“The trick,” I told the kid, “is to remember it isn’t alive.”
As I stuck my key into the lock, she frowned, and her tiny up-turned nose wrinkled. “That doesn’t seem so hard.”
The door swung open and I smiled, ushering her inside. My townhouse smelled like cloves and cinnamon. Anything weaker didn’t manage to cover the stench creeping up from the basement. I preferred a blend of rose and jasmine, as the sharp floral complimented rather than concealed the tang of copper and cloying salt, but it made Jeremy sick to his stomach. So I’d grown accustomed to Christmas all year around.
“Are you thirsty?” I jerked my chin toward the galley kitchen, then glanced up at the ceiling. Jer was playing Johnny Cash loud enough to rattle the AC vent. I tried not to roll my eyes. We each had our quirks.
The kid shrugged. “You got any soda?”
“Sure.” I swung through to the fridge and pulled out a couple cans of Coke. The sugar would do us both good, anyway, with all the working we were about to get into. “Down here,” I called back to her, as I turned the s-shaped handle of the basement door.
I led her down the carpeted steps into my cool refuge. Clove and cinnamon turned over in favor of burning-pennies-smell. My muscles relaxed. “Ever wonder why, at twenty-six, I’m the oldest blood detective on the books?” I paused, looking back at her as I pressed my finger into the center of a pattern flaking off the concrete wall at the bottom of the stair. The rune flared to life, and orange-red light flickered along a trail of blood that snaked down the length of wall, just below the ceiling.
She pressed her lips together, in a valiant attempt to hide her shock. “No,” she whispered, eyes widening at the sight of my workroom.
Layers of dried blood caked the walls, and in the garish glow of light, danced. Scarlet rivulets of newer coats dripped like old candle wax over darker brown and flaking blue-black. If you didn’t know better, it might have been a trendy modern style of paint: Heart Streaks or Inner Lining, or something like that. A smile played at my mouth as I felt the blood reaching out to caress my skin and settle on the back of my tongue.
The kid shivered and rubbed her bare arms, hugging herself. She felt it, too. She had to, after what Peter had done to her.
I moved to my desk; an old, hacked up oak table, eight by three feet with sturdy legs. Stained, of course, much like the walls. I put the Cokes down. “I’m the oldest, because remembering it isn’t alive is much, much more difficult than it sounds. You can feel it. The blood.” I flicked my fingers at the walls. “Calling you, reaching out, wanting you to touch it, to bathe in its energy? It feels alive.”
“Yeah.” She turned slowly, staring. The fingers of one hand twitched. “What happens when you forget, Mr – um, Detective?”
“Call me Ben, since you’re stuck with me now.” My last two apprentices had called me detective, and I hadn’t managed to keep either one more attached to me than to the bloodsong. I leaned my ass on the edge of the table and watched her. Fifteen, skinny, nervous. It was hard to believe she could stand here with me in a claustrophobic basement surrounded by old, dried death, after what she’d been through. If I could hold onto her, she’d be strong. I wanted to say, Peter is what happens when you forget. “If you forget the blood isn’t alive, you start to value it more than human lives. You forget that for all its beauty, it’s only a vessel of life. Not life itself.”
“But it feels so…” she closed her eyes and shook her head, squeezing her elbows.
“I know.” I’d been seven when I’d heard the language of blood, spread out in a pool on the linoleum of my mom’s kitchen. Shining, and sparkling with the light from the chandelier above, I’d pushed my hands into it and found it warm.
“That isn’t what he said.” She rolled her shoulders and met my eyes.
“Yeah. He said it was alive, that it’s all you need.”
I stretched my lips into a tight smile. “He’s wrong.”
“He also said,” she paused, her eyes flicking around at the bloody walls, then back to me. “He said he’d show you. Like, uh, like some freaking super-villain.”
I opened my mouth to reply when suddenly the muffled pounding of base upstairs cut off. “Peter says a lot of things. He’s lost to the song.” I brightened my smile, remembering I was supposed to make her feel safe and welcome. “I should introduce you to Jer, before we start, so he doesn’t freak out if he finds you in the kitchen making a sandwich or something.” I smiled. It was really an excuse because I hadn’t seen him since yesterday. He worked days, like a normal person.
But the kid was game, so we trudged back upstairs. “Jer?” I called. No response. The shower wasn’t on, and a quick scan showed he wasn’t on the main floor. Leaning into the stairway leading up, I called again. “Jeremy, come down and meet my new apprentice.”
Frowning, I put a foot on the first step. “Stay here, would you? Help yourself to the kitchen.” Without waiting for response, I climbed up.
As with heading down, the clove and cinnamon gave way to the scent of blood as I reached the upper floor. My stomach clenched and I tightened my jaw. It must have been seeping up through the vents again. Must’ve. But I paused outside our bedroom and touched my fingers to my chest, with the palm bowed out like an inverted basket. My heart pounded, churning energy from all the blood flowing beneath my skin, and I drew it out to gather between chest and hand.
I put my free hand against the door and pushed inward.
Arterial sprays splattered over the lavender and blue wallpaper, and smeared across the pencil study of a pair of paper birches from our back yard. Jer had completed the painting and sold it six months ago.
The beauty of the arced blood ripped through my body, and I shivered with anticipation, gripping onto the energy in my hand so tightly I could feel it pulsing with my rapid-fire heartbeat.
Jer was splayed on the bed, naked, and dripping blood. He stared at the ceiling, lips parted, flecks of blood like freckles dotting his cheeks. His throat was cut, as well as his wrists from elbow to thumb. And the inside of his left thigh.
I could smell his life, still buzzing in the air. I ran to the bed and knelt in the squishy carpet. “Jeremy.” I drew a deep breath. His eyes were empty. I kissed him, hard, tasted blood and the spearmint of his favorite gum. My hands fisted in the sheets, and the energy I’d gathered from my heart burst. It popped in my ears, and scattered over Jer’s body. This was impossible. My heart thudded. My breath was shallow and loud.
He was dead, but I’d never seen him so beautiful. Clothed in his own blood. His snapping, shining red blood. Still wet, still thick and full. The room was a piece of art meant especially for me.
I saw over the headboard, scrawled bold and red: IT IS ALIVE. IT IS ALL YOU NEED.