Chapter 10

CAROLE . . .

Soon.

Carole sat on the bungalow's tiny rear deck and watched the sun's lazy fall toward the horizon. A beautiful end to the day. She might have enjoyed it bu t for the adrenaline buzzing through her.

A good day ... as good as could be expected. In these times, a good day wa s when nothing unusually ugly occurred.

Joseph had made it home just after sunrise. Before dropping into a deathlik e sleep in the rear bedroom, he'd spoken into the cassette recorder Carole and Lacey had looted from the Radio Shack.

Was it really looting? she wondered. Did taking something from a store that was never going to reopen make you a looter? It seemed like a silly thing to worry about, but she did.

When Carole had asked Lacey what she thought, she'd replied, "Who gives a shit?"

Maybe Carole needed to adopt more of that attitude.

Carole had returned to the church this morning and, when no one was watching, left the recorder on the front steps. It seemed to take forever, but event ually someone found it and played it for the congregation.

Cheers and tears - that was the only way Carole could describe the reaction. A t least initially. It took a while for the anger to set in, but when it came it was fierce. The undead and their collaborators had tried to turn their Father Joe. A craven, cowardly, backstabbing act. The anger bound the parishi oners even more closely. They'd stay on and fight harder. To the death if ne ed be.

Carole tried to draw strength from the memory of their boisterous resolve.

For soon she would have to do what she and Lacey had discussed. Part of h er hummed with anticipation while an equal part recoiled.

Joseph had awakened a short while ago. He and Lacey were inside, talking. The indistinguishable murmur of their voices drifted through the open glass door, mixing with the thrum of the waves and the calls of the gulls.

Her heart kicked up its tempo as their voices faded. That meant that they we re heading for the front bedroom.

Soon ...too soon . . .

"Okay."

Carole jumped and turned at the sound of Lacey's voice.

"Now?"

How inane. Of course now. That was why Lacey was here.

Carole rose unsteadily. Did she have the nerve for this?

Lacey pressed the steak knife into her hand. "He's waiting."

Carole nodded, took the knife, and headed for the bedroom. When she reache d the alcove she hesitated. She wiped a sweaty palm on the pants of her sw eatsuit, then forced herself forward.

I can do this, she thought. I must do this.

Joe was sitting on the bed, head down, hands clasped between his knees, loo king like a man on death row. He didn't look up as she entered.

"Okay," he said, his voice hoarse. "Let's get this over - " He must have sen sed something. His head snapped up. "Carole? Sorry. I was expecting Lacey."

Her tongue felt like flannel. "It won't be Lacey today."

Before he could understand, before he could protest, Carole clenched her tee th and jabbed the point of the knife into the center of her palm. She suppre ssed a gasp of pain as the blade pierced her skin.

"No!" Joseph was on his feet. "No, don't!"

"It's already done," she said.

"Carole, I can't." He backed away a step. "Not you."

She held out her hand, cupping her palm to hold the pooling blood.

"Yes. Me. It's only fair. I don't want to be left out."

That wasn't quite the way Lacey had put it last night after Joseph had left so abruptly. She'd said that if the three of them were going to work together, be a team, then they'd have to act and feel like a team. "One for all and all for one, and all that shit," she'd said.

Which meant they had to feel at ease with each other, and that would never happen unless someone broke through the wall of shame that had sprung up between Carole and her uncle. Joseph couldn't do it. Only Carole had the p ower.

Lacey had known one sure way for Carole to break through. It was radical, she'd warned, something her uncle would balk at - and Carole wouldn't be too crazy about it either - but it had to be done.

Joseph was shaking his head, his mouth working but saying nothing. She could read no expression in his scarred face, but his eyes looked terrified.

Still cupping her hand, Carole sat on the bed. She placed the knife beside he r and tugged on his sleeve.

"Sit, Joseph," she said. "You've given so much, had so much stolen from yo u, let me give something to you."

"No!"

"Why will you take it from Lacey but not from me? Do you think there's s omething wrong with my blood?"

"No, of course not."

"They why not me?"

"Because ..." He shook his head.

"Please don't reject me." She felt a thickness in her throat, heard a catch in her voice. "I couldn't bear it if you turned me away."

Joseph must have heard it too. He slumped next to her. "Carole . .. you don't have to do this."

"I do. I want to."

That hadn't been quite true when she'd stepped into the room, but now, this cl ose to him, feeling his anguish, she wanted to be part of this, she wanted thi s bond, terrible as it was.

She held her cupped palm beneath his chin.

"Please?"

With a groan Joseph bent his head and pressed his lips against her palm. A s hiver ran through her as his tongue swirled against her skin.

So close... she'd never dreamed they'd be this close.

Carole felt him swallow, then with a sob he pushed her hand away and sagged against her, resting his head on her thighs, facing away.

"Oh, Carole, I'm so sorry. So sorry."

She made a fist over her cut palm to stanch the bleeding. Her other hand ros e of its own accord, hovered over his head for a few heartbeats, then droppe d and began stroking his hair.

"You have nothing to apologize for, Joseph," she said softly. "This was not y our choosing. It's not your fault."

He said nothing. For a moment she feared he might rise and leave the room, but he didn't move.

She said, "You almost told me why you didn't want to take my blood. You got as far as 'Because.' Can you tell me the rest?"

"Because ..." He took a breath. "Because I love you."

She gasped, her hand recoiling from him as if it had been burned.

Joseph began to lift his head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have - "

"No - no," she said, gently pushing his head back down. "Don't move." She couldn't let him see her face right now, for she knew her heart must be shining in h er eyes. "It's all right. It's... it's ..."

The intoxicating feelings bursting through her... she'd never felt anythin g like this before. It was indescribable. Her words dried up and blew away li ke dead leaves.

I love you... had he really said that?

"It's wonderful," she managed.

"I'm not talking about love as for a fellow human being. I'm saying that I l ove you as a woman."

"All the more wonderful," she said. "Because I've felt the same way about y ou."

Now his head shot up and she couldn't stop it. He stared at her, mouth agap e. "What?"

She could only nod. She felt tears brimming her eyelids and didn't trust herse lf to speak.

"That can't be," he said.

She nodded again and forced the words past the swelling in her throat. "I was taken with you the day you arrived to replace Father McMann. And as I came to know you, I came to love you."

"You mean 'loved,' don't you."

"No. I still do. More than ever."

He looked away. "You can't. That man is gone."

She touched his scarred cheek. "No. He's been changed, but he's not gone. He's still there, inside. I feel him when you're near, I hear him when you spe ak."

"Maybe he's there now, but I don't know much longer you can count on him being around."

"I have faith in you."

"I appreciate that, Carole but. . . I've been having a dream, the same dream yesterday and today. Hanging from a precipice over this swirling darkness t hat's calling to me, beckoning to me."

"But - "

He held up a hand. "I know what you're going to say, but this doesn't feel sy mbolic. This feels real. It bothers me that part of me wants to let go and fa ll into that abyss. But that's all right. I think I can handle that. What bot hers me more is there's no sense of light above me trying to draw me the othe r way. Only the darkness below."

"I don't understand."

"Where's the balance? The darkness seems to be in control with nothing oppo sing it. Nothing but us."

"God is out there, Joseph, working through us."

"Not working too well, I'd say. Look what's happened to me."

She wanted to tell him that what had happened to him might be all part of God's plan, but held back. Now was not the time.

He shook his head. "All those years at St. Anthony's... you loving me, I loving you, longing for you, and neither of us knew. Imagine if things had b een different... what a team we'd have made, Carole."

"We're a team now, at least part of one."

"Yes, but the possibilities ... all gone now." He laid his head back on her th ighs. "Gone for good."

She began stroking his hair again. "We're together now."

"But look what it took for us to find out how we felt about each other. You've been through a living hell since Easter week, and I. . . I'm not even hum an anymore."

"I don't care what you are. I know who you are."

After a while he said, "Sex is out of the question, you know."

"Yes. We both still have our vows."

"I don't mean that. I mean... one of the changes in me... one of the things they stole from me ... I don't think I ever can."

Carole said nothing. It didn't matter.

They stayed this way a long time, Joseph lying still against her thighs, Caro le stroking his hair, soothing him, murmuring to him. In the world outside th e horror still raged all about them, but here, in this moment, in this place, she'd found a sliver of peace, the closest to heaven she'd ever been.

CAROLE . . .

Lacey burst out laughing. She couldn't help it.

Joe glanced up from where he sat across from her at the little dining room t able. "What's so funny?"

"I was just thinking what a cozy little domestic scene this is. Here's Pap a Joe, sharpening stakes to drive through undead hearts. There's Momma Car ole at the sink mixing up a batch of napalm. And here's baby Lacey cleanin g her 9mm pistols." She laughed again. "We're the new nuclear family!"

Carole turned from the sink where she was stirring a strange mix with a lar ge wooden spoon, and gave her a wry smile. "Nuclear... there's a thought."

"No, Carole," Joe said. "Don't go there."

What a change in Carole and Joe. Their meeting in the bedroom had transfor med them. They'd come out leaning close to each other. Lacey wouldn't have been surprised if they started holding hands, but they didn't. Joe seemed so much more at ease in her presence, and Carole ... well, Carole positiv ely glowed.

All because of me, Lacey thought. Did I have the situation and solution naile d or what? Am I brilliant or am I brilliant?

After Joe had fed, they went their separate ways. Joe took the car to Lake-wood to work out a plan of attack on the Post Office. Carole walked down to the abandoned business district on Arnold Avenue to do what she termed some "shopping." Lacey hoped that neither of them ran into Vichy along the way.

Her own job was simpler. Armed with a makeshift siphon, she'd been assigne d the task of finding gasoline.

That had proved a cinch. Her first stop had been the garage behind the bunga low where she discovered an old Ford convertible with a full tank. She found a dusty five-gallon gas can, probably for a motorboat, and filled that.

Carole returned later with a shopping cart loaded with boxes of different br ands of soap flakes, some lighter fluid, plus a bag of sundries from a party supply shop. She immediately set up in the kitchen and went to work filling the house with fumes.

Lacey held up one of the 9mm rounds and showed it to Joe.

"Look at this. Hollow point. They're all hollow points."

Joe shook his head. "Nasty things. I hear they make a little hole going in an d a great big hole coming out."

"Why would the undead be carrying automatics loaded with these?"

"To protect against humans, I imagine," Joe said. "They're strong, they're f ast, but that's not enough if they're attacked by a mob." He pointed to the round. "That's probably what the Vichy will be using against us this morning - if they get the chance."

"Let's go over the plan again," Lacey said.

She wasn't crazy about it. As much as she respected her uncle's intelligence, he'd had no military training, had never engaged in any sort of violent ac tivity. Lacey had at least studied martial arts. That wasn't much, but it ha d trained her on how to size up an opponent, how to look for strategic openi ngs. Joe's plan seemed to depend on too many variables.

"Okay," Joe said. "The Vichy guards spend most of their time hanging around on the front steps. When they're not smoking they're sleeping. They're bor ed and don't take their job seriously. No one's ever attacked them on duty like that and they probably think no one ever will. We're going to change t hat."

"Hitting them at dawn I understand, but why napalm? Why don't we just sh oot them?"

"Because we're not marksmen - or, excuse me, markswomen - and we can't afford a protracted gun battle because my clock will be running. If they hold out past my sun tolerance, we'll have lost more than the battle. We won't be able to take them by surprise again. But more than that, the more bullets flying, the greater chance of you or Carole getting hit."

"But how do we know the napalm will work?"

Joe's idea was for the three of them to climb to the roof of the building acr oss the street and each toss a napalm-filled balloon onto the Vichy as they l ounged on the Post Office steps below. The street wasn't wide and it was an e asy throw from the roof. Or so he said.

"Oh, it will work," Carole said from the sink. "Have no fear of that."

"But it has to ignite."

"We'll make sure one of them's smoking before we toss."

"That doesn't guarantee it will light."

Joe leaned back, staring at her. For a moment she thought he was angry but couldn't be sure. So hard to gauge emotions when a face has no expression.

"You're right," he said finally. "It doesn't." He turned toward the kitchen.

"Do we have any gasoline left, Carole?"

"A little. Why?"

"Save half a dozen ounces or so. We're going to bring along a Molotov cock tail." He turned back to Lacey. "Better?" "You mean throw that first, then the napalm?" He nodded. "Yeah," Lacey said. "That'll work."

JOE . . .

"Oh, no!" Joe said as he heard a thwacking noise and the car began to vibra te. He slammed a fist against the steering wheel. "Damn!"

They'd left an hour before dawn. The plan had been to loop north of Lak ewood through Howell and approach downtown from the west. They were on Aldrich Road when the noise began.

"What's wrong?" Carole said. She sat next to him in the front, Lacey sat in th e rear with the arsenal.

"Can you believe it? We've got a flat!"

He popped the trunk and jumped out. Of all times for something like this to happen.

"Can't we drive on the rim?" Carole said.

"Any other time I'd say fine, but we can't risk the racket it will make."

He lifted the trunk lid and was relieved to find the spare present and inflated.

Nearly half an hour later they were rolling again.

"That took too long," Carole said. "Maybe we should put this off till tomorr ow."

She's probably right, Joe thought. What's another day?

But something inside wouldn't allow him to agree. He was primed and ready for a little payback. More than ready - aching.

"Let's see how things look," he said. "If we can't do it the way we planned, we'll call it off."

He looked at Carole and wanted to take her hand. He couldn't believe it. All these years she'd been as attracted to him as he'd been to her, and neither of them had had a clue. How sad, he thought. And how wonderful to be past t hat now.

They reached Lakewood just as the sun was rising. They parked two blocks fro m the business district and lugged their milk crate full of bottles, balloon s, and guns between the buildings until they wound up in an alley across the street and half a block up from the Post Office. The three-man Vichy day sh ift was on the job, so to speak, smoking and lounging on the steps. One of t hem sat near a shotgun that leaned against a wall; the other two had holster ed pistols.

Carole was looking at her watch. "We'll have to call it off. By the time we ca rry all this stuff up to the roof and start the attack" - she looked up at Joe - "it will be too late for you."

Joe looked at the brightening sky. Damn. She was right.

"All right. Let's head back to the car and - "

"Wait," Lacey said. "Give me a minute here."

"For what?" Joe said.

Her jaw was set and her eyes had gone flat and cold. She worked the slide on one of her pistols and stuck it into the waistband of her jeans at the small of her back.

"Lacey?"

Before Joe could stop her she stepped out onto the sidewalk and began walki ng toward the Vichy. He wanted to call her back but didn't dare reveal hims elf. With the sun lighting her back, she moved briskly, hips swaying, arms swinging at her sides. Joe could only peek around the corner and pray.

She was halfway to the Post Office before they noticed her.

"Hey, girl," one of them said, shading his eyes as he squinted into the glar e. "Where you goin?"

"Just passing through," she told him.

The two who'd been stretched out on the steps were now on their feet, hands on hips, looking toward her and grinning.

"What's your hurry?" said a big-bellied one.

"No hurry," she said. "Just got places to go."

Joe watched them move out into the street to intercept her. What is she do ing? he wondered. Has she gone crazy?

"Oh, I don't think so," said the first one. "I think you're gonna stop and visit."

Lacey was within half a dozen feet of them now. "Been there, done that. He y, boys... don't you remember me?"

With that she reached behind her, ripped her pistol free, and began firing w ildly, pulling the trigger as fast as it would allow. Joe saw the one with t he shotgun take a round in the chest. His arms flew outward as the bullet pu nched him back. Lacey's second shot went wild but the third caught the fat o ne in the gut. The last Vichy was drawing his pistol when Lacey's fourth sho t caught him in the shoulder, spinning him around.

Four shots, three hits, but she didn't stop there. She kept firing.

Joe leaped out from the alley and dashed toward her as she stood over the three downed men and pumped round after round into their twitching bodies.

He reached her as the slide on her pistol locked back on empty.

He grabbed her shoulders and spun her to face him. "Lacey! What - ?" Then he saw the tears streaming down her cheeks.

"It was them, Uncle Joe," she sobbed. "I recognized them. They're the ones who - " She closed her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath.

Joe glanced at their blood-splattered remains. "Lacey ... Jesus. . . are you - ?

"I'm okay. That was for Enrico ... and me. Let's just get this done and get ou t of here, okay?"

Joe opened his mouth to speak - he figured he should say something - but his mind was blank. He settled for a curt nod. They could talk later.

Carole arrived then with her book bag full of stakes and hammers. She took one look at the bodies, then put her arm around Lacey's shoulders.

"It's all right, Lacey. You did the Lord's work."

Lacey irritably shrugged off her arm. "That wasn't any lord's work - that wa s mine."

Joe caught the flash of hurt in Carole's eyes and felt bad for her. Lacey's rough edges weren't getting any smoother. No time now to explain his niece t o Carole.

He took the book bag from her and turned toward the Post Office. "Let's go-He led the way up the steps. Once inside he looked around. Empty. Sunlight began to stream through the east windows.

"If there's a cellar, that's where they'll be."

Lacey pointed to a door to the left of the clerk windows. "I saw the woman and her entourage go through there."

The door was locked. No problem. Joe kicked it open. Another door, unlocked, opened onto a flight of stairs leading down into a darker space.

"We'll do as many as we can in the time we have," he said, reaching into th e bag and handing out the flashlights. "But we do the woman first. From wha t I've seen, she seems to be in charge."

He didn't need a light of his own. The stairwell appeared well lit to him.

He hurried down to where the steps made a sharp right turn at the bottom i nto a dank, dusty space -  - and there they were. He could see all eight of them in the cool darkness, st retched out on an assortment of beds and cots. Like a dormitory in hell. If t heir daysleep was anything like his the past two nights, it was like death.

Joe looked around. Concrete walls, no windows, junk piled in the near-righ t corner. He spotted the woman's bed on the far side of the room next to t he wall and immediately moved toward her. Even if they managed to stake on ly one this morning, he wanted it to be her - to send a message back to Fran co that nobody he sent here was safe. Eventually he wanted Franco to know that not even he was safe.

"Hey," Lacey called from behind him. "This guy's awake."

"This one too," Carole said.

Joe had been so fixed on the woman that he'd paid no attention to her six g uards, arrayed around her like spokes on a wheel. He looked down at the nea rest and nearly jumped when he saw wide dark eyes staring back at him, shar p teeth bared in a snarl.

Joe didn't understand. How could they be awake?

"Forget them for now. The woman first."

He stopped at her bedside and found her awake as well. She lay on her back, staring up at him in fear and wonder.

"This is really creepy," Lacey said.

Joe had to agree. What was going on here? Unless.. . maybe the gunfire outs ide had roused them. At least none of them was able to get up.

No time to waste. He dropped the book bag on her abdomen and pulled out t he heavy maul and one of the stakes. Carole stepped up beside him and pla yed her beam over the woman, illuminating the corner of the room like day light.

Joe lifted the stake. This wasn't how he'd expected this to go. He hadn't cou nted on his victims staring him in the face as he pounded stakes through thei r chests.

But this was no time for squeamishness. Steeling himself, he placed the shar pened tip against her chest, just to the left of her breastbone. He'd never done this before, but he imagined that was where the heart sat. As he raised the hammer, the woman hissed and grabbed the stake with both of her hands.

Joe jumped back in surprise, releasing his own grip.

"Dear God!" Carole gasped. "She can move!"

Joe recovered and snatched the stake back from her grasp. He broke her grip easily.

"But she's weak," he said.

A deafening blast echoed through the basement and Joe felt a stabbing impact, like a punch, in his back.

A shot!

Another blast as he half turned - another blow, this time to his shoulder.

"Get down!" he shouted to Carole and Lacey. "Way down!"

He feared the ricochets in this concrete box could be almost as deadly as a d irect hit. He turned and found the shooter, the pistol wavering in his hand a s he aimed another shot. Joe ducked to his left, darted to the man's side, an d snatched the gun from his hand.

"Hey!" Lacey cried, popping her head up. She pointed to a guard near her. "T

his one's going for his gun too!"

"Get it!" Joe shouted. He turned and lunged for another of the woman's guar ds who was lifting his automatic, moving like someone in a slow-motion movi e. Joe tore it from his grasp. "Get their guns! All of them."

He saw Lacey struggling with her guard. She had a two-handed grip on the ba rrel. Joe was just about to step in and help when she twisted it from his g rasp. He turned and saw Carole pulling a pistol from another guard's belt b efore he could reach it. Joe disarmed two more, then stepped over to the se venth male, the one with the cot against the opposite wall, and found him u narmed.

"You!" Joe cried when he spotted his ruined left eye.

This was one of Franco's guards, the one who'd stripped him naked before t aking him to his boss. What had Franco called him?

"Artemis!" That was it. "What are you doing here?"

The good eye widened. "You know me?" the vampire rasped.

That surprised Joe for an instant, then he remembered that his face had be en changed by the sun. He wished he knew what he looked like.

He jabbed one of the pistols at him. "Too bad you didn't bring Franco with you. When we finish with the lady, you're next!"

This was perfect: the woman and Franco's right-hand man in one morning. He turned and stalked back toward the guards, snatching up a couple of mache tes as he reached them. "Take their machetes too. Don't leave them with an ything that can be used against us."

He tossed the pistols and machetes toward the foot of the steps. Carole and Lacey did the same. He was most relieved to have the guns out of play. The b ullets hadn't affected him, but Carole and Lacey's lives had been on the lin e.

"A little help over here," Lacey said. Her voice sounded strained.

Joe looked and saw that the woman had turned over and was trying to crawl o ut of her bed. Lacey was struggling to hold her back. Carole leaned in to h elp.

As Joe moved toward the women, one of the guards rolled out of bed and land ed on the floor in front of him. Another to his right did the same. Both st arted a slow-motion bellycrawl toward their mistress. Joe stepped on the ba ck of the one in front of him and rejoined Carole and Lacey.

"They're coming for us!" Lacey said, an edge of panic in her voice. She was clutching the woman's right arm while Carole held the left from the other si de of the bed. The woman writhed slowly in their grasp. "Let's do this and g et the hell out of here!"

"Yes, Joseph," Carole said, calm but grave. "You haven't much time."

"All right, all right." Wasn't anything going to go according to plan?

He grabbed the stake and maul. No hesitation this time. He placed the point of the stake over the woman's writhing chest, raised the maul -

Lacey let out a yelp and released the woman's right arm. "Something just t ouched - damn! There's one here on the floor! He's trying to grab my leg!"

She half turned and began kicking at the guard who'd crawled to their feet.

Joe stared in shock, then looked around. Others were on their way, inching toward them along the floor. This kind of loyalty and devotion was almost u nimaginable, especially in the undead.

"Joseph," Carole said. She had both the woman's arms now. "Do it. Now."

Joe nodded. In a single swift move he placed the stake and hammered it home. The heavy steel head of the maul drove the point all the way through the woman and into the mattress beneath. She writhed, kicked, spasmed, then sti ffened and lay still.

Done. No time to waste. Move on. First get the guard by Lacey, and then -

"What the hell - ?" Lacey said.

Joe looked down. The guard at Lacey's feet was writhing on the floor. The ot her five were doing the same. This lasted maybe ten seconds, and then they l ay as still as their mistress.

Lacey nudged one with the toe of her shoe. "Dead. They're all__"

She looked up at Joe, her eyes wide. "Unk! This is what happened the oth er night, right upstairs. A bunch of undead guards - supposedly they belon ged to someone named Gregor - they suddenly dropped dead, just like these guys.

It was right after we heard a boom and ..." She turned to Carole. "You told u s you killed a vampire that night. Blew him to bits, right?"

"Right. But I never knew his name."

Lacey nodded. "I'll bet it was Gregor. You killed him across town, and his g uards died upstairs in the Post Office. We killed this one, and her guards d ie a few seconds later. What's the connection? Is there some sort of spell t hat binds the guards to their masters? A life-and-death bond that connects t hem? Is that why they're so loyal?"

Memories of the Empire State Building flashed through Joe's head.

"When I mentioned to Franco how loyal his guards seemed, he told me it wasn't out of selflessness or personal regard for him - it was self-preservation."

"That was his word?" Lacey said. "Self-preservation? Well then that's it. Tha t's how they bind their guards to them: if their master dies, they die."

Joe shook his head. "I've got a feeling it's something more than that. Franc o mentioned a secret. 'A momentous secret we keep only to ourselves,' he sai d. If only - "

Artemis! Joe whirled and looked at the cot in the corner where he'd left t he vampire. Had he died too? But his bed was empty. Where - ?

"Look!" Carole said, pointing her flashlight beam at a doorway where a pai r of legs were crawling through. "Someone's there!"

Joe hurried over, grabbed both ankles, and hauled Artemis back into the do rmitory. He flipped him onto his back and stood over him.

"Not so fast, Artemis. We have some questions."

"Fuck you!" His voice was barely audible.

"Why did the guards die when we killed the woman?"

The vampire sneered up at him and said nothing.

Joe realized he had nothing to bargain with. Artemis knew he wasn't going t o walk away from this, so he had no reason to tell them anything.

Lacey came up beside Joe and played her light over Artemis. "Can we bring him upstairs?"

"I suppose so," Joe said. "But why?"

She looked at him. "Sunlight."

Joe glanced from her to Artemis and saw the fear in his single eye. Joe grab bed his feet again and dragged him toward the stairs.

"Good idea!"

"No!"

Joe didn't have time for threats or deals. He hauled Artemis up feet first t o the main floor. The vampire twisted away from the light and flung his arms over his eyes. Joe found the brightness uncomfortable but it hadn't reached the intolerable point yet. Pulling Artemis upright, he grabbed him by the c ollar and belt and walked him toward the front doors. The sunlight blazed th rough the glass like burning phosphorous.

"Now's your chance, pal. Speak or burn. What's the big secret?"

"Fuck you! I'll be just as dead either way!"

Damn him, he was right. And a dead vampire told no tales. He spun Artemis and shoved him into a shadowed corner where he curled into a whimpering ball.

Carole and Lacey stood in the cellar doorway staring at Joe.

"Any ideas, or do we just finish him and get out of here?" he said.

Lacey stepped closer to Artemis. She spoke slowly, softly. "Tossing him out i n the sun will kill him. But what if just a part of him gets in the sunlight? What will that do?"

"Yes!" Joe said. Finally - leverage. "Anyone have a knife?"

Lacey whipped out a stainless steel pocketknife. "My butterfly's gone, but th is should do. Someone tried to kill me with it."

Joe unfolded the blade and began slicing at the legs of the vampire's pants below the knees. He remembered how this creature had ripped the clothes fr om him a few long nights ago.

"What goes around, comes around, right, Artemis?" he said through his teeth.

He pulled off Artemis's shoes, then moved around by his shoulders.

"All right, ladies. Grab his feet and we'll move his legs into that patch of sun light over there."

"No!" Artemis wailed.

"Joseph," Carole said, giving him an unsettled look. "Do we really - ?"

"Please, Carole. Time's a-wasting, and this is one of the undead who manh andled me in New York."

Artemis directed his one fear-filled eye at Joe. "New York? Who - ?"

"What? You don't recognize me? I'm the priest Franco tried to turn the other night. Only he failed."

"But that's - that's impossible!"

Carole still hadn't moved. Lacey stepped in front of her. "Let's go. I'll handle it."

She grabbed Artemis by both ankles. His feeble kicks lacked the power to fr ee him. Together she and Joe dragged the lower half of his body into the li ght.

Immediately his flesh started to smoke and blister. Lacey made a disgusted noise and released his ankles. His screams echoed through the building.

"Okay! Yes! Please! I'll tell! Anything you want! I'll tell! Please!"

Joe pulled him back into the shadows. Artemis lay in a heap, writhing, pant ing, and sobbing, his hands hovering over but never touching the blackened, still-smoking flesh of his lower legs. Sickened by the sight, Joe turned a way for a moment. He sensed Carole watching him but could not meet her eyes.

Finally he turned back and forced himself to kneel beside the vampire. He poked him roughly on the shoulder.

"What's the secret, Artemis? Why did those guards die when we staked the woman?"

"They were her get," he gasped. "When she died, all her get died, not just he r guards."

"What's 'get'?" Lacey said.

Artemis sneered. "People she turned. When Olivia died, all of her get, no ma tter where they were in the world, died with her."

Joe knelt there, stunned. "I don't believe you."

"Believe it, priest. It's the one thing we don't want the living to know about u s."

"But you're telling me."

His smile was sickly. "What do I care? It won't matter to me, will it."

"You're telling me that anyone, anywhere, that she turned at anytime since she became undead, is now dead?"

"Yes. That's the big secret. That's why Olivia's guards did everything to prot ect their get-mother. Not for her sake. For their own."

Lacey squatted on the opposite side. "But that means that somewhere there's a vampire who's the ultimate source of this whole undead plague. If some one could get to him - "

Artemis was shaking his head. "No, cow. There may have been a single Prime millennia ago, but now there are many. We undead aren't immortal; it only s eems that way. We age and die, but we last many centuries. Eventually rot c atches up to everything, including us. It hits suddenly and over the course of a week or so we crumble to dust. But this kind of true death does not a ffect the get. In fact it enhances them. Only premature death kills one's g et. Because we lived solitary existences for so long, we never knew about g et-death. But when an ancient Prime figured it out, and started the practic e of protecting getfathers, our numbers began to grow."

"Is Franco a Prime?" Joe asked.

Artemis nodded. "And my get-father." His eye narrowed. "You want him, do n't you."

"Oh, yeah. If he goes, how many go with him?"

"Many. I can't give you a definite number, but every Nosferatu in the Empire State Building is his get. Not in the city, however. We've learned to mix g ets within a region to avoid catastrophe. I hope you get him."

"Why?"

"I didn't want to come down here, but he made me. He hasn't treated me right since a certain unfortunate accident, and now, because of him, I'm done. Ar en't I?" He shifted his gaze to Lacey and Carole. "You wouldn't consider . .. ?"

"Not a chance," Lacey said.

Joe held out his hand. "Carole?"

"Not a stake!" Artemis whined. "I don't want to be staked!"

Lacey made a face. "You rather be thrown out in the sun?"

"No! That's even worse! Look, can't you let me go? I've helped you. I've tol d you a valuable secret. I - "

Joe shook his head, as much to clear a creeping fog as to emphasize that surv ival was not one of Artemis's options. "We'll give you a choice: sun or stake. That's all you've got."

"There's another way," Carole said.

Joe looked up and saw her fishing something that looked like a candle out o f the front of her sweatshirt. He seemed to be viewing her through a mist.

The waxy stick had wires attached. She bent and placed it under Artemis's n eck, then draped a wire over each of his shoulders.

"This is a high explosive," she said. "You won't feel a thing."

High explosive? Had she wired herself to explode? He wanted to ask but th e words wouldn't come.

"Just take the two wires ..." Carole was saying.

He watched Artemis reach up and take a wire in each hand.

"... and touch them - "

"Fuck you all!" Artemis cried as he jammed the two wires together.

Joe managed to raise a leaden arm across his eyes and fall back -  - but nothing happened.

Carole looked down at Artemis, her expression a mask of dismay.

"You didn't let me finish." She held up a battery. "You touch the wires to opposite ends of this." She shook her head. "Your kind simply don't underst and mercy or compassion, do you."

"Damn right they don't," Lacey said.

Joe saw that she held the maul and a stake in her hands. Before Artemis coul d react, she jabbed the point over his heart and slammed it home with two qu ick, hard strikes.

The vampire arched his back, shuddered, then crumpled.

Lacey pulled the explosive stick from behind Artemis's neck and handed it back to Carole. "They don't deserve a break. Any of them."

Joe was still half sitting, half lying on the floor. He tried to rise but hadn't the strength. He felt as if someone had pulled the plug on his energy.

"Something's wrong," he croaked. "I can barely move."

Carole looked at her watch. "Dear Lord! It's past your time!"

Joe fought the lethargy stealing through him. Too tired to worry. It was all he could do to hold his head up.

The world around him became a blur. He was dimly aware of voices mentioning"back door" and "employee entrance" and "bring the car around." He felt hims elf dragged-carried outside into a shady area that was still blindingly brig ht, then lifted and folded into a small space ... a slam that sounded like a car trunk lid, then darkness.. . blessed darkness.

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