RED AS ANGER, RED AS BLOOD
By Karen Mason-Richardson
She was high again tonight.
He had scented this drug before; a white powder sold in hidden corners and back alleys at night. A poison people killed for. The drug was very expensive - something that she seldom could afford. The sour glaze of cocaine was a harsh underscore to the usual unpleasant tang of old sweat, cheap perfume, and stale tobacco.
Business must have been good last night.
It was a habit now, checking in on her. She was always here, every night, huddled beneath the Clarence Avenue sign, waving to drivers as they passed her by, walking over to chat if they stopped. Sometimes she got into the cars. Within an hour or so she always returned to her corner, her personal territory, smelling strongly of the last person she had driven away with. Or more.
She was shivering in the late fall breeze.
Shivering? It was so hot tonight…
A thin and ragged gray tabby slid around the corner and brushed against his legs in greeting before jumping up into the overfilled alley dumpster behind him. Papers rustled and plastic crinkled as the tom hunted for any scrap of food in the trash.
The corner streetlight flickered, dying for a few seconds before struggling back to life. Beneath its unhealthy glow her dress shone. She was wearing the sparkly red one tonight.
Red as anger… red as blood.
* * * * * *
His chamber was dark. The soft glow from behind the half-circle stained glass window was uncharacteristically absent.
Father raised his lantern and scanned the interior. The light cast stark shadows onto rough stone – twisted and malformed shapes that danced menacingly upon the walls and ceiling as he advanced further into the chamber. A chamber that had always been a welcoming one, lit by golden candlelight. No more. Not since…
There! A movement in the shadows from the far reaches of the chamber, a reflected glare of eyes catching the light.
Father lifted his lantern and took a few steps closer.
“Come no further!”
Vincent’s tone was adamant, even with the adolescent crack at the end.
Carefully Father set the lamp on the table and examined the chamber. It was a disaster – broken glass littered the floor, furniture had been overturned. Deep claw marks furrowed through the top of a wooden table.
Usually when his son was upset about something he needed time. Time to think, to rationalize, and to come to terms with the difficulties inherent in his life, in his differences.
This time, perhaps leaving him alone had been a mistake.
“Everyone has begun to worry about you. At dinner last night, Willia-
“Leave me alone!”
Father sighed and ran a hand through graying hair. All adolescents were at times difficult. He understood that. But… how to handle this mess?
“Vincent, are such dramatics really necessary? I thought we talked about this already. Lisa is-“
With a rough snarl, Vincent lurched to his feet and turned towards him. White fangs gleamed dully in the lantern light.
“Never, NEVER say her name again!”
Father watched his son as began to pace in a tight circle. It was strange to realize just how much he had grown in the last year. He was almost tall enough to look him in the eye. In another few years, if this growth spurt continued… “I know you’re upset about the girl but surely by now you realize why I had to intervene. You can’t-
“SILENCE!” Vincent shouted, covering his ears in denial. “I know what you think! You’ve told me time and time again, in deeds AND in words. ‘Such things are not for me.’” Vincent whirled and glared at him. Tension shook his frame like a bow strung too tightly, waiting to break. “Why, Father? Why do I have to be different? Why me? Why this?”
Father’s eyes widened in horror as lamplight finally illuminated his son completely, giving the first good look since he left this chamber last night. The favorite shirt was torn to ribbons across the arms and chest, stained with dried blood. Vincent’s eyes were wild and feverishly bright. A film of sweat glistened on his face.
“Dear God, are you ill? Let me look at you.” Father lifted the lantern and approached his son, who winced and squinted in the brightening light. A quick hand to the forehead was all he needed to confirm his misgivings. “You’re running a fever. You need to lie down now while I fetch my medicines.”
An iron grip closed on his wrist like manacles, stopping him from moving. “You haven’t answered my question.”
Father glanced down and caught his breath. The eyes of a stranger bore into him, dark, sly, and just slightly malicious. He felt a ring of needle pricks on his wrist as Vincent’s grip shifted.
“It… it doesn’t matter now, the problem has taken care of itself. She’s gone. She left several days ago.”
Vincent blinked and slacked his grip enough so he could pull free. “Gone? Where?”
Carefully Father backed up a step, placed the lantern on the scarred tabletop and rubbed his wrist gingerly. “I don’t know.”
Vincent stood silent, panting. “It’s because of me. She’s afraid of ME!” Slowly he turned away, dropping his head into his hands. “I saw it in her eyes, Father. Before she… before I hurt her. She saw the same thing you did. Something that wasn’t even close to a man. A beast. An animal. That’s what you both saw. That’s what you BOTH feared.”
He hadn’t ever wanted to say that, to even hint that when his son turned on him, claws upraised, he had felt a knife of panic, a flash of instinctive, paralyzing terror. For one brief moment he had indeed gazed into the eyes of… something else. “Vincent, I… of course I realize that you’re upset about this, but if you try to look at this in the light of reason, I think…”
A deep, rumbling snarl of menace stopped his words, a growl that revealed nothing of its adolescent origin. Vincent turned and stared at him, eyes fever bright. He squinted once more against the lantern light, narrowed eyes giving him an unfamiliar, feral look. “Light of reason?” In two fluid strides Vincent seized the sturdy wooden table and hurled it against the far wall. Thick hardwood splintered into kindling with a booming crash. The lantern flew into the air then shattered on the floor with a snap and flare of igniting oil. Flame spread over the sandy floor and began to wane.
Vincent turned and paced towards the door. In the fading light his movements had the sleek fluidity of a predator. Flames flickered and died. An uneasy cloak of darkness settled over the room.
“Beasts have no need of light, Father.” The voice was smooth and even, filling the room with conviction.
Father groped blindly forward. His call for help froze in his chest as hot breath seemed to scald the back of his neck. “Neither do they have need for reason,” Vincent whispered ominously from mere inches away.
Merciful God, he hadn’t even heard him move! Heart pounding, Father found his voice at last. “Vincent, stop this behavior at once!”
* * * * * *
It was one of the furthest reaches of his territory, this corner. He did have a territory of a sort. In the last months, it had established itself as a maze of back alleys, rooftops and subway passages. Wandering this course, observing the tide of humanity, helped calm the restlessness. He saw much more of the world now, parts he liked and parts he did not understand.
This was a part he did not understand.
The long white car slowed and stopped in front of her. This person she did not go away with or wave to. This person took things from her, scared her. Three men got out of the car and walked up to her, the normal blond one and two others.
“Hey, Tricia, how’s tricks?”
The woman looked down and shifted nervously. “Not too good, Kit. I don’t have much for you tonight.”
“How much is not much, baby?”
She reached into her purse, only to have her hands roughly flung aside and the little handbag yanked from her arm, breaking the thin strap.
“Hey, that was new!”
“Shut up.” Big hands opened the bag and pulled out two bills. “Twenty bucks? That’s IT?”
“Like I said, business was bad last night. I didn’t – ow! Let go!” One of the new men grabbed her by the arm and she pulled ineffectually against his grip.
Vincent felt a quiet growl shiver through his chest. They shouldn’t be holding her like that. He knew. They could hurt her…
“Easy on her, Tony. She don’t deserve any rough stuff, do you, sweetheart?” The man called Kit leaned over and put his arm around her thin shoulders. “Not my little moneymaker, right, darlin?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” she replied, fear shaking her voice.
“So, Tricia, how many prostitutes does it take to change a light bulb?” The man called Tony grinned down at her.
“Ummmm, I don’t know. How many?”
“Who needs lights?” The three men chuckled quietly, mocking and somehow ominous. “Eh? Who needs lights? Get it? Ah, whatever. Come here, let’s you and me talk for a minute.” Firmly, Kit guided her away from the corner, towards the mouth of the alley, the other two following several feet behind.
Vincent shrank back into the shadows as they approached and froze as something cracked under his feet: an old turkey drumstick bone, tossed from the trash by the alley cat. Swiftly he ducked behind the dumpster, poised to scale the wall if it became necessary. Beside him a gray shadow silently hit the ground and fled the scene entirely.
A bead of sweat dripped from his forehead, stung his eyes. Why was it was so hot tonight?
“…and last month you were down by over half. This month isn’t any better. What’s going on, Tricia?”
“I dunno, it’s just been slow.”
“See, I’m finding that a bit hard to believe. Tony’s friend, he says he saw you take a couple rides just last night and one of them looked plenty well off.” The voices rounded the corner and echoed faintly in the alleyway. “But now you’re telling me different. That makes me think you might be lying to me, Tricia. You know how much I hate being made a fool of by one of my girls.”
The dull thud of a body slamming against masonry was quickly followed by a strangled gasp. “What did you do with the money?” Fabric tore in the darkness. “Hey, what’s this now?”
“That’s mine! Leave it alone!”
“Bitch is on something, boss, check it out.” Plastic rustled quietly, followed by a smacking, appreciative sound. “Good stuff, too. Must’a cost a bomb.”
“Some John gave it to me. I didn’t think it was enough for you to bother with-”
A sharp slap of a palm against flesh cracked through the alley. “So, that’s what you’ve been doing with my money, huh? Snorting it up!”
“Glenda’s been wanting this corner for the last month or so, boss. What d’ya think, maybe it should come available or something?”
“Good idea. Cut our losses. This one’s getting a bit long in the tooth anyway, wouldn’t hurt to have some fresh blood on this corner.”
“Wanna pop her here?”
A scream was cut off almost before it began, followed by the muffled sound of struggling.
“Yeah, but how about a last turn around the block for ol’Tricia here before we replace her?”
The rustle of clothing followed the grind of a zipper lowering. Muted male laughter slithered from the other side of the dumpster. A fall of shiny red fabric settled gracefully over the muck of the alley, one corner visible from his hiding place behind the dumpster. The woman fell roughly over it onto her hands and knees, white skin glowing faintly in the dim light. Hands held her shoulders, a knife to her throat.
“There you go. Be a good girl now and maybe we’ll make it quick.”
A bead of blood flowed down the knife and dripped off onto the fabric, a dark spot that dulled the shimmer of the bright red dress.
Red as the blood on Lisa’s shoulders. Red as the blood on his hands.
Red as anger.
With an economical explosion of movement, Vincent reached forward and seized the head of the man called Tony, claws sinking deep into his neck. Flesh tore as he flung the body off the woman into the alley wall. A muffled crunch of bone preceded the lifeless form’s slide to the floor. Two leaps and the second man’s scream of terror died in a bubbling cough as razor sharp claws slammed into his chest, tearing out and down, sundering cartilage and flesh like paper.
At the valley mouth, the third man stumbled back, and drew a pistol. Shaking hands held it out and pulled the trigger.
The bullet slammed into Vincent’s leg, dropping him to one knee in shock and pain. Still brandishing the gun, the man backed up to the white car. Vincent could only watch and roar in frustration as the car squealed into life and shot away down the street.
Quiet fell once more over the alleyway. Behind him, Vincent could hear the woman gasping and sobbing in fear. He struggled to his feet, grunting against the scorching fire in his leg.
If only it wasn’t so hot out tonight.
The woman was standing, clutching the shiny red fabric to her chest. Shaking. Carefully, whimpering in abject terror, she edged around him, eyes wide.
He should tell her everything was all right. That he wouldn’t hurt her. But the hot rage was still strong and he couldn’t think…
Reaching the alley mouth, she fled into the street, stumbling in terror, clutching her red dress. Overhead, the streetlight once more flickered and died.
Vincent turned and looked down at the two bodies strewn like forgotten playthings on the alley floor. They would have hurt her. It was their blood, not hers, that glistened black in the darkness.
“Who needs lights?” he snarled and then roared his victory to the overcast night sky.
* * * * * *
Father shifted uncomfortably in the wooden chair, leaning to the side to ease the ache in his hip. Automatically he looked over to the still form on the bed. His son.
Leather straps and chains held him in place. They had needed to use them; Vincent had been violent in his fevered delirium - a rabid animal. He might have hurt himself further… or hurt someone else.
He had returned to the tunnels around three o’clock in the morning. The message had come across the pipes:
Vincent - 15th Street entrance – hurt unconscious
It had taken three strong men to get him to the hospital chamber: two to carry him and one extra to help hold him down when he awoke and struggled. He was so strong…
Being the tunnel physician, of course Father had examined him when he finally was brought in. The wound in his leg was clear; a bullet most likely had passed right through the muscles of his thigh. No major damage, nothing that wouldn’t heal.
Nothing that would have produced so much blood.
He had been covered in it. Face, hands, chest, all had been soaked.
His clothes had been disposed of, burned in the heating brazier a week ago, the day they brought him home. His wounds cleaned and tended. The others thought the blood was from his own self-inflicted clawing, the same that tore his shirt.
But… there hadn’t been that much blood when he left the tunnels, and the self-inflicted wounds had not been reopened.
Father removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. There was no way around it. The blood was not Vincent’s. But, if that was the case… then whose?
With a sigh, he replaced the glasses and once again looked down at the piece of newspaper on his lap. A piece from last week’s local paper, brought down by a helper who knew of Father’s weakness for baseball news. He’d had plenty of time to read it while sitting by this bedside, otherwise the little side article would never have caught his attention: an article about two men found dead in an alley near Clarence Street. Torn apart by a wild animal, at least that was the closest explanation authorities could come up with. An eyewitness had phoned in anonymously, reporting of a huge monster that attacked two of his buddies. The person claimed he had shot at the monster before fleeing for his life. Of course, his claims had been laughed off. Monsters? Indeed.
Father glanced again at the clean white bandage around his son’s thigh that covered what looked very much like a bullet wound. Too much for comfort.
A muffled whimper from the bed beside him caught his attention and he looked up into the blue eyes of his son.
“Vincent? How are you feeling?”
His lips opened and he coughed weakly. “Hot.” After sipping water from a cup, he cleared his throat. “It’s hot.”
“You’re running a high fever. What happened to you?”
Vincent shook his head. “Don’t know. I… remember… Lisa? Gone?”
“Yes, she is.” Father squeezed out a cloth and wiped his son’s face. “You remember nothing since then?”
“No. Did… something happen to her?” Anxious, innocent eyes looked in askance as the cloth was dipped once more, squeezed and placed on the far too hot forehead. With a grateful sigh of relief, Vincent’s eyes drifted closed once more.
Father glanced down at the piece of newspaper in his hand. “No, nothing important happened.” Casually Father leaned over and dropped the piece of newsprint into the heating brazier. The dry paper ignited instantly and was reduced to ash in seconds.
Lisa. There was no proof, but he would lay odds that part of the blame for this… illness… could be placed directly at her feet. Tempting, taunting, pushing him against limits that were set for everyone’s good. Stress piled on stress, pushing until he snapped. Pushing until he was almost over the edge. All for the sake of a self-indulgent, pretty girl’s ego.
Never again. Not if he could help it.
“It’s so hot.”
“I know, son. I know. How about I read to you? Give us both something to listen to.” Father reached over to the pile of books placed on the table beside him. “Here, this is a good one. I don’t think you’ve read it yet.”
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”