JOE . . .
"Carole ... are you all right?"
Joe had awakened to find the two slugs he'd taken in the Post Office scatt ered around him on his mattress. He didn't know how, but his body had extr uded them during daysleep.
Then he'd fed - God, how he hated the word, the concept, the act. It made him feel like some sort of jungle animal; he would never get used to it. The w omen had decided to alternate, so Lacey had been the donor this time. The s un was just about down, and the three of them had taken their usual positio ns around the coffee table.
But Joe had noticed that Carole seemed withdrawn. She looked tired, but he sensed it was more than that.
"I'm okay" Carole said without looking at him.
Lacey said, "She's been like this all day." This earned her a brief glare fr om Carol. "Well it's true. You barely said two words to me before we went to sleep, and maybe half a dozen since we woke up."
"Didn't you sleep well?" Joe said.
"As a matter of fact, no," Carole said.
"In a way." She looked up, first at Joe, then at Lacey. "Are we proud of ours elves?"
"About what?" Joe said.
"About this morning."
"Yeah," Lacey said. "We reduced the world's undead population by eight and we learned something that could turn this fight around: kill one of the big-shot undead and a whole lot of others die too."
Carole said, "What about how we learned that secret?"
Lacey shook her head. "I'm not following."
Carole sighed and looked at the ceiling. "Torture. Am I the only one who's b othered by the fact that we tortured that creature into giving us the inform ation?"
"Yeah," Lacey said with an edge on her voice. Joe could sense his niece's ba ck rising. "I guess you could say you are. They're already dead, Carole."
"No, they're undead. And they very obviously feel pain."
"Hang on now," Joe said. He caught Carole's troubled gaze and held it. "We d id what we had to, Carole. I didn't like it, and I'm sure Lacey didn't eithe r, but this is war and - "
"A war for what?"
"For survival," Lacey said. "Them or us. This isn't a war of ideologies, Carol e," Lacey said. "And it's not a war of religions either. This is a war for the survival of the human race."
"Even if we have to sacrifice our humanity to win it?"
Joe leaned back and kept silent. This wasn't what he'd wanted to talk to Caro le about, but he sensed this argument had been brewing all day, maybe longer.
Best to stay out of the line of fire unless it escalated too far.
"Ever hear of the Spanish Inquisition, Carole?" Lacey said. "That was 'human ity' at its most creative. We invented torture."
"You sound proud of it."
"Not at all. I look at a picture of a rack or an Iron Maiden and my stomach t urns. My point is that we, as the living, don't exactly have clean hands when it comes to depravity."
"I'm not worried about humanity's hands," Carole said sofdy. "I'm worried a bout ours - the three of us. I'd like to believe that we deserve to win. But if in the process we become like the enemy, what have we won?"
"The right to survive!"
"Is that all you want?"
"No!" Lacey shot to her feet and pounded the table. "I want more! I want t o see every single one of those bloodsucking parasites dead and rotting in the sun! They robbed me of the person I loved more than anyone in my life, they took my parents - maybe I was on rotten terms with them, and maybe I'
ll always be pissed at them for naming me Lacey, but they were still my pa rents - and then they took one of the few men in the world that I love and r espect and tried to turn him into a monster like them. I want them gone, Carole, I want them wiped off the face of the earth, and I want them to go screaming in agony, and I'm for doing whatever it takes to achieve that!"
Her voice broke and tears streamed down her cheeks as she pounded the tab le with each word. "Whatever - it - takes!"
Joe rose, put an arm around Lacey's shoulders, and let her lean against him. Time to make peace.
"I'm okay," she said.
"No, you're not. None of us has been okay since the invasion. We're all da maged to varying degrees, but we all want the same thing. Carole has a val id point. We need to win - we must win - but maybe there should be a line we w on't cross in order to win. I think we may have crossed that line at the Post Office."
He felt Lacey stiffen and shake her head. "No lines, no limits, no quarter, n o mercy."
Joe tightened his grip on his niece's shoulders. How was he going to salvage this?
"Can we leave it that we agree to disagree and hope we don't have to cross the line again - hope that we don't find ourselves in a position where we eve n have to think about crossing it?"
But if that moment came, Joe wondered, what side of that line would he c ome down on?
Lacey shrugged, reluctantly, he thought. "I guess I'm all right with that."
Carole nodded. "So am I. I pray we're never faced with that choice again."
"Good," Joe said, sagging with relief. "You two had me worried there."
"What?" Lacey said, looking up at him with a half-smile playing about her lips. "You thought we'd break up the team? Never happen. Right, Carole?"
"Never. Our work is too important. But I thought it needed an airing."
"Well, it's aired," Joe said. "Now let me air something else." He sat and t ook Carole's hands in his. "How long have you been wiring yourself with exp losives?"
She looked away. "A while."
"I think that should be obvious."
It was. But for Joe it was unthinkable.
"Carole, you mustn't. . . you can't..."
"I won't," she said. "Not unless all hope is gone."
"Even then - "
She faced him. "I will not become one of them, Joseph. And didn't you tell us yourself that you jumped off the Empire State Building?"
Yes, he had, hadn't he. He wished he hadn't told them. It cut off his argumen t at the knees. What could he say - that it was all right for him but not for h er?
"But blowing yourself up ..."
The thought of Carole being torn to pieces, bits of her splattered against th e walls and ceiling of a room, or scattered up and down a street, sickened hi m.
Her smile was tremulous. "What better way to go? I put my hand in my pocket, I press a button, and it's over - instantaneous, painless, and, considering t he straits I'll be in at that moment, I'll probably take a few of the enemy with me."
"I kind of like that idea," Lacey said. "Maybe you can wire me and - "
Joe held up a hand. "Lacey, please." He stared at Carole. "All right. What c an I say? It's something only you can decide, Carole. But I beg you, when th ings look blackest, when you think there's no way out and the situation can't get worse, hold off pressing that button. Give it just one more minute."
"Because I don't want to lose you. And who knows? Maybe in that one extra m inute the situation will start to turn around. Promise?"
She shrugged. "Promise."
Joe leaned back. He'd thought he'd feel better confronting her about this, but he didn't.
He put it behind him for now and looked first at Lacey, then Carole.
"All right. That's settled - I hope. Now we should plan our next step. Whe n do we leave for New York?"
Lacey dropped back into her seat. "New York? So soon? Are we ready for th at?"
"I don't think we have much choice," Joe said. He got up and settled himself on the couch. "First off, I don't think there's another nest we can practice on. Second, after what we did this morning, I've got a feeling this area's go ing to be on the receiving end of a lot of attention. So while they're lookin g this way, gearing up to make a move against the church and the people holdi ng it, I propose we sneak in under their radar and strike where they least ex pect it."
Carole was nodding. "I like it. And from the way things went this morning, I believe dawn is the best time. But I assume we'll find more than three col laborators guarding the Empire State Building."
"Lots more," Joe said. He glanced at his niece. "Too many for even Annie Oa kley here to take out."
Lacey smiled. "Oh, I don't know about that."
She got up and went to the dining area. She returned dragging a large canva s mail sack. She set it beside the couch and pulled open the top. Joe start ed when he saw the jumble of weapons inside.
"Good Lord, Lacey, what did you do? Rob an armory?"
"Almost as good. Before we left the Post Office this morning I collected e very pistol and piece of ammo I could find, from Vichy and undead alike. E
ven picked up that sawed-off shotgun."
Joe shook his head. "It's still not enough. We're only three and there's doze ns of them. We'll need another way."
Lacey looked at Carole. "Explosives? That napalm you cooked up?"
Carole shook her head. "Nothing I can make has the detonation velocity nec essary to damage a building like the Empire State."
Lacey looked glum. "Then what? If we can't get inside - "
"I think I have a idea," Carole said.
Lacey brightened. "What?"
"Just the start of one. Let me work it through first. How long have we got?"
"I'd like to leave as soon as possible," Joe said. "Hit them before they find out what we did at the Post Office. Or if they do know, catch them while they're still off balance."
"I think we should make the trip by day," Lacey said. "That way the only one s around to stop us will be living. At night we'll have to dodge the undead as well."
"But I can't help you during the day."
Lacey smiled and nudged the letter bag with a toe. "I think Carole and I c an handle any Vichy we meet along the way."
Joe wasn't keen on lying helpless in a car trunk while the two women took all the risks, but he couldn't fault Lacey's logic.
"All right then," he said. "We leave at dawn. Will that give you enough time, Carole?"
"I hope so. I'll need to take the car to see if I can find what I need."
"Okay. Just get back in time so we can stock up for the trip. We need to fin d some gas too. The Lincoln's pretty low."
"No need," Lacey said. "There's a cool convertible with a full tank sitting in the garage. We can take that instead."
"Looks like you've got all the bases covered. Only one thing left to do befo re we go. Carole, drop Lacey off at the church so she can tell them what we did at the Post Office and to expect reprisals. But most important, tell the m the get-death secret. Have Gerald Vance get on his shortwave and start bro adcasting it around the world."
"You think anyone'll believe it?"
"I hope so. Maybe in New York we'll find a way to give the world more tang ible proof."
Joe didn't answer. He was working on the beginning of an idea of his own.
BARRETT . . .
It was a little after midnight when James Barrett stepped out of the elevato r into the Observation Deck atrium. A couple of Franco's get-guards pulled p istols and started for him. Where was Artemis tonight? He was usually the fi rst to get in the face of anyone, living or undead, who set foot on the deck.
"What do you want?"
Something in their eyes, their expressions. Was it fear? What was going do wn here?
"Franco said to meet him here," Barrett said.
"I'll go check," said one of the guards.
As commander of the Empire State Building's human contingent, Barrett was u sed to being taken straight to Franco. Why this extra layer of insulation a ll of a sudden?
After all, he was responsible for round-the-clock security. He could have stayed around just on days - the really important time for security - but that meant he'd never get to see Franco, and Franco would never see him. So he caught a few winks here and there when he could and made sure he was arou nd for at least some of the night shift.
He'd held the job for six months now. That meant he had nine-and-a-half years of servitude left. That was the deal with the undead: ten years of service a nd they'd turn him. Fine for the other slobs to wait that long, but not him.
He'd risen as high as a living man could go in Franco's organization. He need ed to take the next step, needed to be turned, and soon. But he still hadn't found the lever to boost him to that stage.
"Come with us," said the returning vampire. "But first..."
He patted Barrett down and removed the .44 Magnum from his shoulder holst er. He stared at it a moment, then handed it back.
Barrett hid his shock. He'd never been frisked before.
"Let's go," said the other.
But instead of escorting him to the outer deck, he led him into a stairwell to the left of the elevator bank and down the steps to the eighty-fifth floo r. After a short walk along a hallway, he was passed through another set of guards into a bare room furnished with only a king-size four-poster bed. Lar ge sheets of plywood had been bolted over the windows.
Franco paced the room, his hands behind his back.
"There's been some trouble," he said without preamble, without so much as a glance at Barrett.
"Where?" It must be really serious, he thought. "I haven't heard anything."
"You wouldn't," Franco said, his eyes were on the floor as he paced. "I se nt Artemis down to New Jersey a few days ago to check up on Olivia and see to it that she was staying on top of things. If she wasn't - as I was sure was the case - he was to take over. This evening I received a report from do wntown that - "
He seemed to catch himself and cast a quick sidelong glance at Barrett. Wh at was he hiding? He knew that Artemis and a few of his get lived down in the Village. What had Franco heard?
Franco shook his head and went on. "I heard a report that made me suspect t hat something might have happened to Artemis. So I sent a flyer down to che ck." Finally he looked up at Barrett. "Artemis is dead. So is Olivia."
"Oh, shit," Barrett said. It was the best he could do. He was all but speechles s.
Artemis dead? Barrett couldn't wrap his mind around it. Was there a tougher undead son of a bitch in the world? He doubted it.
"Staked. Same as Olivia."
"Her guards too?"
"A massacre! Who - ?"
"I suspect it has something to do with that vigilante priest. That's the only a nswer."
"But he's one of you now."
"His followers aren't. Maybe when they found out that we turned him, instea d of being demoralized, they went berserk. I don't know."
Barrett heard opportunity knocking. Here was a chance to stand out, to mayb e shorten that nine-and-a-half-year wait for immortality.
A plan was already forming. Show up down there, pretend to be another refugee, infiltrate their ranks, wait till the time was right, till they were off gu ard, then blow them all away.
"Want me to go down and check it out?"
Franco shook his head. "No. I need you here. I want you to gather your men f rom inside and outside the city and concentrate them around this building. I'm going to organize a counter strike and I don't want any interruptions. By next week I'll have gathered a horde of ferals to set loose down there. No quarter, no survivors. Then I'm going to incinerate the entire area. The fla mes will be visible for miles. Not one house or church or synagogue will be left standing. The rest of the living will hear and understand the consequen ces of resistance."
"I don't think pulling in your perimeter is such a good idea. That's like y our early-warning system. You don't want - "
"What I don't want is to debate it. I did not bring you up here for a discussi on. I'm telling you what to do. Now do it!"
Barrett resisted a hot retort. He held up his hands and said, "You're the boss."
As he turned and walked out, he thought, But you're an asshole.
He didn't care what Franco said, he wasn't going to pull in all the outrider s. His ass was on the line here too, and if a caravan full of vampire hunter s was headed this way, he wanted to know about it before they reached Fifth Avenue.
Because invariably vampire hunters were cowboy hunters too.
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