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Authors: Dan Simmons

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BOOK: Carrion Comfort
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I called it Feeding. Willi called it the Hunt. I had never heard Nina call it anything.

“Where is your VCR?” asked Willi. “I have put them all on tape.”

“Oh, Willi,” said Nina in an exasperated tone. “You know Melanie. She’s
old-fashioned. She wouldn’t have a video player.”

“I don’t even have a television,” I said. Nina laughed. “Goddamn it,” muttered Willi. “It doesn’t matter. I have other records here.” He snapped rubber bands from around the small, black notebooks. “It just would have been better on tape. The Los Angeles stations gave much coverage to the Hollywood Strangler and I edited in the . . . Ach! Never mind.” He tossed the videocassettes into his briefcase and slammed the lid shut.

“Twenty-three,” he said. “Twenty-three since we met twelve months ago. It doesn’t seem that long, does it?”

“Show us,” said Nina. She was leaning forward and her blue eyes seemed very bright. “I’ve been curious since I saw the Strangler interviewed on
Sixty Minutes
. He was yours, Willi? He seemed so . . .”

Ja, ja
, he was mine. A nobody. A timid little man. He was the gardener of a neighbor of mine. I left him alive so the police could question him, erase any doubts. He will hang himself in his cell next month after the press loses interest. But this is more interesting. Look at this.” Willi slid across several glossy black and white photographs. The NBC executive had murdered the five members of his family and drowned a visiting soap opera actress in his pool. He had then stabbed himself repeatedly and written 50 SHARE in blood on the wall of the bath house. “Reliving old glories, Willi?” asked Nina. “ ‘Death to the Pigs’ and all that?”

“No, goddamn it. I think it should receive points for irony. The girl had been scheduled to drown on the program. It was already in the script outline.”

“Was he hard to Use?” It was my question. I was curious despite myself.

Willi lifted one eyebrow. “Not really. He was an alcoholic and heavily into cocaine. There was not much left. And he hated his family. Most people do.”

“Most people in California, perhaps,” said Nina primly. It was an odd comment from Nina. Her father had committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a trolley car.

I asked, “Where did you make contact?”

“A party. The usual place. He bought the coke from a director who had ruined one of my . . .”

“Did you have to repeat the contact?”

Willi frowned at me. He kept his anger under control, but his face grew redder. “
Ja, ja
. I saw him twice more. Once I just watched from my car as he played tennis.”

“Points for irony,” said Nina. “But you lose points for repeated contact. If he was as empty as you say, you should have been able to Use him after only one touch. What else do you have?”

He had his usual assortment. Pathetic skid row murders. Two domestic slayings. A highway collision which turned into a fatal shooting. “I was in the crowd,” said Willi. “I made contact. He had a gun in the glove compartment.”

“Two points,” said Nina.

Willi had saved a good one for last. A once famous child star had suffered a bizarre accident. He had left his Bel Air apartment while it filled with gas and then returned to light a match. Two others had died in the ensuing fire.

“You get credit only for him,” said Nina. “
Ja, ja

“Are you sure about this one? It
have been an accident . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Willi. He turned toward me. “
one was very hard to Use. Very strong. I blocked his memory of turning on the gas. Had to hold it away for two hours. Then forced him into the room. He struggled not to strike the match.”

“You should have had him use his lighter,” said Nina. “He didn’t smoke,” growled Willi. “He gave it up last year.”

“Yes.” Nina smiled. “I seem to remember him saying that to Johnny Carson.” I could not tell if Nina was jesting.

The three of us went through the ritual of assigning points. Nina did most of the talking. Willi went from being sullen to expansive to sullen again. At one point he reached over and patted my knee as he laughingly asked for help. I said nothing. Finally he gave up, crossed the parlor to the liquor cabinet, and poured himself a tall glass of bourbon from Father’s decanter. The evening light was sending its final, horizontal rays through the stained glass panels of the bay windows and it cast a red hue on Willi as he stood next to the oak cupboard. His eyes were small red embers in a bloody mask.

“Forty-one,” said Nina at last. She looked up brightly and showed the calculator as if it verified some objective fact. “I count forty-one points. What do you have, Melanie?”

,” interrupted Willi. “That is fine. Now let us see your claims, Nina.” His voice was flat and empty. Even Willi had lost some interest in the Game.

Before Nina could begin, Mr. Thorne entered and motioned that dinner was served. We adjourned to the dining room, Willi pouring himself another glass of bourbon and Nina fluttering her hands in mock frustration at the interruption of the Game. Once seated at the long, mahogany table, I worked at being a hostess. From decades of tradition, talk of the Game was banned from the dinner table. Over soup we discussed Willi’s new movie and the purchase of another store for Nina’s line of boutiques. It seemed that Nina’s monthly column in
was to be discontinued but that a newspaper syndicate was interested in picking it up.

Both of my guests exclaimed over the perfection of the baked ham, but I thought that Mr. Thorne had made the gravy a trifle too sweet. Darkness had filled the windows before we finished our chocolate mousse. The refracted light from the chandelier made Nina’s hair dance with highlights while I feared that mine glowed more blue than ever.

Suddenly there was a sound from the kitchen. The huge Negro’s face appeared at the swinging door. His shoulder was hunched against white hands and his expression was that of a querulous child.

“. . . the hell you think we are sittin’ here like . . .” The white hands pulled him out of sight.

“Excuse me, ladies.” Willi dabbed linen at his lips and stood up. He still moved gracefully for all of his years.

Nina poked at her chocolate. There was one sharp, barked command from the kitchen and the sound of a slap. It was the slap of a man’s hand— hard and flat as a small caliber rifle shot. I looked up and Mr. Thorne was at my elbow, clearing away the dessert dishes.

“Coffee, please, Mr. Thorne. For all of us.” He nodded and his smile was gentle.

Franz Anton Mesmer had known of it even if he had not understood it. I suspect that Mesmer must have had some small touch of the Ability. Modern pseudo-sciences have studied it and renamed it, removed most of its power, confused its uses and origins, but it remains the shadow of what Mesmer discovered. They have no idea of what it is like to Feed.

I despair at the rise of modern violence. I truly give in to despair at times, that deep, futureless pit of despair which Hopkins called carrion comfort. I watch the American slaughter house, the casual attacks on popes, presidents, and uncounted others, and I wonder if there are many more out there with the Ability or if butchery has simply become the modern way of life.

All humans feed on violence, on the small exercises of power over another, but few have tasted— as we have— the ultimate power. And without that Ability, few know the unequaled plea sure of taking a human life. Without the Ability, even those who do feed on life cannot savor the flow of emotions in stalker and victim, the total exhilaration of the attacker who has moved beyond all rules and punishments, the strange, almost sexual submission of the victim in that final second of truth when all options are canceled, all futures denied, all possibilities erased in an exercise of absolute power over another.

I despair at modern violence. I despair at the impersonal nature of it and the casual quality which has made it accessible to so many. I had a television set until I sold it at the height of the Vietnam War. Those sanitized snippets of death— made distant by the camera’s lens— meant nothing to me. But I believe it meant something to these cattle which surround me. When the war and the nightly televised body counts ended, they demanded more,
, and the movie screens and streets of this sweet and dying nation have provided it in mediocre, mob abundance. It is an addiction I know well.

They miss the point. Merely observed, violent death is a sad and sullied tapestry of confusion. But to those of us who have Fed, death can be a

“My turn! My turn!” Nina’s voice still resembled that of the visiting belle who had just filled her dance card at Cousin Celia’s June Ball.

We had returned to the parlor, Willi had finished his coffee and requested a brandy from Mr. Thorne. I was embarrassed for Willi. To have one’s closest associates show any hint of unplanned behavior was certainly a sign of weakening Ability. Nina did not appear to have noticed.

“I have them all in order,” said Nina. She opened the scrapbook on the now empty tea table. Willi went through them carefully, sometimes asking a question, more often grunting assent. I murmured occasional agreement although I had heard of none of them. Except for the Beatle, of course. Nina saved that for near the end.

“Good God, Nina, that was you?” Willi seemed near anger. Nina’s Feedings had always run to Park Avenue suicides and matrimonial disagreements ending in shots fired from expensive, small calibered ladies’ guns. This type of thing was more in Willi’s crude style. Perhaps he felt that his territory was being invaded. “I mean . . . you were risking a lot, weren’t you? It’s so . . . damn it . . . so

Nina laughed and set down the calculator. “Willi,
, that’s what the Game is
, is it not?”

Willi strode to the liquor cabinet and refilled his brandy snifter. The wind tossed bare branches against the leaded glass of the bay window. I do not like winter. Even in the South it takes its toll on the spirit.

“Didn’t this guy . . . whatshisname . . . buy the gun in Hawaii or someplace?” asked Willi from across the room. “That sounds like his initiative to me. I mean, if he was
stalking the fellow . . .”

“Willi, dear,” Nina’s voice had gone as cold as the wind that raked the branches, “no one said he was
. How many of yours are stable, Willi? But I made it
, darling. I chose the place and the time. Don’t you see the irony of the
, Willi? After that little prank on the director of that witchcraft movie a few years ago? It was straight from the script . . .”

“I don’t know,” said Willi. He sat heavily on the divan, spilling brandy on his expensive sports coat. He did not notice. The lamplight reflected from his balding skull. The mottles of age were more visible at night and his neck, where it disappeared into his turtleneck, was all ropes and ten-dons. “I don’t know.” He looked up at me and smiled suddenly, as if we shared a conspiracy. “It could be like that writer fellow, eh, Melanie? It could be like that.”

Nina looked down at the hands on her lap. The well-manicured fingers were white at the tips.

The Mind Vampires
. That’s what the writer was going to call his book. I sometimes wonder if he really would have written anything. What was his name? Something Russian.

Willi and I received the telegram from Nina: COME QUICKLY. YOU ARE NEEDED. That was enough. I was on the next morning’s flight to New York. The plane was a noisy, propeller-driven Constellation and I spent much of the flight assuring the oversolicitous stewardess that I needed nothing, that, indeed, I felt fine. She obviously had decided that I was someone’s grandmother who was flying for the first time.

Willi managed to arrive twenty minutes before me. Nina was distraught and as close to hysteria as I had ever seen her. She had been at a party in lower Manhattan two days before— she was not so distraught that she forgot to tell us what important names had been there— when she found herself sharing a corner, a fondue pot, and confidences with a young writer. Or rather, the writer was sharing confidences. Nina described him as a scruffy sort, wispy little beard, thick glasses, a corduroy sports coat worn over an old plaid shirt— one of the type invariably sprinkled around successful parties of that era according to Nina. She knew enough not to call him a beatnik for that term had just become passé, but no one had yet heard the term hippie and it wouldn’t have applied to him anyway. He was a writer of the sort that barely ekes out a living, these days at least, by selling blood and doing novelizations of television series. Alexander something.

His idea for a book— he told Nina that he had been working on it for some time— was that many of the murders then being committed were actually the result of a small group of psychic killers— he called them
mind vampires
— who used others to carry out their grisly deeds. He said that a paperback publisher had already shown interest in his outline and would offer him a contract tomorrow if he would change the title to
The Zombie Factor
and put in more sex.

“So what?” Willi had said to Nina in disgust. “You have me fly across the continent for this? I might buy that idea to produce myself.”

That turned out to be the excuse we used to interrogate this Alexander Somebody when Nina threw an impromptu party the next evening. I did not attend. The party was not overly successful according to Nina, but it gave Willi the chance to have a long chat with the young, would-be novelist. In the writer’s almost pitiable eagerness to do business with Bill Borden, producer of
Paris Memories, Three On a Swing
, and at least two other completely forgettable Technicolor features touring the drive-ins that summer, he revealed that the book consisted of a well-worn outline and a dozen pages of notes. However, he was sure that he could do a “treatment” for Mr. Borden in five weeks, perhaps three weeks if he was flown out to Hollywood to get the proper creative stimulation.

BOOK: Carrion Comfort
5.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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