Chapter 6

PART TWO

TWILIGHT MAN

Chapter 6

JOE . . .

Joe had lost all track of time during the seemingly endless flight. But he kn ew when it ended: the cold fingers released their grip on his ankles and he f ell. Before he could cry out his terror, he hit hard, head first. Only the mu lti-layered padding of his blanket cocoon kept him from cracking his skull.

"This is the priest," said a harsh voice. "Search him and take him upstairs. Franco is waiting for him."

Joe was then rolled over - kicked over was more like it. As he felt the ropes binding him loosen, he tightened his fists and prepared to fight. But when the blanket was pulled away from his face he found himself blinded by ligh t.

Fluorescent light. Somebody had electricity.

As he blinked in the brightness he was kicked again, in the ribs this time. He struggled to a sitting position and felt something cold and hard as steel sla m against the side of his head.

"Easy, god-boy," said a new voice to his left, and someone on his right bray ed a harsh laugh.

Joe groaned with the pain and clutched his stinging scalp. He blinked again, and finally he could see.

He sat on a sidewalk in a pool of light outside the brass and glass revolv ing doors of a massive granite building. The rest of the world around him lay dark and quiet. A red canopy blocked out much of his view above. He di d notice the number 350 above the revolving doors. Surrounding him were ha lf a dozen men wearing earrings he knew too well. The nearest held a huge revolver; most likely its long barrel was what had slammed against his head.

Vichy.

The one next to the gun-toter was playing with a knife with a nasty reverse-curve blade, twirling it on a fingertip as he said, "This supposed to be o ne of them vigilantes from down the shore, huh? The guy that killed Gregor?

" He kicked Joe's thigh. "Don't look so tough. Hey, Barrett. What say we so ften him up before passin him on to Franco?"

Vigilante? Joe thought. Zev had mentioned something about a group that wa s killing off the local Vichy. Was that why he'd been brought here -  where ver it was?

"Not on my watch," said the one with the gun. Barrett. The same voice that had called him god-boy. He was dressed in a tan silk Armani suit with a whi te shirt open at the collar. It looked tailor-made for him. "He won't want damaged goods. When the damage gets done, Franco will want to do it."

Joe looked around. "Where am I?"

"In big trouble," said Barrett.

The one with the knife, bearded and denimed, brayed again. "Yeah. Big tr ouble! Wouldn't wanna be you no-how."

"Drag him up to the office," said Barrett. "We'll search him there."

A pair of the Vichy grabbed him under the arms and roughly hauled him thro ugh a glass door set beside the revolving door. They entered a vaulted lob by of polished gray-beige marble. At the opposite end, floor to ceiling in chrome and marble, was a bas relief image of a building known the world o ver.

The Empire State Building. I'm in New York.

They'd kidnapped him and flown him to Manhattan. For what purpose?

And then he remembered... Franco is waiting. . .

The old Saturday Night Live running gag about General Franco still being aliv e flashed through his brain, then fled in terror.

When the damage gets done, Franco will want to do it. . .

A two-way radio squawked. Joe saw Barrett unclip it from his belt. He turn ed away and spoke into it. Joe looked around for an escape route, but even if he could break away from the pair who held him, the lobby area was acr awl with Vichy.

After Barrett finished his call, they led him past the remnants of metal d etectors that had been kicked down and smashed, past a newsstand with outd ated papers and magazines, a ruined souvenir shop, a deserted Au Bon Pain, then to a bank of elevators with black and chrome doors. Only two cars se emed to be working. The others stood open, dark, and empty. After a short ride with the suit, the beard, and two others to the third floor, Joe was propelled down a hallway to a large, desk-filled room lined with computers and monitors. A few scurvy Vichy lounged around, but three other men, old er, more conventionally dressed, worked the equipment. They appeared to be under guard.

"Search him," Barrett said. "And I don't mean just pat him down. Search him. Confiscate any contraband here and dispose of it."

He was hiding nothing, of course. He'd been armed with his silver cross ba ck in Lakewood but that had been stripped from him and left behind.

Barrett's words filtered through to his muddled brain. Confiscate? Contraba nd? Barrett didn't fit the typical Vichy mold. He dressed like a Wall Stree t broker and spoke like an educated man. What was he doing here?

BARRETT . . .

James Barrett watched Neal search the priest, making sure he didn't miss any thing. Neal was not the brightest bulb in the box.

But he did a good job this time, turning all the priest's pockets inside out, removing his socks and shoes.

"He's clean," Neal said.

"You'd better be sure."

"I'm sure."

They hustled him back down to the first floor for a swift, ear-popping ride toward the top of the building. The red numbers on the readout counted the p assing floors by leaps of ten. Barrett had always liked that. It was the way he'd planned his career at Bear Stearns to go: to the top by leaps and boun ds. But being a hotshot investment banker these days was like being a poster boy for obsolescence.

He heard Neal chuckle. He was grinning through his beard at the priest and sha king his head. "I'm glad I ain't you. Holy shit, am I glad I ain't you. I don't know what Franco's got planned but it ain't gonna be pretty, I can tell you that."

Barrett watched the priest clench his fists. He was scared. Doing a decent j ob of hiding it, but not perfect. He looked like he wanted to ask who Franco was but said nothing. Probably afraid his voice would crack or waver and be tray his terror.

When the elevator stopped on the eightieth floor, Neal shoved him out.

"Come on, god-boy," Barrett said. "Still one more leg to go."

They guided him around a corner to the other bank. This ride was short -  onl y six floors. At the eighty-sixth they pushed him out into the green marble atrium.

"Hold it right there!" said a voice.

The atrium held half a dozen undead. One of them stepped toward them.

"Ah, shit," Neal muttered. "Fuckin Artemis."

"Who's this?" said the vampire, tall and lean with a ruined left eye that was l ittle more than a lump of scar tissue.

Artemis was head honcho of Franco's security and no one - at least no one l iving - knew what had happened to that eye. Whatever it was, Barrett hoped it had hurt. Artemis was a grandstanding prick.

"It's the one Franco's been waiting for," Barrett told him.

Artemis's face contorted in fury. "The vigilante priest?" he shouted. "And yo u bring him here like this?"

"He's been searched, and Franco - "

"I don't give a damn if he's been searched! You don't bring a terrorist up he re and leave him a single place to hide anything! Here's how you bring a terr orist to Franco!"

And with that he began tearing at the priest's clothing, ripping it off him. The priest tried to fend him off but Artemis was too strong. Less than a minute later he stood naked in the atrium.

Barrett admired the priest's musculature. Especially his low back. Lots of go od meat there. Big filets.

Artemis tossed the shredded clothing at Barrett.

"Now he can see Franco! I'll take it from here. You two get back to your pos ts."

"We want him when Franco's through with him," Neal said.

Artemis laughed. "Oh, I doubt that. Not in the condition he'll be in."

"Shit," said Neal as the doors pincered closed. "I hate that fuck."

Barrett said nothing. Who knew if the elevator camera was on and this littl e scene was being taped. Say or do the wrong thing now and you could face r epercussions later.

Neal banged his fist against the side wall of the elevator car. "And I hate taki n his shit."

So did Barrett. But sometimes that was what you had to put up with to get where you wanted to go. And Barrett knew where he wanted to go: to the top. He'd been on the fast track for advancement at Bear Stearns and he was l ooking for a way to fast-track himself with the undead. He needed a lever to convince Franco to turn him now instead of later.

He glanced at Neal. Just like the rest of the cowboys. Never a thought past his next meal and his next trip out to one of the cattle farms where he co uld screw anything in sight. Maybe he occasionally thought of someday, ten years from now, being turned and joining the ranks of the undead.

But ten years was too long for Barrett. He wanted an express route to undea dland. Once he was one of them he knew he could rocket through the ranks. They were all lazy sons of bitches. He'd show them how to get things done. I f he could get himself turned, he'd have Franco's job within a year. He kne w it.

"Treats us like fuckin dogs," Neal said.

No argument there. But that didn't mean you had to live in a kennel and eat dog food.

Most of the cowboys had moved mattresses into the offices and stayed right here in the Empire State Building. It was convenient, had light and power, and was safer than living outside where you could be bushwhacked by some angry living or one of the more feral undead who wouldn't be deterred by your earring.

James Barrett deserved better. He had an elegant Murray Hill brownstone all to himself. He'd hooked up a generator to power lights, a refrigerator, and an electric stove. The stove was important. It allowed him to indulge in his new passion: cooking.

Barrett had recognized long ago that there were two ways of living your lif e: as predator or as prey. He'd decided early on that he'd be a predator. A nd predators ate meat. One problem, though, was the lack of meat since the undead had taken over. Or so he'd thought until he realized that there was plenty of fresh meat to be had. Every night he and the cowboys were called upon to dispose of a new round of bloodless corpses. It had occurred to him what a shame it was to waste all that good red meat.

Long pork, as human flesh was known in certain parts of the world, was reall y quite tasty. He'd learned to butcher the meatier corpses and now had a goo d supply of steaks in his freezer.

But meaty corpses were harder and harder to come by these days. That was w hy it was such a shame to let someone like that priest go to waste.

But who knew? Maybe there'd be something salvageable left after Franco go t through with him.

Somehow, though, he doubted it.

JOE . . .

Joe's knees felt soft and he almost stumbled as the scar-faced vampire push ed him up a short flight of steps. What were they planning for him? He want ed to shout that he wasn't a vigilante and didn't know who they were, but t hat would simply give them a good laugh.

He stepped into a glassed-in space that had once been a souvenir-snack bar area - nothing but blackness beyond that glass - then was shoved through a do or onto the Observation Deck. Cool night air, propelled by a gusty wind, r aised gooseflesh on his bare skin, but the sight of dozens of pairs of und ead eyes watching him weakened his knees again.

He was a goner. He could see that now. As good as dead. Or worse. Fear crowd ed his throat, but he swallowed it. He straightened his shoulders. At least he could go out with dignity ... as much as he could muster without a stitch of clothing.

The crowd of undead, all armed with pistols and machetes, grinned and point ed to him. The scarred one grabbed one of his arms and hauled him before an other of their kind standing by the Observation Deck wall, staring out into the night. He turned at their approach, and smiled when his cold gaze came to rest on Joe.

"So . .. this is the man who has chosen to vex me."

He was almost as tall as Joe, with broad shoulders, a blond leonine mane an d mustache. A jutting nose and aggressive chin dominated his face.

His excellent English did not completely hide an Italian accent. Joe noted that he was the only undead on the deck who wasn't armed.

"A big one, this vigilante priest" - he glanced at Joe's genitals - "but not exactl y built like a stallion, is he."

This brought a laugh from his guards or retainers or whatever they were.

Joe stared past him, focusing on the impenetrable darkness over Franco's rig ht shoulder, and said nothing.

The vampire clucked his tongue in mock concern. "Chilly? Under different c ircumstances I might relish your discomfiture, but not tonight." He turned to one of the undead holding Joe. "Find him a blanket or something to wra p about him."

The one-eyed guard said, "But Franco - "

"Do it." His dead eyes lit briefly with an inner fire.

The underling stood firm. "Just hours ago he killed Gregor."

The other undead milling around nodded and murmured, as if this were a tell ing fact.

That name again ... Gregor. The second time he'd heard it tonight. Joe st ood there wondering who Gregor was. The only thing he knew was that he ha dn't killed him - at least not knowingly. "Just hours ago" he'd been search ing for Lacey. Had the same thing happened to her? Whisked away into the night. No. Lacey had disappeared during the daylight hours. Where was she then? He prayed her circumstances were better than his.

"I don't care!" Franco said. "It will be our blanket, you dolt! It won't conc eal a cross, so you'll have nothing to worry about! Move! I've already wasted too much time waiting for his arrival."

A few moments later some sort of fabric was roughly thrown over Joe's shoul ders. Apparently they couldn't find a blanket; this was like a window drape. He pulled it close around him, grateful for the shelter it provided from the wind.

"Thank you," he said, deciding to play this as cool as he could.

"Oh, don't think I did it for your sake. I did it for mine. I want your com plete attention." He motioned Joe to the wall. "Come. Let me show you my do main."

Something had been nagging at Joe since he'd stepped out on the deck ... som ething wrong... something missing... and now he realized what it was.

He'd been up here once in his life, in his teens, when his father had broug ht him. The reason for the trip had been a French exchange student staying with them for the summer. They'd gone to the Statue of Liberty that summer too. Strange. He'd grown up only a short distance from these American landm arks but probably never would have visited them if not for the presence of a foreigner.

He remembered that on his one and only visit here there'd been high safety fencing all around the Observation Deck, with tall, pointed steel tines cur ving inward like fishhooks. Now most of that was gone, torn away. It made s ense, though: The undead weren't worried about one of their own becoming a suicide jumper, and the fence would only hinder the fliers.

Joe approached the wall, eyeing its upper edge. It ran about mid-chest hig h. Eternity - and perhaps salvation - waited on the other side.

As he came up beside Franco, the vampire waved his arm at the darkness. "The re it is: mine, as far as I can see."

Joe's heart broke as he took in the vista, not for what he could see - moonlig ht glinting off the crown of the Chrysler Building off to the left - but for w hat he couldn't.

Darkness. The city was dark. Any light he saw was reflected from the moon or this building. Everything else was dead and dark. This wasn't the New York he'd known. This was its corpse.

"The first thing we did was kill the power," Franco said. "It has a numbing psychological effect, especially in a place like Manhattan. People here were so used to light everywhere, all the time, and then it was gone. It serves another purpose. It makes the few who are left light fires to cook, to stay warm on the cooler nights. We home in on those fires. They're like beacons t o us. Manhattan is pretty well cleaned out now, but the other boroughs still teem with survivors. We hunt them judiciously, preserving them like a natur al resource."

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

"But I keep this building alight. More psychological warfare. The tallest b uilding in this fabled city, its most recognizable landmark, and we have it. I live here with some of my get, just one floor down. Why should I hide i n a basement when I can seal off windows in this magnificent building that affords me such a unique view of my domain. I wish those Islamic thugs had left the Trade Towers alone. They were even taller. How I'd love to be stan ding atop one of them now."

So full of himself, Joe thought, wondering how he could turn that to his adv antage.

Franco shrugged resignedly. "But I suppose the Empire State will do. Its gen erators power everything in the building." He pointed to the cameras ringing the deck. "It has an excellent security system to help our serfs protect us during the day. No one moves in this building without being watched and tap ed. I like to review the tapes now and again, and punish any slackers I catc h. As an extra security measure, we've cut the power to all but two of the e levators."

He held his hand over the edge of the wall. A red glow lit his palm from bel ow.

"But my favorite accessory is the filters they have for the spotlights that bathe the upper floors. Red, white, and blue for July Fourth, red and green for Christmas. We use only red now. It's our color. The color of blood. More psychological warfare." He turned to Joe and smiled. "You're pretty adept a t psychological warfare yourself."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Joe said, tearing himself away from the dar k vista.

Franco stared at him. "I can't tell whether you're being obtuse or coy. I'm t alking about your campaign against the serfs in your area."

"Serfs?"

"Oh, I forget. They like to call themselves cowboys, you people like to cal l them collaborators - "

"Vichy," he said, thinking with a pang of Zev. "Some of us call them Vichy."

"Vichy." Franco nodded. "I like that. It shows a sense of history, though it gives them more cachet than they deserve." He waved his hand as if shoo ing a fly. "But my point is, you and your minions have caused more trouble than anyone I can remember."

Again the temptation to tell this beast that Joe had no idea what he was tal king about, but he suppressed it. He was good at suppressing temptation.

"It was the terrorist aspects of your campaign that worked. The serfs are s uch disloyal scum, and so very susceptible to fear. You had the local conti ngent quaking in their boots. But you made a grave tactical error when you revealed yourself and took back your church. That gave you a face, and you weren't so terrifying anymore. Or so I thought. But when you sent Gregor in to true death I decided I wanted to meet you."

Joe had to ask - because he wanted to know and because he sensed that the question might unsettle Franco - "Who the hell is Gregor?"

Franco stared at him a moment. "I suppose it's possible you didn't know his name. Same with Angelica, I imagine. But you and yours have sent two impor tant subordinates to true death in a matter of a few days. No one has ever done that."

Angelica... could that be the flying undead that Zev told him about?

"Those winged ones," Joe said, taking a stab in the dark. "They always give me the creeps."

"Of course they do. They're supposed to. Psychological warfare again. Strike terror into the hearts of the cattle." He sighed. "I never cared for either of them. Angelica was too impetuous and Gregor too grasping, but the fallou t from their deaths has been, well, vexing. But only temporarily."

He turned back to the night with another grandiose wave of his arm.

"My kingdom. We're facing east, you know. Long Island is out that way. We're well established there."

Joe stretched up on tiptoe, leaned over the top of the parapet, and looked down instead of out. Red light from the banks of spotlights bathed his face. Beyond them, far below and out of sight, empty pavements beckoned.

Not yet, he thought. The guards were too close. They'd stop him before he g ot over. He eased back and watched his host.

"We've already started the cattle ranches," Franco was saying. "We fenced o ff large sections of Levittown and populated them with females fifteen to t hirty years old. As a reward to the serfs, we set them loose in there to im pregnate the cows. Soon we'll have crops of calves to raise." He swiveled h is head and smiled. "More psychological warfare."

"More like rape and brutality," Joe said, reflexively raising a fist. How he wished -

His arm was grabbed and twisted backward. A glance showed the scar-eyed one behind him. All around he heard pistols being cocked and machetes dr awing from belts.

"Will you stop!" Franco snapped at his guards. "He is a lone, naked, unar med man! What can he possibly do to me? Now get back, all of you and give us some room!"

"But Franco - "

"Now, Artemis! I won't say it again!"

With obvious reluctance, one-eyed Artemis and the other guards moved off. Not too far, but far enough to give Joe a chance to do what he needed to do... if he had the nerve. All he needed was a way to distract Franco.

The vampire turned his gaze eastward again. "We made so many mistakes in t he Old World. We failed to control the undead population. We just rolled t hrough, letting our numbers spread geometrically. The Middle East was the easiest. Hardly a cross to be found. Same with India and China. We did wha t no president or shuttling diplomat ever could. We brought peace to every place we've touched. Indian undead now sup with Pakistanis, Greeks with Cypriots, North Koreans with South, and most amazing of all, Israeli and Pa lestinian undead hunting together." He smiled. " 'Blessed be the peacemake rs.' Isn't that how it goes. I think I should be sainted. What's the term the Church uses? Canonized. Yes, I should be canonized, don't you think?"

Joe ignored the question. "You can't survive without the living, and there'l l never be peace between the living and the undead."

"Oh, but there will. We'll control our population here in the Americas and we'll control yours, and eventually Pax Nosferatu will embrace the whole world. Here in the New World we will do things right, right from the begin ning. The Old World and the Third World are now full of starving and dying undead." He glanced at Joe. "Yes, dying. We need very little blood to sur vive, but we need it every night. Go two nights without it and you are wea k; go two more nights and your are prostrate, virtually helpless. Unless s omeone comes on the fifth or sixth night and feeds you blood - a very unlike ly event - you will enter true death and never awaken."

"May it be ever so," Joe said, "unto the last generation."

Franco frowned. "Don't push me, priest."

"Or what?" Joe said, finding courage in the realization that he had nothing to lose. "You'll show me no mercy? I'm not expecting any."

"You don't want to plead, offer me a deal?"

Joe shook his head. He knew there'd be no deals for him. He wouldn't deal w ith these things.

"Then kindly stop interrupting my story. I'm getting to the good part - my pa rt. The task of taking the New World fell to me. I decided to learn from re cent history and not repeat it. As I'm sure you know, we struck on December twenty-first, the longest night of the year. I started with Washington, lo osing the ferals on Camp David and the Pentagon and Langley first, then the senate and congressional office buildings next."

"Ferals?" Joe said. "What are they?"

Franco smiled, broadly, cruelly. "In time, dear priest. In a very short time you shall learn more than you wish to know about ferals."

The prospect sent a shudder through Joe. He eyed the top of the parapet agai n.

"I wanted to strike at the heart of the country's defenses - drive a stake thr ough it, as I like to say - but more than anything I wanted the president. We found him. I turned him, personally, and a few days later we had him on TV, live, via satellite, putting on a show for his nation. Did you happen to ca tch it?"

Joe shook his head. He'd been banished to the retreat house by then. He'd see n the beginning of the broadcast but had left the room, sickened. He hadn't s een, but he'd heard . . .

"Such a shame. You missed a psychological knockout punch. The president of the United States on his knees before a menstruating White House intern, lapping her blood. Clever, don't you think? Too bad Clinton wasn't still i n office - turn around being fair play and all - but apparently he's holed up on the West Coast. Your current president did a good job, though. Really g ot into the part, if you know what I mean. And much more effective because he is - or rather, was - a bit more dignified than Clinton."

Joe glared at him. "You sicken me. All of you."

"But that's the whole point, priest. Physical, spiritual, and civic malaise.

It's a pattern I've perfected: Go for the political and religious leaders fir st. See to it that they are turned early in the infiltration. It does terribl e things to the morale of the citizenry when word gets around that the local mayor and congressman, along with the ministers, priests, and rabbis, are out hunting them every night. They stop trusting anyone, and when there's no tru st, there's no organized resistance." He looked at Joe. "Somehow we missed yo u when your area was invaded. Lucky you."

"Funny," Joe said, hoping he sounded brave. "I don't feel lucky."

"But you should. You've been very lucky, and you've proven yourself quite adept at turning my game back on me. I try to hammer home that resistance is futile, then you come along and show that it can work, however briefly."

"More than briefly," Joe said. "You're going to see a lot more of it, especial ly if you try moving west."

"Am I? Somehow, I don't think so. Not after I'm through with you. And as for moving west, I'm in no hurry. I'm going to consolidate the East Coast, get the cattle farms established" - he wagged his finger - "all the while keeping th e undead population interspersed among the living to prevent any bombing att acks. Then I may skip the Midwest altogether and take California next. I hav en't decided. That's not to say I haven't been active. I regularly send truc ks into the hinterlands, dropping off a few ferals here and there as they go, to wreak sporadic havoc. I don't want anyone out there feeling safe. I wan t them looking over their shoulders, suspicious of their neighbors, jumping at the slightest noise. As I said, I'm in no hurry, and I have all the time in the world." He shook his head. "But when I do make a move, you'll be part of it."

Joe went cold inside. "If you think ..." He paused, choosing his words. Let Franco think he'd given into the inevitability of becoming one of his kind. "I f you think I'm going to help you, even after you turn me into one of you, th ink again."

"I sense an arrogance in you, priest. And I will see it brought down. You are mere cattle to me, yet you look at me as vermin. I won't tolerate that."

"Who do you think you're kidding?" he said, wondering if he could provoke Franco into lashing out and killing him. "You and your kind are ticks on t he ass of humanity, and you know it."

But Franco appeared unruffled. "Perhaps we were, but the anatomy has changed now: we're the ass and rebellious cattle like you are the biters." He leaned closer, staring into Joe's eyes. His breath stank of old blood. "I'll bet you think that even after we make you one of us you'll be able to resist the blo od hunger."

Joe couldn't help blinking, stiffening - he'd said as much to Zev just the ot her day - and that let Franco know he'd struck a nerve.

"You do, don't you? You really think you could resist!" He tilted his head back and laughed. "Your naivete is almost charming. You have no idea what y ou face. You change when you turn, priest. Everything turns inward. You awa ke from death and there's only one being in the world that matters: you. Al l your memories will be intact but devoid of feeling. The people you loved and hated will run together and redivide into two critical categories: thos e who can supply you with blood and those who can't. You'll have to sate th at thirst. You'll have no choice. That hunger above all. The world exists f or you. All the other undead around are inconveniences you must endure in o rder to secure a steady supply of blood. For the red thirst is insatiable.

As I told you, we need very little blood to survive but would spend our wak ing hours immersed in it if we could. We're lazy, we're petty, and we don't want anyone to have more blood than we do."

Please, God, Joe prayed, if You're listening, don't let me end up like that. I beg You. He peeled his tongue away from the roof of his dry mouth and m anaged to speak.

"Sounds like you've got a lock on the seven deadly sins."

"Perhaps. I never thought of that. What are they? Envy, anger, greed, lust, pride, avarice, and sloth, right. I think you might be right. Except that sex becomes meaningless. How we used to laugh at those Anne Rice novels. Th e undead as tortured Byronic aesthetes. Ha! We'd read them aloud to each ot her and howl. Her fictional undead are so much more interesting than the re al thing. We're boring. We care nothing for art or music or fashion or surr oundings. We bore each other and we bore ourselves. The only thing we care about, the only lust left to us, is blood."

"What about power?"

"You're thinking of me when you say that, yes? I can assure you that power i s lusted after only insofar as it can assure one of more blood."

Joe glanced back at Franco's guards. "These fellows seem pretty devoted to you."

"Not out of selflessness or personal regard for me, I assure you. It's self-p reservation. You see, there's a secret, a momentous secret we keep only to ou rselves."

"And what's that?"

"You'll know tomorrow night. You'll be one of us then. So treasure these mo ments, priest. This is your last night with your own blood in your veins."

Now, Joe thought, realizing he might not get another chance. It has to be no w.

"Huh?" he said and stared past Franco's shoulder at the empty darkness. "Who was that?"

"What do you mean?"

Joe raised himself on tiptoe again and leaned over the parapet, pointing int o the darkness. "There! I just saw him again. One of your undead flyers. A p al of yours?"

Franco whirled to follow Joe's point. "A flyer? Up here? I should think not."

The instant Franco's back was turned, Joe dropped the drape, levered himself up onto the parapet, and rolled over it. He heard shouts from behind as his bare feet landed on the narrow outside ledge. Knowing that if he hesitated even for an instant he'd either lose his nerve or be caught, he let out a cr y of terror and triumph and launched himself into the air. He spread his arm s in a swan dive, hoping it would carry him beyond the setbacks. He wanted t o fall all the way to the street, to splatter himself on the pavement, leavi ng nothing but a mocking red stain for Franco to find.

The air that had felt like cold silk against his naked body when he began his fall was now a knife-edged wind tearing at his skin and roaring in his ears.

He straightened his arms ahead of him, diving headfirst into eternity.

"Forgive me, Lord," he said aloud. "I know it means damnation to throw awa y the gift of life, but what I was facing - "

He broke off with a cry of shock as cold fingers wrapped around his ankle a nd Franco's voice shouted, "Your prayers are premature, priest!"

Joe looked over his shoulder as his descent slowed and angled to the left. A grinning Franco gripped him with one hand. Large membranous wings arc hed from his back, spreading like a cape behind him.

Joe kicked at him with his free foot but this only allowed Franco to grab tha t ankle as well. Joe hung helpless in his grip as they glided through the air. Franco made a full circuit of the building, landing before the same entranc e where Joe had been dropped earlier.

Barrett was outside, watching when Joe landed on the pavement.

"Well, well, well. Look who's back."

Joe wanted to cry.

Franco's wings slithered and folded and disappeared into his back as he grab bed Joe by the back of his neck and hauled him to his feet.

"Clear the way," he said. "I'm taking him to Devlin myself."

Sick with fear and disappointment and frustration, Joe allowed himself to b e marched through the doors and back to the elevator banks. Franco shoved h im into the car and stepped in after him.

"Just the two of us," he said as a couple of Vichy tried to crowd in behind h im.

Joe didn't see any of Franco's retainers. Apparently they hadn't made it do wn from the Observation Deck yet. Joe stared at Franco's back, noting the r ipped fabric where the wings had torn through, but no sign of the wings the mselves. Where did they go?

Franco stabbed a button, the doors closed and the car began to move. Down.

He was smiling when he turned to Joe. "You almost got away with that. I didn't think you had it in you." He shook his head. "If you'd succeeded we never would have learned the details of your little vigilante operation."

"What if I don't know any details?"

Franco's smile broadened. "Come now, you don't expect me to buy that."

"But - "

"Don't waste your breath. You'll tell us everything you know."

Joe swallowed. "Torture?"

Franco laughed. "How quaint! Why waste time torturing you when you'll volu nteer the information after you've been turned."

The sick, lost feeling gave way to anger and Joe lunged at him. But Franco sh oved him back with one hand and grabbed his throat with the other. Joe strugg led for air as he was lifted off his feet and tossed against the rear wall of the elevator car.

"Don't make me laugh," Franco said.

"Do your damnedest." Joe slumped in the corner, gasping and rubbing his thro at. "I'll never be like you."

"Quite right, priest. You won't be anything like me."

The car stopped and the doors opened. Franco pointed to the right. "That wa y."

Joe didn't move. Why cooperate in his own death march - or in this case, u ndeath march?

Franco said, "You can walk or I can drag you by one of your feet."

Joe walked, looking for a way out, an escape route, but the hallway was lined with doors that seemed to lead to offices or utility rooms. Franco stopped a s they came to a mirror set in the wall.

"Take a look."

Joe glanced at the reflection of his bruised, naked body, his sunken eyes. Not a pretty sight.

"Enjoy it," Franco said. "This is the last time you'll ever see yourself in a mi rror."

Joe noticed with a start that the reflection showed him standing alone in the hallway.

"So it's true," he murmured. "The undead cast no reflection."

"Odd, isn't it. I used to be interested in physics. You look at me and see me because light reflects off me onto your retinas. But that same reflected lig ht is not caught by a mirror. How is that possible? They used to say it was b ecause we have no souls but neither does the rug you're standing on, and that reflects perfectly. I tried to sit down and figure it out once but found I d idn't care enough to try. As I told you, once you're turned you care about on ly one thing."

He grabbed Joe's shoulder and pushed him down the hall. "Enough philosoph izing. "

As they moved on, Franco said, "I want to explain something to you, and I wa nt you to listen. I want you to understand this. By now you've probably noti ced that there are different kinds of undead, different strains or breeds."

Joe had, but he said nothing.

"There's a hierarchy among us. No one can explain it - it's as inexplicable as our lack of reflection or where my wings come from when I want to fly -  but it's there. It's as if the strain gets tainted or attenuated the further it mov es from its source. My immediate get - the ones I turn - retain almost all of the ir intelligence; but their get retain a little less, and the get of those ret ain even less. And so on down the line through the generations of get until.. . until we are begetting idiots. But intelligence isn't all that is lost al ong the way. Human characteristics leach away as well. The distant generation s of get become more and more bestial until they're like two-legged rabid dog s. We call them ferals."

Ferals ... Franco had mentioned them in connection with the assault on Was hington.

"Why are you telling me this?" Joe said. "Why should I care?"

"You should care very much. After all, we're discussing your future." He st opped before a door. "We're here."

Joe saw an AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY sign set below a small wi ndow.

"Take a look. Tell me what you see."

Joe stepped up to the glass and peered through. He saw a dimly lit space fill ed with pipes and large oval tanks.

"Looks like a boiler room."

"Keep looking. See anything else. Something moving, perhaps?"

The note of glee in Franco's tone made Joe's skin crawl. He searched the s hadow but didn't see -

Wait. To the right. Something there, moving from the deeper shadows into the wan light of an overhead bulb. It looked like a man yet it moved like an an imal, on its toes, hunched forward, fingers bent like claws. As it came unde r the bulb Joe saw that it was a man, or had been. Naked, filthy, face twist ed into a perpetual snarl, eyes mad and... feral.

"Dear God!"

"God has nothing to do with Devlin there - Jason Devlin, a young, handsome s oftware developer on his way up until a few months ago when he was run dow n in the basement of the Flatiron Building and killed by a feral. The fera l neglected to behead him, and so Mr. Devlin awoke the following sunset as one of us - as an undead. For a few days he looked like his old self, but t hen he began to devolve. Remember what I told you about the bloodline weak ening, attenuating. He was turned by a feral, and so he became a feral, on ly more so. He's one of my line, my most distant get, so I suppose I must claim him as related to me."

"How do you know?"

"Oh, I know. We always recognize our get. I keep him around for entertainment. And as an extra stick to keep the serfs in line. I threaten to feed them to Devlin if they slack off on their duties. That's about all Devlin is good fo r now. He didn't retain enough intelligence to distinguish between friend and foe, which means he'd be attacking serfs as well as legitimate prey, so I ca n't even use him as a guard dog."

Franco tapped on the window and the creature burst into motion, leaping at the door with blinding speed, screaming and clawing at the glass. Joe almos t tripped backpedaling away.

"Look at me, priest," Franco said. "Look at me and listen. Remember when y ou said you'd never be like me? Didn't you wonder why I agreed? It's becau se when you look at Devlin you are seeing your future. I'm going to let De vlin turn you."

Joe couldn't speak, could only shake his head and back away, thinking, no ... no ... this can't be true ... this can't happen ... to be like that thing, that creatu re, that monster .. . forever .. . no .. .

"Ah!" Franco said with a grin. "That's what I've been waiting for. That look of doomed horror, the realization that your darkest nightmare is about to c ome true. Where is your arrogance now, priest?"

"No," Joe whispered as he found his voice. "God, no, please!"

"That's right. Pray to your god. Beg him like so many before you. But He's not going to help you. In less than two weeks you'll be just like Devlin, only a little less intelligent, a little more bestial. Won't that be an inspiration t o your parishioners? But before you're too far gone, you'll have a talk with t he charming undead woman I've placed in charge of your area. You'll fill Olivi a in on all the details of your little vigilante operation, and then you'll be sent back to prey upon your parishioners." I won t!

"Oh, but you will. And you'll take the most trusting, the most devoted first, because they'll be the easiest. Isn't this a coup? Isn't this so much bett er than killing you? If you simply died, you'd be a martyr, a rallying point. But this way, you're still around, and you've turned against them. You are feeding on them! Imagine how they'll feel. If you're lucky you won't surviv e long. I'm suspecting they'll gather together and stake you - for your own go od. And theirs, of course. And then where will that leave them besides sick at heart and demoralized? Where will they be after killing their beloved Fat her Joe? Why, they'll go back to where they were before you came. Hiding, wa iting for the inevitable."

"No! What's been started is bigger than one man! They know now they can fi ght you, and they'll keep on fighting you!"

Franco put his hand on the door handle. "Well, we'll just have to see about t hat, won't we."

He pushed the lever down and shoved the door inward. "Bon appetit, Devlin."

Joe turned and ran, sprinting down the hall, looking for an unlocked door.

He heard a howl behind him as he tried the first one he came to - locked. Wit hout looking back he leaped across the hall to the next. The knob turned, t he door swung inward - a chance! - and then he was struck from behind with unim aginable force. It drove him through the doorway and into the room where he went down under a growling fury made flesh. He tried to fight back but the savagery of the claws and fangs tearing at his flesh, ripping at his throa t overcame him. He felt his skin tear, felt hot fluid gush over his chin an d chest, heard an awful guzzling, lapping noise as something fed off him. Hetried to rise, to throw it off but he had no strength. He felt his mind g rowing cold, the world growing distant, life becoming a dream, a receding m emory. Joe saw one last flash of light, intolerably bright and then all was darkness and nothingness . . .

***

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

***