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Then a tremble seemed to rippled through the earth under his feet, something different, not caused by the twisting bodies. The first contraction of the swamp’s dark womb as it readied its unholy child for birth. He flashed Lois a razor-sharp smile.


“It’s happening, baby! Can you feel it?”


Lois ran a tongue over the serrated line of her fangs and ran her fingers over her blood-gorged loins. Beneath their feet, the earth groaned in pain.


4


They encountered no other roadblocks as they swept along the road, though they passed dozens of wrecked cars. Beside the road a few farmhouses burned like lonely torches, but most of the houses stood dark and empty, surrounded by fields of blighted corn and shadows.


The road unraveled under the car and the miles fled away behind them. Mike closed his eyes and leaned back against the cushions. His hands were still clamped around the intricate hilt of the katana, and his lips moved as if in prayer. He realized he was doing that and stopped, and try as he might he could not recall what words his lips had formed or what prayer he had said, if it was a prayer at all.


Mike felt totally alienated from the others, as if he were from another world or part of a different species; then, darkly, he realized that indeed he was. Ever since he had opened himself up to what he was and who he was, ever since he had let the dhampyr within him emerge, his whole world had changed. He looked at the others and wondered how it was that they could not hear the screams that constantly shrilled in his ears, how they could not sense the huge, pervasive atmosphere of total malevolence that was clamped down over the entire town.


Crow reached back and took Val’s hand and their eyes met. She mouthed the words “I’m scared.” He nodded and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, and his own lips formed the words “I love you.” It wasn’t much to offer each other, but it was the only talisman they had to share.


As LaMastra drove, he tried not to think about what was going to happen. The sight of Frank Ferro charred and blackened in death was burned into the front of his brain, regulating his rage, keeping the gas turned up. It kept the fear banked.


He flicked a glance now and then at the others, seeing them in the rearview mirror, watching as they prepared for what was ahead. Twice he saw something weird and almost spoke up. It was there and gone, just a shimmer in the air of the backseat between Mike and Val. There and gone when he blinked.


“We’re here,” LaMastra said quietly, and Crow turned as the H1 approached the turnoff to Dark Hollow Road. “God help us all.”


There was no reception for them, no guard unit of vampires. Griswold was incredibly confident, or arrogant.


LaMastra made the turn. Everyone checked their weapons for the twentieth time and slapped pockets to feel the reassuring bulges of extra ammunition. Val took a jar of garlic oil from her pocket, smeared some on, and handed it around. When Crow was finished, he handed it back to Val, who reached forward and dabbed some on LaMastra’s throat and face as he fought the car along the rutted road.


Then, suddenly they were in the clearing. LaMastra eased the car to a stop and switched off the engine.


Crow turned in his seat and faced the others, though inside the shadowy car he could barely see them; even so they all felt each other’s presence. “No pep talk, no rousing speech,” he said. “We go in fast and dirty, and we kill as many of them as we can. Val, if I die, you can’t go to pieces, just as I can’t if you’re killed. That’s the way to lose a war. If any of us dies, then the others have to stay focused.”


“They killed my family,” Val said tightly. “I want them all dead.”


“Vince?”


The cop grunted. “Frank may have been a stuffy old fart, but he was a good man. And he was my friend. I think I deserve some kind of payback.” He paused and grunted again; maybe it was a laugh. “Besides, we LaMastras are hard sonsabitches to kill.”


“Yeah, so I noticed.” Crow turned to where Mike’s silhouette crouched on the edge of the back seat. “Mike?”


“You know what I think,” he said and jerked open the door.


LaMastra glanced at his retreating back. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer there’s got attitude.”


“Lay off him, Vince,” said Crow.


“Hey, it’s not criticism. I just don’t want to have to waste time protecting him, you dig?”


Val jacked a round into her shotgun. “This is war. Everyone pulls their own weight.”


They got out. The ATVs were out of gas, but Crow picked up the gasoline sprayer unit and slipped it on as they all looked down the hill. He took coils of rope from the duffels strapped to the ATVs, tied them to the bumper of the Hummer, and tossed the ends over the edge. Overhead the storm clouds had thinned and there was a hint of moonlight, just enough to paint pale silver on the descending line of shrubs. They lingered at the top for only a moment, and then without a further word they started down the hill, using the ropes as guidelines but moving fast, hurrying toward the swamp.


Chapter 47


1


“Party time!” Vic said.


Jonatha heard the faint squeak of a hinge and turned to see the two tall cabinets beside the door open. Two men stepped out, both of them grinning at Vic’s little joke.


“Jonatha! Look out!” she heard Newton shout through the open doorway, but his call ended in a choking cough.


Jonatha screamed and brought her shotgun up as one of the monsters lunged at her. There was a huge explosion and the recoiling stock hit her hard in the stomach. The vampire fell on her and bore her to the floor; she landed hard and shoved at him, and was surprised when the creature just rolled off and lay still. Then she saw the ragged red hole in its chest, and understood.


She scrambled to a sitting position and swung the gun around, but the trigger clicked empty. She’d forgotten to jack in a new round, and the other vampire simply snatched the weapon from her hands.


“Stupid bitch,” Vic said.


“She killed Marty!” complained the remaining vampire.


“What the hell she have in that gun?”


“Probably garlic,” Vic drawled, and laughed as the vampire suddenly thrust the gun away, not wanting to be anywhere near it. “Go outside and play,” Vic suggested. “I’ll take care of LaKisha here.”


The vampire looked from her to its dead companion, and then with a hiss it leapt past Jonatha and plowed into the crowd of stunned onlookers. The creature grabbed the nurse and clamped its jaws around her throat; blood sprayed the wall. The patients screamed and panicked, colliding with gurneys and wheelchairs and each other. The vampire laughed wildly, tossed the nurse’s body against the wall, and laughed like a happy kid as he chased an old lady down the hall.


Jonatha screeched in horror and fury and made a try for the shotgun, but Vic Wingate backhanded her with shocking force and speed. She pirouetted dizzily and crashed into a row of cabinets, but before she should fall Vic caught her under the armpit, spun her around, and jammed his pistol into her stomach.


“Whoa there, girlie-girl,” he wheezed. “I’ve been having a really bad day. I’ve been just hoping and praying for something to come along to cheer me up. Shows you I’m still in the groove.” He held the pistol in his burned hand and with his other he caressed the curve of her cheek.


In the hall, the vampire was bent over, feeding off the old lady, ignoring the other patients. When he felt the old woman’s heart give out, he plucked her off the floor and threw her at two other patients, who went down in a bone-breaking tumble. He rose and kicked a wheelchair over and stomped down on the head of the old man who toppled out of it. The old man’s head exploded and the vampire smiled. He was at the height of his powers after the long night of killing and feeding. He could kill all of these people if he wanted. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Vic playing with his new toy, and he smiled.


The vampire turned back to the crowd and grabbed the struts on the nearest gurney, on which lay a small man with a pain-gray face. The vampire froze in place, his hands still on the struts. The little man on the gurney was pointing a pistol at him. It was a huge Ruger Blackhawk and its mouth stared blackly at the vampire from less than six feet away. There was no way for the vampire to know if the gun was loaded with ordinary bullets or more garlic, and he paused in uncertainty. Terror and pain were painted all over the patient’s features and his eyes were glassy with fever.


The vampire smiled.


The man smiled.


The vampire lunged at him and the man shot him through the eye.


The blast threw the vampire backward, all life extinguished in a single moment as the garlic-filled dum-dum punched through his brain; the recoil pitched the patient back onto the bed with a chest-jarring thump. Newton dropped the pistol and clutched his shattered chest with both hands as new pain detonated within him.


Vic Wingate made Jonatha back up step by step until they were both at the door. He could see the hallway beyond and he saw the last of his bodyguards go down with his head half blown away. Vic kicked the door shut in the faces of the terrified patients. Keeping the gun in place, he released Jonatha with the other and reached out to turn the lock.


Jonatha knew she was going to die. She knew she was going to die badly, because she had a good idea who this man was—a man with a burned face who worked with the vampires. It had to be the kid’s stepfather. It had to be Vic Wingate. The thought terrified her so severely that she felt horror trying to pull her down into darkness. What was it the kid had said? Vic is Griswold’s right hand. It was Vic who rigged all the explosions. It was Vic who took care of Griswold all these years, who protected him. Vic had been behind most of what happened all along.


Vic saw the defeat in her eyes and licked his blistered lips. His good eye crawled up and down her. “My, my,” he said, “You are something. Just what the doctor ordered,


’cause it’s been a real bitch of a day.”


He backed her up to the examination table; her hip hit it hard and he moved so close to her that she breathed his exhaled breath. Vic put his free hand on her chest, cupping her breasts and hefting their weight. “My oh my oh my, but you are something else. You’re half unreal, you know that, girlie-girl? You’re like a gift from Heaven, you are. You just came down from Heaven to be with ol’ Vic. You’re what a sick man needs to feel good. Shame you’re a nigger, but what the hell, it’s all pink inside.” Open sores oozed clear mucus on his face as he leered at her.

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