The Tale of the Body Thief

Chapter 17


THE trip south was a small nightmare. The airport, only just reopened after the repeated storms, had been jammed to overflowing with anxious mortals waiting for their long-delayed flights or come to find their arriving loved ones.

Gretchen gave way to tears, and so did I. A terrible fear had seized her that she would never see me again, and I could not reassure her sufficiently that I would come to her at the Mission of St. Margaret Mary in the jungles of French Guiana, up the Maroni River from St. Laurent. The written address was carefully placed in my pocket along with all numbers relevant to the motherhouse in Caracas, from which the sisters could direct me should I be unable to find the place on my own. She had already booked a midnight flight for the first leg of her return.

One way or another, I must see you again! she said to me : in a voice that was breaking my heart.

You will, ma chere, I said, that I promise you. I'll find the mission. I'll find you.

The flight itself was hellish. I did little more than lie there in a stupor, waiting for the plane to explode and for my mortal body to be blown to pieces. Drinking large amounts of gin and tonic did not alleviate the fear; and when I did free my mind from it for a few moments at a time, it was only to become obsessed with difficulties facing me. My rooftop apartment, for example, was full of clothes which did not fit me. And I was used to going in through a door on the roof. I had no key now to the street stairway. Indeed, the key was in my nocturnal resting place beneath the Lafayette Cemetery, a secret chamber I could not possibly reach with only a mortal's strength, for it was blocked with doors at several points which not even a gang of mortal men might have opened.

And what if the Body Thief had been to New Orleans before me What if he had sacked my rooftop rooms, and stolen all the money hidden there Not likely. No, but if he had stolen all the files of my poor unfortunate mortal agent in New York... Ah, better to think about the plane exploding. And then there was Louis. What if Louis were not there What if... And so on it went for the better part of two hours.

At last, we made our rattling, roaring, cumbersome, and terrifying descent, amid a rainstorm of biblical proportions. I collected Mojo, discarding his crate, and leading him boldly into the back of the taxi. And off we drove into the unabated storm, with the mortal driver taking every conceivable risk available to him, as Mojo and I were flung into each other's arms, more or less, over and over again.

It was near midnight when we finally reached the narrow tree-lined streets of uptown, the rain falling so heavily and steadily that the houses behind their iron fences were scarcely visible. When I saw the dismal, abandoned house of Louis's property, crowded by the dark trees, I paid the driver, snatched up the valise, and led Mojo out of the cab into the downpour.

It was cold, yes, very cold, but not as bad as the deep, freezing air of Georgetown. Indeed, even in this icy rain, the dark rich foliage of the giant magnolias and the evergreen oaks seemed to make the world more cheerful and bearable. On the other hand, I had never beheld with mortal eyes a dwelling as forlorn as the great massive abandoned house which stood before Louis's hidden shack.

For one moment as I shaded my eyes from the rain and looked up at those black and empty windows, I felt a terrible irrational fear that no being dwelt in this place, that I was mad, and destined to remain in this weak human body forever.

Mojo leapt the small iron fence just as I leapt it. And together we plowed through the high grass, around the ruins of the old porch, and back into the wet and overgrown garden. The night was full of the noise of the rain, thundering against my mortal ears, and I almost wept when I saw the small house, a great gleaming hulk of wet vines, standing there before me.

In a loud whisper I called Louis's name. I waited. No sound came from within. Indeed the place seemed on the verge of collapse in its decay. Slowly I approached the door. Louis, I said again. Louis, it is I, Lestat!

Cautiously I stepped inside amid the heaps and stacks of dusty objects. Quite impossible to see! Yet I made out the desk, the whiteness of the paper, and the candle standing there, and a small book of matches beside it.

With trembling wet fingers, I struggled to strike a match, and only after several efforts succeeded. At last I touched it to the wick, and a thin bright light filled all the room, shining upon the red velvet chair which was mine, and the other worn and neglected objects.

A powerful relief coursed through me. I was here! I was almost safe! And I was not mad. This was my world, this awful cluttered unbearable little place! Louis would come. Louis would have to come before long; Louis was almost here. I all but collapsed in the chair in sheer exhaustion. I laid my hands on Mojo, scratching his head, and stroking his ears.

We've made it, boy, I said. And soon we'll be after that devil. We'll find a way to deal with him. I realized I was shivering again, indeed, I was feeling the old telltale congestion in my chest. Good Lord, not again, I said. Louis, come for the love of heaven, come! Wherever you are, come back here now. I need you.

I was just about to reach into my pocket for one of the many paper handkerchiefs Gretchen had forced upon me, when I realized that a figure was standing exactly at my left, only an inch from the arm of the chair, and that a very smooth white hand was reaching for me. In the same instant, Mojo leapt to his feet, giving forth his worst, most menacing growls, and then appeared to charge the figure.

I tried to cry out, to identify myself, but before my lips were even open, I'd been hurled against the floor, deafened by Mojo's barking, and I felt the sole of a leather boot pressed to my throat, indeed, to the very bones of my neck, crushing them with such force that surely they were about to be broken.

I couldn't speak, nor could I free myself. A great piercing cry came from the dog, and then he, too, fell silent, and I heard the muffled sounds of his large body sinking to the floor. Indeed I felt the weight of him on my legs, and I struggled frantically and helplessly in pure terror. All reason left me as I clawed at the foot pinning me down, as I pounded the powerful leg, as I gasped for breath, only hoarse inarticulate growls coming from me.

Louis, it's Lestat. I'm in the body, the human body.

Harder and harder the foot pressed. I was strangling as the bones were about to be crushed, yet I couldn't utter one syllable to save myself. And above me in the gloom, I saw his face-the subtle gleaming whiteness of the flesh that did not seem at all to be flesh, the exquisitely symmetrical bones, and the deh'cate half-closed hand, which hovered in the air, in a perfect attitude of indecision, as the deep-set eyes, fired with a subtle and incandescent green, looked down upon me without the slightest palpable emotion.

With all my soul I cried the words again, but when had he ever been able to divine the thoughts of his victims I could have done that, but not he! Oh, God help me, Gretchen help me, I was screaming in my soul.

As the foot increased its pressure, perhaps for the final time, all indecision cast aside, I wrenched my head to the right, sucked in one desperate tiny breath, and forced from my constricted throat one hoarse word: Lestat! all the while desperately pointing to myself with my right hand and first finger.

It was the last gesture of which I was capable. I was suffocating, and the darkness came rolling over me. Indeed it was bringing a total strangling nausea with it, and just at the moment when I ceased to care hi the most lovely light-headed fashion, the pressure ceased, and I found myself rolling over and rising up on my hands, one frantic cough tearing loose from me after another.

For the love of God, I cried, spitting the words in between my hoarse painful choking breaths, I'm Lestat. I'm Lestat in this body! Couldn't you have given me a chance to speak Do you kill any hapless mortal who blunders into your little house What of the ancient laws of hospitality, you bloody fool! Why the hell don't you put iron bars on your doors! I struggled to my knees, and suddenly the nausea won out. I vomited a filthy stream of spoiled food into the dirt and the dust, and then shrank back from it, chilled and miserable, staring up at him.

You killed the dog, didn't you You monster! I flung myself forward on Mojo's inert body. But he wasn't dead, merely unconscious, and at once, I felt the slow pumping of his heart. Oh, thank God, if you'd done that, I would never, never, never have forgiven you.

A faint moan came from Mojo, and then his left paw moved, and then slowly his right. I laid my hand between his ears. Yes, he was coming back. He was unhurt. But oh, what a wretched experience this had been! Here of all places to come to the very brink of mortal death! Enraged again, I glared up at Louis.

How still he was as he stood there, how quietly astonished. The pounding of the rain, the dark lively sounds of the winter night-all seemed to evaporate suddenly as I looked at him. Never had I seen him with mortal eyes. Never had I beheld this wan, phantom beauty. How could mortals believe this was a human when their eyes passed over him Ah, the hands-like those of plaster saints come to life in shadowy grottoes. And how utterly devoid of feeling the face, the eyes not windows of the soul at all, but fine jewel-like snares of illumination.

Louis, I said. The worst has happened. The very worst. The Body Thief made the switch. But he's stolen my body and has no intention of giving it back to me.

Nothing palpable quickened in him as I spoke. Indeed so lifeless and menacing did he seem, that I suddenly broke into a stream of French, pouring forth every image and detail which I could recall in the hopes of wringing recognition from him. I spoke of our last conversation in this very house, and the brief meeting at the foyer of the Cathedral. I recalled his warning to me that I must not speak to the Body Thief. And I confessed that I had found the man's offer impossible to resist, and had gone north to meet with him, and to accept his proposal.

Still, nothing of vitality sparked the merciless face, and suddenly, I fell silent. Mojo was trying to stand, occasional little moans coming from him, and slowly I wrapped my right arm around his neck, and leaned against him, struggling to catch my breath, and telling him in a soothing voice that everything was fine now, we were saved. No more harm would come to him.

Louis shifted his gaze slowly to the animal, then back to me. Then gradually, the set of his mouth softened ever so slightly. And then he reached for my hand, and pulled me up-quite without my cooperation or consent-to a standing position.

It really is you, he said in a deep, raw whisper.

You're damned right it's me. And you nearly killed me, you realize that! How many times will you try that little trick before all the clocks of the earth tick to the finish I need your help, damn you! And, once again, you try to kill me! Now, will you please close whatever shutters still hang on these damned windows, and make a fire of some sort in that miserable little hearth!

I flopped down again in my red velvet chair, still laboring for breath, and a strange lapping sound suddenly distracted me. I looked up. Louis had not moved. Indeed he was staring at me, as if I were a monster. But Mojo was patiently and steadily devouring all of the vomit I had spilt upon the floor.

I gave a little delighted laugh, which threatened to become a fit of perfect hysteria.

Please, Louis, the fire. Make the fire, I said. I'm freezing in this mortal body! Move!

Good God, he whispered. What have you done now!

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