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LaMastra dodged another small scuttling form and saw that it was a toddler, no more than two or three. Its mouth was smeared with day-old blood and it had red rat-eyes. The tiny hands clawed the air as it waddled toward him. Vince shot it once in the head and spun away, vomiting onto the wall. But as he turned he had a brief, fleeting image of something black floating toward his head and then there was an explosion of pain and stinging lights and he could feel his body falling. Small, sharp fingers clutched at him as he fell hard. Instantly he felt tiny teeth bite deep into the soft flesh at the crook of his arm, and another bite on his inner thigh. He was helpless, dazed by the fall, and they were feeding on him. He could hear the slurping sounds as tiny mouths drank his precious blood.


Crow rolled over and over with the Cub Scout on his back, the creature’s arms and legs wrapped around him like steel bands. Crow’s samurai sword impeded the roll and with each ungainly revolution it pressed painfully into his floating ribs; his shotgun was gone. The child couldn’t have been more than nine years old and yet was immensely strong. The vampire tore at Crow’s shirt collar, trying to get at his neck—then suddenly stopped, gagging as he encountered the smears of garlic oil on Crow’s skin. Undeterred, the little creature started ripping at the softer flesh of Crow’s armpit. Crow managed to fight his way back onto his knees and then threw his weight backward into the boiler. The metal cylinder made a huge hollow booming sound and Crow felt the pressure release just for a second; he took that second. He slid his hand up between his body and the child’s forearm, wrapped fingers around the thin wrist, and then bent forward sharply and flipped the child off with great force, using the grip on the child’s arm to snap him all the way forward like cracking a whip, and at the end of the movement he yanked back with a sudden jerk. He could feel and hear the bones and tendons of the child’s arm tear and break, and the extended feet of the Cub Scout caught another vampire, a fat boy of twelve, right in the face. The fat vampire fell back and Crow released the Cub Scout’s forearm.


The child’s arm was unnaturally distended, but his face showed no trace of pain, only an intensified hatred. He scrambled back to his feet and ran at Crow, but Crow dodged to one side, diving toward his fallen shotgun. He did a complete roll and came lightly back onto the balls of his feet, shotgun in hand, jacking a round into the breech as he turned. His first blast caught the Cub Scout in the stomach, tearing him into two parts.


Crow heard a cry behind him and saw LaMastra on the ground with two small creatures kneeling on him—feeding on him! With an inarticulate cry of disgust, Crow waded in, clubbing the small bodies aside with the shotgun. One, a pretty little girl with blond braids, hissed at him with a mouth filled with LaMastra’s steaming blood. Crow shot her in the face.


Wheeling, Crow saw that the other vampire, a small olive-skinned boy with a yarmulke bobby-pinned to his hair, was already creeping back toward the dazed sergeant. Crow kicked the vampire in the ribs to knock him back against the wall and shot him in the chest.


Crow wanted to check LaMastra, to see how bad he was, but there was still the fat kid. Crow turned quickly and saw that the child was advancing on him, holding a shovel in two hands. Crow had no way of knowing that it was the same shovel that had been used to knock LaMastra to near-unconsciousness. The boy lunged forward, swinging the long-bladed weapon clumsily but with great force. Crow dodged back, sucking in his gut and evading the shovel’s blade by less than an inch.


As he dodged, Crow caught sight of the kid’s face in the glow of the flare and realized that he knew the kid, knew him well. It was Kurt Bernhardt, the son of Chief Gus Bernhardt. Crow had seen the kid just two days ago in the Crow’s Nest when the boy had come in to buy a Hunchback of Notre Dame costume for Halloween. He opened his mouth to say something, to try to make the kid understand, but the kid swung the shovel again and knocked the shotgun out of his hands.


Crow backpedaled as he clawed his clawed his Beretta out of his shoulder rig. He had to lunge backward to dodge the next swing of the shovel—a slicing blow that would have torn his throat out—and he saw the murderous delight on Kurt Bernhardt’s face as he advanced, swinging the shovel like the Grim Reaper’s scythe.


“I’m sorry,” Crow said and put three rounds into the kid’s head.


Before the kid was even down Crow whirled around, then the world froze in horror as he saw a sight that would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life. The big sergeant lay sprawled in the same position as before, with his arms and legs thrown wide and his limbs streaked with blood. A creature knelt on his chest and was tearing at the stitches on the detective’s jaw. Blood welled and the little thing began sucking at it with desperate greed, then it must have heard Crow’s moan of horror and it raised its head to stare at him with baleful, inhuman eyes. It was the infant who had come crawling out of the utility room with its bloodstained diaper drooping from its desiccated little body, and its two needlelike fangs sprouting from the otherwise toothless mouth. Blood was smeared on its lips and dripped thickly from the fangs as it stared at Crow. The infant could not have been more than a few months old. Just a baby, and they had done this to him. They had corrupted the innocent flesh of an infant and made it into a monster more horrible than anything Crow had ever imagined. The baby lowered its head again to the wound and began drinking.


A sound—a mingled cry of horror, disgust, and appalling sadness—burned its way out of Crow’s chest as he heaved himself back to his feet. He kicked the creature away from LaMastra’s chest and it fell roughly onto the ground, where it landed on its back, arms and legs wriggling. Crow staggered after it, holstering his pistol and then drawing his sword. As the little creature struggled to turn over, Crow braced his legs and raised his sword


“God forgive me,” he said and sank to his knees. The sword fell, and his heart fell with it. He could hear it fall, feel it drop from the anchors in his chest. It toppled down into a lower, darker place, and there it would remain.


Crow heard LaMastra moan and he turned away to see that the detective had managed to get into a sitting position. He was covered in blood and breathing heavily. LaMastra looked around the cellar…at the bodies, adult and children, littered like trash. The violence that had been forced out of both men was humiliating and dehumanizing. LaMastra put his head in his palms and began to cry.


Crow stood in the center of the cellar, feeling the grief twist in him, but they were still trapped in the land of the dead, and neither of them knew what other dreadful things they would have to do in order to escape.


4


A moment later the cellar was rocked by a BOOM! as something outside exploded.


It jolted them both back into the moment, and Crow grabbed LaMastra and hauled him to his feet.


“What the hell was that?” LaMastra demanded.


Their eyes met.


“Frank!” LaMastra said, a smile leaping onto his face. “He’s still alive and he’s trying to get us out of here.”


“Goddamn!” Crow said. “But let’s not sit here and wait. There has to be a way out of here.”


Shaky and sick to their stomachs, they nonetheless picked up their guns—careful not to look too closely at the bodies—and reloaded. They went over to the fourth door, braced it, opened it…and saw the short flight of stone steps leading up to the yard. Crow used his flash to find the lock and LaMastra blasted it apart. The cellar doors flew open and a waft of fresh air buffeted them.


They stumbled up out of the darkness and collapsed with weary gratitude on the withered brown grass behind the house. The wind was cool and damp and the stormy clouds above looked ready to open. They heard a sound and looked up to see hands of flame reach up from the roof of the house, and a great column of smoke twisted its way into the sky.


“Jesus Christ!” LaMastra yelled. “Frank’s torched the place. Is he out of his mind?”


Crow scrambled to his feet, pulling LaMastra, and together they raced along the side of the burning house and then slid to a halt a dozen feet from the porch, stopped by a wall of intense heat. The entire front of the house was ablaze; sheets of flame raced up the wooden columns, eating the timbers and blackening the bricks. The big pile of rubble that had been the porch roof was a bonfire, and lying next to that mass was a single blackened form, wrapped in a cocoon of orange flame.


They stared in horror. The figure was completely burned, the skin charred to a withered skeleton. On its back was the ruptured and melted remains of a garden tank sprayer.


“Oh, no,” said Crow. “No…please no…don’t do this….”


“FRANK!” Vince LaMastra screamed. “Frank….” He sank slowly down to his knees and beat his big fists on the hard earth, calling his friend’s name over and over again.


Crow stood by helpless and appalled.


There was a roar of a truck engine and Crow spun around to see a battered Ford pickup racing away from the burning house. Crow bolted and ran, cutting across the field in a direct line toward the small gap in the trees toward which the truck was heading. If he had had another three or four seconds he might have made it in time, but the pickup was gathering speed as the driver pushed it beyond all sense, driving with reckless abandon over the lumpy earth. Crow screamed at the driver to stop, but the truck rolled on, gaining the entrance to a road Crow had never known existed. The truck spun and jolted onto the road and in seconds it was gone, lost in a cloud of dust.


Crow fired three shots after the truck, hitting it once and obliterating the left taillight, but then the truck was out of range behind trees. LaMastra came pounding up behind him, shotgun at port arms, eyes fierce with the need to kill, to avenge his friend, but Crow shook his head.


“He’s gone.”


“Shit! Who was it?”


Crow had only gotten one good look at the driver’s face, but it was taking him a few seconds to work out who it was. The man had been horribly burned and covered in soot, most of his head hair was gone, melted by the heat of the fire, and one eye was nearly closed, but Crow was almost positive that he knew the man.

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