She had grown used to two things, in the seven years since she left home: waking to a lighted room, and an empty bed. She would chase the coldness with a reaching hand or a feeling foot, splay her limbs into the cool part of the sheets, and across the room the streetlight would mist the air with white. But now there was no white, no shadows on the ceiling; her eyelids remained dark.
Through closed eyes she saw the room in colour: the chill of the sheets a brittle grey, the air a frosted blue. And as she reached out a hand to find the bed’s cold pockets, she found coral. Heat, bright as blood under skin, vivid as peaches.
For a moment she almost remembered a man – a man with sable eyes and a chunky cream sweater, more colours she didn’t see with her eyes but only in her head – but already she was sliding back into sleep. Already she was subsiding back into his warmth like a woman sinking through layers of treacle. Then he moved, and the bed creaked in small, dusty sighs, and as it did so she noticed something she would pay good money to forget:
Her bed did not creak.
Alice’s eyes bolted open.
The man had grown very still against her. His breathing tugged gently at her chest and that sour scent stirred her hair against the pillow, but the shifting muscles and tacky-hot skin were still. Even so, something told her that he was awake. She only looked ahead to the grey corners of a room that was the wrong shape, the wrong size, a ceiling that hung too low over her – and, opposite the bed where there was no streetlight but the blackness did not seem quite so dense, a hulking shape that may be an armchair.
He said nothing; remained motionless, as if asleep; but still Alice forced her eyes from the rectangle of dawning grey that may or may not be a window and the soft, shapeless thing that may be a chair . . . and saw that his eyes were open, and watching her as a cat watches something in the grass that it has no name for.
His head was closely shorn, dark with a coarse felt of hair that fitted like a cap over his skull. And his eyes – his wary, watching eyes – were black with shadow, just as she had known they would be.
Abruptly, and before she could think of a single thing to say, the man had thrown back the covers and swung his legs over the far side of the bed. It bounced, gave voice to those wheezing little sighs . . . then was still. He was out.
He padded over to the other side of the room – to her side of the bed – and a moment later the silhouette that had stood out like black paper against the paler grey of the wall was drenched in sugary amber light. It was enough to illuminate him in sudden, syrupy relief.
He was thin, tanned, neither old nor young. Impossible to tell his age by looking; his skin was fresh but the blunt lines of his face were severe as a headstone. It was a face she might have looked at twice in a crowd, and that, more than waking up in what must be his bed, more than if he had been old or ugly, frightened her. It wasn’t a pretty face, but it was an interesting face.
His shoulders were stark right angles and his chest and arms laced with tattoos that looked black in the light. His ribs were a gaudy xylophone, but the flesh below had a look of softness to it that came, not with exercise or with youth, but only with natural slenderness. As she watched he raised his hands to his head and smoothed the palms over the harsh brown hair; the sleek muscles that curved below his navel twitched under the pale tan, and Alice felt her cheeks sting with risen blood. She had been sleeping against that body: had felt its smoothness, its heat. Might she have . . ? But the last thing she remembered was walking home from work, passing an alleyway, and stopping at the glycerine-trickle of blood that bisected the pavement like a river.
“We didn’t have sex,” he said. His voice was sweet, clean as the flesh of a freshly sliced mango.
He gestured with a nod to the bed, where Alice still sat with her hands knotted into the clutch of sheet in her lap. She saw with some surprise that the sheets were not the frost-grey of her imagining, but cranberry, carnelian, carmine red. She was wearing nothing but her underwear, and there was a rusty stain on one side of her bra, red as the sheets were red – but this, she devoutly ignored.
“Isn’t that what you were wondering?”
“It never occurred to me for a moment. You’re not my type.”
He didn’t smile, but a certain wryness at his mouth softened its hard line, and his eyes were a dark treacle in his stern face: not just black with shadow, as she had supposed as they gazed at her from the pillow, but true, damson black.
“Well, I wish you’d told me that this morning,” he said. Then he turned to the chair behind him where a few items of clothing lay crumpled like pallid islands in the hot light. Behind the chair were French windows, curtained, a razor-chink of silver shining between them. He fished a white T-shirt from the mess and hooked it over his head, making those long lines of muscle stretch and tighten round his belly again like snakes.
Alice carefully licked away the sour taste in her cheeks: ignored his statement, as she had ignored that red stain, and the knowledge that while she had still been only half-awake she had felt only a pervading sense of safety in his warmth. “Do I know you?”
A small smile touched his lips. Her stomach lurched, like the drum of a washing machine on the spin cycle; she knew that smile. There was nothing else, not yet; her memories of the past day still remained blank, but God, she knew that smile. “Not as well as I’d like. But enough, maybe.”
For what, she was afraid to ask.
“I . . . don’t remember.”
He took a step towards her where she sat crunched like a discarded sweet wrapper in the blood-coloured sheets, and perched on the far edge. Her heart locked up as he came near, like a piece of clockwork stopped by a pin.
“Have you ever . . .” He stopped and breathed into the quiet: not quite a sigh, more as if he emptied his body of something before starting anew. “Have you ever spotted someone in the street, and said to yourself: ‘I know them, but I can’t for the life of me think where from’?”
“That’s how you’re feeling right now. Isn’t it?”
He leant ever so slightly across the bed and it gave that wheezing, dusty creak again. Shadow flooded his face, finding the little hollows above his temples and the creases that bracketed his mouth. Such a sad face, she thought . . . and then a jolt, as she remembered thinking it before. Only she couldn’t, for the life of her, remember when.
“But I didn’t sleep with you,” she said. And this was no question but a statement; even drunk she would never have gone home with a strange man. Even drunk, she had never done such a thing in her life.
“Am I . . . is this a kidnap? I mean . . . this isn’t a hospital, I can see that. So why bring me here instead of . . . you know.”
She saw his lower lip tremble for just a moment – a moment, and then he dragged a hand across his mouth, and like that the tremble was gone. He sniffed.
“You think many kidnappers would put you in their bed and then not touch you?”
And how do I know you didn’t touch me? she opened her mouth to say . . . and then found she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t deliberately hurt this man with the young-old face and fumbling attempts at kindness.
“Then why am I here?”
The tilt of his head was questioning. She had always imagined that eyes that black would be soulless, but his were like coloured lights on oil. Bright. And, she saw, kind. “It was a . . . a medical emergency. You lost a lot of blood, you’re lucky to be alive.”
Blood. That spoiled red on her bra, pretending to be chocolate milkshake, pretending to be mundane. For a moment there was almost something, a word, an image . . . darkness and the moth-shrouded orange of halogen lamps, her hand reaching for her purse, the curfew bell making its black echo over the city. She clutched at those images . . . but like his smile and the knowledge that she had seen it before, it skittered away.
“How? Why don’t I remember it?” Then, with more ferocity than she had meant, and more for herself than for him: “Was I drunk?”
“Alice,” he said – and with that she knew that their acquaintance had been more than merely professional. “You’ve lost your memory of it because of the blood you lost. We think it’s caused by temporary oxygen deprivation to the brain, it can wipe all of a victim’s memories leading up to the event. Sometimes even further back than that.”
The blood. That woozy feeling she had had when she woke, half naked, in his bed.
No. It couldn’t be that.
He was watching her again – for a reaction, for some spark of understanding – with that same, measured blandness in his face. But that calm was a lie. The truth was in his straight back, the way his shoulders tensed: waiting for her to confirm, once again, that she didn’t know who he was.
“Why aren’t I dead?” she asked.
A pause. Then: “I saved you.”
She had known that. It wasn’t a memory, not quite; she had no idea of how, what he had done, when or where this had happened . . . but she had known it, the way she had known his smile.
“What do you know about vampires?”
He had so clearly read her mind that Alice jumped; but something in her must have expected the question, because she could feel the blandness of her own face, beating its heat out into the cold room.
“They were . . . genetic experiments, sanctioned by the military. It went wrong, of course. It always does. They made the perfect soldiers and the regular kind didn’t stand a chance when they decided to escape. Even though the project was shut down, all twenty-seven of their, um, creatures, were already out and making more.”
“Okay,” he said. “Now how many of those twenty-seven are left, do you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe all of them. I mean, it’s not like the army had much luck tracking them down.”
“What would you say if I told you that at least six are dead because of the institute you’re sitting in right now? Not to mention hundreds of their offspring.”
Alice opened her mouth to reply: “I’d say you were tripping,” but something in his face stopped her. He believed it. This crazy son of a bitch really fucking believed it.
“I’d say I’d like to see some evidence,” she said, at last.
“I can do that. In fact, you’d better meet Atwater before we do anything else, she’s been waiting for you to wake up.” He glanced down from her face to her upper body, then at the sheets bunched around her waist. “But you’d better get dressed first.”
She didn’t dare to ask who had undressed her. She already had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer.
She found some of her clothes muddled in with his on the armchair, and again her bewildered mind shied away from the implications of that: even more so from the sad implications of the fact that her blouse, her stockings, were missing.
She had glanced up, mouth parting to ask after them, when a bundle of cloth hit her in the face. It smelled of that same, masculine heat, that lemon-blossom that fizzed on the air.
“I had to throw yours away,” he said.
Alice clutched the T-shirt stupidly to her chest and for a moment could only stare at him, speechless: the vague heart-shape of his face, his eyes. Black as ebony, as the eyes in Tutankhamun’s death mask. Only his
(Dark his name’s Dark)
They finished dressing, in silence, in tandem. The man paired the crumpled white T-shirt with a navy blue gillet, grey jeans, black engineer boots that emphasised his long feet and the swift, delicate fingers that laced them. He was farther from the single lamp, now, his foot up on the arm of the chair, but a thin shiver of light from the window caught the edge of his bent head, and it was enough. She took in the high forehead: the long nose and small, hard mouth. But his ears stuck out too much, she thought, viciously. And those earrings made him look like a wannabe rock star.
The dimness of the room had led her to expect a sleeping building beyond his door, devoid of people, of lights, of activity. About the people she was right, but as the man threw open the door a sudden spill of brilliant electric light cast a white rectangle over the bed. She tried not to see the imprints of their bodies in the sheets. He had stepped outside while she stood, blinking, waiting for the sunspots to subside. She followed him. She couldn’t very well do anything else.
The corridor, like the light, was a surprise after the dimness of the man’s room. She didn’t know what she had been expecting – a house, a flat – but it had not been this bright, alien world, the ceiling twelve feet above her, the walls glowing with mellow golden light. Mahogany panels shone as if liquid amber had been trapped inside. Above the panels the walls were a soft, powdery apricot.
The man, whose name may or may not be Dark, turned left. The light glared through his near-shaven hair, momentarily glancing off his pate – thick hair, far from balding, but still this light was unkind. It made him look as though he was, though he couldn’t be a day over thirty-five.
Their footsteps clacked away into the highest corners, incongruous in the silence, brightened by distance. It was an institutional sound, one with its own copper-penny taste and chemical sting. For a moment she almost saw the way it might have been – pale and pastel, the smell of over-boiled vegetables and disinfectant, the rattle of loose wheels over lino – but the ghost of its past vanished before it was even a double-exposure over her eyes.
She expected him to speak, if only to ask again what she remembered or to offer platitudes. She was grateful that he didn’t.
She was grateful that he didn’t pretend to be her friend.
He led her, silently, to the end of the corridor, which turned out to be the upward stroke of a T-junction. To the right and left its arms ran to unexplored corners, cutting off her view after only a few metres and a splash of light from some other, less violent source. It was a picture window that he was taking her to; it dominated the dead end, and its lathes cut the gloomy brown rectangle of the night sky into pieces like squares of chocolate. The man stepped behind her and with his hands on her arms nudged her towards the window.
“You see?” he said.
She did. In the distance she could make out the great, blinking arch of the London eye, its floodlights purple and iridescent against the muddy sky. The sparkling silver thread of the Thames wound away into the haze, lit with the oil-slick of a dozen passing river ferries.
“You’re still in London,” he said . . . and now his voice was gentle, a warm breath against her hair. “Not kidnapped. You could probably even walk home if you wanted to.”
She turned her head into his breath, just a little – trying to see, perhaps, if his face matched his voice. “Will it come back? My memory, I mean. Will it come back, or . . .” But she couldn’t bring herself, just yet, to say the alternative.
She felt him move behind her, shifting his weight, sidling awkwardly to one side. “Yes and no.”
“What, yes, it will, or no, you don’t want to tell me?”
He laughed, mirthlessly. “I forgot what a clever little bitch you are. I mean, I don’t know.”
She let the ‘bitch’ label slide. Something told her it had been meant only as a compliment. “You said I knew you. Enough, anyway. What did you mean?”
“I mean we weren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists.”
And yet I woke up in bed with you, she thought. But his eyes were hooded again, a paper-fine veil of skin masking their brightness, and she let it alone.
“I know that. I’ve lost the last two days, not everything back to my ABCs.”
He nodded, but not like he was agreeing. “A lot can happen in two days.”
“You don’t remember. I know.”
Then he did a curious thing. He reached up to his right ear, unclasped the black stone there; and, taking her hand, pried apart the fingers and slipped it into her palm. It was warm from the heat of his earlobe, and the warmth made it feel insubstantial, impossible, as if she held nothing at all.
“It’ll come to you. Maybe once we get some food into you. I bet you wouldn’t say no.”
There was a flash of neat, even white teeth as he smiled, properly this time. All the intensity fell from him in that single careless gesture, and for a moment too brief to really take in a different man stood here with her, a younger, happier one. That smile was like sunshine trying to break through a sky full of cloud.
I trust you, she thought, wonderingly. Please don’t prove me wrong.