Red Alert!

Harry flipped quickly through the murder files, discovered the young prostitute's name, home town and place of interment, and made his way at once to her graveside in a small cemetery on the northern outskirts of Newcastle. And the Necroscope had moved so quickly that as he seated himself in the shade of a tree close by Pamela Trotter's simple headstone, so Paxton was still catching his breath where he'd dragged himself up on to the river bank a hundred miles away.

'Pamela,' said the Necroscope, 'I'm Harry Keogh. I believe my mother might have mentioned my name to you.'

Your mother and others, she came back at once. I've been expecting you, Harry - and I've been warned off you, too!

Harry nodded, perhaps ruefully. 'My reputation has suffered a bit lately, it's true.'

Mine suffered a lot, she chuckled. For nearly six years, in fact, ever since I was fourteen and a nice 'uncle' showed me his little pink sprinkler and told me where it went. Actually, I seduced him, for I'd noticed that whenever he was near me he had a hard on. But if it hadn't been him it would have been someone else, because I was just naturally like that. We played around a lot until his old lady caught us at it one day, the jealous old bat! I was going bouncy-bouncy on him when she walked in. He whipped it out but was too far gone and spurted on the carpet. I don't think she'd seen him spurt for a long time, and she'd certainly never had it like that! Come to think of it, I don't think he had either. Not before me. But I liked it all ways. It helps when you enjoy your work.

Harry was silent for a moment, surprised, even a little taken aback. He really didn't know how to answer her.

Didn't your Ma tell you I was a tart, a trollop, a whore? There was no bitterness in her, not even much of sadness, and Harry liked her for it.

'Something like that,' he answered, eventually. 'Not that I think it matters a great deal. There have to be a hell of a lot of you down there by now!'

She laughed and Harry liked her even more. The oldest profession, she said.

'But one night, nearly eight weeks ago, it caught up with you, right?' He felt that with her he could get right to it.

Her assumed indifference fell away from her at once. That wasn't why it happened, she said. I didn't fetch him on. And anyway he didn't want me ... like that.

'It was just an assumption,' Harry told her, quickly. 'I meant no offence, and I'm not eager to bring back hurtful memories. But it's hard to see how I can track this bloke down if no one is able to tell me about him.'

Oh, I'd like to see him get his, Harry, she answered. And I'll help you any way I can. I just hope I can remember enough, that's all.

'You won't know until you try.'

Where do you want me to start?

'First show me how you were, or how you thought you were,' he said. For he knew well enough that the dead retain pictures of themselves as they were in life, and he wanted to try and draw some sort of comparison with Penny Sanderson. In short, he wondered if his necromancer quarry followed a pattern.

From her mind he immediately got back a picture of a tall, dark-eyed, leggy brunette in a mini-skirt, with slightly loose breasts unsupported under a blue silk blouse, and a shapely backside. But there was nothing of character in the picture, her picture, nothing to suggest quality of mind or personality; it was all sensual or outright sexual. Which didn't fit with his first impressions.

So? How was I?

'Very attractive,' he told her. 'But I think you're selling yourself short.'

Often, she agreed, but without her customary laugh. Then she sighed, and that was something Harry was used to in the dead. It was the realization of a time and a thing done and finished with, which could never return. But she brightened up at once. And here am I actually talking to a man, and for once not wondering what he's got in his pants. In the front, and in the back-pocket.

'Was it always like that, for money?'

And sometimes for fun. I've told you, I was nympho. Do you want to get on now?

Harry was embarrassed. She'd given him a stock answer, had obviously heard that question before, often. 'Was I prying?'

It's OK, she answered. All men wonder about it, about what goes on in a pro's mind. But suddenly her deadspeak was very cold. All men except that one, anyway. He doesn't have to wonder, for he can always find out for himself, afterwards, when they're dead.

And with that the Necroscope was sure she'd give him all she could. 'Tell me about it,' he said.

And she did...

It was a Friday night and I went to the dance. Being freelance, my time was my own. I didn't need a pimp touting for me, taking my money and bringing his friends round for freebies. But the dance was in town and I lived quite a few miles out. After the midnight hour taxis are expensive; Cinders needed her coach home.

That was OK; there are always a handful of likely lads who'll buzz a girl home on the chance of a grope. And if I liked the guy and if he wasn't too pushy, maybe he could get more than a grope. A ride for a ride, as the saying goes.

On this occasion I picked the wrong one: no, not our man, but an armful all the same. Once I was in the car his polite, concerned attitude went right out the window. He didn't know what I was, thought I was just a straight kid but easy meat. He could hardly drive for drooling and wanted to stop in every layby and back alley. I was wearing expensive clothes and didn't want them ripped up. And anyway I didn't like him.

He said he knew a place just off the motorway, and before I could tell him I didn't need it he took the fly-on for Edinburgh. In a layby under some trees he made his move, and got my knee in his soft bits for his trouble! When he could drive again he did, but left me stranded there.

There was a service station a quarter-mile up the motorway. I went there and had a coffee. I wasn't shaken up or anything, just dehydrated. Too many gin-and-its at the Palace.

But sitting there in this little booth I was joined by a driver. That was how I saw him: a driver. A long-distance man shaking off his weariness with a mug of coffee.

Don't ask me what he looked like; the place was three-quarters empty and they'd turned the lights low to keep the bills down, and there was still a lot of gin in me. I spoke to him but I didn't really look at him, you know? Anyway, he didn't seem a bad sort and he wasn't pushy. When he finished his coffee and made to stand up, I asked him which way he was heading.

'Where do you want to go?' he said. His voice was soft, not unfriendly.

I told him where I lived and he said he knew it. 'Your luck's in,' he told me. 'I go past it on the motorway. About five miles from here? There's a flyoff where I can drop you. A couple of hundred yards and you'll be at your door. Can't take you any closer than that, I'm afraid, because my miles and fuel are monitored. Anyway, it's up to you. Maybe you'd feel safer calling a taxi?'

But I wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

We left the cafeteria and went out into the lorry park. He was cool and calm, in no hurry. I felt perfectly safe with him. In fact I didn't give it a thought. His vehicle was one of these big articulated jobs, which we approached from the side and the rear. The headlights of a passing car as it flashed by on the motorway lit it up in a swath of light. The lorry had ice-blue panels with white lettering saying: frigis express. I remember it well because the white paint had peeled off one leg of the 'X' making it look like eypress.

But at the back of the lorry my driver paused and looked at me, and said: 'I just have to make sure this door is secure.'

I stood beside him as he unlocked and slid up this roller door across the full width of the truck. A blast of ice-cold air came out, which made me shiver as it turned to a cloud of mist. Inside... there seemed to be rows of things hanging in there, but it was dark and I couldn't see what they were. He reached inside with both hands and did something, then looked over his shoulder and said, 'It's OK.' And I think it was then I realized that I hadn't seen him smile. Not once.

He indicated we should go to the cab, and as he started to pull the door down again I turned away from him. That was when he grabbed me from behind. One arm went round my neck and the other hand held something over my face. Of course I gasped for air - and got chloroform!

I kicked and struggled, but that only makes you gasp all the more! And then I passed out...

When I came to I was lying - or slithering about - on a patch of ice: that's what it felt like, anyway. There was a smell but I couldn't quite make out what it was. I was much too cold; all my senses were numb from the cold. And I felt dizzy and nauseous from the chloroform.

Then I remembered everything and knew I was in the back of the truck, slipping and slithering when he applied his brakes or accelerated. And of course I also knew I was in trouble, in fact dead trouble. Whatever my driver wanted, he was going to get it. And then there was a fair chance that he'd kill me. I'd seen his truck; I could more or less describe him, if not now, certainly later; it was odds on I was a goner.

I propped myself in one corner of the dark refrigerator (I suppose that's what it was: a large mobile fridge, a freezer truck) and tried to get some warmth back into my body. I hugged myself, blew on my hands, beat my arms about. But I was weak from the cold and the after-effect of the chloroform. I didn't have the strength of a kitten.

Then, after - oh, I don't know how long, maybe fifteen minutes - there was a bumpy patch and I heard his airbrakes go on. To this day I don't know where we were, for I never did see the outside again. The truck stopped; in a little while the door rolled up and it was dark outside; a dark figure clambered up panting into the rear of the trailer. He pulled the door shut again and put on a dim interior light, just a single bulb under a grille in the ceiling. And then he came for me.

He was wearing a long coat which was all dark-stained leather on the outside and brown fur inside; he took it off as he approached me and threw it down on me. 'Get on it,' he said, panting with some weird emotion. But his voice was just as cold as the place where he planned to have me, which I now saw was a meat safe. Beast carcases, all grey, brown and red, hung from rows of hooks. And the layer of ice on the floor was frozen beast blood.

There... there doesn't have to be any rough stuff,' I told him. 'We can do it just as you say.' And freezing cold though I was I opened my blouse and hitched up my mini to show him my frilly panties.

He looked down on me in that unsmiling way of his, and I saw that his face was all puffy and bloated, and his eyes winking like little lumps of shiny coal in the swollen red mask of his face. 'Just as I say?' He repeated my words.

'Any way at all. And I swear it will be good. Only just don't hurt me. And you can trust me. Afterwards ... I won't say a word.' I lied like hell. I wanted to live.

Take 'em off,' he panted. 'Everything.'

God, there was no soul behind his voice, nothing behind his eyes. There was just the steam-heat of his body and the pounding of his feverish blood. I could feel how strong he was, and how weird and different. 'Quickly!' he said, and his voice was a croak and his gorged face was wobbling with strain and horrible excitement.

I had to do what he told me, keep him happy. But I was so cold my fingers wouldn't obey me. I couldn't get my clothes off. He got down on one knee and I could see tools glinting in the loops of his wide leather belt. One of them was a meat-hook, which he took out and showed me!

When I gasped and turned my face away, he tore my jacket right off my back; my blouse, too. Then he put the hook in the top of my skirt and ripped it down through the plastic belt and material, laying it open. He ripped open my panties in the same way. And all I could do was huddle there as cold as one of the dead animals on its hook. And I thought: What if he uses that hook on me? But he didn't. Not the hook.

Then he was tearing his clothes off: not his upper clothes, just his pants. And I knew this was it. But a man as strong and as dangerous as this could hurt me badly. I had to make it as easy for him - as easy for myself - as possible. I opened my legs and stroked my bush of cold hair. And God help me, I tried to smile at him. 'It's all here,' I said, my words turning to snow as they came out. 'All for you.'

'Eh?' he grunted, looking at me, his penis huge and jerking about on its own, with a life of its own. 'All for me? All for Johnny? That?' And then he smiled. And he took up another of his tools.

This one was like a knife, but it was hollow and had been cut from steel tubing about an inch and a half in diameter, cut at an angle, to give it a sharp point. And its edges had been sharpened to razor brightness.

'Oh, God!' I gasped then, for I couldn't hold my terror any longer. And I clutched at myself and tried to cover my nakedness. But my driver, my all-too-soon-to-be murderer, that... that thing, he only laughed. There was no emotion in it, not as I understood emotion, but he laughed anyway.

'Yes, cover yourself,' he gurgled at me, the saliva of his lust overflowing from his wobbling, grimacing mouth. 'Cover it up, girlie. For Johnny doesn't want your ugly little fuckie hole. Johnny makes his own holes!'

He moved closer and his flesh was alive and leaping, bursting for me. And then... and then...

'It's OK.' It was as much as Harry could bear. His voice was trembling, broken. 'I know what then. You've said enough. I ... I'll go on what I have.'

Pamela was crying now, spilling out her poor mutilated soul, all of her defiance and resilience crushed and drained from her by the horror of what she'd forced herself to remember for the Necroscope.

He ... he made my body ugly! she sobbed. He made holes in me! Before I was dead he was into me. And after I was dead I could still feel him grunting on me, hurting me. It's not right that when you're dead someone should still be able to hurt you, Harry.

'It's OK, it's OK,' was all Harry could say to comfort her. But even saying it he knew it wasn't, knew it wouldn't be until he himself had put this thing right.

She took this from his deadspeak, understood his resolve, reinforced his anger with her own. Get him for me, Harry! Get that dog's bastard for me!

'And for myself,' he told her. 'For if I don't I know he'll always be there, clinging like slime to the walls of my mind. But, Pamela - '

Yes?

'Simply killing this one won't be enough. I mean, it's just not enough! But if you're willing, there's a way you can help me. You're strong, Pamela, in death just as you were in life. And what I have in mind ... I believe it's something you would enjoy even more than you did in life.' He explained his meaning, and for a little while she was silent.

Then: I think I know now why the dead are afraid of you, Harry, she said, wonderingly. And: Is it true that you're a vampire?

'Yes... no!' he said. 'Not like that. Not yet, anyway. And not here. But somewhere else I will be - or may be -one day.'

Yes. He sensed her nod. I think you must be - or will be - for nothing human could ever think the thought you thought just then. Nothing entirely human, anyway.

'But you'll do it?'

Oh, yes, she answered him at last with a grim, emphatic deadspeak nod. Who or whatever you are, I'll do anything you tell me, Harry Keogh, vampire, Necroscope. Anything, everything and whatever it takes to get even. Whatever you ask and whenever you ask it. Anything...

Harry nodded. 'So be it,' he said.

For the next thirty-odd hours the Necroscope was busy; not only him but E-Branch, too. And the next day, a warm evening in mid-May, the Minister Responsible caused the Branch emergency call-in system to be brought into play.

First, acting on disturbing information received from Geoffrey Paxton (concerning among other things the files Darcy Clarke had mailed to Harry Keogh), the Minister had relieved Clarke of all duties and placed him under what amounted to house arrest at Clarke's own north London flat in Crouch End. Second, he must now attend the O-group briefing he'd called at E-Branch HQ. The espers would know, of course, that something big was in the offing: all available agents were to be present.

Paxton was there to meet the Minister on the ground floor. Even as they exchanged curt greetings Ben Trask, just back from a job, came in from the street through the swing doors. Trask looked drawn, even haggard. The Minister took him to one side where they conversed in lowered tones for a minute or two, and for once Paxton knew enough to keep his nose out. Then they all three took the elevator upstairs and went directly to the ops room.

The called-in agents were silent, seated, waiting for the Minister. He took the podium and his eyes swept the mainly ordinary-looking faces of the espers - Britain's ESP-endowed mindspies - where they stared back at him. He knew them all from photographs in their files, but only Darcy Clarke and Ben Trask had ever met him. And Paxton, of course.

If Clarke had been here, perhaps he would have stood up as a sign of respect, and maybe the rest of them would have followed suit. Or there again maybe not. The trouble with this lot had always been that they thought they were special. But here the Minister knew he wasn't fooling anybody, least of all himself. They were special, bloody special!

And looking at them he felt as several before him must surely have felt. Physics and metaphysics, robots and romantics, gadgets and ghosts. Two sides of the same coin. Were they really? Science and parapsychology? The mundane and the supernatural? And he wondered what was the difference anyway? Isn't a telephone or radio magic? To speak with someone on the other side of the world, even on the moon? And has there ever been a more powerful, more monstrous spell or invocation than E=mc2?

These were some of the Minister's thoughts as he scanned the faces of E-Branch's espers and put names to them: Ben Trask, the human lie-detector; blocky, overweight, mousey-haired and green-eyed, slope-shouldered and lugubrious. Possibly Trask's sad expression sprang from the knowledge that the whole world was a liar. Or if not all of it, a hell of a lot of it. It was Trask's talent: to recognize whatever was false. Show him or tell him a lie and he would know it at once. He wouldn't always know the truth of the thing, but he would always know when what was represented as true wasn't so. No facade, however cleverly constructed, could ever fool him. The police used him a lot, to crack stone killers; also he came in handy in respect of international negotiations, when it was good to know if the cards on the table made a full deck.

David Chung: a young Londoner, a locator and scryer of the highest quality. He was slight, wiry, slant-eyed and yellow as they come. But he was British, loyal, and his talent was amazing. He tracked Soviet nuclear 'stealth' subs, IRA units in the field, drug-runners. Especially the latter. Chung's parents had been addicts, and their addiction had killed them. That's where his talent had started, and it was still growing.

Anna Marie English was something else. (But weren't they all?) Twenty-three, bespectacled, enervated, pallid and dowdy, she was hardly an English rose! That was a direct result of her talent, for she was 'as one with the Earth': her way of defining it. She felt the rain forests being eaten away; she knew the extent of the ozone holes; when the deserts expanded she felt their desiccation, and the mass erosion of mountain soil made her physically sick. She was 'ecologically aware' beyond the five senses of mundane mankind. Greenpeace could base their entire campaign on her, except no one would believe. The Branch did believe, and used her as it used David Chung: as a tracker. She tracked illicit nuclear waste, monitored pollution, warned of invasions of Colorado beetle and Dutch elm disease, cried aloud the extinction of whales, elephants, dolphins, other species. And she knew that the Earth was sick and growing sicker. She only had to look in the mirror each day to know that.

Then there was Geoffrey Paxton, a telepath, one of several. An unpleasant person, the Minister thought, but his talent was useful. And it takes all sorts to make a world. Paxton was ambitious, he wanted it all. Better to employ him where he too could be watched than have him turn to high-stakes blackmail or become the mindspy agent of some foreign power. Later... Paxton's would be a career worth following. And closely.

Sixteen of them gathered here, under one roof, and eleven more out in various parts of the world, guiding that world, or at least watching over it. They were paid according to their talents, handsomely! And they were worth every penny. It would cost a lot more if they ever decided to work for themselves...

Sixteen of them, and as the Minister's eyes roved over them so they studied him: a man who so far had kept himself to the shadows and would prefer to stay there, except that now some affair of the utmost moment had lured him out. He was in his mid-forties, small and dapper, dark hair brushed back and plastered down. And he had no nerves to speak of, or none that was visible, anyway. He wore patent-leather black shoes, a dark-blue suit and light-blue tie. His brow had a few wrinkles but other than these his face was normally unlined, and his eyes were bright, clear and blue. Right now, though, and especially since his conversation with Ben Trask, he was looking harried.

'Ladies, gentlemen,' (he wasn't one for preamble), 'what I have to say would seem fantastic to almost anyone outside these walls, as would almost everything that goes on within them. But I'll try not to bore you with too many things you already know. Mainly, I've gathered you together to tell you we have one hell of a problem. First I'll tell you how it came to be, and how it came to light. Then you'll have to tell me how we're going to deal with it, in which instance I know that even the least of you - if there is such a thing - has more practical experience than I have. In fact, you're the only people with practical experience of these things, and so the only ones who can deal with the matter in hand.'

He took a deep breath, then continued: 'Some time ago we appointed a traitor as head of E-Branch. I'm talking about Wellesley, yes. Well, he can't do any more harm. But after him it was my job to make sure it couldn't happen again. In short, we needed someone who was capable of spying on the spies. Now, I know you people have an unwritten code: you don't spy on each other. So I couldn't use one of you, not in situ anyway. I had to take one of you out of the Branch and make him responsible to myself alone. And I had to do it before he could build up too many loyalties. So I chose Geoffrey Paxton, a relative newcomer, as my watcher over the watchers.'

He at once held up his hands, as if to ward off protests, though none was forthcoming - as yet. 'None of you, and I do mean none of you, was suspect in any way. But after Wellesley I couldn't take any chances. Still, I'd like to have it understood that your personal lives are still yours, and no tampering. Paxton has always been under the strictest instructions not to interfere or pry into anything extraneous, but confine himself solely to Branch business. Which is to say, Branch security.

'A few weeks ago we had some business in the Mediterranean. Two of our members, Layard and Jordan, had come up against... unpleasant opposition. It was the worst sort of business, but not without precedent. The head of E-Branch, Darcy Clarke, went out there with Harry Keogh and Sandra Markham to see what could be done. Later, Trask and Chung joined them, and they also had help from other quarters. As for qualifications: Clarke and Trask both had experience of that sort of thing, and Keogh... well, Keogh is Keogh. If he could be reactivated, get his talents back, that would be a wonderful bonus for the Branch. But initially he went out as an observer and adviser, for no one knew more about vampirism than he did...' (And here he paused, perhaps significantly.)

'Now, we still don't know exactly what happened out there in Rhodes, the Greek islands, Romania, but we do know that we lost Trevor Jordan, Ken Layard and Sandra Markham. I mean lost them dead! So it can be seen they had a real problem, one which Darcy Clarke would have us believe is now... resolved? Harry Keogh, of course, could tell us everything, but so far he's chosen to tell us very little.'

By now the breathing of the Minister's audience was quite audible, perhaps even heavy, impatient; and he saw that someone had stood up. Since the light was on the podium he had to squint to see who it was on his feet back there in the shadows, but in a little while he made it out to be the very tall, skeletally thin hunchman or prognosticator Ian Goodly. 'Yes, Mr Goodly?'

'Minister,' Goodly answered, his high-pitched voice shrill but not unnaturally or unusually so, 'I know you won't be offended by any sort of imagined implication when I say that so far every word you've said has been spoken with absolute honesty and integrity. It came straight from the heart, was told the way you see it and with the best of intentions. I don't think anyone here doubts that, or that it takes a brave sort of man to come in here and try to tell us anything, especially in the knowledge that there are people here who could pick your mind clean in a moment.'

The Minister nodded. 'I don't know about the bravery bit, but everything else is correct. What's more it puts any sort of subterfuge right out of the question; it can be seen - you people can surely see - that I have no axe to grind. So ... are you making a point, Mr Goodly?'

The point is that I do have an axe to grind, sir,' Goodly answered, quietly. 'We all do. And the way this briefing is going, it strikes me as likely we could have several axes to grind before you're through. Not with you, you understand. That would be pointless anyway, for my talent tells me that you're going to be our Minister Responsible for a long time to come. So ... not with what you've said or what you think, but maybe with what you've done and plan to do. Or plan to ask us to do. Unless, of course, there are some damn good reasons.'

'Do you mind explaining?' The Minister's confusion was mounting. 'But briefly, because I really do have to get on, and-'

'Explanations are easy.' Someone else was on his - no, her - feet: Millicent Cleary, a pretty little telepath whose talent was as yet embryonic. She merely glanced at the Minister but scowled furiously at the back of Paxton's head where he sat in the first row of seats. 'Some explanations, anyway. I mean, it was inevitable we'd be monitored eventually, but... by that?' And still scowling, she tossed her head to give the final word extra emphasis. She was pointing at Paxton.

'Miss, er - ?' In his confusion the Minister had forgotten her name. He prided himself on not forgetting names. He looked at her, looked at Paxton.

'Cleary,' she said. 'Millicent...' And she breathlessly continued: 'Paxton didn't follow your instructions. He simply ignored your orders. Branch security? Branch business? Oh, that was the handy excuse you gave him - which he scarcely needed - but other people's business, more like! And his nose right in it!'

The Minister was frowning. He looked harder at Paxton. 'Can you be more specific, Miss Cleary?'

But she wouldn't. She could but wouldn't. What, and tell everyone here that during Paxton's first month with the Branch she'd caught the shrivelled little scumbag in her mind one night, playing with himself to the purr of her vibrator and the tingling of her senses?

'He looked at all of us.' Someone else saved her, his voice strong and gravelly. 'He looked at the juicy bits, which like it or not we each and every one of us have, and he was doing it before you gave him his brief! Since when, why ... by now he's probably looked at your juicy bits, too!'

And back to the gangling Goodly again: 'Minister, if you hadn't taken Paxton out of the organization, we would have. He's about as trustworthy as a defective contraceptive. If AIDS was a psychic disease, all our brains would be shrivelling to shit right now! All of them!'

He paused to let that sink in, and after a moment: 'So it seems to us that what you've done is to take away the one man we all trust, while at the same time giving us a watchdog who snaps at his keepers. Yes, and you've chosen one hell of a time to do it.' That was twice he'd cursed, and it wasn't Goodly's style to swear at all, not even mildly.

Paxton had been cleaning his fingernails, apparently unconcerned, but now his ears reddened up a little. He stood up and turned round, glared at the others where they all stared at him in silent accusation. 'My talent is... unruly!' he snapped. 'Also it's eager, full of all the enthusiasm which you jealous bastards have lost! I'm still finding out about it, still experimenting. It isn't some bloody bonsai tree you can just force into any old shape!'

Almost as one person they shook their heads; they were the last people he should ever try to convince; his pallid, lame excuses wouldn't work on them. Each and every one of them, they had it in for Paxton. Finally Ben Trask spoke up, giving their single unified thought shape and substance. 'You're a liar, Paxton,' he said, quite simply. And because Trask was what he was, he didn't have to enlarge upon his accusation.

The Minister felt as if he'd bumped into a hornets' nest and for his pains (or by them) was being driven off course, which he really couldn't afford to let happen. He held up his hands, took on a harder, more authoritative tone of voice. 'For God's sake, put your feuding and personal feelings aside!' he cried. 'At least for the moment, or for as long as it takes. Whatever else any one of you is or isn't, there's one thing we can at least be sure of: you're all human!'

Which hit them like a truck.

Seeing that he now had their attention, and while he retained the upper hand, the Minister turned pleadingly to Ben Trask. 'Mr Trask - but level-headed, if you please - will you repeat what you told me downstairs?'

Trask looked at him grudgingly but nodded. 'Only first let me finish telling them what you started. They already know most of it and have probably guessed the rest, so I'll get straight to it. And it just might come easier if they hear it from me.'

'Very well,' the Minister replied, sighing his relief.

And Trask began:

'Zek Föener gave us a helping hand in the Greek islands,' he said. 'You'll know who she is from the Keogh files, what happened at Perchorsk and on Starside, etc. She's a powerful telepath, one of the world's best. But like the Necroscope himself she's opted out of cloak and daggery.

'Anyway, it was dodgy out there in the Med. We were killing vampires, and there were plenty of times when they nearly killed us. But Harry took the brunt of it and went up against the Big One, Janos Ferenczy himself -and I know I don't have to tell you about the Ferenczys. When Harry was in Romania that last time, just before the end, Zek tried to get in touch with him to see how things were going. But telepathy over great distances isn't easy and she didn't get too much. At least that's what she told us, but we could see that what she did get shocked her rigid.

'I know Darcy Clarke has been worried stiff about it, for the fact is Darcy thinks the Necroscope's the best thing since sliced bread. I know several of you also think so, and, hell, so do I! Or I used to ...

'So ... we did the job and came back, and as far as we know Harry was successful, too. It seems he made a great job of it. Except he's been a bit cagey about what actually happened up in the Carpathians. Now me, I haven't read too much into that. Nor has Darcy Clarke. For after all, Harry did lose Sandra Markham out there. So Darcy was going to let him get it off his chest in his own good time.

'For which - or so it would seem - Darcy's been sort of "reduced to the ranks", de-commissioned, bust, etc. But for what, that's what I'd like to know? For inefficiency, in that he maybe didn't want to prejudge an old friend? For holding back awhile and not going off half-cocked? For having - shit - just a little faith!?'

Both the Minister and Paxton opened their mouths as if to butt in, but Trask cut them out with: The thing you have to remember about Darcy Clarke is this: that his talent doesn't go sneaking into other people's minds, eavesdropping or spying from a distance. All it does is look after Darcy. But he's kept in touch with the Necroscope and so far there's nothing to report. Darcy's talent didn't warn him of any immediate danger. If it had... you can bet your life he'd have been the first to yell! The last thing he'd want is for another Yulian Bodescu to be out and about!' 'But - ' Paxton started.

'Shut your face!' Trask told him. 'These people are still listening to someone telling the truth! Only the truth...' And he eventually continued: 'Anyway, that was all yesterday and today is today. And now things seem to have changed...' He paused and looked at the Minister. 'Did you want to take it from there, sir?'

The Minister gave him a grim look and raised an eyebrow. 'But you haven't told it all, Mr Trask.'

Trask gritted his teeth but nodded. And after a moment: 'I'm just back from a job,' he said. 'It's this serial killer thing we've been working on, these brutal, horrific murders of young women. The thing is, Darcy had approached Harry for his help on this one, because... you know... that's what the Necroscope is: the one man in the world who can talk to a victim after she's dead. And Darcy told me how Harry had been especially upset by the death of the latest one, a girl called Penny Sanderson.

'Well, two days ago Penny turned up - like a bad Penny, eh?' But he wasn't grinning. 'Now this girl was dead and gone for ever, and yet suddenly here she is, right as rain, back home with her old folks. And the point is she couldn't even convince them that she hadn't been murdered! They had seen her body; they'd known it was their daughter; they regarded her return as nothing short of a miracle.

The police weren't happy with any of this. Oh, she had a story to tell, but it rang like a cracked bell. And if she really was Penny Sanderson, then who had been cremated? So the Minister sent me up there to sit on a "standard police procedure interview". Of course, I was their lie-detector.

'Well, she was - is - Penny Sanderson; she wasn't lying about that. But she was lying about her loss of memory and what all. So knowing the Keogh connection, I just sort of thought to ask her if she knew him: had she ever heard of him or met him? And she said no, never, and just looked blank. A bare-faced lie! Which led to my next question, except I didn't frame it like a question. I simply shrugged and said: "You're a lucky girl. It might easily have been you who was dead and not your double."

'And she looked me straight in the eye and said: "I'm sorry for her, whoever she was, but she had nothing to do with me. I didn't die." And again she was lying through her teeth. Well, I trust my talent. It never has let me down. She wasn't sorry for the other girl because there wasn't another girl. And her statement that she didn't die? A funny way of putting it at best, right? So the only conclusion I can come to is that Penny Sanderson did die, and that she's now... back from the dead!'

The gathered espers let their air out in a concerted sigh. All of them. And Trask finished off with: 'Of course, I couldn't tell the police she'd been - what the hell - brought back, resurrected? So I simply said she was OK. Just how "OK" she is ... well, that's a different matter.'

At which point the Minister Responsible took his best yet opportunity to introduce a further item of damning information. 'Clarke sent Keogh the files on all those murdered girls. And up in the Castle on the Mount in Edinburgh, he actually let the Necroscope talk to Penny Sanderson - er, in his own way, you understand.'

Ben Trask, despite what he himself had just related, still wasn't one hundred per cent convinced. 'But at the time, wasn't that the idea? So that Harry could find out who killed her?'

The Minister nodded. 'That was the idea.' He dabbed at his face with a handkerchief. 'But a bad one, it now seems.'

It was Paxton's turn. 'He's a telepath,' he said, his voice hard-edged, defiant.

'Harry?' Ben Trask stared at him.

Paxton nodded. 'He was into my mind like a ferret down a rat-hole! He warned me off and told me he wouldn't be warning me again. Also, his eyes were feral: they shone behind those dark glasses he wears. And he doesn't much care for the sunlight.'

'You've really been hard at work, haven't you?' Trask growled. But this time he couldn't accuse him of lying.

'Look,' said the other, 'I was given a job to do. Like the Minister said, after Wellesley he couldn't take any chances. So when Clarke came back from the Greek islands I hooked into him. And I learned about his suspicion that maybe Keogh was a vampire. Another thing: Keogh told me to tell the Minister that his "worst nightmare" had come true. Ergo: Keogh's a vampire!'

The Minister was quick to add: 'That last isn't proven yet. But it is starting to look that way. The thing is, Keogh has had a lot of contact with these creatures. Close contact. Maybe this last time there was a little too much contact.'

Paxton again: 'Look, I know I'm a relative newcomer, and you don't much like me, and in the past you've all had reason to be grateful for Harry Keogh. But have these things blinded you to the facts? OK, so you don't want to believe me - don't even want to believe yourselves - but just think what we're up against if we're right.

'He can talk to the dead, who apparently know a hell of a lot. He uses the Möbius Continuum to go anywhere he wants to, instantly, like we take a step into another room. He's a telepath. And now he not only speaks to the dead but calls them back, too!'

'He could do that before,' said Ben Trask, not without a shudder.

'But now he calls them back to what looks like life.' Paxton was relentless. 'From their ashes! Life? Or undeath?'

At which David Chung gave a mighty start, reeled like someone had hit him, and choked something out in Cantonese. Most of the espers were on their feet by now, but Chung gropingly found a chair and flopped down again. Frowning, the Minister Responsible said, 'Mister Chung?'

Chung's pallor gave his face a sickly lemon tint. He wiped his shining brow and licked his lips, and again mumbled something to himself in Chinese. Then he looked up and his eyes were wide. 'You all know what I do,' he said, his words a little sibilant and clipped in his fashion. 'I'm a locator, sympathetic. I take a model or a piece of something and use it to find the real thing. It's Branch policy that I take and keep safe from each one of you a small item of your personal belongings. This is for your own safety: if you go missing, I can find you.

'Well, I also have several items belonging to Harry Keogh, stuff he's left here from time to time...

'I was out in the Mediterranean with the others. I knew Zek Föener had been worried about something, and so I too have been keeping tabs on Harry. I told myself it was for his own good. But I knew what I was doing and what I was looking for.

'At first when I scried on him it was just him; there was nothing different; it felt right. I got a picture of him, you know? Not doing anything, just a picture of him as I knew him, up there at his home in Edinburgh or wherever he was. But recently the picture has been dim, misty, and last night and this morning there wasn't much of Harry there at all; just a mist, a fog. I was going to submit a report on it tomorrow.'

'In the old days,' Trask said, 'we used to call that mind-smog. It's what you get when you try to scan a vampire.'

'I know,' Chung nodded. He was more nearly recovered now. 'It was partly that which hit me, and partly something else. Paxton said that Harry could call dead people up from their ashes. That's what hit me the most.'

'What?' the Minister was frowning again.

Chung looked at him. 'I also have things which used to belong to Trevor Jordan,' he said. 'And this morning, just by accident, I happened to touch one of them. It was like Trevor was right here, right next door or down the street. And I thought it was something out of my memory. It was there and then it was gone. But it just struck me that he very well could have been here, just down the street!'

The Minister still hadn't taken it in, but Trask soon took care of that. Pale as a ghost, he whispered: 'My God! Jordan was cremated out in Rhodes, burned to ashes in case he'd been infected with vampirism. But Jesus, now that I think of it, I remember how it was Harry Keogh who insisted on it!'
    
 

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