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Three elderly friends with the power feed off emotions generated during murders meet every year to discuss their game--an ongoing competition of mass murder and vampirism
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DAN SIMMONS is a recipient of numerous major international awards, including the Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. He is widely considered to be one of the premier multiple-genre fiction writers in the world. His most recent novels include the New York Times bestsellers The Terror and Drood, as well as Black Hills. He lives along the Front Range in Colorado and has never grown tired of the views.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CARRION COMFORT (Chapter One)
Friday, Dec. 12, 1980
Nina was going to take credit for the death of that Beatle, John. I thought that was in very bad taste. She had her scrapbook laid out on my mahogany coffee table, newspaper clippings neatly arranged in chronological order, the bald statements of death recording all of her Feedings. Nina Drayton’s smile was as radiant as ever, but her pale blue eyes showed no hint of warmth.
“We should wait for Willi,” I said.
“Of course, Melanie. You’re right, as always. How silly of me. I know the rules.” Nina stood and began walking around the room, idly touching the furnishings or exclaiming softly over a ceramic statuette or piece of needlepoint. This part of the house had once been the conservatory, but now I used it as my sewing room. Green plants still caught the morning light. The sunlight made it a warm, cozy place in the daytime, but now that winter had come the room was too chilly to use at night. Nor did I like the sense of darkness closing in against all those panes of glass.
“I love this house,” said Nina. She turned and smiled at me. “I can’t tell you how much I look forward to coming back to Charleston. We should hold all of our reunions here.”
I knew how much Nina loathed this city, this house.
“Willi would be hurt,” I said. “You know how he likes to show off his place in Beverly Hills. And his new girlfriends.”
“And boyfriends,” said Nina and laughed. Of all the changes and darkenings in Nina, her laugh has been least affected. It was still the husky but childish laugh that I had first heard so long ago. It had drawn me to her then—one lonely, adolescent girl responding to the warmth of another like a moth to a flame. Now it only served to chill me and put me even more on my guard. Enough moths had been drawn to Nina’s flame over the many decades.
“I’ll send for tea,” I said.
Mr. Thorne brought the tea in my best Wedgwood china. Nina and I sat in the slowly moving squares of sunlight and spoke softly of nothing important; mutually ignorant comments on the economy, references to books which the other had not got around to reading, and sympathetic murmurs about the low class of persons one meets while flying these days. Someone peering in from the garden might have thought they were seeing an aging but attractive niece visiting her favorite aunt. (I draw the line at suggesting that anyone would mistake us for mother and daughter.) People usually consider me a well-dressed if not stylish person. Heaven knows I have paid enough to have the wool skirts and silk blouses mailed from Scotland and France. But next to Nina I always felt dowdy. This day she wore an elegant, light blue dress which must have cost several thousand dollars if I had identified the designer correctly. The color made her complexion seem even more perfect than usual and brought out the blue of her eyes. Her hair had gone as gray as mine, but somehow she managed to get away with wearing it long and tied back with a single barrette. It looked youthful and chic on Nina and made me feel that my short, artificial curls were glowing with a blue rinse.
Few would suspect that I was four years younger than Nina. Time had been kind to her. And she had Fed more often.
She set down her cup and saucer and moved aimlessly around the room again. It was not like Nina to show such signs of nervousness. She stopped in front of the glass display case. Her gaze passed over the Hummels, the pewter pieces, and then stopped in surprise.
“Good heavens, Melanie. A pistol! What an odd place to put an old pistol.”
“It’s an heirloom,” I said. “Quite expensive. And you’re right, it is a silly place to keep it. But it’s the only case I have in the house with a lock on it and Mrs. Hodges often brings her grandchildren when she visits…”
“You mean it’s loaded?”
“No, of course not,” I lied. “But children should not play with such things…” I trailed off lamely. Nina nodded but did not bother to conceal the condescension in her smile. She went to look out the south window into the garden.
Damn her. It said volumes about Nina Drayton that she did not recognize that pistol.
On the day he was killed, Charles Edgar Larchmont had been my beau for precisely five months and two days. There had been no formal announcement, but we were to be married. Those five months had been a microcosm of the era itself—naive, flirtatious, formal to the point of preciosity, and romantic. Most of all romantic. Romantic in the worst sense of the word; dedicated to saccharine or insipid ideals that only an adolescent—or an adolescent society—would strive to maintain. We were children playing with loaded weapons.
Nina, she was Nina Hawkins then, had her own beau—a tall, awkward, but well-meaning Englishman named Roger Harrison. Mr. Harrison had met Nina in London a year earlier during the first stages of the Hawkins’s Grand Tour. Declaring himself smitten—another absurdity of those childish times—the tall Englishman had followed her from one European capital to another until, after being firmly reprimanded by Nina’s father (an unimaginative little milliner who was constantly on the defensive about his doubtful social status), Harrison returned to London to “settle his affairs” only to show up some months later in New York just as Nina was being packed off to her aunt’s home in Charleston in order to terminate yet another flirtation. Still undaunted, the clumsy Englishman followed her south, ever mindful of the protocols and restrictions of the day.
We were a gay group. The day after I met Nina at Cousin Celia’s June Ball, the four of us were taking a hired boat up the Cooper River for a picnic on Daniel Island. Roger Harrison, serious and solemn on every topic, was a perfect foil for Charles’s irreverent sense of humor. Nor did Roger seem to mind the good-natured jesting since he was soon joining in the laughter with his peculiar haw-haw-haw.
Nina loved it all. Both gentlemen showered attention on her and while Charles never failed to show the primacy of his affection for me, it was understood by all that Nina Hawkins was one of those young women who invariably becomes the center of male gallantry and attention in any gathering. Nor were the social strata of Charleston blind to the combined charm of our foursome. For two months of that now distant summer, no party was complete, no excursion adequately planned, and no occasion considered a success unless we four merry pranksters were invited and had chosen to attend. Our happy dominance of the youthful social scene was so pronounced that Cousins Celia and Loraine wheedled their parents into leaving two weeks early for their annual August sojourns in Maine.
I am not sure when Nina and I came up with the idea of the duel. Perhaps it was during one of the long, hot nights when the other “slept over”—creeping into the other’s bed, whispering and giggling, stifling our laughter when the rustling of starched uniforms betrayed the presence of our colored maids moving through the darkened halls. In any case, the idea was the natural outgrowth of the romantic pretensions of the time. The picture of Charles and Roger actually dueling over some abstract point of honor related to us thrilled both of us in a physical way which I recognize now as a simple form of sexual titillation.
It would have been harmless except for our Ability. We had been so successful in our manipulation of male behavior—a manipulation which was both expected and encouraged in those days—that neither of us had yet suspected that there lay anything beyond the ordinary in the way we could translate our whims into other people’s actions. The field of parapsychology did not exist then: or rather, it existed only in the rappings and knockings of parlor game séances. At any rate, we amused ourselves with whispered fantasies for several weeks and then one of us—or perhaps both of us—used the Ability to translate the fantasy into reality.
In a sense it was our first Feeding.
I do not remember the purported cause of the quarrel, perhaps some deliberate misinterpretation of one of Charles’s jokes. I can not recall who Charles and Roger arranged to have serve as seconds on that illegal outing. I do remember the hurt and confused expression on Roger Harrison’s face during those few days. It was a caricature of ponderous dullness, the confusion of a man who finds himself in a situation not of his making and from which he cannot escape. I remember Charles and his mercurial swings of mood—the bouts of humor, periods of black anger, and the tears and kisses the night before the duel.
I remember with great clarity the beauty of that morning. Mists were floating up from the river and diffusing the rays of the rising sun as we rode out to the dueling field. I remember Nina reaching over and squeezing my hand with an impetuous excitement that was communicated through my body like an electric shock.
Much of the rest of that morning is missing. Perhaps in the intensity of that first, subconscious Feeding I literally lost consciousness as I was engulfed in the waves of fear, excitement, pride…of maleness…that was emanating from our two beaus as they faced death on that lovely morning. I remember experiencing the shock of realizing this is really happening as I shared the tread of high boots through the grass. Someone was calling off the paces. I dimly recall the weight of the pistol in my hand…Charles’s hand I think, I will never know for sure…and a second of cold clarity before an explosion broke the connection and the acrid smell of gunpowder brought me back to myself.
It was Charles who died. I have never been able to forget the incredible quantities of blood which poured from the small, round hole in his breast. His white shirt was crimson by the time I reached him. There had been no blood in our fantasies. Nor had there been the sight of Charles with his head lolling, mouth dribbling saliva onto his bloodied chest while his eyes rolled back to show the whites like two eggs embedded in his skull. Roger Harrison was sobbing as Charles breathed his final, shuddering gasps on that field of innocence.
I remember nothing at all about the confused hours which followed. It was the next morning that I opened my cloth bag to find Charles’s pistol lying with my things. Why would I have kept that revolver? If I had wished to take something from my fallen lover as a sign of remembrance, why that alien piece of metal? Why pry from his dead fingers the symbol of our thoughtless sin?
It said volumes about Nina that she did not recognize that pistol.
It was not Mr. Thorne announcing the arrival of our guest but Nina’s “amanuensis,” the loathsome Miss Barrett Kramer. Kramer’s appearance was as unisex as her name; short cropped, black hair, powerful shoulders, and a blank, aggressive gaze which I associated with lesbians and criminals. She looked to be in her mid-thirties.
“Thank you, Barrett, dear,” said Nina.
I went to greet Willi, but Mr. Thorne had already let him in and we met in the hallway.
“Melanie! You look marvelous! You grow younger each time I see you. Nina!” The change in Willi’s voice was evident. Men continued to be overpowered by their first sight of Nina after an absence. There were hugs and kisses. Willi himself looked more dissolute than ever. His alpaca sports coat was exquisitely tailored, his turtleneck sweater successfully concealed the eroded lines of his wattled neck, but when he swept off his jaunty sportscar cap the long strands of white hair he had brushed forward to hide his encroaching baldness were knocked into disarray. Willi’s face was flushed with excitement, but there was also the telltale capillary redness about the nose and cheeks which spoke of too much liquor, too many drugs.
“Ladies, I think you’ve met my associates…Tom Reynolds and Jensen Luhar?” The two men added to the crowd in my narrow hall. Mr. Reynolds was thin and blond, smiling with perfectly capped teeth. Mr. Luhar was a gigantic Negro, hulking forward with a sullen, bruised look on his coarse face. I was sure that neither Nina nor I had encountered these specific catspaws of Willi’s before.
“Why don’t we go into the parlor?” I suggested. It was an awkward procession ending with the three of us seated on the heavily upholstered chairs surrounding the Georgian tea table which had been my grandmother’s. “More tea, please, Mr. Thorne.” Miss Kramer took that as her cue to leave, but Willi’s two pawns stood uncertainly by the door, shifting from foot to foot and glancing at the crystal on display as if their mere proximity could break something. I would not have been surprised if that had proven to be the case.
“Jensen!” Willi snapped his fingers. The Negro hesitated and then brought forward an expensive leather attaché case. Willi set it on the tea table and clicked the catches open with his short, broad fingers. “Why don’t you two see Miz Fuller’s man about getting something to drink?”
When they were gone Willi shook his head and smiled at Nina. “Sorry about that, love.”
Nina put her hand on Willi’s sleeve. She leaned forward with an air of expectancy. “Melanie wouldn’t let me begin the Game without you. Wasn’t that awful of me to want to start without you, Willi dear?”
Willi frowned. After fifty years he still bridled at being called Willi. In Los Angeles he was Big Bill Borden. When he returned to his native Germany—which was not often because of the dangers involved—he was once again Wilhelm von Borchert, lord of dark manor, forest, and hunt. But Nina had called him Willi when they had first met in 1925, in Vienna, and Willi he had remained.
“You begin, Willi,” said Nina. “You go first.”
I could remember the time when we would have spent the first few days of our reunion in conversation and catching up with each other’s lives. Now there was not even time for small talk.
Willi showed his teeth and removed news clippings, notebooks, and a stack of cassettes from his briefcase. No sooner had he covered the small table with his material than Mr. Thorne arrived with the tea and Nina’s scrapbook from the sewing room. Willi brusquely cleared a small space.
At first glance one might see certain similarities between Willi Borchert and Mr. Thorne. One would be mistaken. Both men tend to the florid, but Willi’s complexion was the result of excess and emotion: Mr. Thorne had known neither of these for many years. Willi’s balding was a patchy, self-consciously concealed thing—a weasel with the mange—while Mr. Thorne’s bare head was smooth and unwrinkled. One could not imagine Mr. Thorne ever having had hair. Both men had gray eyes—what a novelist would call cold, gray eyes—but Mr. Thorne’s eyes were cold with indifference, cold with a clarity coming from an absolute absence of troublesome emotion or thought. Willi’s eyes were the cold of a blustery North Sea winter and were often clouded with shifting curtains of the emotions that controlled him—pride, hatred, love of pain, the pleasures of destruction. Willi never referred to his use of the Ability as Feedings—I was evidently the only one who thought in those terms—but Willi sometimes talked of the Hunt. Perhaps it was the dark forests of his homeland that he thought of as he stalked his human quarry through the sterile streets of Los Angeles. Did Willi dream of the forest? I wondered. Did he look back to green wool hunting jackets, the applause of retainers, the gouts of blood from the dying boar? Or did Willi remember the slam of jackboots on cobblestones and the pounding of his lieutenants’ fists on doors? Perhaps Willi still associated his Hunt with the dark European ...
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