Chapter 4

JOE . . .

Joe yawned and stretched his limbs in the morning light. He'd stayed up mos t of the night and let Zev sleep. The old guy needed his rest. Sleep would have been impossible for Joe anyway. He was too wired. So he'd sat up, star ing at the back of St. Anthony's.

The undead had left before first light, dark shapes drifting out the doors an d across the grass like parishioners leaving a predawn service. Joe had felt his teeth grind as he scanned the group for Palmeri, but he couldn't make him out in the dimness. He might have gone out the front. By the time the sun ha d begun to peek over the rooftops and through the trees to the east, the stre ets outside were deserted.

He woke Zev and together they walked around to the front of the church.

The heavy oak and iron doors, each forming half of a pointed arch, were clo sed. Joe pulled them open and fastened the hooks to hold them back. Then, t aking a breath, he walked through the vestibule and into the nave.

Even though he was ready for it, the stench backed him up a few steps. Whe n his stomach settled, he forced himself ahead, treading a path between th e two piles of shattered and splintered pews. Zev walked beside him, a han dkerchief pressed over his mouth.

Last night he had thought the place a shambles. He saw now that it was wors e. The light of day poked into all the corners, revealing everything that h ad been hidden by the warm glow of the candles. Half a dozen rotting corpse s hung from the ceiling - he hadn't noticed them last night - and others were s prawled on the floor against the walls. Some of the bodies lay in pieces. Behind the chancel rail a headless female torso was draped over the front of the pulpit. To the left stood the statue of Mary. Someone had fitted her w ith foam rubber breasts and a huge dildo. And at the rear of the sanctuary was the armless Christ hanging head down on the upright of his cross.

"My church," he whispered as he moved along the path that had once been th e center aisle, the aisle once walked by daily communicants and brides wit h their proud fathers. "Look what they've done to my church!"

Joe approached the huge block of the altar. When he'd first arrived at St. A nthony's it had been backed against the far wall of the sanctuary, but he'd had it moved to the front so that he could celebrate Mass facing his parishi oners. Solid Carrara marble, but you'd never know it now. So caked with drie d blood, semen, and feces it could have been made of styrofoam.

His revulsion was fading, melting away in the growing heat of his rage, dra wing the nausea with it. He had intended to clean up the place but there wa s too much to be done, too much for two men. It was hopeless.

"Fadda Joe?"

He spun at the sound of the strange voice. A thin figure stood uncertainly in the open doorway. A timid-looking man of about fifty edged forward.

"Fadda Joe, that you?"

Joe recognized him now. Carl Edwards. A twitchy little man who used to hel p pass the collection basket at 10:30 Mass on Sundays. A transplantee from Jersey City - hardly anyone around here was originally from around here. Hi s face was sunken, his eyes feverish as he stared at Joe.

"Yes, Carl. It's me."

"Oh, thank God!" He ran forward and dropped to his knees before Joe. He began to sob. "You come back! Thank God, you come back!"

Joe pulled him to his feet.

"Come on now, Carl. Get a grip."

"You come back to save us, ain'tcha? God sent you here to punish him, didn't He?"

"Punish whom?"

"Fadda Palmeri! He's one a them! He's the worst of alia them! He - "

"I know," Joe said. "I know."

"Oh, it's so good to have ya back, Fadda Joe! We ain't knowed what to do si nce the suckers took over. We been prayin for someone like you and now ya h ere. It's a freakin miracle!"

Joe wanted to ask Carl where he and all these people who seemed to think t hey needed him now had been when he was being railroaded out of the parish. But that was ancient history.

"Not a miracle, Carl," Joe said, glancing at Zev. "Rabbi Wolpin brought me back." As Carl and Zev shook hands, Joe said, "And I'm just passing throu gh."

"Passing through? No. Don't say that! Ya gotta stay!"

Joe saw the light of hope fading in the little man's eyes and something twist ed within, tugging at him.

"What can I do here, Carl? I'm just one man."

"I'll help! I'll do whatever ya want! Just tell me!"

"Will you help me clean up?"

Carl looked around and seemed to see the cadavers for the first time. He cri nged and turned a few shades paler.

"Yeah ... sure. Anything."

Joe looked at Zev. "Well? What do you think?"

Zev shrugged. "I should tell you what to do? My parish it's not."

"Not mine either."

Zev jutted his beard at Carl. "I think maybe he'd tell you differendy."

Joe did a slow turn. The vaulted nave was utterly silent except for the buzz ing of the flies around the cadavers. A massive cleanup job. But if they wor ked all day they could make a decent dent in it. And then -

And then what?

Joe didn't know. He was playing this by ear. He'd wait and see what the nigh t brought.

"Can you get us some food, Carl? I'd sell my soul for a cup of coffee."

Carl gave him a strange look.

"Just a figure of speech, Carl. We'll need some food if we're going to keep working."

The man's eyes lit again.

"That means ya staying?"

"For a while."

"I'll getcha some food," he said excitedly as he ran for the door. "And coff ee. I know someone who's still got coffee. She'll part with some of it for F

adda Joe." He stopped at the door and turned. "Ay, and Fadda, I never believ ed any of them things was said aboutcha. Never."

Joe tried but he couldn't hold it back.

"It would have meant a lot to have heard that from you then, Carl."

The man lowered his eyes. "Yeah. I guess it woulda. But I'll make it up to ya, Fadda. I will. You can take that to the bank."

Then he was out the door and gone. Joe turned to Zev and saw the old man ro lling up his sleeves.

"Nu?" Zev said. "The bodies. Before we do anything else, I think maybe we should move the bodies."

ZEV . . .

By early afternoon, Zev was exhausted. The heat and the heavy work had taken their toll. He had to stop and rest. He sat on the chancel rail and looked around. Nearly eight hours work and they'd barely scratched the surface. But the place did look and smell better.

Removing the flyblown corpses and scattered body parts had been the worst of it. A foul, gut-roiling task that had taken most of the morning. They'd car ried the corpses out to the small graveyard behind the church and left them there. Those people deserved a decent burial but there was no time for it to day.

Once the corpses were gone, Father Joe had torn the defilements from the stat ue of Mary and then they'd turned their attention to the huge crucifix. It to ok a while but they finally found Christ's plaster arms in the pile of ruined pews. Both still were nailed to the sawed-off crosspieces of the crucifix. While Zev and Joe worked at jury-rigging a series of braces to reattach the ar ms,

Carl found a mop and bucket and began the long, slow process of washing the fouled floor of the nave.

Now the crucifix was intact again - the life-size plaster Jesus had his arms r eattached and was once again nailed to his refurbished cross. Joe and Carl h ad restored him to his former position of dominance. The poor Nazarene was u pright again, hanging over the center of the sanctuary in all his tortured s plendor.

A grisly sight. Zev never could understand the Catholic attachment to these gruesome statues. But if the undead loathed them, then Zev was for them al l the way.

His stomach rumbled with hunger. At least they'd had a good breakfast. Car l had returned from his food run this morning with fresh-baked bread, pean ut butter, and two thermoses of hot coffee. He wished now they'd saved som e. Maybe there was a crust of bread left in the sack.

He headed back to the vestibule to check and found an aluminum pot and a pa per bag sitting by the door. The pot was hot and full of beef stew, the sac k contained three cans of Pepsi.

He poked his head out the doors but saw no one on the street outside. It had been that way all day - he'd spy a figure or two peeking in the front doors; they'd hover there for a moment as if to confirm that what they had heard wa s true, then they'd scurry away.

He looked down at the meal that had been left. A group of the locals must h ave donated from their hoard of canned stew and precious soft drinks to fix this. Zev was touched.

He was about to call out to Joe and Carl when a shadow fell across the floo r. He looked up and saw a young woman in a leather jacket standing in the d oorway. The first thing he did was check for her right ear for one of those cursed crescents. Easy enough to see with her close-cropped, almost boyish brown hair. She didn't. Such a relief.

"Yes?" He straightened and faced her. "Can I help you?"

"Isn't this St. Anthony's church?" she said, making a face as she looked arou nd at the destruction.

"It was. We're trying to make it so again."

Her gaze had come to rest on his yarmulke. "But you're a - "

"A rabbi, yes. Rabbi Zev Wolpin, at your service." He gestured around him a t the church. "Such a long story, you wouldn't believe."

She smiled. A pretty smile. "I'll bet. I'm looking for my uncle. He was a pries t here but he left. I need to find him."

Zev felt a lightness in his chest. "His name wouldn't happen to be Cahill, wo uld it?"

Her smile broadened. "Yeah. Father Joe Cahill. You know where he might b e?"

"I believe I do." He turned and called into the nave. "Father Joe! You have company!"

LACEY . . .

Lacey totally lost it when she recognized the tall, broad-shouldered man str iding toward her through the rubble of the church. He needed a shave, he nee ded a haircut, and his faded jeans and flannel shirt were anything but pries tly, but she knew those blue eyes and the smile that lit his face when he sa w her.

"Uncle Joe!"

She found herself running forward and flinging herself at him, sobbing unas hamedly and uncontrollably as she clung to him like a drowning sailor to a rock.

"Lacey, Lacey," he cooed, holding her tight against him. "It's all right. It's all right."

Finally she got hold of herself and eased her deathgrip on him. She wiped he r eyes.

"Sorry about that. It's just..."

"I know," he said, taking her hands in his.

Lacey looked up at her uncle. Did he? Did he realize what she'd been throu gh to get here? She'd thought she was tough, but the trip from Manhattan h ad taken her longer than she could have imagined, and put to shame every n ightmare she'd ever had.

"How are your mom and dad?" he asked.

She saw the forlorn hope in his eyes - her mother was his older sister - but h ad to shake her head.

"I don't know. I tried to contact them when the shit hit the - I mean, when e verything went to hell, but the lines were down and everything was chaos. I got to wondering if they'd even bothered trying to get in touch with me."

"I'm sure they did," Uncle Joe said. "Of course they did."

"How can you be so sure? They've refused to speak to me for years."

"But they love you."

"Funny way of showing it."

"They're not rejecting you, Lacey, just your lifestyle."

"One's pretty much wrapped up in the other, don't you think. At least you ke pt talking to me."

She'd been moved as a kid from Brooklyn to New Jersey when her father lan ded a job with a big pharmaceutical company in Florham Park, but New York had remained in her blood. When it came time for college her first and l ast choice had been NYU, for reasons beyond what it offered academically.

Its location in Greenwich Village had been equally important.

Because somewhere along her years in high school Lacey Flannery had realize d she wasn't like the other girls. She needed an accepting atmosphere, a pl ace where anything goes, to stretch her boundaries and find out about herse lf, learn who she really was.

In her second year at NYU she moved into an off-campus apartment with a s enior named Janey Birnbaum. At the time her folks thought they were just roommates. Three years ago, right after her graduation with a BA in Engli sh, she came out.

And that was when her folks stopped speaking to her. She'd tried to visit the m, tried to explain, but they hadn't wanted to see or speak to her.

The one person in the family she'd found she could talk to was, of all peopl e, her uncle the Catholic priest. Uncle Joe hadn't approved but he didn't tu rn her away. He'd tried to act as go-between but her folks stood firm: eithe r get counseling and get cured - like she was mentally ill or something! - or st ay away.

She had a feeling her father was behind the hard line, but she couldn't be sure. Now she might never know.

The rabbi said, "So may I ask, what is it, this lifestyle, that your parents reje ct but a priest doesn't?"

"I'm a dyke."

The rabbi blinked. Probably the first time anyone had ever put it to him that bluntly. She also noticed her uncle's grimace. Obviously he didn't like the word. Lacey hadn't liked it either at first, but Janey and her more radical f riends encouraged her to use to it because they were taking it back.

That was all fine back then, but now... take it back from whom?

"Doesn't that mean a lesbian?" the rabbi said.

"Through and through."

"Oh. I see."

"Not just a garden-variety lesbian," Uncle Joe said. His wry smile looked fo rced. "A radical lesbian feminist, and an outspoken one at that."

"You forgot to mention atheist."

His smile faded a little. "I try to forget that part."

It had taken Lacey awhile to come out, but when she did she decided not to be out partway. She wasn't ashamed of who she was or how she felt and was r eady to get in the face of anyone who tried to give her grief about it.

She'd started writing articles and reviews for the underground press - the radical, the gay, even the entertainment freebies - with the hope of eventu ally moving above ground. Her role model was Norah Vincent, who'd been wr iting a regular column for the Village Voice - back when there'd been a Vil lage Voice. Lacey didn't always agree with her views but she envied her p ulpit. She'd vowed that someday she'd have a column like that.

But that dream was gone now, along with so many others ...

"Anyway," she said, "I hadn't been able to contact Mom and Dad, so I decid ed to check up on them."

She'd been all alone then. Janey had gone out one day, scrounging for foo d, and never come back. After spending a week looking for her, Lacey had to face the unthinkable: Janey was either dead or had been turned into an undead. Crushed, grieving, and with New York becoming more dangerous eve ry day, she'd decided to go home. She fought her way through the Holland Tunnel - the living collaborators hadn't closed it off yet - and made it to h er folks' place in Union, New Jersey.

"When I got to their house, I found the front door smashed in and blood on th e living-room rug." She felt herself puddling up, her throat tightening like a noose. "I don't think they made it."

She hoped they were alive or dead, anything but in between. They'd rejected her, they'd caused her untold pain - though she'd probably given as good as she got on that score - but they were still her parents and the thought of he r mother and father prowling the night, sucking blood . . .

She'd nurtured the hope that with time they'd have come to accept her as sh e was - she'd never expected approval, but maybe just enough acceptance to in vite her back for dinner some night. It didn't look like that was ever goin g to happen now.

Uncle Joe wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I..." His voice choked off a nd the two of them stood still and silent.

"This was your brother, Joe?" the rabbi said.

"My big sister. Cathy."

"I'm so sorry."

"Yeah," Uncle Joe said. "So am I." He cleared his throat. "But we can hope for the best, can't we? And in the meantime, lunch is getting cold. Are you hungry, Lacey?"

She was famished.

ZEV . . .

"Tastes like Dinty Moore," Joe said around a mouthful of the stew.

"It is," Lacey said. "I ate a lot of this before I turned vegan. I recognize the l ittle potatoes."

Zev found the stew palatable but much too salty. He wasn't about to complai n, though.

They were feasting in the sacristy, the small room off the sanctuary where t he priests had kept their vestments - a clerical Green Room, so to speak. Joe and Lacey sat side by side. Carl and Zev sat apart.

"What's vegan?" he asked.

"Someone who eats only veggies," Lacey said.

"But - "

"I know. Being a vegan was a luxury. Now I eat whatever I can find."

Carl laughed. "Fadda, the ladies of the parish must be real excited about yo u coming back to break into their canned goods like this."

Zev said, "I don't believe I've ever had anything like this before."

"I'd be surprised if you had," said Joe. "I doubt very much that something tha t calls itself Dinty Moore is kosher."

Zev smiled but inside he was suddenly filled with a great sadness. Kosher. . . how meaningless now seemed all the observances that he had allowed t o rule and circumscribe his life. Such a fierce proponent of strict dietar y laws he'd been in the days before the Lakewood holocaust. But those days were gone, just as the Lakewood community was gone.

And Zev was a changed man. If he hadn't changed, if he were still observin g, he couldn't sit here and sup with these two men and this young woman.

He'd have to be elsewhere, eating special classes of ritually prepared food s off separate sets of dishes. But really, hadn't division been the main th rust of holding to the dietary laws in modern times? They served a purpose beyond mere observance of tradition. They placed another wall between obser vant Jews and outsiders, keeping them separate even from fellow Jews who di dn't observe.

Zev took another big bite of the stew. Time to break down all the walls betwe en people... while there was still enough time and people left alive to ma ke it matter.

"You okay, Zev?" Joe asked.

Zev nodded silently, afraid to speak for fear of sobbing. Despite all its ana chronisms, he missed his life in the good old days of a few months ago. Gone.

It was all gone. The rich traditions, the culture, the friends, the prayers.

He felt adrift - in time and in space. Nowhere was home.

And then there was the matter of the cross ... the power of the cross over the undead . . .

He'd sneaked a copy of Dracula to read when he was a boy, and he'd caught snatches of vampire movies on TV. The undead were always portrayed as afra id of crosses. But that had been fiction. Vampires weren't real - or so he'd thought - and so he'd never examined the broader implications of that fear of the cross. Now...

"You sure?" Joe seemed genuinely concerned.

"Yes, I'm okay. As okay as you could expect me to feel after spending the bet ter part of the day repairing a crucifix and eating non-kosher food. And let me tell you, that's not so okay."

He put his bowl aside and straightened from his chair.

"Come on, already. Let's get back to work. There's much yet to do."

JOE . . .

"Almost sunset," Carl said.

Joe straightened from scrubbing the marble altar and stared west through o ne of the smashed windows. The sun was out of sight behind the houses ther e.

"You can go now, Carl," he said to the little man. "Thanks for your help."

"Where you gonna go, Fadda?"

"I'll be staying right here."

Carl's prominent Adam's apple bobbed convulsively as he swallowed.

"Yeah? Well then, I'm staying too. I told you I'd make it up to ya, didn't I?

An' besides, I don't think the suckers'U like the new, improved St. Ant'ny's too much when they come back tonight. I don't think they'll even get through the doors."

Joe smiled at the man, then looked around. Luckily it was May and the days were growing longer. They'd had time to make a difference here. The floor s were clean, the crucifix was restored and back in its proper position, a s were most of the Stations of the Cross plaques. Zev had found them under the pews and had taken the ones not shattered beyond recognition and rehu ng them on the walls. Lots of new crosses littered those walls. Carl had f ound a hammer and nails and had made dozens of them from the remains of th e pews.

"You're right. I don't think they'll like the new decor one bit. But there's so mething you can get us if you can, Carl. Guns. Pistols, rifles, shotguns, anyth ing that shoots."

Carl nodded slowly. "I know a few guys who can help in that department."

"And some wine. A little red wine if anybody's saved some."

"You got it."

He hurried off.

"You're planning Custer's last stand, maybe?" Zev said from where he was tac king the last of Carl's crude crosses to the east wall.

"More like the Alamo."

"Same result," Zev said with one of his shrugs.

"I've got a gun," Lacey said.

Joe stared at her. She'd been helping him scrub the altar. "You do? Why did n't you say something?"

"It's only got two bullets left."

"Where are the rest?"

She met his gaze evenly. "I had to leave them behind in a couple of people wh o tried to stop me. It was a tough trip getting here."

"Are you okay with that?"

She nodded. "Better than I thought I'd be. You do what you have to do."

What an amazing young woman, he thought. Who'd have thought Cathy's little girl could turn out so tough and resilient.

He remembered Lacey as a teen. She'd always been a little different from h er peers. On the surface she seemed like a typical high-school kid - she dat ed, though she had no serious crushes, played soccer and field hockey with abandon - but on holidays and family gatherings, she'd stay in the backgrou nd. Joe would make a point of sitting down with her; he'd draw her out, an d then another Lacey would emerge.

The other Lacey was a thinker, a questioner. She had doubts about religio n, about government. She burned with an iconoclastic fire that urged her to question traditions and break with them whenever possible. She was fas cinated by the old anarchists and dug up all their works. He remembered h er favorite was No Treason by someone named Lysander Spooner. Instead of hanging posters of the latest teenage heartthrob boy band in her room, La cey had pictures of Emma Goldman and Madelyn Murray O'Hare.

Joe's sister and her husband tolerated her views with a mixture of humor and apprehension. If this was the shape and scope of Lacey's teenage rebellion, t hey'd live with it. It was just a phase, they'd say. She'll grow out of it. Better than drunk driving or drugs or getting pregnant.

But it wasn't a phase. It was Lacey. And later, when she came out as a lesbi an, they turned their backs on her. Joe had tried to talk them out of slammi ng the family door, but this was more than they could take.

"Who taught you to shoot?" he asked.

"A friend." She smiled. "A guy friend, believe it or not. It was a self-defens e thing. He took me out to the range until I got comfortable with pulling the trigger. I'm not a great shot, but if you're within ten feet of me and you're looking for trouble, you're gone."

Joe had to smile. "Never let it be said you're not full of surprises, Lacey."

She laughed softly. "No one's ever said that."

They turned back to scrubbing the altar. They'd been at it for over an hour n ow. Joe was drenched with sweat and figured he smelled like a bear, but he co uldn't stop until it was clean.

But it wouldn't come clean.

"What did they do to this altar?" Lacey asked.

"I don't know. This crud ... it seems part of the marble now."

The undead must have done something to the blood and foulness to make the mixture seep into the surface as it had.

"Let's take a break."

He turned sat on the floor with his back against the altar and rested. He did n't like resting because it gave him time to think. And when he started to th ink he realized that the odds were pretty high against his seeing tomorrow mo rning.

At least he'd die well fed. Their secret supplier had left them a dinner of fresh fried chicken by the front doors. Even the memory of it made his mou th water. Apparently someone was really glad he was back.

Lacey settled next to him. She'd shed her leather jacket hours ago. Her bare arms were sheened with perspiration.

"That talk about Custer's last stand and the Alamo," she said. "You're not pl anning to die here, are you?"

To tell the truth, as miserable as he'd been, he wasn't ready to die. Not tonig ht, not any night.

"Not if I can help it."

"Good. Because as much as I can appreciate self-immolating gestures, I don't think I'm ready to take part in a Jersey Shore version of the Alamo or Litt le Big Horn."

"Well, the cry of 'Remember the Alamo!' did spur a lot of people to action, but I agree. Going down fighting here will not solve anything."

"Then what's the plan? We should have some sort of plan."

Good question. Did he have a plan?

"All I want to do is hold off the undead till dawn. Keep them out of St. Ant hony's for one night. That's all. That will be a statement - my statement. Our statement if you want to stay on."

And if he found an opportunity to ram a stake through Palmeri's rotten heart, so much the better. But he wasn't counting on that.

"That's it?" Lacey said. "One night?"

"One night. Just to let them know they can't have their way everywhere with everybody whenever they feel like it. We've got surprise on our side tonig ht, so maybe it will work." One night. Then he'd be on his way. "You should n't feel you have to stay just because you're my niece."

"I don't. But if I - "

"What the fuck have you done?"

Joe looked up at the shout. A burly, long-haired man in jeans and a cutaway denim jacket stood in the vestibule staring at the partially restored nave.

As he approached, Joe noticed his crescent moon earring.

A Vichy.

Joe balled his fists but didn't move.

"Hey, I'm talking to you, asshole. Are you responsible for this?"

When all he got from Joe was a cold stare, he turned to Zev and fixed on hi s yarmulke.

"Hey, you! Jew! What the hell you think you're doing here?" He started to ward Zev. "You get those fucking crosses off - "

"Touch him and I'll break you in half," Joe said in a low voice.

The Vichy skidded to a halt and stared at him.

"Are you crazy? Do you know what Father Palmeri will do to you when he g ets here?"

"Father Palmeri? Why do you still call him that?"

"It's what he wants to be called. And he's going to call you dog meat when he gets through with you!"

Joe pulled himself to his feet and looked down at the Vichy. Suddenly the m an didn't seem so sure of himself.

"Tell him I'll be waiting." Joe gave him a hard, two-handed shove against hi s chest that sent him stumbling back. Damn, that felt good. "Tell him Father Cahill is back."

"You're a priest? You don't look like one."

Joe slapped him across the face. Hard. It snapped the creep's chin toward his shoulder. That felt even better.

"Shut up and listen. Tell him Father Joe Cahill is back - and he's pissed. Tel l him that." Another chest shove. "Now get out of here while you still can."

Rubbing his cheek, the man backpedaled and hurried out into the growing da rkness. Joe turned to Zev and found him grinning through his beard.

" 'Father Joe Cahill is back - and he's pissed.' I like that."

"It'll make a great bumper sticker," Lacey said, her eyes wide with admira tion. "You were great! I never knew my uncle the priest was such a tough d ude. Maybe we've got more than a prayer tonight."

Joe didn't know about that. He hoped so.

"I think I'll close the front doors," he said. "The criminal element is startin g to wander in. While I'm doing that, see if we can find some more candles. It's getting dark in here."

On the front steps he unhooked the left door and closed it. He was unhooki ng the right when he heard a woman's voice behind him.

"Father Cahill? Is that you?"

He turned and in the dying light saw a lone figure standing by a children's r ed wagon at the bottom of the steps.

"Yes. Do I know you?"

He heard her sob. "Oh, it is you! You've come back!"

Joe hurried down to the sobbing woman. "Are you all right?"

"I've been praying for your return but I'm such a sinner I thought God had t urned his back on us all. But you're back! Thank God!"

Something familiar about her voice . .. but she kept her head down. Joe reach ed out, and tilted her chin so he could see her.

He gasped when he saw her tear-stained face. He barely recognized her. Her skin was pale, her cheeks sunken, but he knew her.

"Sister Carole!"

Impulsively he threw his arms around her and pulled her against him in a hug. He wanted to laugh but feared if he opened his mouth he'd burst out crying. Sweet emotions roiled through him, making him weak. She was here, she was alive. He wanted to tell her how he'd missed her - missed knowing she was in the neighboring building, missed seeing her walk back and fort h to the school, missed the smile she would flash him whenever they cross ed paths.

"It's so good to see you, Carole!" He pushed her back and looked at her, ho ping to see that smile. But her eyes were different, haunted. "Dear God, wh at's happened to you?" Immediately he thought: Stupid question. The same th ing that's happened to us all. "Why are you here? I thought you'd gone to Pennsylvania for Easter."

She shook her head. "I had to stay behind ... with Sister Bernadette ... they ... I had to . . ." She loosed a single, agonized sob. "How could I stay in the convent after that?"

Joe wasn't following. Her speech was so disjointed. This wasn't like Carole. He'd always known her as a woman of quiet intelligence, with a sharp, org anized mind. Everyone left alive had suffered, but what had she experienced to leave her so shattered?

"Where have you been staying?"

She looked away. "Here and there."

"Well, you're staying here now." He took her arm. "Come inside. We've got-"

She pulled away. "I can't. I've too many sins."

"We're all sinners, Carole."

"But these are terrible sins. Mortal sins. So many mortal sins."

"This is where sins are forgiven. I'm going to try to say mass later."

"Mass?" Her lip quivered. "Oh, that would be wonderful. But I can't. Even though it's a Holy Day, I - "

"What Holy - ?" And then he remembered. With all that had been going on, it had slipped his mind. "Oh, God, it's Ascension Thursday, isn't it."

Sister Carole nodded. "But I'll just have to add missing Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation to my list of sins."

"Come inside, Carole. Please. I'll hear your confession."

"No." She paused, as if she were listening for something. "To receive absol ution I must be sorry for my sins and promise to sin no more." She shook he r head and something flashed in her eyes, something hard and dangerous. "I'm not. And I won't."

Joe stared at her, trying to fathom . . .

"I don't follow you, Carole."

"Please don't, Father. It's not a path you want to tread." She bent and grabb ed the handle of her little red wagon, then turned and started away. "God ble ss you, Father Cahill."

Joe hurried after her. He couldn't let her go. It was too dangerous, but more than that, he wanted her near, where he could talk to her, be with her. He g rabbed her arm.

"I can't let you go."

She snatched her arm free and kept moving. "You can't make me stay. Don't t ry. I won't. I can't." The last word was couched in a sob that damn near br oke his heart.

"Carole, please!"

But she hurried on into the shadows without looking back. Joe started afte r her again, then stopped. Short of picking her up and carrying her back t o the church - and he couldn't see himself doing that - what could he do?

Suddenly weary, he turned and climbed the steps. As he finished closing the f ront doors, he took one last longing look at the night.

Carole . .. what's happened to you? Please be safe.

He closed the door and wished the lock hadn't been smashed. He turned and found Lacey and Zev standing in the vestibule.

"We were getting worried about you," Lacey said.

"I ran into one of the nuns who used to teach in St. Anthony's school."

Zev's eyebrows arched. "And you didn't let her in?"

"Wouldn't come in. But she reminded me that this is a Holy Day: Ascension Thursday."

Zev shrugged. "Which means?"

"Supposedly," Lacey said, "forty days after Easter, Jesus ascended into Hea ven to sit at the right hand of God." She smiled. "An ingenious way to dodg e all those inconvenient questions about the state and whereabouts of the r emains of the 'Son of God.' "

Joe looked at her. "Lacey, you can't still be an atheist."

She shrugged. "I never really was. I call myself that because it's such an i n-your-face term. Like dyke. But atheism implies that you consider the quest ion of a provident god important enough to take seriously. I don't. At heart I'm simply a devout agnostic."

Joe was glad Carl wasn't here to hear this. He wouldn't understand or apprec iate Lacey's outspokenness. But that was Lacey. No excuses, no sugar coating: Here I am, here's what I think, take it or leave it. Through the years she'd made him angry at times, but then she'd smile and he'd see his sister Cat hy in her face and his anger would fade away.

He pointed to the gold crucifix hanging from her neck. "But you wear a cros s. Didn't you once tell me you'd die before wearing anything like that?"

"I damn near did die because I wasn't wearing one. So now I wear one for per fectly pragmatic reasons. I've never been one for fashion accessories, but i f it chases vampires, I want one."

"But you've got to take the next step, Lacey. You've got to ask why the undea d fear it, why it sears their flesh. There's something there. When you face t hat reality, you won't be an atheist or agnostic anymore."

Lacey smiled. "Did I mention I'm a devout empiricist too?"

"Like a worm, she wiggles," Zev said. "Too many philosophy courses."

Lacey turned to him. "That's not exactly a mezuzah hanging from your neck, rabbi."

"I know," Zev said, fingering his cross. "Like you, I wear it because it wo rks. That is undeniable. Where its power comes from, I don't know. Maybe fr om God, maybe from somewhere else. The how and the why I'll figure out late r. I've been too busy trying to stay alive to give it my full attention." He held up his hands. "Talk of intangibles we should save for the daylight.

Now we should ready ourselves. I believe we'll soon have uninvited and unsa vory company. We should be prepared."

Looking unhappy, Zev wandered away. But Joe didn't want to let this drop. Hesensed a chance to break through his niece's wall of disbelief. By doing so he might save her soul.

He lowered his voice. "If the power of the cross is not from God, Lacy, the n who?"

"Might not be a who," she said with a shrug. "Might be a what. I don't know.

I'm just going with it for now."

" 'There are none so blind as those who will not see,' " Joe said.

"It's not blindness to not see something that won't show itself. Where's y our god now?" She jutted her chin at Zev's retreating figure. "His god and yours - where's he been? This is Ascension Thursday, right? Think about tha t. Maybe Jesus ascended and kept on going. Turned his back on this planet and forgot about it. After the way he was treated here, who could blame him?"

Joe shook his head, feeling a growing anger mixed with dismay. He hated to he ar his niece talk like this. "Are you still an anarchist too?"

"Damn betcha."

"Well now, it looks like you've got what you wanted - a world without rel igion, without government, without law - what do you think?"

Joe could tell by the set of her jaw and the flash of fire in her eyes that he'd struck a nerve.

"This is not at all what I was talking about! This undead empire is more r epressive than any regime in human history. It makes Nazi Germany and Stal inist Russia look like Sunday school!"

"And they're here to stay," Joe said, wondering if all today's plans and prepar ations weren't an exercise in futility.

He wondered where Palmeri was and how long before he got here.

PALMERI . . .

He wore the night like a tuxedo.

Dressed in a fresh cassock, Father Alberto Palmeri turned off County Line Roa d and strolled toward St. Anthony's. He loved the night, felt at one with it, attuned to its harmonies and its discords. The darkness made him feel so ali ve. Strange to have to lose your life before you could really feel alive. But this was it. He'd found his niche, his me'tier.

Such a shame it had taken him so long. All those years trying to deny his ap petites, trying to be a member of the other side, cursing himself when he al lowed his appetites to win, as he had with increasing frequency toward the e nd of his mortal life. He should have given in to them long ago.

It had taken undeath to free him.

And to think he had been afraid of undeath, had cowered in fear that night i n the cellar of the church, surrounded by crosses. But he had not been as sa fe as he'd thought. A posse of Serfs had torn him from his hiding place and brought him to kneel before Gregor. He'd cried out and begged with this unde ad master to spare his life. Fortunately Gregor had ignored his pleas. All h e had lost by that encounter was his blood.

And in trade, he'd gained a world.

For now it was his world, at least this little corner of it, one in which he was completely free to indulge himself in any way he wished. Except for the b lood. He had no choice about the blood. That was a new appetite, stronger tha n all the rest, one that would not be denied. But he did not mind the new app etite in the least. He'd found interesting ways to sate it.

Up ahead he spotted dear, defiled St. Anthony's. He wondered what the serfs had prepared for tonight. They were quite imaginative. They'd yet to bore him.

But as he drew nearer the church, Palmeri slowed. His skin prickled. The b uilding had changed. Something was very wrong there, wrong inside. Somethi ng amiss with the light that beamed from the windows. This wasn't the old familiar candlelight, this was something else, something more. Something t hat made his insides tremble.

Figures raced up the street toward him. Live ones. His night vision picked o ut the earrings and familiar faces of some of the serfs. As they neared he s ensed the warmth of the blood coursing just beneath their skins. The hunger rose in him and he fought the urge to rip into their throats. He couldn't al low himself that pleasure. Gregor had told him how to keep the servants dang ling, keep them working for him and the nest. They all needed the services o f the indentured living to remove whatever obstacles the cattle might put in their way.

Someday, when he was allowed to have get of his own, he would turn some of these, and then they'd be bound to him in a different way.

"Father! Father!" they cried.

He loved it when they called him Father, loved being one of the undead and dressing like one of the enemy.

"Yes, my children. What sort of victim do you have for us tonight?"

"No victim, father - trouble!"

The edges of Palmeri's vision darkened with rage as he heard of the young p riest and the Jew and the others who had dared to try to turn St. Anthony's into a holy place again. When he heard the name of the priest, he nearly e xploded.

"Cahill? Joseph Cahill is back in my church?"

"He was cleaning the altar!" one of the servants said.

Palmeri strode toward the church with the serfs trailing behind. He knew th at neither Cahill nor the Pope himself could clean that altar. Palmeri had desecrated it himself; he had learned how to do that when he became leader of Gregor's local get. But what else had the young pup dared to do?

Whatever it was, it would be undone. Now!

Palmeri strode up the steps and pulled the right door open -

- and screamed in agony.

The light! The light! The LIGHT! White agony lanced through Palmeri's eyes and seared his brain like two hot pokers. He retched and threw his arms a cross his face as he staggered back into the cool, comforting darkness.

It took a few minutes for the pain to drain off, for the nausea to pass, for visi on to return.

He'd never understand it. He'd spent his entire life in the presence of cross es and crucifixes, surrounded by them. And yet as soon as he'd become undead he was unable to bear the sight of one. In fact, since he'd become undead he'd never even seen one. A cross was no longer an object. It was a light, a lig ht so excruciatingly bright, so blazingly white that looking at it was sheer agony. As a child in Naples he'd been told by his mother not to look at the s un, but when there'd been talk of an eclipse, he'd stared directly into its e ye. The pain of looking at a cross was a hundred, no, a thousand times worse than that. And the bigger the cross or crucifix, the worse the pain.

He'd experienced monumental pain upon looking into St. Anthony's tonight. That could only mean that Joseph, that young bastard, had refurbished the gi ant crucifix. It was the only possible explanation.

He swung on his servants.

"Get in there! Get that crucifix down!"

"They've got guns!"

"Then get help. But get it down!"

"We'll get guns too! We can - "

"No! I want him! I want that priest alive! I want him for myself! Anyone who kills him will suffer a very painful, very long and lingering true death! Is that clear? "

It was clear. They scurried away without answering. Palmeri went to gather the other members of the nest.

JOE . . .

Dressed in a cassock and a surplice, Joe came out of the sacristy and approa ched the altar. He noticed Zev keeping watch at one of the windows. He didn't tell him how ridiculous he looked carrying the shotgun Carl had brought ba ck. He held it so gingerly, as if it was full of nitroglycerin and would exp lode if he jiggled it.

Zev turned and smiled when he saw him.

"Now you look like the old Father Joe we all used to know,"

Joe gave him a little bow and proceeded toward the altar. Lacey waved with her revolver from the other side of the nave where she stood guard by the s ide door. She'd put on her black leather jacket and looked ready for anythi ng.

All right: He had everything he needed. He had the Missal they'd found in a mong the pew debris earlier today. He had the wine - Carl had brought back ab out four ounces of sour red babarone. He'd found the smudged surplice and d usty cassock on the floor of one of the closets in the sacristy, and he wor e them now. No hosts, though. A crust of bread left over from breakfast wou ld have to do. No chalice, either. If he'd known he was going to be saying Mass he'd have come prepared. As a last resort he'd used the can opener in the rectory to remove the top of one of the Pepsi cans from lunch. Quite a stretch from the gold chalice he'd used since his ordination, but probably more in line with what Jesus had used at that first Mass - the Last Supper.

He was uncomfortable with the idea of weapons in St. Anthony's but saw no alternative. He and Zev knew nothing about guns, and Carl knew little more; they'd probably do more damage to themselves than to the Vichy if they t ried to use them. Only Lacey seemed at ease with her pistol. Joe hoped tha t just the sight of the weaponry might make the Vichy hesitate, slow them down. All he needed was a little time here, enough to get to the consecrat ion.

This is going to be the most unusual Mass in history, he thought.

But he was going to get through it if it killed him. And that was a real pos sibility. This might well be his last Mass. But he wasn't afraid. He was too excited to be afraid. He'd had a slug of the Scotch - just enough to ward off the shakes - but it had done nothing to quell the buzz of the adrenaline humm ing along every nerve in his body.

He spread everything out on the white tablecloth he'd taken from the rectory and used to cover the filthy altar. He looked at Carl.

"Ready?"

Carl nodded and stuck the automatic pistol he'd been examining into his belt.

"Been awhile, Fadda. We did it in Latin when I was a kid, but I think I can s wing it."

"Just do your best and don't worry about any mistakes."

Some Mass. A defiled altar, a crust for a host, a Pepsi can for a chalice, a s ixty-year-old, pistol-packing altar boy, and a congregation consisting of a le sbian atheist and a rabbi.

Joe looked heavenward.

You do understand, don't you, Lord, that all this was arranged on short notic e?

Time to begin.

He read the Gospel but dispensed with the homily. He tried to remember the Ma ss as it used to be said, to fit in better with Carl's outdated responses.

As he was starting the Offertory the front doors flew open and a group of men entered - ten of them, all with crescent moons dangling from their ears.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Zev move away from the window toward the altar, pointing his shotgun at them.

As soon as they entered the nave and got past the broken pews, the Vichy fa nned out toward the sides. They began pulling down the Stations of the Cros s, ripping Carl's makeshift crosses from the walls and tearing them apart.

Carl looked up at Joe from where he knelt, his eyes questioning, his hand reac hing for the pistol in his belt. Lacey didn't look at him at all. She acted on her own.

"Stop right there!"

She held her pistol straight out before her, arms rigid. Joe saw the barrel wobble. She might be tough, he thought, but she's only twenty-five. And she's only got two rounds.

But the Vichy didn't know that. They stopped their forward progress and trie d to stare her down.

"You can't get all of us," one said.

Zev worked the pump on the shotgun. The sound echoed through the church. "

That's right. She can't."

He sounded a lot tougher than Joe knew he was. He hoped the Vichy were f ooled.

Maybe they were. They looked at each other but didn't back off. A stand-of f was good enough for now. Joe nodded and kept up with the Offertory.

Then he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. One of th e Vichy had ducked through the side door behind Lacey. He carried a raised two-by-four.

"Lacey!" Zev cried. "Behind - !"

She whirled, ducking, pistol raised, but the Vichy had the jump on her. Th e two-by-four glanced off the side of her head and slammed into her forear m. She dropped the gun and went down. But not before landing a vicious kic k on the inside of his knee. He staggered back, howling with pain while La cey, cradling her injured arm, jumped up and scrambled toward the altar.

The Vichy cheered and went on with their work. They split - one group conti nuing to pull down Carl's crosses, the other swarming around and behind t he altar.

Joe chanced a quick glance over his shoulder and saw them begin their attac k on the newly repaired crucifix.

"Zev!" Carl said in a low voice, cocking his head toward the Vichy. "Stop e m!"

"I'm warning you," Zev said and pointed the shotgun.

Joe heard the activity behind him come to a sudden halt. He braced himself for the blast. . .

But it never came.

He looked at Zev. The old man met his gaze and sadly shook his head. He co uldn't do it. To the accompaniment of the sound of renewed activity and de risive laughter behind him, Joe gave Zev a tiny nod of reassurance and und erstanding, then hurried the Mass toward the Consecration.

As he held the crust of bread aloft, he started at the sound of the life-size crucifix crashing to the floor, cringed as he heard the freshly buttressed arm s and crosspiece being torn away again.

As he held the wine aloft in the Pepsi can, the swaggering, grinning Vichy surrounded the altar and brazenly tore the cross from around his neck. Zev, Lacey, and Carl put up struggles to keep theirs but were overpowered. The Vichy wound up with Carl's gun too.

And then Joe's skin began to crawl as a new group entered the nave. They n umbered about twenty, all undead. He faced them from behind the altar as t hey approached. His gut roiled at the familiar faces he spotted among the throng.

But the one who caught and held his attention was the one leading them.

Alberto Palmeri.

PALMERI . . .

Palmeri hid his hesitancy as he approached the altar. The crucifix and its intolerable whiteness were gone, yet something was not right. Something rep ellent here, something that urged him to flee. What?

Perhaps it was just the residual effect of the crucifix and all the crosses th ey had used to line the walls. That had to be it. The unsettling aftertaste wo uld fade as the night wore on. Oh, yes. His nightbrothers and sisters from the nest would see to that.

He focused his attention on the man behind the altar and laughed when he re alized what he held in his hands.

"Pepsi, Joseph? You're trying to consecrate Pepsi?" He turned to his nest s iblings. "Do you see this, my brothers and sisters? Is this the man we are to fear? And look who he has with him! An old Jew, a young woman, and a par ish hanger-on!"

He reveled in their hissing laughter as they fanned out around him, sweepi ng toward the altar in a wide phalanx. The young woman, the Jew, and Carl - he recognized Carl and wondered how he'd avoided capture for so long - retre ated to the other side of the altar where they flanked Joseph. And Joseph. .. Joseph's handsome Irish face so pale and drawn, his mouth stretched i nto such a tight, grim line. He looked scared to death. As well he should be.

Palmeri put down his rage at Joseph's audacity. He was glad he had returne d. He'd always hated the young priest for his easy manner with people, for the way the parishioners had flocked to him with their problems despite t he fact that he had nowhere near the experience of their older and wiser p astor. But that was over now. That world was gone, replaced by a nightworl d - Palmeri's world. And no one would be flocking to Father Joe for anything when Palmeri was through with him.

Father Joe... how he'd hated it when the parishioners had started calling him that. Well, their Father Joe would provide superior entertainment tonigh t. This was going to be fun.

"Joseph, Joseph, Joseph," he said as he stopped and smiled at the young priest across the altar. "This futile gesture is so typical of your arrogance."

But Joseph only stared back at him, his expression a mixture of defiance an d repugnance. And that only fueled Palmeri's rage.

"Do I repel you, Joseph? Does my new form offend your precious shanty-Iri sh sensibilities? Does my undeath disgust you?"

"You managed to do all that while you were still alive, Alberto."

Palmeri allowed himself to smile. Joseph probably thought he was putting on a brave front, but the tremor in his voice betrayed his fear.

"Always good with the quick retort, weren't you, Joseph. Always thinking y ou were better than me, always putting yourself above me."

"Not much of a climb where a child molester is concerned."

Palmeri's anger mounted.

"So superior. So self-righteous. What about your appetites, Joseph? The sec ret ones? What are they? Do you always hold them in check?" He pointed to t he girl in the leather jacket. "Is she your weakness, Joseph? Young, attrac tive in a hard sort of way. Is that your style? Do you like it rough? Are y ou fucking her, Joseph?"

"Leave her out of this. She just showed up today."

"Well, if not her, then who? Are you so far above the rest of us that you'v e never given in to an improper impulse, never assuaged a secret hunger? Yo u'll have a new hunger soon, Joseph. By dawn you'll be drained - we'll each t ake a turn at you - and before the sun rises we'll hide your corpse from its light. You'll stay dead all day, but when the night comes you'll be one of us."

He stepped closer, almost touching the altar.

"And then all the rules will be off. The night will be yours. You'll be free to do anything and everything you've ever wanted. But blood will be your prim e hunger, and you'll do anything to get it. You won't be sipping your god's t hin, cold blood, as you've done so often, but hot human blood. You'll thirst for it, Joseph. And I want to be there when you take your first drink. I want to be there to laugh in your self-righteous face as you suck up the crimson nectar, and keep on laughing every night as the red hunger carries you into i nfinity."

And it would happen. Palmeri knew it as sure as he felt his own thirst. He hungered for the moment when he could rub dear Joseph's face in the reality of his own bloodlust.

"I was just saying Mass," Joseph said coolly. "Do you mind if I finish?"

Palmeri couldn't help laughing this time.

"Did you really think this charade would work? Did you really think you co uld celebrate Mass on this?"

He reached out and snatched the tablecloth from the altar, sending the Missa l and the piece of bread to the floor and exposing the fouled surface of the marble.

"Did you really think you could effect a transubstantiation here? Do you r eally believe any of that garbage? That the bread and wine actually take o n the substance of" - he tried to say the name but it wouldn't form - "the Son's body and blood?"

One of his nest sisters, Eva, a former councilwoman, stepped forward and lea ned over the altar, smiling.

"Transubstantiation?" she said in her most unctuous voice, pulling the Pepsi can from Joseph's hands. "I was never a Catholic, so tell me ... does that me an that this is the blood of the Son?"

A whisper of warning slithered through Palmeri's mind. Something about the c an, something about the way he found it difficult to bring its outline into focus...

"Eva, perhaps you should - "

Eva's grin broadened. "I've always wanted to sup on the blood of a deity."

The nest members hissed their laughter as Eva raised the can and drank.

Palmeri watched, unaccountably fearful as the liquid poured into her mout h. And then -

LIGHT!

An explosion of intolerable brightness burst from Eva's mouth and drove him back, jolted, cringing.

The inside of her skull glowed beneath her scalp and shafts of pure white l ight shot from her ears, nose, eyes - every orifice in her head. The glow spr ead as it flowed down through her throat and chest and into her abdominal c avity, silhouetting her ribs before melting through her skin. Eva was lique fying where she stood, her flesh steaming, softening, running like glowing molten lava.

No! This couldn't be happening! Not now when he had Joseph in his grasp!

Then the can fell from Eva's dissolving fingers and landed on the altar top. I ts contents splashed across the fouled surface, releasing another detonation o f brilliance, this one more devastating than the first. The glare spread rapid ly, extending over the upper surface and running down the sides, moving like a living thing, engulfing the entire altar, making it glow like a corpuscle of fire torn from the heart of the sun itself.

And with the light came blast-furnace heat that drove Palmeri back, back, ba ck until he had to turn and follow the rest of his nest in a mad, headlong r ush from St. Anthony's into the cool, welcoming safety of the outer darkness.

ZEV . . .

As the undead fled into the night, their Vichy toadies behind them, Zev sta red in horrid fascination at the puddle of putrescence that was all that re mained of the undead woman Palmeri had called Eva. He glanced at Carl and Lacey and caught the look of dazed wonderment on their faces. Zev touched th e top of the altar - clean, shiny, every whorl of the marble surface clearly visible.

He'd witnessed fearsome power here. Incalculable power. But instead of elat ing him, the realization only depressed him. How long had this been going o n? Did it happen at every Mass? Why had he spent his entire life ignorant o f this?

He turned to Joe. "What happened?"

"I - I don't know."

"A miracle!" Carl said, running his palm over the altar top.

"A miracle and a meltdown," Lacey added from behind Zev. He felt her hand on her shoulder. "Rabbi, are you feeling what I'm feeling?"

He turned to her. "Feeling how?"

She lowered her voice. "That this shouldn't be happening? That there's got t o be another explanation?"

Zev wondered if the lost look in her eyes mirrored his own.

"Explanations I'm running short on."

"Me too. I'm getting pushed into a place where I'm going to have to revise .. . everything. A place where I'm going to have to accept the unacceptable an d believe in the unbelievable. I don't want to go there but..."

Lacey winced as she moved her right arm. She eased it out of her jacket and looked at it.

"Good thing I was wearing leather."

Zev inspected the large purple swelling below her shoulder. "Do you think i t's broken?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. My hand and forearm are all tingly an d kind of numb, but I'll be okay."

"You're sure?" Joe said.

She grimaced. "Of my arm? Yeah. But I think that's about the only thing I'm sure of anymore." She nodded to the Pepsi can lying on its side atop the a ltar. "What was in there?"

Joe picked up the empty can and looked into it. "You know, you go through th e seminary, through your ordination, through countless Masses believing in t he Transubtantiation. But after all these years... to actually know ..."

Zev saw him rub his finger along the inside of the can and taste it. He grima ced.

"What's wrong?" Zev asked.

"Still tastes like sour barbarone... with a hint of Pepsi."

"Doesn't matter what it tastes like," Carl said. "As far as those bloodsuckers are concerned, it's the real thing."

"No," said the priest with a small smile. "If I remember correctly, that was Coke."

And then they started laughing. Zev only vaguely remembered the old commerci als, but found himself roaring along with the other three. It was more a rel ease of tension than anything else. His sides hurt. He had to lean against t he altar to support himself.

"It wasn't that funny," Joe said.

Lacey smiled. "No argument there."

"C'mon," Carl said, heading for the sanctuary. "Let's see if we can get this c rucifix back together."

Zev helped Lacey slip her arm back into her jacket.

"You rest that arm," he told her.

She winced again and cradled it with her left. "I don't think I have much cho ice."

Zev jumped at the sound of the church doors banging open. He turned and sa w the Vichy charging back in, two of them carrying a heavy fire blanket.

This time Father Joe did not stand by passively as they invaded his church.

Zev watched as he stepped around the altar and met them head on.

He was great and terrible as he confronted them. His giant stature and rai sed fists cowed them for a few heartbeats. But then they must have remembe red that they outnumbered him twelve to one and charged. He swung a massiv e fist and caught the lead Vichy square on the jaw. The blow lifted him of f his feet and he landed against another. Both went down.

Zev dropped to one knee and reached for the shotgun. He would use it this t ime, he would shoot these vermin, he swore it!

But then someone landed on his back and drove him to the floor. As he tried to get up he saw Carl pulling Lacey away toward the side door, and he saw Father Joe, surrounded, swinging his fists, laying the Vichy out every time he connected. But there were too many. As the priest went down under the p ress of them, a heavy boot thudded against the side of Zev's head. He sank into darkness.

JOE . . .... a throbbing in his head, stinging pain in his cheek, and a voice, sibilant yet harsh . . .

"... now, Joseph. Come on. Wake up. I don't want you to miss this!"

Palmeri's sallow features swam into view, hovering over him, grinning like a skull. Joe tried to move but found his wrists and arms tied. His right hand t hrobbed, felt twice its normal size; he must have broken it on a Vichy jaw. Helifted his head and saw that he was tied spread-eagle on the altar, and tha t the altar had been covered with the fire blanket.

"Melodramatic, I admit," Palmeri said, "but fitting, don't you think? I mean, you and I used to sacrifice our god symbolically here every weekday and mu ltiple times on Sundays, so why shouldn't this serve as your sacrificial alt ar?"

Joe shut his eyes against a wave of nausea. This couldn't be happening.

"Thought you'd won, didn't you?"

Joe refused to answer him, but that didn't shut him up.

"And even if you'd chased me out of here for good, what would you have acco mplished? Most of the world is already ours, Joseph, and the rest soon will be. Feeders and cattle - that is the hierarchy. We are the feeders. And toni ght you'll join us. But he won't. Voila'!"

Palmeri stepped aside and made a flourish toward the balcony.

Joe searched the dim, candlelit space of the nave, not sure what he was sup posed to see. Then he picked out Zev's form and groaned. The old man's feet were lashed to the balcony rail; he hung upside down, his reddened face an d frightened eyes turned his way. Joe fell back and strained at the ropes b ut they wouldn't budge.

"Let him go!"

"What? And let all that good rich Jewish blood go to waste? Why, these peo ple are the Chosen of God! They're a delicacy!"

"Bastard!"

If he could just get his hands on Palmeri, just for a minute.

"Tut-tut, Joseph. Not in the house of the Lord. The Jew should have been sm art and run away like Carl and your girlfriend."

Carl got away? With Lacey? Thank God.

We're even, Carl.

"But don't worry about your rabbi. None of us will lay a fang on him. He has n't earned the right to join us. We'll use the razor to bleed him. And when he's dead, he'll be dead for keeps. But not you, Joseph. Oh no, not you." Hi s smile broadened. "You're mine."

Joe wanted to spit in Palmeri's face - not so much as an act of defiance as t o hide the waves of terror surging through him - but there was no saliva to b e had in his parched mouth. The thought of being undead made him weak. To s pend eternity like... he looked at the rapt faces of Palmeri's fellow undea d as they clustered under Zev's suspended form... like them.

He wouldn't be like them! He wouldn't allow it!

But what if there was no choice? What if becoming undead toppled a lifetime's worth of moral constraints, cut all the tethers on his human hungers, nega ted all his mortal concepts of how a life should be lived? Honor, justice, i ntegrity, truth, decency, fairness, love - what if they became meaningless wor ds instead of the footings for his life?

A thought struck him.

"A deal, Alberto," he said.

"You're hardly in a bargaining position."

"I'm not? Answer me this: Do the undead ever kill each other? I mean, has o ne of them ever driven a stake through another's heart?"

"No. Of course not."

"Are you sure? You'd better be sure before you go through with your plans to night. Because if I'm forced to become one of you, I'll be crossing over wit h just one thought in mind: to find you. And when I do I won't stake your he art, I'll stake your arms and legs to the pilings of the Point Pleasant boar dwalk where you can watch the sun rise and feel it slowly crisp your skin to charcoal."

Palmeri's smile wavered. "Impossible. You'll be different. You'll want to t hank me. You'll wonder why you ever resisted."

"Better be sure of that, Alberto ... for your sake. Because I'll have all eter nity to track you down. And I'll find you, Alberto. I swear it on my own grave. Think on that."

"Do you think an empty threat is going to cow me?"

"We'll find out how empty it is, won't we? But here's the deal: let Zev go and I'll let you be."

"You care that much for an old Jew?"

"He's something you never knew in life, and never will know: he's a friend."

And he gave me back my soul.

Palmeri leaned closer. His foul, nauseating breath wafted against Joe's face.

"A friend? How can you be friends with a dead man?" With that he straigh tened and turned toward the balcony. "Do him! Now!"

As Joe shouted out frantic pleas and protests, one of the undead climbed up the rubble toward Zev. Zev did not struggle. Joe saw him close his eyes, w aiting. As the vampire reached out with the straight razor, Joe bit back a sob of grief and rage and helplessness. He was about to squeeze his own eye s shut when he saw a flame arc through the air from one of the windows. It struck the floor with a crash of glass and a wooomp! of exploding flame.

Joe had only heard of such things, but he immediately realized that he had just seen his first Molotov cocktail in action. The splattering gasoline splashed a nearby vampire who began running in circles, screaming as it be at at its flaming clothes. But its cries were drowned by the roar of other voices, a hundred or more. Joe looked around and saw people - men, women, t eenagers -  climbing in the windows, charging through the front doors. The w omen held crosses on high while the men wielded long wooden pikes - broom, r ake, and shovel handles whittled to sharp points. Joe recognized most of t he faces from the Sunday Masses he had said here for years.

St. Anthony's parishioners were back to reclaim their church.

"Yes!" he shouted, not sure of v/hether to laugh or cry. But when he saw the rage in Palmeri's face, he laughed. "Too bad, Alberto!"

Palmeri made a lunge at his throat but cringed away as a woman with an up held crucifix and a man with a pike charged the altar - Lacey and Carl.

"Are you all right, Uncle Joe?" Lacey said, her eyes wide and angry. "Did they - ?"

"You got here just in time."

She pulled out a butterfly knife, flipped it open with one hand, and began sa wing at the rope around Joe's right wrist. She was using her left only; her r ight arm didn't seem to be of much use.

"Told ya I wouldn't let ya down, didn't I, Fadda?" Carl said, grinning. "Didn't I?"

"That you did, Carl. I don't think I've ever been so glad to see anyone in m y entire life. But how - ?"

"We told 'em. We run through the parish, Lacey and me, goin house to house. We told 'em Fadda Joe was in trouble at the church and we let him down b efore but we shouldn't let him down again. He come back for us, now we got ta go back for him. Simple as that. And then they started runnin house to house, and afore ya knowed it, we had ourselfs a little army. We come to k ick ass, Fadda, if you'll excuse the expression."

"Kick all the ass you can, Carl."

Joe glanced around and spotted a sixtyish black woman he recognized as Lilly Green. He saw her terror-glazed eyes as she swiveled around, looking this w ay and that; he saw how the crucifix trembled in her hand. She wasn't going to kick too much ass in her state, but she was here, God bless her, she was here for him and for St. Anthony's despite the terror that so obviously fill ed her. His heart swelled with love for these people and pride in their cour age.

As soon as his arms were free, Joe sat up and took the knife from Lacey. He sawed at his leg ropes, looking around the church.

The oldest and youngest members of the parishioner army were stationed at the windows and doors where they held crosses aloft, cutting off the vampi res' escape, while all across the nave - chaos. Screams, cries, and an occas ional shot echoed through St. Anthony's. The undead and their Vichy were o utnumbered three to one. The undead seemed blinded and confused by all the crosses around them. Despite their superhuman strength, it appeared that some were indeed getting their asses kicked. A number were already writhin g on the floor, impaled on pikes. As Joe watched, he saw the middle-aged Gonzales sisters, Maria and Immaculata, crucifixes held before them, backin g a vampire into a corner. As it cowered there with its arms across its face, Maria's husband Hector charged in with a sharpened rake handle held like a lance and ran it through.

But a number of parishioners lay in inert, bloody heaps on the floor, proof that the undead and the Vichy were claiming their share of victims too.

Joe freed his feet and hopped off the altar. He looked around for Palmeri - he wanted Palmeri - but the undead priest had lost himself in the melee. Joe glanced up at the balcony and saw that Zev was still hanging there, struggl ing to free himself. He started across the nave to help him.

ZEV . . .

Zev hated that he should be hung up here like a chicken in a deli window. Hetried again to pull his upper body up far enough to reach his leg ropes b ut he couldn't get close. He had never been one for exercise; doing a sit-u p flat on the floor would have been difficult, so what made him think he co uld do the equivalent maneuver hanging upside down by his feet? He dropped back, exhausted, and felt the blood rush to his head again. His vision swam, his ears pounded, he felt as if the skin of his face might burst open. Mu ch more of this and he'd have a stroke or worse maybe.

He watched the upside-down battle below and was glad to see the undead get ting the worst of it. These people - seeing Carl among them, Zev assumed the y were part of St. Anthony's parish - were ferocious, almost savage in their attacks on the undead. All their pent-up rage and fear was being released upon their tormentors in a single burst. It was almost frightening.

Suddenly he felt a hand on his foot. Someone was untying his knots. Thank y ou, Lord. Soon he would be on his feet again. As the cords came loose he de cided he should at least attempt to participate in his own rescue.

Once more, Zev thought. Once more I'll try.

With a grunt he levered himself up, straining, stretching to grasp somethin g, anything. A hand came out of the darkness and he reached for it. But Zev's relief turned to horror when he felt the cold clamminess of the thing th at clutched him, that pulled him up and over the balcony rail with inhuman strength. His bowels threatened to evacuate when Palmeri's grinning face lo omed not six inches from his own.

"It's not over yet, Jew," he said softly, his foul breath clogging Zev's nose a nd throat. "Not by a long shot!"

He felt Palmeri's free hand ram into his belly and grip his belt at the buckle, then the other hand grab a handful of his shirt at the neck. Before he could s truggle or cry out, he was lifted free of the floor and hoisted over the balcon y rail.

And the dybbuk's voice was in his ear.

"Joseph called you a friend, Jew. Let's see if he really meant it."

JOE . . .

Joe was halfway across the floor of the nave when he heard Palmeri's voice echo above the madness.

"Stop them, Joseph! Stop them now or I drop your friend!"

Joe looked up and froze. Palmeri stood at the balcony rail, leaning over it, his eyes averted from the nave and all its newly arrived crosses. At the en d of his outstretched arms was Zev, suspended in mid-air over the splintered remains of the pews, over a particularly large and ragged spire of wood tha t pointed directly at the middle of Zev's back. Zev's frightened eyes were f lashing between Joe and the giant spike below.

Around him Joe heard the sounds of the melee drop a notch, then drop anothe r as all eyes were drawn to the tableau on the balcony.

"A human can die impaled on a wooden stake just as well as a vampire!" Palmer i cried. "And just as quickly if it goes through his heart. But it can take h ours of agony if it rips through his gut."

St. Anthony's grew silent as the fighting stopped and each faction backed awa y to a different side of the church, leaving Joe alone in the middle.

"What do you want, Alberto?"

"First I want all those crosses put away so that I can see!"

Joe looked to his right where his parishioners stood.

"Put them away," he told them. When a murmur of dissent arose, he added, "

Don't put them down, just out of sight. Please."

Slowly, one by one at first, then in groups, the crosses and crucifixes were placed behind backs or tucked out of sight within coats.

To his left, the undead hissed their relief and the Vichy cheered. The sound was like hot needles being forced under Joe's fingernails. Above, Palmeri t urned his face to Joe and smiled.

"That's better."

"What do you want?" Joe asked, knowing with a sick crawling in his gut ex actly what the answer would be.

"A trade," Palmeri said.

"Me for him, I suppose?" Joe said.

Palmeri's smile broadened. "Of course."

"No, Joe! "Zev cried.

Palmeri shook the old man roughly. Joe heard him say, "Quiet, Jew, or I'll snap your spine!" Then he looked down at Joe again. "The other thing is to tell your rabble to let my people go." He laughed and shook Zev again. "Hea r that, Jew? A Biblical reference - Old Testament, no less!"

"All right," Joe said without hesitation.

The parishioners on his right gasped as one and cries of "No!" and "You can'

t!" filled St. Anthony's. A particularly loud voice nearby shouted, "He's on ly a lousy kike!"

Joe wheeled on the man and recognized Gene Harrington, a carpenter. He jer ked a thumb back over his shoulder at the undead and their servants.

"You sound like you'd be more at home with them, Gene."

Harrington backed up a step and looked at his feet.

"Sorry, Father," he said in a voice that hovered on the verge of a sob. "But we just got you back!"

I'll be all right," Joe said softly.

And he meant it. Deep inside he had a feeling that he would come through thi s, that if he could trade himself for Zev and face Palmeri one-on-one, he co uld come out the victor, or at least battle him to a draw. Now that he was n o longer tied up like some sacrificial lamb, now that he was free, with full use of his arms and legs again, he could not imagine dying at the hands of the likes of Palmeri.

Besides, one of the parishioners had given him a tiny crucifix. He had it clo sed in the palm of his hand.

But he had to get Zev out of danger first. That above all else. He looked up at Palmeri.

"All right, Alberto. I'm on my way up."

"Wait!" Palmeri said. "Someone search him."

Joe gritted his teeth as one of the Vichy, a blubbery, unwashed slob, came forward and searched his pockets. Joe thought he might get away with the cr ucifix but at the last moment he was made to open his hands. The Vichy grin ned in Joe's face as he snatched the tiny cross from his palm and shoved it into his pocket.

"He's clean now!" the slob said and gave Joe a shove toward the vestibule.

Joe hesitated. He was walking into the snake pit unarmed. A glance at his p arishioners told him he couldn't very well turn back now.

He continued on his way, clenching and unclenching his tense, sweaty fists as he walked. He still had a chance of coming out of this alive. He was too angry to die. He prayed that when he got within reach of the ex-priest the smoldering rage at how he had framed him when he'd been pastor, at what he'd done to St. Anthony's since then, would explode and give him the strengt h to tear Palmeri to pieces.

"No!" Zev shouted from above. "Forget about me! You've started something h ere and you've got to see it through!"

Joe ignored his friend.

"Coming, Alberto."

Father Joe's coming, Alberto. And he's pissed. Royally pissed.

ZEV . . .

Zev craned his neck, watching Joe disappear beneath the balcony.

"Joe! Comeback!"

Palmeri shook him again.

"Give it up, old Jew. Joseph never listened to anyone and he's not listening to you. He still believes in faith and virtue and honesty, in the power of go odness and truth over what he perceives as evil. He'll come up here ready to sacrifice himself for you, yet sure in his heart that he's going to win in th e end. But he's wrong."

"No!" Zev said.

But in his heart he knew that Palmeri was right. How could Joe stand up again st a creature with Palmeri's strength, who could hold Zev in the air like thi s for so long? Didn't his arms ever tire?

"Yes!" Palmeri hissed. "He's going to lose and we're going to win. We'll w in for the same reason we always win. We don't let anything as silly and t ransient as sentiment stand in our way. If we'd been winning below and sit uations were reversed - if Joseph were holding one of my nest brothers over that wooden spike below - do you think I'd pause for a moment? For a second?

Never! That's why this whole exercise by Joseph and these people is futil e."

Futile. . . Zev thought. Like much of his life, it seemed. Like all of his fut ure. Joe would die tonight and Zev might live on ... as what? A cross-wearing Jew, with the traditions of his past sacked and in flames, and nothing in his future but a vast, empty, limitless plain to wander alone.

Footfalls sounded on the balcony stairs and Palmeri turned his head.

"Ah,Joseph," he said.

Zev couldn't see the priest but he shouted anyway.

"Go back, Joe! Don't let him trick you!"

"Speaking of tricks," Palmeri said, leaning further over the balcony rail as a n extra warning to Joe, "I hope you're not going to try anything foolish."

"No," said Joe's tired voice from somewhere behind Palmeri. "No tricks. Pul l him in and let him go."

Zev could not let this happen. And suddenly he knew what he had to do. He t wisted his body and grabbed the front of Palmeri's cassock while bringing h is legs up and bracing his feet against one of the uprights of the brass ba lcony rail. As Palmeri turned his startled face toward him, Zev put all his strength into his legs for one convulsive backward push against the railin g, pulling Palmeri with him. The undead priest was overbalanced. Even his e normous strength could not help him once his feet came free of the floor. Zev saw his undead eyes widen with terror when his lower body slipped over t he railing. As they fell free, Zev wrapped his arms around Palmeri and clut ched his cold and surprisingly thin body tight against him.

"What goes through this old Jew goes through you!" he shouted into the vamp ire's ear.

For an instant he saw Joe's horrified face appear over the balcony's recedi ng edge, heard his faraway shout of "No!" mingle with Palmeri's nearer, len gthier scream of the same word, then came a spine-cracking jar and in his c hest a tearing, wrenching pain beyond all comprehension. In an eyeblink he felt the sharp spire of wood rip through him and into Palmeri.

And then he felt no more.

As roaring blackness closed in he wondered if he'd done it, if this last des perate, foolish act had succeeded. He didn't want to die without finding out. He wanted to know -

But then he knew no more.

JOE . . .

Joe shouted incoherently as he hung over the rail and watched Zev's fall, g agged as he saw the bloody point of the pew remnant burst through the back of Palmeri's cassock directly below him. He saw Palmeri squirm and flop aro und like a beached fish, then go limp atop Zev's already inert form.

As cheers mixed with cries of horror and the sounds of renewed battle rose from the nave, Joe turned away from the balcony rail and dropped to his kne es.

"Zev!" he cried aloud. "Good God, Zev!"

Forcing himself to his feet, he stumbled down the back stairs, through the v estibule, and into the nave. The undead and the Vichy were on the run, as co wed and demoralized by their leader's death as the parishioners were buoyed by it. Slowly, steadily, they were falling before the relentless onslaught.

But Joe paid them scant attention. He fought his way to where Zev lay impale d beneath Palmeri's already decomposing corpse. He looked for a sign of life in his old friend's glazing eyes, a hint of a pulse in his throat under his beard, but found nothing.

"Zev, Zev, Zev, you shouldn't have. You shouldn't have."

He stiffened as he felt a pair of arms go around him, then saw it was Lace y. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she leaned against him and sobbed. Sh e reached out and touched Zev's forehead.

"Oh, Uncle Joe... Uncle Joe..."

Suddenly they were surrounded by a cheering throng of St. Anthony's parish ioners.

"We did it, Fadda Joe!" Carl cried, his face and hands splattered with blood. "We killed 'em all! We got our church back!"

"Thanks to this man here," Joe said, pointing to Zev.

"No!" someone shouted. "Thanks to you!"

Amid the cheers, Joe shook his head and said nothing. Let them celebrate. Th ey deserved it. They'd reclaimed a tiny piece of the world as their own, a t oehold and nothing more. A small victory of minimal significance in the war, but a victory nonetheless. They had their church back, at least for tonight. And they intended to keep it.

Good. But there would be one change. If they wanted their Father Joe to sti ck around they were going to have to agree to rename the church.

St. Zev's.

Joe liked the sound of that.

GREGOR . . .

"I was wrong, wasn't I!" Olivia raged, waving her arms and she stormed back and forth across the main floor of the Post office. Her get-guards flanked her, watching the windows, trying to cover her as she moved. Gregor's guar ds clustered near him, warily watching the others. "Yesterday, when I heard that more than one of your serfs had been killed in a single night, I thou ght it couldn't get any worse. But now this! This!"

Gregor, still too numb with shock, said nothing.

He and his guards had been on the other side of town, roaming the streets, h unting the vigilantes, when he'd heard the news. He'd rushed back to the chu rch, not believing it could be true. But it was. He'd found St. Anthony's af lame with searing light, too bright to look at. Crosses blazed from every wi ndow and door, the corpses of his cowboys and his get lay in a tangled pile on the front steps, and from within ... the voices of the cattle raised in h ymns.

Olivia stopped her pacing and glared at him. "You allowed this to happen, di dn't you, Gregor. You're trying to humiliate me, aren't you."

That did it.

"You bitch!" Gregor shouted.

He raised his fist and took a step toward her. Her guards reacted by reaching for their machetes, and Gregor's guards followed suit. As much as he wanted his hands around her throat, crushing it, twisting until her head ripped free, this was not the time or place for a pointless melee. Gregor opened his fis t and stabbed a finger at Olivia.

"You conniving, self-centered bitch! Humiliate you? I'm the one whose local get has been virtually wiped out! If anyone's pride has been damaged tonig ht it is mine!"

"And you've nobody to blame but yourself," she snarled. "Your serfs and your get failed you, failed all of us. They deserved what they got. I see only o ne solution. I will have to bring in my own serfs and get to clean up your m ess."

"This is what you've wanted all along, isn't it. For all I know you engineered this yourself!"

"Don't talk like a fool! I - " She stopped, held up a hand, and closed her e yes. "Wait. Wait." She opened her eyes and stared at him. "Do you see what is happening? A few of the cattle make a move against us and what do we d o? We turn on each other. This is not the way."

Realizing she was right, Gregor stepped back. But he said nothing. The stin g of her words remained. His get had not deserved to die.

"We have a situation," Olivia said. "One that must be kept quiet and crushed immediately. If word of what happened here tonight gets around, insurrectio ns like this could spread like wildfire."

Gregor watched her. He didn't trust this suddenly reasonable Olivia.

"The thing to do is retake the church," he said. "Immediately."

"But we can't, Gregor. The slow attrition of your serfs to these vigilantes o ver the past weeks plus their wholesale slaughter tonight leaves us short of manpower. Of the ones we have left, half are ready to bolt. We'd better hope these vigilantes are so happy to have their church back that they'll stay the re tomorrow, because we now have barely enough serfs to guard us during the s unlit hours. If these vigilantes should decide to put together a hunting part y..."

Gregor suppressed a shudder. "They won't. They're not the vigilantes."

"You so dearly wish. Then the blame would not be on you for allowing them to roam free for so long. In fact, as I remember, you were supposed to sol ve the vigilante problem before this coming sunrise."

Did she have to bring that up? He'd been searching since sundown.

"It seems we've had a slight, unanticipated distraction."

She waved her hand, brushing him off. "Unlike you, I am not going to sit on my hands. I've already contacted Franco."

The word bitch rose to Gregor's lips again but he bit it back. Pointless to ca ll names now.

"I'm sure you gave him a scrupulously evenhanded account of the night's eve nts."

She offered him a tight smile. "Certainly. I requested a detachment of ferals and a group of tough, seasoned serfs. The plan is simple: tomorrow night the y will firebomb the church and let the parishioners run out into the arms of the ferals."

Gregor had to admit it was a good plan: simple, direct. It would work.

"And what did Franco say?"

Her smile faltered. "He said he'd take it under consideration."

Gregor's mind reeled in shock. Franco is hanging me out to dry! Is this what I get for my loyalty, my efforts?

"Is he telling us to clean up our own mess?"

Olivia's eyebrows shot up. "Our mess?"

"Yes, Olivia. You were here when it happened. No matter how you spin it to Franco, he's still going to see it as our mess."

Gregor didn't know if that was true, but it didn't hurt to make Olivia squirm, get her working with him instead of against him.

"The vigilantes were your problem long before I arrived."

"And I'm telling you these are not the same people."

"A very self-serving theory."

"Their methods are different. I've been gathering information since it happ ened. One of my cowboys - serfs - walked in on them in the church earlier today. They didn't kill him, just pushed him around and sent him on his way. If it had been the vigilantes they would have slit his throat and hung him fro m a pole just like all the others."

"Maybe they've changed tactics."

Gregor shook his head. "The church problem was started by a priest and a ra bbi."

"Working together? Maybe this is more of a problem than I thought."

"It is. But these two are not the vigilantes. They're worse. They're visible, a nd they've provided a base of operations, a rallying point for the cattle. They're doing everything the vigilantes did not do."

"This will not get you off the hook, Gregor."

"Will you listen to me? I'm trying to tell you there are two groups to deal w ith now, separate and distinct. And if they should band together we will be i n even bigger danger."

"As I said, Gregor: theory. A theory needs proof. If you're so convinced the vigilantes are not in that church, then prove it by finding them and bringi ng them in. I hope you succeed."

"I find that hard to believe."

"I'm quite serious. Your serfs are becoming afraid to move about in the day.

They sense a foundering ship and, like the rats they are, they're ready to jump. We can't have that. We need them to hold the day. If these people take back the day, then we might lose the night as well."

That will never happen, Gregor thought. I will not allow it.

"I will bring in these vigilantes as promised. And when I do, I'll bleed them -

just enough to weaken them. Then I'll give them to the cowboys to finish. I'll let them take as long as they like to exact their revenge. And then they'll s ee that we take care of our helpers. And the rest of the cattle will see that resistance is futile."

He had to succeed, had to prove that the vigilantes were not connected with the church rebels, otherwise the blame for the fall of the church would rest on his shoulders. His whole future depended on finding those damn vigilante s.

"Let's hope so," Olivia said. "Meanwhile, I won't be idle while waiting to h ear from Franco. I'm going to have that church watched closely in case this priest or rabbi or anyone else from inside steps out." Her eyes blazed. "I w ant one of them."

"For what?" Gregor asked.

"For answers. For leverage. For.. . fun." Olivia smiled. "I can be very invent ive."

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***