Chapter 7

CAROLE . . .

Unable to sleep, Carole sat at the window, watching the night, waiting for t he dawn that was still hours away. Returning to the convent, to this room, h er room, the room where she'd had to kill Bernadette . .. sleep was unthinka ble. Even if it weren't, her bed was occupied.

Lacey, poor thing, had collapsed when she'd heard that Father Joe was miss ing. A couple of the male parishioners had helped carry her here - Carole ha d emptied her wagon and carried her duffel and her personal items herself, afraid to let anyone else near them.

They'd placed her on Carole's bed. What an ordeal Lacey had suffered tonigh t. Carole had gleaned a few details from her jumbled jabber on the way to t he church and had shut her ears to the rest. And then to learn that her unc le had disappeared while searching for her. It was more than anyone should have to bear.

When was it going to end?

She waited, expecting to hear Bernadette's voice shout an answer, but the voi ce was silent. Carole hadn't heard from it since she'd reentered the convent.

She looked at Lacey, curled into a fetal position under the blanket. Father Joe's niece. She hadn't quite believed her, but the way she'd been greeted b y the parishioners had left little doubt. Some of them had even recognized Carole. She'd been uncomfortable with their joy at knowing she was still aliv e, especially uncomfortable with their earnest questions about how she had m anaged to survive and how she'd been spending her time. She couldn't tell th em, couldn't tell anyone.

A little while ago Carole had left Lacey and made a quick trip back to the ch urch to see if Father Joe had been found. He hadn't. But one of the parties s earching for him had returned with his large silver cross. He'd had it with h im when he'd gone out earlier this evening. They'd found it on the roof of a nearby office building.

Carole had asked if she might take the cross back to Lacey and let her keep it until her uncle returned. Because Father Joe would return. He was too goo d, too strong, too faithful a man of God to fall victim to the undead. He -  o nly a small part of her believed that. She'd seen too much... too much. .. . Yet she forced herself to hope. She placed the cross on the windowsill, as a guardian, as a beacon, calling him home.

She closed her eyes and listened. Silence. The convent was virtually empty.

The rooms were available to the parishioners but most of them felt safer i n the church - in its basement, in the choir loft, anywhere so long as they w ere within those walls. Carole could understand that from their perspective, but for her the convent was home. Though she felt orphaned now, it would always be home.

She turned back to the window and gripped the upright of his cross, think ing, Come back, Father Joe. We need you. I need you. We -

What was that? By the rectory. .. something taking to the air from the roof... something large... man-size . . .

Terror gripped Carole's heart in an icy, mailed fist. A vampire, one of the w inged kind, flying away from the rectory ...

Somehow she knew in that instant that they'd done something terrible to Fat her Joe.

"Oh, no!" she whispered. "No! Not him!"

She grabbed the silver cross, pulled a flashlight from her duffel, and ran for the hall. She hurried down the stairs and out into the night. Holding the cro ss before her as a shield, she ran across the little graveyard, trampling the fresh-turned earth of graves that hadn't been there before, and arrived at the rectory.

A small building, holding only three bedrooms and two offices, it stood dark and empty. This was priest territory and would be the last place the parish ioners would think to occupy.

Carole turned the knob and the door swung open. She flicked on her flash a nd directed the beam up and down and around before stepping inside.

"Father Joe?" she called, knowing that if her worst fears were true he wouldn't be able to answer. "Father Joe, are you here?"

No response. No sound except for the crickets cheeping in the lawn behind h er. She moved through the rectory, checking the two downstairs offices firs t, then the upstairs bedrooms. Empty, just as she'd expected.

Only one place left: the basement.

Knowing what she was almost certain to find, Carole feared to go there. Bu t she had to. Too much depended on this.

She opened the door. Light in one hand, cross in the other, she started dow n. No blood on the steps. That was good. Maybe it had just been a flyer loo king over the church complex, doing reconnaissance for the undead or huntin g for stragglers. Carole prayed that was so, but expected that prayer to go unanswered like all her others.

She reached the floor and flashed her light around. She allowed her hopes to rise when she saw nothing on her first pass. But then as she moved to the r ear of the space, where old suitcases and cracked mirrors and warped bureaus were sent to die, she spotted something protruding from beneath an old matt ress. A step closer and she realized what it was: a bare foot, its toes poin ting ceilingward. Too big for a woman's... a man's foot.

"Please, God," she said again, whispering this time. "Please, oh, please. Let it not be him."

She pressed the cross against the foot. No flash of light, no sizzle of flesh. Whoever it was hadn't turned yet. She leaned the cross against the wall, gr ipped the edge of the mattress. . . and hesitated. Her mouth felt full of san d, her heart pounded in her chest like a trapped animal. She didn't want to d o this. Why her? Why did it always seem to fall to her?

Taking a breath and clenching her teeth, Carole tilted the mattress back and aimed her light at the shape beneath it. She found herself staring into the g lazed dead eyes of Father Joseph Cahill.

Images leaped at her like a frantic slide show -   - his slack, blood-spattere d face -  - the wild ruin of his throat -  - his blood-matted chest -

With a cry torn from some deep lost corner of her soul, Carole dropped to her knees beside him. Her arms took on a life of their own and, for some r eason her numbed brain couldn't fathom, began pounding her fists on his ch est. She heard a voice screaming incoherently. Her own.

After a while, she didn't know how long, she stilled her hands and slumped forward, letting her forehead rest on his bare shoulder, moaning, "God, dea r God, why must this be?"

And for a fleeting moment, even as she spoke, she wondered how she could st ill believe in God, or stay true to a god who could allow this to happen to the finest man she'd ever known. This was it, this was the end of everythi ng. Where could she go from here? She'd only hung on this long in the hope that he'd return. He had, but only for a few days before this - this!

She straightened and looked at Father Joe again, averting her eyes from his ge nitals. To kill him was bad enough, but to leave him like this: naked, torn, b loodied, with not a shred of dignity . . .

Well, what did she expect from vermin?

And yet, look at his face - ignore the severed arterial stumps protruding from his throat and focus on the face. It seemed at peace, and still held a quiet dignity no one could steal.

Carole lost more time sobbing. Then, from somewhere, she found the strength to rise. She wanted to stay by his side, never leave him, never let anyone else near him, but she knew that couldn't be. She couldn't stay here and n either could he. She knew what had to be done. She had work to do. The Lord's work.

She wandered the basement until she found a dusty old sheet draped over a cha ir. She pulled it off and, with infinite care, wrapped it around Father Joe ... her Father Joe. She tried to lift him but he was too heavy. She needed he lp ...

OLIVIA . . .

"Someone is here. From Franco."

Olivia lifted her mouth from the bloody throat of the spindly old man strappe d to the table in the feeding room.

"Who is it?"

Jules, the unofficial leader of her get-guards, shrugged. "I've never seen h im before. All I know is that he says his name is Artemis and his eye - "

"I know about his eye."

Artemis... one of Franco's closest get. This must be important if he'd sent Artemis. It had to be about Gregor. Damn that fool.

She looked down at the quivering old man, still alive but in shock and not too much longer for this world. His blood was as thin as his scrawny body.

She remembered India. She had been with the first wave through the Middle East, through Riyadh and Baghdad and Cairo and Jerusalem. Lots of blood ther e, but then they'd moved on to India, lovely, overcrowded India... she h ad quite literally bathed in blood in Bombay.

But here, good cattle were hard to come by of late. She wasn't sure whether t hat was a result of a thinning of the herd or a thinning of the number of ser fs at her disposal. Franco was either going to have to send her more serfs or widen her territory.

Olivia would have much preferred another territory altogether, a peaceful one with no foment. But, thanks to Gregor's demise, she'd inherited this one and was stuck with it, at least until it was tamed.

She pointed to the old man as she rose. "You can finish him after you bring Artemis to the sleeping room. I wish to meet with him alone."

Jules frowned. "Do you think that's wise? Everything is so unsettled."

"We have nothing to fear from Artemis."

Jules turned and headed back upstairs.

Olivia paced the feeding room. She was going stir crazy down here. She hadn't left the Post Office once throughout this long, long night. She'd been abo ut to go out earlier but Gregor's death changed that. She'd been sequestered in the basement ever since. Only half a night, but she felt humiliated. She was supposed to be the predator, the fox, the wolf, but here she was, cower ing like a frightened hare in its burrow.

Yes, she was here at the insistence of her get, but she hadn't put up much of a fight. Gregor was foolish but he'd been tough. If the vigilantes had managed to kill him, they could kill her, and she might well be their next target.

She'd sent serfs and one of her get out to find the source of the explosion, to see if that was what had done in Gregor. They'd returned with a tale of a blasted house with Gregor's head spiked on a piece of splintered wood in the front yard and his body in pieces within.

These vigilantes had taken to making bombs. That was the real reason she was down here in the basement. The Post Office had thick granite walls.

Even if they somehow managed to toss a bomb through the front doors - clo sed, locked, and guarded now - it would have no effect down here.

Jules returned and closed the door behind him. "He's next door, waiting."

Olivia nodded, took a breath, then made her entrance. She found Artemis, h is back to her, standing among the beds and cots that her get had moved in to what had been a storage space. This was where she spent the daylight ho urs.

"Bonsoir, Artemis."

Artemis turned. He grinned and stared at her with his one good eye.

"English, Olivia. My French is about as good as your Greek."

Olivia tried not to stare at his ruined eye. With his curly black hair and o live skin, he'd probably been handsome once. Too handsome, perhaps. But that eye - she had bathed in blood and had cut off heads, she'd ripped still-beati ng hearts from chests, but she found that dead eye repulsive. Olivia had los t her left little finger once - an accident with a sliding glass door - but it h ad grown back. She, like other undead, could regenerate most lost body parts, except of course a head or a heart. But certain types of injury did not heal.

Artemis had been a real up and comer in Franco's get until he allowed a chi ld he'd been about to sup on to jab a crucifix into his eye. He might have lived it down if the eye had regenerated, but wounds from holy objects neve r healed. His puckered scar and sunken socket were eternal reminders of his blunder, and he'd sunk to the rank of one of Franco's get-guards and erran d boys.

"Very well, Artemis," she said, switching to English. "But I just want you to know that I had no control over Gregor. Whatever he did, he did on his o wn. I am in no way responsible for what happened to him. You can tell Franc o that."

Artemis laughed. "Franco did not send me here about Gregor. He wanted to l et you know that he has personally broken the back of the insurrection."

"How, pray, did he do that?"

"By capturing the priest himself, the one who took over your little church he re."

"Not my church. It was Gregor's responsibility."

"But it happened while you were here on your inspection tour. Don't worry.

That is of no import to Franco."

Olivia seated herself on the bed where she spent her hours of daysleep.

"Broken their backs, has he? What did Franco think of Gregor's idea that th e insurgents in the church and the vigilantes were two separate groups?"

"He gave it the amount of consideration it deserved, which is none at all. The priest didn't even bother to deny that he was part of the vigilantes."

Olivia took some small satisfaction in being right, but she wondered . . .

"How is merely capturing the priest going to break the back of this situation?"

Artemis smiled. "Franco has turned the priest - not by himself, but by one of his pet ferals. He was delivered back to his own rectory less than an hour ago. He's been hidden in the basement. Come sundown he'll be one of us and will start to prey on his own followers. And as days go by he'll become in creasingly depraved looking, increasingly vicious and feral. Isn't it simpl y delicious?"

"Perhaps. But it's complicated. I prefer simpler, direct solutions. Why does n't he just burn them out and capture them?"

"You know Franco. He'd deem a frontal assault unworthy of his intellect. Hesaw too many Dr. Mabuse films while he was living in Germany, I think. Sees himself as the Grand Manipulator, the Demonic Maestro, the Great Orche strator of life and death and undeath. He must work his coups with style, with elan."

"Elan is all fine and good, but I'd much prefer to see this over and done with."

"But you're not in charge, are you?"

Olivia didn't dignify that remark with an answer. "So what are we to do then? Sit around and hope this undead priest follows Franco's script?"

"We'll be providing direction. We'll watch after sundown and give him a litt le help if he needs it. Sometime during the next night or two - before he star ts losing his mind - we'll question him about the vigilantes. Just in case the re are cells outside the church. After that, he's on his own."

"I'm not so sure I like the idea of a feral running loose."

"Good point. He may become uncontrollable. If his followers don't get him first, we may have to put him down ourselves."

Olivia had to smile. "Not much of a future for this priest. What's his name, by the way?"

Artemis shrugged. "You know, I never thought to ask."

"Well, whoever he is, he deserves everything that's coming to him."

LACEY . . .

Startled out of sleep by a hand shaking her shoulder and a strange voice wh ispering in her ear, Lacey came up swinging.

"Easy, Lacey," said a woman's voice. "Easy. You're safe. No one's going to hurt you."

Lacey blinked. A small room, a single candle, and some stranger bending over her. No... not a stranger... she recognized her now. The one who'd le d her back to the church, who'd said she was a nun. Lacey groaned. Her head throbbed, she hurt all over, especially between her legs.

"Where - ?"

"You're in the convent. Listen to me. Something terrible has happened and - " Her voice broke. She blinked, swallowed, then said. "I need your help."

Lacey glanced at the window. Still dark out there. "Can't it wait till morning?"

The nun - what was her name? Carrie? No, Carole with an e - shook her head.

"Morning will be too late. We have to act now before anyone finds out."

"About what?"

"Your uncle."

Lacey listened in a daze, struggling to understand Carole's story, but the words seemed to congeal in the air, clumping together into indecipherable masses. Something about her Uncle Joe ... something about him being -

"Dead? No, no! No! You can't be serious! He can't be! He can't!"

"He is," Carol said. A tear ran down her cheek. "Believe me, Lacey, he is."

"No!" She wanted to smash this crazy woman's face for lying to her. Her Un cle Joe couldn't be dead!

"But he won't stay dead. By tomorrow night he'll be one of them."

"Not Unk! He'd never!"

"He'll have no choice."

Lacey tried to stand but crumbled back onto the bed. Her legs didn't want to support her. "But if they can turn him ... make him one of them, then what's the use?"

"That's exactly how they want you to feel. And that's exactly why we must move him away from here and save him from that hell."

"We?" Lacey's stomach twisted and bile rose in her throat. "You mean ... ?"

Carole was nodding. "There's no other way."

"No! I can't!"

"I can't move him alone, Lacey. The parishioners must never know, must neve r find him. They must think he died fighting for them. If they learn he's b ecome the enemy, that he's preying on them ..."

"But put a stake through his heart? I can't!"

"You can't not, Lacey. Not if you have the slightest bit of regard for who he was and what he stood for and how he'd want to be remembered."

In that instant Lacey knew Carole was right. Her Uncle Joe had lived his lif e by a certain set of rules, not simply avoiding evil but actively trying to do good. She couldn't let these undead vermin make a lie and a mockery of h is entire life. Stopping that would not be something she did to him, it woul d be for him.

Somehow, somewhere, she found the strength to rise from the bed. Let's go.

"Can you get a car?"

Lacey nodded. "We brought in a bunch of them to block the streets. There's e xtras. I'm sure I can get one."

"Good. Keep the lights out and drive it around to the side door of the rectory, then come inside. I'll be waiting in the basement."

The next ten or fifteen minutes would forever be a blur in Lacey's memory. Fi nding the keys to an old Lincoln Town Car and sneaking it around the block re mained clear, but after that. . . creeping down into that dank cellar .. . se eing her uncle's lifeless, bloodless face when Carole unwrapped the top of th e sheet - it was him, really, really him - and then struggling his dead weight up the stairs... placing him in the trunk of the car... hearing the clank of the tools Carole had found in the caretaker's shed as she carefully place d them on the back seat. . . slumping in the passenger seat as Carole drove t hem away toward the brightening horizon . . .

And thinking about her Uncle Joe . ..

The earliest memory was riding on his back, he barely a teenager and she ba rely in kindergarten. A flash of watching from a front row pew as he took h is Holy Orders and officially became a priest. And then later, much clearer memories of long conversations about faith and God and the meaning of life with her doing most of the talking because no one would listen to her, onl y him, and Uncle Joe not agreeing but giving her his ear, letting her finis h without cutting her off and dissing her dissidence.

And now he was gone. Her sounding board, her last anchor... gone, erased. Sh e felt adrift.

The car stopped. Returning to the present, Lacey wiped her eyes and looked around. They were at the beach. A boardwalk lay straight ahead. She'd bee n here a few days ago.

They'd arrived at the edge of the continent... to do the unthinkable... in o rder to prevent the unspeakable.

"I don't know if I can go through with this," Lacey said.

Carole was already out of the car. "Stop thinking of yourself and help me ca rry him."

Thinking of yourself. . . That angered Lacey. "I'm thinking about him, and what he's meant to me, what he'll always mean to me."

"Do you hear yourself? Me-me-me. This isn't about you or me. It's about Fat her Joe's legacy. And if we're going to preserve that, we have to do what h as to be done."

She was right. Damn her, this weird nun was right. Lacey got out of the car as Carole popped the trunk.

"Where are we taking him?"

"Up to the beach."

"Why the beach?"

"Because we can dig a deep hole quickly, and because very few people com e here anymore."

"How do you know?"

"Because I watch. I watch everything. No one will find him. Now help me li ft him."

Lacey glanced around. The area looked deserted but who knew what was hidin g in the shadows. Her guns ... after taking the dead Vichy woman's clothes, she'd crept back into the Post Office and lifted the pistols off a coupl e of the undead corpses. She wished she'd thought to bring them, but her m ind had been numbed with loss.

Carole opened the trunk to reveal the sheet-wrapped form. Steeling herself, Lacey took the shoulders, Carole the feet, and they carried Joe's body up a ramp, across the boardwalk, then down the steps to the sand. Carole directed them toward a spot under the boards with about five feet of headroom, maybe a little less.

Lacey stayed with the body while Carole ran back to the car. She returne d moments later with a pair of shovels and a beat-up purple vinyl book b ag. The sky had grown light enough for Lacey to see ST. ANTHONY'S SCHOOL emblazoned along the side in yellow.

"What's in there?" Lacey asked, although she had a good idea what the answ er would be.

Carole said nothing. She responded by pulling out a heavy, iron-headed ma ul and a wickedly sharpened length of one-inch doweling. She drew the she et back from Uncle Joe's head and upper torso.

Lacey's stomach heaved as she caught sight of his torn-open throat. She'd se en only his face back in the rectory. Good thing she hadn't eaten since yest erday, otherwise she'd be spewing across the sand.

"Look what they did to him!" she screeched. "Look what they did!"

Carole didn't respond. Her face seemed set in stone as she raised the stake an d placed the point over the left side of his chest.

"Can't it wait?" Lacey cried.

"Till when?" Carole's expression had became fierce, her voice tight, thin, s tretched to the breaking point. "Tell me a good time for this and I'll gladl y wait. When, Lacey? When will be a good time?"

Lacey had no answer. When she saw Carole place the point of the stake over her uncle's heart, she turned away.

"I can't watch this."

"Then I guess I'm on my own."

Sobbing openly, Lacey resisted the urge to run screaming down the beach. She kept her back to Carole and jammed her fingers into her ears while she began a tuneless hum to block out the sounds - of iron striking wood, of woo d crunching through bone and cartilage. She knew she should be helping, bu t after what she'd already been through in the last dozen hours, pounding a stake into her uncle's chest was more than she could handle right now. She couldn't. She. Just. Couldn't.

So she stared through her tears at the ocean, at the pink glow growing on the horizon.

Finally she pulled her fingers from her ears and tried to turn, but her brai n refused to send the necessary signals to make her body move. The mere thou ght of seeing her uncle lying there with a shaft of wood protruding from his chest. . .

She heard a noise ... sobbing .. . Carole.

"Is... is it over?"

Carole moaned. "Nooooo! I couldn't do it!"

Lacey whirled, took one look at the nun's tear-stained face, and she knew.

"You loved him, didn't you."

Another bubbling sob from Carole as she nodded. "In my fashion, yes. We al l did. A good, goo d man ..."

"I don't mean loving him like that, like a brother. I mean as a man."

Carole said nothing, just stared down at the sheet-wrapped body before her.

"It's okay, Carole. It's not just idle interest. He was my uncle. I'd like to know how you felt about him, especially now that he's... gone. Did you love him as a man?"

"Yes." It sounded like a gasp of relief, as if a long pent-up pressure had b een released. "Not that we ever did anything," she added quickly. "Not that he ever even knew."

"But you" ... she needed the right word here... "longed for him?"

"God forgive me, yes. Not lust, nothing carnal. I just wanted to be near him. Can you understand that?"

Lacey shrugged, unsure of what she could understand. This was so unreal.

"I'm not sure how to say this," Carole said, "because I've never expressed it, even to myself."

"Why not?"

"Because it wasn't right. I took vows. He took vows. I shouldn't have been t hinking of a man like that, especially a priest. God was supposed to be enou gh. But sometimes..."

"Sometimes God just isn't enough."

"It must be a sin to say so, but no, sometimes He isn't. Father Joe had som ething about him that made me ... made me want, long to be near him. His ve ry presence just seemed to make the world seem right. I'd see him touch som e of the other sisters, the older ones - nothing but a hand on the arm or, ra rely, an arm across the shoulders as they'd laugh about something. But neve r me. And I never knew why. Not that I wanted more, not that I'd ever lead him astray, but a simple touch, just to let me know he knew I existed, that would have made me so happy."

Lacey felt as if she were talking to some lonely preteen, and sexually, ma ybe that was where Carole was. She'd probably joined the convent right out of high school - maybe during high school - and she'd never progressed past t hat stage in her relationships with the opposite sex.

"Do you think my uncle was avoiding you?"

"Sometimes it seemed like it."

"Well, I can think of only one reason for that."

Carole looked up. "What?"

"Maybe he felt the same about you."

"Oh, no." Carole shook her head vehemently, almost violently. "He didn't. Hecouldn't have."

"I'm sure of it."

She wasn't sure at all, but the sweet light flaring in Carole's eyes now touched Lacey more deeply than she could have imagined a few moments ago when this seemingly icebound woman had crouched there with a stake poised over Uncle Joe's heart.

"Carole, you should have seen his face the other night after you stopped by the church. He was worried about you, wished you'd come into the church wi th us, but he was beaming too ..."

Wait a sec. That was no exaggeration. Joe had been beaming. Maybe there'd been more going on between those two than anyone knew, least of all them selves.

"Beaming?" Carole said.

Lacey knew a prompt when she heard one. "Yeah. Beaming. He seemed really, really happy to see you and know you were still alive. He kept talking a bout you."

How sad, Lacey thought. The two of them could have made each other's lives so much brighter, but they'd been kept apart.

Carole sobbed again. "Now he's gone!"

"Not quite," Lacey said. "Not yet. And that's where we come in, I guess."

"How can I do this?" She wiped her eyes and sniffed. "I could do it, I know I could if he were one of them, if I could see that cold evil hunger in his eyes, I could save him from that. But look at him. Except for his throat he looks so normal, so . .. peaceful. I can't."

"But we have to," Lacey said. She realized with a start that their roles had been reversed. "Why don't we dig the hole - the grave - first, and then ... and t hen we'll do it together."

Carole stared at her. "You'll help me?"

"Yes." Lacey nodded, hoping she was making a promise she could keep. "Fo r him. For Uncle Joe."

They began to dig, together at first, then taking turns as the grave deepened.

Lacey was waist deep in the hole as the sun began to emerge from the sea. She pointed to the loose sand sliding down the walls around her.

"If that keeps up we'll never make six feet."

Carole sat to the side, taking her turn to rest. "We'll do the best we can. We need it deep enough to discourage any wild dogs from trying to dig him up."

The exertions of digging plus her earlier concussion had started blinding bo lts of pain shooting through her head. That, the beating she'd endured, and the lack of food made the work agony, but she'd keep on digging till nightfa ll and beyond if it meant putting off what they had to do once Joe's grave w as ready.

"All right," Lacey said. "We'll go down another foot, then - " She stopped a s she caught a sharp, pungent odor. "What's that? Something burning?" A pu ff of white smoke wafted past her. "What the hell? It almost smells like - "

"Oh, dear God!" Carole cried, scrambling to her hands and knees. "Father Joe!"

Lacey looked and saw her uncle lying in the full light of the rising sun. His exposed skin was smoking and bubbling.

"Shit!"

She scrambled out of the grave and grabbed his arm, then released it in a sp asm of revulsion. The flesh felt like hot wax. She looked for a place to hid e him from the sun. With the light shining at this low angle, the only shady spots here were the narrow bands behind the pilings, nowhere near enough to shelter him.

"Quick!" Carole said. "The grave!"

She grabbed Joe's sheet-wrapped feet and started dragging him toward it. Lac ey helped. Seconds later they tumbled him into the opening. He landed on his back, out of the sun, and immediately his skin stopped boiling. But the odo r of burning flesh still rolled off of him.

"Look at him," Lacey whispered. "Look what it did to him."

They crouched and stared at him. The still-smoking skin of Joe's face and c hest and upper arms was dead white and rippled and pitted like a bad stucco job.

Finally Carole said, "Why did we do that?"

"Do what?"

"Protect him from the sun."

Lacey saw what she meant. "You mean if we'd left him there, the sun might have done the job for us?"

Carole shook her head. "I don't know, but that's what seemed to be happenin g."

"Are you saying we should drag him out on the beach and just let him... wh at. . . boil away?"

That struck Lacey as a greater defilement than driving a stake through him.

Almost like setting him on fire.

"I don't know," Carole said. "I used to be so very sure about some things, esp ecially this sort of thing. Now ... I don't know."

Lacey glanced again at her uncle's body, appalled by his ruined skin, and not iced something. She squinted into the shadows of the grave, still not sure.

"What is it?" Carole said.

"Look at his throat. Wasn't it all torn open a few minutes ago?"

Carole slapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh, no! It's happening already!"

"What?"

"The change! He's turning!"

"How do you know?"

"Because Bernadette. .. because I've seen it before. As they turn, the death w ound heals up as if it never was."

Lacey grabbed Carole's flashlight and fixed the beam on Joe's throat. The ar ea where it had been torn open was thickened and puckered, a different kind of scarring than the rest of his ruined skin. "That doesn't look healed up t o me. Looks more like its been fused or ..." What was the word? "... cauteri zed."

"He's turned, I tell you." Carole looked around, then picked up Joe's big sil ver cross from the sand. "Watch."

As Carole leaned into the grave and pressed the cross against Joe's chest, Lacey winced, expecting a puff of smoke and who knew what else. But nothi ng happened.

"That's strange," Carole said. "It should have burned him."

"Which means he hasn't turned."

"Yet," Carole's eyes took on a haunted look. "This doesn't let us off the hook, I'm afraid."

Lacey glanced over to where the stake and the maul rested on the sand.

"What if.. ." Her thoughts were scattering like a startled flock of birds. "Wha t if the sun burned it out of him?"

"Burned what out of him?"

"Whatever makes you turn undead. Look, it cauterized his wound."

"And all his exposed skin as well. He would have... dissolved out there if we hadn't pushed him into this hole!"

She had a point. Joe had looked like he was melting, but Lacey wasn't giving in. She had this feeling ...

"Okay, but what if he was out there in the sun long enough to kill him - I me an, to burn off whatever was going to make him undead and leave him really dead? It's possible, isn't it?"

Carole sighed. "Possible, I suppose. But I've never heard of anything like tha t."

"There must be tons we don't know about these creatures. If you agree it's po ssible, then why can't we leave him as he is and just fill in his grave?"

Carole shook her head. "We need to be sure. We owe him that."

"All right then ..." Her mind ranged over the options, anything but jumping into that hole and driving a stake through that limp body. "How about we com e back here at sunset? If he's not dead, we'll be waiting when he starts to dig his way out, and we'll. .. stop him."

"You want to risk that?" Carole said, eyeing her. "It will be harder, but we can stop him as he's crawling out. Just remember, it will be much worse to have to stake him while he's moving."

Lacey wrung her hands. "I know, I know. But I've got this feeling we won't have to."

"This is nothing but wishful thinking, Lacey."

"It's more than that. Please. Do it my way, just this once."

Carole sat silent for a long moment, then, "All right. I just hope we don't regr et this."

Her tone was wary, but Lacey thought she detected a hint of relief.

"We won't. I've got - "

"A feeling. So you said." Carole grabbed a shovel. "But swear to me you'll b e back here with me before sunset, and that we'll watch over him all night u ntil dawn." "I swear."

Carole nodded and started shoveling sand back into the grave.

"Wait," Lacey said. "Let me cover his face."

She slid into the hole, careful not to step on him, and tugged up the sheet so that it covered her uncle's face.

As soon as Lacey crawled out, Carole started shoveling again. She couldn't seem to wait to cover him.

"Shouldn't we say a few words over him first?"

Lacey didn't want a prayer, but she thought they could at least say somethin g about the man he was and the life he'd led.

Carole looked at her. "Not yet. Not till we're sure he's at rest. Truly at rest.

Then we'll give our eulogies."

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