Time's Fool

By Alys Earl

A novel for M R James fans who sometimes want something a little more modern and edgy from their weird fiction

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Three Questions

You meet a vampire. You know it's a vampire.

How do you kill it?

So, I was in a forum discussion the a while back and there was a game running where you get to ask a vampire three questions. An impressive number of the responses were things likes, “Would daylight kill you?” “Would a stake through the heart work?”

Really? You're actually going to say that? Is that not incredibly gauche? You are talking to an immortal being with a penchant for human blood and you're putting murderous hostility on the table there, right from the start? Very smart.

And in what context are these questions asked? Are you chatting to this vampire on an social media site? Chilling over a game of contract whist and a glass of what you really hope is red wine? Are you in alley somewhere with their teeth half an inch from your neck? In the latter situation wouldn’t, “Could you please not kill me?” be a better opener than, “Hey, what’d happen if I thumped you with this crucifix?”

Or, maybe you should just thump them with the crucifix. Worth a try.

Does the vampire get to lie?

Well, how about we imagine that they won't. How about we create a setting that is somewhat more genial, where your actions are less immediately tied to your survival?

Very well.

The room you are in is large, with red tiles upon the floor. One wall has wide diamond paned windows and, from beyond the drapes there are glimmers of light from where the sun is sinking in to the river valley. The creature’s house.
It is is quietly dusty, and gleams with the self-satisfied lustre of antique wood. There is a great table with high backed chairs around it. In the shadows around the walls you can make out portraits, tapestries, and the other ephemera of an old family or an unnaturally long life. In the wide, medieval hearth, a fire is burning low and steady the grate. You are sitting beside it, slipping a little awkwardly in a high, leather armchair. In one hand, you’re holding a glass of whisky.
The creature sits in front of you, stretched in his own chair, at perfect ease. The white fingers which rest around his own glass look impossibly fragile, as though they would snap with the slightest pressure. It occurs to you that, while your whisky has a splash of water in it, he is drinking it neat. He is smiling, a mild, slightly mocking expression.
He has promised you truthful answers.
You lean back into your chair and think upon the best phrasing. It feels awkward now it comes to it. He greeted you like a guest, has treated you with nothing but a subtly ironic courtesy. When you first confronted him, you were expecting bloodstained fangs, anger, a fight. The room is cool, the fire doing little to warm it. He is watching you.
You could ask him something else, something innocuous. His face has a sharpness to it, his stare an intensity that makes you uncomfortable. You sip your drink and try not to look at him, just as you tried - earlier - not to touch his hand in greeting. The whisky is the good stuff, complex and peaty. If you didn’t have the water in it, it would be burning your tongue. He does not seem to mind. Around you, there are candles in tall, cast iron holders. Blue and yellow flames lick at the oak logs in the hearth.
You say, “Does fire work?”
The creature presses his glass against his lips, but doesn’t drink. The smile on his face flickers a little, wider, then smooth again. “It’s very useful,” he says, “but I suspect it struggles in the current market.”
“Personally, I find it has few qualities I’d look for in an employee.”
“I meant -”
He sets down his glass and stares into your eyes. ”Would you believe that I've never tried immolating myself?"
It occurs to you that you are sitting no more than three feet from a monster. He begins to run his fingertip around the rim of his glass making it sing its sweet, unbearable note. It seems to fill the room, crowding the thoughts from your head. The whisky is making you feel muzzy - you’re not much of one for strong spirits. You wonder if you’ve offended him.
He is still looking at you, his gaze like a physical weight. His eyes are dark, speckled like lichen on a tree trunk.
“What about,” you hesitate, “what about decapitation? Would that…?”
He continues to circle his hand, coaxing out the singing, crystal note. “Yes, I suspect that would kill most things.”
No. He isn’t offended - only bored. It takes a few seconds to register that this is just as dangerous a thing. You look past him, to the door. There is very little chance that you could make a dash for it, but you do the calculations in your mind anyway. It’s only a handful of yards, but the door is heavy, and the one at the end of the hallway has fallen hinges. You’d have to drag it open, and by the time you did that…
There is a pressure under your jaw, pushing your chin upwards. The creature is standing over you, pushing your chin up. His hand is cool and dry, like the leather glove of someone who has just come in from a frosty night. There is something at once thrilling and repulsive in his touch. This close, you can see that he is not breathing. His eyes are all pupil, as though there were no light in the room.
“You’re afraid,” he says, “there is no reason to be afraid.”
And you want to say that, yes, there is a reason to be afraid, and that reason is that he was able to get this close to you without you hearing him. You try to think of a question that will give you the knowledge you need to get out of this room alive. Or you want to think about that, but his eyes are so huge and dark that they seem to fill your entire mind.
His fingers run along the line of your neck and you twist away from them, feeling the breath stutter and start in your throat. He is feeling your pulse. You can feel it, too, because it’s thundering, thundering along.
The creature lets out a long sigh, and then is standing back from you, not seated, but no longer so very close. He moves so quickly, it is like a watching a old film that stutters, missing frames. “I disturb you,” he says.
Without meaning to, you nod. Being close to him is to be uncomfortably aware of power restrained, to be captivated and fearful at once. It is as though you stand beside the enclosure of some big cat, watching it pace in its beauty and frustration, it is like the moment when its gaze meets yours, as though you hear the low breath of its growl, and suffer, for a moment, a doubt as to the strength of the fence.
You wonder how many people he has killed, if any of them sat here as you do now, guests of the monster.
But he is no hulking brute of a beast, no muscle seethes restless beneath his shirt. Slim and dark and shadowed, if were not for unhealthy pallor of his face, he would seem almost a child. Again, that impression of frailty, even weakness.“You would kill me,” there is no judgement in his voice, his face is without expression. “if you were able to.”
You want to know if that is true. try to imagine your hands wrapped around a stake, forcing it in to his flesh. His sternum would be no thinner than a person’s: skin and bone and the muscle of the heart. You would need a mallet, would need to strike again and again.
Would there be blood? Would the creature scream? Plead?
Would that stop you?
Your hands are shaking, the surface of your drink trembling, your knuckles showing with the pressure of gripping it. The creature is watching you, as though he is aware of the thoughts that are passing in your mind, or perhaps merely as though he can guess.
“It’s surprisingly easy,” he says, “the body is a fragile thing.”
You remember the pressure of his hand beneath your chin. You did not try to fight him, and so it did not hurt. His fingers did not bruise you. Your body imagines violence, and you remember cooking, pulling chicken bones from their sockets, feeling them yield under your hand.
Surprisingly easy.
The whisky rears in your throat, burning.
You should run, should grab the poker from beside the fire, should make some sort of stand, but that would bring the violence out from where it waits in the air around you, would unleash…
Breathe. You need to breathe, need to remember to think. The creature shakes his head and turns his back to you, staring in to the fire. Over the crackle of the logs, the wind in the chimney, you hear the minute ticking of his watch.
This is ridiculous. Your empty hand aches from the way your fist has been clenched. He has made no move to hurt you. Yet. You would only need to run. You might make it to the door, to somewhere that others could see you.
You would only need to take up the poker, strike him now, when he does not expect it. You think of that pale face marked by a cobweb of blood. Would that hurt him? Would that be enough?
He has told you nothing of any use.
The creature stands still, light of the fire on his dark hair. “You aren’t going to do it.” Is that disappointment in his voice? Resignation?
“No.” Your voice comes slow, halting.
The creature bows his head, takes up the poker himself, stirs the fire. When its tip is glowing red, he stares at it for a long moment, then returns it to its hook. His movements are slow, even reluctant, as though he knows what is to come, as though he is preparing himself for it.
You say, “This has happened before.”
“It has.”
“Do…” no. You chose your words more carefully. “You always offer us three questions.”
You could run now, or try to drag it out, could hoard the words and hold them back, keep him talking, until the sun rises once more and you can dash out in to it. Does daylight work?
How long would his patience last? Could you bear it, adding minute after minute through the long hours of the night?
You place your drink down on the table, carefully. “Why?”
Your voice was hoarse, quiet, but he heard it. He turns to you, his hands held loosely behind his back, his face sad and young, so terribly young. “I always wonder,” he says, “what sort of person it is who discovers me. Most of them,” it is as though he cannot look at you as he says this, for he turns his face to the side,”most of you do not care to talk. Those of you who do,” and, again, he is beside you, his fingers upon your face, cold on the soft skin of your cheek. “Even those who do,” a long pause. He shakes his head, “it does not matter.”
You try to speak, to find words, any words.
He brushes a hand through your hair, tender, like a parent. “You wish to live,” he says. His hands are strong, so much stronger than they appear. Struggling would not help you.
The smile that touches his lips is hideous in its tenderness. His hands find your throat and press, discomfort bordering on pain. If you were to fight, you would need to do it now, but you are frozen, shrinking inside yourself in terror.
“You are afraid,” he says again, “there really is no reason. It will not hurt for long.”

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