and then, stricken by remorse, takes his own life.”
“How?  No don’t answer that.  I don’t want to know.”
Sykes transmitted the security code to the car’s onboard system and opened the passenger door.  Raindeth ignored him and walked around the vehicle in a slow circle.  She caressed the bodywork, brushing away the melting snow.  “Almost frictionless.”
Sykes shrugged.  “Some sort of carbon bonded polymer.”  He sighed wistfully.  “It’s not a patch on the old Mk III.  Those supercharged babies were the best.  These electric beasts just don’t have the same feel.  I never saw the point in banning internal combustion engines.  The damage was already done decades ago.  Why do they think half of Europe’s underwater now?  In case nobody’s noticed, it’s too fucking late to save the ozone layer.”
“Everything changes.”
“You told me that already.  So where are we going?”
“The Netherlands quarter.  A little place called the Paradiso over in the Amsterdam sector.”
Meledy shrugged.  “Nostalgia, continuity, take your pick, it’s all one and the same to me.”
Sykes set the auto-routing system and engaged the drive.  There was a soft, purring whine as the turbines powered up and the car slipped into the flow of traffic.  He sat back and closed his eyes.  “God, I feel lousy.  Think I’ll try an’ sleep it off.  Wake me when we get there.”  He opened one eye.  “And don’t touch nothing.  Full security protocols are active.  Reaching for the cigarette lighter could put you on the receiving end of a forty thousand volt stun charge, and that’s guaranteed to put a crimp in anyone’s day.”

The Paradiso had slipped a little further from respectability and a little closer to depravity in recent years.  The decor remained predominantly black and the floor was characteristically tacky underfoot.  Clouds of dry-ice shrouded the patrons, refracting and diffusing the flickering strobes and lasers on the dancefloor, where tripped-out dancers worked to the low slung bass and pounding rhythms.  Fuelled by a combination of alcohol and stimulants they formed small tribes as they worshipped the beats in a manner barely removed from their pagan ancestors.
Meledy Raindeth, or whatever her name was, seemed to drink in the narcoleptic atmosphere.  To Sykes she appeared suddenly more vital and alive.  Like the difference between an animal in a cage and one free in its natural environment.  It made him shudder.
She took him by the arm and steered him towards a booth in the corner.  He was not surprised to find a bottle of cognac and two glasses waiting there.  Without waiting to be asked, he pulled out the stopper and splashed the liquor into each glass.
“Well?  Are you going to save my soul now?”
The woman swirled the amber liquid round in her glass.  “If you like.  Do you want the Frank Capra bit - where I show you your life if you hadn’t pulled me over?  Or would you prefer a version that doesn’t involve killing little Louise?”
He shook his head emphatically.  “No.  I don’t want to hear any of your pointless lies.  What’s done is done.”
“As you will.  But believe me, I did you a favour that day.  After the ECPD took control of Tessler there was a lot of ‘house cleaning’.  How many skags did you and Schiltz run off the road?  Fifty?  A hundred?  Yet suddenly he’s taking the fall for it.  Why?  Where was Voigt’s backup?  Was it really just pure coincidence that a petroleum tanker crashed into Connor’s bike?  Hardly.  Baby, your little cadre was set up to take the fall.  The Council decided an example had to be made.  If you had not already been disgraced you would have been Judas Goat number four.  Think about it.”
Sykes licked suddenly dry lips as he stared into the darkness.  Somewhere inside him a little, worrying voice was telling him that it was true.  As much as he wanted to deny it, the only real question left in his mind was how in the hell it had taken him so long to figure it out.  The facts were blatantly obvious.
“Why us?  There were a hundred others dirtier than we were.  Officers on the take, running their own shakedowns.  Sure, we dispensed rough justice but we were…” he paused; his next word was barely a whisper as realisation dawned, “honest.”
“Too honest for your superiors’ comfort.  You were all young idealists with romantic notions of heroism.  The sort who might take to asking awkward questions.”
Sykes thumped the table.  “Shit!  No, it still doesn’t scan.  Doesn’t add up right.”
The woman leaned in close across the table, her breasts, barely restrained by her leather camisole, brushed lightly against Sykes’ arm.  The SPF officer appeared not to notice her invitation as he stared at the gyrating dancers.
She followed his line of sight.  “Look at them, tell me what you see.”  Her breath was warm in his ear, quickening his pulse.
“See?  Just the usual lowlifes.  A bunch of pierced, branded, tattooed and drugged up nobodies.  The city’s full of them now.”
“Modern primitives.  Mankind reverting back to it’s earlier tribalism.  Using drugs and drumbeats to enter altered states of consciousness like the ancient shamans.  Only they’ve merged it with technology.
“Homicide, rape and other crimes of violence are rising daily.  The city has become a melting pot of racial chaos, one that your beleaguered police force cannot hope to control.  Five years from now, maybe less, it will be a police state.  Martial Law will govern the citizens.  It became inevitable from the moment the department seized control of Tessler.  The SWAT and TAC teams have already taken advantage of the corporation’s cyber-ware.  Hardwired nervous systems, smart-guns, optical implants that see beyond the white light spectrum, cloned, genetically enhanced organ replacements, all these things and more besides.  The Council’s designing human machines to police the city.”
“Yeah, right.  Well good luck to them.  Somebody’s got to take care of the mess.  Lady, you’re really boring me now.  I was in the middle of working up a major drunk, now I’m in a club full of deviants on the opposite side of town from my apartment.  If you’ve got a point now is the time to make it, otherwise - blow.  I don’t need you raking up the past.  Yeah, I’ve made mistakes, but I paid for them.  So leave me alone and go and spoil some other fucker’s evening.”
She curled her lip in a sneer.  “All because little Louise Gilchrist is never going to be twelve years old.”
“An’ what the fuck would you know about how I feel.  Nothing.  Zero.  You don’t know shit about me, lady.”  He suddenly felt smothered by her close proximity; the warmth of her body was sickly, her flesh over-ripe.  He got to his feet with a drunken lurch and started backing away from the table.  “I don’t know what sort of witch you are,’ he spat, pointing a finger at her, “but keep your skanky whore’s ass away from me.  Whatever it is you’re selling, I ain’t buying.  I must be crazy.”
“You must be,” she said, “or else you wouldn’t have come here.  That’s a quote by the way.”
“Yeah?  Well you know where you can stick your quote.”
“Tsk, tsk.  We’re a little uptight, aren’t we, officer Sykes?”
Sykes spat on the floor and turned to walk away.
“Wait!  Don’t you want to know why I sought you tonight?  Surely you haven’t come this far just to walk away now?”
The SPF officer sighed and returned to the table.  “I just know I’m going to live to regret this.”  He helped himself to another drink and looked expectantly at his host.
“That’s better.  Kick back and relax and we’ll get down to business.  You’re sick, tired, coming apart at the seams. All that pent up guilt and hatred is burning you up from the inside.  If you don’t get a handle on your feelings shortly they’ll rip you apart.”
“So?  What the hell do you care?”
“I don’t.  Whether or not you destroy yourself is of no consequence to me.  At least not ultimately.  However, our past contact affords me a tenuous link through you to the outside world, and through that link I would have you serve me.”
Sykes looked her directly in the eye and laughed.  “Now I know who’s crazy.  Jesus, lady, do you really think I’m going to help you after what you did to me?  Christ, I only agreed to follow you in the hope that I might get laid.  A little community good will as it were.”
“My favours are not for you.  You have not yet crossed that barrier, and if you have any last vestige of hope left in your soul you should pray that you never know my love, for it is a deadly and destructive lust that has been the ruin of many.  That said, I would still have your assistance in a little matter that continues to trouble me.  And, truly, by helping me you will be helping yourself.”
“Say I don’t want to help myself, what then?”
“If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your fallen comrades.  Don’t you owe Schiltz, Voigt and Connors that much?  You and Emma were particularly close were you not?  Don’t you want to avenge her death?”
Sykes paled so much that his skin rivalled that of his host.  His hand trembled, splashing cognac on the table.  “Nobody knew about us.  Nobody.  Fraternisation between officers is strictly forbidden.  You get emotionally close to someone on the job like that and it comprises your reasoning.  You’ll go out of your way to protect them.  At the cost of your colleagues, civilians or yourself.  If anyone had discovered we were lovers one of us would have been reassigned.  But there’s no hiding anything from you, is there?”
“No.  There is not.  I cast my nets far and wide and the barbs on my hooks are cruel and bite deeply.”
“Well, you’ve won.  What I won’t do for money or in the name of self-redemption, I’ll do in the name of love.  Cliché, I know.  Yeah, for Emma I’ll take care of your little problem.  God knows it can’t damn me any more than I already am.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic.  All I want you to do is go and talk to a man.  And after you have heard what he has to say, well, that shall be entirely up to yourself.”
Sykes gave her a suspicious frown.  “That’s it?  Talk to one man?  There must be a catch somewhere.”
“No catch, Eddie.  Just cause and effect.  The ripples of your conversation will spread across the city and in doing so, serve my purpose.  But believe me or not, you will go and see Guyon Sajer and tell him that I sent you.”
“Sajer?  I guess I owe the old bastard a visit after he helped me.  I haven’t seen him since.  Yeah, lady, I’ll go and see Sajer for you.  Though what good it will do you I can’t imagine.”
He stood up, grabbed the cognac bottle and shoved passed her.  She grabbed his arm and restrained him.  Sykes stared into her eyes and felt his soul being drawn down inside them.  Suddenly he knew there was nothing he would not do for her love, but the moment passed as quickly as it had arrived.  A little dizzy and fearful, he stepped back from her.
The woman smiled wistfully.  “Eddie, have yourself a Merry little Christmas.”
He turned his back on her.  “Yeah.  You too,” he remarked caustically.

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