The Vampire Killers

Even though the Great Majority no longer trusted him, Harry had always respected them. He thanked Pamela and those of her friends who had assisted in bringing Johnny Found to justice; and as they commenced their arduous return to what would now be their final resting places, so the Necroscope employed his metaphysical mind's fantastic equations and materialized a Möbius door. But in the moment before he stepped through it ...

... An agonized voice - not deadspeak but telepathy, which even as he received it changed to deadspeak -reached out to him from a deserted stockyard not far from the mainline station in Darlington. It was Trevor Jordan: alive at first, then dead, turning to fused flesh, bubbling blood and charred, blackened bone as a squad of former E-Branch colleagues torched him to sticky, steaming cinders!

Trevor! Harry gasped, his own agony almost as great as the telepath's as he received the full, searing impact of his final seconds. Trevor, I'm coming - right now -just keep talking and I'll find -

No! Jordan cut him off, as all the pain of a life at its termination faded away and death's cool darkness crashed over him, laving him like an ocean wave. No, Harry, don't... don't come here. They're expecting you, and believe me they have the right gear. And anyway, you have no time. The girl, Harry, the girl!

The Necroscope understood. Of course: Penny.

The Branch had been closing in on him; they had closed in on Jordan; they would close in on Penny - and they'd be doing it even now!

Trevor! Harry was torn - felt himself riven - two ways: a secondary agony, of frustration and indecision. But Jordan was right. No one should be put to such an agonizing death, and certainly not an innocent. Jordan had been just such a one, and so was she. No matter what name anyone gave her now, or what she would be tomorrow, tonight she was an innocent.

You can't help me, Harry, Jordan told him, trying to make it easier for him. Not this time. You can only jeopardize your own safety - and Penny's. But it's OK, it's OK. I lived twice, which was enough. And dying twice was... that was too much. I don't need any more.

In the Möbius Continuum, Harry still felt himself dragged apart, pulled two ways. He moaned his horror -and his anger - as he deliberately shut Jordan's deadspeak thoughts out of his mind. Later, maybe later, he'd have time to thank him for the warning. But as for now -

- Bonnyrig.

He emerged along the river bank, well away from the house, emerged to a darkness shot with the crimson of his fury. Wamphyri fury! The thing within held sway; its awareness washed out from the Necroscope like human -like inhuman - radar, scanning the house standing in darkness. Except... when Harry left here the lights were ablaze!

Harry's telepathy was carried on his vampire probe. In the house, five people - five warm beings full of blood - five clever, thinking creatures, and four of them possessed of wild, weird talents. But nothing so weird as Harry's. His metaphysical mind touched upon their minds, but guardedly, so that they wouldn't suspect.

Penny first, terrified for her life, but as yet unharmed. Then Guy Teale, an as yet undeveloped seer, given on occasion to glimpsing the future, which Harry well knew was an unwieldy, unforgiving talent at best. And Frank Robinson, a spotter with the ability to recognize another esper on sight, or even in close proximity (his mind flinched a little when Harry touched it, but not enough that the Necroscope's presence was revealed; Robinson's talent, too, was as yet embryonic). But then... ah, then there was Ben Trask. A sad thing: Harry had hoped there'd be no old friends here, but here was Ben. And finally -

-Paxton!

Paxton the mind-flea, the previously unreachable itch, a vampire no less than Harry himself, who scorned the blood of others for the secret juices of their minds, their very thoughts. And indeed Paxton was something else: keen beyond the call of duty, zealous to a fault, vicious as the crossbow he even now held on Penny Sanderson in the Necroscope's bedroom. So that quick as Harry was to withdraw his probe, still he wasn't quick enough and Paxton knew he was there.

The telepath at once narrowed his eyes and quietly, with a shiver in his voice, called downstairs: 'He's close! He's coming!'

In the spacious front room of the house, which had served mainly as Harry's study - whose French windows looked out over a garden descending in shallow terraces to a high wall and the river bank beyond - Ben Trask and Guy Teale received Paxton's hushed warning and acknowledged it with tight-lipped glances and cramped, edgy movements. Moon and starlight were their only sources of illumination, which in itself was a mistake on their part. Their eyes had needed to adjust to the darkness, and even now worked inefficiently in the room's gloom. But the Necroscope's every sense was already adjusted; the night was his element.

It was the same for those upstairs as for Trask and Teale: their only light was that of the moon, creeping into Harry's bedroom through a window with the curtains thrown back. But downstairs: Teale felt Harry's presence, touched Ben Trask's elbow and husked, 'Paxton's right. He's close. And my God, I suddenly realize what we're doing here! Ben, what if he comes here, right to this room?'

'You do nothing,' Trask answered, gruffly. 'You hold that crossbow on him and do nothing. You give me a chance to talk to him, is all. But if I don't get that chance, or if you yourself are threatened, then you shoot - and you shoot for real! The heart. Is that understood?'

It was.

'Now be quiet. Watch. And listen.'

Outside in the garden, mist crawled through the gate in the wall where it hung on rusted hinges. Milky tendrils covered the lower terraces and lapped along the paths. And Trask knew well enough what that meant.

Harry made a Möbius jump from the river bank beyond the gate and emerged with his back to the wall of the house, just to one side of the open French windows. He listened and could hear the breathing of the two men in the room, could feel their very heartbeats. One of them was Ben Trask, but Penny wasn't with them. She was upstairs... and so was Paxton.

'Jesus!' Teale panted, the short hairs rising at the back of his neck. 'He's here! I know he is! And I've just seen a lot of trouble, a whole load of pain, for one of us.'

Trask cocked his SMG. He took two paces out through the French windows and stood ankle-deep in mist, looking this way and that about the night garden. But he failed to look up. He backed into the room and said, Trouble? Pain? For me? You? Who for, for fuck's sake?'

'Paxton!' Teale hissed. 'For Paxton!'

Trask turned horrified eyes to the ceiling. Paxton, Robinson and the girl were upstairs; Harry owed Paxton one, maybe several, and that vicious little bastard was holding his woman up there. Trask had worked out, with entirely human logic, that like any ordinary adversary the Necroscope would enter the downstairs rooms first; which was the main reason he'd sent Paxton upstairs: to keep Harry safe, for a little while anyway. Long enough that Trask could maybe talk to him and make sure he got whatever breaks were due him. But Harry wasn't any ordinary adversary and Trask might have guessed he wouldn't work that way. He'd work his way, which was unique. But Paxton was in charge up there, and Robinson had a bloody flamethrower!

'Upstairs!' Trask gasped. 'Let's go - now!'

Harry, too, had decided that it was time. Upside down above the high window of his bedroom, he used the great webbed sucker discs of his hands to cling to the pitted wall of the house and lowered his head to look in. A cloud scudding over the moon obscured the small shadow which his head cast. He glanced inside for a moment only, then withdrew. But adding together what he saw and the thoughts of those inside, he now had a complete picture. And before anyone or thing could move or do anything to change that picture, he acted.

He relaxed his hold on the wall, conjured a door and fell through it -

- Into the bedroom.

Robinson knew it at once. 'He's here!' the spotter yelped, spinning on his heel, jumping and gyrating, trying to aim the hot nozzle of his flamethrower in every direction at the same time but seeing and aiming at nothing.

Paxton knew it was true; he could actually feel the Necroscope's mind touching his own like an oozing slug -as close as that - but inside the room nothing seemed to have changed. And from downstairs the voices of Trask and Teale were hoarse where the two came running, thundering through the house and up the stairs, shouting their warnings.

'Where?' Paxton's voice was a screech of terror. 'Where is the bastard?'

He and Robinson faced each other. Paxton looked down the glowing muzzle of Robinson's flamethrower into the flicker of its pilot light, and Robinson stared at the business end of Paxton's crossbow. They both reached for the light switch.

Penny was in the bed, naked, a sheet pulled up under her chin, around her neck... and Harry was under the sheet with her where he'd materialized. Not knowing what was happening she felt his arms go around her - felt his huge webbed discs restructuring themselves into hands once more - and screamed!

Paxton read her mind; Robinson finally pinpointed Harry's vast ESP talent; as the room came alive with electric light, both men turned towards the bed and triggered their weapons. But Harry had already conjured a door - directly under himself and the girl, so that they tumbled through it and apparently through the bed itself. As they went he dragged the bedsheet after them. In the Möbius Continuum Penny opened her eyes, then gasped and screwed them shut again. But now that she knew who had her it was OK.

Harry took her to a safe place, wrapped the sheet around her, grated, 'Stay here, be quiet, wait!' And as she sat down with a breathless bump in the shade of a wind-carved tree on a deserted, midday, Australian beach, so he returned to the house.

He had to go back, for he'd been challenged.

Paxton had challenged him - ignored his warnings and challenged him - and Harry's vampire was furious!

In an upstairs room in the house outside Bonnyrig, the Necroscope's bed roared up in fire and smoke, with Paxton and Robinson dancing like maniacs around it, trying to damp down the flames. But already they knew that Harry and the girl had escaped. Trask and Teale came crashing through the door, and the latter took one look, turned white and backed right out of the room again. Trask went after him and grasped his arm. 'What did you see?'

Teale's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. 'He... he's coming back again!' he finally gasped. 'And he's mad as hell!'

Trask stuck his head back inside the smoke-filled bedroom. 'Paxton, Robinson - out of there, now!'

'But the house is burning!' Robinson yelled.

That's right,' Trask shouted back, 'and all the way to the ground! We'll torch it downstairs - heavily, every room - raze the place. It's one refuge he won't be able to use again.' And to himself: Sorry, Harry, but that's the way of it.

Except it wasn't entirely to himself, for the Necroscope was listening, too. Listening with his mind - and watching with his scarlet eyes - from across the river, where a minute later he heard the gouting roar of the flamethrower and saw the fire spreading through all the downstairs rooms.

And: My place, Harry thought, and there it goes in flames. This is the end of it. There's nothing to keep me here now.

In Harry's downstairs study Paxton turned on Trask and his face was livid. 'Just what is it you're trying to do?' he demanded. 'You know he won't come into a burning house. Teale says Keogh wants me, and Robinson reckons he's close - but you, you're holding him off. He has to come to us before we can kill the bastard! Or maybe that's it. Maybe you don't want him killed, right?'

Trask grabbed him by the front of his jacket and almost lifted him off his feet. 'You shithead!' He dragged him into the garden, out of the blazing room. 'You scumbag! No, I don't want Harry killed, for he was my friend. Still, I'd do it if I had to. But that's OK for in fact I don't think we can kill him. Not you and me or an army like us. You ask why I'm warning him off? For you, Paxton, for you!'

'For me?' The other struggled free, loaded his crossbow.

'Damned right,' Trask snarled. 'For while you can't kill Harry Keogh, you'd better fucking believe he can kill you!'

The downstairs rooms of Harry's house were a red and yellow inferno now, and smoke had started to pour from the upper windows and ancient gables. In the garden, as the glass in the French windows surrendered to the heat and began to shatter, the four E-Branch agents backed away. Paxton, suddenly anxious, stared this way and that in the glare and flicker of firelight and held his crossbow close to his chest. The high garden walls seemed to frown on him, and he stumbled as his shuffling feet missed a step to send him reeling down a path into the knee-deep mist of the lower terraces -

- That eerily sentient mist, out of which Harry Keogh rose up like a ghost from its tomb, with his hellish orbs more than reflecting the destruction of his house.

'Nuh-uh-urgh!' Paxton's eyes stood out in the parchment of his face as the Necroscope towered over him, and his inarticulate gurgle of a cry caused the other agents to turn from watching the burning house towards him in his extremity of terror.

What they saw was this: Paxton in the grip of something which was only half - or less than half-human. They saw Paxton, but only as a detail of the main scene, whose utter horror seemed to sear itself on to their retinas. And in the minds of the three one thought was universally uppermost: that they were here as volunteers, come to kill this, an act which must surely qualify them as the bravest or most lunatic heroes of all time!

The lower half of Harry's figure was mist-shrouded, visible only as a vague outline in the opaque, milky swirl... but the rest of him was all too visible. He was wearing an entirely ordinary suit of dark, ill-fitting clothes which seemed two sizes too small for him, so that his upper torso sprouted from the trousers to form a blunt wedge. Framed by his jacket, which was held together at the front (barely) by one straining button, the wedge-shaped bulk of Harry's rib cage was massively muscular.

His white, open-necked shirt had burst open down the front, revealing the ripple of his muscle-sheathed ribs and the deep, powerful throb of his chest; the shirt's collar stuck up now from Harry's jacket like a crumpled frill, made insubstantial by the corded bulk of his leaden neck. His flesh was a sullen grey, dappled lurid orange and sick yellow by leaping fire and gleaming moonlight. But there was scarlet there, too, leaking from the hole in his jacket and splashed diagonally across his straining shirt. He towered all of fifteen inches taller than Paxton, whose cringing form he quite literally dwarfed. And his face -

- That was the absolute embodiment of a waking nightmare!

Ben Trask gawped at him in utter disbelief and thought: Oh my good God! And I thought I could maybe talk to that!

Oh, but you can still talk to me, Ben, the Necroscope told him, Trask's first personal experience in the use of telepathy, made possible through the sheer power of Harry's probe. It's just that where Paxton's concerned, I may not be willing to listen, that's all.

Teale was gibbering, trying desperately to find strength to lift and aim his crossbow, and failing. His talent, a generally untrustworthy ability to read something of the future, was conjuring all sorts of monstrous events in his mind's eye, piling them up so thick and fast that he was utterly unnerved. It was his proximity to Harry, of course. Robinson was similarly stricken. This close to a true metaphysical POWER, his own small talent was reacting like an iron filing whirled in a strong magnetic field. But in any case he couldn't use his terrible weapon, not without burning Paxton, too.

Trask was on his own, the only capable one among them, and now he raised and aimed his SMG at Harry where he held Paxton up before him like a rag doll. Paxton, dangling there in mid-air, staring gape-jawed and bulge-eyed into the Necroscope's unbelievable face, knowing he was only inches from the gates of hell. That close, yes, for he was the mind-flea; he was the unbearable, unscratchable itch. Or he had been - until now.

Harry looked at him through halogen Hallowe'en eyes which seemed to drip sulphur, looked at him and... grinned? A grin, was that what it was? In an alien, vampire world called Starside on the other side of the Möbius Continuum, there at least it might be called a grin. But here it was the rabid, slavering grimace of a great wolf; here it was teeth visibly elongating, curving up and out of gleaming gristle jaw-ridges to shear through gums which spurted splashes of hot ruby blood; here it was the gradual inclination of a monstrous head through several degrees to an almost curiously inquiring angle, the way you might look at a mischievous pet. And having looked it was a writhing of scarlet lips, a flattening of convoluted snout, the beginning of a slow yawning of mantrap jaws to tut-tut and even chastise that disobedient lap dog.

And perhaps to punish it?

That face... that mouth... that crimson cavern of stalactite, stalagmite teeth, jagged as shards of white, broken glass. What? The gates of Hell? All of that and worse.

When Harry had grabbed Paxton and lifted him off his feet, he'd knocked the telepath's crossbow from his grasp and thrown it down. Unarmed, Paxton was a piece of candy, a sweetmeat, a Coconut Flake. He was something to munch on. Why, Harry could bite his face off if he wished it! And suddenly Trask thought: Maybe he does! Maybe he will!

'Harry!' Trask shouted. 'Don't!'

The Necroscope slowly closed his jaws, looked up. He glared at Trask across the misted garden, in the ruddy illumination of the burning house. At Ben Trask, once a friend, with whom he'd stood side by side against... against just such a creature as he had now become.

And Trask, whey-faced, staring back, thinking: For fuck's sake don't, Harry!

Would you shoot me, Ben?

You know I would. I wouldn't want to, even now, but I'd have to. It's you or the world, don't you see? I don't want to see my world die screaming... then laugh and crawl right back out of its grave! But if you let him go -Paxton, I mean - if you let him live, then I'd be ready to believe you'd let us all live.

Your world is safe, Ben. I'm not staying here.

Starside?

Harry's mental shrug. There's nowhere else.

Trask looked down the sights of his SMG. He could shoot at Harry's mist-wreathed legs and maybe chop him down, or he could aim at the Necroscope's head and upper body and try not to hit Paxton into the bargain. But he was a good shot and unlikely to miss his target. Or he could simply take Harry's word for it, that he was going away from here and the world had nothing to fear from him. Except, looking at him now, who could believe that?

Harry read these things in Trask's mind and tried to make it easier for him: he put Paxton down. Which was anything but easy for the Necroscope: he had to fight the Thing inside him, and fight hard. But he did it. And speaking out loud, or rather grunting in the deep bass monotone of the Wamphyri, he asked, 'How's this, Ben?'

Trask gasped his relief. 'It's good, Harry. It's good.' But even answering he was aware, out of the corner of his eye, of Teale and Robinson unfreezing and lining up their weapons. 'Hold it, you two!' he shouted.

Harry shot a blood-tinged glance at Teale, which sufficed to send him staggering back, and tuned into Robinson's mind to advise him: Better listen to Trask, son. Try to fry me on Earth and I'll fry you in Hell!

Trask put his SMG on safe and tossed it aside. 'The war's over, Harry,' he said.

But Paxton, lying in the mist where Harry had dropped him, squeezed the trigger of his regained crossbow and cried, 'Oh no it fucking isn't!'

Moments earlier the Necroscope had picked up the message from Paxton's mind: that a deadly hardwood bolt was about to come winging his way. Almost instinctively he had conjured a Möbius door; and now, with the deceptively sinuous grace of the Wamphyri, he stepped or flowed backwards into it. To the four espers it seemed that he had simply ceased to be. Paxton's bolt shot forward into the misty swirl of Harry's vacuum and was eaten up by it, leaving the telepath panting: 'I got him! I... I'm sure I got the bastard! I couldn't miss!' Laughing however shakily, he got to his feet...

... And the mist where it had closed on the Necroscope opened up again, and his clotted, gurgling, disembodied voice came out of it, saying, 'How sorry I am to have to disappoint you.'

Shit! Trask thought, snatching a breath of hot, smoky air as a huge grey hand with nails like rust-scabbed fish hooks reached out of empty space, closed over Paxton's head and dragged him shrieking out of the garden and right out of this universe. And Harry Keogh's monstrous voice left hanging on the air, saying: 'Ben, I'm afraid I just have to do this...'

In the Möbius Continuum Harry hurled Paxton away from him and heard his scream dwindling into conjectural distances. He should leave him there, let him spin on his own axis, flailing across parallel infinities for ever, shrieking and sobbing and, if his heart should burst, finally dying a raving madman. But that would be to pollute this mystical place. There had to be a better way - a more reasonable punishment - than that.

He sped after him, caught and steadied him, and drew him close. And there in the Möbius Continuum - whose nature even Harry was only just beginning to suspect or understand, where even the smallest thought has weight -he said to him: Paxton, you're a miserable creature.

'Get away from me! Get the f-f-fuck away from me!'

Tsk, tsk! Harry sucked his teeth, which as his blood began to cool were halfway to normal again. And you a telepath! You don't need to shout in the Möbius Continuum, mind-flea. Just thinking it is enough. And in that selfsame moment Harry knew what he must do.

Of course. Paxton the mind-flea, the mental vampire who lived on the thoughts of others rather than their blood; the thought-thief, the unscratchable itch. How many victims had felt his bite? E-Branch was full of them. And how many more didn't even know - weren't equipped to know - that he'd ever been into their minds in the first place?

Or maybe not a flea. Maybe ... a mosquito? But in any case, a harmful parasite with a painful, irritating sting. It was high time someone drew that sting. And the Necroscope knew just exactly how to do it.

He entered Paxton's dazed, terrified mind to search for and discover the telepathic mechanism which was the source of the man's talent. It was something Paxton had been born with and there was no switching it off; but it could be shielded, buried in psychic 'lead' like a rogue reactor, until it melted down or burned itself out trying to break free. Which was precisely what the Necroscope did. He wrapped Paxton's talent in essence of Wamphyri mind-smog, smothered it in a blanket of ESP-opaqueness, mothballed it in ephemeral and yet almost unbreakable threads of what ordinary people term 'the privacy of their own minds'. Except that in Paxton's case, the privacy would be his prison.

And when Harry was done with him, then he delivered Paxton back to the garden of the burning house, where the men from E-Branch had moved down to the river wall away from the heat of the conflagration. Against a backdrop of roaring, gouting gold and crimson fire, Harry emerged from the Möbius Continuum and tossed a snivelling Paxton into Ben Trask's arms.

The telepath at once collapsed in tears, sank raggedly to his knees and hugged Trask's legs. Looking down at him, Trask was aghast. 'What have you done to him?'

'Neutered him,' said Harry.

'What?'

Harry shook his head. 'Not his balls, his telepathy. Mental emasculation. He's raped his last mind. And where the Branch is concerned, I've done you my last favour.'

'Harry?'

'Look after yourself, Ben.'

'Harry, wait!'

But the Necroscope was no longer there.

He stood off for long moments along the river and watched the old house burn. What was it Fa��thor Ferenczy had called his castle in the Khorvaty, when finally that morbid pile had been reduced to rubble? His last vestige on Earth? Well, and this obsolete old house had been Harry's last vestige.

In this world, anyway...

On a beach of gleaming white sand on the other side of the world, Penny had fashioned a bikini for herself from strips of Harry's bedsheet. Now, walking at the rim of the ocean, she picked up and examined exotic shells where they littered the tide's reach. Strangely (because she usually tanned without difficulty, and also because her as yet innocent mind hadn't recognized the significance of it) she found the sun spiteful; her exposed skin was already blotched and rapidly turning red. To cool herself, she kneeled in the shallows of a tidal pool and let the sea lave her. Which was when Harry returned and called out to her from the shade of the wind-blasted tree.

She looked up and saw him, and felt the power of his magnetism stronger than ever before. It was love and it was much more than love: he need only command it and there was nothing she wouldn't do for him. She was entirely enthralled. Taking a magnificent conch with her, she ran to him and saw how different he looked. Different and yet the same. Before returning to her, the Necroscope had stopped off somewhere to pick up a wide-brimmed black hat and a long black overcoat; weird gear, Penny thought, for a beach in the heat of the midday sun! Now he reminded her of the grim-faced bounty hunter or undertaker in ... how many of those old spaghetti Westerns? Except they hadn't worn dark-tinted glasses.

Where the tree gave its maximum shade, Harry eased off his coat and displayed evidence of his wounds: great mats of blood congealed into rusty scabs which crusted his tatters and glued them to him. Feeling his hurt - indeed, feeling more of it than he felt - Penny unwrapped the strip of soaked cotton sheet from her breasts and dampened the Necroscope's bloodied areas with brine. And then she was able to peel the soiled rags from his now entirely human body. His human-looking body, anyway.

From the front, the bullet hole in Harry's right shoulder didn't look too bad, but from the back it was awful. A chunk of flesh the size of a child's clenched fist had been blown right out of him, and its rim at the top had been ripped by Johnny Pound's hook. But amazingly (to Penny, if not to the Necroscope himself) the wound was already healing. New skin was forming around the crater where flesh and bone had been blasted away, and while the pulp within gleamed red as meat on a butcher's block, still it had almost stopped bleeding.

'It's healing now,' Harry grunted. 'If you just sat there and watched it, you'd see it closing up. Another day, two at most, and there'll be only a scar. Another week and even the restructured bone will have stopped aching.'

Fascinated, drawn to him irresistibly, she clutched his shoulders and turned her lithe, lovely body this way and that, brushing her breasts against the gaping hole in his back. Done on impulse, her eroticism caused the Necroscope a little pain and gave him a lot of pleasure. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the brown of her nipples stained red by blood fresh from his body. But in the next moment, astonished by the strength of her own sensuality, Penny said, 'I...I don't quite know why I did that!'

'I do,' he growled, taking her there on the sand - and in turn being taken - again and again through the long hot afternoon.

It was love and lust and what lovers have done since the beginning of time; but it was other than that, more than that. It was an initiation of sorts, for Harry as much as for Penny. And it proved beyond a doubt how utterly inexhaustible are the Wamphyri and their thralls.

Later... she woke up feeling chilly, saw Harry sitting there with her shell in his lap. His face was gaunt, almost pained. The sun, setting over the rolling ocean, highlighted the rims of hollows in his face like shallow craters in a moonscape. Squinting her eyes until he was little more than a dark silhouette, Penny tried to make this newly perceived Harry less stark. The too-distinct lines melted a little and softened his face, but the pain was still there. Then, when he felt her eyes on him, the mood was broken. And when she sat up shivering, he draped her with his coat.

Picking the shell up, she said, 'It's beautiful, isn't it?'

He gave her a strange look. 'It's a dead thing, Penny.'

'Is that all you see, death?'

'No.' He shook his head. 'I feel it, too. I'm the Necroscope.'

'You feel that the shell is dead?'

He nodded. 'And how the creature it housed died. Well, not feel it, exactly. I ... experience it? No, not that, either.' He shrugged and sighed. 'I just know.'

She looked at the conch again, and the sun struck mother-of-pearl from its iridescent rim. 'It isn't pretty?'

He shook his head. 'It's ugly. Do you see that tiny hole toward the pointed end?'

She nodded.

'That's what killed it. Another snail, smaller but deadly

- deadly to it - bored into it and sucked out its life. A vampire, yes. There are millions of us.' And she saw him give a shudder.

She put the shell aside. That's a horrid story, Harry!'

'It's also a true one.'

'How can you know that?'

His voice was harsher now. 'Because I'm the Necroscope! Because dead things talk to me. All dead things. And if they haven't the mind for it, then they... convey to me. And your "pretty" bloody shell? It conveys the slow grind of its killer eating into its whorl, the penetration of its probe, and the dully burning seep of its fluids being drained off. Pretty? It's a corpse, Penny, a cadaver!'

He stood up and scuffed listlessly at the sand, and she said, 'Has it always been like that? For you, I mean?'

'No.' He shook his head. 'But it is now. My vampire is growing. As he grows sharper, so he hones my talents. There was a time when I could only talk to dead people; or rather to creatures I could understand. Dogs go on after death just like we do, did you know that? But now - ' Again his shrug. 'If they were alive once but now are dead, I can feel them. And I feel more and more of them all the time.' He kicked at the sand again. 'You see this beach? The very sand sighs and whispers and moans. A million billion corpses broken up by time and the tides. All of that life, wasted, and none of it ready or willing to lie quiet and still. And every dead thing wanting to know, "Why did I die? Why did I die?"'

'But it has to be that way,' she gasped, frightened by his tone. 'It always has been. Without death, what would be the point of life? If we had forever, we wouldn't strive to do anything - because everything would be possible!'

'In this world - ' he took her shoulders, ' - there's life and there's death. But I know another world where there's a state between the two...' And as it grew dark he told her all about Starside.

When he was done she shivered to the inevitability of it and asked, 'When shall we go there?'

'Soon,' he told her.

'We can't stay here? I know that place is bound to frighten me.'

'Do my eyes frighten you?' They were like small lamps in his face.

She smiled. 'No, because I know they're your eyes.'

'But they frighten others.'

'Because they don't know you.'

'On Starside I'll build an aerie,' Harry told her, 'where your eyes will be as red as mine.'

'Will they?' She seemed almost eager.

'Oh, yes!' Harry told her. And to himself: You may be sure of it, you poor darling child. For even here and now, as early and unanticipated as this, he could detect the faintest scarlet flush in them...

While she slept in his arms, Harry sat and made plans. They weren't much, just something to do. They kept him from thinking too deeply about his and Penny's imminent departure, its possible perils. About its inevitability.

For it was inevitable - as was the drone of the helicopter whose searchlights came sweeping along the beach from the east. Harry had thought they'd be safe here for ... oh, a long time. But as he reached out and touched the minds of the people in the droning dragonfly airplane he saw that he'd been wrong. They were espers.

The Branch,' he said, perhaps bitterly, waking Penny up and forming Möbius equations in his mind.

'What, even here?' she mumbled, as he shifted her across the continent to a clothing store in Sydney.

'Even here... there... yes,' he said. 'Indeed, anywhere. Their locators will find me no matter where I go; they'll alert their contacts worldwide; espers and bounty hunters will track and trap and eventually burn us. We can't fight a whole world. And even if I could, I don't want to. Because to fight is to surrender - to the thing inside me. And I'd prefer to be just me. For as long as possible, anyway. But tonight we'll lead them all a dance, right? For tomorrow we die.'

'Die?'

'We'll be dead to this world, anyway,' he said.

They chose expensive clothes willynilly, and an expensive leather suitcase in which to pack them. Then, as the store's alarms began to clamour, they moved on.

It had been 9:00 p.m. local time when they left the beach; it was 11:30 in the store they robbed; moving east they got dressed on another beach (Long Beach) at 5 a.m. in the first light of dawn, and started a champagne breakfast in New York a little after 8 a.m. - and all in the space of thirty or so minutes!

Penny ate her steak barbecued, medium rare; Harry's was so rare it dripped blood, just the way he'd ordered it. They drank three bottles of champagne. When presented with the bill the Necroscope laughed, snatched Penny into his lap, tilted his chair over backwards... and the pair of them out of this world into the Möbius Continuum.

Minutes later (at 10:30 p.m. local time) and some three and a half thousand miles north of where they'd started out, they robbed the innermost security vaults of the Bank of Hong Kong; and by midnight they'd lost a million Hong Kong Dollars on the gaming tables in Macau. A few minutes later (at 6:30 in the evening, local), still ordering and drinking champagne, Harry bundled an entirely tipsy Penny into a hotel bed in Nicosia, and left her there to sleep it off. She dripped pearls and diamonds and her skin smelled of a fine haze of alcohol. Most women (were they truthful) would give an entire world for the things she had seen and done and experienced in the last half-day of her life on Earth. So had Penny given a world. That's why Harry had arranged and executed it.

Their binge had taken a little over three hours: the locators at E-Branch HQ in London - and others in Moscow - were quite dizzy. But the Necroscope knew that Penny was as yet too weak a source for them to track as a single entity. On her own, they probably wouldn't be able to find her. Even if they could, he doubted if they'd have a man in Cyprus. She'd be safe there. For a little while, anyway.

And now it was time he made their Starside reservations...

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