Somewhere in contemporary Illinois...
David Bathory returns to his ancestral estate after the death of his father, the head of his family. David is the direct male heir to a birthright he has tried to deny: the lineage of Draculawhich means control over the entire family of vampires. Since his sinsiter uncle wishes to gain the vampire throne (and rule David as well), David is forced with two choices: either claim his birthright at the cost of his immortal soul, or suffer the immediate torments of hell. It's hell one way or the other.
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By Scott Baker
TOR BOOKSCopyright © 1995 Scott Baker
All right reserved.
Chapter One"We'd been hoping you could give us a hand with the inspection," the chief customs officer said. He was thick-necked, overmuscular, about thirty-five; he reminded me of a wrestling coach I'd particularly hated at St. George's Academy. His assistant-taller, older, visibly nervous-was standing behind him, as far as possible away from the unopened crates at the other end of the small cold room.
"Excellent," Alexandra said, giving him her Dragon Lady smile. Her features were beginning to take on that blue-gray blurriness, almost as though I were seeing them through a thin mist, that they sometimes had when I'd been too many days without sleep. "If we handle the snakes ourselves there's less chance of an accident. Many of the snakes are too delicate to survive rough handling." "All the better, then. Do you have everything you need?"
"In this suitcase," I said. "Good. Then let's get this over with as fast as we can." He picked up a list. "It says here you've got fifteen Colombian rattlesnakes, eleven fer-de-lances, two sea snakes, species unknown-" He glanced up. "Poisonous?" "Very," Alexandra said. "They're related to cobras." "Ah. Then, an anaconda, seven eyelash vipers, one bushmaster, nine emerald tree boas-"
An unexpected piece of luck. "That should read four emerald tree boas," I said and he made the correction.
"And three Colombian coral snakes."
Which meant that the time had come to complicate things. I frowned, said, "There should also be a crate with a half dozen different kinds of small boas and some burrowing snakes in it."
"It didn't arrive with the rest of your shipment."
"You're sure?" Alexandra demanded. "You couldn't have misplaced it or something?"
"I doubt it. People don't lose crates stamped 'DANGER! POISONOUS SNAKES!!' in bright red letters. It's probably been bumped to the next flight. Are the snakes dangerous?"
"No, not at all," Alexandra said, "but the burrowing snakes are very delicate. They can't take rough handling or cold and if somebody rerouted them to LA or San Jose by mistake- David, can you take care of things here without me while I go check with the airline, put a tracer on it or something?"
Fuck. Not again. "I guess, if you're not gone too long. Do you have the ticket stubs?"
"I should. Be back in a few minutes." I caught the chief inspector staring at her ass as she walked out the door. Which was only to be expected: Alexandra's idea of what the well-dressed lady snake handler wore consisted of cream-colored boots halfway up her thighs, skintight French jeans, an equally tight red top setting off her red-gold hair. Part of her Bread and Circuses theory of getting through customs.
"Your wife's got lovely hair," the inspector said as soon as she'd closed the door behind her.
"Very," I agreed. "Where do you want to start?"
"What's in that crate there?" "Two sea snakes."
"How are they packed?"
"Separate cloth bags inside a larger insulated bag. If you give me a second I'll open the crate for you." "Please."
I opened the suitcase, took out my folding fence and set it up: a ring a little over three feet in diameter, two and a half feet high. I screwed the two parts of my snake stick together, took off my suit coat and put on my gray leather vest and long gloves.
"Will that fence hold them in?" "No. But snakes aren't very smart and if anything goes wrong it should take the smaller ones long enough to escape for the two of you to get out of the room. Put the crate in the ring and give me a pry bar and I'll get started."
I took the boards off one side of the crate, lifted out the insulated bag. "They're both there?" "I think so. The bag's still sealed-" I ripped it open, carefully lifted out the two cloth bags, taking care to keep them away from by body. "They're both here."
"Good. Could you hand out the crate and insulated bag?" He nodded to his assistant, who came up and took them from me, gingerly sorted through the Styrofoam peanuts in the crate. The chief inspector picked up the insulated bag, examined it. "What's this foil lining for?"
"That's the insulation. Like space blankets-you know the ones I mean? They sell them for camping. I had to perforate it to keep the snakes from suffocating." "I've seen them. Can you open the cloth bags and hand them out to Jim? One at a time."
"Sure. Could you give me some of the spare sacks from my suitcase? It's safer if I rebag the snakes as soon as possible."
He examined the sacks, handed them in to me. I loosed the drawstrings on the first bag with the hook on the other end of my stick, waited until the sea snake poked its tiny rounded black and yellow head out, then snared it with a stick. It writhed feebly a bit, hardly protesting as I got it behind the head and dumped it in the other sack. I handed the empty sack to the assistant, who looked at it, shook his head.
"Can you turn up the temperature in here?" I asked. "It's too cold for the snakes."
"I'm sorry but the thermostat's preset. An economy measure."
"Then let's hurry. I don't like the way that sea snake looked."
"What's in that crate?"
Only two of the snakes rattled when I lifted their cloth sacks from the insulated envelope and none of them tried to strike at me through the cloth. I had to push the first one with my stick to get it to leave the open bag; two of the others were dead, as was a coral snake in the next crate. The emerald tree boas were all alive, as were the fer-de-lance, but they were all sluggish. Had any of the snakes been a little more active I would have hesitated to take the bushmaster out without Alexandra to back me up if something went wrong-it was a magnificent specimen, almost thirteen feet long with four-and-a-half-inch fangs-but as it was I had no trouble getting it behind the neck and immobilizing it before it could strike at me or damage its delicate neck with its struggles. Bushmasters are slender-bodied, and even my thirteen-foot specimen was no heavier than a six-foot eastern diamondback rattlesnake, but I could feel it slowly coming alert as my body heat revived it. I was almost as relieved as the inspectors when I had it safely back in its sack.
Which left only the anaconda. And Alexandra still wasn't back. Which meant that either she'd locked herself in a toilet cubicle in one of the women's bathrooms or she was gone altogether.
"I'm going to need a lot of help with the anaconda," I said. "It's not poisonous but all anacondas are pretty evil-tempered and this one's nineteen feet long and close to three hundred pounds. We'll need at least four more men to help hold it while you check out the crate."
Alexandra made her entrance while the chief inspector was telephoning. Her face was flushed and excited, even through the blurriness. "They claim they don't have any record of the shipment," she said. "So I called Richard and had him tell them that we were going to sue them for some enormous sum if they didn't produce the snakes alive and in good condition very soon. Are the rest of the snakes OK?"
"We haven't gotten to the anaconda yet," I said. "Two of the rattlesnakes died, and so did one of the coral snakes, but I think the others are going to make it, at least if we can get them somewhere warm pretty soon."
The anaconda was stout and ugly, a muddy olive green with black splotches. About ten feet behind its relatively small head the goat it had eaten in Bogota had produced a huge bulge, half again as big around as the snake's body. I was holding the head, Alexandra had it by the neck, and the four new customs men were holding its body while the chief inspector and his assistant went through the packing material in the crate.
"Why's it all swollen?" the man holding it just behind the bulge asked. "It ate a goat a while before we shipped it," Alexandra said. "Snakes can dislocate their jaws to swallow things much bigger around than they are. They have to, since they eat their prey alive and don't have any way to chew them up into smaller pieces. Their teeth aren't made for it."
"Thanks." He didn't seem particularly pleased with the information.
"That's one reason it's so sluggish," I said. "That and the cold. Otherwise it would be giving us a lot more trouble." "I'm afraid we're going to have to x-ray the anaconda," the chief inspector said when he'd finished going through everything else. "I want to examine that bulge."
"It's a goat," I said. "We've got pictures of the snake eating it, if you want to look at them."
"No thanks. Just put it back in its sack and we'll take it into the next room-"
He stared at the x-rays for a long time, finally admitted that the pictures showed the goat's skeleton, still partially intact, inside the anaconda. "Can you give us some help loading the truck?" I asked. "It's pretty hard to find porters who'll handle crates full of poisonous snakes and some of these crates are pretty big for Alexandra and me to handle, even with our dolly." "We're not supposed to," he said, "but after the cooperation you've shown us I don't see why not."
The truck was a lemon-yellow Dodge van with the scarlet head of a cobra flanked by the words "BIG SUR SNAKE FARM" and "Specialists in venomous reptiles" painted on the sides. The little cobra in the glove compartment cage raised its head and spread its hood when I opened the side door.
"All the other cages in back are empty," I said. "Just put the anaconda's crate about halfway up front and the rest of the crates behind it."
Alexandra waited until we were on 101 South, then put on one of her Baroque cassettes- the kind of tinkly harpsichord music that all sounded the same to me though she could tell them apart with no trouble-and slipped on her long protective gloves so she could take the vial of coke out from under the rock in the baby cobra's cage. She held the spoon to my nostrils four times before snorting any herself. The blue-gray vagueness began to dissipate. Another eight spoonfuls and it was gone altogether.
She was smiling-white teeth, long smooth red-blonde hair-but behind the smile her jaw was knotted and ugly with the tension that never left her, that ground her teeth together while she slept no matter how many sleeping pills she took, that turned on her and tried to destroy her as soon as she stopped moving, pushing, striking out.
But for the moment she was riding her tension without berating herself or striking out at me and I welcomed the respite, the chance to go inside my head with only the coke for company and play with my thoughts and hopes for a while.
Chapter TwoWe made it back to the coast about two-thirty. The sky was black and gray and out over the Pacific you could see ball lightning but it hadn't started raining again. Alexandra got a stack of letters out of the mailbox while I unlocked the gate and drove the truck through. "There's another letter from your father," she said after I locked the gate again. "Marked 'Reply Urgent' What do you want me to do with it?"
"Save it till we get back to the cabin, then stick it in the fireplace and forget it. Like all the rest."
I put the truck in low and started up the road. It was little more than an oversized jeep trail and the spring rains had left it in bad condition: I'd had to have special shocks and springs put in to keep all the bouncing and vibration from panicking the snakes I carried.
"What about this?" Her voice was bright, artificial. "Somebody calling themselves CET-VER Laboratories in New Mexico wants five hundred dollars' worth of rattlesnake venom as soon as possible."
"Good, but I don't think we have that much on hand. How long's it been since we last milked the pit vipers?"
"About three and a half months." "That should be long enough."
"If John hasn't killed them all." "He said they were all doing fine when we talked to him on the phone last week."
"When you talked to him on the phone. And that was last week. Anyway-David? Why don't I milk the rattlesnakes this time while you and John put away the new snakes? OK?"
"You sure? It's my turn, remember?" Alexandra was as competent with snakes as I was but she'd never learned to feel comfortable working with them. We both preferred to have me milk them whenever possible.
"Yes, but-a couple of things. First, I'd like to get the venom centrifuged tonight so we can send it off Federal Express tomorrow and you're going to be too busy with the other snakes to have the time." "What's the second thing?"
"Something felt really wrong at the airport today. As soon as we get home I want you to get all the drugs and paraphernalia out of the house."
"You think we're going to get raided?"
"I'm sure of it. That customs man, the one in charge-it was like he was watching us through a one-way mirror. Studying us all the time, even at the end, when he should have been satisfied. And they wouldn't have helped us load the snakes if they hadn't wanted to check out the truck."
"If you thought there was something wrong, there was something wrong. You don't make that kind of mistake."
"No. Look, why don't you and John go swimming after you get the snakes in their cages. You look tired. I'll join you when I'm done."
Which meant she wanted to make up for having abandoned me at the airport without having to admit anything.
We'd made it up out of the clouds, a gray-black plain stretching away to the western horizon behind us, and onto the ridge: sloping sunlit meadows filled with fuzzy blue lupin and vivid orange California poppies. A few minutes later and we were making out way down through the thick oak and madrone forest on the inland side. The sky directly overhead was cloudless but the trees blocked out most of the sunlight and little brown mushrooms grew in damp clusters by the sides of the road.
John's Toyota was parked just outside out second gate. There was a painting in the back seat, hundreds of tiny black and white portraits against a violet, yellow and pink background that made the clustered faces look like the dark centers of pastel flowers. It was a lot better than most of the stuff John had done-and I'd always liked his work-though it had the same uncomfortable amphetamine precision to it. I recognized some of the portraits, Alexandra and mine's among them. Most of the portraits were pretty good-he'd gotten me down perfectly, as far as I could tell-but he'd put Alexandra in the center of the canvas and then completely missed the tension in her expression, turning her into just another of the unmemorably pretty blonde girls in their twenties and thirties who work in health-food stores or as cocktail waitresses all up and down the coast.
Or maybe not.
Excerpted from Ancestral Hungers by Scott Baker Copyright © 1995 by Scott Baker . Excerpted by permission.
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