Chapter 9

JOE . . .

He awoke in a snap. No lingering drowsiness, no stretching or yawning. Asle ep, then awake, with tentacles of a dream still clinging to him.

The dream... more like a nightmare - or in this case, a daymare. He remembe red clinging to the lip of a rocky precipice, his feet dangling and kicking over an infinity of swirling darkness. But not empty darkness. This seemed a live, and it had been beckoning him, calling to him all day . . .

The worst thing was that a part of him had longed to answer, tried to convinc e the rest of him to let go and tumble into that living abyss.

He shook off the memory and pushed at the fabric enshrouding him. After an instant of panicked deja-vu - had he been buried again? - he remembered rolli ng himself in the bedspread this morning. He pulled his way free and found himself on the floor of the rear bedroom. The room was hot, stuffy, and d usty, but not dark. He lifted his head. Over the naked top of the double b ox spring he saw its mattress tilted against the west window. Orange sunli ght leaked around its edges. The sun was setting but not down yet.

Not down yet...

A sudden surge of excitement pushed him to his feet. He stepped closer to the mattress, surprised at not feeling stiff and sore after a whole day on woode n flooring. A ray of sunlight, dust motes swirling like fireflies along its p ath, was poking past the right edge to light up a square on the room's east w all. Hesitantly, Joe edged his hand toward the ray. This could hurt. This cou ld be like sticking his hand into a pot of boiling water.

He gritted his teeth. Hell, what was he waiting for? Fast or slow, if he was going to burn, he was going to burn.

He shot his hand forward and back, in and out of the ray. It felt hot but not hing like boiling water. He looked at his palm where the sun had licked it. No blisters. Not even red.

He tried it again, this time holding his hand in the light. Hot, but bearable. Definitely bearable.

Taking a breath, he tipped the mattress back, letting the light flood into th e room and bathe him. He gasped at the sudden blast of heat and squinted in t he brightness, but held his ground. He could do this. Yeah, he could do this.

With jubilation spurring him, he hurried out into the front room where he f ound Carole asleep on the couch. He stopped and stared down at her, captiva ted. Her face in sleep had relaxed into a soft, gentle innocence, as if the last few months had never happened. This was the Carole he'd known. He wan ted to wake her but couldn't bring himself to break the spell.

He stepped back to the alcove and peeked in the front bedroom. Lacey lay h uddled under the covers.

Okay, let them both sleep.

Back to the front room where he slipped as quietly as possible through the broken door and out into the light. He walked a few steps north to where su nlight gushed between the bungalow and its neighbor. He bathed in its flow, spread his arms and dared it to harm him.

"Joseph? Are you all right?"

Carole's voice. He turned and saw her approaching across the boards. Her f eatures hadn't yet fully recomposed themselves into their harder, waking l ook. He wanted to throw his arms around her but knew that would be a mista ke.

"Yes. Fine. At least for now. How long till sunset do you think?"

She glanced at her watch. "It set at 7:11 yesterday, so - "

"Are you sure? I seem to remember the sun setting later than that in May."

Carole shrugged. "I guess I never got around to switching to Daylight Savin gs Time. Not much point, is there."

"I guess not. So you keep a log?"

"In my head. It's very important to know when the sun is going to be around and when it's not."

Of course it was. And he should have known that a former science teacher lik e Sister Carole would be methodical as all hell about it.

"When does it set tonight?"

"About a minute later. Around forty-five minutes from now." She looked up f rom her watch. "You seem to be able to tolerate the first and last hours of sunlight."

"Why is that, do you think?"

"It may be due to your sun exposure before you turned. Maybe it burned some of the undead taint out of you, leaving you tolerant to the more attenuate d rays of the sun."

"Attenuated?"

"As it nears the horizon, the sun's rays have to travel through more layers o f atmosphere to reach you. Those extra layers absorb and refract the light. I t's that same refraction that causes the sun and moon to look darker and larg er when they're low in the sky."

"Well, thank you, God, for refraction." He was glad he didn't have to face th e prospect of never seeing the sun again.

"Then again," Carole said, a faint smile playing about her lips, "refraction may have nothing to do with it, and you should be thanking God directly."

"Why?"

"Maybe He's given you these extra two hours as an edge over the undead. Two hours during which you can move about while they can't."

Joe thought about that. Two hours ... if he was going to make a strike aga inst the undead, those two hours offered the perfect windows. He didn't kn ow about God Himself arranging this, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. He was not going to waste this advantage.

"I like the way you think, Carole. But first we need an agenda. And the first thing on that agenda should be contacting the church and letting those peopl e know I'm still alive."

"But you can't let them see you like this, or let them know you - "

"Absolutely not. We'll have to think of something that'll keep them together and fighting on without me. Because I'll be fighting my own war. I want to take the fight to the undead, get in their faces and hit them where it will really hurt: New York."

Yes. Franco. He wanted to see that smug son of a bitch again - and when he d id, it would be on his terms, not Franco's.

"What's this about 'my' war?" Lacey said. Joe turned to see her standing beh ind them, rubbing her eyes. "This is our fight too, Unk."

He smiled. "I could use the help, but..."

The thought of either of these two precious people getting hurt because of him... he couldn't go there.

"But what?" Lacey said. "You're afraid we'll get killed or something? I figu re we're as good as dead if we do nothing, so we might as well go down doing something. Better than sitting on our asses and waiting for the ax to fall."

Carole rolled her eyes. "You have such a way with words."

Lacey shrugged. "Am I right or am I right?"

Joe had to admit she was right. He faced the reddened, swollen sun as it near ed the rooftops. He could look at it now, and it barely heated his skin.

"Okay then," he said. "But we'll have to run this like a military operation."

"Does that mean you want to be made general?" Lacey said through another yawn.

"No. Carole's the most experienced. She should be our general."

Carole waved her hands. "Oh, no. Not me."

Lacey squinted at him. "You know much about military operations?"

"Not a thing. But I figure we need reconnaissance and intelligence. And mos t of all, we need to practice before we head for New York."

Lacey nodded. "Sort of like an out-of-town tryout before hitting Broadway, right?"

"Right. And I think the local nests can provide just the sort of rehearsals we'll need."

LACEY . . .

"We have to tell the parishioners something" Joe said. "Any ideas?"

Lacey watched him, looking for the first signs of what she knew must come. They were back in the bungalow, seated around the cocktail table in the same places as last night. A single candle set on the glass top lit their faces.

"Why don't we tell them the truth?" Carole said.

Lacey shook her head. "This is one case where the truth shall not set them fre e. Besides, it's too . .. complicated."

"How about a form of the truth?" Joe said. "We'll tell them that the vampires attacked me, tried to turn me, but failed. I survived but I'm badly hurt. I need time to recover and until I do... until I'm back to my old self" -  which will be never, he thought grimly - "I've got to stay out of sight."

"Right," Lacey said, liking the idea. "You're in hiding until you heal up becau se they're out there looking for you, trying to finish the job they started."

"Works for me," Joe said. "How about you, Carole?"

"Well..." She frowned. "It's not exactly true."

"But it's not exactly false," he said.

She shrugged. "I've no objection, but if I were in their place I'd be wonder ing why you wouldn't want to heal up among them ... safety in numbers and al l that."

Joe didn't answer. All of a sudden he seemed distracted. Lacey watched his right hand trail down to his abdomen and press on it.

Her heart sank. The hunger ... it was starting.

She force-fed brightness into her tone. "We'll just say that you feel it's sa fer to stay away. Your presence there might trigger an assault on the church, causing unnecessary casualties. When you're fully healed you'll return. But till then they must be brave and vigilant and keep up the fight, blah-blah-bl ah."

Joe nodded absently, both hands over his stomach now. "Good... sounds g ood."

Carole said, "Then the next question is, how do we get this message to them?"

Lacey kept her eyes on her uncle. "How about a letter, hand written by their Father Joe himself? You and I could 'find' it and read it to the parishioners."

Carole shook her head. "They don't know his handwriting. Some of them will think it's a fake. Doubt will spread, ruining the whole plan."

Carole was right. Lacey searched for an alternative. She thought of having Joe sneak up to the church at night and speak from the shadows to someone he trusted - Carl, maybe - but discarded the idea. Too chancy. Too many ways it could backfire, especially if anyone caught sight of his ruined face. They'd think he was an impostor.

Then it came to her, so obvious she kicked herself for not thinking of it imm ediately.

"We'll tape you! All we need is to get hold of a little cassette recorder and have you record your message. We leave it at the church for someone to find.

It'll have a note saying it's from you. They'll play it and recognize your v oice. No doubters then."

Carole nodded. "Brilliant. I know a Radio Shack not far from here that ought to have a cassette recorder."

Lacey looked at Joe. His teeth were clenched. He didn't seem to be listening.

She grabbed the flashlight and headed for the bathroom. Not that there was a ny water pressure in the town's system to make the bathroom useful for its in tended functions, but she needed to be away from Carole. She placed the flash light on the glass shelf under the medicine cabinet. . . next to the steak kn ife she'd left here earlier just for this purpose.

Picking up the knife, she called, "Uncle Joe? Could you come in here a sec?"

When she heard him approaching, she bit her lip and sliced the pad of her le ft index finger. She jumped with the pain, almost dropping the knife.

Damn, that hurt!

She placed the knife in the sink and cupped her right hand under the finger.

"Something wrong?" Joe said as he came up behind her.

"Close the door, will you?"

When she heard it close she turned and held her bloody finger up to his lips. "Here," she whispered. "I know you need it."

He turned his head and stepped back. "No!"

Lacey stepped closer. "I thought we settled this last night!" she hissed. "

This is something you need and something I want to give. Don't do this, Unk. I'm already cut and bleeding." She pushed her finger toward his mouth. "Take what you need."

With a groan he grabbed her hand and pressed her finger to his lips. He suc ked hungrily for an instant, then pushed her hand away.

"Enough!" The word sounded as if it had been ripped from deep inside him.

"You're sure?"

He looked away and nodded. "Look... I'm going out. I need to do some recon noitering, see if I can locate a nest or two."

"Want us to come along?" She opened the medicine cabinet and found a tin of Band-Aids.

He shook his head. "Better if I do this alone. I'll be less noticeable solo."

He glanced at her, then away again. "Lend me the car keys."

"Carole has them."

"Can you get them for me?"

"Just ask - "

"Please?"

Lacey bit back a remark. She wrapped a Band-Aid around her finger and retu rned to the front room.

"Is everything all right?" Carole asked. Her eyes darted from Lacey's face, t o her bandaged finger then to her eyes again.

"He needs the car to go hunt up some targets. Where are the keys?"

Carole fished them out of her sweatsuit pants pocket. "Alone?"

"He thinks it'll be better that way."

Lacey took the keys back to the bathroom. "I don't understand you," she whis pered. "I thought we straightened this out last night."

"We didn't." His voice was barely audible. "I said we'd see."

"Okay. We've seen. And it was quick and simple. Now tell me, why wouldn't you get keys yourself?"

"Because ... because Carole's in there. One look at me and she'd know."

"So?"

"Let's just drop it."

"No. Tell me."

"Because... because I can't bear being in her presence after doing this. I f eel so ... so diminished." He squeezed her hand. "Got to go."

You poor, poor man, she thought, staring at him. You've got it bad, don't you. And this is tearing you apart.

He squeezed past her and stepped into the front room. He turned right, headi ng for the rear of the bungalow.

"Good-bye, Carole," he said in a choked voice without looking at her. "I'll be back around sunrise."

Lacey leaned against the sink until she heard the back door open and close, t hen she returned to the front room. "Carole," she said. "We've got to talk."

JOE . . .

Standing in the deep moon shadows, he watched the church from afar, listen ed to the hymns echoing from within, saw the daylight-bright glow gushing through the open front doors, and yearned to go inside.

But that was not to be. The huge crucifix hanging over the sanctuary and t he dozens of crosses on the walls - crosses he'd helped fashion with his own hands - would blind him now, make his presence there an ongoing agony. That part of his life was over. The simple comfort of kneeling in a pew and le tting the cool serenity of the church ease the cares and tensions from his soul would be forever denied him. And as for saying Mass . . .

The longing pushed a sob to the back of his throat but he forced it down. In his other existence he might have felt tears running down his cheeks, but t hey remained dry. The undead don't have tears. Their hair doesn't grow. They don't progress or regress, they simply are.

He was about to turn away when movement to his right caught his eye. His n ight vision picked out a figure - balding, with a ripe gut bulging over his belt - leaning behind a tree.

Joe, it seemed, wasn't the only one watching the church.

He bent into a crouch and moved a few yards closer. He caught the flash of a Vichy earring.

Not surprising that the undead would want to keep an eye on the church. They had to be furious and more than a little unsettled by these defiant "cattle."

With a start Joe realized that they might be watching for him.

Of course. Franco had expected him to rise from the dead in the rectory an d start feeding on the parishioners. He must know by now that that hadn't happened. He'd want to know why. Never in a thousand years would he guess the truth.

Franco had to be baffled. His beautiful plan had gone awry. More than awry, it had gone bust. He had to be furious.

Joe cradled the thought, letting it warm him, feeling the best he'd felt all nigh t.

He found a place between a couple of waist-high shrubs where he could watch the watcher without being seen. He settled onto the ground. Despite his li ghtweight shirt and shorts, the damp earth and cool breeze didn't chill him. He felt perfectly comfortable. Extremes of temperature didn't seem to bot her him.

What else wouldn't bother him? He had much to learn about, this new existen ce, this altered body he'd be wearing into the future.

The future... what did that mean anymore? How long could he exist? Would he go on indefinitely like the true undead? And beyond that hazy future, w hat of his salvation? What of his soul? Did he still have one?

The possibility jolted him. What if his soul had departed after Devlin had torn him up? Was he an empty vessel now, marked and doomed to wander the earth like Cain, offensive to the sight of God and man?

Joe shifted his gaze to the dark blotch of the graveyard to the left of the church. He could almost pick out Zev's grave among the shadows.

Zev, he thought. Where are you, old friend?

How he wished he were here tonight, sitting beside him. He longed for the c omfort of his wit, the honed edge of his Talmudic intellect. He wouldn't ha ve answers, but he'd know the questions to ask, and together they might com e to understand this, or at least find a path toward understanding.

Here, on his own, would he ever understand what he'd become? Was there an yone else like him on earth? He doubted it. He was sui generis.

The quote, Alone and afraid in a world he never made, trailed through his h ead. Whoever wrote that hadn't been thinking of Joe Cahill, but could have been.

Joe watched the watcher through the night. When the sky started to lighten, t he Vichy slunk away from the tree and started walking south. Pistol in hand, the man kept to the center of the street, looking wary. Dear Carole, all on h er own, had filled their rotten hearts with terror.

Joe paralleled his path, traveling through the backyards of the deserted hou ses lining the street, catching only occasional glimpses of him between the buildings, but that was enough.

Although Joe's was a much more difficult route, hopping fences and ducking through hedges, he felt no sense of exertion. He wasn't even breathing hard.

He stopped as he realized with a start that he wasn't breathing at all. He h ad to take in air in order to talk, but otherwise he didn't need to breathe.

No blood, no respiration - what was powering his body? He didn't know, might never know.

He'd lost ground on the Vichy and hurried to catch up. The task of tailing him became dicier as he entered the business district. Too open, with no co ver. Joe had to settle for huddling in a doorway and watching him. After wh at Lacey had told him about her abduction, he had a good idea of where the man was headed.

Sure enough, the Vichy stopped before the Post Office where he met with ano ther pair of his kind.

And then, out of the shadows, a group of undead, seven males and a female, a ppeared as a group. Joe couldn't make out their faces from this distance. He couldn't hear their words, either, but he saw a lot of shaking heads and te nse, unhappy postures.

He was more sure now than ever that they'd been searching for him.

With the arrival of another trio of Vichy, the first three left. The second th ree took up guard positions as all eight undead trudged up the Post Office ste ps. Joe noticed that six of the males clustered around the female while a lone male brought up the rear. Something familiar about that solitary figure, but Joe couldn't place it.

No time to think about it either. He broke into a run. Dawn was coming and h e had to race the sun to the beach.

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