Chapter 9

We crouch in the shadows two blocks down the street from the warehouse as I load my high-powered rifle, especially equipped with laser-guided scope and fat silencer. At our backs are two gasoline trucks, with two huge tankers hooked on to each one. We didn't even have to go to a refinery to steal them. Leaving the ghetto, we just spotted the blasted things heading toward the freeway. I accidentally pulled in front of one and got my car slightly damaged. Both drivers climbed out, and I started screaming at them. How dare you ruin my brand-new car! I just bought it! Man, you are going to pay big time!

Then I smacked their heads together and took their keys. I figure they should be waking up soon, in the dumpster where I dropped them. Ray helped me drive one of the tankers back to the warehouse. For once, he seemed to be enjoying himself-the thrill of the hunt. Then the sun came up. Since that time, fifteen minutes ago, he has been hiding under a blanket and wiping at his burning eyes. He doesn't complain, though. He never does.

I finish loading the rifle and prop my left elbow on one knee, steadying the barrel in the direction of the big black dog closest to our end of the lot. Not only do I have to shoot each animal cleanly in the head, I must shoot between the holes in the wire fence. A stray bullet could ruin the whole plan. The dog growls as if sensing my attention, and I notice the blood that trickles from its saliva and the way it shakes when the sun catches in its eyes. Another Eddie Fender sur?prise.

An hour before dawn Eddie returned with a dozen partners. All together there are twenty-one vampires inside, all powerfully built males. With them they have two terrified Caucasian couples-breakfast. The four people started screaming the moment they were taken inside and didn't stop until their throats were ripped open. Ray paced miserably the whole time, insisting that we attack right then.

But I refused to risk the human race for the lives of four people.

"I would almost rather you were shooting people," Ray mumbles, hiding beneath the dirty orange cover?ing. His blanket is a gift from a local homeless person. I gave the guy five hundred dollars for it and told him to flee the area. Although we are well shaded by a nearby brick wall, Ray's brow is covered by a film of sweat and he can't stop blinking. His bloodshot eyes look as if they have been sprayed with kerosene.

"If it's any consolation," I say, "these dogs are worse than rabid."

"What do you mean?"

"He has given them his blood."

"No way. Vampire dogs?"

"It could be worse. It could be vampire fish. Think of a school of those swimming the ocean. We'd never be able to find them all."

Ray chuckles weakly. "Can we go fishing up north after this is all over?"

"Sure. We can go salmon fishing in the streams in Washington. And you'll be pleased to know you won't need a fishing rod to catch them."

"I might still use a rod." He adds, "I used to go fishing with my dad."

"I did the same with my father," I say truthfully. Before Yaksha killed my father. Yaksha-where can his body be? And what shape is it in? Doubt continues to plague me, but I push it aside. Fixing my aim on the first dog, I whisper to Ray, "I'm going to do them quickly. Don't speak to me for a moment."

"Fine."

I peer into the dog's cruel eye through my scope. Pressing the trigger, there is a gentle swish of air. My caliber is small; nevertheless, the top of the dog's head comes off. Silently it topples over. Its partners hardly notice. But they will soon enough. They will smell the blood, and being infected with Eddie's blood, they may go crazy. But I don't give them the chance. Scarcely pausing between shots, I move from one beast to the next, killing all nine in less than a minute. I set the rifle down and pick up my wire cutters.

"Stay here until I return," I say. "Then be ready to move. If all goes according to plan, we'll be out of here in ten minutes."

Barefoot, soundlessly, I scurry toward the tall fence. Fortune continues to favor us. The hour is early and the street remains deserted. We are not all that far from the Coliseum, perhaps two miles, in a rundown industrial section of town. Cutting a hole in the fence would be unnecessary if I just wanted to ram the warehouse with our trucks and take a flying leap to safety. I have vetoed this idea for two reasons. I worry that Ray, in his weakened condition, would end up getting killed. Also, I believe a more deft approach will ensure we get all the vampires. My sensitive nose has determined that the warehouse was previously used as storage for foam rubber, and that there are still a large number of polyurethane sheets inside. Polyurethane is extremely flammable. It is our inten?tion to quietly park our trucks at either end of the building, light the ten-second fuses attached to the explosive caps I have brought from my L.A. home, and dash for safety. The occupants will be caught between two crushing waves of expanding flame. Behind the warehouse stands the tall brick wall of another abandoned building. The fire will smash against that wall and cut off any chance of a rear escape. And if by chance any of the vampires do manage to get out of the inferno, I will be waiting for them beyond the perimeter of the fence with my rifle. They will go down as easily as the dogs. It is a good plan and it should work.

Still, I worry.

Kneeling by the fence, I quickly begin to cut the wires, searching for guards, or a head appearing at one of the filthy windows, or any sign of movement inside. All is silent and calm. Eddie's newly made vampires are undoubtedly sensitive to the sun and probably can't stand guard after dawn. He may be overconfi?dent of his powers-that is my real hope. My cutters click like sharp electronic pulses over a telephone line. Soon I am laying the wire down on the broken asphalt ground. In less than five minutes I have opened a hole large enough to drive our trucks through. I retreat to Ray and the tankers. Huddling under his blanket, he peers up at me with feverish eyes.

"Wish it were a cloudy day," he mutters.

I nod. "An eclipse would be even better." I offer him my hand. "Are you ready to rock?"

He gets up slowly, his blanket still wrapped around his head, and studies my handiwork from afar. "Are they all asleep?"

"They seem to be."

"Are you sure Eddie's still inside?"

"I saw him go in. I never saw him come out. But he could have sneaked out the back way." I shrug. "We may never get this good a chance. We have to strike now and we have to strike hard."

He nods. "Agreed." He limps toward his truck, and I help him into the driver's seat. "You know, Sita, I don't have a license to drive this big a rig. What we're doing is against the law."

"There are human laws and there are God's laws. We may not be the most lovable creatures in creation, but we are doing the best we can."

He studies me seriously, his entire face now flushed red, soaked in sweat. "Is that true? Is there anything good we can give to the world?"

I hug him. "If we can stop these creatures, our being here will have been justified a thousand times over." I kiss him. "I'm sorry I let the girl die."

He wraps his arm around me. "It wasn't your fault."

"I'm sorry I killed your father."

"Sita." He holds me at arm's length. "You're five thousand years old. You have too much history. You have to learn to live in the present."

I smile, feeling like a foolish child. It is not a bad feeling. Despite all I have seen and done, he is the wise one. Reaching up, I brush his hair aside, out of his eyes, and then all at once I am kissing him again.

"You do remind me of Rama," I whisper in his ear. "So much so that you must be him. Promise me, Ray, and I will promise you. We will stay together- always."

He doesn't answer right away, and I pull back slightly to see what the matter is. He has dropped his blanket and is staring in the direction of the sun, although not directly, since we are still in the shade. But I would think the move would just hurt his eyes more.

"The sky is so blue," he says thoughtfully. "So vast." He turns back to me and chuckles softly. "We're like those vampire fish, lost in that ocean."

I frown. "Ray?"

"I was just thinking of Krishna." He squeezes my hands. "I promise our love will survive." He glances at the warehouse. "You want me to go to the south side?"

"Yes, to the left. Follow me in. Stay close. Drive up with your door slightly ajar. Don't let it bang. Kill the engine as you pass the gate and coast in. Park as close as you can to the building. Don't close your door when you get out. As soon as you can, light the fuse and run. I will hear it burning and light mine. If they try to escape, I will cut them down. We will meet here when it's over. Then we can go fishing." I pause, wanting to add something else, not knowing what it is. "Be careful, Ray."

"You, too, Sita." He touches his heart. "Love you."

I touch mine. The pain is back; it is hard to breathe.

Maybe it is a sign from God.

"Love you," I say.

We cruise toward the warehouse, me first. The hole in the gate easily accommodates the tankers. The head of a dead dog flattens as the front wheel of the rig rolls over it. Turning off the engine, I allow my momentum to carry me toward the rear of the building. My maneuver is trickier than his, and for that reason I have chosen it. I have to swing around the side of the building rather than slide straight in. But there are few human devices I am not master of, and I have drunk the blood of so many long-distance truckers over the years that one could say the skill is deep in my veins. I complete the turn smoothly and park and climb out. My two tankers stand less than five feet from the wall of the building. Out the corner of my eye I notice an ice-cream truck parked down the block.

Still, all is calm, all is quiet. Even to my acute hearing.

Ray's truck, on the far side of the building, has also halted. I hear him climb out of his rig and walk toward the rear of the tanks where I have set the fuse. Yet I hear him stop in midstride, and I don't hear the fuse burning. I count my heartbeats and wait for him to complete his task.

But all is quiet. The fuse stays unlit.

My heart begins to pound.

My rifle over my shoulder, I walk toward the rear of my truck, moving in Ray's direction. Something is wrong, I fear. I cannot ignite my tankers without knowing what the problem is. Yet I cannot explode my gasoline from a distance-at least not easily. A bullet may or may not accomplish the feat. Yet I cannot check on Ray without leaving the fuel. It is a paradox once again-my whole life is. After a moment to consider, I reach out and unscrew the cap at the bottom of the rear tanker. The gasoline gushes out. The warehouse rests on an incline, my end higher than Ray's. Stepping around the comer of the building, the volatile fuel follows me in a bubbling stream, soaking my bare feet. I fear the fumes will alert whoever is inside, yet feel I have no choice. The gasoline runs ahead of me, down toward the other truck. Our bombs will become one.

Now I see Ray's truck, but I do not see him, nor his feet standing behind one of the tankers. Moving slowly, my rifle at the ready, I let my hearing precede me. Inside the building the status remains. Twenty-one vampires sleeping peacefully, their bellies full, their dreams dripping red. There is someone behind the truck, however. Two people, maybe.

Two vampires, maybe.

Faintly I hear their breathing. One is calm and easy. The other gasping, struggling, perhaps against a hand clamped over his mouth. In an instant I know what has happened. Eddie was lying in wait for us. He has caught Ray and is holding him hostage on the passen?ger side of the rig, standing on the step that leads up into the cab. Eddie is waiting for me to come for Ray, to poke my head out. Then he will pounce. I have made the mistake I swore I would not make. I have underestimated an enemy.

It was all a setup. Eddie wanted to trap me.

Yet I do not panic. I don't have time and the day may yet be saved. My hearing has grown more acute over the centuries. I suspect that, even though Eddie is stronger than I, his senses are not as keen. He may not be aware that I am aware of him. The element of surprise may still be mine.

Once again I consider quickly. I can come at him from the left or the right. Or I can come at him from above. The latter seems the most dangerous move, and therefore probably carries with it the greatest element of surprise. I favor it. But I will not simply leap onto the roof of the rig. I will fly right over it. Holding my rifle firmly in my hands, I take several long strides before the truck and then kick up vigor-ously, as long jumpers do. Floating over a respectable chunk of the lot, over the truck cabin, I turn in midair, bringing the muzzle to bear where I calculate Eddie will be. But I am moving fast, very fast, and when I reach the other side of the truck, near the end of my downward arc, they are not there. Damn.

So startled am I by their disappearance that I almost lose my footing as I hit the ground. It takes me a moment to get my bearings. And in that time Eddie casually walks out from behind the front of the truck, standing behind Ray, using him as a shield, his bony hands wrapped around my lover's neck. Eddie's speed continues to amaze. In the short time I was in the air, he managed to move out of harm's way. Yet it is not only his superior reflexes that shock me, but his ability to anticipate my moves. He reads me like an open book. But is that so amazing? After all, we are both predators. He shakes Ray to let me know his grip is deadly. For his part Ray appears calm. He believes I will save him. I wish I shared his belief. Eddie grins.

"Hello, Sita. So we meet again." Yaksha must be alive for him to know my name. Yet I cannot believe Yaksha would betray me to this monster, even though we had been mortal enemies. Keeping my gun level and circling slowly, I study Eddie's expression. He appears to be more sedate than the previous night, slightly weary. Absorbing six bul?lets must have taken something out of him. Yet his eyes remain chilling. I wonder about his mother, his upbringing, what it takes to create a man who watches snuff films for pleasure. I understand that he has always felt an outcast, and that he spent the majority of his lonely nights imagining what he would do if he had unlimited power. Then it just fell into his lap. Like a gift from God. There is a bit of the fanatic in his eyes. He believes he is on a holy mission and has elected himself the main deity. That disturbs me even more. A prophet is more dangerous than a criminal. At least a criminal's needs are simple. A prophet requires constant stimulation. The false ones, at least. Eddie has not killed Ray yet because he wants to play with us. This is all right, I decide. I know many games. The sun bothers Eddie, but he can bear it. He squints.

"Hello, Eddie," I say pleasantly. "You look well."

"Thank you. You've made a nice recovery yourself. Congratulations on finding me so quickly. I thought it would take you at least a week to locate the ware?house." He adds, "How did you find me?"

His voice is a strange brew-crafty and eager, easy and sick. There is no depth to his tone, however, and I wonder if he is susceptible to my gentle words. Trying to shoot him while he holds Ray is out of the question. At any one instant he barely shows an inch of himself. He knew I was in the area because he was waiting to ambush us. But his remarks show that he does not know I visited his mother, or how I probed his past.

"You leave a unique trail," I say softly. "I just had to follow the redbrick road."

He is amused. And annoyed. He is a pile of contra?dictions, I see. He shakes Ray hard and my lover gasps. "Answer my question," he orders.

"What will you give me in return?" I continue to circle at a distance of thirty feet. So far there is no movement from inside the warehouse. I do not be?lieve he has an accomplice who can help him. The gasoline from my draining tanker puddles nearby, although none of us is standing directly in it. Once again I try to plant my words in his mind. But the ground there is not fertile. "I will let your boyfriend live," Eddie says. "Why don't we do this? Let my friend go and I will answer all your questions. I will even set aside this shiny new gun."

"Set it aside first and I will consider your sugges?tion," Eddie replies.

My voice has yet to affect his mind. Still, I continue to try. "It is clear we don't trust each other. We can remain stalemated for a long time. Neither of us wants that. Let me offer you something in exchange for my friend's release. You're a newborn vampire. I am very old. There are many secrets to using your powers that I could teach you. Alone, it would take you several centuries to discover those secrets. To be what you want to be, you need me."

"But how do I know you will give me these secrets?" he asks. "How do I know that the moment I release your friend you won't open fire on me?"

"Because I need you," I lie, but persuasively. "Your blood is more powerful than my own. We can have an even exchange-your power for my knowledge."

  Eddie considers. "Give me an example of one of your secrets."

"You have already seen an example. I am here today, right now. You do not know how I got here so quickly. A secret led me to you. I can give you that secret, and others, if you will release my friend."

"You have an interesting voice."

"Thank you."

Eddie's voice hardens. "Is that one of your secrets? The manner in which you manipulate people?"

His question stuns me. He misses nothing, and if that is the case he is not going to release Ray because he must know I will kill him. I consider a dangerous alternative.

"I manipulate mortals like puppets," I reply. "It is not so easy to manipulate powerful vampires. But weaker ones-like many of your followers-I could show you how to control them. You know, Eddie, the more you make, and the more they make, the less control you will have."

"I don't believe that."

"You will. Listen to me with an open mind. This is a rare opportunity for you. If you do not take it, you will regret it. You will also die. You're so young. You feel so powerful. But you have made a big mistake confront?ing me unarmed. This rifle can fire many bullets before having to be reloaded. Your body cannot withstand what I will do to you. If you kill my friend, I will kill you. It's that simple."

He is undaunted. "You may be old and full of secrets, but you have made the big mistake. This guy is important to you. I have his life in my hands. If you do not put down your rifle, I will kill him." His grip tightens and suddenly Ray is unable to breathe. "Put it down now."

"You dare to threaten me, punk." I raise my rifle and point it at Ray's chest. "Release him now."

Eddie remains determined. "Did they play poker thousands of years ago? I don't think so. You don't know how to bluff. Put it down, I say. Your friend is already turning blue."

"Blue is better than red," I reply. "But a little red does not frighten me. I am going to shoot now unless you do as I say. This is a sniper rifle. The bullets leave the barrel at high velocity. I am going to shoot my friend in the chest, through one of his lungs, and that same bullet will probably go into one of your lungs. You will have trouble holding on to my friend with a hole in such a vital spot. True, you will start to heal immediately, but before you do, I will put another bullet in my friend, and in you. How many bullets do you think you can take before you have to let go? How many bullets can you take before you die?" I pause. "I don't make many mistakes, Eddie."

My audacity shakes him. It shakes Ray as well; he turns a bit green. He continues to choke. Eddie reconsiders. "You will not shoot your friend," he says.

"Why not? You're about to kill him anyway." I settle on a spot on Ray's belly, just below the rib cage. They are roughly the same height; the wounds should be identical, less serious than holes in the lungs. "I am going to count to three. One-two-"

"Wait," Eddie says quickly. "I'll make you a coun?ter proposal."

I keep my aim fast. "Yes?"

"I will tell you where your other friend is-as a sign of good faith-and you will allow me to leave with your boyfriend as far as the other end of the ware?house. There I will release him."

He's lying. He will break Ray's neck as soon as he puts some distance between us. "First tell me where Yaksha is, then I will consider your proposal."

Eddie snorts. "You are one cunning bitch."

"Thank you. Where is Yaksha?"

"He's not far."

"I tire of this." I put four pounds on a five-pound trigger. "Ray," I say gently, "after I shoot, I want you to fight to shake free. He will try to hold on to you, of course, but remember he will be bleeding as badly as you are. And even though he is stronger than both of us, he is alone. Even if I have to put two or three bullets in you, I promise, you will not die." My tone becomes bitter. "But you, Eddie, will die screaming. Like those people you tortured last night."

He is a cruel devil. "I look forward to hearing your screams."

I fire. The bullet hits where I intend and penetrates both of them, exiting Eddie's back and striking the passenger door of the gasoline truck. Red blossoms on Ray's midsection and he gasps in pain. But Eddie does not try to defend himself by continuing to use Ray as a shield. The guy is totally unpredictable. Instead, he throws Ray at me, momentarily knocking me off balance. Then he is on me. Yes, even though I hold the rifle in my hands and there are thirty feet between us, Eddie is able to get to me before I can get off another shot. He is like black lightning. Crashing into me with tremendous force, he knocks me onto my back. The rear of my skull smacks the ground and my grip on the rifle falters, although I have not let go of it. For a moment I see stars, and they are not Krishna blue but hellish red and threatening to explode. Stunned him?self, Eddie slowly climbs to his knees beside me. He regains his concentration swiftly, however. His eyes focus on the rifle, the only thing that gives me an advantage over him. I try to bring it up, to put a bullet in his face, but once again he is too fast Lashing out in a sharp karate-like motion with his right hand, he actually bends the barrel of the rifle, rendering it useless. He is bleeding badly from his stomach, but he grins as he stares at my broken toy. He thinks he has me now.

"I can take a lot before I die," he says, answering my previous question.

"Really?" I kick him in the belly, in his wound, and he momentarily doubles up. But my blow is not decisive. Before I can fully climb to my knees, he strikes with his left fist, and I feel as if my head almost leaves its place on top of my shoulders. Again, I topple backward, blood pouring from my mouth. I land dizzily in a pile of gravel. Pain throbs through my entire body from my face. He has broken my jaw, several of my teeth, at least. And he is not done. Out the side of a drooping eye, I see him climb to his feet and ready his sharp black boots to kick me to death. Out the other eye I see Ray also stand. Eddie has momentarily forgotten my lover, probably consider?ing him small game.

Uncertain, Ray makes a move to attack Eddie that will lengthen my life by all of five seconds. Shaking my head minutely, I raise my bleeding arm in the direc?tion of the truck. A look passes between us. Ray understands. Light the fuse, I am saying, detonate our bomb. Save the human race. Save yourself. I will keep Eddie busy for ten seconds. Ray turns in the direction of the truck, the gasoline from the other tanker puddling around the wheels. Of course Eddie also sees him turn for the truck. He moves to stop him. In that moment, summoning the last of my strength, I launch myself off the ground at Eddie's midsection.

We crash and fall into another painful pile. As we once more struggle to stand, he reaches over and grabs me by the hair, pulling my face close to his. His breath is foul; I believe he not only sucks his victims dry, but eats them as well. He looks as if he would like to take a bite out of me. His eyes are crazed: excited and furious at the same time. Prozac would not help him. He yanks at my hair and a thousand roots come out. "That hurts," I say.

He grins, cocking his fist back. "Try this on for size, Sita."

I close my eyes and wait for the blow. This one, I am sure, will send me into the promised land. I just hope I have bought Ray enough time. What I do not under?stand is that Ray is still trying to buy me time. The blow never arrives. Ray's voice comes to me as if from far away.

"Eddie," he says firmly.

I open my eyes. Eddie and I both look over and discover that rather than follow my last instruction and light the fuse, Ray has chosen to punch a hole in the tanker with his fist. The gasoline pours out beside him like a gusher from a cracking dam. Of greater note, he has already struck a single wooden match and holds the flame above his head like a miniature torch that will lead us safely past the valley of the shadow of death. Or else straight into it. I am fully aware that the fumes of gasoline are more volatile than the actual liquid itself. And Ray stands in a cloud of petroleum fog. Not that Eddie and I loiter at a safe distance. Gasoline soaks both sets of our feet.

"I only have one match," Ray says to Eddie. "If you do not let Sita go, I will have to drop this one. What do you say?"

Eddie just won't learn. "You're bluffing," he says.

I catch Ray's eye. "No," I plead.

Ray smiles faintly in my direction. "Run, Sita. Fly. Return and fight him another day. In the end you'll win. Remember, you have Krishna's grace." His fingers move.

"Ray!" I scream.

He lets go of the burning match. Eddie lets go of me, in a hurry. For a moment I stare transfixed as the little orange flame topples toward the waterfall of gasoline. Despite my endless years, the countless deaths I have witnessed, it strikes me as inconceivable that such a tiny flame has the potential to scorch my universe, to burn everything I love and cherish. Yet my state of denial does not last forever. The match is halfway to the ground when I bolt toward Ray. But even I, Yaksha's prime pupil, am too slow for gravity. Before I can reach Ray's hands, which he holds up to ward me off, the match kisses the flowing river of fuel.

"No!" I cry.

Combustion is immediate. The gasoline at his feet ignites. The flames race up his soaked clothes. In an instant my beautiful boy is transformed into a living torch. For a moment I see his eyes through the flames. Perhaps it is a trick of the light, but his brown eyes suddenly appear blue to me, shining with the light of stars I have never seen, or stars I no longer remember. There is no pain on his face; he has made his choice willingly, to save me, to save us all. He stands for a moment like a candle fit to be offered to the Lord. But the flames are not idle; they rush toward me while at the same time they leap toward the truck that stands behind Ray. The truck is closer. Before my own legs begin to burn, before I can reach Ray and pull him free of the holocaust, the fire snakes into the opening Ray had punched in the tanker. The stream of fire is not a fuse we planned, but it is an effective one nevertheless.

The gasoline truck explodes.

An angry red hand slaps the entire front of my body. I have a last glimpse of Ray's fiery form disin?tegrating under the hammer of the shock wave. Then I am flying through the air, shooting through the smoke. A blur of a wall appears and I hit it hard and feel every bone in my body break. I slump to the ground, falling into a well of despair. My clothes are on fire, but they fail to tight this black well because it is bottomless. My last conscious awareness is of a sport coat being thrown over me.

Then I am blackness.

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