Blood debt

by Ed Wilson

Chapter 1

Image for cover of Ed Wilson's book Blood DebtI couldn't take my eyes off him, the moment I saw him. The bar wasn't full, but even so he controlled more space than was fair. There were three tables in that corner, against the long bench, and the ones either side of him were unoccupied. You could see people eyeing their chances, complaining to their friends above the distant disco tinkle, and deciding to stand. And the man just glared.

"Who's the weirdo?" I asked when the guy behind the counter put my spritzer down and we were both touching the fiver for a second. He shrugged and broke the contact, and when he came back to pour change in my hand, he was already searching out the next in line. But then, who was I to demand to be treated like a human being? First and last time in - they knew nothing about me, except I was female, black and on my own. It might have been worse if they did.

I was taking a sip before leaving the counter, already contemplating a quick move to the next bar down the street, when the skin on my arm tightened, and I realised I was alone at the bar but for the presence to my right.

It was only a white cotton shirt, but the arm projecting from it had no colour, if that was possible - no wrinkles, but the kind of translucent effect you see in some old people's skin. He wasn't close to touching me, but the contrast between my own bare, black arm and his too, too white skin left me reeling. He kept his nails cut long, like a guitarist's picking fingers, though it was only the left hand my frozen neck would let me take in. There was something perfect, but damaged, about that hand, and from the moment he placed it on the wooden surface, it didn't move.

Nobody keeps that still in a crowded bar. Even when the crowd stands back and holds its breath.

"Vodka." The spell was broken. "The real one. In the fridge." I could move, but a new enchantment descended even as the other faded away. His voice was hoarse but smooth, breathless but as lacking in friction as ice encasing a cedar frond and just on the point of melting. I could move, I had to move, I had to sneak a look at him.

"Like what you see?" His eyes angled down slightly, waiting for mine to line up, then holding them, and I must have gasped.

"No trouble, mate," came the warning, and the second spell followed the first into inconsequence. A glance behind showed the waiter who wouldn't even talk to me, and I croaked something like "s'all right" before turning back, more of me involved in the decision this time, and with a wider focus.

He was a man of average height, somewhere on the gaunt side of slim, with no sign of chest hair peeping over the high-buttoned V of that soft, perfectly white shirt, worn above faded blue jeans. A pronounced Adam's apple, a thin mouth, the lips hardly darker than the skin hardly darker than the fabric. And so much less substantial. Now perhaps I could approach the eyes again.

But there was more to distract me first, and I knew I was nearly as motionless as he was. He was clean-shaven, no sign of any growth, well-tended hair the colour of cobweb - collar-length and touching his ears - but high wings over a steep forehead with lines like flaws in alabaster. There was colour in the skin - really - maybe a teaspoon of blood to a field of snow.

The thin nose, the concave cheeks, couldn't hold me. It was pull back now or jump into his eyes. And I've never seen pupils that big, as if the muscles were inadequate, and surely the light must have hurt, but it was the dark, tumbling depths, the absolute emptiness that overwhelmed his diminished grey irises and threatened to do the same for my own will.

"Are you actually alive?" I formed the words, but I swear I said nothing.

"Oh yes."

He turned smoothly away, then stopped with a slight exhalation. Raucous laughter broke from the table he had occupied only a minute or so before. A couple of jack-the-lads, touching each other all the time with elbows, reinforcing each other's bravery with grunted laughs and wordless taunts, had taken his space and were giving him the come-on, inviting him to fight for territory.

Urgent whispers behind the bar suggested the trouble would be nipped in the bud. I shivered as a pale hand held out a small glass in my direction. He didn't turn his head, but somehow he knew I would take his drink. The little tumbler was cold, and I tried to hold it by the rim.

He took a few steps, so that he was standing over the two boys - more than arm's length, but close enough to force them to look up at him. They grew louder, and their sneers found answers in the idly expectant crowd, but nobody moved forward to join them. And he simply stood, arms at his side, and very soon there was a torrent of catcalls from the sides, but his usurped table was the eye of the storm - no sound, precious little movement and not a little fear.

He maintained his position, still saying nothing, and the boys were looking this way and that, never at each other, and the catcalls were changing their target, until the ineffectual two on the bench were the new prey, their intended victim effectively ignored.

Again and again, those four young eyes skittered around, desperate now for escape, but drawn by a repeated compulsion to look up, deep into those black holes. Eventually one of them broke, lurched to his feet, almost falling to one side, stepping out of the influence to prepare some new imprecation. But just at the moment he discovered he'd forgotten how to shout, the second burst out to join him, hitting his thigh on the table, which toppled over, upsetting their drinks, and rolled a few degrees on its edge.

"Bastard," he whispered uselessly, limping and clutching at his mate's shoulder to keep his balance.

"Right, you two." An adult male, no doubt conjured from some dark corner by the immature waiters. "Out!" The lads looked almost relieved to be facing something comprehensible, and didn't complain, allowing themselves to be backed off towards the door. With those two dispatched, the bouncer, manager, whatever, turned and bellowed "Any more?". But the crowd seemed to have rediscovered its drinks, and the conversation was bubbling up, however artificially, to fill the cracks. "You too mate." He indicated the solitary figure.

"But I did nothing." And the man's voice carried only a whisper of complaint at such unfairness, as if he recognised that it would always be like this. I couldn't stand back any more.

"They started it. He just wanted his seat back."

"Sorry. It's house policy. Any trouble, and all concerned are out on the street, so your friend goes. Are you all right, Miss?"

"No, you stupid suit." I had thought the trouble was all over. "No room for common sense when there's a rule to fall back on, is there?" I was still holding the vodka as well as my own bigger glass and I addressed it rather than its owner. "Let's drink up and get out, then, if Mr Tact-and-diplomacy here will grant us the necessary few seconds." I glared at my new hate figure, who shrugged and turned away while I handed the little glass of oily liquid over. "Hope it's not warmed up too much for your liking."

The pale man took the glass carefully, and maybe there was a hint of a smile on those thin, drained lips. The dark eyes were somehow neutral now, with no threat any more of dragging me in. He shifted his attention slowly to the drink in his hand, then downed it in one smooth, not-quite-hurried movement. It took three gulps to finish the spritzer and I headed straight for the door. Outside I turned, and he was following me, every movement smooth and deliberate, the face settling into a mask.

"Where to next?" I asked. "Care to join me in a couple of nightcaps?" Cameraderie born of shared adversity mingled alarmingly with a sudden attempt to calculate whether I might have a personal interest in this man. Every ounce of sense said no - he was trouble - but the spark was there.

"I have to be alone." I hardly heard him, but any temptation to ridicule the actual words for cliche faded. For the second time I failed to say anything, and it was too late anyway, because he turned smartly round and walked into the gathering city darkness, leaving me with the unutterable sadness which had bloomed for a moment from those vacant orbs.