By Gary L Morton ,
Copyright by Gary Morton
About this book
Vampire Alley is a collection of vampire
tales. It is also the title of one of the included stories. Originally these
tales appeared in different offbeat publications and on the web. The tales go from shorts like “Vampire Dream”
to longer tales like “
Contents of Vampire Alley
Heart of the Sun
Running the Tiger
Castle of Fangs
A Short Vampire Christmas
All I want is Santa
© By Gary L Morton
Nod yourself asleep with a cotton-candy dream in your headspace, and the rushes shoot you high to a realm of orchestral music. Here you're strolling beside a jade-blue pond in a land of tall palms, watching a wealth of sunbeams in ice-crystals -- fast on their way from the heavens, glowing gold in the crowns of rolling clouds.
It all drifts slowly away from your open palm and into the blue face of twilight, so you race through these moments you've stolen, trying to tag the golden fleece of fortune before it slips away.
Beautiful feelings are ephemeral in every land, and here the night spirals down in a carousel of colors . . . so you keep on running, reaching for the heavens as an inner voice shouts, 'What freedom it is to dream alone on my own!'
Now you're on your own in cold and lonely corners, many melting forms mix aimlessly in a play of lantern light. The night has stuffed its magic deep in bleak pockets, so you turn and take a sidelong glance down an alleyway, wondering what evil will take shape.
We all have enemies, they're at large in the secrecy of the world, and if there isn't a blade flashing at your back there's a bundle of cash with your name on it, or maybe a face of blue death at your door. So you let the shapeless take form, let the hidden become visible . . . you set your dark forces free.
Now your dreams scatter from you with the lizards and the bats and your broken teeth chatter by towering stones. Forms are hideous scarecrows spattered with crimson, moving against a blur of grey-streaked ebony walls. You know how it always is on these late starless evenings, and you shuffle wearily to the Blue house hoping to work for some White. If you could put your finger on what's changed your chances would be better, but the sweat and nightmares, the bones and the cobbles, make answers a blur. Time is short when you're a lone wolf scavenging among the tombstone towers, but the shadow gangs are the first step down to the ravening mob. It's better to gamble on a vamp or the shakes, better to turn down a familiar gloom row and go for the sane.
Feet in the gutter by a sconce light flickering on a grim grease-scarred wall, you look up at a purple bruise that once was the moon. When the vamp strides up his cape is trailing ashen fog; his face is stern, having the strength of a statue among men made of rot. Yet something's not quite right - you think it is in his eyes, they've yellowed when once they shone with distinction like his pearl clasp.
He shows you the White and of course he has an elegant manner; it makes you ashamed of your stoop and your drool. He steadies you with a firm hand on the shoulder, in his eyes he says you're still human enough for use, and then he asks for a Red name.
You give him her name and say she's fresh, definitely no disease or face of blue death, one of the rare untainted ones - no withering, a princess.
As vampires always do, he smiles confidently and pulls you to him with a rough hand. "A name is not enough, take me to her!"
She lives in a small ivy-covered keep in one of the uphill circles, and sentry stones stand like cracked fists there. Poison dew is the only guard left to hinder you as you steal through the deep grass with your customer, the vampire. He's going by sense of smell now and he really has no use for you, but a deal is a deal - the Red for the White.
Phosphor-bright windows. His eyes smolder low. A sweep of dark hair, a slim gliding figure and he visibly chokes at the sight. He looks to you fiercely, and at your open palm, then he charges the oak-and-iron door and boots it down. He steps back as the thundering crash resounds in the structure's ancient hallways.
Silence comes with her, her shadows and a hint of fire. Flames lick from the end of her silver weapon. Her black dress and hair flow liquidly like silk as she poses and directs the gun's molten stream.
A fountain of fire devours the vampire. He flings his arms up, his cape lifts sending a tongue of flame over the gnarled oaks, painting the soot-fogged sky red. He's a stumbling torch when her weapon is long empty, then he falls to his knees in a cloud of hissing smoke.
Her white teeth glitter and you remember the stars as she steps out confidently to view his corpse. You see her cheeks like rouge-tinted porcelain as he springs up. He surprises her and takes her by the throat to the wall. In a tangle of ivy, she's flowing with blood. White wax crumbles, his hands fall away, and you see the crooked claws ripping her flesh. He's hungrier than fire, breaking away ribs, tearing at the heart.
Your head is spinning but there's nowhere to go, so you watch, not wanting to see him feed. He spares you now, turns and lets the Red slide down the wall. With one crooked claw, he grabs his distorted wax face and breaks the melted mask away. His scorched wig drops, there's only blood-speckled black rot . . . a nose bone, canine teeth and yellow eyes tell his story.
Now you know what has changed. With one filthy claw, he squeezes raw Red on the powdery White, and then tosses you the pouch.
"Our deal, Red for White -- not diseased," he hisses. "Don't you tell the others. Don’t tell it around. There are no vampires any more. I was the last. And this poisoned world has killed me too."
Now there is nothing but the twilight and the darkness, inhabited by hideous diseased scarecrows and the predators of animal night. The sounds of his feeding fade as you make for the bushes behind a sentry stone; there White powder fizzes through your skin and spots of red stain your wrist - you kneel, nod yourself asleep with a white candy dream in your headspace, and the rushes shoot you . . . . . . . .
------ The End -------
© By Gary L Morton
This grim story flows out of chaos, swirling to earth with brisk winds and a rush of autumn leaves. Brush strokes of dark illusion painting reality.
Beauty is truth and invisible to mortals. We walk in dreams, failing to see that all is a graveyard - or that living beings are but the flowers of the dying day.
Brittle leaves are the scrolls in a tomb, a parchment of history unrolling, and I am a shadow walking the path, nodding at the urns and stones placed for each person.
Masks swirl, there is wickedness and joy and I have come again like Halloween, from places that are not too real.
My feet strike the wall hard and I begin to walk like the most surefooted person of all. The stone and mortar crumbles underfoot, a slate slab tumbles to the blighted foliage below and I leap to a firmer place. Drunken shouting echoes behind me in the East City and ignoring it I look to the west at the tumbled wreck of a city beyond the shivering trees.
Plague lands, the death miasma of ten thousand bodies drifts with the cold fog. A skull shatters to fire and ice in my mind. Leaping from the wall, my black robes flutter as I descend, then I am on hard earth again, walking down a road of the dead. Frozen rutted mud, hovels tilting and leaning amid the thorns and dead weeds. The taller buildings of the downtown looking like monstrous sarcophagi thrown up from the jaws of the plague demons.
Farther down the road, I see a skeleton and rags in a tree and a dry fountain full of cracked skulls and bones. The germ of the plague is the tiniest skull of all, yet it cannot pass through the eye of a needle and kill me -- I am neither mortal nor immortal. If I had kind feelings for men, I would weep forever. If I had no feelings at all I would vanish into the uncaring maw of death. So I walk and sometimes I feel for the lonely man fleeing the howling winds, wolves and war.
This time I think of the man who sent me and I have feelings of hatred for him. Lucifer, a sorcerer who cannot appreciate that God and the gods created men and then left the world for other places. Unable to appreciate the beauty of this, Lucifer must meddle with men everywhere, and I would have no party with him if I did not need some of his magic on certain occasions.
Cobweb moss hangs from dead branches, for a moment I have the feeling of being in Cajun country and not in England. But this is England and my quarry is a vampire living under bizarre circumstances. A vampire soon to die. A death forbidden by Lucifer, who wants all to live in suffering for abstract reasons I have never been able to grasp. So I am sent to save this thing that should be more than put to death. And it is a vile thought. The cold flash of my steel has always been mercy and the end of evil men who create the hordes of monsters and freakish things. Perhaps I am arrogant; perhaps this is a task that will make me humble.
Gnarled apple trees shiver behind a huge rusty gate. I can see the remains of a prison and the waves of deep brown grass lapping against it. Cold tingling touches my face, and a vision rises. The dead will speak, so I walk to the gate. A flash of silver from the dark folds of my robes and my sickle has shattered the lock. And I watch as the gate creaks open of its own accord.
Death is an end to guilt, and even the walls of prisons are stripped as clean as bones. But here something lingers, and it is faceless and black, trying to mask itself as specters and deformity. I know it is a lie as the grass swells to mounds. The shivering of the apple trees is more of the bluff. Then the bodies begin to rise and I am temporarily tricked.
Shaking off the frozen sod, these are hideous things, rags, frost, rotten flesh, bile and blood. Fangs in mouths frozen open and twisted, and eyes lit by some sick fire of vampiric disease and lust. The mist is like poison as it sheets across their faces of scabs and sores. Their bones audibly creak as they walk slowly toward me.
Hunting this vampire for Lucifer truly makes me humble, but not so humble that I can stand the insult of these wretches thinking me to be food. It is questionable as to whether they should feed or not. They are not alive and they are not dead. Neither are they ghosts or specters. They are a mistake created by Lucifer's chosen vampire, Jason Burch.
They encircle me and the knowledge comes clear. Jason Burch has found a way to feed off plague victims. Perhaps drinking their blood when they are close to death, and the abominations before me are the result. Some of them lacking even teeth, and threatening me like bloodsuckers with useless open mouths like frozen pits.
My anger is enough, my gloved hand sweeps the folds of my cloak left and a wave of liquid darkness is born. The creatures fly rag doll into the air, the trees and grass. Black smoke and loud sparks spit from their burning rags and flesh and their mouths open and howl, though they can't emit much sound. The effect is that the roar of wind seems to be born of them.
Pacing over the uneven sod and mounds, I reach the prison and a heavy metal door. It is locked and my eyes flash red, heating the metal to a temperature that cracks the stone at the hinges. A whirl of my cloak sends in a frozen fist of wind that rings the door like a church bell as it knocks it down. Then I am inside and pacing down a corridor strewn with implements of torture and the bones of the dead.
There is nothing on the ground floor and above, just empty cells, and my senses tell me that like Hades, the evil is below. The stairs are blocked, the elevator winch broken. As I force the door, I hear bats flutter up the shaft. Dropping down, I kick the bottom door loose. A screech of hinges then it falls with a huge crash.
A long stone corridor drips with stalactites of ice and slime; corpses mummified with dust and cobwebs are crumpled against the walls. My heels ring as I walk to the end, and at an arch to a larger room, I pause and raise a hand. Candles and torches ignite at the motion and I have a clearer vision of the room. It is wide, with a second level balcony, almost like a small theatre. Tokens of witchcraft and of Christ decorate it - this is an unholy temple, with an altar of dual abomination that even Lucifer would hate. A bright pentagram burns with phosphor in a mosaic floor and from higher up, a cross casts its shadow. The marble slab of sacrifice has both a Satanist's dagger and holy objects. Remains of the last victim rest on the altar, mummified in ash and cobwebs. Chest and heart have been torn open, almost as if Aztec priests had done the work. Jason Burch would be the priest.
In his absence, I decide to rule his church unholy and deserving of destruction -- my judgment final. A last look around, a row of skulls in the balcony seeming to be my audience, then my scythe becomes the stroke of midnight and an eclipse over both cross and pentagram. The air grows warped, a twisted mirror, stone and metal begin to melt and burn. Silver and gold filaments rise and crackle like fire as the floor softens to clay and shifts. It sinks slowly as the mouth of a pit swirls open.
Dashing down a shaking corridor, flames and gases igniting me like a flare, tumbling slabs engulfing me - I feel invigorated. I reach a blocked door as part of an explosive force shooting up the tunnel and get blown out as the earth splits.
The grounds are in a storm of smoke. Hot steel and stone pounds like evil bells as flames, dust and sparks roar from the prison windows. An apple tree crashes beside me and another is falling. A powerful leap and I get over the grounds to the top of the wall and there I wait for the quaking earth to settle.
The jail heaves like a slab in quicksand, then its centre roof collapses and huge smoke signals rise to a sky as flecked and scarred as the diseased city below. I have visions of a corpse coughing up soot.
The plague zombies appear again, walking in the rain of ash on the grounds. A ruling on their fate is required - heaven or seven shades of a rainbow of fire. Running along the wall, I throw a sickle blade up in the smoke. Thunder booms high above, and the soot becomes rain. Golden drops falling only on the grounds of the jail. Water that burns the unholy stone like powerful acid, but as it hits the unholy skeleton crew, the rot on their bones froths and the golden bubbles smooth to flesh.
Thunder booms a second time and I find myself staring down from the wall at a crowd of naked humans. Saying nothing, I raise my hand and point in the direction of the gate and the road. Then I grin as they begin to run. The grin because of the fear in the eyes of people who should be shouting for joy.
The vampire Jason Burch's mansion stands near the centre of town. The setting sun and winter cirrus clouds create a shell of red-gold behind it. I see the skeletons of birds matted into the high turret roofs -- as if the flocks had gone mad and blind and attacked. Many of the sooty windows are cracked and boarded and the south side is heavily damaged from the fire and stones launched in some military assault on the place. No doubt the vampire had been blamed for the plague itself and the hordes of the diseased had tried to end it by killing him.
A new arched bridge spans the gully and the front entrance looks heavily fortified with huge timbers barring a solid oak door. I look at black water trickling at the bottom of the gully and then up at the ashes blowing over from the remains of the jail. A heavy rain of the ash begins to tumble on the high chimneys -- my eyes grow transparent as I watch these flakes of death, and I vanish from the bridge as I enter the mansion with them.
The halls feel musty, and the atmosphere like the touch of an unclean hand. A sconce-lit stairway leads me down to the main rooms. I pause to look at a painting of the four horses of the apocalypse, and then I push aside some heavy tapestry and enter a room on the north side -- an armory, all manner of swords and instruments of death on the walls. The vampire, Jason Burch, is there, sitting in a huge throne-like chair with a sword on his lap. A fire blazes behind him; crossed battle-axes centered by a sword and bronze skull plate gleam above the mantle.
Crossing the marble floor, I greet him with a grin. "You will need more than a sword and fangs to escape from me."
Darkness hoods Jason Burch's face. He speaks slowly. "Am I so important that you come for me a day early?"
"You are so important that you are not even going to die."
"Lucifer has you as a slave, too?"
"I owe him a favour, that is all."
"He asks for favours that shouldn't granted. Look at the suffering horror he has made of me. Now he inflicts intolerable suffering before men leave earth. You shouldn't permit it?"
"You have done the same, but he shouldn't do it. I will have to consider that - you may be right."
"No matter - I became a vampire willingly. Sold him my soul as you would say. I wanted the beauty and power of the undead. Look at this body of pain, scabs and sores. He has not kept his promise. He has no claim on my soul. I will die to spite him. Tell him to restore my health and looks or I will die at dawn and cheat him."
"But how will you die? The plague has deformed you. It has not killed you as it did the rest. A vampire can't die by his own hand."
"Not by my hand, by holy hands. The pope has decreed it. A holy procession enters the dead city tomorrow and the archbishop will execute me using prayers and holy water. I arranged it myself and I know you can't stop it, Reaper. You can't interfere with the work of the Church, and neither can Lucifer in this instance or he would not have tried to meddle by sending you."
"I guess you have me, Jason Burch. I will wait and tomorrow I will watch. You have defied all of the higher powers, and you are a fool to want to die and speed their judgement upon you."
"Pain knows not what a fool is -- and revenge knows no master. In dying I will at least escape the suffering for a moment and will have the pleasure of having cheated Lucifer."
The dawn arrives like another a shade of night. Cold light salts the sky and is enough to light the frosty road. Bones glisten in the heaps of deadwood and dirty ice gleams on the rooftops. Hungry crows flying above the city gate are an omen of the coming procession. Standing on a high ledge waiting, I view a portion of the road narrowed by mold-eaten stone walls. Above, the light seems brief, and the sky darkening as though a saint and not a devil were about to perish.
Specks of snow grow and shift, white robes appear. Apple-cheeked boys carry smoking silver at the head of the procession. They look startlingly out of place in the dead city and their presence alone does more to purify the land than any holy smoke can. These altar boys also serve to purify the train of priests behind them.
The holy men wear special robes of dark gray and heavy cloth, muffling all but their eyes. Their walk bent and tired and they seem to be pulling some great weight that is behind them on invisible strings. Seeing only their eyes, I see nothing but fear -- fear and then the archbishop's heavy carriage. One horse pulls it and I am sure they plan to put the horse to death at the gates when the procession returns.
The day looks set to go against Lucifer's will. The archbishop will walk into the mansion, sprinkle his holy water and hold his huge cross over the perishing vampire. Grinning, I imagine the anger on Lucifer's twisted features.
Leaping into the sky, I land on a high wall of the mansion. At my call, a blast of steaming heat blows in and sweeps the grime from an arched window. As I look down at Jason Burch, I hear bells tolling faintly in the distant living part of the city. Burch is in red and purple robes, his face visible in the open cowl. It is hideous, matted flesh and veins pulsing, hardened like a form of wood. He has taken off his gloves, revealing hands that are the same -- thick purple veins -- clawed appendages that could belong on some gnarled tree.
At the gate, the procession halts - the boys remain, fanning smoke, and the archbishop descends from his carriage. He is also covered in special robes, his face nearly a bandage. As he pulls it back, I study his stern hawkish features. His cold eyes rest at an evil slant - he strikes me as eviler than Jason Burch.
Choosing four of his best priests, the archbishop walks up to the entrance. Two burly priests remove the bars. The doors swing open slowly as they force the rusty hinges, and the air rushes out, causing the archbishop to stagger back, his nose and face twisting at the vile fumes.
He enters slowly, the priest on his right holding his staff and the priest on his left carrying an enormous cross. The vestibule leads to an open front room and near the far wall, Jason Burch sits by the fireplace on his makeshift throne. The room is nearly bare - blocks of cold stone, a coat of arms and crossed swords on the wall behind him. Jason Burch keeps this room bare for open combat. Today the fight is to be lost; his coffin sits off to his right as a symbol of his defeat by the church.
Jason rises and walks to the coffin, and then he turns to face the archbishop. "This will be quick, I hope? My soul cannot be saved, so do not waste time with prayers."
"Prayers were said all night at the abbey, and they are being said now. We did it this way to spare you the pain. But there is one other thing."
"What is it? Not more nonsense to delay this?"
"No. But I have to ask if you realize that this is not an execution. You will die because you are unholy. We are not putting you death."
"I am aware of that as I am aware that holy men always have ways of washing their hands when it comes to these affairs."
"Very well. You will now remove your robe and lay in the coffin. My priests and the cross will be at the side to hold you down. After the bathing begins you will no longer be able to fight."
"Good," said Jason Burch, removing his robe and handing it to a priest. "Let us end this."
As Jason eases himself onto his back, the priest to his right places the staff across his chest to hold him should he try to rise. Another priest moves up with the large cross, and seeing it Jason hisses mildly and closes his yellowing eyes.
Taking the largest gold vial from a silver tray of vials, the archbishop prepares to dispense the holy water. Crossing himself, he opens it, and to begin, tosses a small drop on Jason's legs. There is an immediate hiss and reaction. A puff of blue smoke rises. Satisfied, the archbishop pours the whole the vial up and across to make a cross on the corpse.
The reaction comes instantly; a violent hiss, and cross of fire and smoke roaring with such fury that the archbishop and his priests choke as they stagger back. John Burch rises, the brilliant cross burning on his body. Red drops bead his face and they work to heal his flesh and shoot fire into his eyes. He turns his head away, pained by the light. But that is only momentary as a gust dims the room with eddies of smoke.
His hands burning, the priest drops the large cross and it falls and clangs on the hard floor. The staff-bearing priest regains his balance and strikes at the vampire, but Jason blocks the blow as he powers his way up. Fire, sparks and smoke fly from his palms as he throws the staff and the priest across the room. Then the archbishop stands up, holding his tiny neck cross to fend off the vampire.
John Burch is on him almost instantly, a swipe of his deformed hand tearing away the cross and much of the skin on the archbishop's neck. The holy man's gasp does not lead him to pause. He strikes again, this time tearing flesh.
A grotesque flap of flesh hanging, blood spurting onto his heavy robes, yet the archbishop somehow stands there for a moment, a ghastly grimace of horror carved into his aging face. Then he goes down and the vampire flies down to feed.
Sensing the time to be right I rap the glass hard. John Burch looks up, his face full of blood from the archbishop's torn neck and chest. Beyond the bloodlust in his eyes, there is fury. Jason Burch knows I placed drops of blood in the holy water.
And that is what I want him to know. I study him for a moment more, and then I leap into the depths of the sky and darkness, leaving Jason Burch to live on in certain agony. He had sold his soul for the beauty of the undead and now his face was more skull than mine. Lucifer hadn't broken his promise at all -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
------ The End -------
© By Gary L Morton
Not so many years ago, this village of Reddersville was Iroquois land, and when I close my eyes, I can picture two dancing medicine men smudging some of the braves. The thick smoke of the sweetgrass curling around painted bodies, beads of sweat on stern foreheads, in one of those common clearings where the fragrance of decaying herbs is as strong as the bittersweet ash.
Golden grasses are rippling as the wind races off to the autumn flame of the surrounding sugar maples. And the fir trees are the arrowheads of angry spirits, piercing the amber sky. Whatever visions the medicine men have of these spirits are carried off, swirling with the leaves in a dust devil, and they spin until the most frightening warrior stands at the clearing's edge.
Twilight is a hawk returning, and when the birches are midnight ghosts the braves are following the warrior and an avalanche of stars, hunting with the darkness . . .
. . . but that's when I close my eyes. The trouble starts when I open them. Then my visions are of an evil spirit. It has touched my life with a bloody hand. One of the spirit's evil deeds was a strangling, and some people thought I was the killer. The lawmen liked my profile - Owen Fairhawk, 36, half Indian, known to drink on occasion, ill-tempered sometimes fishing guide who works on just about any sort of temporary job, and a bachelor.
Yeah, the lawmen were eyeing me like a coyote would eye a prize turkey, but I'm not the guy they see. I see all things and accept them. I don't want to give people an Indian Utopia they couldn't appreciate, but I refuse to share their burdens and crave what their world says I need. If I can sit on a cliff, smile and spice my dreams with memories, then kernels of gold fall from the sun and I become as rich with feelings as the temperate forest is with its autumn coat.
I know that much of the suffering in modern life is a product of desire, and that no happiness is brewed in a cauldron of desire, but a person who desires nothing - not even a sunny afternoon - is a person who has lost the dream and made nirvana irrelevant by not desiring it above all things. Sure, there's some dark lust in my own inner nirvana, and I have my needs, but I don't let anything get a warped grip on me. I'm in control, a far cry from the wild Indian the lawmen think I am.
The evil spirit awoke about a year ago, in the summertime, striking the Reddersville area with a wave of violent deaths. Weakened by the heat wave I was working only as a fishing guide in the breezier waters.
The day of the first killing, I was at home. I have a cottage on Beartooth Bay. It's more like half a cottage connected to a trailer and it's an example of the kind of all-trades work I can do. I even built a small peaked roof for the trailer. But I don't care much for houses, I like the outdoors and I spend a lot of time in my boats. My boat fishin' superstition is often booked up, but on that day, she was docked with my canoe and rowboat.
I was resting on the shore in the shade of some sumac and I was at my best; though the heat had sapped all thoughts of work from me, it had also drained me of any desire for alcohol. The waters of the bay rippled in the sun like silk and ran from a deep blue to a milky blue out where the heat haze rose up like a Venetian blind to hide the far shore. A row of poplars ran up to the highway on one side of the cottage and a farmer's deadwood fence ran a zigzag course beside my drive on the other. I was fairly isolated - a fallow field lay over the fence and it held only dense grass and weeds. Across the field, I could see the red side of Dave Burns' barn, and a cloud of dust suspended over Highway 6 where it became visible as it curved around the bay.
Blinding brilliance descended on my eyes as the sun fattened, flared and began to set, and then a rose tint spread through the haze, giving the sky a deeper dimension. A flock of crows flew like arrows over the field and poked holes in the dust cloud. I thought of how crows always get active when the weather is about to change. Reddersville is crow country though and the dust cloud had unusual buoyancy that didn't spell humidity or rain.
I watched the sun fling its tongue across the horizon while dust devils began to merry-go-round by the road. My thoughts were wandering as a red station wagon came into view, then something weird woke me. A small reddish dust devil rode down and hit the car, exploding its back windshield and causing the driver to make an emergency stop on the shoulder.
The dust cloud mushroomed and darkened in a star pattern, and then a huge dust devil appeared and whirled in a wide circle around the car. The headlights came on and illumined a screen of dust that resembled a TV test pattern. I got up and had to shield my eyes to block a shimmering desertlike landscape in the sunset sky. Down in the dark patch strange faces were appearing and disappearing in the whirling dust. They were faces you would see on a totem pole or masks, similar to some of the visions artists have of Raven, Coyote and warrior spirits, but with strong, animate expressions of howling wickedness and laughter.
Without hesitation, I ran and leapt over the fence for a better look, but as I landed in the clover the faces faded and the dust devil broke up. Only the larger cloud remained, a huge umbrella shading the wagon. A woman got out of the driver's door cautiously. She had naturally windblown blond hair, tanned shoulders and wore a light summer dress. A gust of wind revealed most of her legs as she stood behind the car, checking the damage.
I began to walk toward her, unconsciously avoiding patches of burs and nettles. I was a ways into the field when I saw her shielding her eyes and looking at something down the road. I guessed that she wouldn't see much more than glare and shadow against the blaze of the sunset.
She had feminine innocence that no doubt sent many men stumbling to her rescue. Before I could make a solid guess at her character her features stilted with fright. Since I couldn't see what she was scared of I quickened my pace. Whatever it was, it caused her lean back against the car, like she was too terrified to run. With a lot of ground to cover, I began to sprint to her aid.
Shards of fiberglass from the windshield made jewels on the asphalt. The wind played at her dress. I had covered half the field when I saw her attacker. It was a tall column of dust, and in the swirl were mutilated half-human faces. They were like evil animal gods, long and distorted with anguish.
She screamed and the column seemed to hear her; it halted its spin long enough to leave a tall man standing in front of her. He wore cowboy boots and torn jeans, his chest was bare except for a mat of scar tissue. Stringy black hair and stubble partly hid his sharp-featured face. It was hard to put a finger on his race. I guessed that other people might call him a gypsy for lack of a better term.
Silence fell on the girl like a shadow, and mesmerism glazed her eyes as he stepped up to her and put his hands on her neck. I yelled for him to stop, but my words were lost in a tunnel of wind. I was forced to watch him strangle her gently, and then violently break her neck. A sick form of love welled in his eyes, like he was mad and had killed his own daughter. Blood came lightly to her lips and he kissed her fiercely, then he eased his grip on her and let her fall against the car. His fangs glistened with blood as she slid to the roadside, then he just stood there and looked at his crooked hands, relishing what he'd done.
He turned to face me just as I was leaping over the ditch, and he had a faraway look and an expression like he couldn't care less. He didn't even move to defend himself. I gave him a flying check and he fell over the body and rolled on the asphalt. Giving him no chance to recover I jumped on his chest with heavy boots and then stomped at his groin, continuing to lay heels on him until I was doing a dance on his face, wishing my feet were jackhammers so I could break every bone in his body. Then he caught my right foot and bit it hard, ending the good times.
My foot was bleeding. His teeth were razor sharp. Staggering back, I let out a howl of pain. Like a spooked pheasant, he flew up and felled me with a vicious jab to the throat. Looking up from the ground, I saw him flanked by a steep wall of twilight and that grisly column of dust. He grinned, showing his fangs then he turned to the station wagon and started booting it. He worked his way around the car, knocking out the lights and windows. When he went to work on the doors, it sounded like a demolition derby.
Shaking my punch-drunk head, I got up and found him ready for me. He had his belt off and I could see he planned on hammering me a couple with the buckle. The buckle was glowing red, a hot branding iron, and I could see, the name DUST DEVIL traced on it in white-hot silver. Since it was woven from snakeskins it snapped easily, as if it were a whip, and I ended up doing a crazy dance, ducking and staggering back, trying to avoid the humiliation of being branded.
It took all of my agility, but I managed to pull a side dodge, move in and rise with a backfist strike to the bridge of his nose - a deadly hit that should've put him out. It didn't, but I did manage to sweep-trip him before staggering back winded.
Dust Devil rolled up fast and both blood and smoke were pouring from his injured nose. Fury was in his eyes, then he dodged in so fast he was a blur and sent the buckle straight at my cheek.
I caught it barehanded, and it put my whole body in a fiery hell. My palms smoked and sizzled like frying meat, and my own scream seemed to come from a distance as I twisted wildly. I was strong enough to break away, but not strong enough to stay up. Smoke went up my nose as I went down.
My head spinning, I scrambled to my knees and saw a huge shadow sailing for me - it was an approaching truck. I raised my hands in a defensive gesture that could do little to save me from a future as a hood ornament.
Brakes squealed, the truck stopped inches from me and a last beam from the setting sun spotlighted the area. I turned and glanced back, expecting to see Dust Devil jump me, but he wasn't there. The dust was gone
Dave Burns, the farmer next door, had seen me dashing across the field to the rescue, and the tourist driving the Blazer had seen a shadowy figure throw me out front of him and disappear on the forested side of the highway. If it had been otherwise patrol officer Jim Orland would've charged me with murder. After I told about the supernatural occurrence and being painfully on fire without being burned, Jim cocked a cynical gray eye, pulled on his whisker shadow and said that I wasn't a sober witness. Since Reddersville can't afford a police force the murder case was shared by the provincial police and Orland's Mounties - the upshot of this being that it made it certain I would eventually be charged. I decided to go on a bender while I still had some free time.
There's an abandoned Starlight Inn on the Sand Hill Road near the outskirts of town, and I sleep there when I'm drinking around Reddersville. I'm a menace on the road even when I'm sober, so I left my wheels at home. It was 3 a.m. when the need sent me wandering down the roadside. I had a small pack and the pockets of my hunter's pants stuffed with supplies for my motel room. The moon had strong arms of wind that were sweeping the treetops, and they rustled vastly and sent the odd gust down to tear at me. The shadows went on forever, dream scenery in my mind, and for some reason it came to me that all men are ghosts, bound to the few roads they will wander. Most men don't die, they slowly wink out. I believed myself to be stronger, like a spirit taking new faces from the earth. It is true that few men interested me then and few men interest me now. I like women, but men I've always seen as rivals that I tolerate. To me Dust Devil was more interesting than the heroes we're taught to worship.
A week went by, and it was as empty as the roaring in a seashell. Sort of a blur. I remember smoke in my eyes and the Silver Mule Saloon's dancers, punctuated by the riverbed taste of hangovers and a harsh sun. What finally killed my thirst was some news about more murders.
A Dwight Yaokum tune that I thought was great was playing on the jukebox and a stripper was dancing Egyptian-style for a fathead sitting in a cloud of cigar smoke at the table next to me. I thought about hitting him with a chair, and then I ignored him and looked around for some of my regular pals. Georgie was over by the door swallowing a taco. He wiped his chops with a napkin and accidentally on purpose dropped it in some tourist's draft. On spotting me, he walked over, and that's when I got the news.
"It was a very gruesome massacre," he said, shaking his braids and folding his hands with a drunk's reverence. "Up by Weller Creek, yesterday. Four fishing buddies and a French gal. She was strangled, her blood drained. They were beaten to death, heads cracked open like clams. Orland says it's the work of your Dust Devil. Guess it puts you in the clear now, the case is too complex to hang on an Indian."
I smiled so broadly one of the girls came to the table thinking I was signaling her for a dance. Feeling good about being in the clear I got up and went out. Streaks of yellow fire rained from the sun and washed away the grime and sleaze of the hotel. I had a sort of gone feeling where I was aware of my surroundings but everything seemed shot through with numbness, like I was a root stuck in cold earth. I rested on a bench by the river, and the arc of hills surrounding the village rose and fell as I drifted towards sobriety.
Withdrawal brought about vivid dreams that caused me to shiver in the heat, then a bizarre language of feelings filled me and I seemed to know Dust Devil's history. It almost bubbled in my mind. Dust Devil had been the only real witch during the Inquisition and he'd used his powers to lead the men of the church to the chalices of innocent blood that damned them. As the Reformation came about Lucifer was bounced from the holy altars and Dust Devil became a wandering false prophet. He came through the Enlightenment in Europe with the seeds of a new racist doctrine that granted men the right to murder in the name of superiority. It filled the world with the flames of war and the smoke of death camps. As a nihilist author, he revealed that our universe was created by a beautiful act of divine suicide, God in flames. In his heart, he wished for a return of ancient days when he'd taught the art of human sacrifice. Blood had been so plentiful then.
A limestone shelf leans into the water near the abandoned motel and it's one of my favorite fishing spots. I headed up the Sand Hill Road figuring I'd gather my few things, sit by the water until dusk and then return home. Things didn't work out though, the sky unexpectedly began to dim to slate and I was suddenly sure that something was wrong. An ill, dusty wind began rattling through the woods, but the feeling was more than weather, it was dryness inside too.
I could feel the wind sapping my strength as I went around the bend, and I sure didn't like it. In Ontario, the winds are nearly all energetic and exhilarating. The idea of a bad wind was something I hated. Bad winds belonged in Europe, where Dust Devil belonged.
The motel stood out like the last long house, its shingles warped to bark, struggling to remain intact against a background of wind-kicked forest, cold light and boulder-shaped clouds. A Mustang was angled off the drive with one front tire half up the trunk of a fallen poplar. No one was in the car or near it and there was the sense of everything being wrong, but maybe right for an evil being.
A zigzag formation of dust devils skated down from the treetops, whirligiged like tops, and made angry insects out of the litter carpeting the front of the hotel. I felt my scalp lift, and then a scream rose from the bottom of an invisible canyon. Wood burst to splinters and a body crashed through one of the boarded-up windows. It was a man and he landed and rolled between two dust devils. He rose to his hands and knees, and his face was like a smashed strawberry. One of his eyes hung from the socket and the other was swollen shut. He moaned in a sort of hopeless agony then he took a pistol from his belt, put it to the side of his throat and squeezed the trigger. A gust of wind sprinkled the nearby trees with blood drops and he collapsed on his side. Dust whirled into him, his burial had already begun.
I took off over a patch of spongy earth, the idea of getting the gun fueling me. A teenage girl had dashed out the open front door. Her jeans were torn and one side of her head was shaved, but she'd likely done that for fashion. Blood was thick on a jagged incision at the top of her forehead; someone had almost scalped her. She ran, flailing her arms and screaming into the cruel wind. Since she was so thin she looked weird running, like baggy clothes blowing on a line. Her hysteria didn't take her far before Dust Devil stepped out of the motel and used some power of his to slow her to a stop.
He didn't appear to see me at first, and I felt confident with the gun, which I had picked up. It was a Ruger pistol and as I lifted it, Dust Devil caught the motion in the corner of his eye. He turned, his concentration broke and the girl began running again as I took aim.
Dust Devil's thin lips showed white with rage through his shadow of whiskers, and his eyes were chunks of backlit red glass. Smoky dust streamed from his windblown hair. "You," he said in a whisper that was carried to me on the wind. "The loco reincarnation."
He took a gunslinger's step toward me. I didn't feel like screwing around with him so I pulled the trigger, placing a bullet right between his eyes. His head exploded, a geyser of flaming magma, and he took another step toward me, headless.
My jaw went slack and my scalp lifted as a dust devil arced out of the woods and landed on his shoulders. Slowly it compacted to form another head above the gore and lava running on his shirt.
His neck was a mass of scar tissue, but his features were unchanged and he was now smiling cruelly. He pulled a hunting knife from his belt and ran his finger along the blade, taking his time as a way of making my blood run cold. I fired again and this time his skull shattered like china and shards of brilliant glass flew. A third slug winged his knife and it flew like a dart into the trunk of a tree.
A howling rose on the wind. Headless, he held his arms up to the sky. A column of smoke shot up from his neck. I covered my face to block the stinging dust, then the wind whooped and knocked me over with a big hand.
The blow calmed as quickly as it had rose, and I sprang up. Dust Devil was still smoking, a fork of lightning struck him and a new head glowed on his shoulders. This time I tossed the gun away, mainly because his new head was a twin of mine and I was afraid voodoo would happen if I put a bullet in it.
He ran for me like a hungry animal and I side-dodged him and clapped his back to send him face-first to the ground. When he sprang up, I got him with my best punch in the nose, only to find that his head was like hard rubber.
A series of moves followed and in some ways he was a clumsy fighter. He didn't know the weak points like I did. I went for the solar plexus, the balls, the calf, the temple and neck while he used mainly brute force. Things degenerated to a flurry of bad punches and I busted his teeth and ripped my knuckles raw, then my legs were taken out from under me and we rolled and pounded on one another like screwball robots. After about an eternity of it, I broke free, somersaulted to my feet, laid a few boots to his face, and then jumped back before he could chomp on my foot again.
He leapt up and a thousand masks fell from his face to the dust like skins from a snake. We stared each other down like predators, and a million years fell out of his angry eyes and roared through me with the fury of fire and wind. Ancient memories returned. I knew why he hadn't slaughtered me like the rest; I was as old as him, a loco reincarnation and a coyote just like he said. The delusions he'd helped give this age weren't in me for him to claim me as his; I would forever be a renegade Indian and beyond his grasp.
I said before that I see all things and accept them. I accepted Dust Devil then, just like I would've accepted any other beast. He saw that I knew and backed off a step. Then I grinned through split lips, slapped the grit off my thighs and walked away into the dusk, knowing he wouldn't follow. With death over my shoulder and another wheel of time ahead, I saw a vision . . . and it went from ashes to ashes and rose from the dust again.
------ The End -------
© By Gary L Morton
Dan moved slowly so he wouldn't trip, and he could feel the friendly touch of the sunlight spilling through the attic window. The dust had an aged scent, mixed odors of things willingly locked away and forgotten. He'd been picking through flea-market-type odds and ends for about an hour, childhood memories marching through his mind with the many fragrances of dust. Some blind people find the past to be like a river running deep with currents of emotion, but to Dan the attic was like a womb or time capsule. His life was inside the capsule, cruel horizons were locked on the outside and he was comforted in knowing that once there were good times. In his memory, moments of inspiration were his sight; a pure inner light and bright lifeline that kept his personality safe from the many chasms of sorrow and disappointment.
His cane bumped an object on the floor, and he could tell it was a necklace. Using the worn floorboards to his advantage, he picked it up and it slid down the cane into his hand. He examined it, feeling a thin chain, a large bead, and what was likely a wolf fang.
Before he could think, the warmth of the sun vanished from the window and the fang went cold in his hand; unreasonable fear crept over him and he decided to leave the attic. Not wanting to lose the necklace while climbing down, he fastened it around his neck.
Then he took a step and his thoughts took off, accelerating past clarity to confusion and pain. Staggering back, he fell in pile of clothing. It was like he'd landed at the bottom of a deep well and the impact had cleared the confusion to leave one brilliant thought in his head. A thought he couldn't fully comprehend, even though it was the most important thought he'd ever had.
Interpretation shifted and he realized that the thought was really a large object. Smiling like an infant, he touched it like it was a new toy. Depth perception stole into his awareness; the object was a chair. Something was beyond it so he looked up and was quickly dazzled by lights brighter than his usual emotions.
"I can see," he whispered as the truth sank in. Moving forward quickly he touched objects, and as fast as he touched them he understood what they were. After covering the room, he stopped and looked around, finding that the room made sense to him now.
A sky of gray shades pulsed outside the window; it was a grim ocean over a world lacking in form. Turning from the window, he saw something that startled him; it was up in the corner rafters, and was made of blindness, evil moods and a large chunk of gray sky.
It threw out sky-colored wings and whirled down on him. Dan stumbled and struggled against a flurry of beating wings, shivers, high-pitched cries and dark memories. Poison hate was invading his mind; he threw the creature over his shoulder and it crashed through the window. A coat rack and chair went over as he hurried out the door.
It was soaring through the broken window as he slammed the door, and it thumped against the wood, causing him to lose his balance and tumble wildly down the stairs.
He’d been alone in the house since his mother's death a week ago, and now the place took on the aspect of a sinister cave. He was terrified of its hidden corners. Panic sent him stumbling down the main stairs, clinging desperately to the railing, and he didn't stop - he rushed out the door.
On the front walk, he halted and looked up; the bird thing was circling the house, shining darkness skated on its monstrous wings. Its one good eye gleamed and it swooped like a bat. Falling to his knees, he covered his head, then the sun burst through the clouds and a golden beam struck the creature. It released a sharp cry that broke one of the front windows, and then it lifted zygodactyl claws, soared upward and flew off toward the safe darkness on the horizon.
Dan uncovered his head and let the new sun colors dance in his mind. He wondered why heaven and hell were being given to him in this quiet suburban neighborhood. He was undeserving of both; he had sacrificed good and evil to the clockwork of life just like everyone else. No one had inspiration any more, not without dollar signs attached. Pain and insecurity were acute now that mediocrity had been exploded. He began to think about his position as the last living member of the Mint family, and he felt sad.
Finally, he got to his feet and grinned; what could you lose when you were the last? A beautiful woman turned down the walk; the breeze rippled her dress and lifted the locks of her hair. She had a friendly feminine radiance and sparkling eyes. He didn't really have to touch her to know who she was or what she was made of, but he still opened his arms like a man who wasn't sure what he was about to embrace.
She stopped in her tracks, leaving him poised to embrace the air. Cold astonishment appeared on her face. "Why are you out here - what's happened?"
"Ann, I can see! And some kind of bird attacked me."
"That's wonderful!" she said, and they embraced. "You should see a specialist right away. We've got to know if it's permanent."
"No need to rush things," he said.
She was looking at him analytically, and her eyes had gone cold like the first gray sky he'd seen. The earlier sparkle must've been an illusion; her look wasn't that of a woman who loved him. He'd felt it in her touch the last month but he hadn't wanted to believe it. His good fortune was a complication she didn't like much. He got the feeling that she'd been stringing him along because she hadn't wanted to hurt him while his mother was dying. He began to retreat within, wishing for the old safety and security of blindness; he didn't have to open a new room in his heart for sadness and lost love, the door to an old one was already open and waiting.
"You don't look well," she said. "And you look funny wearing that necklace. We better go in and sit down."
He looked at the necklace; it was a thin gold chain with an ivory fang. The large bead, it turned out, was a glass eye. "I found it in the attic. We had better not go inside right now. I told you about the bird attacking me. It was up in the attic too. It broke the window."
She looked at the broken front window. Her short nose twitched and her penciled eyebrows went up. "No bird could do that."
"Something was in there. I couldn't see it very well."
"We better call the police."
"Forget the police. I'm starving. Let's go down to the restaurant. Lunch is on me."
"You haven't any money. I should know. I'm your social worker."
"I'm running a tab with Jack. I'll pay when Mother's insurance comes through."
Maples and oaks rustled in the breeze. He looked at the millions of ragged leaves, and the world was a song and a vision, or a zeppelin of human inspiration. At heart, he still felt like a blind man, but now he felt in control while society and its mighty clockwork shattered softly at his feet. He was free of its order and free of any need for Ann - her voice lost resonance and became one with the traffic noise. The sidewalk stretched on like the palm of a hand of strange destiny. Darkness ringed the horizon and a faint sound of beating wings was in the rushing air. They closed in on the restaurant in the way all things close in on an end. He saw the city as a giant and felt that perhaps a life with Ann would've blinded him to everything but the shine on the dumb brute's armor. He would've been allowed some temporary happiness before his grave opened. There would be something else for him. Maybe he would be alone like his mother had been alone. He stepped into Jack's thinking he hadn't been defeated in life yet; not yet because defeat was an acid that wrote its name on your face, and his complexion was unmarked.
Jack's tiny restaurant looked cleaner than it smelled, except for Jack who needed a haircut and shave. Dan drummed his fingers on the marble tabletop and watched Ann go over the menu. The place was shadowy and the other customers were worn ghosts who gained their only solidity through drinking beer. He didn't like the place. He was developing an aversion to being indoors.
Ann flipped a laminated page. "Most of the young men I deal with on my job are vulgar young brutes. I've told you that haven't I?"
She was avoiding his eyes. He assumed that as always she would leap from the usual opening question into a short speech about their relationship. "Yes, you did."
"There are always undeveloped individuals and wounded individuals, but what I'm really leading up to is the gap between us. You're not a brute of course." She coughed as Jack set down coffee, her eyes drifted like she was thinking of ways to make her point. "Oh, never mind," she finally said. "I shouldn't be ruining a happy day with serious talk. I have Thursday off. We can plan a full day - work things out for you and then have a talk."
They ate in silence and he watched the people strolling by the window. He figured that most people were pretty much what they looked to be, but because they hid a lot deliberately, much of the world was always locked in darkness. With him, his mind made illusions of the darkness until reality was mostly a dream. If people agreed a stone was heavy, it was because reality had a definite skeleton. Skeleton, yes, but the flesh and the beast were different in every person. Now his beast was tearing off its mask and turning the streets into a chameleon hide. It pulled at him with wild magnetism that would've overpowered him if it weren't for the strength he had from the years of blindness. Not wanting to look out of place he waited patiently until Ann suggested they leave.
She had some work to return to at her office, and he walked along with her, feeling like her shadow. Her milky white stockings enhanced the nice curves of her calves and her white silk blouse made her breasts look almost edible. Her face and neck were pale, ghostly white. A white that was fascinating to a hungry shadow man. He thought of her frail collarbones as fine bone trinkets, and her dark hair was blowing like a kite beside the bleached boards of a tall fence. He was feeling like he'd always been a proud son of the shadows and another kind of white was rising in his perception. A white fang; it stabbed and dripped venom in his heart until the sun went dark and waves of shadows swept across the city. Losing control he seized her, forced her down against the fence, using the strength of an iron man. His eyes silenced her scream. Newly grown fangs ripped into the flesh of her neck and he drank delicious blood until the burning subsided. As he rose from her sleeping corpse, he knew he was unstoppable, too cunning and strong for ordinary humans.
He walked through a new city that was alive with ancient dreams and he was something timeless that could rear up and challenge the science and sophistication of all things modern. The skyward-sweeping buildings were keeps in a new larger castle. He followed the bat wings circling under the drifting cumulus towers. The city's distances had once been tremendous but now he found them small, his feet alone could manage them. Eventually the bat creature circled a lightning rod on a sleek black, tiered scraper and dropped to its rooftop.
Dan knew to take the elevator to the top floor, but not what awaited him there. At the top, the elevator stopped and went dark. A few minutes later, it moved up to an unmarked floor and opened. Dan stepped into a giant room like a dim cavern; it was hung with heavy gold-ribbed curtains and he saw a number of people sleeping in deep cushioned chairs.
His eyes adjusted. A tall man became visible in the center of the room. The man's face was handsome, ruggedly chiseled though powder pale. His clothes were black as night and sparkling with gold. He drank deeply from a gold goblet, and then he turned and walked over to a curtain and threw it open, allowing gray sky to pour in.
The man turned; he was a black shadow in the gray light. "If only your mother could belong to me like you do my son. Yes, I see the same sorrow in your eyes." He gestured at the sky and his cape flowed like liquid. "We could all shed tears over what we have become, but rather than weep people all try to fix their images onto the world."
"I understand," Dan said. "In the end only the shadows live on, and we are them."
------ The End -------
© By Gary L Morton
Strong summer winds carried me across the continent and I felt like the breath of life. Everywhere the same bright sun ruled the sky. Now the buildings of Toronto towered overhead and a flash of sun on tinted glass nearly bowled me over. Staggering back, I vowed to stay off the streets in the daylight before permanent rings of pain formed around my eyes. As I caught my balance, negative thoughts hit me, and I felt nauseous as I stepped into the shade of a doorway.
Being able to read minds is mostly a curse, so the few of us who have the ability to use the blocks are the truly gifted ones. This time the black thoughts were coming from a line-up by the next building. I'd seen the place on the news; a courthouse, and a handsome serial killer name Paul Teal was on trial there. These people were his fans . . . or I should say a few of his fans mixed in a crowd of young teenage girls. People who stood around from midnight to noon waiting for court to reopen. Some of them as sick as him in their own little ways.
Often serial killers are lone men gone back to the old ways; the life of man the predator. It's a way to break the trap of modern society, but it never works for serial killers because they're trapped by the sexual distortions ruling their minds. They have nothing, but are unique for what they don't have - human feelings. Their fans aren't unique at all. They bring to mind the sad truth that it is a celebrity society of the second order. The second order meaning the celebrities need only fame and not moral reputation. Get the exposure and you enter the upper class of celebrities.
Paul Teal's image appealed to some of these people in the same way that my movie star image appeals to some people. Everybody loves somebody big, because it's a way of ducking the fact that they hate themselves. Paul Teal didn't appeal to the teens of course. His victims were of that tender age, so ostensibly, they wanted to see him punished, but the truth was that they were curious. Torture and death draw the curious and the fascinated, and often they're lambs who wander too close to the wolf.
Canadian society wouldn't really punish Teal. The court action began as a freak show and would end that way. I've lived in societies where Teal and his accomplice wife would have gotten twin guillotines. Imagine that, twin guillotines across the street there at Toronto City Hall, and the crowd yelling with joy as the heads fall. I'd watch it myself because the guillotine is so perfect. The once mighty killer kneeling in subservience and all that blood wasted and splashing on the steel.
Yes, I sound like a Neanderthal, believing in execution in modern times. But the truth is that some people aren't theologians, humanists, lawyers or determinists. I'm a person who believes people are responsible for what they do, and if they are caught, execution is the punishment they have earned. That's if they are caught, and since I will never be caught, execution is something I don't have to consider.
I love my being, not the flesh or the blood that feeds it, but the mind and the soul. A contradiction since I'm supposed to be without a soul. Perhaps it's a personality quirk, I don't know, but I do know that I felt my spirit recharge as I turned away from the crowd. And I felt it because the human ghost is in all of us. Maybe I should say I have soul, but a dark one.
Two beautiful women emerged from an office tower's revolving door, bringing me to a halt. The rest of the crowd immediately turned to shadows, making it easy for me to tag along behind them. I prefer cities because of the women, and I don't find modern society to be cold and alienating the way others do. According to the bachelors in my crew, Toronto is a place that sucks when it comes to women. Hit Montreal or New York unless you want to meet ladies who won't even go to a dance with you without checking a stat sheet to see if you're up to their minimum requirements. Whatever happened to animal magnetism, love at first sight and people who look for human qualities in lovers? Materialism, maybe. Somewhere a monster is filming endless love stories while turning the real thing into statistics, telephone calls and newspaper ads.
People like to criticize and then be like the people they put down, but I do have animal magnetism, so I haven't lost everything. Usually I go for blondes, medium height and full-figured, and it bothers me to be ruled by a couple of small statistics like that . . . so it was refreshing to find myself ducking the blond this time.
A leggy brunette stole my attention. She wasn't full-figured, outwardly pleasant or haloed by innocence, but she did have an air of feminine delicacy and beauty that was hard to resist. Picking up on her mind, I found a vibrant person, so I knew the delicate look was illusion. Her thoughts were beautiful thoughts about people and life, and that made her very rare.
Being young and beautiful is all that counts in life, and she was that and mature too . . . but it was the correct form of maturity - she knew that life was mostly a childish game you wouldn't enjoy if you got too serious. I didn't read her mind to pick that up. I saw it in the laughter spilling over her violet lids as she glanced at me and turned away.
Her heels clicked lightly on the stone as she went up the steps and into a computer store. As the revolving door swung, a sense of loss hit me. The fragrance of her perfume lingered, exotic and lonely. Seeing her had made me feel young and now I remembered my age, 420 years old. I always look about thirty, but I don't always feel thirty. Sometimes I feel ancient like I'm turning to stone, and that's the feeling I had as I went up the steps. I needed her like a fix and it wasn't just her blood.
Cold air-conditioning hit me and I found myself in a store as big as a warehouse. I wandered past mountainous bins of cheap office supplies and caught sight of her in the software section. Waving a clerk away, I walked around and behind her. She was taking down a box, moving smoothly in a short black dress that fit perfectly. Her legs looked lovely, skin tone so perfect she didn't need stockings at all.
Stepping beside her, I studied the shelf of neatly stacked games. The two that she fancied were vampire games - Bloodnet and Noctropolis. Immediately I read her mind, or else she read mine, because she turned to me and smiled. The bubbly laugher in her brown eyes worked its magic. I felt suddenly pleasant, young and happy.
"Bloodnet is the better of the two," I said, picking up that she was more interested in it.
"Not really," said a goggle-eyed clerk as he stepped over.
I could see he was the type of know-it-all computer nerd I would never get rid of so I immediately put it in his mind that there might be a shoplifter at the front.
He glanced back to the front but refused to leave the lady.
"Which do you think is better?" she said.
"Neither," said the clerk. "You don't want that sort of stuff. It glorifies evil. It could warp your mind like Dungeons and Dragons does." He pointed to the overdone B-Movie style artwork on the boxes. "We've got Battle Critters on special. It's a new one." He took down the box. "Cute Disney animals that fight with hilarious weapons. Your daughter will love it."
"It's not for my daughter and I hate Disney," she said.
"I rather like the idea of Disney characters killing each other, but with shotguns, like in that game," I said, pointing to DOOM Resurrection.
"What kind of people are you?" said the surprised clerk. "Why would anybody hate Disney?"
"Disney is just a greedy corporation," she said. "They ruin fairy tales by making everything cute, with happy endings. And I already have the new D&D game, which I think builds imagination more than it warps minds."
Defeated, the clerk headed for the front. I grinned as she looked me up and down. "I'm more into real life games," I said.
"I know," she said, "you're playing one now."
"How about playing with me and coming for lunch?" I said, putting hunger in her mind.
"I planned on taking a stroll on the beach," she said.
Her answer knocked me off balance. It always worked when I put hunger in a woman's mind. Then it occurred to me that she might be hungry for something else. "There's a beach in Toronto?" I said.
"You from out of town?"
"Yes. I'm here with a film crew."
"Say, aren't you - -"
"No, a lot of people mistake me for him. I'm his cousin. I work on the scripts, sets and things. I couldn't even introduce you to him. He gets me work but he personally hates me."
"So you want to take me to the beach?"
"Yes, but I don't have a car. I can get a taxi, unless you want to fly."
She laughed, then she put the box down and we headed for the front. The clerk was there next to an author signing autographs. We paused for a moment, looking at the writer.
"You know who he is?" she said.
"No. I'm not really much of a writer. I've done a few scripts. Watching these successful guys sign autographs just makes me jealous. And I don't think a writer should be a salesman or media celebrity anyway."
At that point, my eyes went to a guy at the magazine rack. The clerk was watching him and he really did look like a shoplifter. It suddenly hit me that I knew him. It was Alfie, one of the guys on the crew. His clothing looked ridiculous - a trench coat, dark sunglasses and a fisherman's cap in the summer. I knew he was disguised in order to tail me and that Jackson, our director, had put him up to it. The S-O-Bs, this was getting to be too much. They wanted to control the production so much I couldn't even go for a walk anymore - like maybe they were worried they might have to delay a scene if I got lost. Served me right for forgetting to hypnotize them. Feeling anger rise, I put it in the clerk's mind that he should grab Alfie.
Since we hadn't bought anything we went down an aisle to the exit, almost reaching the door before the clerk went into action. He jumped Alfie from behind and a struggle ensued. I grinned as a bin of dollar items went down under Alfie's weight. The best part was knowing Alfie thought of himself as a very important person, a key player in a big movie outfit, and that no one would believe him. He could whine, threaten and complain and it would get him nowhere. His disguise fit him as far as I was concerned. He really was a bum, so being treated like one would do him good.
Her name turned out to be Donna and the beach was a few miles southeast on the waterfront. We got out of the taxi and strolled under some old maples. Rocky breakwalls and the sand were ahead and it amazed me that the beach was so big. I didn't expect such a place in Toronto. Gulls circled in the cirrus-trailed sky as we crossed the grass to the beach boardwalk. A few body-builder types and women in bikinis were on the beach.
Reaching the change house, we stopped and she went in to change. I stayed on the boardwalk, shuffling back and forth, watching a volleyball game, thinking how much I liked her bubbly personality. Donna had laughed and talked much on our stroll and that was half of the fix I needed. It was always that way, a warm conversant woman and me the strong silent type, sucking in the emotions I didn't have. I felt nice but it still saddened me because it was so fleeting and it would pass as fast as her life. I would drink her blood and she would awaken a different person - one with no use for me, with her own lust to satisfy. Life is emotion and I suppose us undead get so old all feelings go numb. To remember what love is and for life to be even worth living at all, I have to drink emotion from my victims before I drink their blood.
She emerged wearing a light-red bikini and she had the figure for it if not the tan. Her skin was creamy, and I could see that she was the delicate type that stayed in the shade. Sudden arousal hit me and I turned and looked back across the park, hoping she wouldn't notice. Her grin was so broad as she stepped beside me I assumed she did. Vampire or not, lack of control still causes me embarrassment, and I'm sure I was pinking for a moment before I turned a more greenish color. Green for loathing because it was then that I saw the production van cruising down the beach road and knew that my director had somehow followed me.
Donna's eyes were on the volleyball game, the sand and the waves. I could see that the beach curved out to a rocky point that could only be reached on foot and told her I wanted to go out there. She seemed surprised but agreed and I took her hand as we headed across the sand. Looking nervously back, I saw the van parking under a willow by the ice-cream stand and figured I'd have just enough time to finish with Donna before Jackson got to us.
She slowed the walk down a lot by playing at the edge of the water. I kept glancing back but saw no one heading in our direction. The wind grew stronger farther out and when we came to the rocks Donna drew back from the shore. A path took us to a tiny isolated area of the beach. Fierce waves rolled in, the breakwalls creating a small rip tide effect, and combined with the wind it sounded almost like the roar of the ocean.
It was a near perfect romantic atmosphere and hypnotism wasn't really necessary. Donna turned to me, hair blowing in the wind, and I let the roar grow in my head as we kissed. It was a lovers' kiss and I drank all the feelings I would need for a while, then I drew back, prepared to release my inhibitions and let bloodlust rule.
I looked deep in her eyes, then something flashed in peripheral vision and I turned and looked. My disappointment was impossible to hide. It was Jackson, my director, his bald head shining as he came through the boulders. Several people were behind him, coming down the path - costumed people who were less than actors. He'd got them at a local science fiction convention and was using them as extras in our new B horror movie.
It was all too much; the crashing waves became waters of nausea. Memory hit me hard and again I had to face the truth. And the truth is I'm not a vampire, and never will be one. I'm a B-Movie actor, Jackson's discovery and practically his slave, so I like to dream some, get a woman and well - you know. It lasts for a while, before they catch up with me again.
A tear formed in the corner of my eye, then I noticed Jackson had froze and was just standing there staring at Donna. I looked back at her, saw wide eyes and brilliant teeth. Large incisors about to close on my neck. She hadn't noticed the others; her attention was still on me. Then I caught on; she was crazy like I was crazy and spent her days trying to be the vampire she wasn't . . . trying to be the interesting creature she never could be. I should have been sad, but I wasn't. Instead, I was happy.
I let her teeth close on my neck and I could see Jackson from the corner of my eye. He was raising his camcorder and he had that crazy look on his face. I'd seen it once before. The day he discovered me. It was the weird look he gets when he knows he's found a star.
------ The End -------
By Gary L Morton
Dark cumulus castles in the sky appeared as a startling new dimension on a flat slate of sky. The strength of the approaching winds could be seen in the roiling smoke of the cloudbank. Down at the bottom of the bluff frothing swells toppled in, spinning spray high over jagged rocks. If Steve was sensible, he would've been in the shelter with the others, waiting for the dragon tail of hurricane Zeno to whip past. But he wasn't in command of his faculties; depression had sent him out wandering in the blow. Thoughts of Mina and Danny were on the leading edge of the inner storm.
Danny had always been a monster - a blond monster. Steve understood that now. Danny's human mask was an unusual one; he came disguised as a gift giver. Giving you anything; his old jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets, surprise cases of beer, CDs and more expensive items. The catch being that he wasn't at all generous. Steve had thought that in the beginning, and if they weren't pals, he would have always been fooled. Danny's goal was to own people. His heart was as hollow as his eyes. He was the sort of guy who'd buy a coffin to bury you in so he could feel he possessed you and your soul.
A kick of wind puffed Steve's nylon windbreaker, and he thought he understood the wish of Icarus - to escape and fly above the hordes who only wished to crawl on their bellies. People in Toronto were lacking in wishes, mainly they were too uninspired to fly. Of course, everyone was into self-development these days, everything from weight lifting to New Age stuff, but only for vanity, image or financial gain. And since the inner self was granted no real value on its own it never really got developed. People were getting to be like gasoline -- all additives and no substance. Steve believed the truth was in the core of a person, in the heart, so if you had a heart the rest of life would fall into proper place. He felt he was born with an even spirit. Most people were trying to regain what they had lost, and because they didn't know it, they were going about it in the wrong way.
Danny had a totally different philosophy of life. His one great need was to do everything better than Steve. He had firmer pectorals, his eyes were bluer, his clothes sharper. You would expect his woman to be superior, but that wasn't the case. Like other men that consider themselves studs, Danny's instincts were predatory. Ultimately incapable of love, he believed himself a great lover. He was one of those guys who would explode with violence when the day of rejection forced a final confrontation with inadequacy. In the present, the predator's blood lent him the desire to possess Steve's woman, and in turn possess him through the theft of his virility.
Danny had stolen Mina, calculating his every move with the coldness of emotion only a robber planning a Brinks job could own. Bubbling conversation, flowers and gifts, he whirled her through the best social circles, took advantage of her love of dancing. He molded himself from clay to become Mina's dream lover . . . and he wasn't genuine at all. Steve saw warped desire and a faceless hunger behind the masks. The job was thorough, he'd put Steve on the bluffs, firm in his decision to end a game he could neither win nor stand to play.
Skeletal forms mixed in the shadows racing before the storm; a crowd, malformed and morphing like dark ink … the vision had grown stronger in his subconscious with every new day of failure. Inside were symbols of a life of remorse, bitter years suspended from a wish that the events of yesterday might've been different. A line of blood-red showed in a sudden cloud split, and he saw it like he saw Danny's face -- an evil god bleeding on all of the things it possessed. Then he jumped . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . and flew, the wind ballooning in his windbreaker. The upward surf of the air was incredible, but not potent enough to halt his plunge to the sand and rocks below. Steve expected his life to flash before him but it didn't happen. A black grid unfolded in his head, fine wires warping through strange dimensions; time stretched beyond the limits. Rivers of light exploding as several Steves swung down toward the rocks on a number of alternate worlds.
He saw the pocked beach blast up to meet him like stony knuckles of a new demon -- one much larger than ancient idols. A blow that was beyond feeling hit him, intense like a rose of blood bursting in a universe of dark matter. Fire in his flesh that left him scorched and numb, then the curtain of death and a dark, empty place swallowed him.
. . . . . . the roar of rushing waters, a steady and eternal sound touched his ears. A line of waves, scarlet and florescent, washed over his thoughts. By small degrees a cloud was lifting, one storm passing to make way for another. A weird duality of mind was present; he knew he had died - the Steves of several worlds had hit the rocks. There'd been a crossover of sorts and his mind was living in the body of the one Steve who had escaped death and oblivion. It was like a delusion, an unreal thing that he couldn't shake loose, and the reason for his survival loomed like a hideous shadow.
Hypothermia and blood loss had done their work; he was freezing and numb. Tendrils of unendurable pain were spreading through him. His bloodshot eyes opened; through sand-crusted lids he saw a picture worse than grim. Plastic straws were embedded in a heap of broken driftwood logs. The head of a carp stared, its gutted body dripping on a jagged rock. A car engine hung broken from the side of the sandstone bluff. Wreaths of broken pine boughs ornamented with dead gulls and crows covered the sand. Steve shuddered, but it was emotional, not physical. He wasn't capable of anything physical, not with what was left of his body. He could see his opened stomach spread before him … a dark soup of blood on the sand … red membrane of lung, the blood-rich meat of his spleen … intestines, shining and violet, erupting with a vomit of undigested food.
The most terrible fact in the universe was the fact that he wasn't dead. There was also the certain knowledge that he would live. He would heal because in this alternate world he knew he was immortal -- a vampire. He’d landed dead in all worlds, but in this world, some of the dead lived.
It was deadly fusion, the predator in him resented this new more human Steve and longed to remain in control . . . and the predator was content in the knowledge that Steve would endure the agony of healing. Hissing and blood came to his lips; a rasp of anguish passed his fangs. His intestines were gathering snakelike before him in the sand. Blood was rising and pooling, lung tissue was palpitating and bits of flesh were crawling. Raging pain took him as the healing progressed. The torment became wailing that slowly melted to thoughts. He felt like a fool who'd set himself on fire, only to awaken with nerves burning with a blaze that would never end.
Although his suffering took place in a brief time period, it was more than any feeling being could withstand. A ghost sledgehammer moved in his torso, and nerves burned down to the ends like wicks into wax as his flesh warmed. His mind emerged, hatching from a womb of black thoughts, and the memory of the incident was much less vivid than the reality. He was filled with cool fire. In two ways he'd been crushed; emotionally and physically. Now the knowledge of his vampirism threatened him spiritually. Hopeless as the situation was, the awareness of having died and lived served as Novocain to deaden remorse, self-pity and the shock of changing worlds.
Sweat showered from him as he got to his knees and looked at his hands. His Save-the-Rainforest T-shirt was shredded; chest hair was flecked with blood and scar lines shifted from blue to white as they faded. The outline of his stiffening penis showed in the tightness of his jeans. The denim was torn at the knees, so that except for his moccasins and beads he resembled a frame from an Incredible Hulk comic. Powerful feelings were returning like a diamond of energy burning in his chest, growing stronger as an inner vampire resurfaced.
Cracked slate clouds slid across the sun and beams like shards of bronze bit at his eyes. His face was puckered by a squint but his vision was clear enough for him to see a dark shape flying down at the bluff-top. It arced out, trailing strings of light, thumped the sand with heavy boots, tumbled and rolled erect. It was Vince and he clicked his cowboy boots and grinned behind ragged wisps of dark hair. Three more figures leapt from the top and a few moments later Steve was facing four men in the sand.
Danny's fangs sparkled like he was a TV vampire; he had a halo of arrogance and his thin blond whiskers had a girlish transparency. He was the first to speak, and his tone was mocking, “Lying around on the beach in a hurricane, Steve.” His lips formed a cruel razor. “Next time you screw up my plans for Mina I'll toss you in the grid instead of on the rocks.”
“Let's drop the infighting and move,” Vince said. “If the grid's been knocked out we're headed for the big time.”
“All right, grid mission impossible here we come,” Danny said, and then he whooped like a crazy teenager, slapped his knees and flew straight up, a power of transvection carrying him to the weed-tufted bluff-top. The others weren't as able and they followed him up, leaping from hold to hold on the sheer embankment. Tagging along reluctantly, Steve wondered if the others really intended to challenge the grid.
An aggressive dash through thistle-spiked crabgrass and over piles of boulders took them to the pinnacle and a view of the territory. To the south, the gray lake was a debris-flecked carpet stretching to the city. The CN Tower stood far enough off to appear as a big needle impaling a ring of smoke. More greasy smoke clouded the scrapers of downtown Toronto. Fires were burning in the aftermath of the hurricane, but since fires were always smoldering there in the blood zone, all was normal.
A glance east should've sent their hands to their eyes, fending off light dazzles from the big lasers that fired the inner ring of the grid, but the huge silver lattice wasn't there in the sky. They saw pleasant gloom, and that meant power outages had knocked out the grid. Silence was their reaction, Steve being the only one not swallowed by amazement and animal blood dreams. When the others began to whoop and shout with joy, he followed suit, jumping up highest of all.
Right out on the edge, Danny opened his zipper. He was erect, his thighs sweating with sticky blood. The bleeding came from the permanent arousal that was part of the hunger. “Once we cross that grid we're going to screw the whole world,” he said, and then he urinated. He hissed as the fast stream of blood and urine spilled over the cliff. “We'll take the car,” he said as he zipped himself up.
Steve didn't care much for Danny's gross gesture or his apish power trip, but he said nothing as they went to get the car. It was a battered red Ford convertible and they descended to the highway in it. There was no traffic this far out, and they knew any vehicles they encountered would belong to either the military or mercenaries. The grid was the military's line of containment for the vampires. It held back a plague of vampirism that had started when the vampire blood cells escaped at a Toronto lab. Infected people became either vampires or bloodless ones -- walking corpses without red blood cells. In this world Toronto was a rubble heap populated by vampires, the bloodless ones, military and Red Cross personnel … and criminals shipped in by various governments. Undesirables from many countries were dumped in Toronto as food for the vampires. It was illegal of course, but international law meant little when corrupt military leaders could exploit the people and their fears.
Highway 401 fanned out to several new lanes ending at the grid. Danny's assessment was that the military would move in strong there to guard against the possibility of vampires breaching the checkpoint. Well before the apron they turned down a stony cutoff and headed north with scudding clouds. Gusting wind was drying the narrow highway and kicking up grit. The road shrank to two ruts in a weed bed. A farmhouse and barn stood like heaps of overgrown rot just off the roadside, driveways running up to them like paths to burial mounds. Farther on what had been modern homes and bedroom communities were now rows of splintered boxes on the hillsides.
A thin fringe of sumac, birch and deer forest was the last cover before the grid lands. They ditched the convertible there, its flaking paint giving it the appearance of a natural wreck. Green foliage swirled overhead as they set out on foot, then nature faded into the smoke of the sky. Trees were suddenly stark and shattered and the ground napalm ashen. Mutant toadstools were the survivors and their spores blew out to the fields of the grid. Pylons towered, crackling sparks across discs and a metal framework that looked like a cross between the rides at a fair and man-on-the-moon technology. A smell of ozone was in the air, the lasers had been snuffed, and chaotic sparking meant most of the other devices weren't working either. Yet even in such a degraded state, the grid loomed like the skeleton of an electric dinosaur . . . and they knew there were other things - silver mines, death rays, killer magnetic fields and acids.
It brought them to an awed halt, Vince and Jimmy spinning on their heels to face the others in the blowing dust. All of them had moon-big eyes. The grid sure looked unbeatable, like it was the king of vampires.
Steve's lips remained drawn, thin and white. Danny drew a red kerchief over his mouth and stared with a fiend's intensity into the ghosting dust. This was all a put-on, Steve was sure of it. Mina was the object of Danny's desire and she was back in Toronto, a Red Cross worker in one of the medical fortresses used to treat the bloodless ones. Once across the grid there'd be no coming back, so that meant Danny was only here to prove himself. The others wouldn't go into the grid through any courage of their own, the first laser flash and they'd retreat. All Danny was going to do was step farther into the fire, so that his position of mastery would be reaffirmed.
“We'll file in. I'll take the lead,” Danny said.
Scarlet earth resembled patches of blood under the skeletal shadows of the towers. The ground seemed more ersatz than real. In spite of the hurricane rains there were lines of dry red powder that created the dust. The air was electrified and snapping with static, crackling ran over their heads, sounding like weird guitar riffs and feedback buzz.
Steve wasn't far off Danny's heels and he saw his hair shoot up Van de Graaf stiff. He could feel it himself, a crawling mesh of electricity turning body hair to wire. Dust sheeted into him and he couldn't quite tell if his skin was on fire, frozen, acid burned or just plain numb.
Mirror-bright twinkling forced sudden yelps from all of them. At first, Steve thought the lasers had come back on, and then he realized it was bits of dust exploding in his eyes. A glance at his hand showed flesh being eaten from the bone. Turning he checked Mike, who was immediately behind him - his face was ravaged, boiling fat glistened on red char. An understanding of the grid grew in Steve's mind. It was a conglomeration of disruptors that disintegrate vampiric cells. Chemical dust, acids, electric fields softened the body for vaporization by the lasers.
Danny suddenly whipped around, his eyes glazed like melting glass, his face nearly a skull behind the kerchief. “I'm melting, damn it!” he choked. “We'll have to go back or we'll be disintegrated.”
“I'm going to get through,” Steve said.
The others had already been turning away. They looked to Steve, and then to Danny, who was stuck without an option. If Steve proved more daring, he'd lose the respect of his men. In a pack of predators that meant they'd turn on him and do a ritual killing. Maybe cut off his head and stuff his mouth with silver.
A sudden ear-popping thrum gave Danny an out.
“Silver mine!” Vince yelled as lifting silver closed over Mike like the petals of a molten flower. The liquid hit with a scorching hiss and Mike lifted his arms, throwing up a plume of fire and distortion. Razor ribbons of silver twisted on his body and when he screamed, spritzing blood, the flesh of his throat and lips and silver steam arced high, spattering the dust with color.
An eyeful was enough, Danny and the others fled, looking like a collection of grim reapers trying to save themselves from the death they already were. The voltage of fear hit Steve so hard he was sure he'd been scalped by lightning. He leapt to Mike and threw him over his shoulder in one fluid motion, and the touch of the silver froze him in his tracks. Gummy flesh dripped. The smell was as putrid as it was acrid. He wanted to run with the body but he couldn't when his legs were disintegrating. Drawing on a reserve of vampire strength, he transvected, and they both flew, arcing through the billowing dust, trailing greasy melt that sizzled and smoked like snuffed candles. They came clear of the grid, going right into a wall of agony that was the beginning of healing.
A fuzzed glow of sun hung like a red badge in the colored haze of the west, and another fire was fading in Steve's brain. Darkness was arriving as a comforter, cooling sweat to dew. Steve sat up, finding himself buck-naked on the flatbed of a pickup. Mike lay beside him, still far from healed; burn tissue was bubbling, blood coagulating. A webbing of deep scars pulsed. Steve's own body was covered with patches of flaking skin but doing well. Someone had thrown clean clothes in beside them so he dressed - jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt.
He popped down to the street and the unmistakable death stink of Toronto filled his nostrils. A huge rat scurried at his feet, so he booted it, sending it away in a hissing hurry. He was out front of The Saloon, a C&W bar that his gang controlled. Rodeo Boys was the band on the faded bill. As he turned to go in, he saw a bony blond woman coming up the street. She was pale with a blade-sharp nose and eyes sunken into shadow. Her look was that of a vampire, but blood instinct told him she was an uninfected addict, just dumped in by the military.
Her hollow cheeks were a turn-off, but his erection still ground painfully into his jeans. She didn't appear frightened by his garish complexion, which was amazing.
“I was told to come here,” she said. “You know what I need.”
Steve knew what she'd get too. He nodded and she followed as he went inside. A number of bribed soldiers and mercenaries sent them fresh convicts, mainly because fed vampires were easier to control. The only protected people were medical personnel and officials.
It was a barnlike room, beer tags and banner ads festooning the high polished beams. Bright light poured down from an empty stage and a number of patrons sat in the smoky haze. The jukebox was playing a country version of STAND BY ME. It was too early for a crowd.
Steve's gang was farthest from the lights. They were the boys with the nuclear acne, their animate and burned faces demonically radiant. Danny was alone at the end of a long shuffleboard bar, head cast down, chewing on his failure. Steve was unable to suppress a satisfied grin. Danny couldn't accept his own lack of balls, and fear of losing Mina and power was likely eating at him. No one could have sympathy for Danny. His motives stank. He wanted Mina because he thought it would be nice to have a gal helping him slaughter and rape. It was something that Steve wouldn't consider for himself. He'd lost Mina in this world too. At the very least, he wanted to know he hadn't lost her to Danny again.
Mina, maybe he could save her by killing Danny and his fixation, but this burned-out lady he couldn't help. She was in the lion's den and the fiery furnace. Two big black cowboys rose from a table near the stage, putting the fade on Steve's grin. Since they were visitors here at The Saloon, it was out of order for them to move in on the blood supply. Especially when Steve was her escort. It meant a fight.
Vince turned suddenly, wearing an unreal face of scorch and stubble. A sixth sense woke Danny and he spun around on his stool, sizing-up the situation with blood-glazed eyes. Danny didn't like what he saw. He swept his glass of beer off the bar and it smashed on the floor. The black vampires halted, halfway to Steve, their eyes flaring beneath their hat brims, and they didn't back off. Their lips twisted to snarls that meant they were hungry enough to fight.
Danny looked to Vince and Rico. “Our hospitality has been abused. Kill them!”
The moment was tenuous as Vince clearly didn't want to obey Danny, but in the end, the drift had to go Danny's way. The turf had to be defended.
Rico unsheathed a Trail Master knife and Vince drew out the Intruder Bowie he kept on a magnet under the table. Momentarily off balance, the blacks glanced to Steve and then back to Vince who was flying to his feet. Overhanding his chair with cruel speed, Vince busted it to pieces across the empty table beside him.
Faced with the possibility of all of them rushing to fight over the woman, Steve seized her and sent her flying marionette-style across the floor. She went stumbling into a dim corridor that dead-ended at the men's room and fell against the wall.
At the same time, Vince leapt up; doing a high flip that put him on thundering heels directly in front of the black vampires. The violators moved into defensive posture, knives at ready, and the cooling fire in their eyes said they knew they'd made a very big mistake.
A close knife fight began with Vince managing to parry them back while Rico moved up. No one was faster with a blade than Vince, and he countered a lunge by severing a hand clean at the wrist and throwing a solid boot to the groin. Vince also knew enough to duck, a move that left Rico with blood seltzering into his face.
Steve wasn't needed so he kept back. Tables crashed over, flesh ripped and blood splashed up to inkblot the ceiling; the battle was turning into a dance of dismemberment and blood loss. Since the trespassers were well under heel, their fate would be to dangle from a rope and spar outside The Saloon, minus their arms and legs.
Danny had kept back, and with no one looking, he made a hunched dash for the dazed girl. Steve caught the action from the corner of his eye. She was up and looking for a way out, but Danny raced out of the shadows before she had a chance to move. He swung the blade so fast it glinted sickle-like in the air. It connected, cut into her throat, and the strain showed on Danny's face as he threw his weight behind it and opened a deep wound. An expression of surprise was frozen on her face as her head lolled back, almost severed. There was a fountain of blood and drops rained on Danny's face as he leaned over and sank his fangs into the wound.
He held the quivering corpse with a firm hand, sucking blood and making noises like he was pulling bubbles through a straw. His other hand was at work forcing down her jeans, and he took the body to the floor as his pitted and burned erection was freed. His hissing grew more and more animal-like as he prepared to seed the corpse; he wanted this one to rise again, infected with the vampire madness.
The job was almost finished on the trespassers, they were down in pools of their own blood and Vince was busting heads open with a chair leg, just for fun. Steve went over behind the bar and got two coils of rope for the hanging. He wasn't worried about Danny, not any more. Once the others found out he'd spoiled their fun with a quick greedy kill they'd probably hang him too.
A yellow apron spread from the bright electric sign out front of The Saloon. Farther down, the street trickled with sewer water and shadows crept with other repulsive things in the gutters. Danny's face was garish, puffed with bruises and boils that moved under the skin as they healed. Sweat glistened on his forehead, his lips were lime-white behind dirty stubble and his eyes burned faintly in a flares-at-the-bottom-of-the-river way. If his thoughts weren't under water, they were underworld.
Steve puffed on a counterfeit Lucky Strike, watching Danny dangle on the rope. Steve thoughts grew ugly, his brow stormy. He was considering Danny's fixation on Mina and what he'd have to do about it.
Wind moaned and wood creaked as a gust rocked the black vampires on their pole. The raw meat of their faces was neon-enhanced like steak under a counter. They were minus limbs but still had their hats propped on above eyes gone lifeless and milky from the silver dust filling their bellies.
A midnight church bell tolled mournfully at the heart of the city, carrying a painful image of a cross. Scattered panes of light twinkled, some high up so that the buildings seemed to be floating in the sky. Deep black squares made-up the skyline, defining it in the same way missing teeth define a mouth. Toronto was a city of darkness with a few blazing areas of military and medical activity.
It was a setting that went well with vengeful thoughts, and Steve could feel his mind sinking into an evil quagmire. The rot would be inside him soon, he'd lose his human qualities and surrender to beastliness. Tonight was the only night he had. He flicked his smoke away and went over to cut Danny down.
Steve had a flask of blood and he poured it down Danny's throat. It brought about swift and vile healing and soon he was glancing around … somewhat hunted, somewhat bitter. A drummer was warming up and a raucous din was rising in the bar. Danny's mouth twisted, it was arson-ugly as he studied the doors. Like a revelation, his mental focus suddenly returned and he stood up, resembling a cross between Billy the Kid and a sick puppy as confusion and anger welled in his eyes.
The time was right for Steve to follow through with his plan; he went ahead and Danny swallowed it. By one a.m., they were near the waterfront.
A narrow makeshift road showed on the other side of a tumbled expressway. Walled by twelve-foot heaps of broken concrete and rusty metal and scattered with skeletons it was called Vampire Alley. The name rooted in the fact that convicts and other exiles traveled it into the city after being dumped from the boats. Usually they were slaughtered by the hungry vampires before they got out of the alley.
It was empty tonight, no victims; atop the rubble heap, they looked over at the medical buildings. The entire waterfront strip was a blistering of light, a belt of life at the foot of a fallen city. A solid wall of laser tanks and armored vehicles guarded the area and specially armed soldiers were streaming on the access roads. Fresh-blood civilians were also out, they could hear piano notes and a sax, strains of a jazz band playing in the waterfront square. A smoke-blackened CN Tower soared above them and the scene. Cut out of darkness by the spotlights, the tower was a sleeping monster in a city of devils -- the only being big enough to sleep at night when the vampires had full powers. Steve figured the vampires could defeat the military if they used weapons. It was a good thing that vampire machismo worked the way it did -- a vampire with a gun was considered a coward.
“It's that small squat compound,” Danny said. “My sources say Mina's been working there for a while.”
“How well guarded is it?”
“A couple of mercenaries and a security system. Mina and a few other medical people are the only fresh blood there. No vampires will go near the place; the doctors are treating bloodless ones in the last stages of the disease -- that's the point where they can only live on by devouring vampire cells. They're horrible, mindless zombies, but they can still suck the life out you.”
“Have you tried to get in before?”
“No. I didn't want to go it alone, not with those bloodless zombies in there.”
At the end of Vampire Alley, the rubble heaps bristled with sharpened stakes. A booby-trapped field was on the other side. Silver razor wire ran through it like tinsel, there were pits lined with punji sticks, laser traps, dismemberment bombs and other nightmarish things. Spying from behind the rocks, they could see soldiers moving in the moonlight on the far side of the field. They were wearing protective gear that resembled decontamination suits and knew how to pick their way through the hazards.
A bad odor was on the lake breeze. It touched their lungs like fingers of moist clay, and it was a toss-up as to what caused it. Maybe dead fish or bloated corpses floating out on the waves like schools of whales. Blood fragrances, smoke and some of the fine odors of the old life were woven in with the stench, so that both Steve and Danny stared at the shifting crowd in the square with longing in their eyes. They felt like nasty boys who could never get back into the dance of life, and because of it, rage was growing inside.
They had one option - the sewer, and they followed the dark hole underground with great reluctance. Although they could see in the dark, they wished they couldn't. Poisoned rats were chattering madly as they dashed about in the sludge, their fur spotted by running sores. They retreated at the scent of the vampires, hordes of them snarling and spitting from ledges. The water foamed and deepened, carrying filth over their boot-tops, and the wisps of gas thickened until the air was greenish and poisonous. Ordinary mortals would die just from the crawling of their flesh, but vampires couldn't die so they pressed through as swiftly as possible.
When they were at what they hoped was the right place they used night strength to pop off a welded metal cap and emerged in a field of thistles and goldenrod. Dripping with noodles and slime and steaming they looked more like swamp things than vampires. Yet they felt good, being suddenly exhilarated by the fresh air. Big military spotlights flashing nearby put a damper on their enthusiasm. Keeping low, they moved into wind-slithering grass and got past a guard tower. Finding cover in some brush, they stayed out of view as they leapfrogged along a ditch to the medical compound.
Wetting his finger, Danny stuck it into the wind.
“Wind's off the lake. Can't you smell?” Steve said.
“I want to be sure those bloodless things aren't catching our scent.”
More like a prison than a hospital, the concrete building stood before them. The front was grassy and there were willows and flowerbeds. The entrance was security gated. A gravel lot filled with military and medical supply trucks surrounded the rest of the structure. A few lights were on in windows that resembled the gun slits in the tanks. A blinding spotlight was rotating on the roof, the beam following a programmed pattern over the grounds.
Ducking the beam, they moved around the compound and decided to break in at a back door they believed led to the kitchen and mess hall. Quicker than any cat burglars, they ran up and pounced on the door, prying the hinges out of the concrete with their fingers. They tried to throw it down gently, but the heavy metal door slipped and crashed in the gravel. No alarm sounded so they went in and down a narrow hall, coming to a room stacked with drums of the gross mush the bloodless ones ate. They knew they had to go up a floor to get to the staff area and Mina, so they took the stairs. Danny cursed and spat when he found the only exit to be three flights up. The damn place was a security maze, designed to keep the bloodless ones inside.
A positively eerie feeling took them as they began to move down a shockingly bright fourth floor hall. A huge door was at the end where the hall took a ninety-degree turn. It was metal and rivets and had a small window of mesh and Plexiglas.
Marching into the lead, Steve halted and gazed through the window. Unclean figures moved in the dim light, their motion aimless and zombielike. A head turned, a gross caricature of the living dead, oozing pus and milky slime from a skinless but whiskered face. Splintered bone made a crude nose below eyes that were black with paranoid horror.
Danny had gladly stayed back, but now he was edging over for a look. “Get back!” Steve suddenly whispered, pulling Danny away before he could get a glimpse at the monsters.
They crouched a ways back from the door. “There's a guard near the window. I don't want to tip him off. Mina is the only other person inside. I saw her working at a medical desk by the window.”
“Has the guard got a laser?”
“No, he appears to be one of the goons they use for strong-arming the bloodless ones. Guess he's off duty right now. He probably has a weapon in there somewhere. What we can do is rush him before he gets it. I'll take another peek and if it's clear I'll tear open the door so you can leap in and overpower him.”
“Sounds good to me,” Danny said, lusty-eyed with thoughts of things he might do to Mina. “Let's do it.”
Easing the door back a crack, Steve began to work at the bolt and its casing. Concrete broke away and he tore some flesh off his fingers before he managed to bend the metal. Gripping the handle, he signaled Danny with his left hand. One finger, two fingers, then a wave that meant go. The bolt whammed and snapped free of the casing as Steve jerked the door wide. And Danny sprang, whooping Indian-style as he flew into the room. Then the door slammed behind him and Steve bent the bolt and casing back together as he held the door shut with his shoulder.
Danny's whooping died in a gag of silence and came back up as a scream. A maniacal mix of fright and loathing was in its tones. The low moaning of the bloodless ones began, wanton and hideous. Hissing with stark terror, Danny threw himself against the door. He hit it with hinge-shaking force, but Steve held it fast, glancing through the window at Danny's clawing hands. The Plexiglas was smeared with blood and perhaps Danny was seeing the face of his death in the pattern. It would be immortality melting to bodily fluids, because immortality had always been make-believe. The fates hadn't surrendered their role as executioner at all.
There was no need to look again; Steve could picture it well enough. As Danny screeched and struggled, the bloodless ones were on him like vile leeches, using a gruesome power of osmosis to suck the red blood cells right out of his body. In the end immortality would be splintered, marrow-less bones and rot on the floor.
Steve ground his teeth, but his blood refused to boil. Revenge was no pleasure at all. Instead, he felt cold and hollow inside. It wasn't really like being a killer; it was more like being Father Time, exterminating vermin that had been crawling around too long.
Danny was getting drained fast, his blows against the door grew feeble, and finally he slid to the floor. He smacked the tiles with the sound of sweet meat and looked like a huge smear of blood. Then he was buried under the vile sexual moaning and gross sucking of the bloodless zombies.
No amount of feeding could warm the dead flesh of the bloodless ones. And Steve felt somewhat cold and dead himself. The sounds sickened him. Drawing away from the door, he began to wonder what to do next. He hadn't expected the trap to swallow Danny so easily and so quickly. His plans had been of a more romantic nature; he'd hoped they'd get to Mina first so she could see him finish Danny and know he'd saved her.
Footsteps rang in the hall. Steve spun around. Once again, he found fate to be ahead of him. It was an orderly dressed in white, and Mina, who was wearing a nurse's smock. They weren't armed and must have assumed the noise typical of the disturbances created by the bloodless ones.
Catching sight of Steve, they froze in their tracks. Steve also went rigid, awed by Mina. Her golden curls were beautiful, her face open and rosy. The scent of her blood and perfume was an aphrodisiac he wouldn't be able to resist for long. He felt the pain of lost love sinking in his heart, and he wanted to speak -- just to say something human. Anything at all, but he couldn't, so he just stood there with trembling hands.
The orderly acted first. Showing despicable cowardice, he turned and fled, banging through a stairwell door.
A tear formed in the corner of Mina's eye, and he could see her knees weakening. Perhaps she was weeping because she had loved him; his heart leapt at the thought. Then he saw the lines deepen on her face, the depths of her fear, and the truth was obvious. Mina didn't even recognize him, he was a hideous creature from some slimy underworld, and she was weeping at the thought of the fate she was sure was upon her.
Mina's lips quivered, she was too scared to scream. And she didn't have to; Steve walked up, turned and went into the stairwell. He hoped she hadn't noticed the tears in his eyes. That way she would never guess his identity. This was another world and another Mina, and he'd been hiding, refusing to admit that he'd died. The game had ended on home Earth when he'd followed through on his decision to jump. Death was the only answer he could ever have.
Laser beams sliced the night over the alley, and from the top of the rubble heap Steve could see the vampires running in the shadows below. The alley was a tunnel of night, fear, ecstasy. A huge vein channeling creatures of evil and lust. The last figure to fade was Vince, and then he saw the bloodless ones, a crowd of them, driven by hunger and the soldiers at their rear. With their crumbling flesh and hollow bones, they belonged to the alley. Steve felt he belonged too, he was a proper citizen of death row, and he felt the rage take him as he hissed and leapt down among the soulless zombies.
He went wild, ripping them apart, tearing rotted arms from their sockets, and he wasn't cowering or weakening as they'd expected. The soldiers retreated, leaving him with the creatures and it got so he was afraid he wouldn't die as he'd hoped. Then he grinned madly as he remembered there was always the grid … and certain death.
---- The End -----
Heart of the Sun
© By Gary L Morton
The jagged slate face rose to the velvet-black sky. Crystalline mist drifted ghostlike on the face of the moon. A stone cracked underfoot and fell into the abyss. Eyes flashing through shades of blood and violet, the Count watched it tumble. Sparks flew as it struck the wall far below. Shivering, he turned, wind tearing in his cape as he made his way around a boulder blocking the path.
The peak was visible now, and he could see the holy star. Gemlike, brilliant diamond points cutting the night sky, blinding the eye to all but the light. His usual reserve vanished, the Count felt terribly alone. A scythe passed in his heart, icy needles stabbed at his brain, and he couldn't turn away -- he could only stare, seeing visions of the bowels of hell . . . of magma exploding up to the star-gates of heaven.
He'd lost his soul to the fang long ago, now it was reborn. Falling to his knees, he covered his eyes, trying to hold back the pain. It proved impossible, he screamed in ecstasy and agony. Raising his hands, crabbing them to claws, he bared his fangs and hissed at the star. Then a curtain of fire rose, bringing a vision of his life.
Running on a windy plain, stumbling on the eroded earth, headed for the trees. His enemies were holy men, crusaders, and the rising sun. Safety and a deep cave were within reach. The Count was going to make it -- he leapt up a mound, then the spear hit. It pierced his lower back and carried his torn spleen into the sunlight. Impaled, he caught the gore-soaked shaft and went down, blinded by pain and a river of bright blood.
His skin was dry, but his lips frothed as the holy water scorched his tongue. Chalices, gray stone, velvet curtains, stained glass and the long faces of priests and crusaders faded in and out. Then he awoke on a marble altar and recognized the face looking down on him. It belonged to the pope, but Gregory had changed -- the once handsome monk was now withered, lines of corruption twisted into the leather of his features. His staff was without Godly luster – a patina on the crown, even the velvet of his robe had faded.
Latin issued from Gregory's parched lips, but the sacred words had no power. They were no more than dead intonations from the dust.
Raising his head, the Count blew froth from his purpled lips and spoke. "Gregory, your faith is gone. You are with me now."
Cardinals gasped and crossed themselves; priests fell to their knees cradling silver crosses in their palms. Gregory fell silent then confusion and fright lit his features as his staff began to smoke. Flames licked from the cross, so he tossed it away and knelt, praying for forgiveness as his minions panicked and tried to flee.
Evil was now the only power, and the vampire had more of it. Leaping from the altar, the Count took the battle to them. The throats of cardinals he slit with stained glass, crusaders he staked with their own holy relics, priests he hung from the bell tower ropes. Only Gregory was left untouched, and in the end, the Count drank the blood of choirboys as Gregory prayed. Then he passed him the sacred knife and watched him thrust it in his heart and fall into the blood pooled on the altar.
Rubies of fire -- scintillation -- the star reappeared. So this is judgment, he thought. The mountain another altar. I have been judged a wicked being, but not guilty like mortals or popes. People who should have been kind.
The star drifted southeast, Venus transformed to an angel for the holy lands. Mild pain and memories of his first wife drifted in with the mauve of false dawn. He saw her snarling face as he nailed her coffin shut, leaving the sharpened stake he was unable to use at her side. He'd been too kind. Cut off his wife's head and leave garlic in the skull. Drive a stake through her heart. He couldn't do that . . . and because he'd been weak, she returned with the moon, and took him for the fang.
At the summit, of the mountain and of his life, he looked down. Death reigned in the abyss and death owned the worlds above. No one is immortal, he thought. To live again you must die. He was certain the star symbolized death as well as life.
Life is light, death is darkness, he considered it as the star spoke in his mind, then he listened and the final words were, "Journey vampire, and fly home. You have lost heaven, earth and hell. Your home is the heart of the sun."
If the truth claims your life, you cannot deny it. Not even if you're a vampire and it means working under the morning sun.
He went about his business methodically -- with ease -- even humming as he strained in the mountain air. Using an ax, he made from slate he pounded at the vines and shrubbery until he had the pieces he needed. His vampiric strength remained with him as he kneaded his materials to the desired form.
When he finished, he went to the edge, sat with folded hands and stared coldly at the rising sun. Never flinching, mind clear, he waited. Soon the orb was high enough and he went to his wings -- the wings he'd fashioned, because the only way a vampire could fly in the sunlight was like Icarus, with a man-made contraption.
Throwing his cape aside, he fastened the wings, finding them sturdy and aerodynamic. They caught the wind and he was nearly blown off before he gained control.
Fierce gusts spun through the vines, the leaves hummed, and he ran to the edge, leapt and took flight. Rising in the updraft, he caught the upper winds and soared. Circling, he took a last look at the valley below, then the currents slowed and he began to glide even.
Waxen wings of Icarus, and the death of all beings, but he was determined to fly. Seeing the star again, he soared straight up -- fire and smoke of the dragon -- ashes and the beak of the phoenix rising again. Wings of plasma reaching home into the heart of the sun.
------ The End -------
Running the Tiger
© By Gary L Morton
When he looked inside he saw a ghost in a shadowy land, and he figured that men were mostly smoke and mirrors. Many had grand self-images, a handsome guy in a tailored suit perhaps, impeccable as far as manners and behavior went. But images are illusions, many selfish and hungry thoughts are on the surface most of the time. The higher side of man never sees much life at all, but then neither does the creature. Tonight it was the creature's turn to be loose.
A bright disc of moon was rising and the ghost gained a cloak of chill night and pink flesh. Rancid odors were on the air in the back streets, but it was a faint copper scent of blood that widened his nostrils. He stopped and stretched like a cat. Now he was alive, above the darkness, no longer a confused and clouded mortal. He had nerves with more crackle than radio waves, and he was totally aware of the reality that was his being. Of self-images and mortality, he had none, and his life did not require them.
A final sprinkle of blood-red from the greenhouse sun was dusting the tops of the buildings, and he strode down an alleyway, following the scent. Truly, there had never been a better hunting ground than this concrete jungle. Pinnacles and towers, it was a never-ending castle - perhaps decayed here in its lower portions, its dungeons, but rich with the beat of life.
At the end of the alley, he saw a dream. It was snakes-and-ladders luck. Her skin was pale, aglow from pheromones. Silver from the moon edged her dirty-blond hair. Both her jeans and top were faded and tight to the point where they followed her curves like a second skin. And they were voluptuous curves; she had everything to the point where anything more would be overkill.
In another alley, not far away, another woman was like a dream, but she was her own dream, and when she looked inside, she saw a mighty female warrior. She knew that a woman had a tiger and a lady inside. A lot of her life was a vision of what she wanted to be, and perhaps one day she'd realize that years had been spent chasing an ideal and not criminals. As a young woman, she never saw much of herself, too many hopes got in the way. And of many reasons for being in the back streets, the real one was one she didn't know about. Like all teens, she was running the tiger, 'cause when the tiger gets out he doesn't think, he lives.
She could've been a young prostitute, or out to score some dope, even a runner or a member of one those new-fangled girl gangs. But what she was was a guardian angel, a kid of fifteen in a red beret, supposedly looking to stop crime. Her reasons didn't matter, because regardless of the reasons, sooner or later we all are caught in those alleyways - running the tiger.
The vampire mesmerizer was almost mesmerized, such a knockout was this voluptuous blond. She lifted grease-stained arms from the open hood of her station wagon, and his breathing strengthened to a sigh of desire. Startled, she turned, but the sight of this handsome man calmed her. The disturbed look left her face and she stepped forward to meet him.
Confidently, he left the shadows - a tall man wearing a dark suit. His hair was neatly trimmed. A single pearl was in his left lobe. He had a sensuous mouth, the full sort that says kiss me without the lips ever moving. A glow of gold was in his eyes.
The angel had gone as far as her legs would take her; she slowed, then halted and caught her breath. As she continued around the corner she saw something that almost made her gasp, quickly she ducked into the shadows beside a wooden garbage box.
If it was prostitution, it was the weirdest sort she'd seen yet. The blond woman was throwing herself at the guy like an animal, kissing him everywhere on the face and neck. In one lusty moment, she tore off her top, displayed breasts that were slick with sweat and neon, smiled wickedly and went after him again. This time seizing his crotch with her left hand.
They half turned around as she continued to rage at him sexually. The angel felt outrage, disgust and morbid interest mix in her mind as she watched the woman's shameless actions. Then she caught a glimpse of his eyes, flashing with gold, and she knew it couldn't be prostitution.
He bared his fangs and the angel froze, nearly whimpering in fright as he took the woman's hair and moved to bite. A warm whisper of sucking blood came to the angel's ears, and she found herself full of fury. She had no pity for the gently moaning woman. Then her legs loosened and she bolted and ran for her life down the alley.
Tonight the full moon was making business for the angels. No sooner had she gone three blocks and stopped than she witnessed another crime. There were two other people on the street - a little boy standing beside an empty black Caddy, and a pervert with his fly open approaching the boy.
She carefully scanned the tinted windows of the Caddy until she was sure no one was inside. Looking back to the pervert she noted that he was big, greasy haired, tattooed, with a thin foxlike face that was twisted into an expression of deceit.
She wanted to blow her whistle, but her lungs were on fire from too much running. She couldn't dash for help with legs as weak as wax, and for sure she couldn't wrestle this guy down.
As the guy stepped up to the kid, she picked up a chunk of brick. He hadn't seen her so she waited to see what he'd do. He didn't bother trying to lie at all, he simply moved in for the snatch. As he grabbed the kid, she threw her piece of brick and caught him square on the temple. And while he was reeling from the blow, the kid sank his teeth into his hand.
It was just enough for the snatcher, he howled and fled into the night.
The little boy was crying now and leaning against the car like he was trying to hug it. The angel walked up to him, taking note that he was a cute kid, about six, wearing a colorful T-shirt, blue shorts and runners.
She put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "It's okay, the bad man's gone," she said softly.
"Are you sure?" he said, choking back his tears.
Just as she was about to answer a shadow rose up behind her.
"The bad man will never come back," a man said.
The angel spun around, and her eyes filled with fright as she recognized the vampire.
"Oh-no!" she said.
"Daddy!" yelled the little boy as he brushed past her and seized his leg.
The angel remained frozen as the vampire looked at his son. A moment later, his deep-blue eyes fell on her, and he searched her boyish face like he was trying to find a secret in it. "Good job, angel. You can go now," he said.
"I want to be an angel too," the little boy said, showing fangs.
She didn't wait for an answer. The kid would never be an angel. Turning, she fled. Power was in her legs like she'd drained just a little from the vampire. And she didn't want the power for stopping crime anymore; she'd seen too much on the back streets and was no longer an angel. Yet even with her innocence gone, she found she could still run the tiger.
------ The End -------
Castle of Fangs
© By Gary L Morton
Part One: Body in the Grass
The train pulled out and rocketed west in a radiant blur of sunlight. I turned from the exit ramp and stared down the sand bluff at the dappled mirror of water. Willows and an arched bridge showed in the reflection. A rope and rubber tube rocked in the breeze at the shoreline.
My eyes followed a robin soaring up the bank into hazy blue sky and puffs of white cumulus. Oakdale rested on the far bank. Small compact towers and an odd sprawl of commercial structures. It had a definite small city feeling, but in a weird way. Something seemed wrong in the picture.
I sighed with relief, hoping this little hideaway of the North would live up to its reputation. Being outside of the central net of international law, the place was perhaps one of the only towns I could enter without being placed under constant surveillance.
My head suddenly whirled at the magnitude of my personal situation and failure. I found it hard to believe that the world track of megacities was now beyond my reach. Yet it was a certainty. Tiny unaligned places like Oakdale were my future.
It was a curse to have been born Grant King. A man destined from the beginning to become the star and then an outcast of entertainmentnet.99; on the run from corporate law firms and petty tyrants that wanted to see me in hell.
Anxiety and a charge of anger twisted my face. See me in hell; I'd see them in a hotter hell! I thought of breaking bones, then I spat in the dust as I turned to the sidewalk. Mud had got on my shoe. I slipped, and as I caught my balance, I realized what had been wrong in the view of the town.
This train stop belonged in town, not on the outskirts of it on a lush riverbank wood lot. They didn't even have a terminal or transit into the core. Did they think people came here to study birds and jog the half-kilometer stretch into the city?
Muttering, dealing with mild confusion, I headed into town on foot. The beauty of late spring seemed to do little for my mood. Worries of my financial situation clouded my mind. I could last perhaps another month then I'd need a job of some sort. Producing blockbuster entertainment had been my only talent in New York. In a small Canadian city, I had no saleable skills.
In my early days, I'd survived as a stunt man. After I got lucky and moved up the ladder, money oozed from my pockets. Surviving without wealth felt like a new situation and it had me kicking stones as I walked.
Electric cars slipped quietly by and some of the net.99 billboards shielded the landscape as I passed hotels and rental cottages on the outskirts. It seemed incredibly quiet for a Saturday morning. My best bet seemed to be to head for the centre of this small city and its clutch of diminutive skyscrapers.
The road broke at the grounds of Oakdale College and circled wide around a park and the river. I cut through on the path and soon found myself following a rushing brook. Crossing a tiny bridge, I took a short-cut over a field of wild flowers toward the central town square. I was about halfway across and on a path running through deep grass when I stumbled onto a large bundle in the weeds. As I looked down at it, a jogger suddenly appeared on my left and came to a stop beside me.
A gasp escaped my lips as the image of a mutilated corpse fused itself to my brain cells. I stepped back quickly, raising my arms in a defensive gesture as my eyes flashed to the jogger. This was a big man standing in the morning glare, and his face was long, heavily whiskered and grim. His expression twisted into a speculative grimace as I watched, as though he were studying some minor oddity. Some irritating bit of morning road kill in need of explanation.
"It's murder," I said bluntly. "Murder of the most horrible sort."
He made a broad gesture. His sunken eyes widened. "I disagree. In this case, it appears to be suicide. You wouldn't want to claim this body."
I looked back to the corpse. The man lay crumpled in the grass and soaked in crusting blood. His head was thrown back and the neck had been torn open, perhaps by a rabid human or animal. The eyes were wide, bulbous and staring and his face was frozen in a last expression of horrified shock. "Suicide? Claim the body? Why would I do that? The police will be claiming it."
"That's good to hear. Bill Thompson's the name. Glad to meet you."
"Grant King," I said, feeling more than a little baffled as I shook his coarse hand.
Bill Thompson reminded me of a friend of mine; a character actor from the old Sinematic 3Ds. He was positively morbid and definitely an individual of the loony sort if he thought in terms of claiming dead bodies. I decided to humor him.
Thompson pulled out a tiny pocket phone. "You can go on about your business. I'll call the police chief and clear this little matter up. I plan to claim the body for my wax museum, so I'll need your address. You'll have to verify that I made the discovery."
"Sure, I'll verify that. But I better wait and talk to the chief. I just came in on the train, so it'll look pretty darn suspicious if I leave the scene. He might even think I'm armed and dangerous."
"Suit yourself, Mr. King. Just remember that I found the body, not you."
"Don't worry. I wouldn't forget something like that, and I really do think that this fellow would look excellent done up in your wax museum. A sort of shocking dead man exhibit. Highlight the ghastliness of the whole thing in a way that will knock the pants off the soft bellies of small city society."
"Precisely," Thompson said, and then he got engaged in a strange phone conversation with the police chief. I could see the chief's personal icon on the screen, and as he rambled on with questions, I studied the corpse. Violence had occurred on the upper body. His collar and shirt were ripped and I could see a wicked abrasion on his chest. Either a tiger had leapt and launched a deadly blow or a very strong and vicious human had mauled him. It certainly wasn't suicide and as further evidence, I spotted a fresh trail beaten in the long grass. The killer had cut across the field to a copse at the edge of a small rise. I couldn't see beyond it.
The police chief arrived alone in one of those all-terrain cruisers that most small city cops use these days. This copper didn’t have professional style - his big wheels tore through the grass and he stopped right at the corpse. Another foot and he would have run it over.
A silver patch on his breast identified him. He wore a western tie and hat - sort of a clone of older US-style sheriffs. He jumped out and walked up to Thompson. "What you got, Bill?"
"Looks like another suicide. Probably a victim of a brain virus. I found him here in that condition. This fellow here is Grant King. He's new in town. Came down the path just after me."
"Dan Shanon's the name," he said as he turned and appraised me. "Chief Dan Shanon. What's your take on this death?"
"My take is that it's a killing. It looks like there may be a wild animal on the loose. It took him down and escaped over that rise."
Police Chief Shanon stared uneasily at the corpse. Concern and suspicion showed as he squinted in the bright sunlight. His rugged features were perfect for a cop, but I detected a shallow aura … perhaps a hint that he was like a superficial movie cop with no real brains behind the looks.
He confirmed my impression when he spoke. "The victim is Alfonso Kreiger. He's a friend of yours, Thompson - isn't he? I suppose he'll look nice done up in your wax. For now, I'll have to cordon off the area and do a search. My feeling is that this is a case of death by misadventure."
"Misadventure," Thompson said. "I just can't see how you figure that."
Ignoring Bill Thompson, Shanon turned to me. "I don't want you to leave town while this investigation is underway. I'm not going to hold you. Just let me know where you're staying."
"Sure," I said, wondering just what brand of oddballs ran this town. Place the body in a wax museum - what crazy people.
Part Two: New Kid in Town
It really would have been better to enter town without attracting attention. My original plan had been to remain invisible and maybe work under an alias. That idea was shot to hell now. If Chief Shanon ran a detailed trace, he'd draw up my past and legal enemies far worse than organized crime. If they came to town, anyone in their way would probably end up in a case of net.99 storage wax.
Pressing on I noticed that lush greenery sprouted everywhere in this town. Dense bursts of grasses and flowers nearly choked the walkways and roads. Songbirds and butterflies sprinkled the air with flashes of color. A rustle beside me turned out to be a prowling feral cat, and I spotted hawks flying near the taller buildings downtown.
Entry to the core of Oakdale was marked by a series of arches, and whether by vehicle or on foot and regardless of the direction of approach, you got greeted by an immense Oakdale arch. I walked under a pedestrian version that dripped with vines and wore a beard of tiny bell-shaped flowers. Beyond it, the green extravaganza faded and I encountered pedestrian traffic of the sort you would expect to find in a small city on a Saturday.
Unlike most cities and other small towns, all of the Oakdale structures were modern. Civic buildings, corporate digs and sprinklings of stores were all elaborately fronted. Eccentric local art and sculpture dominated. The largest open space surrounded the town hall - a public area, band shell and garden. In the garden, a huge statue of a gloomy and long dead Canadian politician stared out at the commercial area.
I paid scant attention to the locals brushing by me. Caught up in my personal woes, I felt little need for others. Heading into the town hall and its garden, I found a bench under a hybrid broad leaf tree. This spot was slightly elevated and gaps in the greenery allowed a good view of town. Brushing the sweat from my forehead, I looked out at the crowd strolling in the commercial area. Casual spring dress was the norm and the locals were of a broad genetic mix - no serious hints of vanity gone wild or racism. In New York I'd often found myself surrounded by a crowd of the same white movie stars. And they weren't the real stars but the product of unregulated genetic selection and plastic surgery. In Oakdale, some of the locals could even be described as in need of a face transplant, so there was definitely a separate social force at work here.
Passing cars misted the road with water vapor. Children ran and played on sun-glittering paving stones; adults snacked and chatted on patios under sunshades that twisted high in the air. Local shoppers rushed in and out, creating a mirrored spin of revolving doors. The entire scene looked normal on the surface and yet it didn't feel quite right.
Though their behaviour appeared to be normal social interaction, I knew there was definitely something odd about these people. Call it a gut feeling. I had the notion that intimate conversation would show them to be of the same weird strain as Chief Shanon and Bill Thompson.
There weren't any hotels in view and I needed a cheap place to stay. Looking around I spotted a tanned woman on a bench just to my left. She wore a spring outfit of the environment sensitive type. In its current setting it showed as red. She had great legs and her hair was short, neat and blond. Gold tints clouded her lenses as she shifted lightly on the bench. Obviously, she was locked into a broadcast. Probably similar to the sound and video I used to produce before I moved into entertainment vacation packages.
I decided to pump her for information and got up. My approach showed on her wrist screen and I saw her glasses clear and her blue eyes open. An invisible charge passed between us. Eye contact became an instant bond like love at first sight. But without the love. Neither of us belonged in Oakdale and that led to understanding. Perhaps it was close friendship at first sight.
"Sorry to interrupt you," I said. "I just came in on the train. Never been here before. Do you know of a good hotel or place to stay - reasonable in price?"
"Yeah, I do. Other side of the town hall. There are four or five hotels there. I don't know about the price. You'll have to shop around."
"Thanks," I said and turned to walk away.
"Wait a minute," she said. "There are a few things you might need to know about Oakdale?"
"I've already had a few surprises."
"Sit down and I'll clue you in. I'm Alice Wolland and I'm not from Oakdale, either. I think I'm the only person staying here who is a stranger in the sense that I'm not related to anyone local."
"That's bad news for me. I'm planning to stay around for a while. Maybe get a job. If this is a place of close relatives, doors might be slammed in my face."
"It's not like that. People come here. They can stay but no one does. The local culture is weird."
"My experience is that their conversation is weird, but mostly they behave like normal people."
"If you don't mind my asking. Why would you be moving to a small town like this - without a job offer or family and friends?"
"I'm from New York. Lived in a few other big cities. For years, I've dreamed of escaping the rat race and living in a small city. Janet, my wife, would never allow it. Last year she died of a rare form of cancer. I haven't worked since. I found this place while surfing the new net offbeat travel destinations. It seemed the ideal place for a new start. So here I am."
"Here you are and you're full of shit!"
"What?" I said, taking on an offended look as I pulled away from her on the bench.
"You're really full of it. You came to Oakdale for the same reasons I did. You’re on the run from something and know this town is a free zone as far as international law is concerned. Isn't that right, Mr. Grant King?"
"That's right. How did you recognize me?"
"My mother pushed me to be an actress. Your Martian Experience thing was on my course list. I saw two of your recorded lectures. No one else looks exactly like Grant King."
"Yes, they gave us the power to patent our looks – but it only worked in a personal way for the top executives in the entertainment industry. Anyone that pays the price can look like a star. It was never a problem for me before. Guess it is now."
"So now you're on the run. How do you expect to escape them? The entertainment net is in complete control of the United Nations intellectual property committee and nearly all city police forces."
"I suppose I would have to do like the others and kill myself to escape them completely."
"But I'm not dead and I've escaped."
"Yes. And I can see that it's a youth thing. My guess is that you're twenty-five and got the urge to escape from the perfect world of glamour society and your parents?"
"It wasn't perfect. They wanted to homogenize my life - an artist can't hide from the rough edges."
"Have you found the rough edges here in Oakdale?"
"More than you know. What have you seen so far?"
"A corpse in the park. The rotten thing is that some nut from a wax museum and the police chief also showed. They call it death by misadventure. It looked like murder to me. Regardless of what it is, I have to tell the chief where I'm staying. If he does a check on me I'll be found out."
"No problem there. If Chief Shanon finds that you're a loser he'll cover for you and leave you alone. Anyone important he'd run out of town."
"Isn't that the opposite of what police usually do?"
"It is. But here in Oakdale they don't like influential outsiders who might talk of the weird stuff that happens. You've already seen something, but you’re hiding and aren't in a position to reveal it to anyone."
"What exactly do you mean by weird stuff? Got an example or two?"
"The rotten nut from the wax museum you mentioned. Thompson - he's a crazy mortician. There are killings all the time - every second or third day - and you know who got murdered because they end up as brief displays in his wax museum."
"Thompson said he was going to claim the body we found today. You mean he really does put them in his wax museum. Why that's positively ghastly."
"Not only that. He does it fast. The corpse you found is probably already on display. Has to be because its burial ceremony will be at sunrise."
"I'd like to attend that."
"Sure - I'll take you there if you want. You'll have to see it to believe it, but first let's book you a room."
Part three: A Castle Appears
I ended up staying at the Oakdale Paramount, and to be honest it was more bottom of the heap than top. Its suites were located above an early variety of wired theatre, making it about the oldest structure in town. Bottom line is that it was affordable.
Before we entered, Alice leaned back, hands on her hips. She stared up at the offbeat cake-like design and said the place had character. I read that as character like a character actor, where being ugly and unusual can often be an asset.
She seemed giddy while we were at the desk and kept elbowing and distracting me. On the inside, the atmosphere was of a mummified sort - stale air and dreary vaults for hallways. Alice rang her knuckles on a brass fixture as we entered the room and she seemed quite pleased by the grand view. Choosing the fourth floor had been wise as it gave the best perspective of the town. The rear suites had beautiful cupped balconies set up with spring planters and patio tables. She immediately decided that we would have dinner out there.
Though it was still early afternoon, my light travel style presented a roadblock. Simply put - I had nothing but the clothes on my back. Not even a suitcase. Most people carry a bag of essentials or at least an open up pocket Surf-All or a wearable neo laptop for communications. I'd learned long ago that you could be tracked via anything you owned or picked up. In the business area, my platinum Internet account had been cancelled, but I had hundreds of other business accounts plus my public accounts. I knew all of them could be tracked so I used none of them - it was a way of making it difficult for them. Anyone wanting further vengeance on me would have to work to find me.
I did have some cash and the ability to launder money so Alice and I decided on a straight exchange. I would pay her for the use of her net accounts, and show her a few secrets of privileged access. To make this enjoyable we took in the fresh air on the balcony. She watched the bustle in the open concourse below while I tweaked her connection to order what I needed. Beginning with a check on my own identify. I did a crack and found five active searches on my name. They'd turned up nothing so far, and I was glad of that. Two of them had been initiated by a dangerous character named Ming Tse.
In most things, Alice remained a kid at heart. While net shopping she wanted to play a game of guessing my preferences in everything from clothing to food. At first, I played along and we laughed a lot, then my humorous mood got swept away by an idea.
"Hold it a moment," I said as an ugly revelation rose in my mind. "Cancel those orders. Don't let any of them go through."
She giggled, thinking I was joking. "Why would I do that? You want to sit here in the same clothes day after day. Starving as you look at four bare walls?"
"It's not that. I just remembered that identity isn't the only way to trace people. Your purchasing profile can identify you just as fast."
"Yeah, but that's illegal. There are consumer privacy laws, you know."
"You're forgetting that I worked for the entertainment net."
"You mean the people that spin the world with their spin, making suicide possible in a world where it’s genetically impossible?"
"I do mean them, though I call them petty bastards. Let's do the ordering at random. My whole life's been disconnected anyway so I might as well change all of my old habits."
Alice agreed with the random thing, and then proceeded to order everything according to her preferences. It took an hour and later we went out to shop for a few items I didn’t want to purchase via the net. That went smoothly and evening arrived with a warm blaze of sun and dinner on the balcony.
Alice ordered an Italian pasta dinner. I wolfed the main course down and I tried to regain my dignity by sipping wine as I nibbled on desert. Sunset hues hazed the town below. Great mounds of greenery and a mix of trees hid most of the streets. Some open areas showed through as glimpses of small town beauty. About what you'd expect - people strolling with dogs, small groups of loitering teens, kids in their loose clothing, shouting and playing roller games. The scene contrasted with my memories of New York, where decadent people tended to gather in large party gangs at evening. New York had seemed beautiful when I was there, but in memory, it came up as tarnished.
Alice smiled sympathetically as she finished her last bite. "The town looks idyllic from here. But it isn't New York. This place is lacking when it comes to men."
"You mean there aren't many single men in this back alley?"
"They all have fatal personality quirks. Probably you have them, too. People in your business are divorced most of the time."
"Thanks a lot for lumping me in with the others. I agree that I do have flaws. My wife got to be just another person making excessive demands on my time and emotions. Demands I couldn't meet. It went downhill from there. People who are proud and think of themselves as perfect see too much imperfection in their loved ones. Everyone in the business is like that. We are genetically primed for healthy personalities and relationships. Yet it never quite works out because our negative cultural conditioning overrides it all."
"You were established. You had your place at the top of society. Was your downfall really because of petty squabbles?"
"We played god and I've never been fully satisfied with the results. This is a world like a zoo. There's a bit of everything in it and it is all in cages ready to be packaged and sold as entertainment. Politics is controlled by the media which is under the thumb of the global info-entertainment net. Dissent and social change remain as another regulated form of entertainment. The celebrity class now exists for the sole purpose of perpetuating itself. Even art is limited to forms that can be quickly piped into the hungry brain cells of the preprogrammed masses. People shouldn't forget how this world came about. It really began when the Internet and the free dissemination of ideas threatened the profits of the old media and entertainment industry. Old and some newer media had the money and the power so they conned us all. We allowed them to chain freedom of speech and we let them commercialize the net and then the entire public domain. Every idea and communication form got packaged and labeled as intellectual property. A dollar value was assigned to everything. We spend our entire lives renting back tarnished ideas and rewrites of old fictions in order to experience a simulation of free expression."
"Ah, so you decided to get political and reaped the reward of it."
"I wrote a secret paper on the system and how it would crash within fifty years."
"Do you really think it will?"
"It might. But that piece was really written as a scare tactic. People at the top do it all the time to bring about small changes. Our leaders are not open to new ideas. Only the bogeyman can make them act."
"But aren't we supposed to be genetically superior - born to be creative forever?"
"That's one of their fairy tales. Unlimited creativity is too risky for them. They've put walls up to prevent the rise of revolutionary ideas and change. This is a safe world for them. Safety has a high price and rulers who only get older become gods of petty revenge. I've angered them so they've kicked me off of Olympus."
"Is there no way back up from the bottom?"
"There is. I've been punished before, but I always had something to trade like ideas for new blockbusters. I'm one of the few people who do think, but this time I'm in a dry spell. I have nothing. To get out of the hole I'd have to impress them with a marvelous new gift."
"Okay, so there's no quick way back up for you. But why are you trying to hide from them?"
"They make the punishment work by taking away your privileges and leaving you an open target. My legal rights have been removed. Anyone who wants some sort of revenge on me can track me and do things to me. Some of them will eventually trace me here, and if I have to I'll kill them."
The last of sunset opened like an Oriental fan in the West. Twilight began to sift through and I joined Alice at the railing - putting my arm around her as we chatted some more and studied the town.
We watched a crowd gathering out front of a dance club then my gaze got drawn back to the skyline. I observed something fading in and out in the distant light. It began to vanish then it returned like a sudden mirage. Its hues were subtle, touched by twilight. Almost like an etching or colored pencil sketch standing against the haze. The picture forming was of a castle - enormous, magnificent but also aged and crumbling in places. Central towers, a citadel, crenelated walls and the main gate fortifications radiated golden light. Blood-colored fog blew at the base of a massive southern keep. The northern portion had experienced a glorious collapse and it fell to earth as a waterfall of vines. Jagged walls and huge blocks thrust through in spots like broken teeth or fangs.
"Disney," I said as I stared in amazement.
"Disney - what are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about that castle on the horizon. It's a relic of the ancient Disney entertainment empire. The design is unmistakable. I wonder why it's been left to decay that way?"
"I don't know. They've restored part of it. I noticed it weeks ago, but when I tried to get info on it, the locals didn't have a name for it. Kids call it the Castle of Fangs because of those sharp stones poking through the vines to the north. I tried to visit it once and couldn't get through the gate. In spite of its condition, there are live-in owners. Mostly it's a mystery. Whenever I ask people in town about it, they say they know nothing about it."
"It's not on the maps either. I studied this area in detail before choosing it. That parcel of land is listed as wasteland. No structures are marked. I wonder if the older town records have anything on it."
"They might, but the people sure don't or else they're keeping it secret. No one seems to know the names of the occupants."
"Then it is certainly a key to our mystery. I mean the strange town and residents. You can be sure the castle is somehow related."
"Who exactly was Disney? Perhaps it’s somehow tied in with him."
"Disney was a creative man who built an entertainment empire that has lived on after his death. He would have been long dead when that castle was constructed. His empire and a number of others merged and gained control of the world's wealth and financial systems. Giving us the entertainment net. It was the cradle of our society and the downfall of mankind in some ways. I suppose Disney saw it coming way back then and simply bought into it."
Part four: He Rises in Flames
The Castle of Fangs towered over me in my dreams, swallowing the sky like a living monster of decay. Huge stones thundered to the earth around me. I stared up into a halo of moon-glare watching cracked towers tilt and spew dust as they began to crumble. A corpse flew from the splitting rubble. Then a door banged and I woke from the nightmare. I opened my eyes and shielded them when the overhead light came on. Peeking through my fingers, I saw Alice standing at the foot of the bed. She wore a gold headband, gold loops, a gold jacket and a smile.
"Oh God, I'm hung over," I said as I sat up in bed. "I can't remember a thing. Guess I passed out."
"I warned you about drinking too much."
"You did didn't you - and damn me for insisting on buying Calera classic white. That old-style alcohol is brutal."
"I've brought the cure," she said, pulling a foil pouch from her purse. "Get dressed and I'll mix it for you."
My head and eyes felt swollen. I got dressed, put on a new jacket and went to the balcony for some fresh air. Alice was already there at the table and as I sat, she poured the pouch into a glass of water.
It fizzed up and I immediately seized it and drank. Grogginess ballooned in my head as my thirst abated. "It's a bit early to be getting up," I said.
"You told me to get you up. You wanted to see one of Oakdale's sunrise funerals."
"I forgot. Yes, I can't miss it. That's my corpse they have there, and they can have it. The sooner the case around it is buried, the better it is for me. Let me grab a quick shave and we're off."
Alice's hangover cure worked smoothly. As we walked out of the hotel, I felt like top of the morning. Though it looked more like the middle of the night, with Venus being the only indication of a new day coming.
We had time to walk, so I waited while Alice grabbed something from her glove compartment, then I took her arm and we headed down the street. A fine mist had rolled in at ground level and it picked up radiance from store signs and displays. These were the old models with nighttime interactive mode, meaning that if we got too close video clips would be triggered, perhaps even the horrid face of some huckster halfway around the world would appear to offer us late night discounts.
Alice took us north on a parkette path, and once out of the haze the stars seemed incredibly bright. I could see the moon buried in western clouds and a vague outline that I knew to be the Castle of Fangs.
A trail at the rear of a long shopping complex took us to the museum. Dark wet grass and weeds overhung the path and I felt cold dew trickling between my toes as we approached. I didn't get a view of the front of the place. Alice said the event was taking place in the field and graveyard at the back. From the rear, the wax museum was a molded metal fortress lit by a faint light that spotted the haze with its blue glow. The rows of recessed windows were dark and glossy and the vaulted door had the authority of a tomb. What could best be described as a mob had gathered in a trimmed portion of the field next to the parking area. None of them wore any sort of special ceremonial dress but a number of people were carrying glow-all torches that imitate fire.
More than anything else, the torches created the mob effect. Their flicker and shadow worked to turn the Oakdale crowd into sinister Neanderthals sporting hooded eyes, sharp cheekbones, beards of shadow and bruise-purple mouths.
We emerged unnoticed from the gloom and stood in silence at the edge of the cleared area. A faint smear in the east indicated the approach of sunrise and as I looked to the horizon, I spotted a number of ebony objects in the field. A longer study revealed these totems and a few squat statues - the totems had a metallic sheen, the statues a dull stone appearance. Beyond them obelisks and gravestones were visible in the faint light. When I'd absorbed the full scene, I knew we were standing on the edge of a carpet of grass. The totems and statues rested to either side as the grass stretched to the graveyard. In that sense the graveyard was almost an extension of the mortuary they called a wax museum.
People whispered and Alice remained silent as I continued to look around. Then the museum door began to open. In spite of its appearance of great weight, the motion was silent. Two men dressed in broad-brimmed hats and long jackets emerged from the totally dark interior. Their heavy boots echoed in the lot as they stepped up. I recognized one of them as Bill Thompson.
They halted at the edge of the parking lot and the somber cast of their faces drew a hush from the crowd. Thompson looked pale and bloodless, like maybe he'd decorated himself with his own makeup. The role of cultist come minister cloaked him well. I saw him as exactly the sort of guy who would be involved in the supernatural and magic.
Thompson cleared his throat and addressed the mob. His voice came off as affected with disproportionate emphasis at the end of his sentences. Call it a bad production in general, yet it seemed impossible that a prayer and address like Thompson's could be happening, and that made it spooky.
"Chosen Ones of Oakdale, a man has died in the holy manner and as always he will remain nameless in death - his estate obliterated, his family forgotten, his children orphans. His gravestone shall bear the image of the mystic and the angel of dawn will consume his ashes. In death, he will prosper in the valley of the fangs. Born from the darkness, to the darkness he will return as . . . ."
As Thompson rambled on, his bizarre eulogy drew shivers from the crowd. It failed to frighten me and instead got me thinking about the supernatural. It would be wonderful to believe in a dark power as he did. My personal vision had always been an atheist deal of thankless mortals. People living on for centuries, and as the shadow of the grave faded, it became more necessary than ever. It would be great to be up on that mountain, seeing creatures or gods, souls rising to the unknown. Thompson's delusion represented the world as it should be. He'd outstretched his arms to the graveyard, and I knew many petty people who would only obtain salvation six feet under.
Thompson's speech ended abruptly and his stocky assistant took charge at that precise moment. He turned to face the rear of the museum. Blue light gathered on his frozen face, and as he opened his arms, a faint beam suddenly shone from his eyes to the door. The dull metal absorbed this light, and though it was definitely fake - a cheap laser trick - it did work to open the door. It also triggered lights inside. They flickered then lit up with great brilliance.
Rivers of candlepower poured from the windows. Electrifying wattage that drew a shrill scream from someone inside the museum. Gasps and excited whispering swept the crowd. We could see someone stumbling to the doorway. This person was blinded and in agony. Hands covering his eyes, he emerged and fell on the steps. Radiant light backlit him making it nearly impossible to make anything out. Then the lights suddenly went out and I saw retinal flashes everywhere I looked.
As the blindness abated, I noticed that the door had shut and the man was now slowly getting to his knees. If you could call him a man. Sticky wax coated his entire body and the heat of the lights inside had melted it to a degree. Some of it had peeled from his face, revealing patches of rotting flesh and wine-stained skin.
This man looked familiar and as I studied his crumpled clothes, I realized they belonged to the corpse I had found in the park. Only now, the corpse was alive - in some sense of the word. This hideous reincarnation radiated death more than life.
As he rose fully from his knees the glow-all torchlight spilled on him, creating an image even more ghastly. Stiff lips erupted as he spat bile and vomit. Pain and anguish came unbidden in the form of a guttural moan rising from his quivering chest. A red tint brightened in his swollen eyes, highlighting huge fangs and a beard of wet wax that hung like slime from his chin.
"I can't believe it. He's a vampire." I said to Alice. Then his mouth twisted like a ravenous slash of decay, and he began to approach us, slowly like he was learning to walk all over again.
I didn't want to take my eyes off the drooling fiend, but Alice was tugging at my sleeve. As I turned to her, I saw Bill Thompson leading the silent crowd across the field to the totems at the edge of the graveyard.
Alice and I followed, hearing the waxen monster huffing just behind us as we walked. Thompson took us through the totems and we gathered next to the squat statue of a toad-like deity.
Bill Thompson remained calm and pale and the others were also silent and unafraid. I turned and could see the shambling corpse approaching. It sniffed loudly like it was scenting blood, and then something happened that distracted us all.
A halo of light appeared in the graveyard next to the statue of an angel. A nude woman stood in this light - her hair and flesh flowing, golden and beautiful. I could see voluptuous curves, breasts - the vision aroused me and it also aroused the beast.
Moaning like some monster from hell the waxen vampire charged toward the graveyard. The wet grass slowed him and tripped him. He stumbled to his feet and disappeared in the darkness of the stones. He showed beside the stone angel moments later.
He halted a short distance from the woman, let out a tremendous cry and then rushed forward. I expected her to cower, but instead she stepped forward, her motion indicating the toss of a knife. Something silver flashed from her hand and expanded to a cloud of brilliant dust that streamed into the running monster.
A wave of flame and steam rushed to the sky as the waxen vampire ignited. And he didn't collapse but stopped dead in his tracks. Small fireballs continued to ripple up his body and explode. His head ballooned with more fire and went off like a roman candle, trailing brain matter as it shot between the gravestones. Then his torso exploded in a grotesque flash of flaming flesh. Searing waves expanded from the burning rib cage and a moment later, we could see little other than smoldering embers next to the stone angel. I looked for the woman, but during the explosion, she had disappeared.
Bill Thompson stepped forward and led the mob into the graveyard, and though Alice again tugged at my sleeve, I remained firm and refused to move.
"I think I've seen enough," I said.
"The rest is rather dull, anyway," Alice said. "They collect and burn any remains they find and you never do get to see the grave woman or learn whether she's real or a projection."
"She's real all right. That dead man walking as a vampire was real, too. He rose as the undead, which is completely impossible."
"You’re right, and maybe Thompson's wax caused that to happen."
"I don't think so. According to the mythology he must have been bitten by a vampire before he died, and thus rose again."
Part five: In the Stacks
Oakdale's library stood on a long rise set off from Oak Lane by a covered walkway. The large structure had a community design with false brick, a weed garden, bay windows and skylights. Alice mentioned that the large northern extension contained the stacks.
"Print stacks," I said as we stood on the sidewalk, shielding our eyes and looking up. "I haven't read a paper book in years."
"Neither have I, but they have a print version of the town records, so it's better to check them here where we won't be noticed."
"You really think they’re watching us?"
A horn beeped before she could answer. Turning we saw police chief Dan Shanon grinning and waving as he drove by in a black and white town cruiser.
I shook my head in dismay as we mounted the library steps. We entered, signed in, took the hall to get around the computer readers and passed a lonely scan machine to enter the stacks. This vast room was musty and cavernous. Rows of high shelves ran nearly its full length. The system of retrieval was antiquated - a single data base computer to search for the title tag, which you were then supposed to find in the aisles.
Alice took my arm and pulled me away from the computer, leading me down a narrow aisle. Filtered sunbeams poked through from above creating a patchwork of dusty spotlights on the towers of books. The silence felt comfortable and warm. I heard nothing but the soft pad of our footsteps as we navigated the maze of shelves. We stopped way back in the stacks and I waited as Alice searched the titles. She pulled out a few editions and thumbed through them, and she clicked her tongue with satisfaction upon opening a wide leather-bound file.
I followed her down a broad aisle that opened on a reading area. Sunlight streamed in the window and we sat at a table that granted a view of the weed garden. She opened the book and began to riffle through the pages, finally settling to read one of the final chapters.
I couldn't see the copy and she was chewing on her tongue with interest, so I interrupted. "Find anything interesting?"
"Yeah, a lot. Our Castle of Fangs first existed in Yorkville Heights on the outskirts of Toronto 300 years ago. Originally, they called it Castle Borealis. When the theme park died, it became a graveyard storing materials from other Disney parks. A man named Jack Marsden bought it for 65 million dollars and moved the entire thing stone by stone to its location here. Marsden also moved parts of the theme park. When he finished the monumental task, he lived in the castle for a grand total of three years before dying of a rare blood disorder. Marsden was an eccentric character and his reputation kept the castle alive as a tourist attraction after his death. There’s a book on the clever methods he used to move the castle."
"So who owns it now?"
"I'm getting to that," she said, flipping some pages. "Ah, here it is. The castle went through a long period of abandonment. Being owned by the Montezuma Group. They never found a use for it and 25 years ago they sold it to Daniel Saul, a wealthy Canadian scientist. He repaired the castle and took up residence with his wife - listed as a retired actress named Liz Parker."
"Daniel Saul. I didn't know he married Parker. They both vanished from the public eye years back."
"Who are they? I've never heard of either of them."
"Daniel Saul made the news thirty years ago. As a wealthy scientist, he created a scandal through experiments with animals involving gene therapy and nano technology. Supposedly, he was attempting to create new life forms that would be both animal species and machines. He got busted for unethical practices and went to one of those paradise prisons. I didn't know he was released. Liz Parker had some degree of fame before she went mad. She was mostly involved in underground Gothic stuff - a sex goddess in old plays and film features to do with vampirism and the occult. Liz believed herself to be a descendant of actual vampires. She tried to raise her daughter in a weird manner and the international Child Protection Agency stepped in. She wasn’t connected with Saul at that time. Perhaps they met and married in a madhouse or prison."
"We have our vampire connection in Liz Parker."
"Yes, and with Daniel Saul in that castle, I wonder . . ."
"Oh, nothing. I have an idea of what might be happening."
"So what's our next step?"
"I want to return to the field and check out a few things at the spot where I found that corpse. Maybe we can do it tonight."
Alice agreed to proceed and that we were making progress. We decided to return the book and leave the library. Strolling out into bright sunshine, we slowly made our way to the bottom of the steps. It came as no surprise when Dan Shanon appeared on the sidewalk. He wore a trooper outfit. A frown creased his forehead.
"Mr. King," he said. "Just a word on that corpse you found. The death has been ruled as misadventure and the burial took place this morning."
"You mean the case is wrapped up?"
"Not quite. Bill Thompson says you attended the ceremony this morning. I'd appreciate it if you keep quiet about what you saw."
"Why? What difference does it make?"
"We don't like any advertisement of our eccentricities. Odd things can get to be news, and that would draw undesirable visitors to our little town."
I grinned. "Most other towns are doing everything in their power to get publicity."
"Yeah, and you would know. I did some checking on you. Oakdale's just about the only place you have left. After your experience with those people, you should know why we want to keep a low profile. You do anything to draw publicity and I'll throw you back to the sharks."
"I guess you've got me there. The truth is that I want some privacy just like folks in Oakdale do. Anything odd that I see, I quickly forget."
"That's good," Shanon said, and then he turned and walked back to his cruiser.
Part six: Beasts in the Night
Alice and I passed the evening hours in a club called the Paper Lantern. We expected Dan Shanon to tail us there, conclude we were on a dance party trip and leave us alone. Chief Shanon did follow us. I watched from a luxury bathroom as he parked his cruiser out front and sent in a brutish undercover man. The guy walked through the club, looking around, and then he sat at a table near us. A half hour later, he left and when I checked for the cruiser, it was gone, too.
I wore fake headgear. It made me the only person in the place not tuned into the exotic dance console. Near midnight, I sat alone at a table sipping L.L. Latso rum cola. Layered music does not work without enhancement, and I was beginning to wonder if the noise bombarding me could be any indication of the true sound. Sensory images provided for the dance vistas didn’t register with me either. Without a direct connection to brain cells they came across as an assault of needling frames. Electrifying and skeletal stuff that tormented the optic nerve and produced nausea.
Alice had hooked in her wearable and a headset. She spent most of the time dancing with a tacky Tony Adams beach-movie look-alike. My headache grew like a tumor as I watched them. The last dance seemed to last forever, but it was really about 15 minutes, then she got thirsty and returned to the table for a drink.
The plastic Tony came in tow with her. She mocked my wearied frown and grinned as she sat. A passing waiter served her a lemon drink. Alice guzzled that then leaned back for a moment with her eyes closed.
Bronze-skinned Tony shuffled from one sandal to the other as he chewed on pacifier gum. Being too charged to sit he reached down and tried to pull Alice up. The rude move irritated me so I grabbed his arm and forced it away. Alice squirmed in her seat and jumped when I reached over and removed her headset. Her eyes glazed over with confusion. Tiny wrinkles formed on her freckled nose and she sneezed. In an instant, her cheeks went from ruby to pink. She stared at me dumbfounded.
"We're going for a midnight stroll. Remember?"
Her eyes rolled like her brain had been jarred. Then she stiffened. "Right. We better leave through the back."
Alice waved Tony off and as he shuffled back to the dance floor we rose and followed the aluminum railing to the back door. We were about to exit when Tony suddenly reappeared. He burst from the curtain of flashing lights to our left and made a grab for Alice. Fury and hot blood rose in my head. I stepped into his path and yanked his headset off. A hard shove and he went stumbling across the dance floor, and as he crashed into another man, I tossed his headset in after him.
Confusion developed as more people collided on the dance floor. Putting an arm around Alice, I hurried her outside. It was like rushing into paradise. The back of the Paper Lantern contained a garden and club playground for people who wanted to do more than just dance. A midnight game of volleyball was underway and lovers strolled in the garden. I didn't get to see much more than that because I could feel Alice's angry glare burning up the corner of my eye.
I turned and faced her.
"That was rude of you. Shoving my partner like that."
"Sorry about that. I guess I panicked."
"It looked more like jealousy to me."
"What if it was?"
"Damn, this whole place is walled in. I thought there was an exit here."
"See that recess just behind the fountain. The grass banks up against the wall there. We can grab that branch and swing to the top."
"Sounds like you've done it before."
"Many times. Escape is often the only remedy for the kind of guys I meet here."
We followed through, taking a romantic stroll through the garden. Moonlight glowed on the gushing fountain, making the romance seem real. I saw something more than friendship in Alice's glittering eyes, and wished we could stay. Moments later that idle wish vanished in the burst of sweaty energy it took to get over the wall.
Alice plunged into sheer darkness and a soft weed bed. I remained in the haze of colored light and noise at the top of the wall. Jumping into the unknown did not suit me. I heard water flowing and did not want to land in it. Seconds later the moon passed out of a cloud and melted the darkness below. It gave me the confidence to drop down. Rolling up I saw Alice at my shoulder, facing a rushing brook that curved like a moat around the back of the club.
A graceful leap took her to a stone at the centre. A second hop and she reached the far bank. My own lack of agility put me beside her with soaked feet. I looked down at dripping cuffs and flattened silverweed, then ahead at a moonlit vista of parkland.
A grassy field ran for a quarter of a kilometer south before turning west. The lights of a residential area glowed just beyond a soft line of firs in the east. Heaps of huge stone blocks reinforced the bottom of a ravine that rose at the bend in the park. Moonlight created an eerie saucer of gloss on a water tower at the top.
Alice put her hands on her hips then turned her gaze to me. "We pass the bend. From there the trail forks in three directions. The spot where you found the corpse would be near the river."
She led the way as we waded through thick weeds, then it was smooth going on the trail. It dipped toward the bend and into the ravine. Large blocks of stone reinforcing the banks dwarfed us, and the rising ravine-side and thick lilac brush buried us in a shadow of silence and gloom.
Alice pulled a glow flashlight from her purse and we used it for light as we pressed ahead. A breeze carrying sweet odors of the river touched us and at the bend, a broad scene opened. Some of the town's taller buildings lined the heights bordering acres of parkland. Night-lights, the moon and stars cast a glow of silver on the treetops and fields.
We could hear the murmur of the river though we couldn't see it. And we also heard something else - a distant growl.
I gazed up the ravine-side. "That sounded mean, like a cougar."
Alice glanced back. "I doubt it. Raccoons are the fiercest beasts in this town. If you're worried, I brought this just in case."
She'd pulled a pistol from her purse. It had the Remington label.
"I hope you don't plan on firing that antique. It'll likely explode and blow your hand off."
"It won't explode. The antique look is just the design. I borrowed this from my father when I left home. It has a molecular computer for a fast lock on a target. The bullets are super-heated projectiles that are instantly generated by a nano engine in the barrel. It's guaranteed to penetrate just about anything."
"It's also in violation of the gun control laws. You better make sure that Shanon never catches you with it."
"I never use it. It's just something I like to have."
"Okay, let me get my bearings. Is that set of lights Oakdale College?"
We took a trail through the centre of the parkland, walking slowly as I looked about, trying to pinpoint the place where I'd discovered the corpse. I aimed for a spot between the lights of the college and the other distant lights from the town square. Once there I saw the field of wild flowers I had crossed on entering town. The grass was beaten down in one area, and we found Shanon's tire tracks.
"What exactly are we looking for, Grant?"
"In the dark, not much. But we already have our first clue."
"This area wasn't searched. Most of the field is untouched. Chief Shanon didn't have to investigate because he knew exactly how the murder happened. His investigations are just to cover things up."
"It puts us at a dead end, really. We can't go up against Shanon."
"There's something else I want to look at. When I found the corpse, I saw a fresh trail beaten to that rise."
Grass and wild flowers rustled at our shins as we walked to the rise. A copse of maples towered over the field there and a path wound over the top. Scrub choked the path and moving up it in the dark was a frightening experience. My nerves tingled and I felt Alice press close at my back. She moved beside me when the bushes broke at the top.
The Castle of Fangs glowed in a spill of moonbeams to the West. Just ahead, the rise dropped off sharply and the sand cliff descended to the riverbank. Flotsam spotted the swollen river. Logs and branches bobbed in its skin of moonlight. A shadowy island of debris drifted slowly in the main current, its bloated appendages lapping the water. Bubbles and foam rose in its wake, giving the impression that something large and vile had risen from the bottom.
Alice pointed to the far bank. A spot to our right. We could see a green light, and it was an odd effect. Swamp gas picking up rays from an unknown source and forming a shape like an eye. It aided the moon in creating ghostly illumination in a swampy area that stretched back into acres of widely spaced firs.
Looking along the shore, I saw a dock at the swamp's edge and a large motorized raft tied to it. Other glow lights began to show in the fir trees and they cast shadows, some which appeared to be human forms.
"They're doing something in the woods over there. I can't tell what."
"Heading in the direction of the Castle of Fangs, Grant. That's what."
The glow brightened and we saw a shadowy group of about twenty people passing through a small field toward more firs and the road to the castle. As they reached the firs lights began to whirl and strobe in the boughs. We heard faint snarling reverberate over the river. There were sounds of a struggle, branches crashing. I strained to see but it was impossible to make anything out in the shifting mass of lights and darkness.
Moments later the song of a night bird was the only sound, and we could see the lights pressing deeper into the firs.
"How do we get over there? I want to see what happened."
"We have to go back, and over to Oakdale College. The nearest bridge is there."
The brush snapped at us as we raced down the rise, then it was a pleasant late night jog over to the college. Its front gates were closed so we followed the perimeter of the fence. At the rear, spotlights illumined the exit, a road and the bridge. This was an arched bridge and from the top we could see a black flow of moonlit water and little else. A rutted road ran along the shore on the far side so we crossed and followed it to a dead end. From there we had to pass through an acre of staghorn sumac, using a narrow path.
The sumac took us into a long shallow ravine and broke at a broad elm tree. We eased around its trunk and found ourselves with a sudden open view. A glow of moonlight capped the roof of a temple situated in a shallow depression ahead. Deep grass banked the open central area. The edifice looked primitive and incomplete, being just a sculptured slab of deep gray stone mounted on five squat pillars. Though the stones making up the floor were smooth, the rest of it was rough-hewn. A dense core of darkness marked its heart and it cast an illusion of impenetrable power.
Alice leaned on my shoulder. "This place must be one of Thompson's temples", she said.
"Yeah, and the ceremony they practice probably involves sucking your heart out and replacing it with a ball of hot wax."
Ground ivy sprouted through the jigsaw of cracked stone pieces that made up the temple floor. Some of these pieces were tablets marked with inscriptions in an unknown language. The silhouette of a huge object showed in the veil of shadows at the centre.
Though the place appeared abandoned, we didn't want to walk unprotected into its darker areas. It had the unsettling feeling of a cursed tomb with the enveloping silence leading one to assume the presence of snakes, black widows or lurking demons.
"We've got to check this place. We'll have to chance using your light."
"Okay," Alice said, then she fumbled with it while pulling it out and accidentally triggered its brightest setting. The layered yellow flash dropped to normal illumination as she adjusted it. Darkness receded, opening a view of another tablet at the center. This one had been raised and mounted with straps on poles and an iron rail. The sketch-like carving appeared to be ancient and authentic. It was of one image that stretched to the crumbled edges … a picture that looked morbid more than spiritual. It showed a primitive man being devoured by a huge fanged beast.
"Repulsive isn't it," I said.
"Let's just hope that Thompson hasn't brought it back to life. Whatever it is."
"He's probably tried."
Exiting the temple, we climbed the bank on the far side and took a path out of the ravine. Night flies began to dog us and a faint odor of rancid mud in the air told us we were approaching the swampy area. Debris blocked this path in many places and twice we had to climb over the rotted trunks of fallen trees. Eventually a broader path opened and it was banked by bushes, mostly lilacs.
About a hundred yards into it, we detected some movement in the lilac bushes, and then we heard a dragging noise and loud rustling. I raised a finger for silence as Alice switched off her light. Crouching on the path, we watched as a heavy shadow emerged from the bushes ahead of us. The long bulky phantom appeared to be dragging a body.
The creature stopped and panted from the exertion and it gained definition as it moved away from us and out of the cover of overhanging foliage. A filter of moonlight put it fully into focus, revealing it to be a large cat. Its hindquarters were of a powerful design and it resembled a cougar, though it was much bigger. Red markings on its hip identified it as a genetic hybrid, though not of known registration.
As it moved to a turn in the path, we spotted the corpse dragging under it. The beast had its jaws sunk into the shoulder of this corpse, pulling it up as it padded forward.
It seemed like we were in the clear, then a night bird fluttered in the bush, causing the beast to halt and drop its cargo.
It sniffed and growled as it studied the brush, and then it turned and looked back on the path. Its features were awe-inspiring and terrifying. Moonbeams transformed its eyes to brilliant coins of light. Blood dripped from extended canines, whiskers and its chin. Without a doubt, it detected us, yet it chose to ignore us.
It turned its long body, giving us a view of the corpse; the victim being a man with wild brown hair and a death expression that was both predatory and ghastly. Veins had exploded in his cheeks, swelling them with blood. His forehead was a purple welt and the eyes were open and shot with red. Fangs pierced his swollen lips, causing them to run with blood and pus.
Sinking its canines firmly into the corpse's shoulder, the cat growled, shook it then continued down the path. Alice and I trembled, and didn't dare move for about two minutes before we stood and began to whisper.
She seized my elbow. "What do you make of that?"
"I think it's one of Saul's animal creations. He's been at work again combining nano technology with genetics. Not only is that beast powerful, it also appears to be intelligent."
"It saw us. I'm sure."
"We're fortunate in that it seems to be on an assigned mission. The body it is dragging is one of the townspeople freshly risen as a vampire. The cat is doing some sort of cleanup. It had the strength to hunt down the vampire and take it down. I'm not sure what it's doing with the body. Taking it to the castle or maybe just disposing of it somewhere."
"I suppose Daniel Saul creates the vampires, too."
"That's my belief. I think Liz Parker had him recreate the vampire myth. He must have created nano technology that works in the blood. Once bitten on the neck in the classic fashion by one of those vamps, the nanbots enter and cause the corpse to rise again as another vampire."
"I think we've got it, Grant. But why? And how do Thompson and the townspeople come into it?"
"Through technology Liz Parker has realized her dream of becoming a vampire. She uses Bill Thompson and his cult to supply her victims. They also do cleanup work. When the monsters rise they dispose of them with their fire ritual. Any they miss the cat picks up. Daniel Saul gains in that his wife is happy. With control of the town he can continue his work without interference."
"If that's true, it's a risky game they're playing. Sooner or later they won't be able to contain it completely and the vampirism will spread like a plague."
"Now that would be entertainment. A bigger package of it than anything our ruling class would want."
Ducking off the path, we slipped through deeper brush and walked slowly over the lumpy ground. Faint light and green-tinted haze began to show in the distant firs, indicating that we had reached the swampy area we'd viewed from the hill. Patches of boggy ground appeared. Mist poured like smoke over these mud holes and in the end, we had to go around the entire swamp, as it was impassible. In some spots misted reeds were lit up by lights from the castle entry road. The green eye of the swamp we'd seen from over the river had been an effect of this mist and light.
The castle was now close by. We could hear dogs howling in one of the flanking towers. Ahead ground fog drifted over the forest floor, submerging most of the wild flowers. It was easy going as there was very little brush - just the broad pine trunks, the occasional boulder and mound. Further in the shore of a pond appeared as glaze and shimmer, and we could see across it to the castle gate and its fortifications.
Spotlights illumined a portion of the entry road and a black caped guard marching in billowing mist at the edge of the darkness. The castle clock tower shone with magnificent light, and more lights glowed in the upper yard.
Faint voices and the sound of a car engine carried on the breeze. A group of people walked into view behind the gate. Some of them were guards and a pale blond woman at the centre of the group appeared to be Liz Parker. Her outfit was loose and black and her movements were sleek, trailing a glitter of jewelry as she walked.
Alice halted at the shore and turned to face me. "I think the queen vampire just passed there. That puts the front definitely out. There's no easy way inside. If we climb the wall, they'll spot us."
"How do we get to the ruins? We might be able to enter there."
"Okay. We follow the shore of this pond and pass through some more woods. Keep in mind that the ruins have no lights. It's going to be dark."
Polished stones lined the shore and we heard nothing but the gentle lapping of the water as we walked. Cold fingers of mist touched us and then faded as we reached a solid curtain of brush. Prickly branches lashed at us as we pushed through and I felt relieved when the foliage broke at a path that ran beside the castle wall.
The track was ill defined, tufted with grass in places. Rubbish indicated occasional human traffic. We couldn't see the ruins yet but the wall was obviously a part of them. A heavy growth of ivy bit into the crumbling blocks and many stones had broken away in the higher sections. The whole thing rose like a giant's broken dentures and the decay showed everywhere on the path. Often the broken fragments were embedded in the earth or heaped in gravel near the track.
Dark cavities in the wall spooked us more than the trembling forest. If another of the cat creatures existed and lurked up there, it could be down on us in a second. Alice showed the bravery that I lacked. Her slim hips swayed confidently in front of me as we followed the wall. Finally, the path widened to puddles and patches of pebbled mud and we halted.
We didn't dare use the light. The scene was gloomy but just bright enough for us to see that we'd reached the perimeter of a trash yard. Strong odors were another clue. The breeze had died and the air felt stagnant and heavy. It tickled my nostrils and placed a flavour of dead roots and musty rot at the back of my tongue.
Alice led the way around the puddles and we'd soon eased our way to drier ground. Two huge piles of concrete rubble rose beside us and from that point, we could see a portion of the wall that had collapsed completely. The view across the rubbish heap added a completely new decrepit aspect to the castle. A damaged flanking tower rose oppressively and blotted out the moon. Ramparts, crenellated walls, and a citadel loomed in the darkness. Time had hit this portion of the castle like a slow bomb. Most likely it had been the structure's shoulder against the 50 years of hurricanes that rode in during the last phase of global warming.
Battered junk and rubbish poked from the weeds and from mounds of earth and rubble. Rusted fenders, broken appliances and skeletons of worm-eaten wood and plastic were the rising evil in this graveyard. The scene stretched to a second castle wall. It was fortified yet had some missing stones. Someone had placed a rickety fence to create a path there. Clean grass and earth bordered this path. We spied one section where the wall had eroded to steps and decided to use it to climb to the top.
It was slow going as the yard was a minefield of broken bottles and sharp metal. We got about halfway across and then I saw something move near the wall and halted.
"I think I saw something jump the fence there."
Alice stopped and stared. "I can't see anything."
"Maybe it was nothing," I said as I scrutinized the offending section of the yard.
Piles of drums and lumber and some scrub prevented a clear view. I wanted to be sure so I picked up a broken piece of brick and tossed it. There was a double bang as it ricocheted off a car wreck and some drums. A fluttering of wings followed and we saw a bat rush up into the night sky.
Ruts and a bed of cracked mud were immediately in front of us. We moved through the spot cautiously. At the last deep rut, we had to look down. As I finished the hop over it, I lifted my head and saw something red and white flashing down an invisible wire of night. I didn't get out of the way in time and it hit me like a ball of snarling fury. I crashed into Alice, sending her rolling aside as I went down into the rut with an assailant on top of me.
Though the impact was stunning, I still managed to come through with an instinctive move that remained in my memory from my early days as a stuntman. Holding the attacker, I rolled and the bank of the rut gave me the back support to throw him off.
Sharp stones bit into my shoulder blades. A gasp of pain escaped my lips as I burst to my feet. I'd done it fast enough to beat the attacker up, and I could see him rising. Dizziness swamped my vision as I got out of the rut and backed away.
The blurred scene sharpened. My assailant was a man in badly tattered clothing and I could see him pulling on a huge shard of glass that had got embedded in his arm. Blood trickled as he tossed the shard away.
The rest of his appearance came as a shock. Cherries of black blood oozed from a plague of scabs on his arms and torso. Burn tissue, blackened wounds and a protruding rib cage made up his chest. His face was little more than a fanged skull. Seared flesh and bone formed a mask over eyes deep as shotgun barrels and bright as afterburn. A projection of hate and hunger created his personality, and I had only a moment to think before he hissed, raised a clawed hand and lunged.
His fanged mouth snapped at me and bits of vile decay sprayed my face as I grappled with him. He screamed horribly as I threw him down into the rut.
I backed off a few steps then he flew up and came at me again. This time I was ready. Going down into a fast crouch, I bucked him over me. He went into a mound of concrete, hitting his back hard. I could see the light in his eyes glimmering electrically as he struggled to rise, and in that free moment I looked around for Alice.
She was to my left and on one knee. I could see that she'd been stunned but was now coming around. She had her gun out.
The vampire didn't appear to see her at all. He got to his feet and stumbled over a crack as he staggered toward me. Then Alice fired and the super-heated projectiles created a chain of light that turned his chest into a shower of fireflies. The charge lit the rest of the body to bright neon. Vapor hissed as it melted.
Hot ashes exploded from the liquefying mass. Sparks winked as the ashes fluttered to the ground, and I saw Alice smirk as she put the gun away. "How do you like that for scattering the ashes?" she said.
More bats flew overhead as we hurried across the yard. The fence proved easy to vault and the path along the wall revealed no surprises. I boosted Alice up into the eroded portion and she used the gaps and vines to get the rest of the way up. I waited for her signal then made the climb.
Crouching at the top of the wall, we looked deeper into the castle grounds. This was a better view of the collapsed northern portion. The court directly below was composed of flag stones that looked like they'd been heaved loose by an earthquake. Weeds, shrubs and vines burst through the cracks and covered most of it. A large heap of rotted shingles rested against the wall nearby. The remains of a collapsed shed were at the centre of the yard. It had been partially swallowed by a ridge of limestone that had been pitched up during some past rumble of the earth.
An intact keep rose at the end of this wreckage and it looked much older than the restored Disney towers of the castle. Spotlights from the yard beyond back-lit it while the front portion in the damaged court was plunged in darkness.
"Looks like a dead end," Alice said. "That wall running to the keep is fortified with a defense rail."
"It's impassible, but we could try entering through that door at the bottom of the keep."
"It's bolted, and solid reinforced oak. We'd need explosives to open it."
"We've got your gun, remember. It'll cut the lock easily."
Our jumping point was down to the mound of shingles. I went first, sliding to the bottom before Alice followed. Numerous stones stood askew in our path. We picked our way through them, sometimes hopping over ridges of broken limestone. The ground leveled out as we got nearer to the keep, and we were almost at it when fresh trouble arose.
An incredible cracking noise startled us and we swung around and looked back to the tumbled shed at the centre. Boards and earth were rising there, and roaring accompanied the movement.
"Run for the keep!" I said. Though I may have said it to myself as Alice had already gone into flight ahead of me.
In moments we were in the shadow of the towering structure, and rather than wait for Alice to act, I simply seized her purse and took out the gun. She was looking back at the ruins and a gigantic thing tearing out of them. I looked long enough to see that it was bigger and uglier than any cat, and then I turned and fired at the locked door.
A combination of vaporization and force took the lock out of existence and threw the heavy door open. It hit the interior stone with a loud crash. I grabbed Alice to pull her inside then stopped dead because something was racing out.
We both staggered back and nearly fell as a rushing cloud of bat wings swept us. Alice went down as they swarmed up into the sky, and I turned back to see if the creature was getting any closer.
Gleaming coils spun in the darkness. It appeared to be an armored snake moving toward us at incredible speed. Raising the gun, I aimed, fired and staggered back from the visible shock of the impact.
The blast stopped the creature and lit it up with fire, but it did not kill it. Flaming coils writhed; a vicious hiss of pain flew with steam from its fanged throat. In the light, it appeared to grow in size and ferocity.
"It's recovering, let's go," Alice said.
She rushed through the open door and I followed at her heels. Cobwebs swept my face, and I couldn't see a thing, but I was still able to get hold of the door and force it shut.
Alice's light came on and we suddenly found ourselves in a dungeon-like room. This place could only be described as grisly and vile. The walls were hung with torture implements that had been set up like some sort of decorative ironwork. Bones and skeletons had been heaped at the far wall. Most of the room was hard to see due to enormous cobwebs that floated everywhere. We did see a stone staircase we had to ascend if we wanted to get any further into the castle.
Scraping sounds near the door worked to speed us across the room. Alice cursed as she swept cobwebs from her hair, then we were at the stairs and on the way up. Below us, the door flew open and flames rushed in, causing us to sprint for the first the landing. We went up so fast that we burst off the steps and got tangled up in a dusty curtain in the archway.
We choked on dust as we got out of the curtain. Alice's light revealed another room - this higher one had some furnishings but it lacked the beauty of cobwebs and skeletons. The stairs to the third level were on the far side so we hurried over. I paused there to look around the room, only to find that the snake was still pursuing us. It burst through the curtain like a fiery worm and set it to smoldering.
Panicked, we began the climb to the next level, and then did a blind run through it and up more stairs. At the fourth level, a broad walkway connected the keep to the castle's inner fortified wall. Electric sconces lighted this section, though the keep's adjoining room was in darkness.
"I don't hear the snake," Alice said. "Do you suppose we've escaped it?"
I looked back down the stairs, and saw nothing. Then I heard a grating noise. Turning right I saw something white emerging from a darkened room. It wore cobwebs like bandages, had a face that was both evil and cadaverous, and was seven feet tall.
I couldn't fire from such close range. "Run," I said to Alice. And as she sprinted off, I shoved the gun in my belt and rushed the thing. Clouds of dust and rot puffed up as we collided. It was like hitting a heavy canvass bag. My check barely moved it and arms like tough rope were closing around me in a bear hug. I came up with a desperate blow to its chin and heard brittle teeth crack.
Releasing me, it staggered four steps back, and the full view of its face came as another blow. Veined mold and brain matter showed in mostly empty eye sockets. A blood-crusted jaw protruded hideously while rest of its face was fleshed by oozing tissue and stained linen bandages.
Dust and insect rot spilled from its lolling mouth as it moaned and charged again. Ducking to the side, I ended up backed against the wall. It did a clumsy turn and came for me there.
With only a moment to act, I dived and rolled over the edge of the stairs, tumbling down a few steps. The fall stunned me and just as I was about to scramble to my feet, I saw the snake. It had been quietly slithering up from below and was almost on me.
The other beast had smacked the wall in its rush on me and it was now turning and heading for the stairs. I didn't have time to look but I heard its footsteps. Heading up as fast as I could, I went for its knees and hit them hard.
That move bowled it over top of me and as it crashed down the stairs, I scrambled to safety. I looked back and saw the snake lunge. It caught the thing's head and shoulders and sucked them down its throat. Foul smoke rose but the rest of the body didn't want to go down.
Satisfied that the snake was choked I turned. Alice was a few steps away so I hurried to her. She hugged me briefly then we both ran off in the sconce light to the end of the walkway.
Part seven: The Capture
A doorway led out onto the wall walkway and a set of stairs ran down into the castle underground. Alice feared we would find horrors in the subterranean depths and I wanted to get a view from the wall so we eased through the door. That put us out on the walkway with stone fortifications rising just over our heads on both sides. A charged rail glowed along the top and faint sulfurous light lit the interior stones, giving us a dim view. Deciding to go right we walked down and stopped at a loophole that gave us a view of the inner grounds.
Spotlights on the walls lit the towers and created a haze of light below. Small trees, greenery and walks of interlocking stones created a garden atmosphere. This section led to a paved court near a tower and beyond that the citadel basked in strange green light. A number of the black-clothed guards stood near the citadel and these emaciated creatures had skeletal faces and eyes that glowed like red embers. They carried beam guns of some sort. Movement in the garden below attracted our attention and we saw something large and spidery moving in the shadows at the dark end near the wall.
Alice sighed. "Maybe we should just try to get out of here. I can't see any point in going any farther."
"We can escape the castle, but we can't escape the town. They'll know we're onto them and come for us there."
"Then what do we do?"
"I have a plan, but we have to talk to Liz Parker."
"She's too well guarded. We'll never get to her."
"We've got this far, and we've got a weapon. There's still a good chance of catching her by surprise. I see a way in, too. This wall runs to that tower near the citadel."
Our feet sped silently on the stone as we continued along the wall. We came to a bend and the tower came into view. Spotlights on its sheer side provided enough light to reveal an open door. Gloom filled the interior and though no guards showed I drew the gun just in case.
We crept up then entered quickly to escape being exposed by the light spilling down. One of the black cloaked guards stood over by the stairs. He had his back to us, and I didn't wait for him to turn and possibly shout. Pushing Alice to my side, I fired a blast from the gun. It hit and made a staggering flare of him. He burned like cork and crumbled in silence, leaving only glowing embers for us to tip-toe over.
Descending on the stairs, we found another large cheerless room. I peeked through the arch, saw that it was full of people, and then pulled back, taking Alice with me. It was absolutely silent so I took a second look, and discovered that none of the people were alive. They were wax figures of an abnormal variety.
I slipped in with Alice glued to me. We moved deeper into the room with our eyes flashing from figure to figure, just in case one of them turned out to be more than wax. This ghastly show appeared to be a display of historical figures. Their dress was of various periods and their faces were all pulled into ghastly leers of either lechery or fright. I guessed it to be more of Thompson's artistry, and I wondered if he'd coated real bodies to create this work.
Alice stopped and studied a Greek figure with lifelike brown eyes. A crash echoed from the stairs above. Something heavy and metal clanged and scraped. Heavy boots thudded and shouts rang out.
Guards were rushing down. They were on to us and we were left with no option other than to race to the bottom. Fortunately the exit room was empty and the door was ajar. I burst through the opening only to find myself charging straight for one of the black clad guards. His moldering jaw fell open in surprise. I hit him and sent him flying to the pavement.
Alice halted beside me and we looked around for the best direction to run. Ten more guards were approaching from the direction of the gate and others were streaming from the tower. We took off toward the dark evergreens at the side of the citadel. Bullets and fire streaks ripped off the stones. A laser flash and an explosion vibrated behind us with such force that for a moment we were running on air.
My feet came back to the ground and I was able to burst ahead, dive and roll to safety in the shrubbery. Bullets tore through the leaves as I scrambled up with the gun in hand. I was about to fire then I noticed that Alice wasn't with me. She'd fallen wounded in the explosion. Hostile guards were surrounding her. Other guards tailing me were holding their fire. Behind them in the drifting smoke, I saw Dan Shanon and Liz Parker approaching.
Part eight: Face to Face with the Vampire Queen
Torches flickered on the sweating stone walls in the dungeon-like room. Shadows shifted like menacing monsters as I tried to shake off the grogginess. I wondered how long I'd been out. Then a heavy iron door opened and my thoughts went to my immediate survival.
Liz Parker entered, three of her guards in tow, and they had Alice with them. Alice gave me a defeated glance, but except for a bandage on her arm and a small bruise on her face, she looked to be okay.
The contrast between Liz Parker and the creatures she chose to live with was stark. Though they were grotesque, she was beautiful. If anything, her looks had improved. The gaunt unfed appearance of her movie days had vanished. In the older flicks, she had sunken eyes and a pale face. Those features had matured. Her cheeks now had color and her blue eyes were softly shaded and compelling. Full red lips blended into a smooth complexion and her blond hair formed natural curls as it fell to her shoulders. Bands of pearls on her neck carried the same gloss as her irises and teeth, and more jewelry glittered on her wrists and fingers. She had the full magic of female youth and beauty, so if vampirism granted her any powers of mesmerism, they were powers she didn't really need.
She looked at me and frowned, and then she signaled with a painted nail. Her guards obeyed the silent command, taking Alice back through the door to be imprisoned in another room.
I'd hoped for signs of weakness, but saw none in Liz. Her walk was confident and the height of feminine elegance. She wore a mildly cynical smile and when she spoke her words carried like music in my ears; each sentence seeming to rise from some hidden current of the English language.
"Mr. King. You knew our game before you came out here. So what is it you want?"
"I guessed the truth when Alice and I dug up the records on the Castle. I thought about turning you in then. It would have made me a new hero of the establishment and you'd have ended up on display in a zoo. But how long would my good fortune have lasted? In time, I'd be back on the outside again. I decided to try to get a look around this place. I was going to approach you with an offer."
"You mean you intended to blackmail me. Force me into cooperation for one of your sleazy entertainment extravaganzas. It never would have worked. I left that business behind long ago."
"I assumed you'd left the entertainment business behind, and I also considered your husband, Daniel. A deal I could offer him to protect his work."
"Daniel has passed away. He's been dead for more than two years. A victim of one of his own experiments. He died having finished his work and he left me complete control of the technology."
"Sorry to hear about your loss. I do know you have control. If you didn't vampirism would escape from this area. So you have a system, but there is an area of control you don't have. I can give that to you."
"What do you expect to get for it?"
"I expect sanctuary. For myself and for Alice."
"I ran a trace on Alice. She's just a rich kid. Sooner or later, she'd try to run back to her family. I haven't decided what to do with her. I'd be a fool to trust her."
"She'd never run back. I ran her profile through a stolen security account I have. They faked the legal and psychological data on her. She isn't a runaway at all. The truth is she was sexually abused by her family. Alice tried to kill her father. They decided to cover for him and made her an outcast. They dumped her in Oakdale to get her out of the way. She doesn't know that I've found out, but she's lucky I did. I attached myself to her because of it."
"This is all interesting, but you really have nothing to offer."
"Yes I do. My expertise on the inside. I can get the dope on others just like I did on Alice. I also know how their security works and that eventually the big fish will detect you. When that happens, they'll destroy you. I propose that we solve that problem. My plan takes us out from under their thumb, and destroys their entertainment empire altogether."
"That would be wonderful. But I don't want to work with a person whose only motive is revenge."
"I admit that revenge is part of it. But it's not all of it. The truth is that they are the vampires. They drank our freedom, and they force the entire world to drink from a blood supply of creativity that's gone stale. As an artist, I don't want to work for them. So we get rid of them. Put some new blood in at the top and unlock the prison doors. Once that's done Castle of Fangs is free, and others will be at liberty to pursue unfettered creativity."
"And just how do we do that?"
Part nine: The Enemy Arrives
Oakdale's airport, its landing strip, hangar and tiny passenger terminal rested in a checkerboard of open green fields a half kilometer outside of town. We'd arrived early and I was beginning to perspire as I shuffled back and forth outside the terminal building. A fat sun hung in the haze over the runway, forcing me to shield my eyes. Finally, I heard the buzz of an engine and spotted the gleam of a plane.
A blast of cool air hit me as Alice came through the terminal door. She stood beside me, sipping a pop as the plane winged out of the horizon like a big fly.
"Tell me about this Ming Tse guy," she said. "You say he's connected to organized crime, yet he's flying a plane with the net.99 colors."
"He works with both. At the net, he's a global fixer and talent scout. I've sold work to him in the past but only when desperate. His real job is to find new feature ideas and enslave the creators to the industry. Ming is about the worst there is in the business, but he will get us in the door."
Radiant vapor and heat shimmies enveloped the plane and trailed it like a disintegrating energy shield as it taxied up and turned. It stopped and ran cooling gusts for a minute then the ramp began to lower.
Five heavily armed plainclothes guards suddenly appeared from the interior. They rushed down, disarmed the lone airport security man and roughed him up. We were left staring in amazement as Ming appeared on the ramp. At first, I didn't recognize him. Instead of his usual business suit, he wore a khaki hunting outfit. He descended to the tarmac and assembled his armed entourage. Then he saw us and walked over.
Sunlight glittered in his fierce brown eyes as he gave Alice a quick assessment. In spite of the show of force, he appeared excited and not suspicious.
"We had a deal, Ming," I said. "Why have you brought the Secret Service in tow?"
"Don't be intimidated by them, Grant. They're just a few company field agents. I brought them along to make sure you're on the level. Last rumor I heard had you in Mexico and surviving by selling cadavers to the transplant industry. I hope you haven't been trafficking in the victims of these vampires."
"That's a malicious rumor. I wouldn't sell corpses. Liz Parker destroys all of the bodies in Oakdale as an extra precaution. She doesn't really have to do it, though. Her late husband, Daniel Saul, set up the technology of nano vampirism to disable itself when outside of this local area."
"We did a pass over the castle on the way in. I have to admit that I'm impressed. One look and I decided to go with a hunt design for the property."
"Judging from the way you're dressed, that's obvious."
"Hunting adventures are where the money is. Recent legal restrictions have made big game rare. Not nearly enough for the industry. I want to keep the name Castle of Fangs and set the place up as a hunting adventure world for the super rich. Our lawyers will include legal protection for Parker in the contract, and we'll pull some legal strings for you. That's if you keep your end of the bargain."
"We had some other ideas," Alice said. "Hunting those beasts is a high risk game to be playing. Your super rich clients will end up dead. We nearly got killed just scouting the place."
"Who is she?" Ming said.
"She's my partner in this deal. Tipped me off on the place."
"What's this about nearly getting killed?"
"That was part of the discovery. Our vampire queen didn't come into this scheme willingly. At first, we didn't even know what was going on in this town. When I got wise we went in on a night expedition and almost got killed by monsters. Our chances of survival were slim against such horrifying attacks by blood hungry creatures. We blew a few of them away in the ruins. In the end, we got captured. I convinced Liz Parker of her need for long-term protection. Otherwise we'd be dead."
"My clients would pay any price for an experience like that. I want to go in on a hunt right away and start setting it up."
"Sure, you can do that if you want. We can drop your bags off at the hotel, contact Liz Parker and set up a midnight adventure. You would have three basic choices; a hunt in the ruins, a battle on the castle grounds or a terrifying adventure in the catacombs. It doesn't matter if you blow a few of the beasts away because Parker has the technology. She also has the entire town of Oakdale as flesh for use in any production.”
Part ten: Midnight
Alice and I stepped off the clock tower elevator at the stroke of midnight and climbed a curved stone staircase to the very top. We entered a well of stuffy darkness and used a glow light to find the light switch. Soft rays filtered through a stained glass panel overhead, illumining the musty stone room.
This attic had been converted to a guard post, though it wasn't currently in use. Sparse furnishings included a bench, a table and some scratched wooden chairs. An axe and an ancient clock gear were mounted on the wall. Directly across from the door a heavy iron grille covered a window gone completely opaque with dust and cobwebs.
Alice winced at the dusty table then pulled a tissue from her purse and began to clean it. I watched as she dumped her pack and rummaged through some stuff, then I went over to the window and tried to slide the grille open. It wouldn't budge so I took the axe from the wall and used the blade to pry it. Cakes of rust showered to the floor as it creaked aside. Three feet of heavily streaked window space showed and I coughed as I slid the second panel left.
The view was excellent. A fresh breeze rushed in. I stood in the white glow rising from the clock face, which was below me. Looking down I saw Bill Thompson and a gang of townspeople arriving at the gate. Liz Parker and a few of her black clad guards were walking across the court to meet them. Figures of a more sinister variety could be seen moving in the shadowy garden near the citadel.
Oakdale showed as a starfish of lights in the sky to the east, and the river came into view as a ribbon of moonlit silver just beyond the wall. The water turned and flowed out of sight near the ruins, and a twinkling of colored lights drifted toward the shore at that spot.
"I see Ming and his men," I said.
Alice stepped beside me, holding binoculars. "Where?"
"The river. By the ruins. Looks like they're following our map exactly."
"I have them in focus. They're docking the raft. Wait! Ming has jumped ashore. He's fading into the brush. The rest are following on his tail and one man is staying behind to guard the boat."
"Check the grounds near the old keep. If Liz arranged it right, something should be happening just about now."
"Murk is about all that's happening. I can see our favorite trash yard and the collapsed wall. Ah, something is moving there. One, two - a whole damn crowd is coming up from graves of trash. They aren't pretty either. I'd say their faces are uglier than the slime dripping from them. Obviously they plan to feast on something meatier than garbage. The biggest one is walking in the scrub near the wall. He must be eight feet tall."
"Want to bet on how long Ming can last?"
"Maybe five minutes, once the fighting starts. Much longer after he rises as the undead?"
"I think we should finish our bottle of wine here. We can go out to pick up the bodies in about an hour. Shanon will see them to the airport."
"Where exactly are we flying Ming?"
"My old neighborhood. The private net.99 community of Scarsdale in New York City. The parties have gotten dull there over the last hundred years. I expect that Ming and his company of vampires will dance things up."
"I see - you get your revenge. Now the hunt goes back to them, with vampires as the hunters."
"It's more than petty revenge. By the time they figure out what's happening, nearly the entire ruling class will be vampires. Then Liz Parker pulls the nano plug and they perish."
"Leaving new artistic forces in control."
Alice lowered the binoculars and smiled as we embraced. "Let's drink the wine," she said.
We kissed then I looked over her shoulder as I held her. Gun fireworks were rising in the treetops near the ruins and explosions skated on the river, taking Ming's raft under. The greatest vampire show on Earth had begun.
---- The End -----
© By Gary L Morton
Daydream-filtered memories drifted, flotsam in Ralph's mind. The pert birdlike face of an old sweetheart popped up and cloned itself along a bleached alley fence, working to make a couple of old Chevy wrecks glamorous, then he had a flash of the red sports car that had severed his brother Jack's legs at the kneecaps.
People were streaming in and out of the subway, and if any of them noticed Ralph, it was because his sad face was close to being a joke-store glasses-nose and-mustache mask. He had a familiar look, he was a fool people knew from somewhere.
The words 'SPARE CHANGE' slipped easily off his lips every few seconds, like they were words he knew and revered. As he spoke, he saw things through slow waves of manageable thoughts. He preferred to keep the painful stuff buried. And today he was practically inspired; the sunrise was healthy flesh and he felt like much more than a shadow-edged bruise on the wall.
Some silver was rattling in his pocket so he muffled it with a Kleenex as he went back to the wall. Across the street, two interesting guys were coming up the alley. A short wiry guy in a faded blue suit was making quick gestures and spilling out a lot of words while carrying a sign. He was so spry his sandals barely kissed the pavement. His companion was young and plump, dressed in a weird array of secondhand clothing - baggy blue pants, a neon T-shirt, flower-print vest and a rainbow-colors silk scarf. Black-and-yellow bumblebee-style runners topped off the outfit.
The little guy held up his sign and stopped the traffic as they crossed the road, and the plump guy looked Ralph straight in the eyes and winked provocatively. Ralph didn't wink back; he backed tight against the wall, his face souring as he saw they were setting up shop beside him.
The sign had a support peg and the little guy had a fistful of flyers, which he began passing out. His weird partner unhooked a tiny drum from his side belt loop and sat cross-legged on a square of cardboard. He looked ridiculous tapping his fingers on the tiny toy drum; his hair was near to being a clown's yellow fright wig and he wore a placid expression like an idiot Buddha.
Ralph was usually a reserved person, but now he was unable to contain himself. These were pros he'd be unable to compete with, so he put on his most dangerous face -- a face that might tempt some people to get out a fly swatter, and cleared his throat loudly. "If you guys are running a swindle you better move along to another station. The blue jackets always lay out fines in this neighborhood."
"You don't read too well for a guy with glasses thicker than plastic yo-yos," the little guy said. "We're businessmen." He pointed to the sign.
Ralph studied the sign. A DOLLAR A VISION, it said. "Why that's fraud, no one has visions to sell."
"I'm Moses Murphy and I have visions to sell. Ain't that right, Marvin?"
Marvin looked up from his drum. "That's right. Say, pal. Just to show you we're on the level I'll give you a free vision. Come over here and hold my hand."
"Not on your life," Ralph said, starting to back away.
"Don't be afraid," Moses said. "That's the way it's done. You gotta touch Marvin to make contact."
"Okay. I'll touch him, but only to expose this scam you guys are running. And you better not try to pick my pocket either."
Up close Marvin's face looked artificial, like a pale wax apple, and his eyes sparkled and darted, putting Ralph in mind of Jenny Figuerada, a waitress he'd been engaged to back before he'd locked the president of the Commerce bank in a vault and got put out of security work. Jenny's eyes and face hadn't belonged together, like a stranger was using her eyes. Marvin also puckered his lips like Jenny -- fish style.
Marvin's playful mood vanished under the cold weight of Ralph's stare. Like a mock zombie he held up a limp hand and Ralph took it, looking at it suspiciously like it might be something dead.
Nothing happened other than that he felt like an idiot, then a foul odor wafted in and he gagged. He felt his neck crack and vile medicine somehow got on his tongue.
The pain came suddenly, like a boxer had jabbed him on the jaw. Curtains of blood spilled and twisted in front of him and he could feel clammy hands caressing his legs. He was staggered, yet he couldn't move; the blood vanished and he saw a mound of swollen, blackened corpses.
A fetid odor was drifting from them, and the worst part was the faces. They were contorted like they'd died having a vision of something abominable, and they were faces of regulars he hit on while panhandling.
Bat wings flapped like canvass in his ears, then he saw a vampire bat land; using claws and folded wings, it skittered up the corpses and drank blood flowing from a small fountain at the top. Ralph's vision zoomed in. Horrible things in miniature were in the blood, visions of more corpses rolling and a million different death-head grins. He thought he saw hunger there, but it was like the hunger of a devil for your soul more than anything else.
The bat took flight, and its wings became waves of darkness that consumed Ralph. Next thing he knew he was back by the wall. He'd vomited and he could hear Marvin and Moses laughing uproariously.
Moses remained jolly, moving like a marionette, his worn suit flashing as he led Marvin closer to the subway entrance. Ralph's feet filled with lead, like he was digesting an elephant tranquilizer. His mind expanded and he watched events flow by like he was the sky. Quite a number of people were attracted by the vision pitch, and almost all of them stumbled away in shock. The exceptions were an old hag, a blond girl with a spider web on her cheek, a biker, a hooligan and several ordinary business and secretarial types. They all smiled like death and made sure they pocketed one of the flyers.
Two beat cops suddenly popped out of the alley, startling Ralph as they brushed past him. They went straight to Moses and arrested him, saying they had received a complaint. Marvin looked unconcerned. He remained, tapping on his drum as Moses was led away. A minute later, he got up, fastened his drum to his belt loop and strolled off down the street.
Ralph tailed Marvin without even thinking why, following him through a willow-dripping park, down some railway tracks and through some sumac and pines. Marvin got out of sight in the trees and Ralph ended up creeping over pine duff and twigs until he came to a clearing. He found Marvin waiting for him in the field, his hands on his hips and disgust on his face.
Ralph smiled sheepishly then his face fell as Marvin hissed and ran at him. Falling to his knees, Ralph held out his hands protectively. But he didn't have to fend off an assault. Marvin stopped dead just before he got to him and began to laugh like a crazy man.
"So you had a hungry vision," Marvin said.
"Nope," Ralph said.
"You must've seen something. Come into my palace and we'll talk."
Marvin's palace was a tramp's hovel made of warped plywood sheets, tin and flattened gasoline cans. So much bird crap was stuck to it that it appeared to be dripping. Ralph ducked inside reluctantly.
"Moses isn't handling you right," Ralph said. "You should just shake hands. I could lift a few dollars from each mark."
"I could do it that way. The way it is Moses gives a flyer to the hungry ones and they show at a meeting so I can channel their perverse visions. They give all their money. And they have to be channeled clear - the hungry ones like the visions. They're like dogs that have tasted human blood and have an appetite for more."
"Moses may be away for a while. You'll need a new manager, like me for example."
"Moses is my only friend. Since I got the power six months ago nobody can stand to touch me. I really don't need to be used by an opportunist like you."
Ralph was suddenly sorry for Marvin and he wanted to wallow in self-pity with him. "No one can stand to touch me either - I just want a friend, that's all."
"Okay, but we've got to settle up with the people I touched today. You can come to the meeting with me and collect the money while I channel away their blood thirst."
Vagrant neighborhoods and the gutters of the nation were sunny memory lanes in their recollections; Marvin pulled out a six-pack and listened raptly as Ralph told stories of places he'd been run out of -- sometimes Marvin added a tale of his own, but he remained strangely silent when asked for further details on the power he had gained.
The afternoon was slipping through their fingers, and then Marvin suddenly jumped up and stared like he could see something in the white bird crap dust floating in a slat of sunlight. "Holy shit, we're late for the meeting! Let's get moving."
Once they got to the street, Marvin pulled out some loose bills and they stood like transient clowns in the blooming city spring. A Yellow cab came along and the longhaired driver wasn't averse to breaking the speed limit. Asphalt snapped under the wheels like a rubber snake and they pulled in at a soot-blackened red brick building. It was abandoned and had a huge smokestack, like something from back in Industrial Revolution days.
"Here you go, boys. 262, the old slaughterhouse," the driver said.
They spotted some cars at the side and walked across the gravel lot, not sure if they were at the right place. The building was like a time-tunnel object standing against a background of freeways. It had a power of desolation, like it was the wasteland heart of the city.
"I can't imagine anyone meeting here other than a group of unemployed butchers," Ralph said.
"Moses picked the place," Marvin said, kicking open a rusty gate. "It's private and the rent is attractive."
The front door was battered, scarred. "Wait," Ralph said as Marvin was about to open it. "Did you hear that?"
"It's just wind shaking through the cracks."
Ralph nodded, but he still thought he heard a faint animallike huffing.
Marvin swung the door open and sunlight flooded part of a dim passage. A blond girl was hunched against the wall, her head hanging down under drifting cobwebs, bobbing some as she heaved up sighs.
Believing she was in distress Ralph hurried to her aid; he touched her arm and she lifted her face. It was the girl with the spider web on her face, only her face was now drained of color and her eyes were vacant."
"You okay?" Ralph said.
Rather than answer she latched onto him and sank her teeth into his thigh, causing him to howl and drag her back as he tried to shake her loose. Her teeth sank deeper; he tripped and grabbed Marvin as he went down on the rotten floorboards. His head banged the wall and a vision came over him. He saw a vampire hag, hollowing her cheeks as she sucked blood from his torn flesh. She lifted her crimson face and her eyes shone with mesmerizing lust. Then a soft tapping began, the lines on her face became shadowy and her ugliness faded as she fell back. His vision clearing, he saw Marvin gently pulling her to her feet with one hand while he tapped his drum with the other.
Ralph tied his shirt around his wounded leg, keeping a suspicious eye on the girl, who was now still as a zombie.
"We're too late to stop the hunger," Marvin said. "It's a good thing there are no victims around here."
"What am I -- yesterday's hamburger?" Ralph said. "Let's get out of here before more weirdoes jump us."
"We'll take a peek inside first, then we'll split."
At the end of the passage there was another door. A throaty howl sang through the cracks, lifting Ralph's hair before it slid down his spine with his shattered courage. His eyes reached out of his head, almost enough to hold the door shut.
Marvin maintained a cool expression, pushed Ralph back, guided the blond to the door, pushed her through and then slammed it. Madhouse screaming, tortured moans, banging and thumping were followed by grotesque slurping sounds and scraping. Raising his eyebrows, Marvin gave Ralph a follow-me signal, but Ralph couldn't move -- he could only watch as Marvin vanished in the gray gloom.
A minute alone proved to be a formula for terror. He regained the power to move along with the power to probably jump through the wall. He ducked into the room, in search of Marvin.
The place resembled a giant medieval dungeon. Sunlight was leaking through the cracks, cutting the general gloom and falling as bars on a floor of earth and crumbled concrete. The dirt was like camel-dung hashish; vile odors rose and they had a near gaseous power of levitation.
Marvin was standing by a post, watching dim figures move on the other side of the room. Forms that mingled and tumbled like a strange play of shadows.
Ralph hurried over to Marvin and without thinking grabbed his arm. Immediately the forms became clear; the blond girl was streaked with blood and dirt, rocking on her butt as she tore with her nails at a wound she'd just opened in her leg. Beyond her, a biker in a black leather jacket was sprawled over a small heap of mutilated corpses. Crazy hunger was on his blood-smeared face as he stared at a gruesome chain of sausage slipping in his filthy hands.
There were other people lying broken and contorted on the floor. Some were alive, sucking blood and cannibalizing body parts. One bald man was chewing on a rat.
Assuming it was a hallucination he'd got from Marvin, Ralph waited for it to pass. But it didn't pass, it only got uglier.
Marvin turned to him and his eyes were a deep well that threatened to boil up with more unspeakable things. Before he could say anything, a skeleton-thin naked man dropped from a rafter and knocked Ralph to the ground. In a flash, he was on Ralph's chest, his teeth snapping like a buzz saw, horrible blood spittle dribbling from his mouth.
Hysteria shot up Ralph's spine; he caught the teeth with his forearm, jumped up and began battering the man against a post. The force cracked his skull, blood and tissue shot out -- a moment later the man slid to the floor, and Ralph fled, striking out wildly at the shadows as he made his way to the door.
Sunset colors hit him like an explosion and he ran in circles in the parking lot then began to wander in a daze. A dam of guilt and emotions threatened to burst and snap his mind. Covering his eyes, he shook his head, ran off and cowered behind a tool shed.
He was still crouched and shivering when Marvin emerged, looking like a man on his way to a Sunday picnic. Marvin spotted Ralph, strolled over and put a hand on his shoulder. It was a healing hand that burned the taste of death off his tongue. Trauma was channeled away.
"Doesn't matter so much about them anyway," Marvin said. "It's only evil people that go mad from the visions. They're the hungry ones. Tomorrow we'll make sure we take their money first, before we send them here to the meeting."
------ The End -------
A Short Vampire Christmas
© By Gary L Morton
The scent of blood worked like a sensual beacon as Daniel moved through semi darkness. Hulking snow banks cast turquoise shadows. Wind in the alleyway whipped the swirling snow into a vortex that sucked him forward, and like some wintry telescope, it took him toward its end - an exploding kaleidoscope pane that was Christmas bustle in Yonge Square.
He halted at the alley mouth and reeled momentarily from the glare. His frozen ears were tuned out, but here the sight of spinning red emergency lights cued him and he listened. The sound of the sirens rose to a high wail - a mournful announcement of death in the cold. Rescue workers and caped police raced over slippery concrete toward a mangled auto that had just fused itself to a metal rail at the street side of the square's huge Christmas tree. Flames rose on the tinseled pine, blood and battered bodies littered the long salted walkway; it was clear that the driver had somehow jumped a barrier at high speed and cut down pedestrians.
Daniel saw a patchwork crowd forming, a fat man in tears, a woman screaming, but he wasn't sickened or sympathetic. Instead, the odors of fresh blood reddened his cheeks and rose in his nostrils again. It uplifted him like a song - a superb symphony of departed life, detached and melodic. Yet this time it wasn't his song. He didn't feed on the dead or particularly enjoy the sight of corpses. There really was nothing for him here, so he put his hands on his hips and snorted. Then he spun left. Dark shadows formed in the streaks of blowing snow and something grotesque and winged raced up the night to a rooftop.
Icy wind raced over the wall as he looked over the city. A glow of yellow blue filtered through the millions of snowflakes from buildings falling away to the horizon. This was a cold and lonely view, and it left him feeling strange and exiled. He found himself briefly longing for yesterday then a glow of red rising from below reminded his sharpened senses of blood thirst and today.
Snow rushed in putting false tears in his eyes and through the melting glimmer he saw frightening symbols of Christmas . . . the silver and gold, and the evergreen . . . tiny angels, a star rising and the painful cross. Bright colored bulbs swirled in memory and more than any other hue he saw red; radiant on friendly faces, decorations, plants and reindeer images. Red that dripped like beautiful blood to the knees of children from the suits of a thousand rogue Santas.
This was a city of blood and anyone who could direct its flow had a greater gift. Red could be any gift, and it could be memories of how things used to be. Daniel's eyes glowed with that peculiar crimson of the past and a sudden tint lit the snowflakes, so that across the city people suddenly looked twice, thinking that the wind was blowing with ruby tinsel instead of snow.
Daniel soared in the eye of night then stepped out on a dim street. The wind was blowing hard and only a few of the many streetlights were lit. The central city towered beyond the snowy rooftops of this empty neighbourhood. It cast a haze of bluish light across the sky and out of it came white as the gusts swept snow off the rooftops and sent it down in billowing clouds.
He wrapped his scarf up over his chin and walked slowly past the boarded buildings. His heels seemed to click in time with the high roaring sound of the storm racing in the distant scrapers. The streets were open; windswept clean with huge snow banks piled on junked autos, building facades and doorways.
The house he used to inhabit stood by a crumbling variety store. Daniel halted and looked up at the boarded bedroom windows. It didn't seem like home any more, but like the loneliest place in the world. Its spirit had departed long ago so that nothing of its past remained.
He knocked crusted snow from his cheeks as he turned from the stinging wind; ahead warm Christmas lights illumined the windows of his old watering hole. He could barely see through the steamed and frosted windows, but he did hear music. And it was the same music that used to play thirty years ago, when he was younger and untouched. Beyond the glass, people were conversing, laughing and dancing as they partied; and though they were only silhouettes, he knew all of them.
Daniel walked in boldly but was almost unseen, and suddenly he found himself under the mistletoe with his old flame, Linda. She had stars in her eyes like some new Christmas decoration. Yet she was much more than porcelain, her skin being just as pale but with the luminosity of youth that sends life beyond any of its imitations.
Daniel kissed her there and he danced with her as the band played rock tunes and covers of carols. They drank rum and if he could see nothing in the mirror behind the bar perhaps it was because of the steam.
It all became happiness and the subterranean warmth of yesterday. Later they joined old friends at a table and they laughed and talked in slurred voices about the simple things of the waterfront neighbourhood they used to know.
By one o’clock, they'd partied and drank too much. Linda felt hot; perhaps feverish, so they put on their coats and stepped out into the cold blast of night. He put an arm around her as they looked down the frozen streets and saw the last small ghosts of yesteryear. Then she stepped away in the darkness, and he saw her full lips rise to a smile. Fangs cut at the edges leaving bruised blue flesh. "Yesterday we drank the wine and now only blood remains," she said as she faded into the wind and the snow.
A howling gust blew behind him and he heard the sign knocking above the door. He took a last look over the snow-laden sill and saw faint light, knife-edge shadows and desolation. Turning from the frosty window, he walked away, and he felt his bones rattle as the cold cut through his clothes. Something cruel bit at his stomach and something wicked shrouded the street ahead. Snow and blindness settled as he shivered and tried to forget.
But he could not do it, and his eyes flashed with faint fire just before the power swept him over the chimneys to the sky and the city.
------ The End -------
All I Want is Santa
© By Gary L Morton
Wind and snow ghosted high above him and huge wet flakes began to swirl down. They spun into his reddening eyes and for a moment the Christmas lights, decorations, the crowd and reflections melted and formed crayon scenes of a massacre. Something bright came around the corner, and as his vision cleared, he recognized the man as Santa.
Sheltered by an alley doorway and a garbage bin, jolly Santa lit a cigar and pulled a bottle of cheap sherry from his sack.
As he frowned at Santa, he remembered his father saying - Santa is a bad man, teaching children to be greedy. Yes, he’s a bad man, he thought as he crept up and swung his metal bar, cracking Santa on the head. Santa, the nasty fella must pay, he said as he hit him again and again, watching some chocolates, cherries and mints rolling in the spattering blood.
Inside in the washroom he washed the blood out of Santa's costume, then put it on and strolled across the tiled floor to the exit. Adjusting his suit, he looked across the mall and focussed on the fake reindeer and Santa's booth. Sticky gumby men, sugarplums and the instruments he’d use in a New Year's torture chamber fell through his mind as he walked to Santa's throne.
He was early, no lineup yet - an adorable little blond girl came out of nowhere and jumped to his lap, and he couldn't spot any parents with her. The only person watching was a nasty looking freckle-faced boy.
Lucky day, I've found a stray already, he thought, as his eyes went to her ghostly pale face.
What’s your name, little girl?
Angela, that's nice. And where are your parents?
Oh, you've run off from your mom. So that's why you’re so pale. Well, well. How about telling Santa what you want for Christmas?
As she spoke, he really felt like Santa, soaring with his sleigh through a shaken bubble of blue and flurries. Cones, needles, wreathes, presents showering down as he flew. But the people below were greedy, their uplifted faces twisted mean, and his good gifts turned to fluttering money and a shower of gold coins. Angered, he swooped down, grinding hooves and runners into the crowd.
Blood showered his dreams, no one was watching, he was about to stuff a sock in the little girl's mouth and thrust her into the bag. Then it would be off to the North Pole and his and his mistletoe.
But the weird little boy was still watching, and in an uncanny way -- the vile urchin had teeth like cat fangs and he grinned like he was hungry for a taste of Santa’s leg.
White Christmas was playing in the mall -- he was somehow picking up on the boy's thoughts, and he shook his head, trying to get rid of the images. But he couldn't, and he saw things through the boy's eyes -- the colorless faces in the crowd, pale reflections in shop windows, eyes full of tinsel and silliness, mouths that were an empty stamp. Then there was Santa - his nose a pink-veined knob, cheeks like rosy wine, a plump bottle of sweetness. Santa brightened Christmas with red firelight. And he longed to sink his teeth into . . . .
A sudden bang and shattering glass startled them, and the girl cut her wish list short. Gunshots, a robbery over at the fur shops. A wounded clerk was falling, his face mashed to cherry pie by a shotgun kick right between the eyes. Two masked crooks flashed their sawed-offs as they fled with some goods.
All eyes were on the armed men. It was Santa's moment - grabbing a sock he moved to stuff it in the little girl's throat. And he was just getting it in when the little boy landed on him.
He howled -- his best Santa yell, but the kid had the strength of a tiger. Fangs penetrated, Santa could choke but he couldn’t shout. His blood flew up like a ribbon as he kicked and slid down in his throne.
Pinned on the floor, he had the feeling of looking up from the bottom of an immense black chimney. The little girl was above him with the Christmas stocking in her hand --- pale and ghostly, she floated straight up to the higher levels. And he heard her singing as the hungry boy growled and sucked his blood.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la la-la-la-la.
© By Gary L Morton
Count Varsook tossed his black cape up elegantly, revealing the dusky gray lining as he spun on his heel and faced the mirror. A portion of cracked, chipped skull was all the reflection he had.
"Damn!" he said. Three hundred years old and he still couldn't remember about mirrors. At the dresser, he patted some AfterDark on his neck - reflection or not he knew how uninviting a five o'clock shadow could look on an aging face. And tonight he was hungry - his appetite had faded some over the years, often he took a fresh victim just to keep up appearances. "There is no rest for the wicked," he thought, and then he sighed.
As he was pomading his hair, he heard a rap at the door. Night was freshly fallen so he strode over fearlessly. No one was outside the door; brilliant city lights rainbowed in blurry tears. He reached in his cape for his contacts. His eyes adjusted and as he was about to shut the door, he looked down and saw a baby in a basket.
He carried the baby inside, taking note of the blue blanket. Scratching his silvering head, he figured that maybe some city agency had mistaken him for a foster parent and delivered him a baby. For sure, he didn't want the burping little beast; baby blood was about as tasty as juice from sour crab apples.
The Count finished his toilet by sweeping his hair back dramatically, and then he turned to check on the baby. It was sleeping peacefully, sucking on the bottle of warm blood he'd given it. He decided to go out and then ponder the matter later. Spinning on his heels he became a bat in a flash, flew out the window, and off toward the gibbous moon.
In the dew-cool quiet of 3 a.m. the Count returned, his long shadow moved by the window as he lit up the candelabra. He'd forgotten about the baby and was planning on a little reading in his tiny library.
A yawning Count Varsook turned to cross the room. What he saw froze him in his tracks. Bloody handprints were smeared across the wall. Tables, lamps and ashtrays were knocked over, and a half-eaten body lay on the hardwood floor. It was the body of a mailman - his mouth was open to scream, but his tongue was torn out. A hole of black and blood was all that was left of his belly and one of his arms was gone.
There was no sign of the baby, but the side door was ajar. Spotting the baby bottle, the Count went over to pick it up. Just then, a puppy bounded in the door and dropped a mouthful of intestines on his shoes. The puppy sat at his feet and licked the blood off its paws.
"A wolf pup," the Count said to himself, and then he glanced around the gory room. "Werebabies do the darnedest things," he said, wondering what to do about the pup.
The night amplified the footsteps of someone coming up the street; the pup bounded out the door, followed by the Count. "Heel boy! Heel!" the Count hollered, his voice echoing down the street.
------ The End -------
By Gary L Morton
It began with a heavy rumble and nightmarish quake-shaking. The men threw their hands up and pounded the cell walls. This was something big, bigger than anything that'd hit before. End-of-the-world big. It had the underground of the planet on a crazy seesaw. Paul hung in his cell, riding it like a wild horse, knowing that somewhere out there cowards were on their bellies, praying for a quick end to it.
But there would be no quick end here, there would be a blood-red end, because the walls and force fields were coming down and it might as well have been the heavens tumbling and opening the pit of Hades. The black soot of forgotten doom rode in through new windy cracks in the earth. Doom and terror because if these men broke free they'd pick up the pieces of a shattered Earth and build a new world so ugly there'd be no one left human enough to disown it.
Three hundred men, human monsters, put away forever -- some of the lowest men who'd ever lived. Swine kept in isolation because they couldn't be put even two together without murder happening. Every one of them a killer and every one of them a mad cannibal. Paul knew how dangerous they were because he was one of them, and he knew it was party time because he saw the lights in the lock mechanism die and his cell door swing automatically open. It meant that somewhere the walls had crumbled enough for some men to escape. And if some were out they would all be out soon.
A guard laser camera flashed as he stepped out. He saw it fall from the niche, knocked right out of the wall. Dodging the beam, he jumped to the side and picked it up, swept the prism along the wall and watched a black strip sizzle where it hit. Silver flashed from a guardbot at the corner, but it was immobile - frozen. “Hum, the lockup computer is totally down,” he thought, and then he hit the robot with the beam and watched its head burst. Silicon and yellow liquid burned. Circuits hissed like straw. “Just the thing I need,” he muttered. Sliding the protector across the slot, he disarmed it. More rumbling hit, throwing him to the floor, but he got up moments later, feeling the vibrations weaken. The place was still rocking, and now rolling with the joyous shouts of escaping cons. The labyrinth settling like maybe it had found a new bottom and the heavens weren't really going to sink all the way down.
Paul shivered in the heat, the damp and mist had come in when the air conditioning went out. It meant that winds from the surface had penetrated, cooling the steaming hot tunnels above the prison. A hell of stone corridors and steel chambers ran in front of him. And in the ghosting dust, he could see a flare, and then fire flashing as doors were welded free. Walking into the echoing chorus of freedom, he made his way to the action. Three green-tinted faces emerged from the eerie gloom created by the backup camera placements. The first man was Big Marvin, his chiseled face as mean as his reputation. A man who'd devoured his children, a man who had never smiled, and a man who wasn't smiling now. What he would want in this situation, Paul couldn't begin to guess. No one could read Marvin's warped mind.
The second face was Freddy Lake, the university boy, known as the prom killer twenty-five years ago when he'd come in, and the third was Jacklac Martin, the hungry highwayman - a guy with eyes set too far apart like the two halves of his brain weren't quite in touch.
Freddy was the first to act, stepping hurriedly ahead of the others, and saying, “Wow, you got a laser, Paul, old buddy! A laser and you're dead because I want it.” He lunged and Paul ducked back, got in with a hard boot that stopped him, then Big Marvin stepped up, grabbed Freddy and slammed him into the wall. Freddy came reeling back only to be slammed again, and Marvin didn't stop. He grimaced and huffed, but he didn't stop -- he slammed Freddy until his skull was mush and blood vomit and his body broken bones and pulp. When he'd finished he threw the bleeding corpse to the floor. “Anybody hungry! It's dinner time!” he hollered.
“Reckon I'll take my piece of him,” Jacklac said as the laughter and shouting grew deafening; only Marvin grabbed Jacklac by the throat, lifted him and held him while the crowd of men ran up. Hungry blackened faces and dangerous eyes loomed out of the dark, but no one dared to try passing Marvin. Shouts were still echoing far down the corridors, but here all fell silent. “Freddy tried to fuck around,” he said, Jacklac's right eye popping wide as he shook him for emphasis. “So don't you boys forget that, unless you want to end up the same. Now -- and I mean right now, I'm taking Jacklac and Paul and we're going up to pay Uncle Henry a visit. If you boys got your heads on straight, you'll remember that Uncle Henry is the only man who survived the big block-fifteen break twenty years back. He knows how to get out of this crap hole, so I'm going to find out. You boys can hoot it up, have a party, settle some scores -- but remember, I'll be back soon and there will be order. I expect to see table manners and obedience, 'cause I need order to make this escape work. I'm damn well getting us outa here. So let's hear it - are you with me or not?”
The shouts rang out, a deafening roar as Marvin turned and signaled Jacklac and Paul to follow him. Shouts like a howl from some grander hell above as some of the men fell like animals on Freddy's corpse.
Paul knew the way to the back of the compound, so he stepped into the lead, feeling very uncomfortable with Marvin at his back. Bleak corridors twisted and turned and the new emergency settings caused doors to hiss open automatically as they approached. Muddy water and slime trickled in spots where the walls had crumbled completely. It was an environment about as friendly as a muddy moon base, and Paul knew it had its own kind of aliens, somewhere lurking, waiting to feed on escaping cons.
The tunnels brightened as they got higher, and they were nearly there when they heard someone shuffling behind them. Paul stopped, looked to Marvin and lifted the laser, prepared to confront an enemy. White showed in the light, a man walked up … a thin man with a clown like baby face and big blue eyes. He stopped, grinning foolishly at Marvin.
“What's up, Doctor?” Marvin said. “Didn't you like the party?”
“Thought you might need some help with Uncle Henry.” He patted his black bag. “If he doesn't want to talk. Tell us the way out. I could help persuade him. A little operation, something like that.”
“Forget it. Uncle Henry is the most dangerous man alive. That's why his cell is in the most stable rock. I'll just have to trick him, talk the dope out of him. Can't risk going in to torture him.”
“Say, Doc,” Jacklac said, putting on a slimy smile. “A lot of the cells we opened had only skeletons in them. You're the only person who ever got around the place, having that special medical emergency pass. If they're dead that means you ate them. Know what else. I think you're here 'cause you want protection. You don't want to help with Uncle Henry. You're just scared of what's gonna happen if the men decide to punish you.”
“Those men died of natural causes. I'm only a general practitioner. I couldn't save everybody that got sick. It's a miracle that I didn't get ate myself. Half the time the guardbots couldn't get me in on emergencies -- guys kept holding me in their cells, using me as a fuck buddy.”
“Whoa!” Marvin said, and then his mood turned so foul Paul saw black rings form around his eyes. “So you're the fuck doctor. Just an asshole piece of meat. Well that's good, because we need a doctor. You're to attend to me, taking care of my wounds. Otherwise you'll be like rare steak.”
The Doctor nodded, Paul frowned, Marvin calmed down and they turned and walked on. Walls went from stone to metal, the final door was open a crack, frozen in that position. It was just enough for them to squeeze through.
They found themselves on a dim observation platform facing a well-lit brightly painted cell and Uncle Henry. Both the cell and Henry were spotless, highlighting the fact that Henry had been a school janitor before his arrest. All the schools Henry had transferred through had been kept spotless. Police even found the silver Henry used to eat his victims to be spotless. His status as the most dangerous man alive came from the fact that he also ate cops. “Always liked the clean look of a man in uniform,” Henry had said. Thirty-seven cops were skewered by Henry. Their badges placed on plaques in his boiler room, where he often showed them to students and others. None of them ever figuring out the story behind the badges.
If Marvin's problem was that he frowned all the time, Uncle Henry's was that he grinned too much. He heard the men enter, but ignored them. Instead, he got up and went to his food machine. A coke popped out, and he grinned then took a swig. The coke brought an old argument to Paul's mind -- some of the prisoners said the food machines proved they weren't buried too far down, while others said the fact that humans didn’t service them proved they were at the centre of the Earth.
Henry savored the coke, his gray eyes distant like a vulture's, like he might be considering the argument too -- and while considering it, he was also like a vulture in patience. He knew the meat had come to the desert, so he was in no hurry to feast.
Paul heard a faint whir then saw a flash on metal. It was a guardbot coming to life at the far end of the observation platform. Moving out of the gloom it raised its weapons arm. Uncapping the laser, Paul swept the beam over and up, quickly hitting the bot. It reflected off the body then began to burn when it made contact with the faceplate. Green heat flashed on the wall as the bot fired and missed, then its head short-circuited, licked out fire, blackened and froze.
The light and the darkness shifted on Marvin's face as he studied Uncle Henry -- he had the look of a grim predator. One staring out of his pit at a smiling animal he feared but couldn't quite comprehend. “We're leaving,” Marvin said, his voice echoing in the chamber. “Thought we'd come over to say goodbye.”
“Yep, you're leaving, but you won't be visiting that great beyond up yonder. Not unless I show you the way.”
“He's right,” Paul said. “I might as well cut the door with my laser.”
“There's no need to free him,” Marvin said. “Henry can either talk, or else I can bring up some boys to subdue him and let the doctor operate on him till he talks.”
“That right, Doc?” Henry said. “After all these years, all the fresh meat you brought me, you're going to stick me?”
Doc's face reddened, Marvin slowly turned to face him. “You son of a bitch,” he said as he slugged him hard in the jaw.
Doc staggered back, falling in the darkness. “We ain't got time to torture Henry,” Jacklac said. “The men will get restless.”
“Torture wouldn't work anyway,” Paul said. “We need Henry with us, we don't know which tunnels are open, and no one else can figure a way.”
Marvin nodded. “So long as you know you're not number one, Henry. I'm in charge of this expedition.”
Henry walked up to the heavy Plexiglas door. “So long as you know that your number and everybody's number is going to be up if we don't find the surface fast.”
Paul removed the laser's cap and began to cut. The beam locked into a straight line, showering sparks as he traced a rectangle. Rainbow rivulets of melt flowed out as he deepened the groove. He saw Marvin's hunted face in the reflection and Henry waiting patiently -- the inches-thick plastic giving him the look of being encased in amber.
Finished the cutting, Paul capped the laser and Henry heaved from inside. The block snapped and slid out. Paul pushed it aside, and entered with Marvin and Jacklac following. Henry made no hostile moves as they joined him in the light; he merely waved them over to his table, where they pulled up chairs. As they settled, Paul unfolded a large sheet of paper that was to be their map.
Henry spoke first. “The big bustout twenty years ago failed for a number of reasons. The number one reason was infighting. It's hot and ugly in them tunnels. Men with scores to settle can't be contained. What have we got - 300 men, and who knows how many of them got beefs?”
“That's why I left them partying,” Marvin said. “By the time we get back there will be a lot less men. And those left will have blown out some of the steam.”
“Excellent,” Henry said. He turned his head slightly as the Doctor walked in. “How about the doc? You feel you got to settle something with him?”
Marvin gave the doctor a nasty glance. “He's scum, but anybody else probably would've done worse than he did.”
“Maybe, Paul said. “Keep in mind that I don't touch human flesh. I was framed, and I don't carry the cannibal gene, just like I’ve been saying all these years.”
Marvin's frown deepened to a point where it looked like his skin would crack. “You was framed. Why don't you save that shit for the boys at the drugstore back home? Save it because there isn't anybody here that'll believe it. We know you worked as a detective. And we also know that you're Mr. Dick with a big appetite.”
Paul threw his chair back as he jumped up. Marvin was on his feet nearly as fast. “All right, cut the crap,” Henry said. “Sit down before I kill you both . . . 'cause I don't want to work with guys that crack before the pressure's even on.”
Paul grabbed his chair and sat first.
“You can forget making a map.” Henry said. “Those tunnels wind too much for me to remember it that way.”
“There must be something we can list?” Paul said.
“Yeah, there is,” Henry said. “It's more like environment. Down here in the lower portions, the stone is hard, dark and there isn't any water. We have to take enough to get most of the way. You can survive by drinking blood, but I recommend water. There are certain passages we have to find and take or else we just go in circles. These passages are marked by a symbol. It is embossed in the stone near the turnoffs and nearly invisible in most cases. Half of the men died last time before we even figured that out. Next level has water and rock of various textures and shades. It is also softer rock. Some tunnels are natural and run up to an underground river. It's when you reach the river that life gets easy and hard. There are supposed to be guards there somewhere, although we never encountered them. What we encountered was far worse. Something ugly enough that it killed everyone but me. Now that particular problem is one I won't be talking about until we're there. There is a secret you have to know there or you don't make it. I think the biggest hazard may be the surface itself, because no one knows where we will emerge, or who or what will be there. We need at least a few men alive and healthy when we reach it. Maybe more. We could be up against an army for all I know. Anyone have any ideas as to what happened up there?”
“I've been thinking,” Jacklac said. “An explosion as big as what we heard looks to be an earthquake, nuclear stuff or a meteor smashing the Earth. But I don't think that's what it was. I think we were executed.” He put up his hand to silence Marvin. “That's right, executed. They think they blasted and buried us, only it didn't work. If you think about it, it's the most likely thing. A new government came in and decided to finish us. And that means we got a chance. They slipped up for a moment when they brought me down and I saw big earth-moving machinery at that underground river. If there's no natural passage out we could dig out. And if we come out in a secluded spot they won't even know it 'cause they think we're dead.”
Henry nodded, Paul nodded, Marvin nodded and the Doctor looked skeptical.
“I'm inclined to believe Jacklac,” Paul said. “They wouldn't build an underground prison in an earthquake zone and a nuclear explosion wouldn't even shake us up. But that means something else. And that something else is that they may be sending a team down to make sure we're dead. Think about it, they need an official record.”
“You're probably right,” Henry said. “And we're going to get up there and wait for that team. Then we're going to kill them and ride out of here.”
“Yeah, and you're gonna ride on the back of the bus, black boy,” said a voice from the darkness. “In the body rack.”
Paul lifted his laser. Marvin, Jacklac and the doctor threw their chairs back and got ready to fight. Henry remained sitting, not appearing to be upset at all. Several faces showed in the dim light near the door, all of them pale prison white. Gunmetal gleamed.
“Well, if it isn't Bobby Jenson,” Marvin said. “I thought I told the boys to kill you.”
“You did, but your boys failed,” Bobby said, his eyes flashing red behind a huge forehead that hung out like another piece of the rock wall. “Failed and got cooked, so to speak. And you're gonna get cooked, 'cause I like to get strong on the blood of my enemies.”
Paul spoke. “Where'd you get the rifles?”
“A stash,” Bobby said. “I'm no stupid nigger. I'm in here on a special deal. The guards set it up with us before we came down. A way of saving us from the niggers. The deal was that if a disaster happened we get the rifles and lead the men up to the guardhouse, where we'll get amnesty. Freedom road, and we don't have to worry about fighting the army. Course the rest of the men will get iced, but they don't know that.”
Uncle Henry stood, slapped his thigh, and then he laughed in a creepy way. “And you think the guards won't kill you? Well, you're right about not being a nigger. But when it comes to the stupid part, you're brainless and more than that.”
“Shut up, 'cause you dead,” said one of Bobby’s men.
“Right,” said Bobby, then he looked to Paul. “You can join us if you want, Paul. We need a good man. But Jacklac and the doctor are dead meat and good food. They sucked too much nigger dick.”
Paul looked to Marvin, and Henry.
“Get out of here, white boy,” Henry said. “We never wanted you anyway.”
“Sure,” Paul said, and then he stepped to the side quickly with fingers on the cap of the laser, ready to release the beam if Marvin or Jacklac made a move for him. Marvin grimaced, took half a step then froze, hatred painted on his face as he watched Paul move to the rectangle he'd cut in the cell wall. Reaching the hole, Paul stepped out, pulled the cap off the beam, sent the laser flying, and threw himself back into the cell.
Fire flew from the barrel of Bobby's rifle. But he had expected Paul to just step out and get slaughtered, and his shot was too late. Now the laser was sliding across the floor and spinning, the deadly beam revolving. It had been designed to kill escaping cons, designed to cut flesh and bone. And it got them quick, cutting their ankles, sending them screaming to the floor.
Rifles hit the stone, some wild shots went off, blood splashed … there was a lot of screaming as the crippled men crawled on the floor. Bobby was groaning as he bled, but clear-headed enough to head for the laser, which was stationary now, burning a hole in the stone.
Marvin beat Paul to the door, and Henry was second. It was only seconds and all five of them were on the observation platform, using rifles and the laser to put Bobby and his racist backstabbers out of their misery.
Paul capped the laser, watching as Marvin went down with the knife. Bobby choked with pain and fear. “Time for the dog's dinner,” Marvin said, and started hacking at Bobby's neck.
“Damn laser is dangerous,” Henry said, and he laughed like a crazy man, listening to Bobby let out a scream and a gurgle. “You know what, Paul? You're smarter than I thought.”
“I knew Bobby wanted me out so he could get the laser. As long as I had it, they didn't have us. The way it is, I guess we saved the guards the trouble of killing them.”
“Jeeze, Marvin. What are you doin'?” Jacklac said. “I don't want Bobby's head.”
“Yeah, well, you're getting it,” Marvin said. “And you're goin' ahead with it. You're to show it to the men and tell them we're still in charge and how Bobby and his boys planned to sell them out.”
“If you say so,” Jacklac said. Taking the dripping head, he disappeared in the dark corridor.
Henry turned to the doctor. “Use your knives and take some quick prime cuts from those boys. Use the vent plastic to wrap them. Then you run ahead to Jacklac and hand them out to the men. Say it's a present from Henry.”
The tunnels were warming, air currents settling. Odors of decay touched Paul's nostrils. Corpses littered chambers already buried in the falling dust, revealing the devil as a hungry beast feeding on his children. Paul had a vision of sunshine in his mind and when he looked at Henry and Marvin, he imagined they saw it too. Genetic cannibals hunted more than raw flesh. It had to do with the dark side. Media, the police, the common people all believed these prisoners to be inhuman monsters. But that wasn't the case in full. Killers that argued they were still human had a point in that it was partially true. But the dark animus remained a trickster, a coyote … it convinced a man to live with his family, love his children and friends -- have all the good things of life and still go on killing. Like an alien growing in the background, keeping him under control. Henry probably wasn’t the worst man alive, Paul knew better than that -- he just cast a longer shadow than the others cast, and was also the first victim of the shadow, the first man swallowed by its darkness.
Sunshine was always like a dream for these men … as they would never really walk in it. They couldn’t walk out of the darkness, Paul knew that. Or if they did, they'd bring the fog along. They owned the darkness and the soot and decay of the tunnels. They'd blacken the world and the hearts everyone they touched. He wanted to live, get a new start, since there was no one left, nowhere to return. The way he saw it he was as disconnected as any man, but he wasn't a wolf, who wanted to run hungry on the town. He believed he had the right to a new life, but Henry, Marvin and the others were owed no rights. They were like dogs that’d tasted human flesh and could only be put to sleep. Ravenous dogs with eyes so red even the wan light of the new moon would make them drool, snarl and snap. Anger existing as a memory of their lost humanity. They had memories of the sunshine inside, he was sure of it. Sure that the shadow never took over completely. There was light for it too. Sunshine that was a haunting recollection of humanity and all that had been buried by the darkness. The torment of the damned is a lingering memory of kinder days that burns like fire. And kinder days are often like childhood in that you can never go back.
Marvin's soot-blackened face was starting to look like a mask - a theatre mask of disgust mostly. But it wasn't the corpses or the smell. It was the fact that so many men were dead already. “Damn,” he said. “Wasn't there anybody that didn't have a beef?”
“Better that way,” Henry said. “More men come up with more ways to slow things down. The way it is we have to move fast to get out of the hot tunnels and to the water. Just a touch too slow and we'll be dead.”
“Why do you keep worrying about water?” Marvin said. “We got plenty.”
“Not water, the heat. The tunnels are narrow and hot. They widen near the river and get cooler. Fatigue then delirium and stroke will get us. Eventually it would even get us here. With the air conditioning out we couldn't stay even if we wanted to.”
Paul walked ahead and was the first to spot the main body of men ... or what remained of them. They were in an area where cell walls had collapsed, creating a small cavern. Most were sitting now, looking tired. Corpses were stacked like sandbags against the rubble and one man was on his knees there, chewing on the raw flesh of a half-crushed body.
Spotting the men, Henry hurried ahead. He looked around, shook his head with disgust. Walking up to the bodies, he put his rifle to the back of the feeding man's neck and killed him with one shot. The head imploded with a sickening crunch. “You boys look like a dirty lot,” he said. “But you'll show some table manners around me or end up like him.”
“Where are the rest of the men?” Marvin said to Jacklac.
Jacklac nodded to Alfred Greering, the red chef, and he stepped forward. “Some took off during the fight with Bobby, and the rest left while he went to get you. Then things got out of hand and more was killed during our little party. Some guardbots caught our scent but we managed to blow up a tunnel and block them. Unfortunately, some of the men are trapped with them. You can hear them now if you listen. I think the bots are torturing them.”
Henry listened, and did hear some faint howling. “You people make me sick,” he said, looking at the moping men. “We got a rough climb ahead of us and you're already exhausted. Ah, never mind. Stick with me and you at least got a chance. The others that ran off don't. Getting out of here is a tight squeeze and they won't find the hole.” He kicked the lid off a broken toilet. “I want you boys to line up here and clean the filth off your faces. I don't travel with dirt bags.”
The march began two abreast and single file. Since Paul was the fittest, Marvin put him in the lead. A short but wide corridor and a massive steel door marked the exit, and the name Jonathan Breaker's Maximum Security Prison was riveted into the arch. The men looked up at it in awe, most of them silent, a few muttering. Many of them hadn't realized what they were up against until now -- and they could feel weight of the name bearing down on them like giant shackles, reminding them that Breaker’s mark of Cain was on them. There would be no escaping the scars of a lifetime.
Things kept on the level for some distance then the tunnel began to narrow and wind uphill. Walls closed in and the dust and heat rose with them, locking each man in his own feverish prison of mind. Some muttered, others cursed - all of them off in their own gloomy thoughts, but still seeing a common light of hope that kept them together. At such close quarters, Paul couldn't help thinking of the others, their vile crimes and his own past. His mind drifted across cannibal history like a ghost floating back across hated yesterdays. Marvin was probably the most ridiculous cannibal to consider, even though he never laughed. Some warped people in his old Boston neighborhood thought of him as a hero. Marvin had the cannibal flaw all right, but he’d decided to use it to clean up the neighborhood and ate the trash -- junkies, wire heads. When his children went bad he ate them too. On conviction, the judge called him a despicable man and definitely not a hero. Paul agreed with the ruling, thinking of Marvin’s diseased mind.
Jacklac had killed by fires, and his bushy brows and intense stare made it seem like he was always seeing the flames. He was another somewhat ridiculous killer. After casing a joint and setting a fire, he would rush back and affect a rescue; only instead of being saved, the victim was driven to his lair and eaten. A couple times the cops arrived when he was emerging from the flames with a victim, and he got in the papers as a hero. There were many fires before a smart detective caught on to his action.
Henry's profile was that of a classic eccentric man turned psycho. As a boy with a cleanliness fixation, he'd wanted to grow up to be a janitor so he could polish the world, but something went wrong and he ended up eating clean people with polished utensils. Henry had been studied by more shrinks and computer rhythms than any other prisoner, but studied from a distance because he killed people instantly, without warning. Henry always used the fastest, most effective method, and he smiled while doing the job like he was happy about getting a hen ready for the oven. His aging face had the creases of a kind old man, and that meant he was still the most dangerous man alive. He could walk back into the world, smiling pleasantly; killing everywhere he went without being suspected.
Paul's own sheltered boyhood in a tiny Canadian village was nothing like the city backgrounds of the others. They were surrounded by violence while he had experienced none. He remembered his first date -- Jenny Wentworth, an average blond girl, and they took potato chips and Coke along to a reinvented drive in movie theatre in the countryside. No dope, no guns, and some hot kisses during the flick. Back then, he could not have imagined a character like Marvin. People like him were on the big city news, but always as something distant and not quite believable.
Faint moans echoed down tunnel, pulling Paul back from memories to the situation at hand. Marvin tapped him on the shoulder. “Soon as you see them kill them,” he said.
A few more steps and he saw two men in the shadows ahead. Collapsed, with blood and dirt on their faces, they posed no threat. Paul stopped, turned. “Maybe we better ask them what happened.”
Marvin's face screwed tight with hate. “I told you to kill them, now do it.”
“Bullshit,” Paul said. “I don't just kill someone without thinking about it.”
“Why don't you look me in the eye when you say that, you shifty bastard?”
“Maybe I don't like the sick hunger I see in your eyes.”
“Yeah, or maybe it's because you're gutless and you don't want me to see that.”
“I'm glad you brought this up, because when I was in the army I had a sergeant who said the same thing. Could be that I am gutless, or it could be that I think you got something rotten inside and I don't want it to see me and crawl out. Can't say that I know what it is, but most days I think it's that I've seen so much pain and misery on this planet I'm trying to hide it from others. Just so their souls won't get blackened, too. When I worked as a detective too many people touched me. They put their third-world pain in me and I couldn't do anything to help them. The world you want to get back to is a graveyard full of babies and children screaming and dying while the rest of the inhuman creeps kick their corpses aside to get the dollars and land underneath. People and corporations that can put on kinder smiles than Henry can, and do it while they're killing. And with you, Marvin, it's not just that - I don't want you to look in me because there's a mirror inside. One that will show you who you are and make you face the ugly truth -- guys like you make this world an even bigger place of pain and misery.”
Marvin's face reddened, he got so angry he nearly choked, then his eyes popped and he drew his fist back slowly like Paul's words had shocked his brain so bad he could only move in slow motion. But at that moment, Henry whipped him hard with the rifle barrel, sending him into the wall. Paul was also caught off guard as Henry knocked him aside and walked up to the two moaning men. They turned pleading eyes to him but it didn't stop him from pulling the trigger quick. A point blank execution that darkened the damp walls with running blood. Wisps of acrid smoke drifted from the barrel of Henry's gun, “I've seen too much misery, too,” he said. “It's better that those boys got put out of pain.” He watched Marvin get up. “Paul's right, you got a miserable look 'cause you're a misery bringer like a rabid dog's a misery bringer. From now on you walk in lead and keep your thoughts on the light at the end of the tunnel. The men don't need bossing from you.”
Marvin shambled into the lead, and then Henry rubbed part of the wall above the two corpses. The faint image of a grinning skull was embossed there. “We're at the turnoff, it's just ahead. Some of the men must've made it. That's lucky for us. We'll just leave 'em ahead and let the forces of ugliness up there swallow them.” Turning to Jacklac, he spoke low, “In a few minutes I want you to go back a ways and kill any laggers hanging back to feed on the corpses. Sharks we don't need, so this is a way of weeding them out before they backstab the rest of us.”
“No problem,” Jacklac said. “I'll make short of them.”
“And the doctor will make short ribs of them,” Henry said. “You got that, Doc? In case we need food I want you to have some freshly wrapped.”
The doctor lifted his black bag and patted it. “Yep, I got that, and I just happen to specialize in that sort of meat cutting.”
The tunnels wound on like the belly of a hot snake, graduated colors of calcium and flowstone making up the scales of the beast. Stalagmite grotesqueries blocked their path and mocked them with the memory of the water that had once flowed there. Crushed volcanic earth and pumice poured through splits, bringing odors of a long dead world that had once existed above. Images of the planet surface appeared like multifaceted mirages in their minds. Deserts, desolation - polished bones in the sands of nuclear destruction - the broken rockets of science fiction worlds that had blossomed and died. Lush greenery grew on earths of yesteryear, rolling and unfolding through earthquakes to new nature continents of today. Scenery and humans nearly too beautiful to imagine appeared in the light of tinted suns. Beings of flesh and blood -- red wine to quench their cannibal thirst, and bodies that were the bread of life. Humans to stalk in a new hunting ground. Carcasses to feast on in a new lawless world.
In the thirst and hunger, heat and dryness, their hearts beat like drums of ancient times while the wind moaned down the tunnels like the haunting voice of some witchdoctor king of cannibals. Soon the air was moistened by this witch doctor's breath and he brought up sweat on their backs. In the lonely lamentations, Paul heard a faint roar, stopped and turned to Henry. He pointed to the eerie light in the widening gap ahead. “It's the river, we've made it,” he said.
Sweat dripped from Henry's brows like they were dams in the river. “We're out of the heat,” he said, “but we've a long ways to go.”
Marvin was ahead, standing in the gap, and he groaned with awe then hurried back. “Amazing,” he said, “the cavern and river are so big I can't believe it. But there's too much space for men to wander off. I'm going to have to warn them.”
“Okay,” Henry said. “You lead the men out, gather them by the river, warn them and make them all wash. Paul, the doctor and I are remaining here in the gap.”
“Why?” Marvin said.
“A little barbecue. It gets dangerous ahead. I don't want to die without having at least a good last meal.”
“Sure,” Marvin said, and then he turned to Jacklac. “Call back - we're at the river and I want everyone to follow me out.”
Paul sat on a boulder watching the men march by - their faces excited but also somewhat haggard and blackened. Fact was they were out of shape and the long march had taken its toll. The river would rejuvenate them like a river of blood. And like a river of blood, it would drown some of them in red nightmares. The doctor was last, coming up with his package of flesh, and he grinned and patted it as he sat. Henry went to work, building a fire with a palm-sized portable burner, and in a minute had a solid blaze going in a small pit of stones. As well as medical supplies, the doctor's bag contained his favorite seasoning. Seasoning he handed over to Henry, who had the skillet heating up.
Taking a chocolate bar from his pack, Paul munched slowly, watching the smoke rise and rush out of the tunnel with the air currents. Human flesh was the last thing on his mind, and the seasoned stuff Henry was cooking smelled more like steak than something ugly. Out of the smoke came a vision of a bar, and Paul remembered his last day with Janine. That was a few days before his arrest - a Dear John meeting. He could hear her voice all over again - “You're weird, Paul. A man should want to build a home, make money, gain prestige, happiness, and a place in the sun of the good life. But you spend all your time crying over the disadvantaged, doing work for free. Those people can't be helped because there are too many of them, and I, for one, am not going to waste time trying to get a life raft to the half of the world that is already dead. I intend to live and live well. And to live with a man who cares about me instead of every grubby peasant in the world.”
Rather than hurt, the pain was as distant as glaciers. He'd done too much time to feel pain and now he was one of the people who couldn't be helped. In the beginning, a male prisoner longs for a woman, for love or the love he lost. Then he starts to freeze over, become an alien - one who has to be alone. A person who can no longer live life as a partnership. Years of loneliness made him a loner who could only be alone. Love passed before his eyes like a distant movie. He could never love again, though he could love the better elements of the human race as something from a distance. And the others were like him to a degree, if they had any love or care for humanity when they came in it was gone now. They were frozen over - cannibals without feelings and there wasn't a person in the world that would be safe from them. Not a single person they wouldn't kill and eat.
Henry had brought stale Kaisers and was eating someone now, and it would've turned Paul's stomach if it looked that way. Instead, it looked and smelled like he was eating steak on a bun. Henry bit sweetly into the meat, his lips curling with satisfaction. Although he killed viciously, he ate with the habit of an eccentric chef who just happened to prefer human meat. The doctor's table manners were also immaculate, likely because Henry would've killed him long ago if they weren't. Paul wondered what the doctor saw when he looked at him - meat on the slab, a corpse he wanted to have sex with - probably not much more than that. It became obvious that Henry could not possibly care about the rest of the men - filthy swine that ate half-rotted corpses. The fact that most of them would die like swine was probably the fact that made him grin all the time.
Footsteps squished as Jacklac returned carrying a jug. “I took a bath and brought some fresh water, so how about sharing some of them good eats.”
“Sure, we got plenty,” Henry said. “Paul's not hungry today.”
“Good,” Jacklac said. “Keep it up, Paul, and I just might believe you been framed. But so far I believe you just aren't happy 'cause you can't get toast and butter with yours.”
Henry laughed and the doctor snickered, then a scream echoed in from the outside. Shouts, the sound of splashing water and more screaming followed. Paul and Jacklac took off, leaving Henry and the doctor behind as they ran out. Green walls lit by yellow sulfur and the placid blue waters of the river flowing smoothly by - the scene nearly hypnotized Paul. Then he spotted men struggling a ways down the bank. Most of the men were running toward him, fleeing something by the water. Lifting his laser, he waited while the men passed.
The rest of the men broke free and ran and he noted that their attacker was Joe Diggle, known as the green cannibal, because of his habit of stashing bodies in pits full of greens and herbs. Diggle was one of the men who had gotten ahead of them, and though he was recognizable, he wasn't quite the same. A horrible growth was attached to his head and his face had contorted into a ghastly expression. He faced off with Marvin who had his rifle ready.
Diggle charged and Marvin fired and kept firing, stopping him in his tracks, ripping his chest open - more bullets knocked his heart right out through his back. But they didn't stop him for more than a moment. He continued moving up on Marvin, a gruesome hole you could shoot the moon through in his chest - managing to growl hideously even though his lungs were gone. Marvin threw the rifle at him, turned and ran as it bounced uselessly away. Leaving Paul and his laser as the stopper.
Henry suddenly poked his head out into the light; he took a small bite of his sandwich, sipped water and watched Marvin flee past him into the tunnel. “Paul, the guy's become a spore head, you got to cut his head off or he won't die.”
“Gotcha,” Paul said, watching Diggle drip gore as he approached. Spore head, Henry wasn't kidding - It looked like seeded cow dung attached to his head. Whatever it was, it had rooted itself in his brain. He uncapped the laser and aimed it slowly and carefully, letting the beam hit Diggle's neck. Boiling blood spurted, Diggle's tongue shot out of his mouth into the air, and then he fell, his body twitching as his face shifted through hideous expressions as his head broke loose and rolled away.
Henry stepped out, walked up to the smoking head and booted it like a football into the river. “Same as last time,” He said, as Marvin walked up to him.
“You mean you knew this shit could happen and you didn't tell us?” Marvin said.
“Believing is in the seeing not the telling,” Henry said.
“What I see isn't easy to believe either,” Paul said. “I hope this doesn't mean that all the men ahead of us are turned into those things?”
“No,” Henry said. “Most of them are plain dead, but a few probably got bit.” He took a final bite of his sandwich and grinned. “This is the last of the good eats; from now on the men will have the poison in their blood. Eat any flesh and you become a zombie and die horribly.”
Jacklac ambled up and kicked Diggle's mangled corpse. “Gee, thanks for warning us, Henry. How many more surprises didn't you cue us in on?”
“Can't say I know just what surprises will come. For now we let the men rest briefly then move on.”
Paul gazed at the calm water and listened to the distant roar. Two of the men took Diggle's corpse by the arms, carefully avoiding the growth as they dragged it over and dumped it in the water. It sank, the growth going down last. Henry walked along the water's edge, passing the stain left by Diggle's corpse while the men rested against the wall. He didn't grin, appearing to have something dark on his mind. His face had paled, like maybe he was weakening. Maybe, but Paul guessed it as the mark of something else - fear.
He glanced at Marvin, who sat silent and glassy eyed. Perhaps considering the weird environment they had entered. Either that or it had hypnotized him like it had most of the other men. Without a doubt, Marvin and most of the men were weak. The edge had been taken off their senses, and they would be slow in a crisis. Paul felt he was still on top, sharper than the rest and about on par with Henry.
This was a place of shadows and most of them looked cast by real beings. They weren't of course, but if anything was hiding out there, it would be nearly impossible to spot before you were on it . . . or it was on you. Paul decided to walk in the lead, got up, and passed Henry at the water's edge. He turned, “I'll go on ahead,” he said to Henry.
He walked towards the roar, staying a step away from the water, harboring some childhood fear of a hand shooting out of the blue and seizing his foot. Red and yellow sulfur stained the walls, glowing like some monster's running blood. Especially thick in areas where the river canyon angled up to higher shelves of rock.
Freakish toadstools grew in the rock; huge brown-green things that released musty odors. Paul squinted, seeing a bizarre mass of these toadstools blocking the path. A couple steps closer and he noticed they were growing on a corpse. He raised his rifle then lowered it, realizing that shooting a corpse would be a waste.
“So this is how Diggle would've ended up,” he thought as he turned and waited for the men to catch up.
They approached him slowly, Henry in the lead. They paused, some of them looking fearfully up at the outcropping, and then they moved on, passing through some huge boulders that blocked most of the slope. Henry was about fifty feet away when Paul saw something they couldn't see - a mass of the toadstools, growing on the rock over the boulders. Only these ones were bluish and emitting a miasma of spores. Part of it appeared to be moving and as he watched, it broke off and fell - not a toadstool, but what looked like a spiked-shaped piece of rock.
Paul yelled but not in time, the spike hit, nailing one of the men. The man was Alex Sanders, a cannibal who'd made his name in the navy, striking in many foreign docks before the crimes were traced to him. He was a big man with a thick neck - big enough that he barely moved as the spike hit. It was fast. The thing penetrated his head and went straight into his brain.
Most the others didn't notice, but Marvin and Henry did and they jumped then began to run up the slope toward Paul. The rest of the men followed, leaving Sanders standing there with bulging eyes and the spike poking out of the top of his head.
“Damn son of a bitch!” Jacklac said as he pushed the cringing doctor away from him.
“What is this shit?” Marvin said.
“Freaksville,” Henry said, “they put an environmental stopper down here. I can't believe that happens naturally.”
Paul ignored them and the complaints of the rest of the men. He kept his eyes on Alex Sanders. Sanders tottered, his face swelling, turning bruise blue. His eyes expanding to fantastic proportions, then his skull spit - an ugly crack that made the men grind their teeth with fear and revulsion.
The growth oozed out, bubbling with blood and brain matter as it formed a gross cap on Sanders' head, then Sanders howled, spraying out saliva and blood. It was an inhuman howl - the birth cry of a monster and it shook the men with terror. They broke and ran as Sanders leapt - a leap you might expect from a mountain lion, but not from a man. His body arced and flipped and he went right over Paul and Henry and landed among the fleeing men. In a second, he had his hands on one of the black men … Jason Smith, mauling him with great strength.
Marvin swung his rifle, hammering Sanders in the back. But Sanders didn't notice the blow. He bashed Smith’s head on a rock and moved ahead, managing to seize the doctor.
Growling, he mauled the screaming doctor then Paul jumped him from behind and used the standard army tactic for breaking a man's neck. It worked - Sanders let go of the doctor and staggered. But his neck muscles were so thick and ropy his head remained stable on his broken neck. Unable to turn his head, he turned his whole body, and found himself facing Henry and a hatchet. Henry swung, catching him in the throat, chopping his head partway off. Then Marvin moved up as Sanders stumbled back a step. Thrusting the rifle up to the gouge in Sanders' throat, Marvin pulled the trigger - blasting his head off, sending the growth and most of his brain high up in the rocks.
Sanders’s body fell and rolled down to the water's edge, next to the doctor, who had also fallen. Blood and a blue miasma poured from his neck, enveloping the doctor as he tried to crawl away.
Eyes wild with fright, spittle flying from his lips as he blubbered, “God, oh god!” the doctor crawled back up from the water's edge … and as he was rising, Henry stepped out and kicked him in the face, hard enough to send him rolling back down.
“I'm afraid it's too late, Doctor,” Henry said, lifting his ax. “You've been infected.”
“No,” the Doctor choked. “I can heal myself.” Wiping blood from his nose, he started to rise again.
But Henry remained unconvinced and began to step down to him. Face whitening with fright, the doctor stared at Henry with disbelief for a moment, then he turned, splashed into the water and began to swim away. Going overhand he got to a black rock that broke the surface a ways out and held on, breathing hard. At about his fifth breath the water began the churn around him and he suddenly screamed. The glow reflecting from the water turned the whites of his eyes and his tongue bright silver, and then he went down, completely vanishing for several seconds.
Blood stained the water, a small column came up in a geyser and a severed foot shot from the spume at the top of it. “What in the hell is that?” Marvin said, taking a step back with the rest of the men.
“It's gone, whatever it is,” Paul said, watching the water spatter down and settle.
A pink stain drifted. “Guess the doctor's gone, too,” Jacklac said.
“I forgot to warn him about them,” Henry said. “The rule here is swim at your own risk.”
“What's in there, sharks?” Marvin said, shooting Henry a hostile glance.
“Things that look like eels or octopus tentacles. I saw them before they got me. That was years ago, on the first break. Bodies explode when they attach, then they feed on the remains.”
“Interesting,” Paul said. “But not surprising.” He looked Henry in the eye, then a growl echoed down from the path ahead and they turned to look. Some of the men had run off and got ahead during the scene with the doctor. Now they were uphill on the path and near a bend. But backing off, because three more of the fungus face zombies were coming around on the path.
These new zombies looked more like vegetables than human beings -- green-black with bloated, tentacled hands, lumps of mutated flesh for feet and torsos that were gashed with hair like fungus growing in the splits. Their faces were distorted like melted wax, and one of them had a single, large staring eye in the centre of its forehead. Expressions of hunger and hate still formed on the warped features. These were so ghastly and frightening that the men were unable to take their eyes off them and retreated by taking steps backwards.
Paul, Henry and Marvin, being the leaders, waited as the men retreated. Paul raised his laser and nodded to Henry, who also raised his weapon, and then they noticed that Marvin had a problem. He'd gone stiff, standing and trembling, not even raising his gun as they approached.
Looking to Henry, Paul raised his eyebrows. Henry shook his shoulders - a sign of mild wonderment in his eyes, then the shooting started . . . both Henry and Jacklac firing opening rounds at the one-eyed zombie. His head broke like a jar, dry rot and not blood oozed at the neck stump as he kept walking.
Paul knew they couldn't stop unfeeling creatures easily and he didn't have time to use the laser, so he went lower with his aim, taking out the knees. It worked and the zombie went down, now crawling slowly forward. Following suit, Henry took the other two down, and then watched as Paul seized Marvin and started dragging him back.
They moved away, going down the path toward the men - Henry's grin foul as he studied Marvin's trembling lips. Marvin had lost it and that was clear. His face was ashen, his eyes swollen. He wanted to say something but his lips shook and his tongue refused to work.
Suddenly angered by Marvin's cowardice, Paul slapped his cheek hard. “Speak up man!”
“He's lost his nerve,” Henry said. “I've seen it before. You're good as dead when that happens.”
“Hear that,” Paul said, slapping Marvin again. “You're yellow, so what you got to say about it.”
Marvin did speak this time, but his mood sure wasn't the murderous rage he would've been roused to only a few minutes back. “It's those things,” he said as he steadied himself. “They're made out of other bodies, bodies of people I ate. I ate bad guys, remember - some real scum of the earth creeps. We can't get caught by those things. They'll do worse things than eat us.”
Henry was binding a torch of sorts, using paper, wood and string. He turned to Marvin. “We can't get caught? Well, I hate to tell you this Marvin, but if we just freeze and wait for 'em to get us like you did, we will be killed.”
“I know,” Marvin said. “But it has to do with power. When I ate people, I always took their power into me. It makes me strong. Now I know that this river is sucking the power from me and throwing out those corpses.”
“Why do you say the river and not just the earth?” Jacklac said.
“Because water is power.”
“Not water, fire is power,” Henry said, soaking the torch with fluid from a can. Damping it just enough to burn, he lit it and ran forward up the rocks. Then he leapt right over the first corpse, which still moved, and swept the swath of flame into the second two bodies. They ignited like straw-soaked gasoline, Henry barely getting back past the first one before it went up. The flames were incredible. Paul couldn't believe what he saw in them. Not just bones popping like firecrackers, but faces melting, screaming, shifting in hideous contortions of blood-red fire -- the sounds unreal and in the back of his mind and not his ears.
Marvin was taking steps back, his eyes wide with horror, and the other men had retreated. Some screaming came from the rear and looking back, he saw some of the men dismembering a newly spiked corpse.
“Can't run and you can't hide,” Henry said to Marvin, a false look of sympathy showing in his lined features. “So you can either come up this rise with us or lag back and get hit from behind.” Using a damp cloth, he snuffed the torch and handed it to Marvin. “You can do the burning, if there are more of them.”
Jacklac had run back to behead the corpse, now he caught up, breathing hard. “We're losing control of the boys. If the ambushes get worse they might disperse and get picked off.”
“That's their problem,” Henry said. “We're going straight up the rise. Tell them to catch up or die.”
Paul moved into the lead again and some of the flash fires of hell fear caught on his heels, speeding him up. Henry was right about keeping on the move. If the dread got worse, it would be like panic city. Forcing the trek onward would at least get them moving and organized. Looking up he saw smoke in the false fractal sky, like they were walking to netherworld clouds. The surface had to be a world away. It was possible that a force that was neither bombs nor quakes had freed them. For a huge underground winding river/cavern system like this to exist in the first place, it would have to be tremendously stable. And that meant it wouldn’t be near a quake or possible war zone. Maybe they were at a rare geological moment and a big shift was happening. He glanced back at Henry, wondering how much he knew. He'd been put down to make sure guys like Henry never got a chance to escape. That had all changed a few years back when the messages stopped coming through. He couldn't even get out himself. What had happened and what was out there he didn't know; it was a world that had simply forgotten him. Now he was buried with dinosaurs wondering if the world had gone off on a completely new tilt. It didn't really matter; his personal world had ended on a day long ago. Janine didn't care about him. Stoned and in a fight, he'd killed a man and readily agreed to do his time on a false genetic cannibal charge, with the promise of a lot of cash and a new identity on his release. Perhaps it had all been a lie and the sentence was doom. Other cons would believe that now, but Paul didn't - in his bones, he could feel it - the world had changed in a big way. Rivulets of sweat ran on Paul's back as he reached the top of the rise. Patterns swirled in the haze and for a moment he thought he was hallucinating. A huge fortress blocked the narrowing river in the distance, its windows shimmering like magic. He covered his eyes to block the glare then he heard moaning below. Glancing down he saw something else surprising, a small army of the zombies. The things created from images of Marvin's victims. “Damn,” how many people did you kill, Marvin?”
“Guess you never know till they all come back,” Henry said.
“Fuckin' shit!” Marvin hollered, shaking his fists at the stone heavens. “You can't do this to me, you can't!”
They ain't doin' nothing to us,” Henry said. “These ones are ripe enough to burn, and we're above them. Just descend with the torch and burn them.”
Jacklac moved up. “Shit, some of the men are down there. I better warn them”
“What?” Henry said. “I said everyone was to follow me.”
“Some of the boys thought the riverbank was safer. I gave them the go-ahead. They're supposed to meet up with us ahead.”
“Fuck 'em. They aren't worth saving,” Henry said. “I want Marvin to see what those things do when they get you.”
Paul said nothing, Jacklac shrugged his shoulders and Marvin gaped as they watched the men appear below. They rounded the bend and found themselves face to face with the monsters. George Delane was in the lead, and he fired a shot, tried to retreat and fell over the man behind him. Some confusion followed and during it a clutch of the creatures moved in and got Delane and his lieutenant. Howls echoed up as the rest of the men retreated.
Marvin looked at the torch in his hand, but cowardice prevented him from acting. The creatures piled on top of Delane, and Paul thought about going down, but what Henry had said was true - the men weren't worth saving. But worth saving or not it was hard to watch a man die that way and finally it became too much for Jacklac. “I used to kill by fire. Loved the flames. Give me that torch, Marvin.”
Marvin saw no reason to refuse, and Henry gave Jacklac the okay with a nod.
With the torch in hand, Jacklac swung around, moved down on the jagged face and began to climb. He was agile for a big man, looking a lot like a gorilla, swinging out a long arm to grasp new handholds. The creatures below spotted him right away, some of them rising from Delane to scratch at the wall.
Looking over his shoulder, Jacklac caught a glimpse of Delane's corpse under the rising creatures - nothing but grue and the white of bones like a pack of wild dogs had been feasting on him. It sickened him; it aroused him and lit the fire in his eyes. Getting his balance, he used his lighter to ignite the torch, and then he leapt down, landing next to the body. One zombie was behind him so he swung around and booted it hard, knocking it down on the stone. It scratched desperately as it slid into the water. Another creature was nearly on him - a hard left knocked it back. Jacklac noted that its flesh was cold, like hard rubber, then he hollered, “Die motherfuckers!” and ran swinging the torch.
The first clutch of the creatures caught fire, flames exploded and Jacklac ran into them, hammering at the bodies with his knees and elbows. Howling as torsos burst and heads flew. Hellish faces were mirrored in the flames, his skin was getting scorched so he retreated and wiped the soot from his face. A carpet of burning body parts lay in front of him, and just beyond the flames a crowd of unburned zombies waited.
He was ready to go for them, but he heard something above. Sounded like a rockslide. Looking up he saw dirt, rocks and Marvin sliding down. Marvin's face was torn by fright, the avalanche headed right for the largest body of zombies, and it hit, knocking a bunch of them down and sending Marvin rolling forward into the rest of them.
Jacklac ran with the fire, Marvin's screams ringing in his ears. Burning bones cracked underfoot, he threw the torch right into the mob, and they went up in a hellish inferno. Marvin was still inside, his screams buried by the roar and hiss of flames. Jacklac retreated from the heat, and a moment later he saw Marvin emerge from the soot and distortion - hair singed, his blackened face wild with fright. He ran toward the water, a dismembered arm, still burning, was locked to his leg, and a smoking head had attached itself to his shoulder, broken teeth locked into his flesh.
Marvin stumbled, his screams getting louder as he batted at the head, trying to knock it off. At the water, he fell on his butt and started to weep, but that only lasted a moment then he rose and jumped in.
Jacklac walked over and saw bubbles rising, but Marvin never came back up. He was just gone, like he'd been sucked right down into hell.
High up on the rock, Henry licked his lips and Paul aimed the laser. Only a few of the zombies were left so he'd decided to pick them off one by one. The beam flashed, flame licked up in the distance. “Got him,” Paul said, and then he swept the beam and fried two more.
“Guess you won't have to worry about settling that beef with Marvin now,” Henry said.
“He looked hypnotized when he went over, like those things had a pull on him.”
“Naw, the pull was all in his head. It was fear, like when a man falls 'cause he's scared of heights. This is the first time I saw a man so scared he drowned himself.”
“Think that's what it was?”
“There was no blood to speak of on the water. He must've went under and held a rock or something so he'd die.”
“It proves that no matter who it is there is still something out there that can bring the ultimate fear. Puts an end to heroes, and Marvin wanted to be some kind of hero, eating the bad guys.”
“I think he ate so many the bad blood got in him.”
Paul wondered what might bring him the ultimate fear. As they climbed higher on the path, he studied images in the mist. Images from his mind of things he feared - wolves, ghouls, monsters and childhood bogie men, twisted bodies and auto wrecks, the warped faces of mockers, all the ghosts of insecurity and masks of painful death. Electric chairs, the noose, Nazi's with dental tools, the impaler's spikes, dungeon tools and drooling madmen. In the end, he decided the most terrifying people were the men who'd built Jonathan Breaker's Maximum Security Prison, because they were men who could look into a mind and know what it would fear most.
At the highest point, the roar of water grew deafening and they came out from behind the rock and got a breathtaking view. Golden mist swirled over the foam from a distant waterfall. An immense fortress was cut into the rock beside the falls, the structure composed of practical cubes, cylinders and blocks and not at all castle like. The road over the water to it looked shaky but solid enough to cross single file. There were no signs of life, the place looked deserted. Its higher floors stretched beyond the waterfall, so they really had to get inside and up to see what was on the other side.
“Looks like a big change,” Henry said, his voice fighting the thunder of the falls. This is about as far as we got last time. Then there were robot guns and birds that killed most of the remaining men. The actual human guards are supposed to be up above somewhere. Only I don't think they're there now. No guns, no robots - the place has been abandoned. It means we can get farther this time.”
“Yeah, and it means there must be a war on the surface,” Jacklac said. His reddened eyes shone in his blackened face. “Maybe nothin's left up there but scavengers, and we'll just be more scavengers.”
“Suits me fine,” Henry said. “So long as we get out of here.”
They'd formed a human chain on the path, several yards between each man. In the false sunlight, it was hard for Paul to discern flesh from shadow. He turned when he saw Henry catching up, pausing for a moment to look at a beam of gold light spotlighting the water below. Some ugly flotsam drifted in . . . a mass of swollen flesh, oozing blood and pus - a small gross island. It vanished in black water and mist, and Paul found himself hoping it was Marvin's remains. If there were people and death in the fortress, their chances weren't good. They'd be picked off like nothing if someone started shooting now. No wonder the last breakout had failed here.
A monstrous wall loomed before him, stained by mist and lichens. Eyelets in the stone sucked at the mist - the spinning white constantly threatening to transform into human or robot faces of death. Echoes in the roaring of the waterfall sounded like voices calling, he thought of his past calling for his return. An idyllic yesterday, perhaps, but not the real one. He certainly didn't want to go back there. His life had ended a long time before it was over, but even as the dead, he remembered good things on the other side of the crashed bridges. His soul was the good life he could've lived if he hadn't got the black luck and death poison in his coffee. It had to be that a man was more than a feeling of need crying out for something better during a brief flash in the well of infinity. Silver doors shone and the chasm yawned, jaws to swallow men who dared to enter forbidden realms . . . for Henry and the other men - guys who'd locked themselves out of their own hearts - the forbidden realm was as much spiritual as it was stone and metal. With nothing to lose, you've almost everything to gain - and lose again. Up the hill with the stone again, and each time a little older until your numb hands can give no more love than a cannibal's hands. It ends with the numbness, feelings lost - death is a heart of stone, and some men just kill because they have it inside from the beginning. They never lived or really loved.
Fourteen feet of steel door blocked their passage, and there was no visible way of opening it. Henry and Jacklac walked up quickly now that they were on a wide ledge.
“Leave the rest of the men to try and blow it open when they get desperate,” Henry said.
“Get desperate, I'm about as desperate as any man will ever be,” Jacklac said, his eyes hooded by shadows, the pupils a glitter down at the end of thirty-seven years of solitary confinement.
Henry pointed up at an eyelet in the stone and a crack in the wall. “This is where the strong survive. Those who make the climb make it, those who don't miss the boat out of hell.”
Paul didn’t reply, instead he threw the laser and strap over his back, ran and jumped. Black water flashed below him, he reached for the crack, reached as hard as a man could because he knew men don't jump far. Olympic heroes glory in fractions of an inch. Less a fraction here and he'd be gone. “Too bad for heroes because it's only genius that carries a man up to skies,” he thought, and he landed in the crack finding it larger and deeper than he'd thought. “It's deep and easier to catch into than it looks,” he yelled back. “You just got to make the jump.” The rest of the men were crowding the door now, and he saw their tired looks. Most of them wouldn't make it and Henry and Jacklac were getting ready to jump because they knew it and wanted to move before panic and shooting started. The angle was 40 degrees and Paul moved up swiftly. He reached the window then Henry jumped, and he saw him below, moving up like a crooked human fly.
At the ledge, he peeked in and ducked back. Nothing happened and he saw nothing so he looked again. Not much was visible in the gloom, he noted that the window had a force field lining and the field had been off so long it was rusted. His eyes adjusted and he saw enormous objects take shape in the dark. Like the river door, the room appeared to have been built for people twelve feet tall. Swinging over he dropped and caught the tiles.
Landing near the door, he glanced up and saw Henry's face framed in the window. Light shining in from other eyelets was the only other illumination. Sand had blown in and piled on the stone floor. Milky cobwebs and mist hung so thick at some of the eyelets it looked like the clouds were inside. Feeling like he was in a midnight dream, he walked up to the door, getting three steps before a spotlight came on.
He ducked aside and looked around, seeing Henry thump down beside him. A wide strip like a carpet was spotlighted, and it led up to the door, which was now red as fire.
They heard shouting outside. “Looks like hell has broken loose,” Henry said.
“I just triggered something,” Paul said. “Jeeze, I think the door is going to melt.”
“Not melt - vanish,” Henry said, raising his eyebrows as the door grew transparent. The fire licked into invisibility, they could see outside. The forms of the men moved behind hot waves of distortion. Gunshots rang out. Some of them screamed as they went into the water, then the walkway began to glow and they turned to fire and transparency just like the door.
Paul saw Jacklac leaping inside from the eyelet, and then he turned and saw the forms of the men reappearing on the inside on the spotlighted strip. As they gained definition, it was clear they were no longer flesh and blood. Glowing gold and silver, they reappeared in metallic form. Statues locked in bizarre poses. Some with desperation on their faces, some in the middle of blows, others halfway through an attempt to jump. Their forms locked in fully for a moment, then there was a flash and the bodies became crystalline, darkened and collapsed. Black sparkling sand slid out and hit the floor. Their guns clattered, their clothes wilted then the door solidified and it was over.
Henry turned to Jacklac. “Anyone else on the wall?”
“Couple guys is all. If they haven't turned to sand, they should be in shortly.”
“We're lucky,” Paul said. “This place really was escape proof. If the force fields at the windows weren't out we couldn't have made it.”
“So it was a trap,” Jacklac said.
“Not a trap,” Paul said. “It's a transporter. They set it up so only robots can transport in through that door. That's why the men turned to metal first. The transporter we triggered assumed they were metal, and then when it couldn't complete its task it left them as sand. Look at their clothes and their guns - they're still intact.”
“I see,” Henry said. “Our jailers are smart bastards aren't they?”
“You mean we're smart bastards. This place still looks deserted. I think they're all dead.”
Something thumped behind them. Turning they saw a blackened corpse. A second one fell from the eyelet, hit the floor and smoked.
“They got everyone - the fuckers,” Jacklac said. “If they're not dead they will be.” He shook his fist and as he did, the lights came on.
They staggered back, overwhelmed by the enormity of the vaulted room. Paul scanned the area for guns and enemies but saw none. There was a lot of empty space, like the place had been cleaned out. Silver runways were on the floor and they led to other rooms. Rows of huge cylinders like organ pipes lined the north side and there was a mural of an angry crowd painted on the sixteen-foot stone blocks composing the far wall.
“Shit, I wave a fist and the lights come on,” Jacklac said.
“Place is designed for robots,” Paul said. “Certain movements are signals. Guess we had just better walk like stiffs. Don't want to signal for a recharge and turn on the energy cannons or something.”
Henry looked to the left. “That arch seems to be the main exit. Guess we go that way.”
Walking slowly they reached the arch and found themselves facing darkness. Jacklac walked in, shook a fist and again the lights came on. A much smaller room was revealed and this one had a number of screens framed on the walls.
Henry studied a large screen inside the door while Paul and Jacklac looked around warily. “Hey, I can see the surface,” Jacklac said, checking a screen. “People walking in a city. Man have things changed. Half of them look barely human.”
“I don't see a city,” Henry said. “I see nude people in a forest. Beautiful people.”
Paul glanced at the screen, seeing the sun and a field but no people. Then something else caught his eye and he walked across the room. He'd found a weapon of some kind. It was loose on the floor and looked like a ray gun. Picking it up he studied it then he walked back.
“Everyone sees something different in those view screens,” Paul said. “And if I know our jailers. Everyone human sees what they want to see and only robots see what's actually there.”
“No,” Jacklac said. “There's a beautiful world up there. Paradise. No cops, soldiers or war anymore. You can't see it because they don't want you to.”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “I guess they must want to get ate if they want you.”
“We can find out what's there when we get up there. Look at this gun I found. Some kind of robot gun, I think.”
“Don't test it here,” Henry said. “Let's take no chances before we get to the surface.”
Another arch took them into a room lined with transparent vats of bubbling orange liquid. A statue of a man stood beside one of the vats. They walked up and Henry touched the statue. “He's made of crystal.”
“I can see that,” Paul said. “That's a new version of the old guards' uniform he's wearing. Maybe a transporter beam turned him into crystal.”
“Yeah,” Henry said, “and maybe that gun you got there turns people into diamonds or something.”
“I think those vats are generators,” Jacklac said.
“Jump in and see,” Henry said then he followed Paul across the room to an elevator.
Paul heard wind and sand rattling in the shaft. The door wheezed open, suddenly revealing a silver floor. “If it's a transporter we'll get zapped,” he said.
“Might be,” Henry said, and then he was cut off as Jacklac pushed him from behind.
Paul was also shoved and he stumbled into the elevator with Henry. The door closed, lightning fast … and then they were going up. The door opened again and they were facing a storage room lined with shelves of robot parts. Hands, faceplates, and breastplates gleamed, but there was no movement. Paul faced Henry. “Guess Jacklac wants us dead.”
“Unfortunately for him this really is an elevator,” Henry said.
“What do you suppose his motive is?”
“Don't know. Looks like he just went nuts. I was expecting you to make the move.”
“Because I know you were put down to make sure no one escapes. But you would've made a move by now, so what's your game?”
“It’s simple - I don't know what's up there or whether they're human. You're human and have spent all these years in the prison. I'd rather let you get up and see the light. Decide for yourself whether you want to live in the new world. I have to make a choice, too … decide for myself - because maybe it's something I won't want to live in. I think the world exploded with change due to some new technology. Jacklac already made his decision - he tried to kill us so he's dead. We finish him then we go up, and let's make damn sure we make it because someone's got to make all this shit worthwhile.”
Henry turned to the panel. “I think these depressions are the controls.” He hit the bottom one and the elevator shot back down, then the door opened and they raised their weapons.
Black sand blew on the floor, a shadow moved over by the vats. Silver flashed as Jacklac appeared. He had put on a silver breastplate and attached a device to his head.
Henry fired, the shots echoing as the bullets bounced off Jacklac's armor. Jacklac grinned as he stepped forward. “The view screen told me, Henry. This armor makes me a god. But there can only be one god that goes up.”
Jacklac raised a laser.
Paul thought of firing his own. Thinking furiously he decided to try something different. He raised the ray gun he'd found and squeezed the palm pad. Blue light, bright as shards of mirror and metal rained on Jacklac, freezing him and his weapon. Nuclear brilliance enveloped him, waves of cold air and sand swept the room. Paul and Henry had to cover their eyes.
His equilibrium lost, Paul had the feeling of tumbling in the cold void of outer space. Blinding stars shot out of the black, and through curtains of violet distortion, the room reappeared.
Jacklac was frozen like a statue, and he was all metal now - a complete robot. Paul looked to Henry; saw him shaking his head, rubbing his eyes. Then Jacklac moved - he lifted an arm and stared at it with copper eyes. His gaze turned to Paul. “Master,” he said in a metallic voice.
Paul stepped forward. “Robot, tell us how to get to the surface?”
“There are many ways for a robot.”
“I mean for a human. A way to get up without being destroyed.”
“The air train in the old crew quarters is the only way.”
Henry spoke. “Search your memory. Tell us what is up there.”
“Above is the sky and the reborn humans who left for the sky.”
“There are no men like us?”
“No, look in the screens and you will see what is up there for you.”
“Don't,” Paul said. “Unless you want to go mad like he did.”
“Can you lead us to the air train?” Henry said.
“Yes, follow,” the Jacklac robot said. He turned stiffly, feet heavy on the stone as he took a few steps. Then he stopped, and glowed - a yellow hue matching the liquid in the vats.
Paul and Henry backed away, the robot's right hand burst, showering sparks, fluid, plasma and metal. It fell forward, its head exploding, diamond-blue chips spilling and sparkling. Yellow liquid poured on the stone, parts of the body decayed to black sand and the rest of it vibrated.
“Not much meat for the appetite. Jeez, Jacklac sure never knew he'd die like that,” Henry said.
“Let's find the crew train and get out of here,” Paul said.
Passing through the arch Jacklac's metal incarnation had been trying to reach they found areas fitting the description of crew quarters. A long metallic hallway led to another elevator, and this time they got in without being pushed. It whooshed up at dizzying speed, a wind howling, unseen demons beating at the doors, and then it stopped quickly and opened on a platform.
It was dark but enough light emanated from the walls for them to see. Broken bodies were spilled on platform, half metal and sand, some had been human, others robots. The train was parked in the tunnel entrance - a sleek silver two-car vehicle. Paul stepped out cautiously then stopped as Henry suddenly started to run; he jumped bodies and trash - headlights came on as he reached the train, and he didn't stop, but ran in the open door.
There were no traps. Henry was inside and waving, so Paul ran to the train. His skepticism kept his emotions in check, but he could feel his mood rising. They just might make it, and then they might not - the train could fail or the tunnel could be blocked.
He stepped in quickly and Henry clapped him on the back. “We've made it,” he said. “This is it - it has to be. There are no more traps . . . I know it . . . they never dreamed it possible that we could make it this far.”
“Hope you're right,” Paul said as they walked to the controls and sat in the driver's shell.
Lights ignited in the silver panel. “It works,” Henry whispered, like it was the most awesome magic he'd ever witnessed.
Then Paul felt emotion well up and he shouted. “It's going to run! The god damn thing is going to take us up!” He grabbed Henry; put him in a joker's headlock. And when Henry broke free, he laughed. Laugher that was real and he laughed so hard tears came to his eyes.
Paul brought up a map console. A 3D picture of the route up and the control functions. He studied it for about five seconds. “It's the easiest thing I've used,” he said. “Hang on, because we're taking off.”
Air rushed like an ocean and engines whirred up like rockets as the car moved slowly into the tunnel. Paul hit the accelerator and they were squeezed back as the train raced upward at incredible speed. Sand whipped the shields, loose rocks swept the side, metal clanged and the train knocked bent reinforcement beams aside.
Gong sounds whammed their ears as the train ripped into falling debris. “Come on, baby. Don't let us down now,” Paul said. He ground his teeth, looked to Henry and saw him grinning, crossed fingers held up. Then the train started to auto-decelerate.
It skated into a parking bay, the engines already winding down. Twenty seconds later, it touched down on the silver runway and the doors opened.
Spotlights lit the bay, revealing a huge empty area. Polished floors, shining metal walls, a huge arched ceiling. And nothing else - no equipment, benches, guard posts.
“I see no guards, no weapons,” Henry said.
“Looks like they polished this place … cleaned everything out and abandoned it long ago. I wonder why?”
“Whatever is out that door is why,” Henry said. “Let's go.”
Getting up they ran out as the train engine shut off. Keeping on the run, they crossed the bay to the door. It didn't open automatically and they could see no way of opening it from the inside.
“I feel like I'm being watched,” Paul said, wincing at the bright lights shining down.
“Use the laser, cut us out.”
They both stepped back as Paul uncapped the laser. Sparks flew as the beam hit the door. “Damn thick stuff,” Paul said as acrid fumes from the cooling train engine pinched his face.
“Just keep working,” Henry said. “It's starting to cut.”
“Be ready. We have to hit the deck if anybody is outside that door.”
“If it looks clear we move out fast,” Henry said. “If anyone's in the way we shoot them.”
Blue flames skated on the steel as the beam moved up, then they heard a whoosh and the huge bay started to move.
Paul shut off the beam. “I think I triggered it open,” he said.
Henry raised his rifle. “Could be somebody opening it from the outside.”
Squealing, throwing dust and caked rust from the crack, the huge metal door slid sideways. Sunlight shone in as the world was revealed. A fresh breeze blew in and they saw maple trees, wild flowers, blue sky and an open forest field. Henry stuttered … a few words of awe. Paul couldn't speak. The door picked up speed, opening all the way.
“Paradise. No people yet, but paradise,” Henry said, almost whispering as they both threw down their weapons and ran.
Paul beat Henry to the door. Leaping from the apron, he rolled in the long grass, got up and kept running. A glittering pond was ahead, he glanced up at the sky, and it was there that he saw the people . . . beautiful faces, shimmering forms, whirling and vanishing in charged sunlight. They were more than human. He heard their ghostly voices, their songs, and they touched his soul with warmth that melted the isolation, loneliness and long bitter years of imprisonment.
He tumbled, rolled and got to his knees in the clover. Joy overwhelmed him as the voices spoke to him. A tear rolled from his eye . . . falling lightly as it faded with the rest of his body. Then he rose as mist to join the sky and humanity.
Henry saw Paul vanishing -- rising, and finally the faces … the shock of it breaking his run, causing him to trip and fall in the long grass by the pond. He stood up, then the faces overwhelmed him and he fell on his back. He stared at the sky, watching Paul's form spin into golden mist. He heard the voices and he began to laugh. He choked then he laughed like a mad man. The knowledge came to him and he began to weep. Biting his tongue, he let a last taste of blood fill his mouth. He felt himself sinking, and saw his body melting, becoming blood and sand. Henry knew he belonged to the grave and to the past … and not to the sky.
---- the end -----
Other full length fiction by Gary L Morton, available via web lookup in print and eBook
Channeling the Demon
Channeling the Vampire
Indian Falls - alien invasion
Cult of the Comet
The Rainmaker & Other Tales
Fabulous Furry World
Walking Dead Man’s Blog & Halloween Tales
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