Chapter 8

He awakens in crushing darkness, a damp, dusty sheet pressed hard against his face, pushing at his eyes, an anvil resting on his chest.

Air! He needs air!

Then he realizes that he doesn't. He feels no urge to breathe, no need. Why not?

Where is he? More important - who is he? The answer is there, just beyond his grasp. Reaching for it, he tries to claw at the entrapping sheet but his a rms are pinned to his sides by its enormous weight. He worms one hand up ac ross his chest to where he can grip the sheet. He pulls it down -

Sand! Cascading into his eyes, filling his mouth and nose. He's buried in san d!

He's got to get out!

His struggles become frantic. He tears through the sheet and fights the inca lculable weight, working his hands and then his arms through the granules. He's strong, and soon his hands are snaking up through the sand, slowly makin g their way to the surface. . .

CAROLE . . .

The setting sun's blood-red eye stared at Carole from the car's rearview mir ror. She flipped the dimmer toggle to cut its brightness and steered the Lin coln along Route 88. She was thinking about napalm.

Lacey fidgeted in the passenger seat and toyed with the revolver in her l ap. The cowboys - or Vichy, as Lacey called them - had been conspicuous by th eir absence today. Maybe the undead were alarmed by the loss of the one Carole had killed last night - dear God, had it been less than twenty-four h ours? - and were keeping them close by during the light hours. Even so, she and Lacey might have the bad luck of running into a party of them before reaching the beach.

Carole glanced at the barrel of the shotgun on the armrest between them. Nothing was going to keep them from Father Joe's graveside tonight.

Carole and Lacey had caught up on their sleep during the day, awakening this afternoon to find the parishioners nervous and edgy. Father Joe was still m issing and they were giving up hope that he'd be found alive. Carole had tol d them that even if he'd been killed, he'd want them to fight on.

They'd wanted to know how, and that was when Carole had begun thinking of napalm.

It was easy to make. She'd need soap flakes. Soap wasn't edible so there'd b e no shortage of flakes in the looted grocery stores. If she could get her h ands on some kerosene, she'd be in business. Napalm stuck to whatever it spl ashed against and burned so hot it turned human flesh into fuel to feed its flames. Would the same happen with undead flesh?

Only one way to find out...

She heard a sob and looked at Lacey. Tears glistened on her cheeks.

"What's wrong?"

"I hope we did the right thing."

Carole knew exactly how she felt. Apprehension had been clawing at her gut all day.

"You're having second thoughts?"

"Oh, yes. Ohhhhhh, yes. I don't want to watch him digging his way out of the ground, I don't want to see his undead eyes or hear his undead voice. I don't want that to be my last memory of him." She stared at Carole. "If I belie ved in God I'd be praying to him right now."

Strange, Carole thought. I do believe in Him and I've stopped praying. He do esn't seem to be listening.

"Are you all right, Lacey? I mean, after what happened yesterday?"

"Do you mean after finding my dearest and closest living relative dead and helping dig his grave? Or do you mean after getting gang raped?"

Carole winced at her tone and at the images "gang raped" conjured. "Neverm ind. Sorry."

Lacey reached over and squeezed her arm. "Hey, no. I'm sorry." She sighed. "I guess I'm doing about as well as can be expected. I'm still sore as hell, bu t I'm healing."

"I didn't mean physically. I meant the hurt within. Emotionally. It's such an awful, awful thing ..." Carole ran out of words.

Lacey shrugged. "Same answer, I suppose. I know I'd feel different if it h ad happened - the rape, I mean - say, a year ago, back in the old civilized wo rld. I would have been thinking, 'How could this happen?' and 'Why me?' I would have felt like some sort of pariah or loser, that the world and soci ety had let me down, that some throwbacks had smashed through all the rule s and targeted me. And I would have felt somehow to blame. Yeah, can you b elieve that? I bet I would've. I know I'd have wanted to dig myself a hole and pull the ground over me."

Carole tried to imagine how she'd feel if places were reversed, but her imag ination wasn't up to it. She nodded to keep Lacey talking. She'd heard it wa s bad to keep something like this bottled up.

"Are you saying you don't feel that way now?"

Lacey shook her head. "Yeah ... I don't know. It's a different world now, a world without any rules, except maybe those of the jungle. There's no law, n o order, and because of that, I don't seem to have that pariah-loser-victim feeling. And I don't feel ashamed. I feel disgusted and sickened and violate d, but I don't feel ashamed. I feel hate and I want revenge, but I don't fee l a need to hide. A year ago I'd have felt scarred for life. Now I feel... a s if I've been splattered with mud - rotten, nasty mud - but nothing I can't was h off and then move on. Does that make sense?"

Carole nodded. She knew as well as anyone how the rules had changed, and she with them.

"You're strong, though. I don't know if I could bounce back from something l ike that."

"I wouldn't exactly call it 'bouncing.' But don't shortchange yourself, Carol e. You're tougher than you let on. I think you could handle anything. Let's j ust hope you never have to find out."

"Amen," Carole said.

Thinking of men who could do such heinous things drew Carole's thoughts ba ck to napalm, but she pushed them aside as the boardwalk buildings hove in to view. She parked and gave herself half a moment to inhale the briny air. Then she double-checked the old book bag - crosses, stakes, garlic, hammer, flashlight. All there.

Let's just pray we don't have to use them, she thought.

What they most likely would use were the two peanut butter sandwiches o n home-baked bread they'd brought along. Somewhere old Mrs. Delmonico h ad found whole wheat flour and a propane stove.

They left the shotgun in the car, but Lacey carried her pistol at the ready as they hurried across the deserted boardwalk and down to the beach. Lacey s tayed in the lead when they ducked under the boards where they'd buried Fath er Joe, but stopped dead in her tracks with a cry of alarm.

Carole bumped into her from behind. "What - ?"

"Oh, no!" Lacey cried. "It can't be!"

Carole pushed her aside and saw what she was looking at. The grave had bee n disturbed.

"He's already out!" Lacey wailed.

"No. He can't be. The sun hasn't set yet."

She pointed to areas of darker sand atop the light. "But some of the sand's still damp. That means it came from deeper down. And not too long ago."

"Then someone's dug him up. It's the only explanation."

Lacey's eyes were wild. "But who? We were the only ones who knew. And why?"

She glanced around and noticed linear tracks leading out to the beach. "Lo ok. We didn't leave those. Someone's dragged him out."

"They can't have gone too far." Carole heard Lacey cock her pistol as she st arted back toward the beach. "The sons of bitches..."

Carole followed her out and they stood together, looking up and down the bea ch and along the gently rolling dunes that eased toward the water. She blink ed ... was that someone ... ? Yes, it looked like a man, standing at the wat er line with a towel draped over his shoulders, staring out to sea.

"Look, Lacey," Carole said, pointing. "Do you see him?"

Lacey nodded and started forward. "You think he did it?"

"Perhaps." Carole fell into step beside her. "If not, he might have seen who d id."

But as they approached, the white towel began to look more like a sheet, and the back of the man's head, the color of his hair began to look more and mo re familiar ...

They were twenty feet away when Carole stopped and grabbed Lacey's arm. "Oh, dear God," she whispered. "It looks like ..."

Lacey was nodding. "I know." Her voice had shrunken to a high-pitched squea k. "But it can't be."

He looked wet, as if he'd gone for a swim. Carole stepped forward, closed to within half a dozen feet of him. Trembling inside and out, she wet her lips.

Her tongue felt as dry as old leather.

"Father Joe?"

The man turned. The dying light of the sun ruddied the pitted, ruined dead-wh ite skin of his face.

"Carole," he said in Father Joe's voice. "What's happened to me?"

Shock was a hand against her chest, shoving her back. She dropped the book bag and stumbled a few steps, then tripped. Lacey caught her before she fe ll.

"Oh, shit," Lacey whimpered. "Oh, shit!"

"Lacey?" The man, the thing that had once been Father Joe, took a falterin g step toward them. "What did they do to me?"

"Wh-who?" Lacey said.

"The undead. They took me to New York. He was going to make me one of them. . . turn me into a feral, he said. I remember dying, being killed ... at least I think I do, but - "

Heart pounding, mind racing. Carole watched him closely, looking for a misst ep, listening for a false note.

She found her voice again. "You did die. We found you and you were dead.

We buried you back there, under the boardwalk."

"But I'm not dead. And I'm not one of them. I can't be because ..." He pointe d west. "Because that's the sun and it should be killing me, but it's not." Heraised a scarred fist. "Somehow, some way, I've beaten them."

"But you were dead, Uncle Joe," Lacey told him. Her voice trembled like a wounded thing. "And now you're not."

"But I'm not undead. Standing here in the sunlight is proof enough of that.

And I'm looking at you two and I'm not seeing prey. I'm seeing two people I care about very much."

Carole suspected that under different circumstances - any circumstances bu t these - those words would have made her dizzy. But now ...

She shook her head, trying to clear it, trying to step back from her roiling emotions and think clearly. He sounded like her Father Joe, he acted like Father Joe, he had Father Joe's mannerisms, but something was different, some thing wasn't quite right. Something terrible had been done to him, and one w ay or another, she had to find a way to undo it.

She bent forward and snatched the book bag from where she'd dropped it on the sand.

"Carole?" said Lacey from behind her. "Just a minute."

She opened it and reached inside.

"Carole, you're not really going to - "''A minute, I said!"

Carole's fingers wrapped around the upright of Father Joe's big silver cross. "We've been saving this for you." She yanked it from the bag and held it o ut to him. "Here."

Father Joe cried out and turned his head, holding up a hand to shield his ey es from the sight of the very cross he used to carry with him wherever he we nt.

Carole felt something die within her as she watched him and realized what s he had to do.

She handed the cross to Lacey who stood dumbstruck, staring at her uncle with wide, uncomprehending eyes. Lacey gripped the cross but never took h er eyes from her uncle.

As Carole pulled open the book bag again, she slammed the doors, closed th e windows, and drew the curtains on everything she had ever felt for the m an this creature had once been. Her hand was reaching into the bag for the hammer and stake when Lacey's voice, a hint of panic in her tone, stopped her.

"Carole ... Carole, something's happening here. Please tell me what's going o n."

Carole looked up and froze. The Father Joe thing was edging toward Lacey, h is face averted, his hand stretched out toward the cross.

"What's happening, Carole?" Lacey wailed.

"I'm not sure, but don't move. Stay right where you are."

Carole watched with a wrenching mixture of horror and fascination as the Fath er Joe thing's fingers neared the cross. She noticed that his eyes were slitted and only partially averted, as if he were looking at the cross from the c orner of his eye.

The undead couldn't stand to be anywhere near a cross, yet the Father Joe th ing was reaching for this one.

Finally his scarred fingers reached it, touched the metal, and jerked back as if they'd been burned. But no flash, no sizzle of seared flesh. The fingers came forward again, and this time, like a striking snake, they snatched the c ross from Lacey's hand.

"It's hot!" he said, looking up into the darkening sky as he switched it back and forth between his hands like a hot potato. "Oh, God, it's hot!"

But it wasn't searing his flesh, only reddening it.

Then with the cry of a damned soul he dropped it and fell to his knees on the sand.

"What have they done to me?" he sobbed as he looked at Carole with fright ened, haunted eyes. "What am I?"

Carole closed the book bag.

She'd never seen the undead cry. This wasn't a vampire. But he wasn't the Father Joe she had known either. He was something in between. Was this an accident, or some sort of trick, some undead plot to further confuse and c onfound the living? She'd have to reserve judgment for now.

But she'd be watching his every move.

JOE . . .

Carole took his arm and tugged him toward the boardwalk, saying, "We need to find a place where we're not so exposed."

Joe went along with her, his mind numb, unable to string two coherent thoug hts together.

The afterimage of the cross - his cross - still stained his vision, bouncing in the air before him. The blast of light had been intolerably bright, an explo sion of brilliance, as if Carole had lifted a white hot star from her book b ag. The light had caused him pain, but only in his eyes. It hadn't struck hi m like a physical blow the way it seemed to affect the undead, staggering th em back as if they were being pummeled with a baseball bat. He could look at it as one might the sun, squinting from the corner of his eye.

He could touch the cross but couldn't hold it. He looked down at his palms.

The skin was reddened there, but at least it was normal looking. Not like th e ruined, thickened flesh on the back of his hands and on his arms and chest. He touched his face and found thickened and pitted skin there as well.

Joe felt as if his world were crumbling around him, then realized that it a lready had. The life he'd known was gone, ended. What lay ahead?

He pulled the damp sheet closer around him as Carole led him up the steps to the boardwalk. Had this been his shroud? As she turned him right, Joe h eard Lacey's voice from behind.

"Aren't we going to the car?"

"Let's see if we can get into one of these houses," Carole said.

She led them past the dead arcades and along the boardwalk leading to the inlet. No one spoke. Lacey looked as dazed as Joe felt. They walked past t he beachfront houses, some large with sun decks and huge seaward windows, others tiny, little more than plywood boxes, all nuzzling against the boar dwalk. Most of the bigger ones had been vandalized.

Carole stopped before an old, minuscule bungalow that appeared intact. De spite the low light, Joe had no problem making out the faded blue-gray of its clapboard siding. Someone had painted the word SEAVIEW in black on t he door and surrounded it with sun-bleached clamshells.

Carole tried the door. When it wouldn't open, she slammed her shoulder aga inst it. When that didn't work, she opened her book bag and began to rumma ge through it.

Joe turned to the door and slammed his palm against it. The molding cracked like a gunshot and the door swung inward. He stared at his hand. He hadn't p ut a lot of effort into the blow, but it had broken the molding.

"How did I do that?" he muttered.

No one answered.

In a courteous reflex, he stood aside to let Carole and Lacey enter first. On ly after they were inside did he realize that he should have gone ahead of th em. No telling what might have been lying in wait there.

As he stepped across the threshold, he felt a curious resistance, as if the air inside had congealed to try to hold him back. He pressed forward and pus hed through. The resistance evaporated once he was inside.

As he closed the door behind him, he sniffed the musty air and looked aroun d. Typical beach house decor: rattan furniture with beachy-patterned cushio ns, driftwood and shells on the mantle, fishnets and starfish tacked to the tongue-and-groove knotty pine walls of the wide open living room/dining ro om/kitchen combo that ran the length of the house; photos of smiling people sitting on the beach or holding fishing rods. Joe wondered if any of them were still alive.

Carole pulled out her flashlight. "Let's see if we can find any candles."

"There's three in that little brass candelabra back there," he told her.

"Where?" She flashed her light around.

He pointed. "On the dining room table."

Carole shot him a strange look and moved toward the rear of the house where she retrieved a brass candelabra from the tiny dining room. She lit one of i ts three candles and set it on the small cocktail table situated before the picture window overlooking the beach and the ocean. Lacey pulled the curtain s.

"Let's sit," Carole said.

"I can't sit," Joe told her. "I need to know what happened to me."

"We're about to tell you all we know," Carole said.

So he sat. Carole did most of the talking, with Lacey adding a comment or two. They told him how they'd found him, how his skin had started boiling in the morning sun, and how they'd buried him.

Joe rose and started pacing. He'd held himself still as he'd listened to them, not wanting to believe their tale, yet unable to deny it, and now he had to move. He felt too big for the room. Or was it getting smaller, the walls clo sing in on him? He didn't know what to do with himself - stand, sit, move about - or where to put his hands ... his body felt different, not quite his own. He'd sensed this since pulling himself out of the sand. He'd washed himself off in the ocean, hoping it would make a difference, but it hadn't. He still fel t like a visitor in his own skin.

"So what am I then?" he said to no one on particular, perhaps to God Himself. "Some new sort of creature, some freakish hybrid?" He sure as hell felt li ke a freak.

"That is what we need to find out," Carole said.

He stared at her and she stared back, her eyes flat, unreadable. This was n ot the Carole he'd known, not the woman he'd been drawn to. He'd sensed a t errible change in her when he'd run into her outside the church, but now sh e seemed even further removed from her old self. Cold .. . and she'd been a nything but cold in her other life. Had all the sweetness and warmth in her been burned away, or had she merely walled them off?

Unable to hold her gaze any longer, he looked down at himself. He was still wrapped in the damp, sandy sheet. He wasn't cold but he didn't like lookin g like something that had washed up from the sea.

"I'm going to see if I can find some clothes."

Anything to escape Carole's imprisoning stare. She made him feel like a spec imen in a dissection tray.

He turned into the short hallway that was little more than an alcove that d ivided the bungalow's two bedrooms. A pang shot through his abdomen and he realized he was hungry. Clothes first, then food.

He entered the bedroom on the left and pulled open a dresser drawer. No go od. Women's underwear. A thought struck him: What if two old spinsters kep t this as a summer place? Under no circumstances was he putting on a house dress. He'd rather keep the sheet.

He tried the other bureau and found an assortment of shirts and Bermudas. He tried a pair of green plaid shorts first and, though a little loose in the wa ist, they fit. The top shirt on the pile was a yellow-flowered Hawaiian.

After he pulled it on he looked down at himself. Not a big improvement over that old sheet. He must look like the bennie from hell. He stepped to the mi rror over the dresser to catch a full view. The mirror was blurred.

This place was in dire need of some spring cleaning.

He leaned forward to wipe away the dust but his hand rubbed across clean gl ass. He leaned closer and noticed that the room behind him reflected clear and sharp, yet he remained a blur.

"Oh, God!"

"Unk?" he heard Lacey say from the front room. Seconds later she was at his side with the flashlight, her reflection the only distinguishable human in the mirror. "What's wrong?"

Feeling weak - from hunger as well as the horror before him - he leaned agai nst the dresser and pointed to the mirror. "Look at me - if you can."

She gasped. "Is that... ?"

"That's what's left of my reflection."

Carole's image joined them in the glass. He saw her stiffen and stare.

After a moment she said, "You're not completely gone."

"No, but nobody can tell me that's not more proof that I'm no longer huma n. What have I become? I'm asking you both again: What am I?"

The hunger worsened. He grabbed his abdomen and doubled over.

"Joe?" Lacey asked.

"Hungry. Can't remember the last time I ate."

He turned away and stalked to the kitchen where he began to open the cabin ets and paw through their contents. Mostly condiments and spices.

"Damn it all!" he shouted. "Didn't these people eat?"

"It's a summer home," Carole said softly. "Nobody leaves food over the wint er."

"God, I'm starving."

"We've got food," Lacey said.

"Right," Carole said. "You remember Mrs. Delmonico, don't you?"

"Of course I do," Joe said. "I only died. I didn't lose my memory." He look ed from Lacey's stricken face to Carole's stony expression and back again.

"Sorry. That was supposed to be a joke."

"Oh, yeah!" Lacey's forced laugh sounded awful. "Funny!" Her smile crack ed and she sobbed. Once.

"Lacey, I'm sorry," Joe said.

She held up a hand as she pulled herself together. "I'm okay. Really."

No, you aren't, he thought. Not a single one of us is anywhere near okay.

"We should eat something," Carole said. "Who knows when we'll get anothe r chance."

Joe looked at her. "What were you saying about Mrs. Delmonico?"

"She baked some bread and made us peanut butter sandwiches."

"Peanut butter! God, I can't remember the last time I had a peanut butter sa ndwich."

He followed Carole and Lacey to the cocktail table. Carole pulled out the sandwiches, unwrapped them, and handed a half to Joe. Manners reminded h im to wait but hunger forced his hands toward his mouth. He took a deep b ite and gagged.

His gorge rose in revulsion as he turned and spat it into his hand.

"What's in that? I thought you said it was peanut butter."

Lacey sat across the table with the other half of Joe's sandwich. She'd taken a bite and was staring at him.

He nodded to her. "Tastes awful, doesn't it."

Lacey shook her head. "Tastes fine," she said around her bite.

Carole leaned forward. "What did it taste like to you, Father?"

How could he describe something so awful? "Try to imagine rancid meat... in s poiled milk ... laced with hot tar... and you're only part way there."

With a glance at Lacey, Carole pulled the book bag up onto her lap and rea ched inside. With a single quick movement she removed something and held i t under his nose.

"How about this?"

Joe recoiled, almost tipping over backward in his chair. It felt like pure am monia shoved up his nose.

"Damn! What's that? Get it away!"

Carole showed him the flaky clove between her fingers. "Just garlic."

A queasy nausea slithered through Joe's hunger pains. He'd always loved garli c, the more the better. But now . . .

"I don't understand this!" Lacey cried. She was leaning away from the table with her eyes squeezed shut. "You can stand in sunlight and walk into a home without being invited in, but you don't cast a full reflection and you can't stand garlic. What's going on?"

Joe shook his head. "I wish I knew." Hunger gave him a vicious kick in the abdomen, doubling him over. "I do know I've got to eat. Isn't there anythin g else around?"

"Yes," Lacey said. She was looking past him, a strange light dancing in her e yes. "Yes, I believe there is."

She grabbed the flashlight and hurried to the kitchen. Joe heard her openin g drawer after drawer, rattling utensils. Apparently she found what she was looking for because she returned to the table and stood beside him with he r hands behind her back.

"Close your eyes and open your mouth," she said.

"This is no time for games, Lacey. I'm starving."

A smile appeared; it looked painted on. "Humor me, Unk. Open your mouth and close your eyes."

Joe complied, and then things started happening - fast. He sensed Lacey mov e closer, heard a gasp of shock - Carole? - then felt something warm and firm and wet pressed into his mouth. He'd never tasted anything like it -  utte rly delicious. He opened his eyes and saw Lacey close, a steak knife in o ne hand, and the other -  - pressed against his mouth.

Joe flung himself backward, and this time he did go over, landing on his bac k. He felt no pain, only revulsion at the sight of his niece's bloody thumb, and at himself the way he licked his lips and wanted more. A glimpse of Car ole's white face and stricken expression over Lacey's shoulder was the final blow.

Instead of climbing back to his feet, Joe rolled onto his side, facing away from them, and sobbed with shame. He wished he could dissolve into a liqui d and seep between the floorboards to hide from their eyes. For he knew how they must be looking at him - with the same revulsion as he'd felt about the undead before... before . . .

And worse. He realized that his hunger was gone. Just those few drops of L

acey's blood had sated him.

He groaned. He wanted to crawl out of this house and their sight on his belly like the lesser being he'd become.

No ... he wanted to die. Truly die.

Keeping an arm across his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the loathing in thei r faces, he rolled over onto his back and tore open his shirt, baring his ches t.

"Do it, Carole. I don't want to be this way. End it now. Please."

No response, no sound of movement.

Joe uncovered his eyes and found Carole and Lacey staring at him from where he'd left them at the table. They looked like mannequins, but their expres sions reflected more shock than revulsion.

He pounded a fist against his chest, over his heart. "Please, Carole! I'm beg ging you. If you've ever cared the slightest for me, either of you, you won't let me to go on as the creature I am now."

Carole only shook her head.

He looked at his niece. "Lacey? Please? You can do this one thing for me, c an't you?"

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she shook her head. "No. I can't. You're to o... you."

Back to Carole: "You hate the undead, Carole. I can tell. So why won't you p ut this sick dog out of his misery? "

"I could never hate you, Father Joe, but I could loathe you if you ... if you were one of them. But it's plain that you loathe yourself more than I ever cou ld, and that. . . that means you're not one of them."

"But I'm halfway there. What if this is just some sort of transitional phase and by tomorrow I'll be fully undead."

She shook her head. "There is no transitional phase."

"You don't know that!" He was shouting now.

Carole didn't raise her voice, only shifted her gaze to the side and said, "I do. I've seen how the change goes, and you are different. You're asking one of us to drive a stake through your heart. I can't say for sure, but I doubt very much that any undead in the history of time has made such a request. The very fact that you've asked is proof that you aren't one of them."

"Then in God's name, what am I?"

"A weapon, perhaps."

A weapon? The word stirred him. Joe sat up and hugged his knees against hi s chest.

"What do you mean?"

"Do you have any desire to continue what you started at the church?"

Joe hadn't given it a thought. He'd been too preoccupied with figuring out w hat had happened to him. But now that he did think about it. . .

"I don't see how it's possible. I can't see them following an undead priest."

"You're not undead."

"I'm certainly not their Father Joe any longer."

"You'll always be - "

"No. I can't be a priest anymore. How can I when I can't ever say Mass again?

I can't look at a cross or touch one without getting burned. I certainly can't taste the consecrated bread and wine - assuming I didn't burst into flame tr ying to say the prayers to consecrate it."

"Father Joe - "

"Don't call me that again. I am no longer a priest, so stop calling me 'Father.'

It's an insult to all those who still deserve the title. From now on it's Joe, ju st plain Joe."

"Very well, J - " Carole seemed to have trouble with the name. "Very well, Joseph. You don't want to go back to leading your parish. Do you have any d esire to go on fighting the undead?"

"More than ever."

And with those three words a whole world of possibilities opened up before Joe. He struggled back to his feet. He felt excited, the first positive emoti on he'd experienced since leaping from the observation deck the other night.

Carole had called him a weapon. He could see that she was right. By some st range quirk of fate he'd become a sort of half-breed. There had to be a way he could use that against the undead. Make them pay for what they'd done t o his world, to his friends and loved ones, to him.

"I think it's time to fight back."

While there's still time... on the chance that I'll become like that feral who ki lled me ... Devlin.

A terrible purpose surged through him. Yes, fight back, and maybe somewher e down the road he'd meet again with Franco. If he didn't, and if somewher e along that road he met his end - his final end - well, that was all right to o. In fact, he'd welcome it. He had no illusions that he and Carole and La cey and whoever else they picked up along the way could drive the undead h orde back to Europe, but when he met his inevitable end he wanted to know he'd taken as many as possible with him.

OLIVIA . . .

"My, my," Olivia asked. "Wherever can he be?" She was enjoying this. Arte mis paced between the beds in the sleeping room. "I don't know."

Immediately after sunset he had gone over to the church area to watch the rec tory for the priest's emergence. He'd wanted her to come along but her get ha d protested. Olivia had feigned reluctance in giving in to their wishes. In t ruth, she had no intention of leaving this building until she was sure the vi gilantes had been identified and removed. Jules, darling Jules, had gone in h er place.

"Perhaps he sneaked out a back door."

"The building has only two doors and we had both covered."

"Then he must be still inside."

"He's not!" Artemis cried. "I sneaked inside to check. He was left in the ba sement and he's not there now. He's not anywhere in the rectory!"

How odd, Olivia thought. "Could he have sneaked out a window then?"

"Possible, but unlikely."

"Then it must be a miracle!"

Artemis halted his pacing and glared with his good eye. "Not funny, Olivia."

"And not breaking the back of the insurrection, either. So much for Franco's coup."

"He's not going to be happy." Artemis looked worried. "And as usual he'll blame everyone but himself."

"Poor Artemis."

He took a quick step toward her, index finger raised and jabbing toward her face.

"Don't think you'll get off free, Olivia. Especially when he learns how you've been hiding under a rock the whole time."

Olivia stiffened. The last thing she needed was to be on Franco's bad side, e specially when she was short on serfs.

"I'm not the enemy, Artemis," she said, wrapping it in her most conciliatory tone.

"You're certainly not acting like an ally."

"Let's think about this logically. If he's not in the rectory, then he's out of it."

Artemis rolled his single eye. "Brilliant."

"Just follow along with me. If he's out, then he got out either under his own power or was carried out."

He shook his head. "I had one of your serfs watching the building all day. If his followers had found him there'd have been an outcry and lots of milling about. But he reported no unusual activity or even interest in the rectory."

"Which leaves us with one conclusion: the priest left the rectory without bei ng seen."

"That means he's roaming the streets right now, looking to feed." Artemis ro lled his eye again. "That's not good."

"Why not? Isn't that what Franco wanted?"

"He wanted the priest feeding on his followers, not random strangers. That de feats the whole purpose of this little exercise."

Olivia couldn't help smiling. "I believe it's looking more and more like I may get my full-scale attack on the church after all."

"What you'll get," Artemis shouted, "is your lazy cowardly ass out of this h ole in the ground and out there looking for him!"

Olivia backed up a step. "It's too late now. Dawn's almost here."

Artemis pounded a fist against his thigh. "All right then. First thing after su nset. Me, you, and all your get on the street, looking. We need to find him bef ore he goes feral. If we're too late he won't be able to tell us anything about his vigilantes."

Olivia slumped on the edge of her bed and wrung her hands. Outside? Searchi ng? She'd never thought she'd be afraid of the night, but she was.

LACEY . . .

"What was it like being dead?"

Lacey couldn't help it. She had to ask.

After bandaging her thumb, they'd sat around for hours and hours telling t heir stories: what had happened to Joe after he'd been abducted, Carole te lling how she'd escaped the vampire who'd been after her, and Lacey skimmi ng over her gang rape that she couldn't remember too well anyway but descr ibing in detail the odd events in the Post Office. No one had any explanat ion for what had gone down there.

Then they discussed how Joe might best wield himself against the enemy.

With all the talk, Lacey had found herself gradually getting used to the un thinkable: that her uncle had somehow died and risen from the grave without becoming one of the undead - not quite one of them, at least. He didn't look like himself, not with that unrecognizable, disfigured face, but the more he'd talked, the easier it became to accept that, though horribly changed, he was still his old self. The undead had changed his body, but the man wit hin remained untouched.

And with that acceptance, the death question had grown in her mind. Now, wit h steely predawn light turning the black of the ocean to slate gray, the con versation had lagged. So .. .

Joe shook his head. "I don't remember."

"Are you sure? Think. Wasn't there a light or a voice or a presence or some indication that there's something out there?"

"Sorry, Lacey. I remember that feral biting and tearing at me, and the next thing I knew I was wrapped in a sheet under the sand. That's all. Nothing in between."

"Well, I guess that proves it then: this is it. There's no hereafter."

"Oh, but there is," Joe told her.

"You were dead and experienced nothing transcendental, so how can you say that?"

"Because I believe."

As much as she loved him - and even in the strange state he was in, Lacey st ill loved him - she found his resistance to reason exasperating.

"After all that's just happened to you, how can you possibly still believe in a provident god?"

Joe glanced at Carole. "Tell her, Carole."

Carole's brown eyes looked infinitely sad. "I don't think I can. God seems te rribly far away these days."

The simple statement, delivered so matter-of-factly, seemed to shock Joe. He stared at Carole a moment, then sighed. "Yeah, He does, doesn't He. Almost as if He's forgotten about us. But we can't let ourselves think that way. It only leads to despair. We've got to believe that there's a purpose to all - "

"A purpose?" Lacey wanted to throw something. "What possible purpose coul d there be to all this worldwide death and misery?"

"Only God knows," Joe said.

Lacey snorted derisively. "Which means nobody knows."

Joe was looking at her. "Why did you ask me in the first place?"

"You mean, about what it was like being dead? Well, think about it: how m any times do you get a chance to talk to someone who's been dead - someone who's not trying to rip out your throat, I mean?"

"Just idle curiosity?"

"Not idle. You're my uncle and I just. . . wanted to know."

"Would you have believed me if I told you I saw a light, or a golden stairw ay, or a glowing tunnel? Or how about pearly gates and St. Peter with the Book of Life in his hands?"

"Probably not."

"Then why ask at all?"

"I don't know."

"I think you do. I think you're in the market for a little transcendence yourse lf, just like everyone else. Am I right?"

Joe's scrutiny was making her uncomfortable.

"Just because I don't believe doesn't mean I don't want to. Don't you think I'd love to feel that a little spark of me will continue on into eternity after this body is gone? But I can't get past the idea that it's only wishful thinki ng, something we, as a sentient species, have yearned for so deeply and for so long that we've surrounded that need with all manner of myths to convince our selves that it's real."

Joe picked up the knife Lacey had used to cut her thumb, and idly ran his fi nger along the edge.

"All myths have a spark of truth at their core. Look at it this way: doesn't the existence of transcendent Evil indicate that there must be a counterbalan cing transcendent Good?"

"You mean the undead? I'll grant you they're evil, but they hardly strike me as transcendent."

"No?" He was staring at his finger. "I just cut myself. Take a look."

He laid his hand, palm up, on the table. His palm hadn't been exposed to the sun so it was unscarred. Lacey saw a deep slice in the pad of his index fin ger, but no blood.

"I don't seem to have any blood."

Lacey gasped as he jabbed the point of the blade into the center of his palm.

"Father Joe!" Carol cried.

"Uh-uh," he said, removing the knife and waving it at her. "Just Joe, remem ber? I'm not a priest anymore."

"Doesn't it hurt?" Lacey said.

"Not really. I feel it; it's not comfortable, but I can't call it pain." He h eld up his hand. "Still no blood. And yet..." He placed the hand over his hea rt. "My heart is beating. Very slowly, but beating. Why? If there's no blood to pump, why have a beating heart?" He leaned back and shook his head. "Will I ever understand this?"

"You have a better chance than anyone else," Lacey said. "Obviously someth ing else is powering your cells, something working outside the laws of nat ure."

"Which would make it supernatural. And since there's no question that it's evi l..."

"Are we back to that again?"

Carole cleared her throat. "I hate to drag this conversation back to current r eality, but there is something very important we need to discuss."

Lacey looked at her and noticed that she seemed upset. Her hands were locke d together before her on the table.

"What is it, Carole?"

She stared at her hands. "Blood."

Lacey heard Joe groan. She glanced over and saw him lower his ruined face into his hands.

"What blood?" Lacey said.

Carole lifted her eyes. "The blood he needs to survive."

"Oh, that." Lacey shrugged. "He can have some of mine whenever - "

Joe slammed his hands on the table. "No!"

"Why the hell not? You had - what? - three or four drops and that was all yo u needed. Big deal."

"The amount is not the point! A drop, a gallon, what difference does it mak e? It's all the same! I'm acting like one of them - becoming a bloodsucking p arasite!"

"They take it by force. I'm giving this to you. You don't see the difference? It's my blood and I have a right to do whatever I want with it. If I were giving a pint at a time to the Red Cross to save lives you'd say what a fine and noble thing to do. But giving a few drops to my own uncle - a blood relat ive, don't you know - is wrong?"

"Your giving isn't the issue. My taking - that's the problem."

"What problem? Since I'm volunteering, there's no ethical problem. So if it's not ethics, what is it? Esthetics?"

He stared at her. "What are you? A Jesuit?"

"I'm your niece and I care about you and I want to get the sons of bitches who did this to you. With you as you are - part undead, part human - we might have a chance to do real damage. But if you're going to let a little sque a-mishness get in the way - "

"Lacey!" Carole said, giving her a warning look.

Joe had closed his eyes and was shaking his head. "You have no idea what it's like... to have loathed these vermin and then be turned into one. To spend e very minute of the rest of your existence knowing you are a lesser being than you wish to be, that everything you were has been erased and everything you hoped for or aspired to will be denied you." He opened his eyes and glared at her. "You ... don't... know .. . what... it's ... like."

Lacey's heart went out to her uncle. Yes, she could imagine maybe only a ti ny fraction of what he was suffering, but she couldn't let him surrender. Hehad to fight back. She had a feeling that what they decided here tonight could be of momentous importance, and it all hinged on him. That was why sh e had to push him.

"I don't pretend to. But we can't turn back the clock. You've been dealt a lousy hand, Unk - an unimaginably lousy hand - but right now it's the only on e you've got. And it may hold some hidden possibilities that we'll never b e able to use if you fold and leave the game. I know it seems easy for me to sit here on this side of the table say it, but it's a simple truth: you have to accept what's happened and move on. Take it and turn it back on t hem. Use it to make them pay. Make them wish they'd never heard of Father Joe Cahill. Make them curse the day they ever messed with you. If all it t akes is a few drops a day of my blood - which I'm more than willing to donat e to the cause - then where's the downside? They tried to make you like them but something went wrong. They failed. You're not like them - you know it a nd Carole knows it and I know it - and a few drops of blood is not going to change that."

Lacey leaned back, winded. She glanced at Carole who gave a small nod, jus t one.

Joe seemed lost in thought. Finally he shook himself and said, "We'll see. Th at's all I can say now .. . we'll see." He looked out at the growing light fi ltering through the salt-stained picture window. "Let put this aside and go o ut and watch the sunrise."

JOE . . .

Lacey's words tumbled back and forth through Joe's brain as he followed t he two women down to the churning water.

Accept it and move on . . .

Easy for her to say. But that didn't mean she was wrong.

Yet... how do you accept being subhuman?

Turn it against them and make them pay . . .

That he could understand. Take this aching emptiness inside and fill the voi d with rage, pack it in like gunpowder in a cartridge, then take aim at thos e responsible for what he'd become.

Carole had called him a weapon. That was what he would become.

He joined Carole and Lacey at the waterline and stood between them. Gently he placed a hand on each of their shoulders, Carole flinching but not pulli ng away, Lacey leaning against him. He realized he loved them both, but in very different ways.

He noticed Carole checking her watch as the sun hauled its red bulk above the rumpled gray hide of the Atlantic. Immediately he sensed its heat, just as he'd felt the fever of the setting rays last night.

Lacey turned to him. "You're okay?"

"I can tell I'm more sensitive than I ever was in life, but it's nothing I can't to lerate.".. . than I ever was in life. . .

How indescribably strange to be able to say that.

Lacey smiled. "Maybe we'll just have find you some SPF 2000 sun screen."

"I'm just grateful I won't have to live like them - hiding in the day and crawli ng out only at night. I don't know if I could take that."

They stood for a while with the waves lapping at their feet and watched the birds and the surf and spoke of how the undead plague hadn't affected the be auty of the world or touched its wildlife. Humanity had borne the full brunt of the assault.

Lacey said, "Some of my radical ecology friends, if they're still alive, probab ly think it's all for the good - the fall of civilization, I mean."

Carole shook her head. "How could they possibly - "

"The end of industry, of pollution, overcrowding, all that stuff they hate.

No more forests being raped, no more fluorocarbons depleting the ozone, al l their causes made moot because the undead don't seem to be into technolog y."

"Only the technology that helps them keep their 'cattle' alive. Franco went on to me about how once you've turned, your existence becomes entirely focus ed on blood. All the other drives - for money, knowledge, achievement, even se x - are gone. The undead are immune to cold and see in the dark so they have n o interest in keeping the electricity running except as far as their cattle need it to survive. Even so, I'll bet the power will be off more than it's o n. Over time I can see the level of technology declining and the world devol ving into some sort of pre-industrial-level feudal order. They don't seem to need technology. Or perhaps have no mind for it is better way of putting it. They already call their human helpers 'serfs.' That will be the social ord er: undead lords, serfs, and herds of human catde."

"If only the Internet were still around," Lacey said. "We could communicat e, organize - "

"The Internet is history, I'm afraid - with no reliable power source, few work ing phone lines, and a decimated server network, it's a goner."

Joe felt his skin beginning to tingle, as if the sand were blowing, but ther e was no breeze. He glanced at the sun and thought it looked considerably br ighter than a few moments ago. Hotter too.

"Is anyone else hot?"

Carole and Lacey shook their heads.

"No, not really," Carole said.

Lacey spread her arms and lifted her face to the glow. "It feels good."

"Does anyone mind if we go back inside? It's a little too warm for me."

He turned and started back up the dunes; Carole and Lacey came along, one on either side. As they neared the house, Joe felt his exposed sunward ski n - the back of his neck, his arms, his calves - begin to heat up, as much fro m within as without.

With the growing discomfort pushing him toward the house, he quickened hi s pace. Or tried to. He felt unsteady. His legs wobbled like an old man's - a drunken eighty-year-old's. Still he somehow managed to pull ahead of Carole and Lacey.

"Unk!" Lacey cried from behind him. "Unk, your skin!"

He looked down and saw that his skin was starting to smoke wherever the dire ct rays of the sun touched it. He broke into a lurching run.

The sun! Cooking him! Had to escape it, find shade, shelter, darkness! The v ery air seemed to catch fire around him, glowing with white-hot intensity. A heartbeat ago the house had been less than a hundred feet ahead, now he cou ldn't find it through the blaze of light. And even if he could he doubted he'd reach it on these leaden legs. His knees weakened further and he stumbled, but felt a pair of hands grab his left arm before he could fall.

"We've got to get him inside!" Carole cried close to his ear.

Other hands grabbed his right arm.

Lacey. Carole. They had him and were supporting him, tugging him forward on his rubbery legs.

They burst through the broken door and into the shady interior.

But even inside the sunlight pursued him through the doorway and sizzled th rough the big picture window, chased him like a fiery predator, reaching fo r him with flaming talons of light. He shook off Carole and Lacey and stumb led headlong on into the deeper, shadier areas of the front room.

Not enough. The reflected sunlight, from the glass table top, even the walls an d floors, felt toxic, like scalding acid.

More - he needed more protection. No basements in these bungalows. He spotte d the alcove to his right and veered for it. The bedrooms. He barreled int o the one toward the rear. It faced north and west - the darkest place in th e house at the moment. His legs finally gave way and he collapsed in a hea p next to the bed. Thank God the curtains were closed. He grabbed the flow ered yellow bedspread and rolled it around him, cocooning himself with the stench of his own seared flesh.

The touch of the fabric against his scorched skin sent waves of agony to h is bones, but stronger than the pain was the numbing lethargy seeping thro ugh his limbs and mind. Only fear kept him from succumbing, fear that his tolerance to sunlight had been only temporary and now was deserting him. Was it a sign that whatever remnants of humanity that had lingered with him last night were ebbing away, leaving him more like the creatures he loath ed? He prayed not.

He prayed especially that he wasn't turning feral. He saw the creature's rava ged face now, the one Franco had called Devlin, remembered its mad eyes, devo id of reason, compassion, or any feeling even remotely human, heard its besti al screams as it clawed at the door, remembered its talons sinking into his s houlders, felt its hot foul breath on his throat just before its fangs tore i nto his flesh.

And worse, he remembered Franco's parting words.. . . when you look at Devlin you are seeing your future... he didn't retain e nough intelligence to distinguish between friend and foe... sol can't even use him as a guard dog... in less than two weeks you'll be just like Devlin, only a little less intelligent, a little more bestial. . .

Was he losing his mind along with his tolerance for sunlight? Was his desce nt incomplete, still in progress? Was he still changing, devolving further into an even lower life form? Was this another step down the road toward De vlin's fate?

He heard Carole's voice from somewhere in the room.

"Joseph! Joseph, are you all right?"

He could only nod under the bedspread, and even that was an effort. He dare d not speak, even if his numb lips would permit it.

"The mattress!" Carole's voice again. "Help me with it."

"Help - help you what?" Lacey said.

"We've got to tilt it up against the window. That way when the sun comes ar ound behind the house it won't shine into the room."

Carole . .. wonderful Carole . .. always thinking ...

The lethargy deepened, tugging Joe toward sleep, or something like it... the deathlike undead daysleep. He tried to fight it. He'd thought, he'd hoped t hat he'd escaped falling victim to the undead vermin hours, hiding from the sun, slithering around at night. Now that hope was lost. He was more like th em than he'd thought or wished or prayed against, and was falling closer and closer to their foul state with every passing hour.

The nightmarish thought chased him into oblivion.

CAROLE . . .

"We almost lost him."

The two of them slumped on the front room's rattan furniture, Carole in a cha ir, Lacey half stretched out on the sofa.

"I know," Carole replied.

Oh, how she knew. That had been too close. Her insides were still shaking. Th e sight of his skin starting to smoke and cook as he was walking . .. caused by this same sunlight bathing her now in its warmth .. . she'd never forget i t. Worse, the reek of his burnt flesh still hung in the air.

Lacey kicked at the cocktail table, almost knocking its glass top onto the flo or. "I don't know what to say, I don't know what to think, I don't know what t o do! This is just so awful. It's a nightmare!"

Carole looked down at her trembling hands. How things had changed. Early l ast evening she'd been ready to drive a stake through his heart. And now s he wanted him to survive.

For as the three of them had talked during the dark hours, Carole had begun to sense a plan. Not her plan... the Lord's. She thought about all the twists and turns of the past thirty-six hours.

After leaving her partially demolished house, why had she turned left inste ad of right? If she'd turned the other way she never would have run into La cey. It was because of Lacey that she'd returned to the church and the conv ent. And it was there that she'd been staring out her convent room window j ust at the instant a winged vampire had flown away from the rectory. There were so many other things she could have been doing at that moment, yet she'd been standing at the window, watching the night. She'd been holding Fath er - no, he doesn't want to be called "Father" anymore ... a hard habit to br eak - Joseph's cross at that moment. Had that inspired her?

Imagine if she hadn't seen the departing vampire. She wouldn't have searche d the rectory basement and found Joseph's body. But what had inspired her t o bring him to the beach? At the time she'd thought it a good place because it was deserted and they could dig more quickly in the sand.

But had Divine Inspiration been at work? For if they'd tried to bury Josep h somewhere besides the beach, he wouldn't have been exposed to the first rays of the morning sun. That brief exposure seemed to have partially undo ne the vampires' work. The purifying rays had healed his wound and burned away some of the undead taint. Not all - a few more minutes in the light sur ely would have burned away too much, leaving him truly dead - but enough so that he remained Joseph instead of something foul and evil. What had inspi red Carole to pull him into the shadows of his grave just in time to save him?

Yes... save him. For what?

The only answer that made any sense was that Joseph had been chosen to be come the mailed fist of God, a divine weapon against the undead.

But the poor man was going through the tortures of the damned to become th at weapon. Pain, disfigurement, self-loathing, the debasement of blood hun ger - why did it have to be this way? Why did he have to suffer so? Were the se trials a fire through which he had to pass to be tempered as a weapon?

The thought of fire brought her back to the sun . . .

"How long was Joseph in the sunlight this morning?"

Lacey shrugged. "I don't know. An hour maybe? It's hard to say. Certainly n o more than that."

"An hour," Carole mused. "Not much. That's an hour longer than any true va mpire can stand, but maybe it's enough."

"Enough for what?"

"For the war the three of us are going to wage."

She placed her hand over the spot where Joseph had touched her shoulder at s unrise. More than an hour ago but her skin still tingled, as if his hand wer e still resting there. That single touch, that gentle weight of his hand on her shoulder, meant more to her than his embrace outside the church when the y'd been reunited a few nights ago.

Despite what had been done to him and how the sun had disfigured him, desp ite what he had become, she sensed the desperate struggle within him again st the undead taint in his flesh, in his mind, in his being, and she admir ed him more than ever for that refusal to be dominated. He'd win, she knew he would win.

God help her, she still loved him. More than ever.

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