JOE . . .
They climbed out of Morton's basement shortly after dawn. Joe carried an un opened bottle of Scotch - for later. He stretched his cramped muscles and shi elded his eyes from the rising sun. The bright light sent stabs of pain thr ough his brain.
"Oy," Zev said as he pulled his hidden bicycle from behind the dumpster. "
Look what he did."
Joe inspected the bike. The front wheel had been bent so far out of shape th at half the spokes were broken.
"Beyond fixing, Zev."
"Looks like I'll be walking back to Lakewood."
Joe looked around, searching the ground. "Where'd our visitor go?"
He knew it couldn't have got far. He followed drag marks in the sandy dirt ar ound to the far side of the dumpster, and there it was - or rather what was lef t of it: a rotting, twisted corpse, blackened to a crisp and steaming in the morning sunlight. The silver crucifix still protruded from between its teeth.
"Three ways we know to kill them," Zev said. "A stake through the heart, dec apitation, or exposing them to sunlight. I believe Father Cahill has just fo und a fourth."
Joe approached and gingerly yanked his cross free of the foul remains.
"Looks like you've sucked your last pint of blood," he said and immediately f elt foolish.
Who was he putting on the macho act for? Zev certainly wasn't going to buy it. Too out of character. But then, what was his character these days? He u sed to be a parish priest. Now he was a nothing. A less than nothing.
He straightened and turned to Zev.
"Come on back to the retreat house, Reb. I'll buy you breakfast."
But as Joe turned and began walking away, Zev stayed and stared down at th e corpse.
"They say most of them don't wander far from where they spent their lives,"
Zev said. "Which means it's unlikely this fellow was Jewish if he lived arou nd here. Probably Catholic. Irish Catholic, I'd imagine."
Joe stopped and turned. He stared at his long shadow. The hazy rising sun a t his back cast a huge hulking shape before him, with a dark cross in one s hadow hand and a smudge of amber light where it poured through the bottle o f Scotch in the other.
"What are you getting at?" he said.
"The Kaddish would probably not be so appropriate so I'm just wondering if someone should maybe give him the last rites or whatever it is you people do when one of you dies."
"He wasn't one of us," Joe said, feeling the bitterness rise in him. "He wasn't even human."
"Ah, but he used to be before he was killed and became one of them. So mayb e now he could use a little help."
Joe didn't like the way this was going. He sensed he was being maneuvered.
"He doesn't deserve it," he said and knew in that instant he'd been trapped.
"I thought even the worst sinner deserved it," Zev said.
Joe knew when he was beaten. Zev was right. He shoved the cross and bot-d e into Zev's hands - a bit roughly, perhaps - then went and knelt by the twis ted cadaver. He administered a form of the final sacrament. When he was t hrough he returned to Zev and snatched back his belongings.
"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din," he said as he passed.
"You act as if they're responsible for what they do after they become undea d," Zev said hurrying along beside him, panting as he matched Joe's pace.
"You're sure of that?"
"Well, not exactly. But they certainly aren't human anymore, so maybe we shouldn't hold them accountable on human terms."
Zev's reasoning tone flashed Joe back to the conversations they used to have in Horovitz's deli.
"But Zev, we know there's some of the old personality left. I mean, they st ay in their home towns, usually in the basements of their old houses. They go after people they knew when they were alive. They're not just dumb preda tors, Zev. They've got the old consciousness they had when they were alive.
Why can't they rise above it? Why can't they ... resist?"
"I don't know. I've never had the opportunity to sit down with one and discu ss it. Maybe they can't resist. To tell the truth, the question has never oc curred to me. A fascinating concept: an undead refusing to feed. Leave it to Father Joe to come up with something like that. We should discuss this on t he trip back to Lakewood."
Joe had to smile. So that was what this was all about.
"I'm not going back to Lakewood."
"Fine. Then we'll discuss this now. Maybe the urge to feed is too strong to overcome."
"Maybe. And maybe they just don't try hard enough."
"This is a hard line you're taking, my friend."
"Maybe I'm a hard-line kind of guy."
"You didn't used to be, but it seems you've become one."
Joe felt a flash of unreasoning anger and gave him a sharp look. "You don't know what I've become."
Zev shrugged. "Maybe true, maybe not. But did you see the face of the one t hat attacked me? I'm sure he didn't look like that before he was turned. Th ey seem to change, at least some of them, on the outside. Maybe on the insi de they change too."
"If they acted like mindless beasts, I'd agree. But they're intelligent, they can reason. That means they can choose."
"Do you truly think you'd be able to resist?"
Joe wasn't sure why he said it, didn't even know if he meant it. Maybe he wa s mentally preparing himself for the day when he might find himself in that situation.
After walking a block or so in silence, Joe said, "What I don't get is how th ese undead get away with breaking all the rules."
"Meaning what? Laws?"
"Not civil laws - the laws of physics and chemistry and God knows what else.
I've never had a problem reconciling science and belief. God designed creat ion to run by certain rules; science is merely man's attempt to use his God-given intelligence to understand those rules."
"So you don't take Genesis literally."
"Of course not. It's not natural science. It was never meant to be. The Bible is the story of a people and their relationship with their God."
"A God who seems very far away lately."
Joe sighed at the truth of that. He'd felt abandoned for some time now. The a ir cooled as they neared the ocean, the briny on-shore breeze carrying the et ernal rumble of the breakers and the calls of the seagulls as they wheeled ov er the jetties. Some things, at least, hadn't changed.
"It seems the undead are exempt from the rules God laid down for creation.
The flying ones, for instance. You said you were attacked by one the othe r night. I've seen one or two gliding around on a moonlit night. How do yo u explain them? I'm no expert on aerodynamics, but those wings shouldn't b e able to support them, yet they do. And where do the wings go when they'r e not using them?"
Zev shrugged. "These are questions I can't answer."
"Here's another. I was around when a gang of locals chased one down. He'd ripped up a woman's throat but he didn't get away fast enough. They blinde d him with holy water, held him down with crosses, and drove a stake throu gh his heart. Then they cut off his head."
"The traditional method, as opposed to the new Cahill method. And of cours e he was dead then. Truly dead."
"Right. But he didn't bleed."
"If he doesn't have blood to feed his muscles, how do they move?"
"It's as if the laws of our world have been suspended where the undead are concerned."
"Suspended by whom? Or what?"
"There's a question I'd like answered."
"All very interesting," Zev said as they climbed the front steps of the ret reat house. "Well, I'd better be going. A long walk I've got ahead of me. A long, lonely walk all the way back to Lakewood. A long, lonely, possibly d angerous walk back for a poor old man who - "
"All right, Zev! All right!" Joe said, biting back a laugh. "I get the point. You want me to go back to Lakewood. Why? What's it going to prove?"
"I just want the company," Zev said with pure innocence.
"No, really. What's going on in that Talmudic mind of yours? What are you cooking?"
"Nothing, Father Joe. Nothing at all."
Joe stared at him. Damn it all, his interest was piqued. What was Zev up t o? And what the hell - why not go? He had nothing better to do.
"All right, Zev. You win. I'll come back to Lakewood with you. But just f or today. Just to keep you company. And I'm not going anywhere near St. A nthony's, okay? Understood?"
"Understood, Joe. Perfectly understood."
"I'm not getting involved with my old parish again, is that clear?"
"That such a thing should ever enter my mind. Feh!"
"Good. Now wipe that smile off your face and we'll get something to eat."
* * *
Later, under the climbing sun, they walked south along the deserted beach, ba refooting through the wet sand at the edge of the surf. Joe had his sneakers slung over his shoulder, Zev carried a black shoe in each hand, and acted lik e a little kid, laughing at the chill of the water as it sloshed over his ank les.
"I can't believe you've never been to the beach," Joe said. "Not even as a kid?"
Joe shook his head in dismay and gestured at the acres of sand. "This is M
anasquan Beach. You should have seen this place on a summer weekend. Wall-to-wall people. Probably never see that again. Probably be as empty as thi s even on the Fourth of July."
"Your Independence Day. We never made much of secular holidays. Too man y religious ones to observe. What would people do here besides swim?"
"Lie in the sun and work on their skin cancers."
"Really? I imagine that sunbathing is maybe not the fad it used to be."
Joe laughed. "Ah, Zev. Still the master of the understatement. I'll say one t hing, though: The beach is cleaner than I've ever seen it. No beer cans or hy podermics."
Zev pointed ahead. "But what's that?"
As they approached the spot, Joe saw a pair of naked bodies stretched out o n their backs on the sand, one male, one female, both young and short-haire d. Their skin was bronzed and glistened in the sun. The man lifted his head and stared at them. A blue crucifix was tattooed in the center of his fore head. He rolled over, reached into the backpack beside him, and withdrew a huge, gleaming, nickel-plated revolver.
"Just keep walking," he said.
"Will do," Joe said. "Just out for a stroll."
As they passed the couple, Joe noticed a similar tattoo on the girl's forehead.
"A very popular tattoo," he said.
"Clever idea. That's one cross you can't drop or lose. Probably won't help you in the dark, but if there's a light on it might give you an edge."
He noticed the rest of the girl too. Small firm breasts jutting straight up de spite the fact that she was on her back, dark fuzz on her pubes. He felt a sti r within and looked away.
"How do you do that?" Zev said.
"Look away from such a beautiful sight."
Are you watching me that closely? Joe wondered.
"Practice, practice, practice."
"How do you turn it off? Or does it just die?"
"Believe me, the sexual impulse doesn't die. I've always had one. I remember having crushes as a kid. I remember one girl, Eleanor Jepson, that I was in fatuated with. I'd think about her night and day, I'd write poems to her - w hich I'd immediately tear up for fear someone would find them. I'd ride my b ike past her house at least ten times a day hoping to catch a glimpse of her; I learned her schedule at school and I'd run through the halls so I could just happen to be passing her locker when she'd stop there between classes.
"But as a priest I'd do just the opposite. As soon as I felt an attraction st arting I'd turn away from it. You learn to do that - to not think about somethi ng. It's different from saying, 'Don't think about a pink unicorn.' Instead y ou turn your mind away, you learn to not think about what you don't want to t hink about. Trust me, it can be done. And instead of looking for 'chance' mee tings, you avoid contact except in the most public of situations. No tete-a-t etes or in-depth, one-on-one meetings, no lingering glances, no touches on th e arm or shoulder. The key is to recognize the spark and douse it before it c an ignite."
"Such a way to live. Pardon me, but it's unnatural."
"Tell me about it."
Celibacy hadn't been easy. How he'd ached for one particular woman, but he'd put his calling above that longing. Besides, she'd had her own vows. And nestled within him had been the hope that the new Pope might lift the ban o n marriage for priests. But no one had heard from the Pope since last year.
Zev laughed. "The woman two nights ago, the one dressed like a prostitute who saved this sorry hide, for an instant there I thought, Father Joe and a pros titute ... ?"
"What did she look like?"
"Short dark hair, blue eyes, might have been prettier if she hadn't looked s o haggard. I sensed she knew you. In fact I'm sure she did. The only way she knew me was because she'd seen me with you." He touched his chin. "Oh, yes.
And she had a little scar right here. A tiny crescent."
Joe stopped walking. No. It couldn't be. "You could almost be describing ..." He shook his head. "No. Not dressed like that."
"Who were you thinking of?"
"One of the nuns. Sister Carole. She was.. . special."
Oh, was she ever. His heart lightened at just the thought of her.
"What? Someone was special to you and I know nothing? I thought we discu ssed everything."
Almost everything, Joe thought. But not this. Not Carole.
"She wasn't special just to me, she was special to everyone who knew her, o r met however briefly. You would have taken to her, I know it. She was one of those people who lights up a room simply by entering it."
"Then your Sister Carole this was certainly not. Darken a room, that's wh at this one would do. This woman was very grim, frightening in a way; the only time she brightened was when she mentioned your name."
"No. My Carole - " He caught himself. "St. Anthony's Sister Carole, would have been out of town when the undead struck - back with her family in P
He'd thought about her countless times since Good Friday.
She's safe ... I pray she's safe. She's too delicate, too sensitive for that kin d of horror. She never would have survived.
"Since the mystery woman wasn't your paramour or your Sister Carole," Zev said, "I assume we can get back to priestly celibacy. I read once where priests had been allowed to marry until sometime during the Middle Ages. Why was that changed?"
"For financial reasons. Priests were accumulating wealthy estates and leavin g them to their families instead of the Church. So one of the Popes institut ed the no-marriage rule. It came around and bit the Church on its ass."
"Oy, did it ever."
"Yeah. The priesthood became attractive to too many who were ambiguous abo ut their sexuality or to those who saw the Church as a sanctuary from thei r darker impulses; it wasn't. The impulses only became stronger. Seems to me that early entrance to a seminary interferes with normal maturation, an d because of that you wind up with a percentage of priests with arrested s exual development."
Joe thanked God that he'd yielded to his vocation later in life. The love of God had always been strong in him, but he hadn't seen himself as a priest unt il after his graduation from Brooklyn College. The idea took hold and wouldn't let go. He'd entered the seminary at age twenty-three, but not as a virgin.
"The arrested types," he said, "they're the ones who became pedophiles, and their presence tainted the rest of us. We all got smeared with the same br ush. Look at me. I'm a prime example."
"No one who knows you," Zev said, "believed a word of that."
"Didn't matter. As soon as something like that gets out, you're ruined. Guil ty or innocent, who you are and whatever good you've done is canceled out."
He ground his teeth. "The only feeling I've ever experienced looking at a ch ild was the desire to see him or her grow into a God-loving adult."
Zev put a hand on his arm. "I know, Joe. I know."
They walked on in silence.
ZEV . . .
Eventually they turned west and made their way inland, finding Route 70 an d following it into Ocean County via the Bridle Bridge.
"I remember nightmare traffic jams right here every summer," Joe said as the y trod the bridge's empty span. "Never thought I'd miss traffic jams."
They cut over to Route 88 and followed it toward Lakewood. Along the way t hey found a few people out and about in Bricktown, furtively scurrying bet ween houses. They walked a gauntlet of car dealerships, the stock sitting dirty and idle in the lots beneath waving pennants, the broken showroom wi ndows carrying signs promising deals that would never be closed.
Zev noticed how Joe's steps seemed to grow heavier with every mile. But he had to show him something that would make his steps - and his heart - ev en heavier.
At the corner of New Hampshire Avenue, he turned them south.
"But it's shorter this way," Joe said, pointing down 88.
"I know. But we'll end up in the same spot, and along the way there's somet hing you must see."
They trod the undulating pavement until they came to a baseball field, th e former home of the Lakewood Blue Claws.
Joe smiled. "This brings back memories. Remember the games we used to g o to?"
"I do," Zev said. The Blue Claws, a class-A minor league team, maybe, but those games had been fun. The stadium even served Kosher food. "But what I want to show you here, baseball's got nothing to do with."
"I don't think I like the sound of that." Joe pointed to the unusual number of gulls and crows circling the field. "And I know I don't like the look of that."
Zev knew as they climbed the grassy slope to the fence that whatever uneas y premonitions Joe was feeling, even the worst he could imagine would leav e him unprepared for the sight that awaited him on the other side.
He remembered his recent look onto the playing field. At first he hadn't bee n sure what he was seeing: a huge pile of blackened debris occupying most of the diamond and spreading into the outfield. Then he'd started picking out limbs and torsos, and there, piled high where home plate used to be . .. sku lls. Innumerable skulls.
Joe stared at the charred, rotting mounds for maybe ten seconds, then close d his eyes and swallowed.
"What in the name of God .. . ?"
"Hardly in the name of God," Zev said. "On those first few nights of the i nvasion they committed wholesale slaughter. They loosed a horde of bestial creatures - undead, yes, but only vaguely human - who beheaded their prey aft er drinking their blood. A way to keep down the undead population, I assum e. It makes sense that they wouldn't want too many of their kind concentra ted in one area. Like too many carnivores in one forest - when the herds of prey are wiped out, the predators starve. And just to make sure none of th ose early victims would be rising from the grave, they brought their bodie s and their heads here, soaked them with kerosene, and struck a match."
"Him I doubt had much to do with it either. They fed the fire for days, th e smoke dirtied the sky. And when the wind blew the wrong way - oy. Even now..." He sniffed the air. "Luckily we're upwind."
"But they were also killing off their future food supply."
"Enough of us they left to hunt down and feed on, but far too few to offer r esistance of any consequence."
They walked the rest of the way into Lakewood in silence. When they entered the town . . .
"A real ghost town," the priest said as they walked Forest Avenue's deserted length.
"Ghosts," Zev said, nodding sadly. It had been a long walk and he was tired.
"Yes. Full of ghosts."
In his mind's eye he saw the shades of his fallen brother rabbis and all the yeshiva students, beards, black suits, black hats, crisscrossing back and for th at a determined pace on weekdays, strolling with their wives on Shabbes, t heir children trailing behind like ducklings.
Gone. All gone. Victims of the undead. Undead themselves now, some of them.
It made him sick at heart to think of those good, gentle men, women, and c hildren curled up in their basements now to avoid the light of day, venturi ng out in the dark to feed on others, spreading the disease ...
He fingered the cross slung from his neck. If only they had listened!
And then he heard the grating sound of a heavily distorted guitar. He grabbe d Joe's arm.
"Quick. Into the bushes!"
They ducked behind a thick stand of rhododendrons along the foundation of t he nearest house and watched a convertible glide by. Zev counted four in th e car, three men and a blond woman, all scruffy and unwashed, lean and wolf ish, in cut-off sweatshirts or denim jackets, the driver wearing a big Texa s hat, someone in the back with a red Mohican, all guzzling beer. The thump ing blast of their music dopplered in and out. Thank God they liked to play it at ear-damaging levels. It acted as an early warning system.
"Chazzers," Zev muttered.
When they'd passed, Joe stepped out of the bushes and stared after them.
"Who the hell were they?"
"Scum of the earth. They like to call themselves cowboys. I call them Vichy."
"Vichy? Like the Vichy French?"
"Yes. Very good. I'm glad to see that you're not as culturally illiterate as the rest of your generation. Vichy humans - that's what I call the collaborat ors. They should all die of pox." He looked around. "We should get off the s treet. I know a place near St. Anthony's where we can hide."
"You've traveled enough today, Reb. And I told you, I don't care about St. An thony's. I'll get you situated, then head back."
"You can't leave yet, Joe," Zev said, gripping the young priest's arm. He'd coaxed him this far; he couldn't let him get away now. "Stay the night. See what Father Palmeri's done."
"If he's one of them he's not a priest anymore. Don't call him Father."
"They still call him Father."
Zev watched Father Joe's jaw muscles bunch.
Joe said, "Maybe I'll just take a quick trip over to St. Anthony's myself - "
"No. It's different here. The area is thick with Vichy and undead. They'll get y ou if your timing isn't just right. I'll take you."
"You need rest, pal."
Father Joe's expression showed genuine concern. Zev was detecting increasin gly softer emotions in the man since their reunion last night. A good sign perhaps?
"Rest I'll get when we reach where I'm taking you."
CAROLE . . .
And what are you doing, Carole? What are you DOING? You'll be after killi ng yourself! You'll be blowing yourself to pieces and then you'll be going straight to hell. HELL, Carole!"
"But I won't be going alone," Carole muttered.
She had to turn her head away from the kitchen sink now. The fumes stung her nose and made her eyes water, but she kept on stirring the pool chlorina-to r into the hot water until it was completely dissolved. She wasn't through y et. She took the beaker of No Salt she'd measured out before starting the pr ocess and added it to the mix in the big Pyrex bowl. Then she stirred some m ore. Finally, when she was satisfied that she was not going to see any furth er dissolution at this temperature, she put the bowl on the stove and turned up the flame.
A propane stove. She'd seen the big white tank out back last week when she was looking for a new home; that was why she'd chosen this old house. Wit h New Jersey Natural Gas in ruins, and GPU no longer sending electricity t hrough the wires, propane and wood stoves were the only ways left to cook.
I really shouldn't call it cooking, she thought as she fled the acrid fumes and headed for the living room. Nothing more than a simple dissociation re action - heating a mixture of calcium hypochlorate with potassium chloride. Simple, basic chemistry. The very subject she'd taught bored juniors and sen iors for years at St. Anthony's School.
"And you all thought chemistry was such a useless subject!" she shouted to t he walls.
She clapped a hand over her mouth. There she was, talking out loud again.
She had to be careful. Not so much because someone might hear, but becau se she worried she might be losing her mind.
Maybe she'd already lost it. Maybe all this was merely a delusion. Maybe th e undead hadn't taken over the entire civilized world. Maybe they hadn't de filed her church and convent, slaughtered her best friend. Maybe it was all in her mind.
Sure and you'd he wishing it was all in your mind, Carole. Of course you would. Then you wouldn't he sinning!"
Yes, she truly did wish she were imagining all this. At least then she'd be th e only one suffering, and all the rest would still be alive and well, just as they'd been before she went off the deep end.
But if this was a delusion it was certainly an elaborate, consistent one. Every time she woke up - she never allowed herself to sleep too many hours at once, only catnaps - it was the same: quiet skies, vacant houses, empty stree ts, furtive, scurrying survivors who trusted no one, and -
Sister Carole froze as her ears picked up a sound outside. Music. She hurri ed in a crouch to the front door and peered through the sidelight. A car. A convertible. Someone was out driving in -
She ducked when she saw who was in it. She recognized that cowboy hat.
She didn't have to see their earrings to know who - what - they were.
They were headed east. Good. They'd find a little surprise waiting for them down the road.
As it did every so often, the horror of what her life had become caught up t o Carole then, and she slumped to the floor of the Bennett house and began t o sob.
Why? Why had God allowed this to happen to her, to His Church, to His wo rld?
Better question: Why had she allowed these awful events to change her so?
She had been a Sister of Mercy.
"Mercy! Do you hear that, Carole? A Sister of MERCY!" She had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, had vowed to devote her life to teaching and doing the Lord's work. But now there was no money, no one worth losing her virginity to, no Mother Superior or Church to be obedient to, and no students left to teach.
All she had left was the Lord's work.
"Believe me you, Carole, I'd hardly be calling the making of plastic explosiv e and the other horrible things you've been doing the Lord's work. It's killi ng! It's a SIN!"
Maybe Bernadette's voice was right. Maybe she would go to hell for what she was doing. But somebody had to make those rotten cowboys pay.
COWBOYS . . .
"Shit! Goddam shit!"
Stan's raging voice and the sudden braking of the car yanked Al from the ed ge of a doze. A few beers, nice warm sunlight... he'd been on his way to ca tching a Z or two. He opened his eyes.
To, what the fu - "
Then he saw him. Or, rather, it. Dead ahead. Dead ahead. A body, hanging by its feet from a utility pole.
"Oh, shit," Kenny said from beside him. "Another one."
Jackie turned off the music. The sudden silence was creepy.
Al squinted at the body. "Who is it?"
"I dunno," Stan said. Then he looked back at Al from under the wide brim o f his cowboy hat. "Whyn't you go see."
Al swallowed. He'd turned out to be the best climber, so he'd wound up the second-story man of the team. But he didn't want to make this climb.
"What's the use?" Al said. "Whoever he is, he's dead."
"See if he's one of us," Stan said.
"Ain't it always one of us?"
"Then see which one of us it is, okay?"
Stan had been pissing Al off today with his hot-shit 'tude. He was posse lea der, yeah, but give it a rest now and then, okay? But this time he was right: somebody had to go see who'd got unlucky last night.
Al hopped over the door and headed for the pole. What a pain in the ass. Th e rope around the dead guy's feet was looped over the first climbing spike.
He shimmied up to it and got creosote all over himself in the process. The stuff was a bitch to get off. And besides, it made his skin itch. On the w ay up he'd kept the pole between himself and the body. Now it was time to l ook. He swallowed. He'd seen one of these strung-up guys up close before an d -
He spotted the earring, a blood-splattered silvery crescent moon dangling on a fine chain from the brown-crusted earlobe, an exact replica of the one da ngling from Al's left ear, only this one was dangling the wrong way.
"Yep," he said, loud so's the car could hear it. "It's one of us."
"Damn!" Stan's voice. "Anyone we know?"
Stan and the rest jumped out of the car and stared up at him.
Al squinted at the face but with the gag stuck in its mouth, and the head so encrusted with clotted blood and crawling with buzzing, feeding flies darti ng in and out of the gaping wound in the throat, he couldn't make out no fea tures.
"Well, cut him down then."
This was the part Al hated most of all. It seemed almost like a sin. Not that he'd ever been religious or nothing, but someday, if he didn't watch his ass, this could be him.
He pulled his K-Bar from its scabbard and sawed at the rope above the knot on the climbing spike. It frayed, jerked a couple of times, then parted. He closed his eyes as the body tumbled downward. He hummed Metallica's "Sandm an" to blot out the sound it made when it hit the pavement. He especially h ated the sick, wet plop of the head if it landed first. Which this one did.
"Looks like Benny Gonzales," Jackie said.
Kenny was nodding. "Yep. No doubt about it. That's Benny. Shit."
They dragged his body over to the curb and drove on, but the party mood wa s gone.
"I'd love to catch the bastards who're doin this shit," Stan said as he drove. "They've gotta be close by around here somewhere."
"They could be anywhere," Al said. "They found Benny back there, killed him there - you saw that puddle of blood under him - and left him. Then they cut out."
"They're huntin us like we're huntin them," Jackie said.
"But I wanna be the one to catch 'em," Kenny said.
Jackie sneered. "Yeah? And what would you do if you did?"
Kenny said nothing, and Al knew that was the answer. Nothing. He'd bring th em in and turn them over. The bloodsuckers didn't like you screwing with th eir cattle.
But something had to be done. Lots of the cattle they roped in called Al an d company traitors and collaborators and worse. Lately it looked like some of them had gone beyond name-calling and graduated to throat-slitting.
Benny Gonzales was the fifth one in a month.
Seemed the guys behind this wanted to make it look like the vampires themsel ves was doing the killings, but it didn't wash. Too messy. These bodies had blood all over them, and a puddle beneath them. When the bloodsuckers slit s omebody's throat, they didn't let a drop of it go to waste. They licked the platter clean, so to speak.
"We gotta start being real careful," Stan was saying. "Gotta keep our eyes o pen."
"And look for what?" Kenny said.
"For a bunch of guys who hang out together - a bunch of guys who ain't co wboys."
Jackie started singing that Willie Nelson song "Mama, Don't Let Your Babie s Grow up to be Cowboys," and it set Stan off.
"Knock it off, goddamn it! This ain't funny! One of us could be next! Now keep your fucking eyes open!"
Al studied the houses drifting by as they cruised into Point Pleasant Beach. Cars sat quietly along the curbs of the empty streets and the houses appe ared deserted, their empty, blind windows staring back at him. But every so often they'd pass a yard that looked cared for, and those houses would be defiantly studded with crosses and festooned with garlands of garlic. And e very so often you could swear you saw somebody peeking out from behind a wi ndow or through a screen door.
"You know, Stan," Al said. "I'll bet those cowboy killers are hiding in one o f them houses with all the garlic and crosses."
"Maybe, Stan said. "But I kinda doubt it. Those folks tend to stay in after sundown. Whoever's behind this is working at night."
That made sense to Al. The folks in those houses hardly ever came out. They were loners. Dangerous loners. Armed loners. The vampires couldn't get in because of all the garlic and crosses, and the cowboys who'd tried to get i n, or even take off some of the crosses, usually got shot up. The vampires had said to leave them be for now. Sooner or later they'd run out of food a nd have to come out. Then they'd get them.
Smart, those bloodsuckers. Al guessed they figured they had plenty of time to out wait the loners. All the time in the world.
They was cruising Ocean Avenue by the boardwalk area now, barely a block fr om the Atlantic. What a difference. Last year, on a nice spring day like th is, you'd see all sorts of people, locals and day-trippers, hanging out. No w it was deserted. The sun was high and warm but it was like winter had nev er ended.
They was gliding past the empty, frozen rides when Al caught a flash of co lor moving between a couple of the boardwalk stands.
"Pull over," he said, tapping Stan's shoulder. "I think I just saw something."
The tires screeched as Stan made a sharp turn into Jenkinson's parking lot.
"What kinda something?"
"Something blond. With tits, I think."
Kenny let out a cowboy whoop and tossed his Heineken empty high. It smashe d on the asphalt in a glittery green explosion.
"Shut the fuck up!" Stan said. "You tryin to queer this little round-up or wha t?"
"Hey, no, man," Kenny said. "I was just - "
"Just keep quiet and listen. You and Jackie head down two blocks and work your way back up on the boards."
"I don't wanna go with him," Jackie said, jutting her chin at Kenny.
"He needs someone with more experience along. Me and AM go up here and w ork our way down. Get goin and don't blow this. I don't wanna be bringin Gregor no old lady again tonight."
Jackie didn't look happy but she went. As she and Kenny trotted back to the Risden's Beach bath houses, Stan squared his ten-gallon hat on his head and pointed toward the miniature golf course at the other end of the parking lot. Al took the lead and Stan followed.
Arnold Avenue ended here in a turretlike police station, still boarded up f rom the winter, but its big warning sign was still up, informing anyone who passed that alcoholic beverages and dogs and motorbikes and various other goodies were prohibited in the beach and boardwalk area by order of the may or and city council of Point Pleasant Beach.
Al smiled. The beach and the boardwalk and the sign were still here, but th e mayor and the city council were long gone.
Pretty damn depressing up on the boards. The big glass windows of Jenkinson's arcade was smashed and it was all dark inside. The lifeless video games stared back with dead eyes. All the concession stands was boarded up, the p aralyzed rides just rusting and peeling, and it was quiet. No barkers shout ing, no kids laughing, no squealing babes in bikinis running in and out of the surf. Just the monotonous pounding of the waves against the deserted be ach.
And the birds. The seagulls was doing what they'd always done. Probably th e only thing they missed was the garbage the crowds used to leave behind.
Al and Stan headed south, checking all the nooks and crannies as they mo ved. The only other humans they saw was Kenny and Jackie coming up the o ther way from the South Beach Arcade.
"Any luck?" Stan called.
"Nada," Jackie said.
"Ay-yo, Al!" Kenny said. "How many Heinies you have anyway? You seein things now? What was it - a blond seagull?"
But Al knew he'd seen something moving up here, and it hadn't been no godd amn seagull. But where . . .
"Jackie," Stan said. "Take Kenny under the boards and see if anyone's hidin down there."
Kenny put on this big shit-eating grin. " Aaaaay, under the boardwalk with Jackieeee. Cooool."
Stan ignored him and spoke to Jackie. "If it's a girl like Al thinks he saw, se e if you can talk her out. I ain't up for no foot race, know what I'm sayin?"
Jackie nodded. "Gotcha." She turned to Kenny and snapped her fingers, like she was talking to a dog. "C'mon, boy. We're goin for a walk."
"Ooooh. Under the boardwalk with - "
"Don't" - she jabbed a finger within an inch of his nose - "even think about i t!"
Kenny, his tongue hanging out like a dog, followed her down the wooden ste ps to the sand. That Kenny. What a pisser.
"Let's go back to Jenk's," Stan said. "She might be hidin inside."
They'd turned and were heading back up the boards when Al took one last l ook back .. . and saw something moving. Something small and red, rolling across the boards toward the beach from between one of the concession sta nds.
He tapped Stan on the shoulder, put a finger to his lips, and pointed. Stan's eyes widened. He glanced toward the beach, probably looking to signal Jack ie and Kenny, but they were out of sight. So the two of them crept toward th e spot where the ball had rolled from.
As they got closer, Al realized why they'd missed this spot on the first pa ss. It was really two concession stands - a frozen yogurt place and a saltwat er taffy shop - with boards nailed up over the space between to make them loo k like a single building.
Stan tapped Al on the shoulder and pointed to the roof of the nearer conce ssion stand. Al nodded. He knew what he wanted: the second-story man had t o do his thing again.
Al got to the top of the chain link fence behind the concession stands and fr om there it was easy to haul himself up to the roof. His sneakers made barely a sound as he crept across the tar of the canted roof to the far side.
The girl must have heard him coming, because she was already looking up w hen he peeked over the edge. She had one of them cross tattoos on her for ehead.
That ain't gonna help you against me, honey.
Al felt a surge of satisfaction when he saw her blond ponytail and long thick bangs. Nice.
He felt something else when he saw the tears streaming down her cheeks fro m her pleading eyes, and her hands raised, palms together, as if praying t o him. She wanted him to see nothin - she was begging Al to see nothing.
For an instant he was tempted. The fear in those frightened blue eyes reach ed deep inside and touched something there, disturbed a part of him so long unused he'd forgotten it belonged to him.
And then he saw she had a little boy with her, maybe seven years old, dark haired but with eyes as blue as hers, with a tattoo on his forehead. She wa s pleading for the kid as much as herself. Maybe more than herself. And wit h good reason. The vampires loved little kids. Al didn't get it. Kids were smaller, had less blood than adults. Maybe their blood was purer, sweeter.
Someday, when he was undead himself, he'd know.
But even with the kid there, Al might have done something stupid, might ha ve called down to Stan that there was nothing here but some old torn cat w ho'd probably taken a swat at that ball and rolled it out. But when he saw that she was knocked up - very knocked up, as in start-boiling-the-water kn ocked up - he knew he had to turn her in.
As much as the bloodsuckers loved kids, they went crazy for babies. Infant s were like the primo delicacy among the vampires. Al once had seen a coup le of them fighting over a newborn.
That had been a sight.
He sighed and said, "Too bad, honey, but you're packin too many points." He turned and called down toward the boardwalk. "Bingo, Stan. We struck it rich."
She screamed and the little boy began to cry.
Al shook his head as he watched her cower and hold the kid tight against her. Sorry babe. It ain't always a pleasant job, but a cowboy's gotta do what a cowboy's gotta do.
And besides, all these brownie points were gonna bring him that much closer to some stud time at the nearest cattle farm.
LACEY . . .
Lacey Flannery heard them coming before she saw them. Coming her way. The y weren't talking, which was a bad sign. Could mean they were on the hunt. She had a faint hope that maybe they were wanderers like her, but she w asn't about to lay any money on it.
She'd motorboated down from the Sandy Hook area last night. The water tende d to be pretty safe, even at night. The suckers stayed off it. She'd abando ned the boat at first light on the inlet jetty and sacked out here under th e boardwalk. She'd been awake for about half an hour now. She'd packed up h er stuff and had been ready to move out when she heard footsteps on the boa rds above. A bunch of feet - could have been four, six, maybe eight people. So she'd stayed put, figuring they'd move on.
But instead they were coming to her.
Lacy squatted with her back against a double piling and wondered what to do. Her sleeping bag and duffel were stacked before her on the sand. Better p lay it safe. She dipped into her bag of tricks, briefly considered her .38, but decided against it. She didn't have many bullets and didn't know what kind of trouble the noise of a shot would bring down on her. She chose her nunchucks instead. Two twelve-inch steel rods connected by a three-inch chain.
Yeah. That'll do.
She slipped out of her black leather jacket and her bare arms goose-bumped in the breeze off the water. The tight black tank top she wore beneath wasn't much for warmth but at least it wouldn't get in her way. She looked down and noticed her nipples poking at the thin fabric. She hadn't worn a bra i n three years and didn't miss it now. She rubbed her nipples to make them s tick out even more. Hey, girl - use all your weapons. Then she stuck the nunc hucks inside the waistband of her jeans at the small of her back. The chain was cold between her cheeks. Thong panties didn't cover much.
Her mouth felt a little dry, her palms a little moist. Let's hope they're friend ly, she thought. If not, then let's hope there's no more than two of them.
She rose and peeked around the piling.
Shit. One was a woman. She was going to be harder to distract. And worse, they were wearing cowboy earrings. The good news was there were only t wo of them.
Lacey stepped out and faced them. "How's it going?"
The stopped dead, staring.
"Ooooh, Jackie," said the dumb-looking guy with the bad skin and the red Moh ican as his eyes fixed on Lacey's chest. "This ain't Al's blonde, but she'll do. Oh, baby, will she do."
"Shut up, Kenny."
The skinny, pierced-up, white-trash blonde gave her an up and down; she see med more interested in checking to see if Lacey's hands were empty. She loo ked thirty-five but was probably thirty. Not at all Lacey's type.
She fixed Lacey with her squinty brown eyes. "What're you doin down here?"
"Catching some Z's," Lacey said. "How about you two?"
"Lookin for loooove," Kenny said, grinning. "In all the wrong places." He st epped closer. "Hey, ain't you somethin. Look at those muscles, Jackie. And s he got tats too."
Lacey looked down at her upper arms and the black Celtic knots that encircle d each just between the sleek, well-cut bulges of her biceps and deltoids. She'd spent a lot of time on those muscles.
"Want to see them wiggle like snakes?"
She began contracting and relaxing the muscles, making them dance under the Celtic knots which in turn undulated like, well, snakes.
"Tits and tats and ripped to boot," he said, easing another step closer. "I th ink I'm in love. Think we can have her join the posse, Jacks?"
"No way. Besides, that ain't for us to decide."
"They look so hard," he said. "You mind if I give one a little squeeze?"
Lacey smiled. "You're talking about my muscles but you're staring at my nip s."
He laughed. "Oh, I do like this one, Jackie." He looked at her. "We gotta - "
That was when Lacey kicked him. She knew how to kick, had taken classes in it, and she lashed out her foot as hard as she could, putting a lot of her lower body behind it. She landed a good one, right square in his balls. He made a breathy noise, something like "Hommf!" as he went knock-kneed and dr opped to the sand. Jackie stared at him stupidly, as if trying to figure ou t what had just happened, while Lacey grabbed for her nunchucks. She had a grip on one end and was snapping the other in a sidearm arc when Jackie loo ked back at her. Her mouth was opening, starting to shout, when the steel b ar caught her across the left side of her head. She tumbled to her right an d hit the sand, still conscious but just barely, holding her head and groan ing. Blood seeped between her fingers.
Lacey turned back to Kenny. He was down on his knees with his hands jamme d between his thighs, clutching his jewels, his face gray, his mouth work ing.
"You fucking bitch!" he managed. "You're gonna wish - "
Lacey kicked him again, in the stomach this time, high, a bull's eye into hi s solar plexus. He doubled over. Kenny wouldn't be threatening Lacey or anyb ody else for a while.
Five seconds later she was back in her jacket and booking south with her d uffel and her sleeping bag. Behind and above her she thought she heard a w oman's voice cry out. The blond the two creeps had mentioned? Lacey stoppe d and listened. She heard another cry and looked up at a seagull coasting overhead on the breeze. It squawked again. Had that been what she'd heard?
She dropped her load and grabbed the edge of the boardwalk. The ends of the weathered boards rasped against her palms as she pulled herself up for a l ook - all those chin-ups at the gym were finally paying off. She held her eye s at board level. No one in sight.
She dropped back to the sand, grabbed her things, and started walking again.
No time to waste. She'd come to find her uncle.
CAROLE . . .
Sister Carole checked the Pyrex bowl on the stove. A chalky layer of potassi um chloride had formed in the bottom. She turned off the heat and immediatel y decanted the boiling upper fluid, pouring it through a Mr. Coffee filter i nto a Pyrex brownie pan. She threw out the scum in the filter and put the pa n of filtrate on the windowsill to cool.
She heard the sound of a car again and rushed to a window. It was the same car, the convertible, with the same occupants -
No, wait. There had been only four before. Now there were three squeezed into the rear. The woman who had been in the front earlier was in the bac k; she looked as if she might be sick; the man with the red Mohican seeme d to be struggling with a newcomer, a young woman with long blond hair. She looked -
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the poor thing was pregnant!
Sister Carole suddenly felt as if something were tearing apart within her c hest. Was there no justice, was there no mercy anywhere?
She dropped to her knees and began to pray for her, but in the back of her mind she wondered why she bothered. None of her prayers had been answered so far.
"Sacrilege, Carole! That's SACRILEGE! Now tell me why you'd be thinking the Lord would answer the prayers of such a SINNER? I know you were taug ht that he does, but believe me you, he doesn't!" Maybe not, Carole thought. But if He'd answered somebody's prayers somewhe re along the line, maybe she wouldn't have been forced to turn the Bennett's kitchen into an anarchist's laboratory.
The Lord helped those who helped themselves, didn't He? Especially when t hey were doing the Lord's work.
COWBOYS . . .
"Please leave me alone," the blonde whimpered, pushing Kenny's hand away as he tried to unbutton her top. She'd been nothing but a blubbering basket c ase since Al had put her kid in the trunk. "I want my little boy. Please le t him out. Please!"
Al was sitting shotgun while Stan drove. Her whining was getting on Al's n erves. And so was Kenny. He turned around and checked out the back seat. Jackie was slumped on the driver side, holding an old sweatshirt against th e side of her head. The bleeding had stopped but she looked pale and sick.
The pregnant cow had the middle seat, and Kenny was nuzzling up against h er from the other side.
Al said, "I still can't believe you got kayo'd by a girl."
Kenny kept his eyes on the cow. "I told you, man, she suckered me. I was sli ppin up on her, real casual like, gettin ready to make my move, and she's lo okin like she's fallin for it when she punts me."
Kenny had been in sad shape for about ten or fifteen minutes, but he'd snapp ed back. He walked a little funny but the kick hadn't seemed to take the ste am out of his usual horniness.
Jackie was another story. She'd puked once on the boardwalk, and another tim e in the parking lot. Al hoped she didn't puke up the car. You just didn't f ind a Cadillac convertible every day.
The cow started wailing about her kid again. "Please let my little boy out of the trunk! He'll suffocate!"
"Look!" Stan shouted, speaking for the first time since they'd left Point - he'd been real pissed at Kenny and Jackie for losing a girl. "I'll get your brat outta the trunk, all right. I'll tie a rope around his feet and drag him back to Lakewood if you don't shut up!"
She sobbed but didn't say anything more.
Al remembered the little kid lookin up at him as he shoved him into the tru nk. "Don't let them hurt my mommy," he'd said. Kinda reminded Al of his lit tle brother when they were kids. Never could stand his little brother.
Kenny started toyin with the cow again. "C'mon. Show ol' Kenny those pretty pregnant titties."
"Ease up, Kenny."
Kenny didn't look at him. "Mind your own fucking business, Al."
Stan looked at Al and jerked his head toward the back seat. "Straighten out y our friend, will ya?"
Al grabbed Kenny's arm. "Lay off her, man."
Kenny slammed his hand away. "Yeah? What for? To save her for you? Bull shit!"
Kenny could be a real asshole at times.
"We're not saving her for me," Al said. "For Gregor. You remember Gre-gor, don't you, Kenny?"
Some of Kenny's tough-guy act faded.
"Course I do," he said. "But I don't wanna suck her blood, man." He jamme d his hand down between the cow's legs. "I got other things in mind. It's been a long time, man - a long time - and I gotta - "
"What if you screw up the baby?" Al said. "What if she starts having the b aby and it's born dead? All because of you? What're you gonna tell Gregor then, Kenny? How you gonna explain that to him?"
"Who says he has to know?"
"You think he won't find out?" Al said. "I tell you what, Kenny. You wanna to get your jollies with this broad, fine. Go ahead. But if that's what you're gonna do, we're droppin you and her here - right here - and drivin away. Am I right, Stan?"
Stan nodded. "Fuckin ay."
"And then you can explain any problems to Gregor yourself tonight when we meet. Okay?"
"Gregor-Gregor-Gregor! Let up, huh? You just about piss your pants every t ime we get near him. He ain't so tough. Gimme a stake and a hammer and sho w me where he snoozes and I'll show you how tough he is. Fuckin leech is w hat he is. Stake him through his heart, cut off his head, and then we won't have to worry bout no more fuckin shit from Gregor. Do it to alia them. Show'em all."
"Yeah?" Stan said, smilin but lookin straight ahead. "Then what?
"Then we'll be fuckin heroes, man."
"Heroes to who? These Saab-drivin, gel-haired, sprout-chewin faggots hidi ng behind their crosses and garlic? You wanna be heroes to them, go ahead. But what happens when word of what you done gets out to the other blood suckers and they come a-knockin? What then? You know how many of them the re is out there, man? Zillions. They'll come back with a truckload of tho se ferals and rip us all to shreds. That what you want, asshole?"
Sounded to Al like Stan had already given Kenny's idea some thought and ha d shit-canned it.
Kenny said, "Hey, no, but - "
"Then shut the fuck up. And leave the cow alone."
Kenny pulled his hand away from the blonde and sat on it.
"Jesus, guys. It's been a long time. I need some."
"Hey, I need some too," Al told him. "But I ain't ready yet to get killed for a little pregnant poontang, know what I mean?"
Stan said, "Look at it this way. We gotta take some shit now and then, but y ou know anybody else got it better? We hold the fort, man. We hold the fort for them till we get to join up." He grinned. "Then we'll have assholes hold ing the fort for us."
Stan seemed to think that was real funny. He laughed about the rest of the way into Lakewood.
CAROLE . . .
Sister Carole finished her prayers at sundown and went to check on the cool ed filtrate. The bottom of the pan was layered with potassium chlorate crys tals. Potent stuff. The Germans had used it in their grenades and land mine s during World War One.
She got a clean Mr. Coffee filter and poured the contents of the pan through i t, but this time she saved the residue in the filter and let the liquid go dow n the drain.
"Lookit after what you're doing now, Carole! You're a sick woman! SICK!
You've got to be stopping this and praying to God for guidance! Pray, Ca role! PRAY!"
Sister Carole ignored the voice and spread out the crystals in the now-empt y pan. She set the oven on LOW and placed the pan on the middle rack. She h ad to get all the moisture out of the potassium chlorate before it would be of any use to her.
So much trouble, and so dangerous. If only her searches had yielded some d ynamite, even a few sticks, everything would have been so much easier. She'd searched everywhere - hunting shops, gun stores, construction sites. She'd found lots of other useful items, but no dynamite. Only some blasting ca ps. She no choice but to improvise.
This was her third batch. She'd been lucky so far. She hoped she survived lo ng enough to get a chance to use it.
GREGOR . . .
"You've outdone yourselves this time, boys."
Gregor stared at the three cowboys. Ordinarily he found it doubly difficult to be near them. Not simply because the crimson thirst made a perpetual test of proximity to a living font of hot, pulsing sustenance when he'd yet to f eed, urging him to let loose and tear into their throats; but also because t hese four were so common, such low-lifes.
Gregor couldn't wait until he was moved up and would no longer be forced to deal directly with flotsam such as these. Living collaborators were a necess ary evil, but that didn't mean he had to like them.
Tonight, however, he could almost say that he enjoyed their presence. He'd been unhappy about the news of a fifth slain cowboy, but was ecstatic with the prizes they had brought with them.
He had shown up shortly after sundown at the customary meeting place outsi de St. Anthony's church. Of course, it didn't look much like a church now, what with all the crosses broken off. He'd found the scurvy trio waiting for him as usual, but they had with them a small boy and - dare he believe h is eyes - a pregnant woman. His knees had gone weak at the double throb of l ife within her.
"Where's your companion?" he asked. "The woman?"
"Jackie's not feeling so hot so we left her home," said the one in the cowboy hat.
What was his name? So many of these roaches to keep track of. This one was called Stan. Yes, that was it.
"Well, I'm extremely proud of all of you."
"We thought you'd appreciate it," Stan said.
Gregor felt his grin grow even wider.
"Oh, I do. Not just for the succulence of the prizes you've delivered, but b ecause you've vindicated my faith in you. I knew the minute I saw you that y ou'd make a good posse leader."
An outright lie. But it cost him nothing to heap the praise on Stan, and per haps it would spur him to do as well next time. Maybe better. Although what could be better than this?
"Anything for the cause," the redheaded one said.
The one with the spiked dark hair - Al, Gregor remembered - gave his partner a poisonous look, as if he wanted to kick him for being such a boot-lick.
"And your timing could not be better," Gregor told them. "We have a special guest visiting from New York." He didn't mention that she was here because someone was exterminating their fellow slugs. "I will present this gravid cow to her as a gift. She will be enormously pleased."
At least Gregor hoped so. He was relying on the gift to take the edge off h er reaction when she learned that another cowboy was dead.
"Is that the lady I saw you with last night?"
Al's words startled Gregor. Had this cowboy been spying on him? He felt his lips pulling back, baring his fangs.
"When was this?"
Al took half a step back. "When we was driving away after droppin off that old lady. I saw her like come up behind you."
Gregor relaxed. "Yes, that was her. These gifts will be good for me. And tru st me, what is good for me will eventually prove to be good for you. I won't forget your efforts."
Pardy true. The little boy would go to the local nest leader who'd been pas tor of St. Anthony's during his life and had a taste for young boys. The pr iest had become the de facto leader of Gregor's local get. Over the decades Gregor had noted that the newly turned took to the undead existence with v arying degrees of aptitude. Father Palmeri seemed a natural. He'd adapted t o his new circumstances with amazing gusto. Perhaps zeal was a better term.
Some people, one might say, were born to be undead.
He'd save the boy for tomorrow since the priest already had a bloodsource lined up for tonight. The pregnant female would indeed go to Olivia. But t he rest was a laugh. As soon as Gregor was moved out of here, he'd never g ive these walking heaps of human garbage another thought.
But he smiled as he turned away.
"As always, may your night be bountiful."
CAROLE . . .
A little after sundown, Sister Carole removed the potassium chlorate crystal s from the oven. She poured then into a bowl and then gently, carefully, beg an to grind them down to a fine power. This was the touchiest part of the pr ocess. A little too much friction, a sudden shock, and the bowl would blow u p in her face.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, Carole. Sure, and you'll be thinking that wo uld solve all your problems. Well, it won't, Carole. It will merely start yo ur REAL problems! It will send you straight to HELL!" Sister Carole made no reply as she continued the grinding. When the powder was sifted through a four-hundred-mesh screen, she spread it onto the bot tom of the pan again and placed it back in the oven to remove the last tra ce of moisture. While that was heating she began melting equal parts wax a nd Vaseline, mixing them in a small Pyrex bowl.
When the mix had reached a uniform consistency she dissolved it in some ca mp stove gasoline. She removed the potassium chlorate powder from the oven and stirred in three percent aluminum powder to enhance the flash effect.
Then she poured the Vaseline-wax-gasoline solution over the powder. She s lipped on rubber gloves and began stirring and kneading everything togethe r until she had a uniform, gooey mess. This went on the windowsill to cool and to speed the evaporation of the gasoline.
Then she went to the bedroom. Soon it would be time to go out and she had t o dress appropriately. She stripped to her white cotton underpants and laid out the tight black skirt and red blouse she'd lifted from the shattered s how window of that deserted shop down on Clifton Avenue. She slipped her sm all breasts into a heavily padded bra, then began squeezing into a fresh pa ir of black pantyhose.
"You're getting into THOSE clothes again, are you? You look cheap, Car ole! You look like a WHORE!"
I know, she thought. That's the whole idea.
JOE . . .
Father Joe Cahill watched the moon rise over the back end of his old churc h and wondered about the wisdom of coming back. The casual decision made i n the full light of day now seemed reckless and foolhardy in the dark.
But no turning back now. He'd followed Zev to the second floor of this thre e-story office building across the street from the rear of St. Anthony's, a nd here they'd waited for dark. It must have been a law office once. The pl ace had been vandalized, the windows broken, the furniture trashed, but an old Temple University Law School degree hung askew on the wall, and the cou ch was still in one piece. So while Zev caught some Z's, Joe sat, sipped a little of his Scotch, and did some heavy thinking.
Mostly he thought about his drinking. He'd done too much of that lately, he knew; so much so that he was afraid to stop cold. So he was allowing himself just a touch now, barely enough to take the edge off. He'd finish the rest later, after he came back from that church over there.
He'd been staring at St. Anthony's since they'd arrived. It too had been ext ensively vandalized. Once it had been a beautiful little stone church, a min iature cathedral, really, very Gothic with all its pointed arches, steep roo fs, crocketed spires, and multifoil stained glass windows. Now the windows w ere smashed, the crosses that had topped the steeple and each gable were gon e, and anything resembling a cross on its granite exterior had been defaced beyond recognition.
As he'd known it would, the sight of St. Anthony's brought back memories o f Gloria Sullivan, the young, pretty church volunteer whose husband worked for United Chemical International in New York; he commuted to the city ev ery day, trekked overseas a little too often. Joe and Gloria had seen a lo t of each other around the church offices and had become good friends. But Gloria had somehow got the idea that what they had went beyond friendship, so she showed up at the rectory one night when Joe was there alone. He t ried to explain that as attractive as she was, she was not for him. He had taken certain vows and meant to stick by them. He did his best to let her down easy but she'd been hurt. And angry.
That might have been that, but then her five-year-old son Kevin had come h ome from altar boy practice with a story about a priest making him pull do wn his pants and touching him. Kevin was never clear on who the priest had been, but Gloria Sullivan was. Obviously it had been Father Cahill - any ma n who could turn down the heartfelt offer of her love and her body had to be either a queer or worse. And a child molester was worse.
She took it to the police and to the papers.
Joe groaned softly at the memory of how swiftly his life had become hell. Bu t he had been determined to weather the storm, sure that the real culprit ev entually would be revealed. He had no proof - still didn't - but if one of the p riests at St. Anthony's was a pederast, he knew it wasn't him. That left Fat her Alberto Palmeri, St. Anthony's fifty-five-year-old pastor.
Before Joe could get to the truth, however, the bishop had stepped in and re moved Joe from the parish. Joe left under a cloud that had followed him to t he retreat house in the next county and hovered over him till this day. The only place he'd found even brief respite from the impotent anger and bittern ess that roiled under his skin and soured his gut every minute of every day was in the bottle - and that was sure as hell a dead end.
So why had he agreed to come back here? To torture himself? Or to get a l ook at Palmeri and see how low he had sunk?
Maybe that was it. Maybe seeing Palmeri wallowing in his true element woul d give Joe the impetus to put the whole St. Anthony's incident behind him and rejoin what was left of the human race - which needed all the help it co uld get.
And maybe it wouldn't.
Getting back on track was a nice thought, but over the past few months Joe had found it increasingly difficult to give much of a damn about anyone or anything.
Except maybe Zev. The old rabbi had stuck by him through the worst of it, defending him to anyone who would listen. But an endorsement from an Ort hodox rabbi hadn't meant diddly in St. Anthony's.
Yesterday Zev had biked all the way to Spring Lake to see him. Old Zev was all right.
And he'd been right about the number of undead here too. Lakewood was craw ling with the things. Fascinated and repelled, Joe had watched the streets fill with them shortly after sundown.
But what had disturbed him more were the creatures he'd seen before sundo wn.
The humans. Live ones.
The collaborators. The ones Zev called Vichy.
If there was anything lower, anything that deserved true death more than th e undead themselves, it was the still-living humans who worked for them.
A hand touched his shoulder and he jumped. Zev. He was holding something o ut to him. Joe took it and held it up in the moonlight: a tiny crescent mo on dangling from a chain on a ring.
"An earring. The local Vichy wear them. The earrings identify them to the l ocal nest of undead. They are spared."
"Where'd you get it?"
Zev's face was hidden in the shadows. "The previous owner ... no longer need s it.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Zev sighed. He sounded embarrassed. "Some group has been killing the local Vichy. I don't know how many they've eliminated, but I came across one in m y wanderings. Not such a pleasant task, but I forced myself to relieve the body of its earring. Just in case."
Joe found it hard to imagine the old pre-occupation Zev performing such a gr isly task, but these were different times.
"Just in case what?"
"In case I needed to pretend to be one of them."
Joe had to laugh. "I can't see that fooling them for a second."
"Maybe a second is all I'd need. But it will look better on you. Put it on."
"My ear's not pierced."
A gnarled hand moved into the moonlight. Joe saw a long needle clasped bet ween the thumb and index finger. "That I can fix," Zev said.
* * *
"On second thought," Zev whispered as they crouched in the deep shadows o n St. Anthony's western flank, "maybe you shouldn't see this."
Puzzled, Joe squinted at him in the darkness.
"You lay a guilt trip on me to get me here, you make a hole in my ear, and now you're having second thoughts?"
"It is horrible like I can't tell you."
Joe thought about that. Certainly there was enough horror in the world outs ide St. Anthony's. What purpose did it serve to see what was going inside?
Because it used to be my church.
Even though he'd been an associate pastor, never fully in charge, and even though he'd been unceremoniously yanked from the post, St. Anthony's had been his first parish. He was back. He might as well know what they were d oing inside.
Zev led him to a pile of rubble under a smashed stained glass window. He poi nted up to where faint light flickered from inside.
"Look in there."
"You're not coming?"
"Once was enough, thank you."
Joe climbed as carefully, as quietly as he could, all the while becoming inc reasingly aware of a growing stench like putrid, rotting meat. It was coming from inside, wafting through the broken window. Steeling himself, he straig htened and peered over the sill.
For a moment he felt disoriented, like someone peering out the window of a Brooklyn apartment and seeing the rolling hills of a Kansas farm. This coul d not be the interior of St. Anthony's.
In the flickering light of dozens of sacramental candles he saw that the wal ls were bare, stripped of all their ornaments, including the plaques for the Stations of the Cross; the dark wood was scarred and gouged wherever there had been anything remotely resembling a cross. The floor too was mostly bare, the pews ripped from their neat rows and hacked to pieces, their splintere d remains piled high at the rear under the choir balcony.
And the giant crucifix that had dominated the space behind the altar - only a portion remained. The cross pieces on each side had been sawed off so tha t an armless, life-size Christ now hung upside down against the rear wall o f the sanctuary.
Joe took in all that in a flash; then his attention gravitated to the unho ly congregation that peopled St. Anthony's this night. The collaborators - t he Vichy humans - made up the periphery of the group. Some looked like biker s and trailer-park white trash, but others looked like normal, everyday pe ople. What bonded them was the crescent-moon earring dangling from every r ight earlobe.
But the rest, the group gathered in the sanctuary - Joe felt his hackles rise at the sight of them. They surrounded the altar in a tight knot. He recogniz ed some of them: Mayor Davis, Reverend Dalton, and others, their pale, besti al faces, bereft of the slightest trace of human warmth, compassion, or dece ncy, turned upward. His gorge rose when he saw the object of their rapt atte ntion.
A naked teenage boy - his hands tied behind his back, was suspended over the altar by his ankles. He was sobbing and choking, his eyes wide and vacant with shock, his mind all but gone. The skin had been flayed from his fore head - apparently the Vichy had found an expedient solution to the cross tat too - and blood ran in a slow stream across his abdomen and chest from his f reshly truncated genitals. And beside him, standing atop the altar, a bloo dy-mouthed creature dressed in a long cassock. Joe recognized the thin sho ulders, the graying hair trailing from the balding crown, but was shocked at the crimson vulpine grin he flashed to the things clustered below him.
"Now," said the creature in a lightly accented voice Joe had heard a thousan d times from St. Anthony's pulpit.
Father Alberto Palmeri.
From the group a hand reached up with a straight razor and drew it across th e boy's throat. As the blood sprang from the vessels and flowed down over hi s face, those below squeezed and struggled forward like hatchling vultures t o catch the falling drops and scarlet trickles in their open mouths.
Joe fell away from the window and vomited. He felt Zev grab his arm and le ad him away. He was vaguely aware of crossing the street and heading back toward the ruined legal office.
ZEV . . .
"Why in God's name did you want me to see that?"
Zev looked across the office toward the source of the words. He could make o ut a vague outline where Father Joe sat on the floor, his back against the w all, the open bottle of Scotch in his hand. The priest had taken one drink s ince their return, no more.
"I thought you should know what they were doing to your church." He felt bad about the immediate effect on Joe, but he was hoping the long-term co nsequences would benefit him and others.
"So you've said. But what's the reason behind that one?"
Zev shrugged in the darkness. "I'd gathered you weren't doing well, that ev en before everything else began falling apart, you had already fallen apart. So when this woman who saved me urged me to find you, I took up the quest and came to see you. Just as I expected, I found a man who was angry at ev erything and letting it eat up his guderim. I thought maybe it would be goo d to give that man something very specific to be angry at."
"You bastard!" Father Joe whispered. "Who gave you the right?"
"Friendship gave me the right, Joe. I should know that you are rotting a way and do nothing? I have no congregation of my own anymore so I turned my attention on you. Always I was a somewhat meddlesome rabbi."
"Still are. Out to save my soul, ay?"
"We rabbis don't save souls. Guide them maybe, hopefully give them directi on. But only you can save your soul, Joe."
Silence hung in the air for a while. Suddenly the crescent-moon earring Zev had given Father Joe landed in the puddle of moonlight on the floor betwee n them. He noticed a speck of crimson on the post.
"Why do they do it?" the priest said. "The Vichy - why do they collaborate?"
"The first ones are quite unwilling, believe me. They cooperate because thei r wives and children are held hostage by the undead. But before too long the dregs of humanity begin to slither out from under their rocks and offer the ir services in exchange for the immortality of vampirism."
"Why bother working for them? Why not just bare your throat to the neares t bloodsucker?"
"That's what I thought at first," Zev said. "But as I witnessed the Lakewood holocaust I detected their pattern. After the immediate onslaught - and the b urning of the bodies of their first victims - they change tactics. They can ch oose who joins their ranks, so after they've fully infiltrated a population, they start to employ a different style of killing. For only when the undead draws the life's blood from the throat with its fangs does the victim becom e one of them. Anyone drained as in the manner of that boy in the church ton ight dies a true death. He's as dead now as someone run over by a truck. He will not rise tomorrow night."
"So the Vichy work for them for the opportunity of getting their blood suck ed the old-fashioned way."
"And joining the undead ranks."
Zev heard no humor in the soft laugh that echoed across the room from Fathe r Joe.
"Great. Just great. I never cease to be amazed at our fellow human beings. Their capacity for good is exceeded only by their ability to debase themselves."
"Hopelessness does strange things, Joe. The undead know that. So they rob u s of hope. That's how they beat us. They transform our friends and neighbor s and leaders into their own, leaving us feeling alone, completely cut off. Some can't take the despair and kill themselves."
"Hopelessness," Joe said. "A potent weapon."
After a long silence, Zev said, "So what are you going to do now, Father Joe?"
Another bitter laugh from across the room.
"I suppose this is the place where I declare that I've found new purpose in li fe and will now go forth into the world as a fearless vampire killer."
"Such a thing would be nice."
"Well screw that. I'm only going as far as across the street."
"To St. Anthony's?"
Zev saw Father Joe take a swig from the Scotch bottle and then screw the cap on tight.
"Yeah. To see if there's anything I can do over there."
"Father Palmeri and his nest might not like that."
"I told you, don't call him Father. And screw him. Nobody can do what he's done and get away with it. I'm taking my church back."
In the dark, behind his beard, Zev smiled.
COWBOYS . . .
Al had the car out on his own. He wasn't supposed to, gas being hard to com e by and all, but he needed to be alone, or at least away from Kenny. Yeah, sure, they'd been friends forever but they'd never been together 24-7. Usu ally the four of them played cards and did some drinking before turning in.
But Jackie was out of commission and Stan was still pissed and wasn't play ing cards with nobody, so that left Al with just Kenny.
They all lived together in one of the big mansions off Hope Road. Stan lik ed to brag that one of the Mets used to live there. Big deal. The place ha d all the comforts of home: electricity from a generator, videotapes and D
VDs - with a good selection of porn - and a fridge full of beer. But sometimes Kenny could wear you out, man. Big time. Like tonight.
Al was feeling better already, banging his head in time to Insane Clown Poss e's "Cemetery Girl" as he cruised the dark streets.
He looked up. Clouds hid the moon. He wished it was out and full. Amazing h ow dark a residential street could be when there was no traffic, no street lights. At least he had his headlights and -
Whoa. He hit the brakes. He'd just passed someone on the sidewalk. Someon e female looking. And not too old.
He quick took off his earring and flipped the Caddy into reverse. He kept the earring palmed, ready to flash it if the lady turned out to be one of the bl oodsuckers, but otherwise keeping it out of sight just in case this was someb ody looking for a new cowboy to kill.
He did a slow backup while he searched the shadows and moonlit patches. No thing. Shit. Either he was seeing things or he'd spooked her.
He was just about to slam back into DRIVE when he heard a voice. A woman's voice.
Al grabbed his flashlight from the passenger seat and beamed it toward the v oice.
A woman half hiding behind a tree in the bushes. Not undead. Maybe thirty, s kinny but not bad looking. He played the light up and down her. Short dark h air, lots of eye makeup, a red sweater tight over decent-size boobs, a short black skirt very tight over black stockings.
Despite the alarm bells going off in his brain, Al ignored them as he felt his groin start to swell. He left the car in the middle of the street - like he had to worry about getting a ticket, right? - and walked over to her.
She smiled. No, not bad looking at all.
"My name's Carole," she said. "You got any food?"
"Some." Yeah, she looked like she could use a few good meals. "But not a w hole helluva lot."
Actually, he had a lot of food, but saw no reason to let her know that.
"Can you spare any?"
"I might be able to help you out some. Depends on how many mouths we're t alking about."
"Just me and my kid."
The words jumped out of his mouth before he could stop them: "You got a k id?"
She waved her hands in quick, nervous moves. "Don't worry. She's only four. She don't eat much."
A four-year-old. Two kids in one day. Almost too good to be true.
His brain kicked into overdrive. How to play this? For a while now he'd had this little scheme of keeping a piece on the side, with neither the bloods uckers or the posse knowing nothing about her. He'd get her a house, keep h er fed, keep her protected. But it sounded like this Carole already had her self a house. Even better. She could stay where she was and he'd visit her whenever he could get away. She treated him right, they could play house fo r a while. She gave him any trouble, like holding out on him, she and her b rat became gifts to Gregor. That was where they were going to wind up anywa y, but no reason Al couldn't get some use out of her before she became some bloodsucker's meal or wound up on a cattle farm.
And maybe he'd get real lucky. Maybe she'd get pregnant before he turned he r in.
"Well... all right," he said, trying to sound reluctant. "Bring her out where I can see her."
"She's home asleep."
"Alone?" Al was like immediately pissed. He already considered that kid hi s property. He didn't want no bloodsucker sneaking in and robbing him of w hat was rightfully his. "What if - ?"
"Don't worry. I've got her surrounded by crosses."
"Still, you never know." He paused, thinking. "Here's the deal. I got food bu t I got this tiny little rundown place that ain't fit for the cockroaches tha t live there. Maybe I could like spend some time at your place. That way I co uld guard you and your kid from those cowboys. They'd love nothing better'n h auling a little kid into the bloodsuckers."
Did that sound concerned enough?
A hand flew to her mouth. "Oh dear!" Her voice softened. "You must be a good man."
"Oh, I'm the best," he said.
And I've got this friend behind my fly who's just dying to meet you.
"I'll show you my place," she said. "It's not much but there's room for you."
Yeah, babe. Right on top of you.
She got in the car and directed him to the corner and around to the middle of the next block to an old two-story colonial set back among some tall oak s on an overgrown lot. He nodded with growing excitement when he saw a chil d's red wagon parked against the front steps.
"You live here? Hell, I musta passed this place a couple of times already tod ay."
"Really?" she said. "We usually stay hidden in the basement."
He followed her up the steps and through the front door. Inside there was a couple of candles burning but the heavy drapes hid them from outside.
"Lynn's sleeping upstairs," she said. "I'll just run up and check on her."
Al watched her black-stockinged legs hungrily as she bounded up the bare wo oden stairway, taking the steps two at a time. He adjusted his jeans for a little more comfort. Man, he was hard as a rock. Couldn't wait to get her o ut of that miniskirt and himself into -
And then it hit him: Why wait till she came back down? What was he doing standing around down here when he could be upstairs getting himself a p review of what was to come?
"Yoo-hoo," he said softly as he put his foot on the first step. "Here comes Daddy."
But the first step wasn't wood. Wasn't even a step. His foot went right thr ough it, like it was made of cardboard or something. As Al looked down in s hock he saw that it was made of cardboard - painted cardboard. His brain was just forming the question Why? when a sudden blast of pain like he'd never known in his whole life shot up his leg from just above the ankle.
He screamed, lunged back, away from the false step, but the movement triple d his agony. He clung to the newel post like a drunk, weeping and moaning f or God knew how long, until the pain eased for a second. Then slowly, ginge rly, accompanied by the metallic clanking of uncoiling chain links, he lift ed his leg out of the false tread.
Al let loose a stream of curses through his pain-clenched teeth when he saw t he bear trap attached to his leg. Its sharp, massive steel teeth had sunk the mselves deep into the flesh of his lower leg.
But fear began to worm through the all-enveloping haze of his agony.
The bitch set me up!
Kenny had wanted to find the guys who were killing the cowboys. But now Al had done just that, and it scared him shitless. What a dumbass he was. Ba ited by a broad - the oldest trick in the book.
Gotta get outta here!
He lunged for the door but the chain caught and brought him up short with a blinding blaze of agony so intense his scream damn near shredded his vocal cords. He toppled to the floor and lay there whimpering like a kicked dog until the pain became bearable again.
Where were they? Where were the rest of the cowboy killers? Upstairs, laug hing as they listened to him howl? Waiting until he wore himself out so he'd be easy pickings?
He'd show them.
Al pulled himself to a sitting position and reached for the trap. He tried to spread its jaws but they were locked tight on his leg. He wrapped his hand a round the chain and tried to yank it free from where it was fastened below bu t it wouldn't budge.
Panic began to grip him now. Its icy fingers were tightening on his throat w hen he heard a sound on the stairs. He looked up and saw her.
He blinked and looked again.
Still a nun. He squinted and saw that it was the broad who'd led him in her e. She was wearing a bulky sweater and loose slacks, and all the makeup had been scrubbed off her face, but he knew she was a nun by the thing she wor e on her head: a white band up front with a black veil trailing behind.
And suddenly, amid the pain and panic, Al was back in grammar school, back in St. Mary's before he got expelled, and Sister Margaret was coming at h im with her ruler, only this nun was a lot younger than Sister Margaret, a nd that was no ruler she was carrying, that was a baseball bat - an aluminum baseball bat.
He looked around. Nobody else, just him and the nun.
"Where's the rest of you?"
"Rest?" she said.
"Yeah. The others in your gang. Where are they?"
"There's only me."
She was lying. Had to be. One crazy nun killing all those cowboys? No way! But still he had to get out of here. He tried to crawl across the floor but t he fucking chain wouldn't let him.
"You're makin a mistake!" he cried. "I ain't one a them!"
"Oh, but you are," she said, coming down the stairs.
"No. Really. See?" He touched his right ear lobe. "No earring."
"Maybe not now, but you had one earlier." She stepped over the gaping openin g of the phony tread and circled to his left.
"When you drove by earlier today. You told me so yourself."
"No, you didn't. But I lied. I wasn't in the basement. I was watching thro ugh the window. I saw you and your three friends in that car." Her voice s uddenly became cold and brittle and sharp as a straight razor. "And I saw that poor woman you had with you. Where is she now? What did you do with h er?"
She was talking through her teeth now, and the look in her eyes, the straine d pallor of her face had Al ready to pee his pants. He wrapped his arms arou nd his head as she stepped closer with the bat.
"Please!" he wailed.
"What did you do with them?"
She swung the bat, but not at his head. Instead she slammed it with a heav y metallic clank against the jaws of the trap. As he screamed with the ren ewed agony and his hands automatically reached for his injured leg, Al rea lized that she must have done this sort of thing before. Because now his h ead was completely unprotected and she was already into a second swing. An d this one was aimed much higher.
CAROLE . . .
"You've done it again, Carole! AGAIN! I know they're a bad lot, but look what you've DONE!"
Sister Carole looked down at the unconscious man with the bleeding head an d trapped, lacerated leg. She sobbed.
"I know," she said aloud.
She was so tired. She'd have liked nothing better now than to go upstairs a nd cry herself to sleep. But she couldn't spare the time. Every moment coun ted now.
She tucked her feelings - her mercy, her compassion - into the deepest, darkes t pocket of her being, where she couldn't see or hear them, and got to wor k.
The first thing she did was tie the cowboy's hands good and tight behind hi s back. Then she got a washcloth from the downstairs bathroom, stuffed it i n his mouth, and secured it with a tie of rope around his head. That done, she grabbed the crowbar and the short length of two-by-four from where she kept them on the floor of the hall closet; she used the bar to pry open the jaws of the bear trap and wedged the two-by-four between them to keep them open. Then she worked the cowboy's leg free. He groaned a couple of times during the process but he never came to.
She bound his legs tightly together, then grabbed the throw rug he lay upon and dragged him and the rug out to the front porch and down the steps to t he red wagon she'd left there. She rolled him off the bottom step into the wagon bed and tied him in place. Then she slipped her arms through the stra ps of her heavily loaded backpack and she was ready to go. She grabbed the wagon's handle and pulled it down the walk, down the driveway apron, and on to the asphalt. From there on it was smooth rolling.
Sister Carole knew just where she was going. She had the spot all picked out.
She was going to try something a little different tonight.
COWBOYS . . .
Al screamed and sobbed against the gag. If he could just talk to her he kne w he could change her mind. But he couldn't get a word past the cloth jamme d against his tongue.
And he didn't have long. She had him upside down, strung up by his feet, sw aying in the breeze from one of the climbing spikes on a utility pole, and he knew what was coming next. So he pleaded with his eyes, with his soul. He tried mental telepathy.
Sister, Sister, Sister, don't do this! I'm a Catholic! My mother prayed for me every day and it didn't help, hut I'll change now, I promise! I swear on a st ack of fuckin bibles I'll be a good boy from now on if you'll just let me go t his time!
Then he saw her face in the moonlight and realized with a final icy shock that he was truly a goner. Even if he could make her hear him, nothing he could say was going to change this lady's mind. The eyes were empty. No on e was home. The bitch was on autopilot.
When he saw the glimmer of the straight razor as it glided above his throat, there was nothing left to do but wet himself.
CAROLE . . .
When Sister Carole finished vomiting, she sat on the curb and allowed herself a brief cry.
"Go ahead, Carole. Cry your crocodile tears. A fat lot of good it'll do yo u come Judgment Day. No good at all. What'll you say then, Carole? How wil l you explain THIS?"
She dragged herself to her feet. She had two more things to do. One of them involved touching the fresh corpse. The second was simpler: starting a fire to attract other cowboys and their masters.
GREGOR . . .
Gregor stood amid his get-guards and watched as cowboy Kenny ran in circl es around his dead friend's swaying, upended corpse.
"It's Al! The bastards got Al! I'll kill 'em all! I'll tear 'em to pieces!"
How Gregor wished somebody would do just that. He'd heard about these deat hs but this was the first he'd seen - an obscene parody of the bloodletting rituals he and his nightbrothers performed on the cattle. This was acutely embarrassing, especially with Olivia newly arrived from New York.
"Come out here!" Kenny screamed into the darkness. "Come out and fight l ike men!"
Stan, the head of this posse, was stamping out the brush fire at the base of the utility pole.
"We should be getting back, Gregor," one of his guards whispered. "It's too open out here. Not safe."
All four of them had their pistols drawn and were eyeing the night, their hea ds rotating back and forth like radar dishes.
Gregor ignored him and called out, "Someone cut him down."
Stan pointed to Kenny. "Climb up there." Hey, no -
"He was your bud," Stan said. "You do it."
Kenny reluctantly climbed the pole.
"I want to let him down easy!" he yelled when he'd reached the rope.
"Just cut the rope," Stan said.
"Dammit, Stan. Al was one of us! I'll cut it slow and you ease him down."
"Oh, fuck, all right," Stan said. "C'mere, Jackie, and help me."
The woman stood back by one of the cars that had brought them all here. Not the fancy convertible the posse had been using recently - Al had apparen tly taken that for a drive and never come back. She had a bandage around her head over a blackened left eye. Gregor wondered what had happened to her. Beaten by one of her own posse perhaps?
He looked at Jackie and remembered lusting after women for their bodies; n ow he cared only for the red wine running through them. Sexual lust was a dim memory. He hadn't had an erection since he was turned, seventy years a go.
Blood... always blood. Gregor was glad he had supped before accompanyin g these cowboys to their dead friend.
This made six dead. Two in the past three days. The pace was accelerating.
Olivia would be on the warpath.
Jackie shook her head. "No way," she said, her voice faint. "I can't."
"Get your skinny ass over here!"
"He's comin down!" Kenny shouted.
"Damn fuck!" Stan shouted as the body slumped earthward. He reached up t o grab it and -
The flash was noonday bright, the blast deafening as the shock wave knocked Gregor to the ground. His first instinct was to leap to his feet again, but he realized he couldn't see. The bright flash had fogged his night vision with a purple, amebic afterimage. He lay quiet until he could see again, then rose to his feet.
He heard wailing sounds. The woman crouched beside the car, screaming hy sterically; the cowboy who had climbed the pole lay somewhere in the bus hes, crying out about his back, how badly it hurt and how he couldn't mo ve his legs. But the other two - Stan and the murdered Al - were nowhere to be seen.
His get-guards were struggling to their feet, enclosing him in a tight, four-m an circle. "Are you all right, Gregor?" one said.
"Of course I'm all right," he snapped. "You wouldn't be asking that question i f I weren't."
Gregor shook his head. He tried to choose carefully for his get, emphasizing intelligence. Sometimes they fell short.
Gregor began to brush off his clothes as he looked around, then froze. He wa s wet, covered with blood and torn flesh. The entire street glistened, litte red with bits of bone, muscle, skin, and fingernail-size pieces of internal organs, leaving no way of telling what had belonged to whom.
Gregor shuddered at the prospect of explaining this to Olivia.
His fury exploded. The first killing tonight had been embarrassing enough b y itself. But now another cowboy had been taken out, and still another crip pled to the point where he'd have to be put down - all right in front of him.
This had passed beyond embarrassment into humiliation.
When he caught these vigilantes he'd deal with them personally. And see that it took them days to die.
CAROLE . . .
Sister Carole saw the flash and heard the explosion through the window over the sink in the darkened kitchen of the Bennett house. No joy, no elation. T
his wasn't fun. But she did find a certain grim satisfaction in learning tha t her potassium chlorate plastique had worked.
The gasoline had evaporated from the latest batch and she was working with that now. The moon provided sufficient illumination for the final stage. On ce she had the right amount measured out, she didn't need much light to pac k the plastique into soup cans. All she had to do was make sure she maintai ned the proper loading density.
That done, she stuck a number-three blasting cap in the end of each cylind er and dipped it into the pot of melted wax she had on the stove. And that did it. She now had waterproof block charges with a detonation velocity c omparable to forty-percent-ammonia dynamite.
"All right," she said aloud to the night through her kitchen window.
"You've made my life a living hell. Now it's your time to be afraid."
GREGOR . . .
"Three in one night!"
Olivia's eyes seemed to glow with red fire in the gloom of the Post Office b asement. She'd taken up temporary residence in the old granite building.
"They booby-trapped the body." Gregor knew it sounded lame but it was the truth.
Olivia's voice was barely a whisper as she pierced him with her stare. "You've disappointed me, Gregor."
"It is a temporary situation, I assure you."
"So you keep saying, but it has lasted far too long already. The dead serfs t otal seven now. Seven! Wait till Franco hears!"
Gregor quailed at the thought. "He doesn't have to hear. Not yet."
"You're losing control, Gregor. You don't seem to realize that besides our s trength and our special powers, we have two weapons: fear and hopelessness.
We cannot control the cattle by love and loyalty, so if we are to maintain o ur rule, it must be through the terror we inspire in them and the seeming im possibility of ever defeating us. What have the cattle witnessed in your ter ritory, Gregor?"
Gregor knew where this was headed. "Olivia, please, I - "
"I'll tell you what they've witnessed," she said, her voice rising. "They've witnessed your inability to protect the serfs we've induced to herd the cattl e and guard the daylight hours for us. And trust me, Gregor, the success of o ne vigilante group will give rise to a second, and then a third, and before l ong it will be open season on our serfs. And then you'll have no control. Bec ause the cattle herders are cowardly swine, Gregor. The lowest of the low. Th ey work for us only because they see us as the victors and they want to be on the winning side at any cost. But if we can't protect them, if they get a se nse that we might be vulnerable and that our continued dominance might not be guaranteed, they'll turn on us in a flash."
"I know that, and I'm - "
"Fix it, Gregor." Her voice sank to a whisper again. "I will give you till da wn Friday to remedy this. If not, you'll awaken Friday night to find yourself heading back to New York to face Franco. Is that clear?"
Dawn Friday? Gregor could scarcely believe what he was hearing. Here it w as Thursday morning with only a few hours until dawn - too late to take any action now. That left him one night to catch these marauding swine. And to think he'd just made her a gift of the pregnant cow's baby. The ungrat eful -
He swallowed his anger.
"Good. I expect you to have a plan by sundown."
"Leave me now."
As Gregor turned and hurried up the steps he heard a newborn begin to cry in the darkness. The sound made him hungry.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com