... and Fancies

And then the Necroscope had dreamed of Darcy Clarke, which was also a form of nightmare, for in it Darcy was dead and his voice came to Harry as deadspeak.

Even so it didn't come clearly but was distorted, drifting a thousand echoes coming together from all directions and combining to form a strange, out-of-sync sighing.

I couldn't believe you would have done that to me, Harry, said Darcy when he'd established his identity. I mean, I knew the moment they killed me - when I saw that they actually could kill me, despite my guardian angel - that you were responsible. It could only have been something you did inside my head when you were in there. You killed off the thing that watched out for me, and so left me vulnerable. But I still can't believe you would, and I still don't know why. I thought I knew you, but I didn't know you a damn!

This is just a dream, Harry answered him then. This is my conscience - while I still have one - giving me trouble because I protected myself at someone else's expense. This is a nightmare, Darcy, and you're not really dead. It's just me blaming myself that I had to interfere inside your head. As for why I did it: to be sure that if you came up against me before I was out of here, then that you would be vulnerable. Because of all the talents in E-Branch, yours is the one that scares me most. It gives you the edge, makes you invincible. I could try to stop you again and again, and fail, but you would only have to pull the trigger once and I'd be a goner. And it wouldn't be new to you - you could do it-for you've done it before.

Darcy's deadspeak presence was gathering itself now, coming together as an act of sheer will, so that his fragmented voice lost its echoing sigh and took on authority as he said: It's no dream, Harry. I'm dead as can be. And even though I've come to you while you're asleep, still you should be able to see that. But if you doubt me, why not ask your thousands of friends, the Great Majority? The teeming dead will tell you I don't lie. I'm one of them now.

A cop-out! Harry answered, smiling and shaking his head. I can't ask the dead anything, because they don't want to know me any more. Hey, I'm a vampire, remember? I'm not one of you living guys, and I'm not one of those dead ones. I'm somewhere in the middle, Darcy. Undead. Wamphyri!

Harry, said Darcy, bitterly, there's no need for all this subterfuge. You don't have to try out your Wamphyri word-games on me. I'm admitting it: you won. I don't know why you wished me dead, but anyway you got your wish. I am dead! I really am.

Harry tossed and turned in his bed and began to sweat. Sometimes, like any other man, his dreams were just so much junk; or again they might be erotic or esoteric fancies and fantasies; or they could be, well, just dreams. But at other times they were a lot more than that. And this was beginning to feel like one of those times.

OK, he finally said, still unconvinced and wanting desperately to stay that way, so you're dead. So who killed you? And why?

The Branch, Darcy answered, with a typical deadspeak shrug. Who else? Whatever you did to my mind, the mere fact that you'd been in there gave me mind-smog. You interfered inside my head, cancelled something, took something away from me. And in its place I got your taint. No, I'm not saying you vampirized me, just that you... spoiled me. They could smell you on me - in the heart of my being - and they daren't take any chances with me. Which was surely the way you planned it... ?

Harry thought about it a moment, then said: Darcy, if you really are dead, if this isn't just my conscience acting up - because you're right and I did interfere with your mind, which I know was wrong - then I'll be able to find you when I'm awake. I mean, we'll be able to talk to each other again, through deadspeak. Right?

He sensed the other's nod. I'll be waiting for you, Harry. Except... it isn't easy. I'm still learning how to get it all together.

Eh? Will you explain?

They burned me and scattered my ashes, Darcy told him. I'm sure I don't have to tell you why...? But it means I have no focal point. I don't belong in any special place. I'm blowing on the winds, drifting on the tides, flushed away down the city's sewers.

And suddenly the Necroscope suspected it was true, and he began to toss and churn in his bed that much more violently. It seemed that Darcy picked up his torment, for when he spoke again his words were less harsh, even conciliatory. If I wrong you with accusations, Harry, it's only because you've wronged me.

This has to be a nightmare, Harry gasped. Darcy it has to be! I didn't mean to harm you. Of all the men I've known, you are the one I couldn't harm! Not under any circumstances. Not because of your talent but because... because you're you. And so you see, this has to be a bloody awful nightmare.

And now Darcy knew that indeed Harry was just as innocent as ever, and that if anyone - anything - were to blame, then it was the creature inside him, which was rapidly becoming one with him. He would have comforted him then, if there was a way, but he felt himself drifting again, coming apart, and he knew he didn't have the strength or the know-how to keep it together. He was only recently dead, after all.

I'll be... around when you're awake, Harry. Try contacting me then. It will be... easier... if you... come looking... for me...

And with that Harry was alone again. For a while, at least. Gratefully, he relaxed and sank down deep in his bed, and even deeper into sleep. As is the way of dreams, he quickly forgot the last one and prepared to move on to the next �C

- Which was when the Necroscope dreamed of someone else. Except that this time he knew for sure it was more than just a dream and that his visitor was or had been more than merely human. For his parasite responded to this visitor - this other vampire - in typical Wamphyri fashion, prompting Harry to inquire: Who are you, that you dare come creeping into my sleeping thoughts? Answer quickly... there are doors in my mind which would swallow you whole!

Ahhh! came back the answer at once. So it's true. You won your fight with Janos, but you also lost. I'm so sorry, Harry. So sorry.

And now Harry knew him. Ken Layard! he said. We took your head and burned your body in the mountains over Halmagiu. And you went willingly to your death.

Layard answered with a deadspeak nod. Death was nothing compared to the prospect of being undead, in thrall to Janos Ferenczy. He would have put me down into ashes, too... but only to have me at his beck and call, and bring me up again whenever he had need of my talent! Anyway, and as you said, I went willingly. For I knew it would be harder for me if I tried it the other way. And Bodrogk and his Thracians were quick about it. I didn't feel a thing.

Harry's deadspeak thoughts turned sour. But you owe me one, right? The worst one you can give me? Because whichever way you look at it, I was the one who tracked you down. And now they're about to track me down, and so you've come to gloat.

Layard was taken aback. How wrong can you be, Harry? he said. Listen, I know you've been getting a hard time from the teeming dead, but you still have a few friends left!

You came in friendship?

I came to say thanks! For Trevor Jordan.

Harry shook his head. I don't follow you.

To thank you for what you did for him. And to offer my help if there's anything I can do for you.

The Necroscope began to make sense of it. Trevor was your friend and colleague, right? You and he were one of the best teams - one of the best partnerships - E-Branch ever had.

The best! said Layard. So when I died it was only natural I'd want to keep tabs on him, see how he made out. What I did best in life came even easier in death, and in life I'd been one hell of a locator. Which was pretty fortunate for me, else I'd have had a really dreary time of it. What, me? A vampire? The dead didn't want to know me, Harry.

So locating people you'd known in life occupied a little of your time, eh?

A little of it? All of it! I mean, once you get over your fear of death - of being dead - it can pretty soon get boring! So I traced Trevor, and discovered that he was dead, too, and I would have spoken to him except the Great Majority did a job on me and blocked me out. There are some fine talents among the dead, Harry, and not a lot they can't do if they've a mind. So they'd throw up a lot of deadspeak flak every time I tried to talk to anyone. Anyone, that is, except...

... Me?

Exactly! They'll do their damnedest to mess us around, but they don't mess with us! We want to talk to each other, that's fine - just as long as we're not trying to pervert one of them.

I see, Harry said. So the only way you could get to speak to Trevor was through me.

That's right.

Except you're too late and your deadspeak won't work anyway - because Trevor is alive again. Which means you still can't communicate direct but must use me as a go-between.

Complicated but, in a nutshell, correct.

Well, you picked the wrong time, Harry was half-apologetic. Try me when I'm awake.

I'll do that. But in the meantime - maybe I can do you a favour, too.

Oh?

Harry, Layard said, I was one of the good guys a long time before I copped it. And even at the end I was still pretty much my own man. I was a creature of Janos's making, 'in thrall' to him, yes, but given even the smallest chance I'd have taken him out if that were at all possible. It wasn't possible - not for me, anyway - and so I died. But you'll never know how glad I am that he got his, too. So as you said, I owe you one. Not one of the worst but a good one. Like... the talent of locating? How would you like to be a locator, Harry?

It would come in handy, certainly, the Necroscope answered. I already have deadspeak, telepathy, one or two other things. Being able to find someone or thing in a hurry would be a big bonus.

That's what I thought. So maybe we can trade. You get my talent, and I get to talk to you now and then, plus a reintroduction to Trevor Jordan. I mean, you act as our go-between. Trevor would like that, I'm sure.

What will it entail? Harry became cautious.

Well, Layard offered a deadspeak shrug, I'm already in your mind - in contact, anyway - so I suppose you'll just have to open up and let me look deeper inside. I mean, I know my own trick, the mechanism which makes me a locator, and if I can find a similar thing in you...

... And activate it?

Something like that.

And you want me to open up to you of my own free will, right?

Layard chuckled, albeit drily. You've played this game before, Harry.

Harry nodded. Yes, I have, occasionally with disastrous consequences.

Layard was serious at once. Harry, there's none of that shit in me. I was still myself when I went out. I don't have anything up my sleeve.

The Necroscope considered it. But what did he have to lose? Very well, he finally said, except... I've already warned you that my mind's a weird place. Don't try to mess with me, Ken. You don't have much, I know, but I swear if you fool around in there I won't leave you with anything.

Hey, you don't have to convince me!

OK, Harry said. And, after a moment: One last thing. You said you came to thank me, for what I did for Jordan? I take it you mean his resurrection? So how did you know I'd brought him back?

Layard shrugged. Just because the Great Majority don't speak to me doesn't me I can't eavesdrop now and then. Also, the dead don't move around too much, you know? But Trevor does. So I knew that what I'd heard was true. You have a heap of rare talents there, Harry. A pity you didn't get Darcy's too, before they got him!

That focused the Necroscope's attention to a pin-point.

He fastened on it in a moment. Darcy's dead? I thought that was just a nightmare. I hoped it was, anyway. Which means I have to hope this is, too.

You have my sympathy, Harry, Layard told him. But it's all real.

No one brings me any good news any more... Lost for words, Harry shook his head, then deliberately returned to the former subject. All right, Ken, my mind's all yours.

The locator went in - and was out again almost as quickly. And: You're right and that's a strange place, Harry, he said. It's as if it was radioactive in there: hot and cold at the same time! But I found what I wanted; or rather, I didn't find it. You don't have the equipment. There's nothing there for me to switch on.

Harry shrugged. You tried, anyway.

But you do have David Chung's kind of mind.

Chung? The sympathetic locator?

That's right. So I tripped that switch instead. Now all you need is something belonging to the one you need to locate. You focus on it, and bingo! Except being what you are - everything you are - you'll probably be better at it than Chung is.

Harry nodded, said: Well, I suppose it's my turn to owe you again. Thanks, Ken.

Oh, I'll be back later to collect, Layard told him. I mean, Trevor was like my kid brother, you know? And now I'll go and let you get some sleeping done. You're tired, Harry, in mind and body both.

As Layard backed off and faded into nothing, the Necroscope's mind cleared itself for whatever else, whoever else, was waiting. And she didn't take long in coming.

He dreamed of Penny. But was she a dream ... or just a fancy? Even dreaming, he wondered about it: was she an adjustment of psyche - part of the pigeon-holing of mundane occurrences into all the subconscious slots between forget it, through trivial, to highly important - or just a remnant left over from a moment or two of waking lust?

He'd known of course that the dead girl had a crush on him. It had been obvious even from their first meeting. For after all, how many men get to see their ladies naked on a first date? In Harry's day, damn few! Maybe this was simply the extrapolation of something his subconscious mind had been working on, and should have been titled: 'How Things Might Have Been if Harry Keogh Could Spare the Time and if He Wasn't a Bloody Vampire'.

Whichever, it was a soothing and blessed relief to his tormented mind after the nightmare of association with Johnny Found, the delirium of Darcy Clarke's accusations, and the revelations of Ken Layard; and it brought physical relief, too, as he answered Penny's caresses and loved her with his body as any ordinary man loves a girl. The initiative, however, was all hers - had to be - else his exhaustion must drag him down even deeper into dreamless sleep.

And Harry wondered about that, too: how come she knew how to do it all? For after all, he knew she was an innocent ... his little innocent, whose death he would soon avenge.

'Isn't bringing me back enough?' she whispered, guiding his rubbery fingers to her stiffening nipples. 'Do you have to go after him, too? You know, Harry, I've been doing a lot of thinking since all of this happened. And, I mean, I've got so much to be glad for. I was dead, and now I'm alive! It would be sort of ungrateful of me to want revenge, too. Oh, I wanted it at first, I know, but now I'm not so sure. But I'd settle for you, certainly.'

He lay back and listened to her, and felt her small, gentle fingers tight on his flesh where it throbbed, but lazily as yet like a motor waiting for the throttle. And in the darkness she sat up beside him, crouched over him, and patted him with her hands so that he swayed from side to side, jerking and snatching at the darkness.

Are the sexual arts instinctive in some people? Harry couldn't remember who had shown him. Or had he just known? Maybe he would remember when he woke up. But for the moment he didn't want to wake up. Here, now, asleep, he was just a man. No more the Necroscope, no more the vampire, just a man being loved and making love, and waiting for the sweet sucking thing which was the heart of Penny's womanhood to descend on to his silently singing flesh. And hoping against hope that the dream wouldn't fade or change its course, and that he would get to come. The last time he'd made love had been... just weeks ago, but already it felt like forever. He felt full to bursting. Maybe it was just being with this girl, Penny, just being human, which from now on he could never be again.

And the poignancy of that was so great that when at last, gasping, she actually slid her sweet young body down onto him, he came almost at once, like an urgent youth stroking his first love's breasts. And feeling him shuddering within her - the hot spurt of his juices - she clenched him that much tighter, until the jerking of his flesh had spent him to the last drop.

Following which... the gradual resurgence of his need was slow but sure, and her guidance unwavering, until he was in her again.

This time they lay on their sides, and while his left hand stroked, squeezed and compressed the pillow of her right buttock, so the tight tube of her vagina sucked on him for the milk of love and life. And Harry thought: If this were real I wouldn't dare, for fear of making her pregnant with my damned 'milk of life'! Or in my case, my tainted Wamphyri sperm!

And deep inside his vampire laughed at him. Milk of life? Frothing spume of lust, more like. For as everyone knows, only the blood is the true life.

'Harry!' she clawed at his shoulders, rubbed his chest furiously with her flattened, generous breasts. And, 'Harry!' she panted again. 'I'm coming... coming... coming!'

It brought him to climax, too, the thought of her orgasm and the feel of its wet, wrenching tremors. But more than that, it brought him to his senses. Suddenly he was awake. Wide awake in their sweat and their fluids and the pungent smell of their love - which wasn't fading back into the depths of his subconscious mind! Which wasn't the ephemeral stuff of dreams! Which was in fact totally, terribly, real! Because Penny was there in his bed with him!

Harry gasped and opened his eyes, and shot bolt upright in the tumbled bed.

'It's all right, it's OK!' Penny said, grasping his wrists in the moment before she saw his eyes. Then: 'Oh!' she said, as her hand flew to her mouth.

Harry's mind whirled. What the hell was happening here? How had Penny got into the house? Where was Jordan? 'Oh?' he finally repeated her. 'Bloody oh!? Penny, you don't realize what you've done!'

He tossed back the covers and pulled on his clothes; naked, she came after him, drew him to a standstill and reached tremblingly to touch his redly illumined face in the darkness of the room.

'When I was dead,' she said in a whisper, 'they tried to tell me you were a monster. I wouldn't listen to them, because I didn't want to talk to dead people. But I remember they said there was life, and death, and a place between the two. People have existence in the first two places but not in the third, which is reserved for...'

'... For vampires,' Harry cut in, harshly. 'Yes, and for their victims, people they turn into vampires. And for foolish girls who through their thoughtless actions change themselves into vampires!'

She shook her head. 'But you didn't take my blood, Harry. You didn't even make me bleed!' She was defiant. 'I'm almost nineteen and anyway, I wasn't a virgin. I ... I knew a man for a whole year, once.'

'Knew a man!' he snorted. 'You're a child!'

'And you're out of touch!' she hit back. 'It's 1989! Plenty of girls - British girls - get married at sixteen and seventeen these days. Yes, and plenty more prefer not to get married but simply live with their lovers. I'm no child. Are you saying my body felt like a child's?'

'Yes!' he snapped, then gritted his teeth, folded her in his arms and groaned, 'No. You felt - you feel - like a woman. But still a foolish one. Penny, you don't understand. I didn't need to make you bleed. You see, there's something of me in you now. It's not much but it doesn't need to be, for even a little is enough to change you.'

'Then let it, as long as I'm with you.' She clutched him to her. 'You brought me back, Harry, gave me my life. For what it's worth, I owe it to you. All of it. And I want you to have it.'

'You've run away from home?' He put her away from him, to arm's length.

'I've left home,' she sighed. 'Nineteen-eighty-nine, remember?'

He wanted to hit her and couldn't. He thought: Dear God, she's in thrall to me! And then thought, But she was even before this. Except we'd call it a 'crush'. Please don't let anything of me - of that - be in her!

His head cleared; sleep and all that had accompanied it receded; the implications came home to him, fully. 'What time is it?' He glanced at his watch. Only 10:30 p.m. 'How did you find me? More importantly, how did you get in?'

She sensed his urgency and reacted to it. 'What's wrong, Harry?' And now her eyes were frightened.

As he put on the lights and his face took on a more normal aspect, she said, 'When I was here before, I saw the address on some of your mail. I remembered it, remembered everything about you. In fact you haven't been out of my mind for a minute. And I knew I would have to come to you. No matter what.'

'And Trevor Jordan let you in? Without waking me?' Harry hurled open his bedroom door. 'Trevor!' he shouted. 'Will you come - the - hell - up here?!'

There was no answer, just Penny shaking her head.

Harry looked at her: long-legged, yellow-haired, blue-eyed. His gaze took in her firm breasts, thighs and backside, all of her beautiful young body. And the uneven slant of her mouth, which was quite unintentioned but still made her look sexy and somehow provocative. When he'd first seen her like this, naked, there had been ugly black holes in her flesh. But now she was whole again. Whole, but probably unholy.

'Better get dressed,' he said. And: 'Jordan?'

'Gone,' she said, slipping easily into her clothes. 'I told him I had to be with you, but not how I intended to be with you. He made me promise to look after you, and told me to tell you goodbye.'

That's all?'

'No, he also said I shouldn't stay. When he couldn't convince me, then he left. He said you'd understand. Oh, and I remember he said he hoped that - er, E-Branch? -that they would understand, too. For his sake.'

'E-Branch,' Harry echoed her. And then, remembering his dream, 'Darcy!'

'Who?' She was dressed. She stared at him.

'Go downstairs,' he said. 'Make some coffee. For yourself. There's red wine in the fridge for me. Pour me a glass.'

'Harry, I -'

'Do it now!'

She went.

And when he was alone, Harry sent out his deadspeak thoughts to search for Darcy Clarke, and prayed he wouldn't find him... but found him anyway. Found him blowing on the wind, drifting with the tides, flushed away like so much flotsam. Or maybe jetsam? Jetsam, yes: materials hurled from the deck of a ship in peril. Sacrificed for the greater good.

The Necroscope sat on the edge of his bed and shed several hot, slow tears. It was his humanity, amplified by the overpowering emotions of the Wamphyri. Even if he were only human he would have cried, except then his tears wouldn't burn like the overflow of the volcano rumbling within.

'Darcy,' he said, 'who was it?'

lt was you, Harry. Darcy's deadspeak was faint as the wind over the sea, heard in the whorl of a small shell.

'God, I know!' Harry felt stabbed to the heart. 'But who was it physically? Who took your life? And... how did you die? Not the old way?'

The stake, the sword, the fire? No, just a bullet. Well, two bullets. The fire wasn't until later.

'And your executioner?'

Why? So you can go after him? No, no, Harry. For after all he was only doing his job - and he obviously suspected that I was a deadly threat. Also... well, it's a fact my own actions could have been more prudent. So maybe it was as much my fault as it was yours. But on the other hand, maybe if I'd known I was no longer protected, then I would have been more careful.

'You won't tell me who killed you?'

I have told you. You did.

Then I'll have to find out some other time, from someone else.'

Why don't you just steal it out of my deadspeak mind?

'I don't just take. Not from my friends. If you won't tell me of your own free will, then I'll just have to find out some other way.'

But you did take - and not just information - and it most certainly was not of my own free will! So that now I'm a dead friend. Just one of the Great Majority.

A third party asked, 'Find out what some other way?' And Harry gave a small start. But it was only Penny, standing in the doorway with a glass of red wine in her hand. She'd heard the Necroscope apparently talking to himself.

Harry's concentration slipped; Darcy Clarke's dead-speak disintegrated; contact was lost. But Harry wasn't angry. Not with Penny. If he and Darcy had continued, then they probably would have parted on even worse terms. 'Let's go downstairs,' he said. 'Out into the garden. It's a warm night. Are the stars out? I'd like to look at the stars. And think.'

He would like to look at his stars, yes: the familiar constellations. For who could say, maybe it would be his last opportunity. And the stars over Starside were very different. And he would like to think. About what Penny had said, for one thing: did he really need to even the score with Johnny Found? And why the hell should he want to know who had killed Darcy Clarke? Darcy wasn't himself vengeful, was he?

And then there was Ken Layard and his gift. Harry was now a locator. Well, and he always had been, to an extent.

Telepathically, he could readily seek and discover others of his acquaintance, such as Zek Föener and Trevor Jordan. And given an introduction to a dead person, from then on he'd always been able to find his way to that person's graveside. And no matter the distance, he'd rarely had difficulty conversing with such dead friends. But now... the teeming dead didn't much want to speak to him any more.

Some do, said another voice in his metaphysical mind, one which laved him like a shower on a sweltering hot day. It was Pamela Trotter, and she was a breath of fresh air.

Penny had come into the garden with the Necroscope, but of course she hadn't heard Pamela's deadspeak. Harry sent her indoors; if not, she would only talk to him, question and distract him. But turning away towards the house she looked as if she might cry, and so he said: 'I'm not putting you away from me, but I need to be alone for a couple of minutes. After that we'll have lots of time for being together.' Because I'll have to watch you until I'm sure you're just you. Or if it comes to the worst, until I'm sure that you're something else.

His thoughts were deadspeak, or good as, and Pamela picked them up. As Penny went back indoors, so the ex-whore said: A vampire lover, Harry? I'm jealous!

'Well, you shouldn't be.' He shook his head and explained what had happened, the trouble Penny had probably landed herself in.

Hey, I could use that sort of trouble! Pamela retorted. I mean, I really wouldn't mind being undead with someone like you! But... too late for that. I'm not much up to fun and games any more. Maybe just one last time, eh? For the right man, you know?

She went quiet and waited for his answer; a long, pregnant pause which defied him to cry off now. Not that he intended to. Eventually he said, 'You think we should go ahead with it?'

She sighed. Well, no question which one of you is in charge right now.

'Oh?'

You have the upper hand, Harry - the human you. For if your vampire was ascendant you'd have no such doubts. You would know what was right!

Harry gave a snort. 'My vampire would know what to do for the best? The best for my vampire, maybe!'

So what's your problem? (She was becoming impatient with him.) You're one and the same, or will be.

'My problem is simple,' the Necroscope answered. 'If the dark side of me gets its way, the human side loses - perhaps permanently. So maybe I should just let the police have Johnny Found. I know that left to their own devices they'll get him soon enough anyway, because they're right on his tail even now. But - '

- But we had a deal! she cut in. I can't believe you'd want to cry off. I mean, you were so hot for this! Did I let you into my mind - to read what you read there - for nothing? And the other girls? Are they dead for nothing, with no chance to square it? You were the only chance we ever had, Harry. And now you say let the police have him? I mean, fuck the police! Why, they wouldn't even know what to do with him! What, lock him up in a lunatic asylum for a couple of years, then turn him loose to do it again? No! You were right the first time around: he has to pay now. The full price.

He held up his hands. 'Pamela, wait - '

Wait, nothing! You... chickenshit vampire! Have me and the others been digging our way out all this time for nothing?

That took Harry by surprise. 'Others?'

I've made a few friends. And they want to help.

'So.' He shrugged. 'Let them help...'

And after long, wondering moments: Then... you haven't changed your mind?

He shook his head. 'Not for a minute. I was just thinking my way round it, that's all. You're the one who's coming on all excited and changeable.'

She was silent for a count of three, then said, I think that just now, just a minute ago, you deliberately let me run on - or off- at the mouth!

'It's possible,' he admitted, nodding. 'We chickenshit vampires are like that: argumentative just for the sake of it.'

I'm sorry, Harry, (she felt an utter fool), but it's just that we're all set now. And when I homed in on you, it seemed to me you might be reconsidering things.

'No,' he said again, 'just thinking things through - or maybe arguing with myself - for the sake of it. What did you want, anyway?'

He could almost hear her sigh of relief. I was hoping you'd have some idea when we can expect...?

'Soon.' He cut her off. 'It has to be very soon now.' And to himself: Because if I'm going to get Johnny Found, it has to be before E-Branch gets after me. If they're not already after me.

In fact he strongly suspected that they were - no, he knew that they must be - and the night would yet prove him right...

Harry finished his drink and went back inside.

Penny was waiting for him, pale and lovely, and the look on her face begged the question: what's going to become of us? The Necroscope wasn't sure yet, so gave her a kiss instead. Which was when she asked him how it had happened to him. That was something he'd asked himself time and again, until he now believed he had the answer.

Wasting few words, he quickly told her about old Fa��thor Ferenczy's place in Ploiesti, Romania: the once-ruins where an ancient father of vampires had lain, where surely by now the bulldozers had levelled everything and a concrete mausoleum was mushrooming to the grey skies. Except the vast hive would not be intended as a memorial to the evil of Fa��thor (for he had been secretive to the end, so that no one living today remembered him) but to that of the madman Ceausescu's agro-industrial obsession. Anyway, there was nothing of Fa��thor left there now; or, if anything, only a memory. And even then not in the people, only in the earth which the Great Vampire had poisoned.

'I'd lost my talents,' Harry explained. 'I had no dead-speak and was locked out of the Möbius Continuum. But Fa��thor told me he could fix all that if I would only go to see him. I was over a barrel and had to do it; but in fact he did give me back my deadspeak, and he assisted in my rediscovery of the Möbius Continuum. But all of that was incidental to his plan, which was to come back, to return as a Power and a Plague into the world of men.

'As to how he would do it: I still don't know if it was an act of evil will or the automatic action of alien nature. I don't know whether Fa��thor caused it to come about, or if he knew it would happen of its own accord. I can't be sure it wasn't something he himself set in motion, "with malice aforethought", or simply the last gasp of his own vampire's incredible urge for survival. All I know for sure is that there's nothing more tenacious than a vampire.

'The mechanics of the thing were simple: Fa��thor had died when his home was bombed during the war. Staked through by a fallen ceiling beam, and decapitated out of mercy by a man who happened upon the scene, his body had been burned. Nothing of him escaped the fire ... or did it?

'What of his fats - vampire fats - rendered down from his flesh, dripping into cracks in the floorboards, seeping into the earth while the rest of the house and Fa��thor's flesh went up in flames? The Greek Christian priests of old had known how to deal with vampires: how every piece of the Vrykoulakas must be burned, because each smallest part has the power of regeneration!

'Anyway, that's how I see it: Fa��thor's spirit - and not only that but something of the monster's physical essence, too - had remained there in the atmosphere of the place, and in the earth, waiting. But waiting for what? To be triggered? By what? By Fa��thor, when he found himself a suitable vessel or vehicle into the future? I believe so. And also that I was to have been that vehicle.

'Something of him - call it his essential fluids, if you like - had gone down into the earth under his ruins to escape the furnace heat, and when I went to see him and laid myself down to sleep upon that selfsame spot (God, I did, I really did!) then that something surfaced to enter into me. But what was it? I had seen nothing there but a few bats flitting on the night air, which came nowhere near me.

'No, I had seen... something.'

At this point the Necroscope directed Penny's fascinated gaze to a shelf of books on the wall by the fireplace. There were a dozen of them, all with the same subject: fungi. She stared hard at the books, then at Harry. 'Mushrooms?'

He shrugged. 'Mushrooms, toadstools, fungi - as you can see, I've made something of a study of them. In fact they've occupied quite a bit of my time in the last few weeks.' He got her one of the books, titled The Handbook Guide to Mushrooms and Other Fungi, and turned to a well-thumbed page near the back. 'That's not the one.' He tapped a fingernail on the illustrated page. 'But it's the closest I've found. My fungus was more nearly black -and rightly so.'

She looked at the page. 'The common earthball?'

Harry gave a grunt. 'Not so common!' he answered. 'Not the variety I saw, anyway. They weren't there when I settled down to sleep, but they were there when I woke up: a ring of morbid fruiting bodies - small black mushrooms or puffballs - already rotting and bursting open at the slightest movement, releasing their scarlet spores. I remember I sneezed when their dust got up my nose.

'Later, when they'd rotted right down, their stench was... well, it was like death. No, it was death. I remember how the sun seemed to steam them away. Shortly after that, Fa��thor wished me well - which should have been a warning in itself - and advised me not to waste any time but complete the task I'd set myself with despatch. I thought it a queer thing to say, that the way he'd said it had been queer, but he didn't elaborate.'

She shook her head. 'You breathed the spores of a toadstool and became...?'

'A vampire, yes.' Harry finished it for her. 'But they weren't the spores of just any toadstool. These things were spawned of Fa��thor's slime, of his rottenness. They were his deadspawn. But... well, that wasn't all there was to it. For I'd had a lot of truck with vampires, too, over the years, and I'd learned their ways - perhaps learned too much. Maybe that's also part of it, I'm not sure. But at least you can see now why you shouldn't have gone to bed with me. A few spores was enough for me. So ... what about you?'

'But as long as I'm with you...'she began.

'Penny - ' he cut in, ' - I'm not staying here. I'm not even staying in this world.'

She flew into his arms. 'I don't care which world! Take me wherever you go, whenever you go, and I'll always be there to care for you.'

Well, he thought, and I will need someone. And you are a lovely creature. And out loud: 'But I can't go anywhere until Found is finished. It's not just for you but all the others he murdered, too. And one in particular. I made her a promise.'

'Found?'

'Johnny Found, that's his name. And I have to get after him. He has to die because he's... he's like me and all the others I've had to deal with: not meant to be. Not in any clean world. I mean, Found hurts the very dead! Isn't dying enough without him, too? And what if he ever fathers children? What will they be, eh? And will their mother leave them on a doorstep like Johnny was left? No, he has to be stopped here, now.'

Just thinking about the necromancer had worked Harry into a fury, or if not Harry, his vampire certainly. He wondered what Found was doing right now, this very moment.

He more than wondered - he had to know.

Harry freed himself from Penny's arms, put out the light, stood dark in the darkened room and reached out with his metaphysical mind. He knew Pound's address, knew the way there. He sent a probe there, to Darlington, the street, the house, into the ground-floor flat... and found it empty.

This was his chance to take something belonging to the necromancer. Would there be watchers in the street? Probably. But with any luck he wouldn't be there long enough that they'd see him. 'Penny, I have to go somewhere now,' he said. 'But I'll be right back. A few minutes at most. You're to lock the doors and stay right here, in the house.' His red eyes glowed. This is my place! Only let them dare to ... to ... and...'

'Let who dare?' she whispered. 'E-Branch? Let them dare to what, Harry?'

'A few minutes,' he growled. 'I'll be back before you know it.'

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