Rome: 71 B.C.
She hated the city and hated it most in August. The streets burst with filthy life; rats and flies and the sneering, diseased poor of the Empire. Carts piled with everything from sausages to silks poured through the gates, choked the narrow alleyways, jammed into the forums. Exotic crowds from the edges of the world shoved and brawled and stole in every corner. Over it all a blue haze of smoke from countless sausage-stands and bakeries hung like dead fog. Rome was drowning in humanity: naked slaves, nobility preceded by lictors and followed by streams of clients, soldiers in creaking leather and clanging brass, aristocratic ladies held above the mass on litters, all surging around the gaudily painted temples of government, religion and wealth.
She drove her chariot like a centurion. Two slaves walked ahead of the horse and chariot with whips to force the crowd aside -- she didn't give a damn how it made her look, she had no time for the effete ministrations of lictors with their delicate rods. She was in a hurry and Rome was just going to have to move.
As she proceeded along the Nova Via toward the Appian Way the crowds thinned somewhat; nobody was going out the Capenian Gate today.
The lush palaces on the Palatine Hill and the brightly painted Temple of Apollo disappeared behind her. Now her slaves were trotting. Soon she would flail her horse and burst past them. She was growing frantic, the heat made time short.
On this day she would find one of the strongest men on earth and make him her own. She passed under the Appian Aqueduct and through the Capenian Gate. Now that she was outside she thrashed the horse, rattling past the Temple of Honor and Virtue and over a little hill. With shocking suddenness the horror was before her.
Even in this age of cheap life it stunned her.
A dense, roaring mass of flies darkened the sun. Lining the Appian Way for miles, rising and falling over the gentle Campagnian Hills, were twin rows of crosses. The entire army of the slave rebel called Spartacus was being executed. They had been here for three days. The question was, could she find one still living?
Such a man would have to be incredibly strong. Miriam's father had theorized that selecting only the very strongest might be the solution to their problem. In the past they had too often chosen badly, and the transformed had always died.
Miriam needed this man. She longed for him, dreamed about him. And now she arranged her veils to keep out the flies and prodded her horse to find him. The shadows of morning stretched before the crosses. At least Miriam was alone on the road; travelers were detouring along the Ardenian Way as far as Capua in order to avoid this disgusting mess. Miriam's slaves came up behind her, gasping from their run out from the city, batting at the flies that settled around them. Her horse snorted nervously as flies alighted on its face.
"Groom," she said, motioning with her hand. Her slaves had wrapped themselves in cotton soaked with gall. The groom came forward. For an instant his costume reminded her of better times, when she had watched the people of the desert going forth in the sun with similar turbans on their heads. In those days her family had been nomadic, traveling up and down the desert, capturing strays on the fringes of Egypt's fertile plain.
She moved slowly ahead, enduring the sweet stench and the ceaseless energy of the flies, past corpse after corpse. A knot of loathing burned in her stomach. Rome was madness enthroned. And it would get worse. The city's rise to a world-empire was now inevitable. In time it would pass, but not soon. Many hard years lay ahead.
Every few minutes she stopped, lifted her veils, and stared long at one of the victims. With a flick of her wrist she would send a slave to test him by prodding him in the ribs with a stick. A feeble groan would be the only protest and she would continue on. Behind her one of her slaves had begun to play a flute to soften the ordeal. He played the plaintive music of Egypt, sad notes well suited to the situation.
She noticed one man from a long way off and stopped a moment to watch him. There was organization to his movements. Tied to a cross, a man must keep his legs straight or suffocate. To stay alive takes every human resource. Only sheer terror of death keeps a man struggling on a cross.
This man must have been at it steadily for nearly seventy-two hours. Yet he must realize that nobody was going to have mercy on him.
She clapped softly to signal the groom. It was all she could do not to whip the horse to a gallop, but then her slaves would have to run again. She was no Roman, she despised indifferent cruelty. So they walked to the prize. As they drew closer she saw that he was Greek or Middle Eastern, filthy and brutally wounded from whipping. His eyes were closed, his face almost peaceful in the extremity of his effort.
The next moment he straightened his legs and she heard an awful, ponderous intake of breath. Then the legs slacked again. One eye had opened a little, staring down at the approaching observers. But he was beyond caring about them, all his energy was devoted to his struggle.
He did it again without a cry or moan, and settled as quickly as he had risen. Then she noticed that his feet were moving back and forth beneath their seething mass of flies. He was actually trying to loosen his bonds!
And the flies were eating the blood on his ankles.
"Demetrius, Brusus, take him down!"
Two of her slaves ran to the cross and began shaking it, removing it from the ground. The man on the cross grimaced, showing his teeth.
"Be careful, you're hurting him."
They lowered the cross and she dismounted her chariot and ran to him. She ignored a distant noise, the clatter of hooves. There was no time to worry about soldiers now. She had gall and vinegar, and bathed his face with the liquids while the slaves untied him. The damage was appalling, there were even nests of maggots in his ears. His skin was cracked and black, his body bloated. Only the shallow rattling breath told her that he lived -- that and the open eye.
He stared at her. She spoke as soothingly to him as she would to a son. The eye unsettled her. It was incredible that he could be so alert after such an ordeal.
"My Lady -- " one of her slaves whispered.
She looked up. Standing like sentinels of death were three soldiers with drawn short swords. They were in the middle of the road, almost hidden by the clouds of flies. These soldiers guarded the crosses, their mission to see that nobody took down any of the condemned. Not a few might try. Motives were many -- relatives, sympathizers, slavers after the quick profits of contraband.
"Get him to the chariot -- be quick!"
He groaned when he was moved. Her slaves laid him with his knees to his chin on the floor of the chariot. There was no time to lose; even as she stepped up and grabbed the reins, the soldiers were coming forward. "Tell them I'm Crassus' wife," she said to her groom. The lie would make them hesitate. Roman soldiers would never impede the activities of the wife of Rome's current dictator. She snapped the reins and the horse broke into a gallop. She would allow it to gallop back to Rome; by now Victrix was desperate to return to her stall. As for the six slaves, they would make their way home more slowly. No doubt they would convince the soldiers of their innocence, they were sophisticated Egyptians and the troopers were only simple boys from Latium.
The man screamed when the chariot jerked and Miriam screamed with him. He was such an incredible find, it would be utterly desolating to kill him while trying to save him.
She had searched half the world for a man such as this, who clutched life with every whisper of strength.
They reached the Temple of Mars and she swung off the Appian Way. There was no sense in returning through the Capenian Gate; it would be certain to arouse the suspicion of the guard. She drove around the temple on a carter's track, moving close beneath the city wall. There were huts and holes in the shadow of the wall, and the track was stinking and awash in sewage. Floating in it were corpses in every state of decomposition. Dozens of people of every race on earth huddled on both sides of the track, migrants who had come to Rome only to find that strict laws controlled their right to enter the city. If they were not citizens, enrolled freedmen or slaves they could not pass through the gates. A woman came forward brandishing a stick. Miriam showed the short sword that was scabbarded on the chariot. Most of these people were extremely weak and would be unable to subdue her, much less stop the horse.
There was a motionless mass of carts and wagons at the Naevian Gate. Miriam whipped the horse ahead. It was best to take advantage of any confusion.
She used her voice and her whip liberally, thrashing carters and their horses out of the way and making the soldiers guarding the gate roar with laughter. Nevertheless, her efforts got her through quickly, and the condition of her passenger made her desperate for haste. Nobody looked into the bundle on the floor of the chariot.
She passed the Circus Maximus and wheeled toward the Quadrata, an area of wealthy mansions and luxurious insulae. Miriam owned the Insula Ianiculensis and lived on the ground floor. Her upstairs rents paid her taxes and left her enough to maintain her apartments, a villa at Herculaneum and fifty slaves. Hers was a modestly well-to-do establishment, comfortable enough but unlikely to attract any notice.
She found her way through the labyrinth of side streets behind the Circus. Soon the Aemilian Bridge appeared and she crossed it into the stillness of the Quadrata. At this time of year the suburb was quiet, its inhabitants away at Capua or Pompeii for the summer.
At last she arrived at the Insula Ianiculensis. As soon as she came around the corner slaves rushed out, a stable boy taking the reins of the exhausted horse as the assistant master of conveyances stepped up to the chariot. Her Egyptian physicians came forward and took the crucified man into the house. She followed, not stopping even as the maid of the outer garments fumbled with her fibula and removed her fly-spotted cloak. They crossed the Atrium and went through the Peristyle with its flowers and lotus-filled pool and beyond into the suite of baths which had been converted into a hospital in anticipation of this arrival.
At her instructions the tepidarium had been salted and the frigidarium filled with equal parts water and vinegar. A bed had been installed in the solarium with a movable awning above it. Supplies of medicinals and such chemicals as saltpeter and alum had been brought in. Miriam would use all her medical knowledge -- far more extensive than that of the idiotic Graeco-Roman "doctors" -- in her effort to nurse the man back to health. She had learned medicine in Egypt, combining the ancient knowledge of her own people with that of the priestly cults.
She waved away the bath attendants, who were trying to wash her face and arms, and told the physicians to lay their burden on the bed. The three of them had worked for her long enough to follow her orders without argument; they considered themselves students in her service.
Only now, with the sunlight full on his naked body, did she really feel the presence of this man. Despite his wounds and sores he was magnificent, fully six feet tall with huge shoulders and arms, but surprisingly delicate hands. His face was covered with stubble; he was perhaps twenty years old.
The Romans had been as vicious as ever. Hardly any unmarked skin remained. Suddenly, he made a rasping sound and began to heave weakly on the bed. She lifted him by the shoulders, her fingers breaking through to the blood-wet skin beneath the scabs, and held his head between his legs. Great black masses came from his mouth.
"Gall him," she said. "He stopped breathing!"
With a funnel the physicians forced the sourest gall down his throat. He retched and gasped and vomited more, but when she lay him back down he was breathing again.
She had him soaked in the hot salt water and sat forcing cold fruit juice down his throat while the bath attendants scummed the water. Afterward her physicians rubbed into his wounds an ointment she had prepared from the fungus Aspergillus. Then they soaked him in the frigidarium and gave him hot Falernian wine.
He slept twenty hours.
For much of this time she sat at the head of his bed listening to his breathing. When he awoke he ate six dates and drank off a flagon of beer.
His second sleep lasted fifteen hours. He awoke at three in the morning, screaming.
She stroked his face, made soft sounds in her throat. "Am I dead?" he asked before lapsing once again into unconsciousness. His sleep, deeper than ever, continued until morning. Miriam saw that he had swollen to bursting. He looked like a wineskin. His flesh glowed red through the fissures opened up by the stretching skin.
He stank of death. His body grew hot and dry and she had him moved to the frigidarium. He became delirious, speaking elegant Greek, talking of the Attic Hills. She knew those hills, had watched evening purple them from the Akropolis of Athens. She knew also those breezes of which he spoke, fragrant with hymettus, bearing the music of shepherd's pipes.
A long time ago she had walked there, when Athens was the center of the world. In those days the huddled confusion of empire lay at Athens' gates, when her blue-sailed ships called at all the ports of the East. In such a place as that -- or this -- Miriam could most easily go about her business.
Against the expectations of her physicians the swelling subsided and the fever declined. Soon he could raise his head for wine or broth of Aspergillus, or the boiled blood of chickens and pigs. She knew his name from his ramblings of his delirium, and one day when she called "Eumenes," he smiled.
She spent hours gazing at him. As his wounds healed he became more and more beautiful. She taught her cosmetician to shave him and, when he was well enough to sit up, went out and bought him a body servant and a boy of his own.
Slowly a new feeling began to fill her. She ordered artisans in to mosaic the floors and paint the walls, just to give the house a fresh appearance, to fit the new mood. She clothed Eumenes in the finest silks, like a Babylonian prince. She dressed his hair with unguents and applied ocher to his eyes. When he was strong enough she converted the whole Peristyle into a gymnasium and hired professional trainers for him.
Her own beauty blossomed as never before. Her male slaves became awkward and silly in her presence, and if she kissed them they blushed.
No household in Rome could have been happier, no woman more gay. Soon Eumenes was strong enough to walk, and they began to venture from the Insula. Pompey filled the Flaminian Circus with water and ordered mock sea-battles for the entertainment of the public. They spent a day in a private box, drinking wine and eating cold meats: peacock and dove and pork seasoned in the Euboean manner. It was now September and ice had begun to appear for sale in Rome -- at fifty sesterces a pound. She bought some and they took their wine cold, laughing at the mad luxury of it.
She watched Eumenes fall in love with her. It was, from beginning to end, a triumph. His ordeal proved his extraordinary strength and his intelligence could not be questioned; he was the third son of an Athenian academician, sold into slavery to ransom his father's library after the Roman conquest.
"I've got to go to Babylon," she said one day to test him.
The announcement stunned him, but he recovered himself. "I'll accompany you," he said.
"I've got to go alone."
For a day her announcement hung heavily in the air between them. Outwardly all was as before, but the strained moments, the increased silence of his contemplative nature, told her that he could not forget what she had said.
Finally, he entered the trap. In the small hours of a morning he came to her, moving softly through the sleeping house, his passage causing oil lamps to gutter in their pots, coming swiftly to her bedside. "I dream only of you," he said, hoarse with need. She received him with a cry of joy that echoed through all the years. It was a love that she remembered always, even after time proved her father's theory wrong.
That first extraordinary night, his passion, the intensity of his hunger, his pounding, relentless sexuality, that first night had been unforgettable.
She had searched eternity for a better moment.
She remembered the avid love in his eyes, the smell of his skin, sour and hinting of her own perfume, and his humid breath mingling with hers.
All of the tragedy and despair of subsequent years did not quell the remembrance of that moment, or of the joyous times they had shared then.
She remembered mostly the flowers and evenings, and the limpid beauty of the night sky in the imperial city.
Also, she remembered his initiation. She had imbued herself with an authority she did not feel, drawing him on. She invented a goddess, Thera, and called herself a priestess. She spun a web of faith and beguiling ritual. They slit the throat of a child and drank the salty wine of sacrifice. She showed him the priceless mosaic of her mother Lamia, and taught him the legends and truths of her people.
They lay together, mingling their blood. This was the hardest time; she was beginning to love him. In the past the mingling of blood had often killed. Only much later did she learn why this is so. She counted herself fortunate that it did not kill Eumenes.
Quite the contrary, he had thrived.
But in the end he had also been destroyed, as they all had been destroyed.
The Sleep lasted six hours. For most of that time John lay beside Miriam watching the shadows. Now sunlight was beginning to creep across the ceiling. It was as if the dozing in the car had been a herald of some change in him. He had dreamed vividly, as was characteristic of Sleep, but there had been no trance.
Beside him Miriam breathed more loudly, beginning to rise from her own trance. John grew afraid. He could not recall a time when the Sleep had not come to him when it was supposed to.
It was necessary to eat only once a week, but Sleep required six of every twenty-four hours. It was essential and it could not be delayed. Almost as absolute as death, it was the key to the renewal of life.
His arms and legs were tingling, his neck ached, his temples throbbed. He slipped out of bed and went into the bathroom, thinking only that he was thirsty for a glass of water. As he bent over the sink his reflection flashed in the mirror.
He stopped drinking, slowly put the glass down. The room was dark. Perhaps what the mirror had revealed was a trick of shadow. He flipped on the lights and looked again.
The tiny lines extending from the corners of his eyes were no illusion. He touched his cheek and felt a delicate dryness, a subtle stiffening. Weren't there also circles under his eyes, and even more lines around his mouth?
He took a shower. Perhaps the drive home with the roof open had chapped his skin. He let the stream of hot water sluice over his face, forced himself to spend fifteen minutes in the bath. He slid his hands up and down his torso and was reassured to find his body as lean and taut as ever. But he didn't feel lean and taut, he felt sapped.
After toweling himself he went back to the mirror. It seemed that his youth had returned. He found himself almost laughing with relief. Having cheated time for so long, the idea that it might suddenly reassert itself had come like a freezing blast in midsummer.
Then he saw them again. They were visibly deepening. It was like some kind of hideous hallucination. He drew back from the mirror. The fear in his own eyes revolted him. In an instant his hand had smashed into the surface of the mirror and the glass was flying about his head.
The crash surprised him into stillness. Such anger! He looked at the shards of mirror strewn in the sink, each reflecting a tiny section of his face. There was a final crash as the mirror's metal backing came off the wall.
He tried to calm himself, closed his eyes, forced himself to rational thought. It was, after all, only the slightest of changes. Yes -- but he couldn't Sleep. He couldn't Sleep! Miriam had always said that everything depended on that absolutely deep, absolutely perfect Sleep. Never mind that you dreamed. It was not like the dreaming of ordinary people; it cleaned the cellars of the mind. It was renewing, youth-giving, miraculous. When you awoke from it your whole life began again. You felt absolutely and completely perfect -- and you were!
What was happening to him? Miriam had assured him that it would all last forever. Forever and ever.
He looked at her lying so still, the fluffy pillow framing her face. Only that bare motion of breathing said she was alive. Nothing could wake her. The beauty and peace of it fascinated him. The Sleep was so sweet. But it was also a state of complete vulnerability. John could not remember a time when Miriam had been like this while he himself was awake.
He went to her, kissed her. There was something pleasing about her helplessness, something that excited him. The pressure of his kiss parted her lips a little. They stayed parted, the edges of her teeth just visible. He looked into her stillness, feeling rapacious. The thought that he could do his will on her -- even murder her -- made sweat pop out all over his body.
He took her pearl-white flesh in his hands and squeezed it. She was cold and dry. His lips dusted along her neck, tasting the bland flavor of the skin. She was so slick, like a plastic creature; as still as the dead. In a stately charade of anger he slowly shook her by the shoulders, watching her head bend back and her throat present itself to him.
He made a nervous decision. He was feeling powerful sexual needs, an urge almost to steal something from her. Thus, in guilty secrecy began a most awesome and terrible experience. He lay down on her and began to make love to her entranced body.
Physically, Miriam was perfect. She was firm and subtly muscled, always responsive. Yet when he took her in his arms now she was hideously pliant. He ran his fingers along her belly and down her thigh. Her absolute indifference only increased his urgency. Then he grabbed her face and forced his tongue into her mouth. Her own tongue was startlingly rough, like that of a cat.
He wanted to break her with love, to disembowel her with it. As he thrust into her he groaned aloud. His fingers were around her throat. Sweat ran down his body. His thighs pounded and he slid in wetness. He hardly noticed his thumbs pressing her throat, closing tighter and tighter as his body kept on, moving of its own accord through rising stages of pleasure. It crossed him in waves, almost rendering him unconscious. He strangled her harder and harder. His excitement rose. He gauged his motions carefully to prolong it. Her mouth opened, her bristled tongue crept between her teeth.
Then he exploded into her, pounding frantically, and was spent.
He sat down, burying his face in her breasts, sobbing. Her body convulsed and he heard her draw a choking breath. Her throat was angry red, her face gray.
The voices of children echoed from the distant street, the hall clock softly chimed the hour. With her usual sense of the moment, Alice began running the vacuum cleaner downstairs. John hid his face in his pillow. Life was suddenly, absolutely empty.
He wanted to cling to somebody, to a living woman.
There was a gasp, then her hands came up to her throat. If only she had awakened a little earlier -- or a little later.
She made an inarticulate noise. A prolonged silence followed. He opened his eyes. He was startled to see the rage that was in her face. As soon as their eyes met, the look disappeared. He tried to reject his impression of it, the inhumanity.
"I feel like hell, I haven't Slept," he said.
She got up, went to the bathroom, and turned on the light. Without commenting on the mess, she examined her neck in the full-length mirror on the door. She came back and sat on the edge of the bed, crossed her legs, and smiled.
"You bastard," she said.
It was chilling to hear those words through such a tender smile. He laughed nervously.
Then she turned to him and gathered him into her arms. Her fingers dug into his back, she made a sound like the rasp of a crow. He tried to twist his head but she was much more powerful than any human being. His only choice was to lie in her arms and wait. Suddenly, she withdrew and held his shoulders. Her face seemed to ask a question, almost to plead with him.
She dropped her hands to her sides and went back to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. After a moment he heard the crunching of glass, Ever careful, she was cleaning up the wreckage of the mirror so she wouldn't get cut.
He found himself wanting something from her, a scream of anger, a threat, any sign of relationship. But he heard only the water being turned on. Now she was preparing for her day, keeping her feelings to herself. He got up, went shakily to the dresser and started putting on his own clothes. Still in his shorts, he was splashing cologne on his cheeks when he realized that his face was covered with heavy stubble. He didn't even know if there was a razor in the house. In a kind of wonderment his hands traveled over his cheeks, touching the hard little ends of hairs. From the bathroom he heard Miriam humming as she toweled herself dry, her familiar melody.
He dressed quickly and left, eager to get away from the pressure of the situation. There was a barber at Fifty-seventh Street and Second Avenue. He would walk up there and get himself shaved.
The shave was actually quite pleasant, the barber cheerful. In the pleasure of the moment he also got his hair trimmed and his shoes buffed.
He was feeling somewhat better when he left. The sun was shining, the streets were crowded with hurrying people, the air was almost sweet. For the first time in many years John enjoyed watching a woman other than Miriam. It was a relief after the fierce tensions of this morning. She was just one of the crowd, a girl in a cheap skirt and sweater hurrying to the bus stop with a paper cup of coffee from Nedick's in her hand. Her hair was dusty brown, her face too heavily made up. But there was such sensuality in her movements, in the way her breasts lay beneath her sweater and in the determination of her stride. Suddenly, he looked again at the face. He was horrified.
It might have been Kaye.
His heart thundered, he gasped for breath. Her eyes met his. They were deep with the mysterious sorrow of mortals, an expression he had been able to see in others only after it had disappeared from his own face.
"Was that a Number Two?"
She was speaking to him.
"Mister, was that a Number Two bus?"
She was smiling, her teeth yellow with neglect. Ignoring her, John hurried back to the security of the house.
As he approached he heard voices through the open window of the living room. At once he felt the hollow despair of jealousy -- Alice and Miriam were chatting, no doubt waiting for him to appear so that they could begin practicing the Handel Trio.
He mounted the stairs, moved softly across the hallway, past the hall table with its spray of roses, and entered the living room. Miriam looked magnificently fresh and beautiful in a bright-blue dress. A blue ribbon was tied prettily about her neck. Alice lay on a settee nearby in her usual jeans and sweat shirt. He felt Miriam watching him as he went across to his place. Until he was settled, Miriam's body remained tense, as if ready to spring.
"John," Alice said, leaning her head back, "I didn't even hear you come in. You always sneak." Her thirteen-year-old smile made him catch his breath. She was indeed a marvelous toy, fragile and succulent.
Miriam crashed out an arpeggio on the harpsichord. "Let's get going," she said.
"I don't want to do that trio again. It's boring." Alice was in a typical sulky mood.
"How about the Scarlatti we were doing last week?"
Miriam went through some fingerings. "We could do it if John can keep up."
"All the music he knows is boring."
Miriam's fingers flew across the keys. "I know Corelli, Abaco, Bach -- " She tossed a thick book of music at Alice. "Pick whatever you want."
There was a silence. "I barely know the Handel," John said. "It's hard for the cello."
Miriam and Alice glanced at each other. "We'll do the Handel," Alice said. "It's either that or finger and bow practice, right, John?" She picked up her violin and tucked it under her chin.
"I'm one of the few musicians who can do Chopsticks on the cello, dear."
"As you always say."
Before he had even tuned they were starting. He entered raggedly, rushing after them, overtaking and then struggling to keep his place for the rest of the piece.
They played for an hour, repeating the trio three times. John eventually began to enjoy the way it became coherent, finally beautiful. He liked the music. It seemed to fit the moment, the rich quality of the sunlight, the beauty of the women.
"Well," Alice said when they were done, "that's that." She was flushed, which accentuated her incipient womanhood. A pang passed again through John's heart.
He knew all the things Miriam was able to do to people. It was impossible to tell exactly what treatment was intended for Alice. Miriam could bless or destroy. Sometimes she would compel them to violence as a cover for her own activities. Other times, there could be unimaginable bliss.
Miriam was practical; she did what was most useful. Alice, for example, would inherit a considerable fortune, as John had. That could be the motive for Miriam's interest. She was always short of money, and those who loved her gave her everything.
"Let's have a drink," Miriam said. She picked up the Madeira from the bar. It was an 1838 Warre, bought from the old Berry Brothers Stores in London. As it had aged it had become first strong and sweet, then full of subtle overtones. Now it was almost light, but possessed of complex and ancient flavors. It was certainly the finest Madeira in the world, perhaps of all time.
"I'm not supposed to have liquor."
Miriam poured Alice some of the wine.
"It's very light. Only barbarians would refuse their children the right to a glass of wine."
Alice swallowed it at a gulp and held out her glass for more.
"That's a sacrilege," John said. "You're drinking it like tequila."
"I like the way it makes me feel, not the way it tastes."
Miriam poured her another glass. "Don't get drunk. John molests the helpless." The remark came unexpectedly and shocked John.
Alice laughed, her eyes regarding him with taunting appraisal. Rather than endure that, John retreated. He gazed out the window, forcing himself to concentrate on the view. Across the street was a block of cooperative apartments. It seemed such a short time ago that houses such as their own had lined both sides of the street, it was hard to believe that vines could already be growing up the front of one of those new buildings. The cries of children came as always from the street. John was touched by the eternal shrill excitement of those voices, a sound that belonged to all time. Maturing was the horrible process of losing immortality. John felt his face. Already the whiskers were coming back. He had inexplicably entered the deadly shadow; it could no longer be denied.
Alice came to his side, her shoulder just touching his elbow. No doubt she told herself that she ought to conquer him, to include him. But he suspected it was really a simpler and more morbid interest: she wanted to see him suffer. In that sense she was as natural a predator as Miriam herself -- or as John.
"What are they playing, Alice? Ringolevio?"
"Ringo -- what?"
"Ringolevio. The game."
"They're playing Alien."
Miriam watched her destroyed man. He could have killed her this morning. Killed. The thought of it made her feel cold toward him, but only for a moment. She had fought hard to make him perfect. It was so sad to see him disintegrating even more quickly than his predecessors. Eumenes had been with her more than 400 years, Lollia nearly as long. Until now not one of her transformations had failed to last 200 years. Was she getting worse at it, or was the strength of the human stock in decline?
She took another swallow of the Madeira, held it in her mouth. Time itself must taste so. In wine time could be captured and in life delayed, but not forever. In John's case not even for very long.
There was much to do and possibly only a few days of grace. She had been moving slowly, capturing Alice by careful degrees. Now it was an emergency. She had to prepare for the storm that was going to break when John discovered his predicament, and at the same time prevent Alice from knowing what was happening to him. As Alice was to be his replacement it would be most inconvenient if she learned the consequences of transformation.
Especially in view of the fact that, this time, there might be no consequences. Miriam would have to approach Sarah Roberts much more quickly now. The research she had done already into the woman's work and habits would have to suffice.
If anybody on this planet could discover what went wrong with the transformed it would be Dr. Roberts. In her book Sleep and Age Miriam had seen the beginnings of a deeper understanding than Roberts herself could possibly realize. The work that Roberts had done on primates was fascinating. She had achieved extraordinary increases in life-span. Given the proper information, would she also be able to confer real immortality on the transformed?
Miriam put down her glass and left the room. She would have to risk being separated from Alice and John for a few minutes. His violence was still sporadic. And there was a task to be faced in the attic, a dreary task of preparation, amid the sad ruins of her past loves. Unlike the dusty and disused appearance of the rest of the attic, the door to this room was perfectly maintained. It opened soundlessly as Miriam unlocked it. She stepped into the tiny, hot space. Only when the heavy door was closed and she was safely hidden did she give voice to the turmoil of fears within her. Her fists went to her temples, her eyes screwed shut and she moaned aloud.
Silence followed, but not absolute silence. As if in answer, there came from the darkness around her the seething of slow and powerful movement.
Miriam hesitated a moment before beginning her task. "I love you," she said softly, remembering each person who rested here, each lost friend. Perhaps because in the end she had failed all of them she remained loyal to them. Some, like Eumenes and Lollia, she had carried across half the world. Their boxes were black with age, bound with leather and studded with iron. The more recent ones were as strong or stronger. Miriam pulled the newest box to the center of the little room. This one was about twenty years old, made of carbon fiber steel and locked by bolts, bought and stored on John's behalf. She lifted off the lid and examined the interior, then took the bag of bolts from inside. There were twelve of them, and she fitted them around the lid. Now it could be closed and locked in a matter of seconds.
She left it open, however, the lid gaping. When she brought him to this place, there might be very little time. With a last glance at the other boxes, pausing in the room's rustling silence, she whispered goodbye.
The door hissed shut on her tragedy. She secured the locks, which were there for two reasons: to keep danger out, and to keep it in. She went back downstairs, assured that she was well prepared for the worst, uneasy at leaving Alice unprotected any longer than necessary.
Copyright © 1981 by Whitley Strieber