"Okay," Henry said. "So now we're here."
He was using his "So entertain me" voice, and he was cold but trying not to show it. Pete and I were cold too. We were trying not to show it either. Being cold is not manly. You look at your condensing breath as if it's a surprise to you, what with it being so balmy and all. Even when you've known each other for over thirty years, you do these things. Why? I don't know.
"Yep," I agreed. It wasn't my job to entertain Henry.
Pete walked up to the thick wire fence. He tilted his head back until he was looking at the top, four feet above his head. A ten-foot wall of tautly criss-crossed wire.
"Who's going to test it?"
"Well, hey, you're closest." Like the others, I was speaking quietly, though we were half a mile from the nearest road or house or person.
This side of the fence, anyhow.
"I did it last time."
"Long while ago."
"Still," he said, stepping back. "Your turn, Dave."
I held up my hands. "These are my tools, man."
Henry sniggered. "You're a tool, that's for sure."
Pete laughed too, I had to smile, and for a moment it was like it was the last time. Hey presto: time travel. You don't need a machine, it turns out, you just need a friend to laugh like a teenager. Chronology shivers.
And so - quickly, before I could think about it - I flipped my hand out and touched the fence. My whole arm jolted, as if every bone in it had been tapped with a hammer. Tapped hard, and in different directions.
"Christ," I hissed, spinning away, shaking my hand like I was trying to rid myself of it. "Goddamn Christ that hurts."
Henry nodded sagely. "This stretch got current, then. Also, didn't we use a stick last time?"
"Always been the brains of the operation, right, Hank?"
Pete snickered again. I was annoyed, but the shock had pushed me over a line. It had brought it all back much more strongly.
I nodded up the line of the fence as it marched off into the trees. "Further," I said, and pointed at Henry. "And you're testing the next section, bro."
It was one of those things you do, one of those stupid, drunken things, that afterwards seem hard to understand. You ask yourself why, confused and sad, like the ghost of a man killed though a careless step in front of a car.
We could have not gone to The Junction, for a start, though it was a Thursday and the Thursday session is a winter tradition with us, a way of making January and February seem less like a living death. The two young guys could have given up the pool table, though, instead of bogarting it all night (by being better than us, and efficiently dismissing each of our challenges in turn): in which case we would have played a dozen slow frames and gone home around eleven, like usual - ready to get up the next morning feeling no more than a little fusty. This time of year it hardly matters if Henry yawns over the gas pump, or Pete zones out behind the counter in the Massaqua Mart, and I can sling a morning's home fries and sausage in my sleep. We've been doing these things so long that we barely have to be present. Maybe that's the point. Maybe that's the real problem right there.
By quarter after eight, proven pool-fools, we were sitting at the corner table. We always have, since back when it was Bill's place and beer tasted strange and metallic in our mouths. We were talking back and forth, laughing once in a while, none of us bothered about the pool but yes, a little bit bothered all the same. It wasn't some macho thing. I don't care about being beat by some guys who are passing through. I don't much care about being beat by anyone. Henry and Pete and I tend to win games about equally. If it weren't that way then probably we wouldn't play together. It's never been about winning. It was more that I just wished I was better. Had assumed I'd be better, one day, like I expected to wind up being something other than a short order cook. Don't get me wrong: you eat one of my breakfasts you're set up for the day and tomorrow you'll come back and order the same thing. It just wasn't what I had in mind when I was young. Not sure what I did have in mind - I used to think maybe I'd go over the mountains to Seattle, be in a band or something, but the thought got vague after that - but it certainly wasn't being first in command at a hot griddle. None of ours are bad jobs, but they're the kind held by people in the background. People who are getting by. People who don't play pool that well.
It struck me, as I watched Pete banter with Nicole when she brought round number four or five, that I was still smoking. I had been assuming I would have given it up by now. Tried, once or twice. Didn't take. Would it happen? Probably not. Would it give me cancer sooner or later? Most likely. Better try again, then. At some point.
Henry watched Nicole's ass as it accompanied her back to the counter. "Cute as hell," he said, approvingly, not for the first time.
Pete and I grunted, in the way we would if he'd observed that the moon was smaller than the earth. Henry's observation was both true and something that had little bearing on our lives. Nicole was twenty three. We could give her fifteen years each. That's not the kind of gift that cute girls covet.
So we sat and talked, and smoked, and didn't listen to the sound of balls being efficiently slotted into pockets by people who weren't us.
Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter.
His first novel, Only Forward, won the August Derleth and Philip K. Dick awards. His second, Spares, is under option at Paramount, and his fourth, The Straw Men, was a Sunday Times bestseller. He is the winner of three British Fantasy Awards for short story, and his new collection, More Tomorrow and Other Stories, has been nominated for the International Horror Guild award. Six stories are currently under option for television and film. His new novel, The Lonely Dead, is published by HarperCollins in May 2004.
Michael grew up in America, South Africa and Australia before returning to the UK at the age of nine. He studied Philosophy at Cambridge and wrote and performed comedy for BBC radio before becoming a graphic designer. He became a professional writer on the publication of Only Forward in 1994.
He is currently developing film and television projects and preparing to write a new novel. He lives in North London with his wife and two cats.
Michael's notes on the writing of the story follow:
I've written a few vampire stories before - if you work in the horror genre, you sort of have to - but they've always ended up quite oblique.
I personally think that the longevity and attraction of the vampire myth comes down not to the biting and the blood and the swishy capes, but rather to the stories' underlying messages about what we feel about death, and also about our lives.
The vampires' glamour is so strong that I believe you can do something quite interesting by keeping them out of centre stage, and that's what I've tried to do with this story.
It's set in the Pacific Northwest of America, a beautiful and largely untouched landscape that also forms the setting for The Lonely Dead.