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Blood Debt

I got interested in witchcraft when I was in high school (or maybe even earlier), as an outgrowth of my interest in traditional fantasy. When I became an undergraduate at Iowa the university library gave me more to read on the subject, but the real outpouring of material came in the later '60s when "The Occult" became hugely popular. There's a lot of crossover between the Occult and the more recent New Age, but the earlier version seems to me to have had more sharp edges.

I focused on scholarly sources like Margaret Alice Murray and Montague Summers, writers who purported to collect original documents and theorize from them. I say "purported" because I now know that both authorities were phony.

Murray was a real scholar, but she falsified her cites to show that medieval witchcraft had an organized structure which the facts do not support. Summers was far, far worse. His erudition was as false as his claim of a religious vocation, and his retailing of the worst medieval bits of misogyny (for example, the absurd derivation of femina, female, from femina, "lesser in faith") wears quickly even on me (who can't claim to be a feminist).

I never believed in the effectiveness of witchcraft. If my reading misled me, it was by causing me to accept that numbers of ordinary people in the Middle Ages practiced witchcraft in an organized fashion. That was no more harmful to a fiction writer (which is what I was trying to be) than believing in a reality behind the Airship Flap of 1897, now known to be a hoax, hurt "Travelers," one of my best novellas.

The thing is, though I don't believe in witchcraft at a gut level, I'm intellectually convinced that there's something real out there. Occasionally I ran into a writer—Elliott O'Donnell in his fiction (rather than his non-fiction) was a prime example—whom I thought and think really understood things that I'd prefer not to know about.

The fact that gangsters in Sierra Leone believed that bullets would bounce off their magically armored bodies didn't prevent the SAS from stacking up corpses like cordwood when they went in to rescue British hostages. Likewise, my personal disbelief in witchcraft won't help me if I'm attacked by someone who can manipulate occult powers. The effectiveness of the weapon doesn't depend on the belief system of the target. That's the background from which I wrote "Blood Debt." On rereading it, I'd say that the story accurately reflects my combination of scholarship and skepticism, leavened by the tiniest measure of fear.


The shadow of the house next door razored down Rigsbee's in the winter dawn. First the red light tinged the wrought-iron rail of the widow's walk. Spidery star-shapes writhed in the glow, the uprights molded as blunt arrowheads and the slanted pairs of limbs linked with fanciful hands. Below, the dark green shingles of the mansard roof sharpened but did not brighten when the light touched them. Only the small-paned French window winked back at the sun.

The left half was off the catch and swung as the air stirred around it. The dawn paled as it glided more swiftly down the white sidewalls of the second story, walking the crazy angles of the trellis and the ancient ivy clambering up into the gutters. There were already lights on in the kitchen on the ground floor. The tall, blonde woman put a last plate on the breakfast tray, then pushed the stairwell door open with her heel. She moved with precision, as she had for forty years. Life, ignoring her hopes and trampling her certainties, had been unable to change that; but crow's feet now softened the hard lines of her face.

Her shoes rapped steadily up the back stairs, pausing at the triangular landing where her dress flashed through the slit window before swinging up the flight. The old house had high-ceilinged rooms and she liked the feel of them, though of course heating was a great expense to Mr. Judson. She made out the checks herself, who should know better.

A bolt snicked back and the door to the second floor opened before she had to knock. Judson Rigsbee was wrapped in a velvet robe—the green one, this morning—and smiling at her."Good morning, Mrs. Trader; I hope you slept well."He did not smile often, and even with her it was a slightly uncomfortable expression, that of a stranger who is afraid to embarrass by seeming over-warm.

Mrs. Trader set the breakfast things neatly on the table inside the door—toast, poached eggs, coffee; the big glass of orange juice. Mr. Judson didn't care for orange juice but she insisted, it was good for him. The man would waste away to nothing if she didn't bully him—no chance Anita would stir a finger for her uncle.

"Thank you, I did indeed," the tall woman said aloud. "Now that Harvey and Stella are back together, I haven't been having those headaches at all, Mr. Judson."

"Well, I'm certainly glad," he said diffidently. He edged back slightly from the housekeeper's determined confidences, a pudgy-seeming man of fifty with no hardness showing except in his eyes.

"I'm certain I don't understand men," Mrs. Trader plowed on as she poured the coffee, "not even my own boy. They were as sweet a couple as you could find, he and Stella. For five years, and I'll say it even though I didn't want the marriage myself, they were too young. And then with the little one due any day, there Harvey goes off with never a word to Stella or even to me. But he was there in the waiting room when Kimberly was born, and Stella took him back though I wouldn't have blamed her if she hadn't . . . . But it was a weight off my mind."

"Thank you, Mrs. Trader."

"Thank you, sir." She gathered up the part-loaded tray and stepped crisply up the remaining double flight of polished hardwood. Mr. Judson was looking peaked and she did wish he would eat bacon in the morning, but on that score he was more determined than she."Orange juice or bacon, Mrs. Trader, but not both. Male, both of them, and together they would overbalance me hopelessly." Terrible things, queasy stomachs, and the green robe did nothing for his complexion. A pretty thing it was by itself with all the astrology symbols in silver on the hem, but not proper dress for a sickly man in the morning.

She rapped smartly on the door to the third story, squarely in the middle of the great red-lacquer eye Anita had painted there."If Uncle Jud won't let me bolt my door, I at least have to know who's coming, don't I?" the girl had sneered. Mr. Judson never talked very much about his sister, but Mrs. Trader could guess that she had been the wild one of the family. Who could be surprised that the daughter took after the mother when the poor child had not so much as a father's name to bear?

A second knock brought no response. The baleful eye waited, unblinking. Well, this was the first time it had happened, but Mrs. Trader was not slow to act. Mr. Judson insisted the house be run to a schedule so as not to disturb his work. Anita should have learned that in the months she had stayed here. If she hadn't, well . . . . Mrs. Trader swung open the door.

The room within, its walls skewed a little to the shape of the roof, was far different from Rigsbee's own austere sitting room below. The dormers were blacked out by locked shutters; a volcano lamp lighted the rug and brocade chairs, but it had overheated during the night. Its paraffin and oil were in ugly stasis within the red glass base. Mrs. Trader switched it off as she strode past into the middle room.

A pentagram had been freshly chalked on the floor; the candles at its points still stood at half their original lengths, snuffed before they burned out, and the air was heavy with incense. "Anita, it's eight-thirty," Mrs. Trader called. Aping her uncle, she thought as she glanced around the room distastefully. Though in fairness to the girl, that couldn't be true. Mrs. Trader had seen the paraphernalia arrive with the rest of Anita's baggage. Runs in the family, then.

The girl failed to come to the bedroom door either. Mrs. Trader sniffed and unlatched it herself without knocking again.

The window slammed shut in the sudden air current. It left a damp chill in the room. The walls were a brilliant, metallic yellow that matched the spread, now rumpled at the foot of Anita's bed. Anita, too, was rumpled. The coils of hair that lay silken over the sheets beneath her were no blacker than her protruding tongue. The breakfast tray slipped, smearing the golden carpet with strawberry preserve and coffee.

Mrs. Trader turned stiffly and walked toward the stairs. A candle holder smashed unnoticed beneath her foot as she strode through the middle room. "Mis—" she started, but her voice cracked and she had to lick her lips before trying again. "Mr. Judson!"

Rigsbee opened the door just in time to catch the rigid woman as she stumbled on the last step and fell toward him. The unexpected impact drove them back into his sitting room. For once, Mrs. Trader would not meet her employer's eyes as she blurted, "Dead, Mr. Judson, she's dead and murdered. Oh dear God! In her own bed!"

Rigsbee rotated the blonde woman's weight into the room, then disengaged her arms to dart up the stairs. She wept in one of the straight-backed chairs until he returned; and her tears were real, but they were shed for the thing and not the girl herself.

Rigsbee was very quiet when he came back a few minutes later. His slippers rasped a little on the steps, that was all. The skin of his face was almost the color of his neutrally short gray hair. "Look at me, Elinor," he said softly. His fingers, gentle but inexorable, guided her jaw around when she was slow to obey. He was a little man in a comic robe, but his eyes were molten zinc. "You will go home now and forget all that you saw upstairs. When you return tomorrow, you will never have known Anita, there will never have been anyone living on the third floor. Do you understand?"

"Yes." The voice from Mrs. Trader's lips was not her own, but it ruled her.

* * *

Alone in the center of his three rooms, Rigsbee changed into white. The symbols worked into the robe's borders were of thread the same shade, differing only in texture from the base cloth.

"Well?" a voice inquired from a corner.

Rigsbee shrugged. His bald spot was more apparent whenever he was depressed. "She was my niece. She was the last of my blood."

"You know what she was," the voice rasped. "She was a slut, a whore—"

"Some things are necessary. . . "

"Not to her. She was never that deep in—"

"She was my blood!"Rigsbee's voice racketed through the dim room and shook it to silence. He turned toward the outer wall, clasping his hands to keep them from trembling. The windows on that side were blocked by the bookshelves running the length of the long wall. Spines of blue, green, and dull red library tape marched across the polished walnut with no markings beyond a few digits in white ink. He touched one of them.

Each thin volume was a typescript of Rigsbee's own production, bound by him between sheets of gray card. No one had helped during the typing or compilation. Partly Rigsbee's purpose had been to give the volumes the slight added virtue resulting from that close contact with him. More important, however, was another consideration: each typescript was treble-columned with groups of letters and numbers in no order that would have made sense to one not adept. Rigsbee had not intentionally encoded the results of his years of searching, but the form of notation he had come to use was far more specialized than Latin and Arabic symbols could accommodate in their normal values. One trivial error of pagination, one transposition among millions of letters, unnoticed and unnoticeable, would mean instant disaster in the dark moment when the data were used again.

A very few of the cased books were not of Rigsbee's own composition. His hand moved to one of them: squat, age-blackened; its pigskin binding cracking away from the cords. He knew by heart every word of the cryptic Latin text, but he had never before seriously contemplated using it. The pages opened stiffly, parting with difficulty under his fingertips.

"You would go that far?" the voice behind him asked mournfully.

Rigsbee closed the book before answering, "Punishment that stopped with the body would not—would not for me—be enough. The finality of that act, whoever did it, can't be answered by a gas chamber or a motor accident. I'm sorry, Vera; but I have no choice."

And, "No," he said sharply, wheeling with a strand of diamond in his voice before his listener could reply, "don't tell me that I'll have to give up all this, this. . . " Rigsbee's voice broke but his hand slashed an arc across the room. The books, the retorts joined by crystalline worms of tubing; the charts rolled in one corner beneath the ancient astrolabe."That's already gone, it's dead. If I ignored what has happened . . . Vera, I wouldn't be the same man, the man who . . . did the things I have done."

His face was carved from gray steel. If he felt any hesitation, none of it trembled in his throat when he said, "You'll help me, Vera."

"So close," the voice whispered. "In this short time—and you will understand how short it was, some day before you are as old as I—you came closer to unity than I have done in all these ages. And now, nothing."

"Vera. You'll help me?"

"Even to make the responses to you would bring me closer to the Blackness than a thousand cycles of the Fire would erase. Dos Lintros tried to walk that line after he wrote the book you hold. Where is he now, since they came for him?"

"I know," Rigsbee admitted softly.

"You know? You think you know!" the voice shrieked. "But you will know, Judson, for eternity you will know if you . . . .

"But it's no good to tell you that, is it?" the voice went on. "You will do this thing, I see. And you are wiser than I can ever hope to be; but because of what I am, I know things that you only accept. Not even you, Judson, can imagine what you are about to do to yourself. To your soul."

Rigsbee shrugged, ran a hand through his thinning hair while his eyes stared unseeing at the numbered spines of his volumes. "I'm sorry, Vera—"

"Goodbye." Her word was as soft and as dull as the first handful of dirt on a coffin. Rigsbee shuffled to the corner, let his hand brush down the wire cage. The albino starling within croaked, darted its head forward to spike the ball of his thumb.

"Goodbye, Vera," Rigsbee muttered, and he turned away again.

* * *

The back door groaned. The lock had worked smoothly, but the hinges were frozen with the grit of long disuse. The girl glanced up the outer wall before entering. It was too dark to tell the ivy from the trellis it climbed.

"Nice place," she said as she followed Rigsbee up the stairs. Her knee-length coat was of a plastic imitation cowhide, now torn at two of the seams. The belt was missing and she held the front closed with one thin, white hand."You been here long?"

"Most of my life," Rigsbee said as he unlocked the door to the second story. Despite the dimness of the stairwell, he inserted his key without fumbling.

Again the girl hung back, hipshot, in the doorway. She was a dark brunette; long snarls of hair bobbled against her coat as she suddenly giggled. "Aren't the neighbors gonna wonder if they saw me come in?" She laughed again, stepping over the threshold with an exaggerated stateliness. Shrugging away the coat, she tossed it onto one of the straight chairs and stood in tank top and jeans. Most of the bright embroidery had worn away. Her bare toes, poking through handmade sandals, were an unhealthy blue beneath their coating of grime.

"This way," Rigsbee directed briefly, swinging the stair door shut and motioning the girl inward toward his study.

" 'Cause if you don't care," she went on, speaking over her shoulder as she slowly obeyed Rigsbee, "this doesn't have to be a one night stand, you know."

Rigsbee's glance took in her too-thin face, her too-white skin. "That won't be necessary," he said flatly. "It's in the next room."

"It wouldn't be so much," the girl said with unshakable coquetry. "I mean, not another of these—very often." Both hands lifted the thin top up over the waistband of the jeans. A hundred dollar bill, folded vertically into eighths, was poked into the jeans on her midline. "I couldn't put it in the top," she said with another giggle. Raising the thin cloth higher, the girl pirouetted back toward Rigsbee. The motion flung out her breasts, bare beneath the hiked blouse. They were not large but seemed surprisingly full for a body so thin; the areoles were almost black against the dingy pallor of her flesh.

Rigsbee stepped past her, his neutral expression unchanged. He swung the room's other door soundlessly toward him. White light flooded out."Go in," he ordered, holding the portal open. Its inner face was covered with a thin, hard fabric that seemed less reflectant than self-luminous. Despite the strangeness of it, the girl obeyed this time without hesitation. Her motion slowed; then, three steps inside the final room, she stopped completely.

The whole chamber and its only furnishing, a circular couch, were covered in the slick fabric. The high ceilings of the old house had allowed Rigsbee to dome the material smoothly in the center of the room without making the edges uncomfortably low. The light was not harsh but was shadowless and omnipresent, the interior of a cold, white star. Rigsbee entered behind the girl, closing the door on the last rectangle of reality left to the room. In his right hand swung the bird cage from his study. The starling hopped uneasily on its perch.

The girl let her blouse fall; her head rotated, taking in featurelessness."Hey, this is unreal," she whispered. A hesitant step brought her to the couch. It was firm to the touch, warmer than blood."You really go all out, don't you?" she said. For the first time, there was a trace of something genuine in her voice.

Rigsbee slid off his shoes and stepped onto the couch. The cage hung from the center of the dome on a hook that had been invisible until then. "It's time now.

You can take your clothes off," he said. He loosed the gold-shot sash he wore over his street clothes as a belt.

The girl pulled the top over her head, freeing it with a sharp tug when it caught in a loop of hair. With the same motion, she flipped the garment carelessly toward the wall. Seating herself on the edge of the couch, she hooked one long, slim-jointed toe over the backstrap of the other sandal, then paused. The surgical coldness of the light bit at her. "I—" she began. She hugged her breasts close without sexual intent. "Look," she said, "you want me to take a shower? I mean, they shut the water off. . . "

"I hired you as you are," Rigsbee answered bleakly. "Afterwards you may bathe or not, as you please. Get off the rest of your clothes."

The girl obeyed without enthusiasm. Both sandals struck the wall. They should have clattered but did not. She thrust the folded bill into a side pocket before sliding the ragged jeans down her thighs. "Look," she repeated, her eyes on Rigsbee's short, soft body so as not to have to see her own so clearly, "have we got to have the lights so bright?"

For the first time that night, Rigsbee smiled. "Yes," he said, the tight rictus of irony still on his face as he reached for the girl, "but they'll dim later."

As she began the ancient mechanisms of her trade, the girl wondered again how a room with no visible light source could be so brilliant. Then, without paling, the lucence began to slip from white to violet in waves as mindless as the sea's.

The room was yellow-green, a throbbing chartreuse that washed the fine gray hairs of Rigsbee's chest into a new-sewn field. "Again," he said quietly.

"Again, honey?" The girl ran her calloused palm over his belly with something like affection as she snuggled closer. "Say, you're not bad. But this time—" She repositioned herself with a silken movement on the glowing couch.

"Yes," Rigsbee muttered in a gelatinous voice as he bent. The girl's high-thrusting legs flickered shadows across her prominent rib-cage. And the light in the room glissaded to orange.

* * *

Garnet light the color of congealing blood oozed across them. Rigsbee rose to his feet awkwardly. The girl squirmed on the couch, stretched. "Now what, honey?"

"Nothing." Rigsbee's eyes were focused beyond the throbbing walls of the room. "Now you can leave."

Plucked eyebrows arched in surprise. "What's the matter? Wasn't I good?"

His tone itself a manner of ignoring the girl, Rigsbee went on, "The thing I had to do required that I be . . . sexless, that will suffice, to contact those who can aid me. With a female associate with whom I could have merged my spirit, I could have become a neuter entity. That was . . . "

He looked at the starling. It felt the impact of his eyes, the thin ruby whites around pupils which were still metal gray. The bird squawked, hopped to the far end of its perch.

" . . . impossible under the circumstances," Rigsbee continued. "Where the body goes, the spirit must follow, then. It became necessary that I drain a part of my nature, the masculine portion. For that, I needed you. Nothing more."

"My God," the girl said, rising from her back to her elbows. "You mean you didn't even want to fuck?"

"You?" Rigsbee asked wearily.

"God, that's dirty!"the girl hissed. Grimy hands levered her shanks back across the couch to the edge.

Rigsbee laughed, a humorless cackle of sound that echoed in the room. "Yes. It is," he agreed, the skin stretched bone-tight across his face. "Far fouler than you can dream. I made the contact that I . . . desired."

He lifted down the bird cage."Shall we see what they say?"The starling chopped at Rigsbee's hand as he slipped it through the cage door. His pudgy fingers were swifter than the bird; thumb and forefinger closed about its neck and hooked it from the cage.

"What—"the girl blurted. Her muscles tensed as she tried to remember which swatch of burning fabric hid the exit.

Rigsbee was not speaking aloud, but the agonized tremors creeping across his flesh showed his concentration. The bird seemed forgotten, clasped in both his hands. The fingers on its throat kept the starling from crying, but it had enough freedom to snap its pinions. The feathers clattered together like boards slapping.

Rigsbee shifted his grip, then wrenched his fists in opposite directions. The girl's scream covered the faint pop as the starling's neck parted. The bird's tiny heart thumped out two powerful jets, the last choking off as the veins feeding it emptied.

The adept's eyes stared at the floor. Half-unwillingly, the girl leaned over to see what was there. Instead of lying in a ragged pool with satellite splotches, the blood was crawling of its own volition into connected words. The letters were spidery but perfect, and they stood out ironically black against the sanguine background:


"My hounds await," Rigsbee whispered. He began to laugh. His mouth was open, lips unmoving, and the empty syllables tumbled out in a terrible cacophony.

"Stop!" the girl screamed, and she clapped her hands over her ears. Rigsbee took no notice of her shuddering frame. He raised both hands in the air, choked off his laughter as if by main fore, and shouted a word, inhuman and ghastly with power. For the girl, for all the world but Rigsbee and one other, time froze in that instant.

The red robes slipped over his head easily. They had no designs worked into them, and they billowed loosely, sashless. The bloody light permeating the chamber coalesced as Rigsbee moved, flowing into the semblance of an ape's skull hanging in the air before him. It leered, then glided silently through the door which opened for it. Rigsbee followed, his scuffling slippers making the only sounds in the static house.

Down the stairs into the street. The skull's pace was a deliberate walk, the certain leisure of the squad escorting the tumbril. Other movement joined Rigsbee; gentle rustlings from the ivy, a tremulous scraping of metal on masonry. Only a petrified night scene showed in the wash of scarlet light preceding him. Streetlights no longer poured their mercury blue in pools on the asphalt. A car was caught rigid in the middle of a turn, the tip of its driver's cigar dead and black. A dog skipped for the curb—one foot in the street and the other three in the air so that its brindled body hung at an impossible angle. House after high, old house, built close to the sidewalks with walled courts in back for privacy. Rigsbee followed his guide without turning his head to look for the things tittering just beyond his zone of vision.

Newer houses, smaller but set back further. Rigsbee's monocentric mind had no idea how far he had walked. The skull halted at last, rotated tremblingly toward a brick-veneer residence. Rigsbee remained where he was, a hundred feet back in the middle of the street. His guide eased forward. The reflectors of the old Buick in the carport winked back in carmine brotherhood.

The inside of the house showed as red light approached, flooded through the front window. A woman had pulled the drapes back in the instant before stasis. Now she stared unseeing at the glass, her hair rinsed black and the cover of the baby in her arms striped red on red.

Shockingly loud in a universe that had only scufflings and scratching, a man's voice slashed out of the house, "Did you finally come, Rigsbee? I've been waiting for you."

A moment's pause. The front door banged back, the screen squealed open. The man on the narrow porch was tall, his hair a brighter yellow than his mother's in any normal light. Now it was a crown of dull carbuncle burning over his anguished face.

"Where are you, Rigsbee?" Trader called, taking a step out onto the gravel sidewalk, a step nearer the skull motionless in the air. "I know you're behind this. Your witch of a niece told me what you are.

"Do you want me to say it? I killed her! You can send me to any Hell you please, but I killed Anita and I'm glad of it. I rid the world of her!"

"She was my daughter, Harvey." Unlike Trader's harsh, desperate tones, Rigsbee's words were almost inaudible. His robes hung motionless, a frozen torrent of blood.

Trader took three steps down the gravel. The ape skull blocked his path without moving. A curse twisted Trader's powerful face and he spat at the thing. It burst soundlessly into a ball of glowing vapor that slowly dissipated in the still air. The murky red light continued to flow about the two men after its apparent source was gone.

"I wouldn't have anything to do with her," the younger man said tautly. "I told her Stella was plenty for me, even with the baby coming. But she couldn't take that, not your Anita, and she'd have me anyway. Up the ivy and in her window, Rigsbee, every night. And I couldn't go home in the mornings, then, and face Stella."

Rigsbee closed his eyes, rubbed them as if he were tired. Trader continued to advance, narrowing the distance between them. The globe of light shrank with every step he took. Beyond it, gravel skittered impatiently.

"I broke away when Kim was born," the tall man went on, his words as brittle as a coping saw on glass. He stretched his arms out in instinctive supplication. "She was . . . you can't imagine, Rigsbee! Hadn't she had enough? She'd proved she could take me away once, why did she have to—"

For the first time, Rigsbee stared straight into the other's tortured eyes. His tone softer than a fledgling's down, the adept said, "Harvey, when you strangled Anita, you made this certain. You and I are as much a part of nature as the sun and stars are, and our courses are as fixed. You chose then the course for both of us, and there is no changing now.

"Goodbye, Harvey." And Rigsbee raised his hand.

The world brightened stunningly as if the sun had risen scarlet. Harvey lurched back in shock, seeing what came scrabbling toward him. He tried to run.

A slender hand of wrought iron snatched his ankle. The railing from Rigsbee's house now scampered on the lawn, fifty separated manikins. Harvey screamed as his ankle crunched under the black fingers. Fifty faceless, pointed heads tossed in delight. They clanked as they minced toward their frenzied quarry, trembling as each new howl cut the air.

Trader disappeared behind the living fence. The human noises ceased a moment later when something round and bloody pitched into the air.

The light began to fade. Before long there was only a dull glow surrounding Rigsbee. Then the full moon came out and traffic moved again.

* * *

Dawn rained on the city. Rigsbee's empty house brightened slowly in the wan gray. A spatter of droplets whipped the shingles, followed by a pale drizzle that flowed over the eaves and splashed to the ground in sheets. The spidery pentacles of the railing blackened under the impacts of the rain, and the gutters ran red.

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