Eyeballs Deep in Scarlet Emerald

8.17.2017

Claret and Carnivory

It all started with that goddamned ring.

Jackie shivered and forced herself to relax, adjusting her scarf to conceal her breath. Dawn lit the fallow vineyards stretching before them, pooling deep shadows on the ground even as it glittered on the icicled rooftops beyond. Her partner Jack Schrodinger laid on a prominence above, little more than a camouflaged lump except for the green rubber tip of a Bushnell spotting scope peeking from beneath his gillie suit.

When they'd met she wasn't the hardened hunter Jackie but a demure twenty-six year old historical researcher named Jacqueline Corso. She hadn't seen the signet yet, just some pictures faxed by a jeweler named Saul Haig. Saul paid in advance to find reliable information or a comparable piece for insurance purposes.

The ring was very old, set with a quartz intaglio of a barely discernable male figure. It was archaic even by medieval standards, practically Roman. Who knew how old it really was.
Jackie had phoned Saul for days with no return call. As a historian she wasn't used to getting paid well, let alone in advance. She'd felt obliged and curious, driving from Albion to Rochester to deliver her findings and examine the ring in person. Jackie smirked at how she used to be, remembering how timidly she'd slipped her dad's old Walther 9mm pistol into her purse. Back then she didn't even know that ammo came in different sizes.

She'd arrived at Saul's shop in the late afternoon. An employee told her he'd called in sick the last two days. He wouldn't give out Saul's address but with a little pleading Jackie got his home phone number and used it online to locate his house. She knocked on Saul's front door for ten minutes before tromping down the gravel driveway to the two-story garage behind the house. She'd knocked again hard and entered the peeling side door impatiently.

Something jumped out at her from under the stairs – a boy, except he wasn't a boy anymore. Black eyes in a white-fleshed face, mouth wide and sharp toothed like a screaming lamprey. Jackie uttered her own terrified scream and held him back by grabbing a handful of his hair, her eyes locked with those shining socket portals. She grabbed the pistol and just kept shooting into his chest but he wouldn't go down, frenzied at the scent of his own blood.

Then the stranger appeared, the man she now knew as Jack Schrodinger. He had dispatched Saul upstairs and arrived in time to decapitate the little monster with a garden sickle. The severed head had still tried to bite her foot. Jackie shivered at the memory. Even now she didn't want to say the word. Vampire.

She spotted the ring on a jeweler's bench and pocketed it before following Jack all the way out to a diner in Clifton Springs and then to his hotel. He said the right things, offered her a whiskey flask over lengthy explanations. She went from being overwhelmed to put at ease by this strong man's presence.

That feeling shattered when Jack opened his hotel room door and a pale hand seized him by the throat. A cold French accented voice cut through the dark to offer a simple trade: the ring for Jack's life. Jackie had accepted and been grateful, but Jack never got over it. One moment he'd saved her life and swept her off her feet, and the next he was bought and sold. Jackie learned to accept Jack's pride, even love him for it. But from then on that night consumed him. He just wouldn't let it go.

Jackie also felt profound anger at the creature for killing Saul and the boy and offered her skills to help uncover a trail across five rough-and-tumble years. In that time they'd only caught glimpses of the mysterious Frenchman. They'd also met other hunters, taking good with bad, grown to love and understand each other. They never got close to the ring's owner, but they'd dispatched forty-six other unnatural predators and their thralls along the way. She conditioned herself, learned to fight with flesh and steel. Now she was carved out of brick. Soon everyone in their weird little circle took to calling them the Two Jacks. Jack liked the ring of it. She thought it was stupid. This wasn't a game.

She tried to explain the dichotomy of being a hunter to her Aunt Janice. Once you'd hunted these things, you didn't think like a normal person anymore. It was a rush finding one, but killing vampires was still killing. It was dangerous and messy, just like killing people. They didn't exactly burst into flame or turn to dust, but even if they did, you still had to explain why you were the last ones asking about a person now missing, why you were carrying weapons, UV flashlights, and stakes or an antique gravedigger's shovel, why you were trespassing and had out of state plates. You justified killing human thralls, looting the bodies, and why you were always lying, to townsfolk, to police, to friends and relatives…to yourself. She and Jack might be fighting unholy abominations, but face it, they'd become criminals.
Vampires made mistakes, but even the dumber ones were armed with a ruthless cunning. They could hear you from a hundred yards; smell you from much further. They could be ravenous beasts, but the smarter ones turned their hunger and hatred inward while they rested, gaining keen insights through preternatural patience. Sometimes it was as if they could read your thoughts and desires. Jackie and Jack had also run across a few hot-doggers amongst the hunters they met. She always tried to tell them to keep their heads low and study their prey, pool resources and information with other hunters, swallow pride and pick easy targets until they gained experience. They almost never survived.

You gave up meat and cigarettes to smell neutral, stayed focused and unpredictable, or you died. Jackie's mother always said that what cannot be remedied must be endured, but her endurance was withering. She would go to hell and back for Jack, but five long years had taken their toll.

The Frenchman traveled extensively, but for some reason, he kept returning to upstate New York. No one knew why until Jackie recognized the figure on the signet ring: Vincent of Saragossa, patron saint of vignerons. That led them to the four listed AVA wine regions: Lake Erie, Long Island, Hudson Valley, and the Finger Lakes. Jackie's research helped them pick the right one. Vampires did their best to obscure any trace that they existed at all. But you just had to know where to look. History was Jackie's long lost mistress, and it always left her clues to follow.

In the 1800s several farms around the Finger Lakes belonged to the Underground Railroad, the perfect excuse for disappearances in those days. In one old judicial account, seven slaves simply vanished - not unusual considering, except it also happened to the state posse chasing them, among other local oddities. Jackie's old self emerged and patterns formed. Soon it was merely a process of elimination. The bastard had actually used his real name. The older ones did that sometimes, became overly proud or just neglectful of certain mortal details. Seneca County records listed him as Bertrand Brousseau Treignac, a vigneron from Bordeaux, France. She'd finally found Jack's great white buffalo.

Jackie also recently found an account of a large clairet barrel inside Treignac's wine vault, shipped from Graves in 1799. There was even a picture of it in an old wine magazine from '72. She guessed that the ancient vigneron slumbered inside.

Jack snaked alongside her quietly, pointing to an eastern barn door. She locked eyes with him and kissed him hard. No sneaking in this time. When the sun lit up the door they dashed across the field in a blur of mere seconds. Jack kicked the door in hard and Jackie broke left, flanked by sunlight, her compound crossbow sweeping the cask-lined rectangle. Nothing. Jack ducked in and spotted the barrel at the rear, advancing on it with a pry bar to pop the lid. 

The old container exploded.

Jackie lay stunned but aware enough that Jack was moving beside her. She thought she'd passed out, but it was only the sunlit door being closed. She and Jack were propped against a wall by a large man standing over them. Treignac stood on the loft, looking more the quaint farmer than immortal monster. The ancient Frenchman gave her a knowing look and then turned to Jack.

"I wish to make you an offer, Schrodinger, one I fear you will not accept."

Jack wryly replied, "I'm listening."

"I tire of being chased. I wish only to grow my grapes. If I wanted I could have killed you with that explosive contraption."

Jack grew angry. "Then why didn't you?"

"To let you know I speak the truth now. In any case, someone else would only replace you, as they always have."

"What could you possibly offer? Do you know what you've cost us?"

Jackie felt Treignac's rage. Even the vampire's large henchman quailed.

"Insolent bastard! I've forgotten more suffering than any ten of you remembers. Live as long as I have, then bark at me about cost. Admit it. You are as tired as I, and I offer only respite."

Jack seemed less smug but stood his ground. "What exactly do you propose, Treignac?"

"Stay here. Accept my protection. In return, I will prey only on the worst of men, that humanity would do better without."

Jack blanched. "What about the rest of your kind?"

"I'll tell you where they are...to relieve your pride. You would kill them eventually anyway."

Jackie couldn't believe it. Jack would never agree.

"Uh-huh. And how do we explain living here, Treignac?"

"Because there will be nothing left to hunt, Schrodinger. I appear to die and you and your descendants inherit my estate."

Jack's reckless smugness made Jackie uncomfortable. This was the most dangerous vampire they'd ever faced, perhaps in the entire world.

"One upstate vineyard hardly pays for both of us, let alone any 'descendants.'"

"How uninspired. I am the oldest vigneron on Earth. There are other assets, corporate holdings, lands in France, buried treasures. Soon I will buyout my neighbors and expand my lands. Your child will want for nothing."

Jackie's brow furrowed. "We don't have a child."

Treignac smiled. "I can smell it inside you, Jacqueline. Now Jack's glib tongue bargains for three lives."

Treignac's words struck Jackie like a blow. It was what she always wanted, Jack's child growing inside her. Her child. She looked up at Treignac, her jaw clenched in frustration at being lured and trapped. The vigneron's cold face was impassive, but his eyes bore that knowing look again.

She'd seen this before. Treignac had discovered her hopes and desires by watching her, contemplating with centuries-old patience until he formed a plan to solve his dilemma or ensnare his most implacable enemies for good. She would have to convince Jack that taking Treignac's offer was the only way out, or Treignac would kill them and the baby right here. She felt the cold horror of it in her gut. Jack would never agree. The next few moments were a blur. She remembered pleading with him, explaining the results of refusing. Jack's response confirmed his prideful ignorance.

She didn't even really hear what he'd said, just that it wasn't the answer it was supposed to be. Striking Jack across the head with the shovel was the hardest thing she ever did. For that, Treignac embraced her like a daughter.

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Jackie waited a year for that morning to come again, crouched with her daughter at Jack's grave beside the fallow vineyard rows. She thought about naming her Jacqueline but decided instead to call her Claret. Jack's headstone was overshadowed by a large container blocking the sun. Treignac's barrel.

The old vigneron almost never drank wine, even his own, but Jackie had played on his sympathy to toast the new vines on the first anniversary of Jack's death. Now Treignac slumbered in a deep torpor, drugged from the glass she'd given him. Jackie handed Claret to her Aunt Janice, telling her to get inside as she turned toward the barrel with the old grave digger's shovel in her hand. Tears streamed down her face as she raised it above her head, its sharp shadow falling onto the lid.

"This one's for you, my love."

To her, those five years on the road with Jack were a bittersweet eternity of heaven and hell. It was Bonnie and Clyde all the way, love and bullets to the end. Treignac thought he'd tamed the hunter inside her, but she didn't care how old he was or what he'd suffered through.

She just wanted something for her troubles.



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