JOE . . .
Father Joe gave the dirt on Zev's grave a final pat with his shovel, then tu rned away. He didn't know any of the Jewish prayers for the dead, so he'd ma de up a prayer of his own to send his old friend on his way.
Lacey walked beside him, a shovel across her shoulder. "You were really clo se to him, weren't you."
"Like a brother. Closer than a brother. Brothers drag all sorts of baggage in to their relationship as adults. We had none of that. We didn't even share th e same culture."
"He seemed like a good man."
"He was. He had a kind, generous, gentle soul. I will miss him terribly."
Joe's throat clenched. He still couldn't believe Zev was gone. He'd feared h im dead after the vampires invaded, but hadn't really believed it. Now he ha d no choice.
He looked around. Rifle- and shotgun-toting men stood at the corners of th e little church graveyard. Joe had found spots in the crowded soil for Zev and the four parishioners who'd died during last night's fight, and this morning a crew of volunteers - Lacey among them - had started digging.
He glanced at his niece, noting the sheen of perspiration on her bare arms, the nasty-looking bruise below her shoulder. It didn't seem to be botherin g her much this morning. She was in good shape and surprisingly strong. She'd held her own with that shovel.
The midday sun hung high and hot as they followed the walk around to the front of the church where half a dozen women were busy scrubbing the st eps. Two more armed men patrolled the sidewalk behind them.
"Good job, ladies," Joe said.
The women smiled and waved.
"Sure looks better than it did this morning," Lacey said.
Joe nodded. They'd hurled the bodies of the vampires and the dead Vichy out the front door last night. In hindsight, that had been an error, because the morning sunlight created a terrible mess, reducing some of the undead cadav ers to a foul, brown goo that stained the steps and coated the Vichy bodies.
Carl had found a front-end loader and the men used that to haul the stinking mess to a vacant lot where it was buried in a mass grave.
Lacey stared at the stains. "Lots of death last night." She turned to Joe, her eyes troubled. "Why don't I feel bad?"
"Maybe because this is war. A war like never before. In past wars the enem y gets propagandized into monsters, subhuman creatures. In this war we don't have to do that. They are subhuman monsters."
"And the Vichy?"
"They're just subhuman."
She continued to stare at him. "This is not the Uncle Joe I knew."
How right she was. He sensed that memories of last night's carnage and bl oodshed would keep him awake for months, maybe years. But he couldn't all ow himself to dwell on it. He had to move on.
"Thank God I'm not. The old Father Joe would have tried to reason with the m. But I worry that many more scenes like last night will change us, make us more like them."
"So? Maybe we need to become more like them if we're to survive. In a war you have to submerge a lot of the decent impulses and empathy that made yo u a good partner or spouse or parent or neighbor. Especially in this war, because we're dealing with an enemy that has lost all decent impulses. You offer an olive branch and they'll shove it down your throat. Will we be c hanged by this? Look around you, Unk: we already are."
He nodded. "We'll all be either dead or permanently scarred when this is ove r. And so, in the unlikely event that we win, we'll still lose." He managed a smile for her. "How's that for optimism?"
She shrugged. "One thing's for sure. The Uncle Joe who used to say, 'Just hav e faith and everything will turn out fine' is gone."
Yes, he is, Joe thought with a deep pang of regret. Gone forever.
"Do you miss him, Lacey?"
"Yes and no. He was a great, easygoing guy, but he's not what we need now. And speaking of now, here comes the big question: what next?"
Good question. Joe had been thinking about that. He closed his eyes, lifted h is face to the sun, and watched the glowing red inner surface of his lids.
The sun ... their greatest ally. As long as it was out, he and the parishio ners had a fighting chance. The Vichy, what remained of them, seemed cowed.
A few had shown their faces in the vicinity but were quickly chased off wi thout offering even token resistance. Every so often Joe would spot one sku lking in the shadows a few blocks away, watching the church, but none ventu red close.
But once the sun set, the balance would shift to the undead and their collabor ators.
"I think we should start a compound," he said.
"You mean, like a fort?"
"Not so much a fort as a consolidation. Gather everyone close for mutual pr otection and pooling of resources."
Lacey nodded. "The Ben Franklin approach."
"Yeah. What he said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: 'We m ust all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.' "
"Declaration of Independence ... I guess we did that last night."
"Damn right. But with deeds instead of words on paper."
"But as for hanging together, that's the plan - and I don't mean by our necks. The living are scattered all over town now. That leaves us vulnerable to being picked off one by one. But if we use the church as a hub and bring ev erybody toward the center - "
"Circle the wagons, in other words."
"Exactly. As of now we've got the rectory, the convent, and the church itsel f. That'll house some people, but it's not enough. We need to expand."
"You got that right."
By word of mouth and who knew how else, the news that someone was fightin g back had spread. A steady stream of newcomers, anxious to join the figh t, had been flowing to the church all morning. Many of them were not even Catholic. Jews, Protestants, even Muslims were showing up, wanting to kn ow how they could be part of what was happening. Joe had passed the word to welcome everyone. This was not a time for divisions. The arbitrary wal ls that had separated people in the past had to be knocked down. There co uld be only one belief system now: the living versus the undead and those who sided with them.
"There's an empty office building across the street from the back of the chur ch," Joe said, remembering the night he and Zev had spent there. Had it been only two nights since then? "That should hold a lot of folks. We'll start the re."
"I passed a couple of furniture stores on the way here," Lacey said. She poin ted south. "If I remember, they're just a few blocks that way."
"You're right," Joe said. "I know the places."
"We can raid them for bedding."
"Great idea. Once we set that up, we'll take over the surrounding houses -
assuming they're unoccupied."
"Pretty safe assumption," Lacey said. "If the owners somehow survived, I c an't see them hanging around for long, considering what's been going down in the church."
"But first I want to start blocking off the surrounding streets - get old cars, line them up in the intersections. That'll fend off or at least slow down any blitzkrieg-style counterattacks."
He felt Lacey's hand on his arm and turned to find her staring at him.
"You've given this a lot of thought, haven't you."
"That's just it. I haven't. I'm making it up as I go along. As I told you last night, my original intent was to hold the place for one night, say Mass, then m ove on."
Lacey smiled. "I was wondering what happened to that idea."
"It got lost in the crowd."
Joe hadn't counted on drawing a crowd. Now that he had, what did he do wi th them? He couldn't perform the loaves-and-fishes miracle. How was he go ing to feed them? But seeing the desperate hope gleaming in their eyes th is morning, he couldn't simply walk out on them.
"So ..." Lacey said slowly. "Beyond a compound .. . what?"
"I wish I knew."
"You realize, don't you, that we can't win."
"I don't realize any such thing."
"Hey, Unk," she said, her grip tightening on his arm. "We're only a hundred people and there are millions of them. They've got Europe, the Middle East, India, and most of Asia."
"But they haven't got the U.S. They hold the East Coast but the rest of the cou ntry is still alive."
"How can you be sure?"
"I was talking to one of the newcomers this morning. His name's Gerald Vanc e and he's got a battery-powered shortwave radio. He told me he's been talk ing to people all over the country. Philadelphia's gone but Harrisburg and Pittsburgh have only seen an occasional vampire. Same with Rochester. Atlan ta fell but Alabama's fine. The Midwest and the West Coast are still in the hands of the living. So you see, it's not over."
Lacey looked away. "After seeing what's happened to the rest of the world, yo u could argue that it's just a matter of time."
Joe lowered his voice. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't talk like that. Last night was the first good thing that's happened to these people in a long time, so if you don't mind ..."
Lacey held up a hand. "Okay. 'Never is heard a discouraging word.' But if t hat's true about the rest of the country, then instead of staying here mayb e we should be thinking about throwing a convoy together and heading west."
Joe shook his head. He'd already thought of that.
"We're being watched. We start to assemble dozens of cars, they'll know what we're planning. They'll be waiting for us. We'll be sitting ducks on the ro ad."
He'd seen it play out in his mind's eye. He'd envisioned a line of cars raci ng down Route 70 at dawn. But he'd also envisioned a Vichy roadblock, gunfir e, bloodshed, disabled cars, the convoy stalled, blocked fore and aft, the s un going down, and then... massacre.
"We've got a better chance here. I told Vance to get on his radio and spread the word of what we're doing here. Maybe it will spur others to do the same. Right now we've set a fire. If we remain the only bonfire, I agree: we're doomed. But if we can start a trend, inspire a hundred, a thousand fires alo ng the coast, we'll no longer be the center of attention. We might have a ch ance."
Lacey was nodding. "And if the rest of the country gets the message that there is hope, that resistance is not futile ..." She grinned and raised her fist.
"I always wanted to be a revolutionary."
"Well, you're going to get your wish." Joe yawned. When was the last time h e'd slept? "My wish is for forty winks."
"Why don't you bed down for a while in the rectory? You catch your forty wh ile I take some people over to that office building and check it out. We'll see how we can divide it up for living arrangements."
Joe stared at her. Where did she get her energy?
"Aren't you tired?"
She shrugged. "I've never needed much sleep. Besides, I had a nap."
She smiled. "While you were saying Mass."
Joe sighed. "When are you going to face facts and admit - ?"
"Hush." She put a finger to her lips. "I'm still not on board, but we'll argu e about this some other time. Right now, there's too much work to do."
Joe watched her stride off, thinking that whoever said there are no atheists in foxholes obviously hadn't met Lacey.
LACEY . . .
Lacey gazed out the window at the lengthening shadows and rubbed her bur ning eyes.
Tired. She hadn't found time for another nap yet. All she needed was twenty minutes and she'd be good for hours more of activity.
Her uncle and the rest were in the process of working out a sleep schedule, assigning shifts. Some of them were going to have to live undead style, slee ping in the day, up all night, while others would keep a more normal schedul e.
Lacey figured she'd volunteer for the undead shift since she tended to be a night person anyway.
She turned away from the window and checked out the room behind her. The de sks had been pushed into a corner and a mattress and box spring placed in t he center of the floor. Not fancy but functional, and a helluva lot more co mfortable than trying to sleep on the church's stone floor.
She stretched her aching muscles. A good workout today, driving pickup truc ks to the furniture stores, hauling bedding back, and lugging it up the ste ps to the upper floors. Toward the end of the afternoon she would have give n anything for a generator to power up the elevator.
Back to the window for another look at the grand old Victorian next door. Ja ney had been so into Victorians, dragging Lacey around the city, pointing ou t this Second Empire and that Italianate until she'd caught the bug too. The y'd planned someday to come down to Asbury Park, buy a place like the three-story affair next door and renovate it, dress it up like those fabulous pain ted ladies they'd salivated over on their trip to San Francisco last year.
Lacey felt a lump grow in her throat. Janey... they'd had such good times t ogether ... the best years of her life. She missed her. Losing her had left an cavity where she'd once had a heart.
Where are you, Janey? What did they do to you?
Lacey knew in that instant which building she wanted added next to Uncle Joe's "compound."
Why not suggest it to him now?
She ducked into the hall and started down the stairwell, only to have to bac k up to allow a couple of the parish men to pass with a queen-size mattress.
"I'm heading over to the church to see Father Joe," she told them.
"Give us a minute and I'll escort you back," said a red-faced, heavyset man in a plaid shirt.
Lacey waved him off. "Don't be silly. It's a hundred feet away. And the stree t's blocked."
Probably just wants a break from all the lifting and hauling, she thought as she stepped outside.
She checked up and down the street. Nothing moving. No one in sight.
As she started across the street she glanced again at the old house and figur ed, why not check it out first? If it wasn't habitable - say, a big hole in the roof or something like that - why waste her time?
But she wasn't going in there alone. No way. She'd seen enough horror mov ies to know you don't go into empty houses alone when there are bad guys about.
She looked around, saw a short, muscular guy in a sleeveless T-shirt crossi ng the street, heading from the church toward the office building. What was his name? Enrico. Yeah, that was it.
"Hey, Enrico. Want to help me check out this place next door? See if we ca n move people in there?"
"Sure," he said, grinning. "Let's go."
She waited for him to catch up, then together they headed for the front ste ps and climbed onto the porch. She tried the door, hoping it was unlocked - s he hated the thought of breaking one of those old windows to get in - and smi led as the latch yielded to the pressure of her thumb. All right!
Enrico hung in the living room while Lacey hurried through the cool, dark, silent interior. The decor was not authentically Victorian - nowhere near c ramped and cluttered enough - but the place hadn't been vandalized. The two upper floors held five small bedrooms and one larger master bedroom, all f urnished with beds and dressers. The couch in the first-floor sun room cou ld sleep another, once all the dead house plants were removed.
Perfect, she thought, feeling the best she had all day. This is a definite kee per. And I've got first dibs on the master bedroom.
She came down the main staircase - the house had a rear servants' stairway as well, running to and from the kitchen - and found the living room empty.
Maybe he'd done a little exploring on his own. She headed for the kitchen an d stopped cold when she saw a pair of feet jutting toes-up from behind a cou nter. She wanted to run but knew she had to check. She hurried forward, took a look at the kitchen carving knife jutting from Enrico's bloody chest, at his dead, glazed eyes staring at the ceiling, then spun and ran.
She didn't head for the front door. Instead she sprang for the French doors and leaped onto the verandah. There she ran into three waiting Vichy and h ad no time to react before something cracked against her skull, sending lig htning bolts through her suddenly darkening vision. She lashed out with her booted foot but struck only air, and then another blow to her head sent he r down.
She had flashes of faces, one clean-shaven, one bearded, one with braided hair, snatches of voices . . .
"Got one!"... "Hey, she's fine! She's really fine!"
A feeling of being carried, then an impact as she was tossed into the rear of a van, the van starting to move, then more voices...
"We get major points for this - major!"... "Man, she's so fine! Shame to haf ta give her to the bloodsuckers."... "Ay, yo, they only said they wanted a live one. Didn't say nothin 'bout havin to be a virgin, know'm sayin?"
"Right! Fuckin-ay right!"
And then the feeling of her clothes being torn from her body . . .
CAROLE . . .
Sister Carole watched a beat-up old van race along the street. She couldn't see who was driving but it was coming from the direction of St. Anthony's.
St. Anthony's... how she'd wanted to step inside when she'd passed by this morning. She'd heard the voices drifting through the open front doors, respo nding to Father Joe during Mass, and they'd tugged her up the steps to partic ipate and ... to see Father Joe's face once more. But she couldn't allow it.
She was unworthy... too unworthy.
She'd seen the stains on the steps - blood and fouler substances - and had as ked one of the armed men guarding the front about them. He'd told her abo ut what had happened during the night, how Father Palmeri and other undea d had been routed and killed along with their living helpers, how the chu rch was now a holy place again.
Carole had walked on with her heart singing. Maybe what she'd been doing w as not all for naught. Maybe there was a Divine Plan and she was part of i t.
Then again, maybe not.
Most likely not.
The song in her heart had gasped and died.
And so she'd spent most of the rest of the day working around the house. She figured it was only a matter of time before she was caught and wanted t o be ready when the undead or their cowboys came for her.
"I wish they'd come for you NOW, Carole. Then this shame, this monstro us sinfulness would he over and you'd get what you DESERVE!"
"That makes two of us," Sister Carole said.
She didn't want to go out again tonight but knew she had to.
Her only solace was the certainty that sooner or later it going to end - for he r.
She set a few more wires, ran a few more strings, then headed up to the bedr oom to change into her padded bra, her red blouse, her black leather skirt.
"Not again! When is it going to END, Carole? When is this going to STOP?"
"When they're all dead and gone," Sister Carole said aloud to the stranger in the bedroom mirror. "Or when I am. Whichever comes first."
Gregor frowned as he smeared makeup on his face to hide his pallor. He hoped it looked all right. Since he couldn't use a mirror he had to go by feel. I t would have made more sense to have one of his get apply it, but he wanted to keep his plan to himself.
He sprayed himself with Obsession cologne. The living said the undead carr ied an unmistakable odor. He couldn't detect it himself, but this should m ask it. He rose and looked down at himself. A long-sleeved work shirt, scr uffy jeans, a crescent-on-a-chain earring, and now, a passably - he hoped - ru ddy complexion.
"Hey there," he said in the drawl he'd been practicing since sundown, hopin g to disguise his own accent with another. "Ahm new in these here parts."
He slipped a cowboy hat onto his head to complete the picture.
A good enough picture, he hoped, to decoy these vigilantes into picking on him as their next cowboy victim.
Gregor smiled, baring his teeth. Then they'd be in for a surprise.
He could have sent someone else, could have sent out a number of decoys, bu t he wanted this hunt for himself. After all, Franco had his eye on the sit uation, and that mandated bold and extraordinary measures. Gregor needed to prove without a doubt that the vigilantes were separate from the insurgent s in the church.
He stepped over the drained, beheaded corpse of the old man who'd been br ought to him earlier - what had happened to all the young catde? - and checke d the map one last time. He'd marked all six places where the dead cowboy s had been found. The X's formed a rough circle. Gregor's plan was to wan der the streets within that circle. Alone.
An hour ago he'd sent his get-guards upstairs to the main floor of the synag ogue, telling them he wanted to sup alone and be left undisturbed here in th e basement while he planned the night's sortie. Now he crept up the steps an d let himself out a side door and into the dark.
Gregor took a deep, shuddering breath of the night air. Too long since he'd d one this. Not since he'd migrated out of Eastern Europe with the others. It f elt wonderful to be on the hunt again.
JOE . . .
Joe realized with a start that he hadn't seen Lacey since this morning.
"Has anybody seen my niece?" he said to a group of men standing guard on t he front steps.
"Niece?" one of them said, a big black man with gray stubble on his cheeks.
"I didn't know you had one. What's she look like, Father?"
"Dark hair, tattoo on her arm about here, and she's - "
"Sure," said another fellow. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "She was w ith us back there across the street in the office building most of the day.
Some kinda worker, that girl."
"That she is," Joe said, trying not to sound too obviously proud. "But when d id you last see her? "
"Late afternoon," said a big, red-faced man. "Said she was coming back her e to see you about something."
A jolt of alarm lanced though Joe. "I haven't seen her. She never got to me!"
He tore back into the church, scanning expectant faces as he hurried throug h the nave - expectant because he was supposed to start saying evening Mass j ust about now. He ducked through the sanctuary and into the sacristy where he found Carl, getting ready for his altar boy duties.
"Carl! Have you seen Lacey?"
He shook his head. "No, Fadda. Something wrong?"
"She's missing. Gone." Joe's gut crawled. "Get your gun and a couple of the men. We've got to find her."
"But what about Mass?"
"Forget about that. Lacey comes first."
"Y'gotta say Mass, Fadda. Everyone's out there waiting for you." He stepped to the door and looked out into the nave. "Let's do this: I'll tell some of the non-Catholic guys to look for her during Mass. They can look just as goo d as us. They'll find her. Chances are she's probably conked out in the conv ent or rectory catching up on her sleep."
Joe prayed that was true. It seemed logical. Lacey could take care of herse lf, probably better than most of the men. She'd made it all the way down he re from New York on her own, hadn't she?
Still. . . not knowing where she was gnawed at him.
GREGOR . . .
Where are you? Gregor wanted to shout. I'm right here in your kill zone. Come and get me!
He had been walking these empty streets for what seemed like hours. It had n't been nearly that long, but his gnawing impatience made it feel that wa y. He'd seen no one, living or undead. He fought the discouragement he sen sed creeping up on him, preparing to pounce on his back. He would not give up. He refused to return empty handed again.
He was wondering if perhaps he should set himself up as bait in another ar ea when he heard a woman's voice call from the shadows.
"Hey, mister. Got any food?"
He jumped, not having to fake his surprise. How had she sneaked up on him l ike that? She was downwind, he realized, and had been hiding behind a thick tree trunk. Still, he should have sensed her presence.
His senses were on full alert now. Were the prey taking the bait? Was this woman bait herself, placed here to lure an unsuspecting cowboy into a trap?
He saw her clearly - a young woman in provocative clothes. Not that it prov oked him. Only one thing could do that, and it wasn't made of cloth. It w as red and warm and flowed and spurted.
Gregor made a show of squinting into the darkness. No sense in giving his night vision away and scaring off her backup - if indeed she had backup. Hesensed no other living human nearby.
"Come on out where ah can see you, honey," he said, remembering to add th e drawl.
The cow stepped out of the shadows into the moonlight.
"My, my, you sure are a purty one. What you doin out here alone?"
"L-looking for some food. You got any you can spare?"
"I might. What's in it for me?" Didn't want to sound too anxious.
"What do you think?" the woman said.
Gregor nodded. "I guess that's fair. Where do we make the trade?"
He felt his excitement fading. This was sounding more and more like some t awdry little sex-for-food deal. Not at all what he was looking for. Where were those vigilantes? Damn them!
"Anywhere you want," the cow said. "I just have to check on my little girl fir st."
Little girl? That renewed Gregor's interest. If it were true, well, he hadn't had really young blood in too long. And if it was a lie to entice some hap less cowboy looking to earn some bonus points, that was fine too. That was w hy he was here.
"I'll follow you home, then we'll go to my place."
Her house was only a block and a half away. Gregor felt his tension mount as she led him up the front steps to the door. He wouldn't be able to cross the threshold uninvited. If he hesitated too long, she'd guess the truth.
He waited until she'd opened the door. As soon as she stepped inside he said,
"This ain't some kinda trap, is it?"
She turned and faced him. "What do you mean?"
"Well, guys like me been dyin left and right lately. I don't wanna step throu gh that door and get jumped."
"Stop being silly and come in."
Gregor stifled a laugh as he stepped forward. Stupid cow.
She was already heading for the stairs when he crossed the threshold.
"Let me just take a quick peek," she said as she bounded up the steps, "and then we can get going."
Gregor watched her go, then closed his eyes, trying to sense other living p resences. He found none. His disappointment mounted. This cow wasn't connec ted to the vigilantes. She was here alone.
Wait. Alone? What about the daughter she'd mentioned? Why didn't he sens e her?
Curious, Gregor moved toward the stairs.
OLIVIA . . .
Olivia stared at the woman captured near the church and wanted to scream. I f they weren't so short of serfs she would have bled out the three who'd br ought her here.
Look at her. Crumbled in the corner like a discarded mannequin. Naked, bat tered, bleeding from the mouth, nose, vagina, and rectum. And worst of all, unconscious. How could she get any information from this cow if she coul dn't speak? Had they beaten her into a coma? What if she never woke up? Ol ivia would then have to wait until they picked up another. And that would be much harder now because the church fold would be watching for it.
This is what you get when you have to depend on scum.
And what do you get when you depend on an egomaniac like Franco? Just a s much. Maybe less.
Wasn't anything going to go right down here in this wasted little section of t he coast?
Word had come from New York that Franco was refusing her request for a co ntingent of ferals and more experienced serfs. Franco was going to handle this matter himself, in his own way, whatever that meant.
What it meant was a slap in the face not just to Gregor, but her as well. Damn him. Damn them all. If just once she could -
One of her get-guards returned then with the bucket of water she'd ordered.
Olivia pointed to the cow on the floor.
"Pour it on her. See if that wakes her."
The guard did as he was bid. The cow stirred and shivered but didn't open he r eyes.
"Damn! Get more!"
Just then one of the serfs, a tawdry blond woman, tried to step through the Post Office door. Olivia's guards restrained her.
"That's her!" the woman screamed. A deep purple bruise ringed her left eye.
"That's the one who suckered me! Let me at her! Just five minutes!"
"Get her out of here," Olivia said.
"No!" the woman shrilled as she was shoved back into the night. "I got a sco re to settle with her. She owes me!"
"Out!" Olivia screamed.
With help like that, she thought, who needs enemies? How we came this far I'll never know.
Another commotion at the door.
"If it's that serf cow again, slit her throat!"
"It's Gregor's get," one of her guards said. "All his guards."
"What does he want now? He's supposed to be hunting his beloved vigilante s."
Her guard looked puzzled. "He's not with them."
Olivia stiffened with shock. Gregor's get without Gregor? What on - ?
And then she smiled. Had Gregor gone off and done something foolish? Som ething reckless? Oh, she hoped so. It would look all the worse for him w hen he showed up empty handed again.
"By all means, send them in. But keep close watch on them."
CAROLE . . .
As Sister Carole changed out of her slutty clothes she had a feeling somethin g was wrong. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she sensed something stra nge about this one. He wore the earring, he'd reacted just the way all the ot hers had, but he'd been stand-offish, keeping his distance, as if afraid to g et too close. That bothered her. Could there be such a thing as a shy collabo rator? The ones she'd met so far had been anything but.
God willing, she thought, in a few moments it would be over.
She'd followed her usual routine, dashing upstairs, being sure to take the ste ps two at a time so it wouldn't look strange hopping over the first.
Now she began rubbing off her makeup, all the while listening for the clank of the bear trap when it was tripped.
Finally it came and she winced as she always did, anticipating the shrill, a wful cries of pain. But none came. She rushed to the landing and looked down. There she saw the cowboy ripping the restraining chain free from its nail, then reaching down and opening the jaws of the trap with his bare hands.
With her heart pounding a sudden mad tattoo in her chest, Sister Carole real ized then that she'd made a terrible mistake. She'd expected to be caught so me day, but not like this. She wasn't prepared for one of them.
"Now you've done it, Carole! Now you've really DONE IT!" Shaking, panting with fear, Sister Carole dashed back to the bedroom and f ollowed the emergency route she'd prepared.
GREGOR . . .
Gregor inspected the dried blood on the teeth of the trap. Obviously it had b een used before.
So this was how they did it. Clever. And nasty.
He rubbed the already healing wound on his lower leg. The trap had hurt, st artled him more than anything else, but no real harm done. He straightened, kicked the trap into the opening beneath the faux step, and looked around.
Where were the rest of the petty revolutionaries? There had to be more than this lone woman. Or perhaps not. The empty feel of the house persisted.
One woman doing all this damage? Gregor could not believe it. And neither would Olivia. There had to be more to this.
He headed upstairs, gliding this time, barely touching the steps. Another trap would slow him. He spotted the rope ladder dangling over the win-dows ill as soon as he entered the bedroom. He darted to the window and leaped through the opening. He landed lightly on the overgrown lawn and sniffed t he air. She wasn't far -
He heard running footsteps, a sudden loud rustle, and saw a leafy branch fl ashing toward him. Gregor felt something hit his chest, pierce it, and knoc k him back. He grunted with the pain, staggered a few steps, then looked do wn. Three metal tines protruded from his sternum.
The cow had tied back a sapling, fixed the end of a pitchfork to it, and cu t it free when he'd descended from the window. Crude but deadly - if he'd bee n human. He yanked the tines free and tossed them aside. Around the rear of the house he heard a door slam.
She'd gone back inside. Obviously she wanted him to follow. But Gregor de cided to enter his own way. He backed away a few steps, then ran and hurl ed himself through the dining room window.
The shattered glass settled. Dark. Quiet. She was here inside. He sensed he r but couldn't pinpoint her location. Not yet. Only a matter of time - a very short time - before he found her. He was making his move toward the rear roo ms of the house when a bell shattered the silence, startling him.
He stared incredulously at the source of the noise. The telephone? But how? The first things his nightbrothers had destroyed were the communication networks. Without thinking, he reached out to it - a reflex from days gone b y.
The phone exploded as soon as he lifted the receiver.
The blast knocked him against the far wall, smashing him into the beveled gla ss of the china cabinet. Again, just as with last night's explosion, he was b linded by the flash. But this time he was hurt as well. His hand... agony he couldn't remember ever feeling pain like this. Blind and helpless ... if s he had accomplices, he was at their mercy now.
But no one attacked him, and soon he could see again.
"My hand!" he groaned when he saw the ragged stump of his right wrist. Th e pain was fading, but his hand was gone. It would regenerate in time but -
He had to get out of here and find help before she did something else to him. He didn't care if it made him look like a fool, this woman was dangerous!
Gregor staggered to his feet and started for the door. Once he was outside in t he night air he'd feel better, he'd regain some of his strength.
CAROLE . . .
In the basement Sister Carole huddled under the mattress and stretched her a rm upward. Her fingers found a string that ran the length of the basement to a hole in one of the floorboards above, ran through that hole and into the pantry in the main hall where it was tied to the handle of an empty teacup t hat sat on the edge of the bottom shelf. She tugged on the string and the te acup fell. Sister Carole heard it shatter and snuggled deeper under her matt ress.
GREGOR . . .
Gregor spun at the noise. There. Behind that door. She was hiding in that cl oset. She'd knocked something off a shelf in there. He'd heard her. He had h er now.
Gregor knew he was hurt - maimed - but even with one hand he could easily han dle a dozen cattle like her. He didn't want to wait, didn't want to go ba ck to Olivia without something to show for the night. And the cow was so close now. Bight behind that door.
He reached out with his good hand and yanked it open.
Gregor saw everything with crystal clarity then, and understood everything as it happened.
He saw the string attached to the inside of the door, saw it tighten and pul l the little wedge of wood from between the jaws of the clothespin that was tacked to the third shelf. He saw the two wires - one wrapped around the upper jaw and leading back to a dry cell battery, the other wrapped around the lo wer and leading to a row of wax-coated cylinders standing on that third shel f like a collection of lumpy, squat candles with firecracker-thick wicks. As the wired jaws of the clothespin snapped closed, he saw a tiny spark leap t he narrowing gap.
Gregor's universe exploded.
LACEY . . .
Lacey had been conscious for a while but kept her eyes closed, daring every so often to split her lids for a peek. It had taken all her reserve to keep from screaming when that bloodsucker had splashed a bucket of water on her.
At least they'd kept that Vichy broad, the one from under the boardwalk, fro m getting to her. Lacey didn't think she could handle any more pain.
She hurt. .. oh, how she hurt. Everywhere. In places and in ways she'd nev er imagined she could hurt. She didn't remember the details, but she knew those three Vichy must have worked her over good. Raped her every possible way.
Lacey ground her teeth. Goddamn human animals ... male human animals, us ing their dicks as weapons.
Then she remembered Enrico. They'd used a knife on him. Maybe he was the lucky one. He'd gone quickly. She'd been brought here to be someone's mea l. After she was drained they'd rip off her head and toss her body on a p ile somewhere to rot. But that was better than becoming one of them.
But why were they trying to wake her? They didn't need her conscious to dra in her blood. Did they have another use for her in mind? Like using her to find out what was going on inside the church?
A shiver ran through her. She was freezing here on this puddled marble floo r and couldn't keep her limbs from quaking. Had anybody seen? She split her lids and took a peek.
Not much light. Only a few candles sputtering but it was enough to make ou t faces. The female vampire with the big hair had been ranting in French b efore, but now she stood silent with her six armed attendants. Guards? Lac ey had heard that some of the higher-up undead traveled around with what l ooked like bodyguards, but this was the first time she'd seen it. Why did the undead think they needed guards, especially when everyone else around was undead?
Four new undead males wearing machetes and pistols entered. They addresse d the female as Olivia and spoke in English.
" 'Ave you seen Gregor, Olivia?" said a dark-haired guard with a British accen t. He looked dirty, all in black, his shirtfront crusted with old blood.
Olivia replied in English. "Not since before sunrise." A small smile played about her lips. "Don't tell me you've misplaced him."
"Bloody bastard gave us the slip. We found makeup and cologne in his quarter s. 'E's gone out on 'is own to find those vigilantes."
Vigilantes? Lacey thought. This was interesting. She hadn't heard anything about vigilantes. But then, she'd only arrived in town yesterday. Who was this Gregor and why was he hunting them?
"That seems rather reckless, don't you think?" Olivia said.
The Brit snarled at her. "I'm sure 'e'd never be out there if you 'adn't driven'im to it. We were 'oping 'e'd come to see you first and we could intercept 'i m 'ere, but I see we're in the wrong place."
"You certainly are."
"Look, Olivia," the Brit said, his tone becoming conciliatory. "If you've any idea where 'e might be, please tell us. We've got to find 'im. 'E could be in grave danger."
Lacey was struck by the concern in the Brit's voice. The undead supposedly cared about only one thing: blood. But the Brit seemed genuinely worried about this Gregor. Lots more than Olivia.
"Well, if he is, it's his own doing."
The Brit snarled again. "If anything happens to Gregor ..."
"You'll be the first to know." She laughed, showing her sharp teeth.
"Bitch!" the Brit said and reached for the handle of his machete.
Olivia's guards closed around her, reaching for their own. And then a thun derous boom rattled the windows and shook the floor beneath Lacey.
As the sound of the blast faded, the Brit and the three other undead who'd a rrived with him cried out and clutched their chests. One by one they dropped to their knees.
Olivia's smile had vanished, replaced by a look of horror. Her voice rose in pitch, somewhere between a shout and a wail, as she rattled off a barrage o f French too rapid for Lacey to follow. Lacey recognized the name "Gregor" b ut that was it.
Her guards looked as terrified as she as they encircled her, facing outwar d, machetes and pistols drawn. They were speaking French too, and again Gr egor was mentioned.
What were they saying? Lacey wished now she'd taken French instead of Sp anish.
The Brit's friends lay writhing, kicking, and gasping on their backs and bellie s, but he was still on his knees, glaring at Olivia.
"You!" His voice was faint, and sounded as if someone were strangling him.
"You did this! You're responsible!" He began a faltering crawl toward her.
"Keep him away!" Olivia said.
The Brit pulled his machete from his belt and tried to use it as a crutch to re gain his feet. "I'll see you - "
One of Olivia's guards stepped forward then and, holding his machete like a baseball bat, took a two-handed swing. The blade sliced through the Brit's n eck with an indescribable tearing sound, sending the head flying. But no gou t of blood sprayed the room as the body flopped forward onto its chest and l ay still next to the other three fallen undead, now equally still.
And the head ... the head rolled toward Lacey's face. She shut her eyes, braci ng herself if it rolled against her. She couldn't allow herself to move, could n't give herself away, no matter what.
What was happening here? Undead dropping dead, fighting and killing each other. What the hell was going on? It had something to do with someone named Gregor, but what?
Lacey opened her eyes again and stifled a gasp as she found herself almost n ose to nose with the Brit. His eyelids blinked and his lips were moving, as if he was trying to tell her something.
Bile rose in Lacey's throat and she squeezed her eyes shut again.
GREGOR . . .
I'm awake! Gregor thought. I survived!
He didn't know how long it had been since the blast. A few minutes? A few h ours? It couldn't have been too long - it was still night. He could see the m oonlight through the huge hole that had been ripped in the wall.
He tried to move but could not. In fact, he couldn't feel anything. Anythin g. But he could hear. And he heard someone picking through the rubble towar d him. He tried to turn his head but could not. Who was there? One of his o wn kind - please let it be one of his own kind.
When he saw the flashlight beam he knew it was one of the living. He began to despair. He was utterly helpless here. What had that explosion done to him?
As the light came closer, he saw that it was the woman, the she-devil. She ap peared to be unscathed .. .
And she wore the headpiece of a nun.
She shone the beam in his face and he blinked.
"Dear sweet Jesus!" she said, her voice hushed with awe. "You're not dead y et? Even in this condition?"
He tried to tell her how she would pay for this, how she would suffer the to rtures of the damned and beg for death, but his jaw wasn't working right, an d he had no voice.
"So what are we going to do with you, Mister Vampire?" she said. "Your frie nds might show up and find a way to fix you up. Not that I can see how that'd be possible, but I wouldn't put anything past you vipers."
What was she saying? What did she mean? What had happened to him?
"If I had a good supply of holy water I could pour it over you, but I want to conserve what I've got."
She was quiet a moment, then turned and walked off. Had she decided to lea ve him here? He hoped so. At least that way he had a chance.
But if she wanted to kill him, why hadn't she said anything about driving a s take through his heart?
He tried to move but his body wouldn't respond. Somehow the blast had paral yzed him. He noticed his vision growing dim, his sense of hearing fading. What was happening? He felt as if he might be drifting toward true death ...
No! That that couldn't be. He was only paralyzed.
Through his misting vision Gregor saw her coming back. Her hands were bright yellow. How? Why?
"The only thing I can think of doing is to set you on the east end of the porc h and let the sun finish you."
No! Please! Not that.
The woman rested the flashlight on a broken timber and reached for his fac e. He saw now that she wore yellow rubber gloves. He tried to cringe away, but again - no response from his body. She grabbed him by his hair and . .. lifted him. How could she be so strong? Vertigo spun him around as she l ooked him in the face.
"You can still see, can't you? Maybe you'd better take a look at yourself."
Vertigo again as she twisted his head around, and then he saw the hallway, or what was left of it. Mass destruction... shattered timbers, the stairs blow n away, and . . .
Pieces of his body - his arms and legs torn and scattered, his torso twisted a nd eviscerated, his intestines stretched and ripped, internal organs reduced to large, unrecognizable smears.
As his vision faded to black in the final fall toward true death, Gregor wishe d his lungs were still attached. So he could scream. Just once.
LACEY . . .
A stink filled Lacey's nostrils as she noticed that Olivia's rapid-fire Fre nch seemed to be fading away. She dared another look. The Brit's face was s lack now and the flesh was starting to decompose. She lifted her head to lo ok beyond him and saw Olivia and her crew backing into a stairwell, heading down to what Lacey assumed was the basement.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Lacey raised her head further and looked around. Except for the bodies of the four dead vampires, she was al one. She'd been forgotten. But for how long?
She struggled to rise, groaning with the pain in her joints and muscles, but especially in her pelvis. She slipped on the wet floor and banged her elbow a s she went down. She tried again, clinging to the wall, using it to steady he rself as the room spun about her. Clenching her teeth against a wave of nause a, she rose to her feet and hugged the wall.
When the room steadied, she looked down at her bloody, naked body and wan ted to retch. What did they do to her?
She'd deal with that later. Right now she had to get out of here and back t o the church. But where was here} She knew from the signs on the wall that she was in a Post Office. But how did she find the church once she got out?
First things first, she told herself. Get out of this undead nest, then worry about finding your way back.
Still holding the wall, she edged toward the doors. She looked longingly at t he clothes on the corpses of the dead vampires, but their rot was already see ping through the fabric. She'd rather be naked.
She spotted a clock on the wall. It read 3:12. It couldn't be that late. Then she noticed the second hand was frozen at the half-minute mark. An electric clock, and the power had been off for a long, long time.
Lacey pushed through the doors and the cool night air hit her, sending a co ld tremor through her body. She kept moving, padding across the moonlit con crete to the surrounding shadows. She needed some clothes, and not just for warmth; couldn't turn up in front of the people in the church, especially her Uncle Joe, looking like this. She had to find a house, go through one o f the closets -
"It's you!" cried a voice behind her. "How did you get away?"
Lacey turned and stared at the figure advancing toward her from the other si de of the street. The bottle blonde from the boardwalk, dressed in lowrider jeans and a cutaway denim jacket. Her boots thudded on the pavement. Lacey s aw a flash in her right hand, heard a clink, and realized she'd just flipped open a knife. The stainless steel blade gleamed in the moonlight.
Lacey said nothing. Her brain seemed sluggish. All she could think was, Not now ... I can't handle this now.
"Guess it doesn't matter how," the Vichy woman said with a throaty laugh as she reached the grass and kept coming. "I'm just glad you did. Because we got a score to settle, you and me."
Lacey tried to remember some of the defense moves she'd learned in her mar tial arts classes and couldn't come up with one. So she started backing aw ay.
"You can run but you can't hide," the blonde sing-songed. "I don't care how much they want you alive, you ain't walkin away this time."
She was closing in. Lacey held up her hands. "No, wait..."
"No waiting. Looks like a few of my friends had a party with you, now it's m y turn. I'm gonna cut you, girl... cut you good!"
With that the blonde lunged forward with a vicious, face-high slash, and Lacey found her limbs responding on their own. She didn't need to remember the moves. Hour upon hour of practice had programmed them into her nervous system. Her right leg shot back and stiffened, her left knee bent, her ha nds darted forward, grabbing the blonde's knife arm at the wrist and elbow, pushing it aside, twisting it, using the woman's own weight and momentum against her to bring her down.
Her Vichy earring flashed near Lacey's face and sudden visions of similar e arrings dangling over her while her three captors -
Rage detonated in Lacey. Gritting her teeth she gave an extra twist to the falling woman's arm and was rewarded by a scream of pain as bones ground to gether, ligaments and tendons stretched, snapped. The woman screamed again, louder. She'd be drawing a crowd soon. Lacey's hand flashed forward, landi ng a two-knuckle punch on her larynx. With a crunch of cartilage the scream ing cut off, replaced by strangled noises as the blonde began to kick and w rithe, clutching at her throat with her still-functioning left hand.
Lacey picked up the knife from the grass and stepped back, looking around.
Was anyone else coming after her? She and the blonde were alone in the sh adows. She watched her struggles, waiting for them to run their course.
"So," Lacey said. "You were gonna cut me, huh? Cut me good. I don't think so."
She checked the knife blade: tanto shaped with the front half of the cuttin g edge beveled and the rear half saw-toothed. Wicked. If Ms. Vichy had had her way, this blade would be jutting from Lacey's chest about now.
The choking sounds faded, the kicking and writhing ebbed to twisting and twi tching. With a final spasm the hand clutching at her throat fell away and sh e lay limp and still.
Lacey waited another minute, then dropped to her knees beside the dead wom an. Mastering her revulsion, she began unbuttoning her cutaway top . . .
CAROLE . . .
Sister Carole trudged through the inky blackness along the street, hugging t he curb, hurrying through the moonlit sections between the shadows of the tr ees, towing her red wagon behind her. She'd loaded it with her Bible, her ro sary, her holy water, the blasting caps, her few remaining bombs, and other essentials.
"You're looking for ANOTHER place? And I suppose you'll be starting up t his same awful sinfulness again, won't you?"
"I suppose I will," Sister Carole said aloud to the night.
"Hello?" said a woman's voice from the darkness ahead. "Is someone there?"
Carole froze, her hand darting into the pants pocket of her warm-up, finding the electric switch, flipping the cover, placing her thumb on the button. Wires ran from the button through a hole in the pocket to the battery and the cylindrical charge taped to her upper abdomen.
God forgive her, but she would not be taken alive.
She held her silence, barely breathing, waiting. She sensed movement in th e shadows ahead, and then a young woman stepped into a moonlight-dappled s ection of the sidewalk. She held an automatic pistol in each hand.
"I don't want trouble," the woman said. "I just want to know how to get bac k to St. Anthony's Church."
Carole looked around, wary. Were others lurking in the shadows?
"I think you already know the way," Carole said.
"No, really, I don't."
Carole eyed her spiky hair. "Don't try to fool me. You work for them."
"I don't, I swear."
A plaintive note in the woman's voice struck Carole.
"You dress like one" - although this one's clothes did not fit her well - "and you're armed."
"The clothes are stolen. So are the guns. I've already been attacked twice tod ay. It's not going to happen again."
Again, the ring of truth. Carole squinted through the shadows. This woman d id look battered.
"Look," the woman said. "I don't want to hurt you and you don't seem to wan t to hurt me, so can you just point me toward the church and we'll go our s eparate ways."
Carole decided to trust her instincts. "I'm headed that way. You can come w ith me."
"Really? I don't remember seeing you there last night."
"I wasn't." Carole noticed that the woman was barefoot and limping. "You sa id you were attacked. Did they . .. hurt you?"
The young woman nodded, then sobbed. "They hurt me bad. Real bad."
And then she was leaning against Carole and crying softly on her shoulder.
Carole put her free arm around her and tried to soothe her, but kept her th umb on the button in her pocket. You never knew ... never knew ...
After a few minutes the sobs stopped and the young woman stepped back. Sh e wiped her eyes with her bare arms.
"Sorry. It's just... it's been a long night." She pushed\one of the pistols int o her waistband and stuck out a hand. "Lacey. With an 'e.'"
"Carole," she said, shaking the hand and smiling, just a little. Something lika ble about her. "With an 'e.' "
"Were you a member of St. Anthony's parish?" Lacey said as they started wa lking again.
"I was a nun in the convent."
"Get out! Then you must know my Uncle Joe. He's been a priest there for ye ars."
Carole stopped walking and stared. Could this tough-looking tattooed youn g woman be related to Father Joe?
"You're Father Cahill's niece?" She couldn't hide her disbelief.
"It's true, and I need to get back to him. He's got to have noticed I'm missin g by now and he'll be worried sick."
The genuine concern in Lacey's voice made Carole a believer, but sudden fe ar stabbed her.
"Hurry," Carole said. She flipped the safety cover closed on the button in h er pocket and broke into a fast walk. "We've got to get you back before he g oes out searching for you. Once he's away from the church he's in danger."
JOE . . .
They'd started the search with the church grounds - the convent, the rectory, the graveyard - and then crossed the street to the office building. Finding that empty, Joe and the five other men in the search party, all armed to th e teeth, had moved through the surrounding houses and buildings. The discov ery of a man named Enrico stabbed to death in a neighboring Victorian had s haken them all, especially Joe. He'd opened every door to every room in the old house with the expectation that he'd find Lacey in the same condition.
But no. No sign that she'd ever been in the house. Lacey seemed to have van ished without a trace.
Finally, at Joe's insistence, they'd returned to the office building because t hat was the last place Lacey had been seen.
Joe stood now at the head of the stairs in the dark third-floor hallway. He turned off his flashlight - to heighten his hearing as much as to save the bat teries - and called her name.
"Lacey! Lacey, can you hear me?"
He stood statue still and listened, but all he heard were the voices of the o ther members of the search party on the floors below.
He felt numb, heartsick. Lacey... how had he let this happen? She'd made it all the way down here from Manhattan on her own, and now she was gone, sna tched from under his protective wing. He could see how it had happened. She'd felt safe here with other living around, armed with crosses and guns, re ady for anything. She'd let her guard down, got careless . . .
And then he heard it. A sound... scratching ... so soft it was barely aud ible. He opened his eyes, then squeezed them shut again, trying to locate th e sound. It seemed to come from everywhere at first, echoing off the walls o f the hallway, but as he concentrated he felt sure it was coming from somewh ere ahead and to his left. He opened his eyes and flicked on his flashlight.
There. An open doorway with a red plaque saying something about AUT
HORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY - ALARM WILL SOUND. No, it won't. It needed el ectricity for that. And besides, the door was already open.
Joe played his beam along the concrete steps within. They ran one way: up.
To the roof. The scratching sound was louder here. Definitely coming from t he top of the empty stairwell. Someone was scratching on the other side of the roof door.
"Lacey?" he called as he took the steps two at a time. "Lacey, is that you?"
He hesitated at the door, hand on the knob, afraid to turn it, afraid to see w hat was on the other side, afraid it might be Lacey, horribly injured. And afr aid it might not be Lacey. Might be one of them, lying in wait for a victim.
He'd hung his big silver cross around his neck before leaving tonight. He unsl ung it and held it ready, to wield as either club or firebrand. But still he h esitated. This was foolish. He should call for the others, go out there as a g roup.
He turned and was about to call them when he heard the voice, a faint, agoni zed rasp.
"Help me... please. . . help''
Joe shoved the door open and stepped up onto the moonlit roof. Something he avy struck him at the base of his neck, sending shockwaves of pain down his arms and driving him to his knees. He lost his grip on the cross. Then a t hick quilted blanket was thrown over him. Before he could react he was knoc ked flat, rolled, and trussed up like an Oriental rug. Panicked, he kicked and twisted, but he was helpless. He shouted for the others but knew his cr ies were too muffled by the fabric to be heard.
Joe felt himself lifted by his feet, dragged along the roof, and then he was f alling. They'd thrown him off the roof!
No. The cold, steely grip never released his ankles. And now he was rising in stead of falling, being carried through the air.
But to where?
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com