Chapter 15

CAROLE. . . .

At dawn, and not a minute before, Joseph, Carole, and Lacey stepped out o f the garage and started toward Fifth Avenue. The pistol in Carole's hand  -  Joseph had told her it was a 9mm Glock - felt heavy as it swung with her gait, muzzle toward the sidewalk.

They'd been waiting for Joseph when he awoke an hour ago. After Carole ha d fed him a few drops of her blood, they'd gone to work checking weapons and mentally preparing themselves for the coming ordeal.

While Joseph and Lacey had tinkered with their guns, Carole sidled off with her gear to a far corner of the garage to make her own preparations. In a li ttle while they'd be entering the heart of darkness, with a fair chance of n ot coming out alive. Carole wasn't afraid of dying. It was undying that terr ified her. So while Joseph and Lacey armed themselves from the collection of weapons confiscated along the way, Carole added extra precautions to guaran tee she'd never be an undead: extra charges front and back, and extra trigge rs. If it came to the point where all hope was lost, she'd make her exit. Bu t not alone.

If worse came to worst, she'd be risking eternal damnation to avoid undeath.

Carole shuddered at the prospect. She'd been taught that suicide was a one-way ticket to hell, but she hoped and prayed that God would understand. Deat h before dishonor... death before undeath... surely that was the right thing to do.

And now they were on the street, heading toward... what?

"All right," Joseph said as they neared Fifth Avenue. He was walking between them. "This is it. We take it slow down to Thirty-fourth. If things went as planned we won't meet any resistance. If things didn't, well, we might have to fight to escape."

Carole knew all this but let him talk. She sensed an unusual tension in Joseph. Was it because this was their D-Day, when all their planning and w atching and waiting would either bring them success or death? Or was it so mething else?

He stopped them at Fifth and worked the slide on his gun.

"Ladies - time to lock and load."

Carole followed his example. The slide gave more resistance than she'd expe cted.

"Remember what I said," Joseph told them. "If anything happens to me, get o ut of town and do your best to reach unoccupied territory."

He leaned away and peered around the corner, then turned back to them and nodded.

"I think we're in business."

He motioned them to follow when Carole cleared the corner she saw what he m eant. Down the gentle slope, past Thirty-Fourth Street, she spotted three s till figures lying on the sidewalk under the Empire State Building's front canopy.

As they passed a smashed and looted Duane Reade, Houlihan's came into view.

Writhing forms littered the sidewalk in front of it. One lay in the open doo rway next to the revolving door. The odor of fresh coffee wafted across the street through the cool dawn air. On another day, in another place, the smel l would have had her salivating, but right now her stomach had shrunk to a t ight little knot the size of a walnut.

They crossed the street and now Carole could see the Vichy close up -  their g ray faces, their bloodshot eyes, their blue lips. She tensed and ducked into a half crouch as she caught movement to her right. One of the Vichy was con vulsing on the sidewalk. Her first impulse was to run to his side and help h im, but she suppressed it. She, after all, was the reason for his seizure.

Carole stared in horror at the thrashing arms, the foam-flecked lips. It was o ne thing to plan for their deaths, to imagine them dead. It was something else entirely to witness their death throes.

"Dear God, what have I done?"

JOE . . .

"Let's keep moving," Joe said.

He noticed Carole's sick look. He felt for her, but this was no time for Ca role to start second-guessing herself. The old Father Joe might have been a ppalled, but ex-Father Joe was more fatalistic. It was an ugly scene, but w hat was done was done. No turning back now.

"Eight," Lacey said. "Your window is shrinking."

Joe checked his watch. He had less than fifty minutes before daysleep took hold. They entered the building and he led Lacey and Carole on a winding co urse through the prostrate forms in the Empire State's front lobby.

At the elevator banks he stopped when he noticed the closed doors to the loca l car. He pressed the call button, then stepped back and aimed his pistol at the doors.

He motioned Carole and Lacey to the side. "Be ready to fire. This may not a rrive empty."

"But this car is waiting," Carole said, pointing to a set of open doors.

"That's the Observation Deck express. At this point we only want to go to th ree."

The car arrived empty. Joe got on after Lacey and Carole, stabbed the 3 bu tton, and they were on their way. Mentally he was anxious, but physically he was calm - no butterflies in his gut, no pounding heart. As if his emotio ns were divorced from his body. Or maybe because his body had entered a ne w mode of existence, one without adrenaline.

Joe pointed his gun at the doors as the car slowed to a stop on three. They parted to reveal an empty hallway. He touched his fingers to his lips and stepped out. Keeping his pistol raised before him, he approached the open d ouble doors to the security center. He was four feet away when a heavyset Vichy stepped into view.

"About fuckin - "

His eyes widened as he saw them and he was reaching for the pistol in his be lt when Joe shot him once in the chest. He staggered back, eyes even wider, and then another shot rang out, catching him below the left eye and snapping his head back. He fell like a tree to lay stretched out on the hall carpet.

Joe glanced at Lacey who had her pistol extended in a two-handed grip.

She smiled. "Just making sure."

He looked at Carol. She clutched her pistol waist high, pointed at the wall. She looked like a startled deer.

Joe stepped into the security area and found the three technicians staring at him in shock. He pointed to the fallen Vichy in the hall.

"Any more like him here?"

They shook their heads.

"No," said the oldest of the three. He looked about sixty with gray hair and a receding hairline. "But there will be soon. He was waiting for his relief so he could go get breakfast."

"His relief's not coming," Joe said. "And breakfast has been canceled."

He allowed himself a moment of congratulation. They'd done it. They'd kno cked out the Vichy and captured the Security Center.

Now they had to hold it.

"Who are you?" said the technician. He couldn't seem to pull his gaze from Joe's face.

Joe opened his mouth to speak but Lacey beat him to it.

"Just some nobodies who've come to liberate the building."

"No shit?" said the youngest, who appeared to be in his forties.

"No shit," Lacey agreed. "Who are you three and why are you working for t he bloodsuckers?"

"I'm Marty Considine," said the gray-headed one. He pointed to the young on e. "This is Mike Leland, and that's Kevin Fowler." The third technician was fat and wore a stained half-sleeve white shirt. He nodded but said nothing.

"As for being here," Considine went on, "we don't have much choice."

"Yeah," said the fat one, Fowler. "Not if we want our wives and kids to live."

Lacey shook her head. "You call this living?"

Leland looked away. "No. But when they slap your kid around and rape your w ife in front of you, just to give you a taste of what will happen if you sc rew up, you get the message."

Joe felt for them, but not terribly. Everyone had suffered. He was scanning the monitors. When he recognized views of the Observation Deck, he said, "

We've got one job for you, then you can go back to your families."

"And do what?" said Fowler. His lower lip trembled. "Where can we go?"

"That's up to you. Within half an hour, if all goes well, your services will no longer be needed here. By anyone." He stepped closer to the monitors. "I s there a camera in the stairwell to the Observation Deck?"

Leland began typing on a keyboard. "We've got three there. Which one do you want?"

"The highest - between the eighty-fifth and eighty-sixth if you've got one."

"We do."

"Audio?"

"Just video." He grabbed a mouse and clicked. "Here you go."

A monitor went blank, then cut back in with a view of a door marked 85 in a n empty stairwell. A sawed-off shotgun leaned in the corner next to the doo r.

"Excellent," Joe said.

Leland squinted at the screen. "Hey, somebody's usually guarding the door t o eight-five from dawn to dusk."

"We gave him the day off," Lacey said. "Any way of broadcasting from her e?"

Considine shook his head. "The building has a huge TV antenna, but that's another department. We're security. We don't know squat about TV transmi ssion."

"It's okay," Joe said, tapping the screen. "We'll tape as planned. Record that one, and then I'll tell you another one to record when I get to the Observati on Deck."

"It's true then?" Considine said. "You're really liberating the building?"

"That's the plan," Joe said.

"About time. How many of you are there?"

"Just us," Lacey said.

He stared. "Three? Just three? You've got to be kidding! Are you people cra zy?

Joe shrugged. "Probably. But we're already more than halfway to succeedi ng. We - "

A burst of static from the hallway startled him.

"Security! Security, do you copy?"

Joe tensed. "What's that?"

"One of their two-ways."

Joe stepped out into the hall, found the little walkie-talkie clipped to the d ead guard's belt, and turned it off. He returned to the Security Center and fa ced Carole and Lacey.

"That means at least one of the Vichy is still alive out there. Probably more."

"Well," Lacey said, "we knew from the get-go we wouldn't get them all."

"I don't like leaving you two alone here."

Considine stepped past him. Joe tensed as he picked up the fallen guard's p istol. He worked the slide and chambered a round.

"Who said they're alone? Your ranks just swelled to four."

Joe stared at him. "You know how to use that?"

Considine nodded. "Nam, pal. Eighteen months in country."

Joe liked leaving Carole and Lacey with an armed stranger even less, but se nsed he could trust Considine. He didn't have much choice.

"You folks hold the fort here. Lock the door and pull that desk in front of it. Shoot anyone who tries to get in."

"Where are you going?" Considine said.

"Upstairs. I've got a date with Franco."

He glanced at Carole. She had a dazed air about her that worried him. "Carole, are you all right?"

"I'll be fine," she said. "Hurry. You haven't much time."

"I know." He stepped close to her and took her in his arms and held her. He never wanted to leave her.

"I love you," he murmured as he kissed her hair. "Always remember that. We - "

He stopped as he felt a lump between her shoulder blades, and another fart her down near the small of her back. He knew what they were.

"Oh, God, Carole!" he whispered. "Don't ever push those buttons. I know the y give you comfort, but I beg you, don't. Please don't."

He released her she stared at him with stricken eyes. "Only as a last resort," she told him. "Only when all hope is gone."

"Then I pray that moment never comes." He turned and hugged Lacey. "My fav orite niece," he said. "One of my favorite people in the whole world. Just remember: if anything happens to me, you and Carole get these tapes to th e unoccupied territories."

Lacey backed away and gave him a strange look. "Why do you keep saying that? It's like you don't think you'll see us again."

"I might not. But I'm not what this is about. I'm expendable. If I can't mak e it back, you two must go on without me."

He couldn't tell them the truth. He turned to go.

"Wait," Carole said, holding a zipped-up backpack. "Don't forget this," He nodded and began slipping his arms through the straps as he ran for the e levators. The pack was hot against his back.

BARRETT . . .

Home from the night shift, James Barrett stepped into his Murray Hill brownst one and checked the long-pork filet he'd put in the refrigerator to thaw when he'd left at sunset. It had softened considerably but still had a ways to go.

He yawned. Christ, this was a boring way to live. Sleeping days, working nig hts. His internal clock couldn't seem to get used to it. Cooking was the onl y interesting thing in his life now, and even that was palling on him. Witho ut fresh spices there were only so many ways you could cook human flesh. At least it was better than eating that slop they served the troops at Houlihan's day after day.

Not that he'd eat with the hoi polloi anyway. He needed to set himself apart, both in their eyes and in the undead's.

At least they'd had a little excitement last night with Neal getting killed and those two women stealing food from the kitchen. Neal wound up with the back of his head stove in. He was one tough mother. Barrett couldn't see a couple of women doing that. Must've had help.

He wondered if they were connected to the mess in the Lincoln tunnel. What if that hadn't been an accident?

He had put the cowboys on full alert tonight, stationed a couple of guards in Houlihan's, and sent out teams to look for someone, anyone who might be connected. They'd returned with a few stray cattle but no one who fit the c ook's description.

He'd miss Neal. He was good for a laugh and for the application of a little muscle when Barrett gave him the go-ahead. But did he feel even a trace of sadness at his passing? They said when you were turned and rose as undead, you lost all your emotions. That would be a breeze for Barrett. He had no memory of feeling anything for anybody. Ever.

That was why his situation was so frustrating. He was already most of the w ay to undead. All he needed was the bite and he'd be there. If he could jus t -

His two-way squawked. Now what? Couldn't they do anything over there wit hout him? He snatched it up.

"Yeah. Talk to me."

Nothing but faint static from the other end.

"Hey, you called. What do you want?"

Nothing again, then something that sounded like a groan, a very agonized gr oan.

"Hello? Who's there? What's going on?"

Again the groan, fainter this time, then nothing. Barrett tried to get a resp onse but nothing came through. He tried calling the Security Center but no on e picked up.

His chest tightened. Something was up. Remembering Neal's cracked dome, he stuck his Dirty Harry gun - his .44 Magnum - into his shoulder holster an d hurried back to the Empire State.

JOE . . .

When Joe stepped out on the eightieth floor, instead of heading for the othe r bank of elevators to take him the last six floors to the Observation Deck, he looked around and found an exit door. He pushed through and climbed the stairs.

Outside the door marked 85 he looked around for the security camera. When he found it he waved, then reached for the handle.

A foul miasma of rot engulfed Joe when he opened the door. The stairwell w as well lit but the space beyond the door was dark as a tomb.

How appropriate, he thought.

His night vision was extraordinary but it wasn't up to this, so he stepped through and found a light switch on the wall. The hallway was strewn with o ffice furniture. He began searching room to room. The first two were filled with somnolent get-guards stretched out on mattresses and futons, but Fran co was not among them. He looked down the hall and saw a form stretched out before a doorway. Could be a dead victim, but if it was a get-guard . . .

It was. That could only mean Franco was inside. Joe picked up the pistol an d machete at the guard's side and tossed them down the hall. Then he tried the door. Locked. He reared back and kicked it in.

There, in the center of the otherwise empty room with boarded-up windows, a four-poster bed sat like a ship becalmed on a still dark sea.

And in that bed .. . Joe recognized the big blond hair and mustache, the shar p angle of the nose. A burst of fury like nothing he'd ever experience took h old of him. He wanted to run down the hallway, find that machete, and start h acking away at this worthless cluster of cells. But no killing blows. Just sl icing off small pieces, one at a time . . .

Joe shook it off. These dark impulses were getting stronger. Had to stick to t he plan.

"Franco!" he shouted as he stepped over the get-guard. "Franco, I've got so mething to show you!"

Franco lay on his back in gray silk suit pants and a glossy white, loose-sl eeved shirt that reminded Joe of a woman's blouse. Slowly he pivoted his he ad toward Joe. His eyes widened in surprise as his lips formed the word, Wh o?

"We'll get to that in a minute."

He lifted the big vampire onto his shoulder, something that would have been a back-wrenching task a week ago; but now, with his semi-undead strength, he found it easy. Franco struggled but his movements were weak, futile. The get-guard at the door clutched at him as he passed but didn't have a praye r of restraining him.

Joe moved down the hall, kicking in each door he passed, shouting, "Hey! I've got your daddy and I'm going to send him to his final reward. Try and st op me!"

Back in the stairwell he started up the flight to the Observation Deck but stopped halfway. He put Franco down and let him slump on the concrete steps.

"Who are you?" Franco rasped.

"Am I that easy to forget?" Joe said. "It was only a week ago - a week ago tod ay, as a matter of fact."

He heard something scrape against the concrete under Franco. He flipped him over and saw the leathery tips of his wings struggling to emerge through the slits in his shirt. Joe pulled off his backpack and unzipped it. Rays of br ight white light shot from the opening.

Blinking in the glare, Joe reached in and found the foam-rubber padding Car ole had duct-taped to the lower end of his silver cross. Even through the p adding he felt its heat. Averting his eyes he pulled out the cross and slam med it against one of the emerging wings. A hiss of burning flesh, a puff o f acrid smoke as Franco writhed and let out a hoarse scream. Then the other wing -  with the same results.

He returned the cross to the back pack and zipped it. He blinked to regain his vision; when it cleared he looked down at Franco's back. The wing tips were now smoldering lumps of scar tissue. He turned as he heard the door fr om the eighty-fifth floor hallway swing open. Members of Franco's get-guard began to crawl into the stairwell.

Good.

He grabbed the gasping, whimpering Franco and turned him onto his back. The vampire stared at Joe's face, his expression terrified and confused.

"I'll refresh your memory, Franco. You allowed something called Devlin to lunch on me." Joe's anger flared again as he recalled his terror, his help lessness, and the searing pain of having his throat ripped open. "Remember?" He heard his voice growing louder. "Told me I'd soon be just like him. Remember? " He grabbed Franco by the neck and drew his face close. "Rememb er?"

He was shouting now and he wanted to rip Franco's head off.

No. Not yet.

He looked down and saw that the get-guards had reached the steps and were c rawling up, their progress slow, tortured.

"Come on, guys," he said. "Move it. I haven't got all day."

Damn right. He glanced at his watch. He had maybe twenty, twenty-five mi nutes before he became as weak as they.

He turned back to Franco and saw that a light had dawned in the undead's ey es - realization, but not belief.

"The priest?" he whispered in a voice like tiny claws scratching stone. "You? No ..."

"Yes!" Joe heard the word hiss out like escaping steam. "The priest. Killing me wasn't good enough. You had to condemn me to an eternity of depravity, r ob me of every shred of dignity, undo every scrap of good I'd done in my ent ire life. At least that was your plan. But it didn't work."

"How?" The word was an exhalation.

"I'm not even sure myself. All I know is this is how it works out in the end: I lose, but you lose too."

He flinched at a deafening report and the spang of a bullet ricocheting off th e concrete above his head. Another shot and this time the bullet dug into his hip with a painful sting.

He stood and faced them, spreading his arms. "Go ahead. It won't matter. I'm one of you."

Not true. He'd never be one of them, but no reason they shouldn't suffer som e confusion and dismay in their final minutes.

More shots. Most were misses because their weak, wavering hands were unable to aim, but a few hit home. He jerked with the impacts, felt the heat and pa in of their entries, but it was nothing he couldn't bear. Finally they gave it up. He smiled at the alarm in their faces.

He turned to Franco and lifted him in his arms. "Let's go."

"Where?"

"To see the sun. Don't you miss it? We're too late for sunrise, but it promises to be a beautiful day."

Franco grabbed Joe's shirt and pulled on it. A feeble gesture. But Joe was surp rised to see a nasty grin stretch his thin lips.

"You idiot! Devlin was my get! That makes you my get as well. When I die, you die!"

"I know," Joe said, returning a grin he hoped was just as nasty: "I'm counting on that."

Franco's jaw dropped open. "N-no! You can't! You - "

"I can. Because I don't want to exist like this."

Joe pushed through the door at the top of the steps and emerged into the gre en-tiled atrium by the elevators. Sunlight, searingly bright, blazed through the huge windows of the enclosed observation area that lay a few steps up a nd beyond. Only a six-foot swath, no more than two feet wide, penetrated the atrium.

I'm here. I've done it.

Amazing what someone can do when they don't care if they live or die, he t hought. But they can achieve so much more, achieve the seemingly impossibl e, when they're looking to die.

He forced himself to look at that swath of direct light. That was where Fran co would meet his end, sealing Joe's fate as well. But first he'd wait for t he get-guards to arrive. He wanted as many as possible on camera when Franco bought it.

CAROLE . . .

Carole's stomach clenched as she stared at the monitors. "What is he doing?

" "Just what he said he would," Lacey replied. "Getting as many get-guards onscreen before he pushes Franco into the sunlight."

"But there's a whole stairwell full of guards. Too many of them. He's lettin g them get too close. Why doesn't he have the cross out?"

"What can they do? After that display in the stairwell they know they can't shoot him."

"But they have those machetes."

"So? They can barely lift them. Don't worry, Carole. He's got them beat."

Carole wasn't so sure. A lucky swing from a machete could sever an Achille s tendon, or worse, a higher swing could catch Joseph's hamstrings. He wou ldn't be able to stand then. He'd go down and they'd swarm over him. One o f them might be strong enough to behead him ...

Her chest tightened at the thought. She couldn't, wouldn't lose him.

"I'm going up there," she blurted.

"No way!" Lacey said. "Our job is to stay here."

Carole began pushing the desk away from the door. "No. I can help. I can us e the cross to keep them back."

Lacey grabbed her arm. "Carole - "

Carole wrenched free. "Please don't fight me on this. I've got to go. I've just got to."

"Shit!" Lacey said. "Then I'll go with you."

"No." She cracked the door and peeked out into the hall. Empty. "One of us h as to stay here. That's you."

Without looking back, she stepped into the hall and started for the elevators.

She heard Considine's voice behind her. "Tell her she's got to go down to on e and catch an express to eighty."

"Carole - " Lacey began.

"I heard," Carole said over her shoulder.

"Keep your gun ready," Lacey called. "You see anything moving, shoot first and ask questions later."

"I will."

And she would. Joseph needed her and no one was going to bar her from re aching him.

BARRETT . . .

Barrett staggered through the Empire State lobby in a daze. His men lay st rewn about like jackstraws. Blue-gray faces everywhere. Those who weren't dead were well on their way.

Obviously they'd been poisoned, but how? The water supply? The breakfast e ggs? The coffee? Didn't much matter now. He just had to remember not to ea t or drink anything within blocks of this building.

But all of his men? Surely there had to be a couple who'd missed breakfast.

But he didn't know who and he had no way of contacting them. They were sca ttered throughout the building. He'd have to go floor to floor and door to door.

The other question was who. Who did this? What did they want? Were they af ter the cowboys, to send a message to anyone who collaborated with the ene my? Or were they after the undead too? If so, they'd be upstairs, on eight-five - where the vamps would be sitting ducks and the shit would really be hitting the fan.

Barrett turned and looked back at the front doors. His first impulse was to cut and run. As top cowboy the responsibility for all this would be laid on him. But on the other hand, he'd been looking for a chance to put himself in the spotlight. Maybe this was opportunity knocking.

He had to reach the Security Center. He could get the lay of the land there and decide what, if anything, he could do. He headed for the elevators. As he passed the security kiosk in the main lobby he remembered it was equipp ed with a couple of monitors.

He stepped up to the console and dialed through the various feeds but stop ped when he came to the Observation Deck. He gaped at the scene playing ou t on the little black-and-white screen. Some guy with a scarred-up face ha d Franco. The head vampire hung in his grip like a rag doll. A couple of g et-guards were crawling through the stairway door. Where were their guns?

Why didn't they shoot?

They needed someone to take charge up there and take this fucker out.

James Barrett grinned. His moment had come.

He searched the drawers of the kiosk looking for something to give him an advantage, no matter how small, beyond his big gun. He found some pepper s pray and a couple of pairs of handcuffs. He took the spray, then pulled hi s Magnum and headed for the elevators.

As he approached the Observation Deck express bank, he heard a set of doors slide open. He started to step back, then reversed field. The car couldn't h old that many; he might be outnumbered but he had surprise on his side. So h e made a snap decision and charged with both arms held straight out before h im, pepper spray in his left, pistol in the right. He'd reached full speed w hen a woman stepped out of the car. He collided with her head on. As they fe ll to the floor he began firing into the car. He got off two booming shots b efore he realized it was empty.

Barrett turned his attention to the woman who was struggling beneath him.

He slammed the heavy barrel of his Magnum against her head, stunning her.

Then he rushed back to the guard kiosk and grabbed the handcuffs. She was stirring as he returned so he quickly pulled her arms behind her and snapp ed the cuffs on. He didn't have the keys and didn't need them to lock her into them. As for getting her out - not his worry.

He stood and looked down at her. A slim brunette. Not bad looking, but not his type. One thing he knew about her was that she didn't belong here. Th at meant she was with the ugly guy on the Observation Deck. And that meant he had a hostage. Perfecto.

JOE . . .

Half a dozen get-guards were through the door now, their machetes scraping against the marble as they dragged themselves across the floor.

These should be enough to make the point, he thought as he edged himself a nd Franco away from them and closer to the patch of sunlight. They appeare d to be in the camera's field of view.

Now .. . the moment of truth.

Questions surged unbidden into his mind. Did he really want to do this? It would end everything. No more Carole, no more Lacey. Wasn't this existence, hideous as it was, better than no existence at all?

No. Unequivocally no. He would not spend the centuries this half-breed exis tence might give him as a creature of the darkness and twilight. Yes, he'd have more time with Carole and Lacey, but he'd also have to watch them age and die.

Better to make a clean break, better to end his personal horror by removing another horror from the earth.

He lifted Franco and tensed his muscles to hurl him into the light.

"Get ready to burn, Franco," he whispered.

"No! Please - !"

Just then an elevator chimed to his left. The doors slid open and his heart sank when he saw Carole. He didn't want her to have to watch his death thr oes. But panic and rage exploded within him when he saw the grinning face h overing behind her shoulder.

Barrett.

The head Vichy propelled Carole ahead of him into the atrium. The doors w hispered closed behind them.

"Well, well," he said, still grinning. "What have we here? I guess this is wha t we call a stand-off."

"Carole, are you all right?"

She shook her head. A thin stream of blood trickled down her temple from her scalp. Her eyes filled with tears.

"Joseph, I'm so sorry."

"It's all right."

He made a silent promise: I'll get you out of this, no matter what it takes.

He noticed that her arms were pulled behind her, which meant her hands wer e bound. In a way, that was a relief. Barrett had no idea how lucky he was. If Carole were able to get her hands into her pockets, she might have bl own them both to pieces by now.

"Let her go, Barrett," Joe said.

His eyebrows lifted. "You know my name? You have the advantage over me, si r. And I'm sure I'd not forget a face like yours."

There wasn't time to get into that.

"Just let her go."

"And why would I want to do that?"

"It's the right thing to do."

"For you maybe, but not for me. I'm willing to make a trade, though. Her fo r him." He pointed to Franco. "Hear that, Bossman? I'm saving your ass. And I expect something in return - big time. After I straighten this out, I want to be turned. Immediately. We waive the ten-year clause. Agreed?"

"Yes," Franco rasped. "Of course."

"And I don't want to be turned by some low-level drone, either. By you or, be tter yet, by the guy who turned you, if he's still around. I want wings."

Franco nodded. "Yes. Anything. Anything you want."

"You want to be like them?" Joe pointed to the undead guards who were conti nuing their inching crawl toward him. They'd be within striking distance in a minute. "Look at them. Slithering along the floor. They're vermin!"

"But they're the vermin who're running the show."

"Not for long. And then where will you be?"

"It's over for us, Mister Melted Face. The New World Order has arrived, an d though it's not what anyone imagined, the choices come down to predator or prey. I've never seen myself as prey." He smiled. "So . .. how do you w ant to work the trade?"

"Joseph, no!" Carole cried.

Barrett grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked her head back. "No one aske d you! You're nothing but merchandise, so keep it zipped. I do the negotiati ng here!"

Joe took a step toward him. He wanted to kill Barrett, but slowly. Twist his head around an inch at a time until it was facing the other way.

"Uh-uh!" Barrett said. He held up an old-fashioned stiletto, pressed the bu tton, and out snapped a gleaming four-inch blade. He pressed the point agai nst Carole's throat. "Don't make me damage the merchandise."

LACEY . . .

Lacey stared at the Observation Deck feed. Joe's lips were moving and he was looking away from the camera.

"Who's he talking to?" she said.

Considine shrugged. "Maybe Franco, maybe your friend. She should have a rrived by now."

The scars made Joe's face all but unreadable, especially on this small, grai ny screen, but something about his body language set off warning alarms thro ughout her brain.

"Do you have other cameras up there?"

Leland grabbed his mouse. "One other that catches the atrium." Windows o pened and closed on his computer screen, menus dropped down and rolled u p. "Here we go."

The scene that flickered to life on the screen froze Lacey's heart. Carole ...held prisoner by a Vichy.

"Barrett!" Considine said over her shoulder. "Fucking Barrett. How'd you m iss him?"

"Who's he?"

"Chief rat."

Lacey pulled her pistol from her belt. "I'm going up there."

"Not alone, you're not," Considine said.

"Stay here," she said. "We need that tape."

"These guys can handle that. Going alone is what got your friend in trouble." He was already heading for the door. "Let's move."

Lacey followed him out into the hall. They were almost to the elevators whe n one of them chimed. The UP light glowed over the second set of doors. Con sidine went into a crouch and motioned her toward the near wall. Pistol ful ly extended, he hurried forward and flattened himself against the wall imme diately to the right of the doors.

When they slid open and a scraggly-haired head peeked out, Considine shot him in the face from six inches away. Lacey heard someone inside the car s hout "Fuck!" as the shot man went down in a spray of red, landing in the d oorway. The doors tried to close but the body blocked them.

Considine knelt and, without turning his head, motioned Lacey down to the f loor. Seconds later another Vichy burst from the car with a hoarse cry, spr aying the hall with an assault pistol. As the bullets screamed over her hea d, Lacey returned fire along with Considine. She didn't know who hit him bu t suddenly he went into spin, falling one way while his weapon sailed in an other. He ended up huddled against the wall, clutching his shoulder.

Considine peeked into the elevator car, then stepped over to the fallen Vic hy, picking up his assault pistol on the way. He turned him over with his f oot and - to Lacey's shock - shot him in his good shoulder, then once again in the stomach.

"Not exactly a kill shot," Lacey said as the Vichy screamed and writhed in agony.

Considine's face was a grim mask as he returned to the elevator and pulled th e first body clear of the door.

"Not intended," he said.

"We don't want to leave any live ones."

He motioned her into the car. "That one we do. Between the messed-up shoulde rs and the gut shot, he's out of the fight."

The doors closed and he pressed the lobby button.

Lacey stared at him. "You've got something personal going on here?"

Considine's eyes remained fixed straight ahead on the doors. His voice was d ead flat. "Back in January two of this guy's buddies held me and made me wat ch while he raped my wife. Said if I didn't cooperate they'd pass her around the cowboys like that until they were tired of her, then she'd be turned an d sent to kill me."

Lacey swallowed. The terror, the humiliation this man had had to live with ... she couldn't think of anything else to say except, "I'm sorry."

"And now he's sorry. It should take him hours to die. If I'm real lucky, mayb e a couple of days, every minute of it in excruciating agony."

"My kind of guy," she said. He glanced at her. "That is, if I liked guys."

JOE . . .

Joe winced as he saw the point of the stiletto indent the flesh of Carole's thro at.

"Don't hurt her,"

"Then stop dragging this out," Barrett said. "We make the switch and we al l walk away free and clear." He smiled. "Until I come and hunt you down."

Joe felt his strength beginning to slip. He glanced toward the observation windows. He couldn't see the glass or anything beyond, only a featureless b laze of white. The sun was nearing the point where it would suck off his en ergy and reduce him to a crawling weakling like Franco and his get.

What could he do? If there was a way out of this, he couldn't see it. He could barely think.

So close to success - ending Franco and all his get, no matter where in the world they were. Ending himself.

Maybe that was the answer: shove Franco into the sun, and while his scream s caused a distraction, make a leap toward Carole and Barrett.

Did he dare?

As if Barrett were reading his mind, he moved into the patch of sunlight, pu lling Carole with him. Joe could barely look at them.

"No funny stuff," Barrett said.

Joe slumped. Now what?

"I sense indecision," Barrett said. "Let me offer some incentive." He held up the stiletto, twisting it back and forth to catch the light. "Always wanted one of these, but they've been illegal for decades. Found it in the house I'm occupying. Snap it open and you feel like a juvenile delinquent from a bad f ifties movie. But it's a good street-fighting knife. Know why? This slim litt le blade doesn't get caught up in clothing. Watch."

With that he stabbed it into Carole's flank right below her ribs. Joe cried ou t as he saw her stiffen in pain and try to pull away. But Barrett had her by t he neck.

"Don't worry," he said. "The cut's only an inch or so deep. Nothing that'll d o serious damage. But it can cause a lot of pain." He angled the blade. "Espe cially when I drag the point along a rib."

Carole gasped as all the color drained from her face. Her knees buckled but Barrett held her up.

"All right!" Joe shouted. "All right! Just stop it! Please!"

Carole was shaking her head. "No!" He could barely hear her voice. "You ca n't!"

Barrett jabbed her again and this time she screamed. The sound was like sha rds of glass being driven through his brain. He wanted to cry.

"Carole, he's got us. We've lost this round."

"Just as you'll lose every round," Barrett said.

"I can't let this happen, Joseph," she gasped.

What was she saying? Thank God she couldn't get her hands into her pockets.

"It'll be all right, Carole."

"Forgive me, Joseph, forgive me, Lord. I love you both."

She turned her head, lifted her left shoulder, and bit something there that lo oked like a knotted thread.

What's she doing?

"Yeah, I know," Barrett said. "You love everyone. That's why you haven't a prayer of winning."

Joe saw a string clenched in Carole's teeth, saw her close her eyes and jerk her head back.

"No!"

The explosion hit him like a falling slab of concrete, knocking Franco into him and sending them both flying. He lost his grip on Franco and slammed i nto the marble wall behind them, then tumbled to the floor. For a moment he lay there dazed, not sure of where he was, and then it came back to him.

"Carole!"

He struggled to his feet and looked around. Red... everything, including Joe, was splattered with red. The blast had shattered the observation window s and now a small gale rushed through the atrium.

Where was Carole? He staggered around, searching, but could find no recogni zable trace of her. There had to be something left, something more than the bits of flesh clinging to the walls. Something glinted in a corner: a sing le bloody handcuff.

Gone . .. she was gone ... as if she'd never been.

Movement caught his eye. The get-guards had been tossed around by the bla st but were recovering now. They were crawling back toward the stairwell, dragging Franco with them, and licking the blood from the floor as they moved.

With a cry of rage in a voice he didn't recognize, Joe lurched toward them.

His strength was leaking away like water down a drain. Had to do this while he still was able.

He grabbed Franco's ankle, ripped him free of the guards holding him, and dr agged him toward the light. No hesitations, last words, no taunts, just fini sh the job he'd come here to do. He pulled Franco to his feet at the edge of the sunlit patch and shoved him forward with everything he had.

Franco must have been an old one because he burst into flame as soon as the light touched his skin. His scream was musical, at least to Joe. He spun as his skin charred to black and his eyes bubbled in his head, tried to lunge b ack to the shadows but his legs wouldn't support him. He collapsed in a flam ing heap. Joe fell back against the nearest wall and slid to the floor, arms open wide to embrace his oncoming death.

LACEY . . .

Lacey and Considine had reached the eightieth floor and were headed for th e final elevator bank when the building shook. Lacey saw glass and debris rain past the windows.

A sick certainty about what had just happened nearly drove Lacey to her kne es.

"Oh, no! Carole!"

"Your friend?" Considine said. "What - ?"

She waved off his questions as she leaned against a wall and sobbed. Oh, Ca role. Did you have to? Did you really have to?

"Look," Considine said, "I know we decided to stay off the stairwell, but if there's been an explosion up on the deck, these elevators won't be trustworth y. We're going to have to take the stairs. You have a cross?"

Lacey pulled one out of her pocket and handed it to him. "Here. But I've got a feeling we're not going to need it."

He led her to the stairwell where they were backed up by a blast of smoke w hen they opened it. The air cleared quickly, however, propelled by the wind blowing through the doorway. The lights were still on, and they hurried up the steps.

"What's that stink?" Considine said.

"Dead vampires. Lots of them."

"Why should they be dead?"

Lacey gave him a quick explanation of get-death.

"No offense," he said, "but I'll believe that when I see it. Sounds too much l ike wishful thinking."

"That's how most people will react. Which is why we wanted to catch it on t ape.

On the eighty-fifth-floor landing they came upon the piled rotting corpses of Franco's get.

"Believe me now?"

"Jesus Christ. It's true." He looked at her with wide eyes. "That means..."

"Yeah, that we're not beaten, that the living have still got a shot. But we h ave to get those tapes to people who can use them."

She led the way over the stinking cadavers, stepping around them when she could, and on them when she couldn't. The door to the Observation Deck had been blown off its hinges and the wind flowing through it carried most of the stink away.

Lacey hesitated at the door, afraid to go any further, but forced herself th rough. The carnage - the blood, the shattered marble, the stove-in elevator do ors - stopped her in her tracks.

"Jesus God," Considine said behind her. "What happened here?"

Lacey said nothing, but she knew ... she could see the scene play out in her b rain . .. Carole ran out of options and took Barrett with her.

In the sunlight she saw a pile of charred, smoking, semi-molten flesh. That would be Franco. But Joe .. . where was Joe?

"Uncle Joe?" she called. "Uncle - ?"

And then she saw him, curled in the fetal position in a corner, face to the w all. He wasn't moving.

"Uncle Joe?" She hurried to him and turned him over. His eyes were closed a nd his scarred face was twisted into a mask of pain. "Uncle Joe, are you al l right?"

He opened his eyes and sobbed, "I was supposed to die, not her! But I'm still here and she's not!"

Lacey didn't understand and didn't try to. He was weak as a newborn. She cr adled him in her arms and they cried together. He had no tears but she had enough for both of them. They fell on his face, wetting his cheeks.

Behind them Lacey heard a clatter from the stairwell and recognized Leland's voice. "What the hell happened here?"

"I'm still trying to figure that out," Considine said. "Did you get it on tape?"

"The cameras here went dead but I switched to one of the deck cameras in t ime to catch Franco's meltdown. Also caught his guards dying like poisoned rats on the stairs. What happened to them?"

"Tell you later. Can you believe it? They did it! They liberated the building!"

"I'd say they damn near liberated the whole city."

"Hear that, Unk?" Lacey whispered. "We did it, you and me and Carole. And we can prove it."

Suddenly Considine was hovering over them.

"I just sent Leland downstairs. He's going to dupe the tape while Fowler fin ds a car for you two. We're going to put you on the road with a copy, then w e're each going to get our families together and head west with our own copi es. One of us has to get through."

"I don't think I can get downstairs," Joe said.

"You'll get down," Considine said. "I'm going to check the elevator. If it do esn't work, well, after what you just did, I'll carry you down on my back if need be."

As Considine moved away, Joe squeezed Lacey's arm.

"We can't leave Carole."

"Carole left us, Unk. And she didn't leave anything behind."

"Let me die," he whispered. "I want an end to this."

"I know you do, but - "

"I was Franco's get. I was supposed to die with him."

So that was the reason behind the "If anything happens to me" mantra ... He was planning to go out with Franco.

"I guess since you're not truly undead, you're not truly his get."

"But I am. I have to die."

"No way, Unk. You're going to see this through till the end. This is just a s tep, but we're on our way. We're going to push these slime bags back into the sea. And you and me, we're going to be there to see it."

"Carole was our conscience, Lacey. She made us whole and kept us on track. What will happen to us without her?"

"I'll tell you what'll happen. You and I will become the Terrible Two. We'll make those fuckers wish on the hell they come from that Sister Carole Hanar ty was still alive to rein us in. They think they've seen trouble today? The y haven't seen a goddamn thing."

She thought she saw him smile as he closed his eyes and slipped deep into d aysleep.

"Hey!" Considine called from the other side of the atrium. "The elevator's st ill working."

"Give us half a minute," Lacey said.

She held her uncle tighter and rocked him like a baby.

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