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15

When I can't talk and can't act and can't work . . . I drive. I cruised down the various highways—the Northway, then part of the Thruway, 787, back to I-90—the windows wide open and the wind roaring at sixty-five. Even so, I barely felt any cooler; for sheer miserable muggy heat, it's hard to beat the worst summer days of Albany, New York, and its environs, which unfortunately includes Morgantown.

How long I was out there driving I wasn't sure. For a while I just tried to follow the moon as it rose slowly, round and white. It was the flashing red lights that finally drew my attention back down to earth.

No, they weren't chasing me—I wasn't speeding; there were two police cars up ahead and flares in the road. I slowed and started to go around them; then I saw a familiar, slender figure standing at one car. I pulled up just ahead of the squad car. "What's up, Renee?" I asked.

She jumped and her hand twitched towards her gun. "Jesus! I didn't even hear you come up."

That was weird in itself. "Must be something pretty heavy if you didn't notice Mjolnir pulling in."

She gestured. "Take a look if you want. Just don't go beyond the tape. We're still working here."

I went down the steep, grassy embankment carefully, finally pulling out my penlight to pick my way down. Despite the moon it was pitchy dark, and the high, jagged pines blocked out what feeble light there was; at least it was cooler under the trees. The slope leveled out, and the light from the crime scene started brightening. The police had set up several portable floods and the area was almost bright as day. I stopped just at the tape.

At first it just looked like someone had stood near the middle of the clearing and spun around while holding a can of red-brown paint. Then one of the investigators moved to one side.

A body was sprawled, spread-eagled in the center of the clearing. The green eyes stared sightlessly upward and the mouth hung open in a frozen scream. His throat had been torn out. The charcoal-gray suit was flung wide open, the white shirt now soaked in red-brown clotting blood where his gut was ripped open. My stomach gave a sudden twist as my gaze reached his waist.

Something had torn his legs, still in the pant legs, off at the hip; then that something had stripped every ounce of meat off the bones and laid the bones carefully back, to gleam whitely where the legs had been.

I got my stomach under control. A few months ago I might have lost it, but since then I'd watched a vampire fry under a hundred sunlamps; that's about as gross as it gets.

Still, it was an ugly sight, and I felt pretty shaky as I climbed back up the hill. "Jesus Christ, Renee! What kind of a sicko does things like that?"

She shook her head. "That's what we'd like to know."

"Who was he?" I asked.

"ID found on him says he's a Gerald Brandeis of Albany, New York. ID also says he's Morgan Steinbeck of Hartford, Connecticut. His last ID says he's Hamilton Fredericks of Washington, DC; also says he's a Fed."

That got my attention. "Fed? What kind of Fed?"

She glanced hard at me. I made a zipped-lips motion. I may not be with the police, but they make a lot of use of my agency and I've done them a lot of favors. Renee in particular knew she could trust me. She nodded. "Okay, but make sure you keep it zipped. His ID says he's NSA, Special Division. Occupation is just 'Special Agent.' His Hartford ID makes him an insurance investigator for Aetna; the one for Brandeis gives him IRS status."

I whistled. "One heavy hitter, that's for sure. Was he carrying, and if so did he get off any shots?"

"Answer is yes to both." She pointed inside her squad car. I glanced in, could just make out a Beretta 9mm. "Smell indicates it was fired just recently and we found three shell casings. With all the blood around we haven't been able to tell if he hit anything offhand. We're trying to find the bullets, but in that sandy- soiled forest chances of getting all three is slim."

A blue-flashing vehicle pulled up; the medical examiner's office. He got out and nodded to me, turned to Renee. "Your people done?"

"With the body, yeah. But ask the other officers to direct you, we're nowhere near finished with the site yet and we don't want anything here messed up." The ME gestured and he and his assistants started down the hill.

"How'd you get on to this?" I asked Renee.

She looked uncomfortable. "Someone called us."

I could tell there was something bothering her. "Someone who found the body?"

She shook her head.

"Then what? Come on, Renee."

She shrugged. "The station got a call from someone at 7:40 p.m. who claimed to have left a body at this location. The operator said it sounded male, but kind of deep and strange. He didn't stay on long enough to trace."

"That is weird. I'd assume he didn't give a name."

"You'd assume wrong." Her face was grim. "He gave a name, all right.

"The name was Vlad Dracul."

 

 

 

16

Red liquid swirled warmly in the crystal glass, throwing off crimson highlights. Verne Domingo sipped. I swallowed some of my ginger ale, noticing how little I was affected these days by the knowledge that Verne was drinking blood.

"Why doesn't it clot?" I asked idly.

"Heparin, my friend. A standard anticoagulant."

"Doesn't that give you any problems?"

His warm chuckle rolled out. "Not in the least, Jason. Nor does anything else within the blood. Disease and toxins cannot harm me. It does change the taste somewhat, and on occasion I do need some fresh blood; but that, too, can be arranged. Enough of these pleasantries, Jason. Tell me what is bothering you."

"An awful lot of things, really. This has been the kind of day that makes me think I should have just slept on to tomorrow." I put the glass down and fiddled with my keys. "I really don't want to bother you, either. I guess any problems I have would seem pretty insignificant to you anyway."

"Perhaps not, my friend." He took another sip. "I am many centuries old, that is true, and such a perspective makes many mortal concerns seem at best amusing conceits. But the affairs of the heart, and the concerns of a friend, these things are eternal. Those . . . immortals who lose sight of their basic humanity become as was your friend Elias Klein."

Klein had been a damn good cop who also turned out to be a vampire; he'd tried to frame Verne Domingo for the killings Elias was responsible for, and when I'd gotten too close to the truth he'd gotten me to go after Domingo. Fortunately for me, though Domingo was indeed a drug runner, he also had a code of honor and knew what the real score was. With his help I'd finally figured out that Elias was behind it all. Elias almost killed me before I trapped him in a tanning booth.

He put the glass down. "Truly, Jason. I am interested. It is a rare thing for me, remember, to again think of, and take part in, the ordinary things of humanity."

That much was true. "Well, first, I had to give a speech to a bunch of high school kids on information science. That wouldn't have been so bad except that one of them had seen that 'Paranormal Investigators' ad that Sylvie put in the psychic journals. I had my fill of Ghostbuster and Buffy jokes long ago."

"Understandable. Go on."

"Then I get back and Sylvie wants to talk to me." I hesitated.

He smiled. He probably meant it to comfort me, but the kindly effect was slightly offset by the sight of his fangs. "I can guess, my friend. The affaire d'amour, eh? And you are, I have noticed, a bit uncomfortable with the subject."

I stared carefully at my drink. "That obvious, huh?"

"Quite." He raised his glass and drank. "A word of advice, if you will take it? Women are indeed different from men in many ways; but both like things that are certain and predictable. If you do not intend a romantic involvement with the young lady, then comport yourself accordingly. I know you, my young friend. You are attracted to her, but at the same time I can sense that you are, to put it bluntly, petrified at the thought of such an involvement. When she demands a decision, she is not telling you to either become involved with her or she will leave; she is telling you to treat her as either lover or simple friend, not something of each. It may be easy for you to behave as your impulses lead; it is hard on her."

I stared harder at my glass. That was a cutting analysis. I hate having to see myself like that. But he was right. "Sylvie . . . she's different from everyone else. It's strange, really. You intimidate me a lot less than she does."

Verne laughed. "Now that is odd, my friend. I agree, most certainly, that the lady is different. She has a Power which is rare, rarer even than you or she realize, especially in this day and age. But for a man who has dueled one of the Undead and emerged the victor, a talented young lady should hardly be a great threat." His smile softened. "It seems to me that, just perhaps, the reason is that she is more precious to you than any others because of this talent—she sees within the souls of those about her, and thus you know she accepts what you are more fully than anyone else living could. To a bachelor such as yourself, she is indeed a grave threat."

I couldn't restrain a nervous laugh of my own. "I couldn't be that cliched, could I?"

The old vampire smiled again. "I am afraid, my friend, that we are all too often the cliches of our times. I am only unusual because I have outlived all those who would recognize me. Yet, in your own fiction, I have found myself being stereotyped once more." He finished the glass of blood and set it down. "Was there anything else, Jason? Though I will admit that ridicule followed by friendship troubles is quite enough to make a bad day, I suspect something worse would be needed to make you come here."

I nodded. "You could say that." In a few sentences I outlined the horror in the clearing. "So you see I had to come here."

He raised an eyebrow as he finished his glass. "I don't quite see that you had to come here."

"Reisman may be thinking psycho right now, but that's because your little hypnotism job, or whatever you call it, keeps her from remembering that there's a local vampire who could do that to someone a heckuva lot easier than an ordinary nut. And since the guy was a Fed . . . I had to find out from you if you did have him killed."

His lips tightened. "You offend me, Jason. Once before you suspected me of being a murderer, but then I had been well framed for the part. Now you know me, and yet you would think I would kill someone in such a grotesque way?"

"Look, I'm sorry, Verne. But it's a question I have to ask because Reisman can't ask it. I don't believe it. But Elias knew you were a drug-runner, and though we conveniently made that disappear when we did the great vampire coverup, Renee Reisman could easily find it out again, and then she would be up here grilling you. Even though you've changed your profession since, the fact that you were ever involved in that kind of thing won't look good." He sat back slowly, and I relaxed a bit. Pissing a vampire off isn't the way to ensure a long life—what he'd done to Carmichael's estate had shown that all too well. "I did have another couple of reasons. I thought you might know something, maybe about another vampire that for some ungodly reason decided to move here."

He shook his head, hesitated a moment, then spoke. "As you know, vampires are one of the few sorts of beings that I cannot sense automatically. Unless your hypothetical newcomer were to introduce himself, I'm afraid that I would have no better idea than you of his presence. Besides that, it stretches the bounds of reason to suppose that three vampires would be found in such close proximity." He chuckled slightly. "We are a rare race; were the environmentalists aware of us, I would not be surprised to find us on an endangered species list. I am still somewhat puzzled by Klein's presence; he obviously became a vampire relatively recently, yet his maker seemed unconcerned with either Klein's behavior or survival."

I raised an eyebrow. "You mean his maker might have objected to what he did?"

Verne nodded. "As a general rule, they try not to make waves, so to speak, for other beings that live in the twilight world between your civilization's 'reality' and the lands of myth. And, not to sound overly egotistical, I am an extremely well-known member of that group. I would have expected his maker to be extremely concerned about annoying me by involving me in the manner Klein did. And, indeed, if I discover who was responsible for making him and leaving him uncontrolled, I will . . . have a talk with that person."

"We never did find out how or why Klein became a vampire; couldn't this killing be due to whoever Klein's maker was?"

Verne rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It is possible, of course. But a vampire who had decided on such a bizarre method of killing . . . I find it difficult to believe such a nosferatu would waste so much blood. But you said 'a couple' of other reasons. What was the other?"

"The murderer apparently phoned headquarters . . . and he gave his name as Vlad Dracul."

I would never have believed it was possible, but the blood drained straight out of Verne's face, leaving him literally white as paper. "Vlad Dracul . . . that is not possible. It must not be possible." His voice was a whisper. I felt gooseflesh rising on my arms; Verne sounded afraid. 

I didn't even want to imagine what could scare him. "Of course it's impossible. Vlad Tepes, the Dracula of legend, died a long, long time ago." Another thought occurred to me. "Unless . . . given the initials . . . you were him."

He made a cutting gesture with his hand, his ruby ring flashing like a warning. He stepped to the window; for several minutes he stared out at the moonlit landscape. "I'd rather not discuss this now, Jason. I must make some inquiries." He turned back to me. "I'm sorry to cut this short, but you'll have to leave now."

One look was enough to convince me not to argue. "Okay, Verne. Can you just tell me one thing?"

"Perhaps."

"Is it another vampire? Is that what you think?"

A very faint, eerie smile crossed his face. My skin prickled anew. "A vampire? Oh, no, not a vampire."

That smile stayed with me all the way home.

 

 

 

17

The door opened. "Jason!" Sylvie said, looking surprised.

"Hi, Syl. Can I come in?"

"Sure. Watch out for the books on the floor, I'm rearranging the library."

I stepped in. I noticed again the odd, warm smell of her house; the dusty, comfortable scent of old books blended with a faint tinge of kitchen spices and old-fashioned perfume, a smell that didn't fit someone as young and gorgeous as Syl—except that, somehow, it did fit, because it was Sylvie's house. Sylvie stepped ahead of me and carefully lifted a stack of books off a large chair.

"I suppose I should apologize, Jason. I was pretty hard on you."

"No, Syl, you were right." I sat down; she took the arm of the couch right next to me. "I've been trying to have it both ways and it doesn't work. I can't flirt with you half the time and then expect you to act just like a friend the other half. You can't just switch your behavior to match whatever my mood is, and even if you could it's wrong for me to expect you to."

"I know, Jason," she said gently. She put her hand on my shoulder. "I'm the person you've practically told your life story to, remember? I'm only a little surprised that you've understood yourself so quickly."

"It wasn't me, really. Someone who has better perception than I do held a mirror up to my face."

She shuddered slightly. "It was Domingo, wasn't it? You'd have named anyone else."

"Yeah. Syl, why are you so bothered by him?"

She stared at me, wide-eyed. "Why am I bothered by him? He's a vampire! The question should be why you have anything to do with him! I'm gone for a week or so, and when I get back I find you've gone from turning up your nose at the drug-runner to being his best buddy! For that matter," she frowned, "why does he have anything to do with you? I still don't understand why he let us remember. It sure would have been simpler for him to make all of us forget."

"I've gotten to know him since. He's lonely, Syl! Just think about it for a minute. Here you are, immortal, for most purposes invulnerable, with all these superhuman powers, and at the same time you don't dare mention it to anyone! I think he got to the point that, when he realized that I wasn't all that scared of him, he just couldn't make himself do it. He needs someone he can talk to, someone who knows what he is and still will treat him like a person.

"Also, that's smuggled drugs, not smuggles. Those stories aren't just for show—he really has become an art and artifact expert." I hadn't gone over the entire story before with Syl, and didn't want to muddy the waters right now.

Syl's face was serious now. She's very empathic; I could see that she understood. "But why did he leave me with my memory?"

I grinned wryly. "Because I told him that if he even thought about messing with your mind I would hammer a spruce through him! He knew I meant it, too. I could barely accept him mind-twisting acquaintances like the coroner; no way would I let him mess with my friends."

"You let him do it to Reisman."

"Nope. Renee told him to do it. She said that she would be better off not knowing, and it would help her carry conviction in the story we cooked up."

Syl shook her head. "It won't work, Jason. You're telling me you threatened him off? He could have had you dumped in a river anytime."

"I know. He respected my loyalty, I think. Besides, I still have the original evidence against him, plus Elias' old files. Then, later on, well, we became friends." I looked at her. "I also think he hoped you would visit him. He speaks very highly of you."

She looked surprised at that, then thoughtful. "Jason, why were you there yesterday evening? I know it wasn't just to talk about your love life."

"You're right." I gave her the whole story along with everything Verne had said. Just as I finished, the phone rang. It was Lieutenant Reisman. She was calling from a pay phone, so I took the number and called her back. "What's up, Renee?"

"Remember our Federal friend? Well, his business associates showed up. We've been told to butt out; national security and all that."

"Well, we could have predicted that. SOP."

Renee snorted. "Bullshit, Wood. Usually the Feds cooperate with the locals; they don't want to piss us off. When they go into a total stonewall like this, they're not kidding around."

"So why call me?"

"Because I know you, Wood. You dropped into the middle of it and you never give up on anything. I haven't told them you're in the picture. No one else on the site really saw you except the ME, and he's so close-mouthed he wouldn't say if he saw his own mother at her funeral. I'm just warning you about what kind of trouble you could be in if you keep poking into this."

"What about you?"

There was a pause, then an explosive, short laugh. "Yeah, you know me too."

"Can you get me the ME report?"

She thought for a moment. "I'll have to figure out some way to weasel it out of him without alerting the Feds, but yeah, I think I can. So what are you going to do for me?"

"My job. Get you information." I smiled slowly. "Don't you think it might help if we can find out why they're so worried?"

She hesitated. "It sure would. But I don't want to know how you get it."

"Right. Look, why don't you come over for dinner tomorrow, if you're not too busy? I should have something by then, and hopefully they won't try to listen in. We can set up some way to talk safely then."

"Okay. And, Jason," her tone shifted, "be careful. This is dangerous stuff we're playing with."

"I know. Bye."

I looked up at Syl. One glance froze me. She had that deep-eyed, deadly serious look again. Her "feeling" look. I trust those feelings with my life. "What is it, Syl?"

"It's bad, Jason. Very bad." She shivered. "More people are going to die before this is over."

 

 

 

18

I got back to my house, opened the door, and went to the kitchen. A few minutes later, sandwich and soda next to me, I booted up my terminal program. I needed to contact "Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis." Manuel was actually a fairly high-placed military intelligence analyst. I thought he was Air Force, but there was no way to be sure. I sent him a secured e-mail, asking for a conference. He agreed, and we set up the doubly secured relay, with me supplying a few bells and whistles that would make anyone trying to trace either one of us end up chasing their own tails through Ma Bell's systems. As per our long-established habits, neither of us used the other's real name; to him, I was "Mentor of Arisia," and he remained "Manuel."

>>Hello, Mentor. What's up?<<

>>Got a problem. You have time?<<

>>Two hours enough?<<

>>Should be.<<

I filled him in on the situation, leaving out the gory details and concentrating on the NSA factors.

>>Can you find out what their angle is?<<

>>Christ. You don't ask for much, do you. Look, I can check into it, but you'd do better to just drop out, you know?<<

>>I can't. It'd nag at me forever.<<

>>I know the feeling. :) Just remember, anything I tell you, I didn't tell you. Right?<<

>>Right.<<

I signed off, then finally got on to one of the underground boards; one run by a pirate and hacker that I knew pretty well.

>>Hello, Demon? You there?<<

>>Readin' you loud and clear, Mentor old buddy. You slumming?<<

>>Looking for info, as usual. You still keep up on the doings of the rich and infamous?<<

>>Best I can, you can bet on it.<<

The Demon was a damn good hacker and very well informed. He kept an eye on criminal doings not merely on the Net, but throughout the world. He viewed his piracy as a matter of free information distribution; since I make my living by distributing information and getting paid for that service, I found myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with him. Nonetheless, we got along pretty well since the Demon absolutely hated the real Darksiders—people who destroyed other's work. To his mind, copying information was one thing. Destroying or corrupting it was another thing entirely.

>>Demon, what's going on now that might be bothering the Feds?<<

>>You talking big or little?<<

>>Big, but not like countries going to war; NSA stuff.<<

>>Hold on. Lemme think.<<

I waited.

>>Okay, there are about three things I can think of; but lemme ask, did something happen in your area?<<

>>Yes, that's how I got interested.<<

>>Got you. That only leaves one. NSA and the other agencies have been checking your general area trying to locate a real nasty Darksider who calls himself Gorthaur. He's a real sleaze. None of the respectable hackers will deal with him, but no one's really got the guts to tell him to kiss off. There are a lot of ugly rumors about him. Or her, no one's really sure either way. Gorthaur's been heavy into espionage and industrial spying and sabotage. A real prize.<<

>>He ever sign on your board?<<

>>He did until I found out who he was. Far as I know, I'm the only one to tell him what I thought of him. I told him that he'd better not log back on 'cause if I ever got anything on him I'd turn him over to the cops so fast it'd make his chips spin.<<

>>Bet he didn't like that.<<

>>He told me that it wasn't healthy to get in his way. I told him to save the threats for the kiddies.<<

I frowned at that.

>>Look, Demon, if it turns out this Gorthaur is part of what I'm involved in, you'd better take his warning seriously. There's already one corpse and the place is crawling with NSA.<<

>>I'll be careful then.<<

I got off and sat back. Then I shut the system down and got up, turned around. A tall, angular, dark figure loomed over me, scarcely a foot away.

"Holy SHIT!" I jumped back, tripped over the chair, dropped my glass, fell. My head smacked into the edge of the table and I flopped to the floor and just lay there as the red mist cleared.

"My apologies, Jason. Let me help you up." Verne Domingo pulled me to my feet as though I were a doll.

I pushed him away; he let go. "Christ! What in hell did you think you were doing? You scared me into next week!" I rubbed the already growing lump on my skull.

"I have said I was sorry. I did not wish to call you via phone; the government has ears, after all. And coming obviously in person would call just as much attention. I had only just materialized when you turned, and I had no chance to warn you."

"Okay, Okay. Sorry I yelled." I started for the kitchen, went towards the freezer.

"Sit, Jason. I will take care of that." He took the handtowel from the countertop, rinsed it, dumped several ice cubes into it. Then he folded the towel into a bundle and squeezed. I heard splintering noises as the ice was crushed. "There. Put that on the swelling."

I did. The cold helped, even when it started to ache. "What'd you have to see me for?"

"To explain, my friend." He stood with his back to the refrigerator, stiff and somehow sad. "The story you told me last night . . . it had very disturbing elements in it, very disturbing indeed. I had to check them before I could believe what my heart knew was the truth. Now I must tell you what is happening here, and for you to understand, you must hear a little history.

"Vampires are among the most powerful of what you would call the supernatural races, but we are not the only such; most have either long since died out or else found some way to leave this world that is no longer congenial to them, but a few, either through preference or necessity, still live on. My people are, on the whole, cautious not to arouse the awareness of you mortals, and this suits us. Bound as we are to the world in which we are born, we cannot leave, and so we live as best we can without doing that which could rouse you who now rule it to pursue us.

"There was another race, however, which was not so circumspect. They did not reproduce as we do, by converting mortals; they reproduced themselves as do most races, and this is perhaps why they had less sympathy for your people. But more likely they lacked sympathy because it was not in their nature; for they preyed on us as well." He looked at me steadily. "Your people call them werewolves."

I blinked. "Oh, no. Not again."

"I am afraid so. You have stumbled into the realm of the paranormal once more."

Vaguely I had the feeling that there was something missing—something Verne was avoiding telling me. But it wasn't central; the main points, I was sure, were the real thing. But something else wasn't quite . . . right. Well, maybe he'd clear that up later. I grimaced. "What was that line from Die Hard 2? 'How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?' Look, how could werewolves prey on you? I mean, you guys are awfully hard to kill and once you die, well, you go to dust, at least the older ones. Klein took several days. Not much to eat there. Besides, couldn't you just turn around and eat them?"

"We are not as invulnerable as you think." He hesitated. "The truth is that it is not merely wood which can harm us. Wood harms us because it was once living. Any object composed of living or formerly living matter can harm us. Thus the werewolves could kill us with their formidable natural weaponry. As for the feeding . . . your writers have often glimpsed the truth. They did indeed consume flesh; but more, they fed on the raw emotions. Fear and despair, terror and rage, these things strengthened them; and when their victim finally died, they fed, directly, on the life force, the soul if you will, as it passed from the body. Nor could we return the favor. Their blood-scent was enticing, true; but any attempt to drain them only succeeded in slaying both parties. We immortals were a rare delicacy to them, and they hunted us with great enthusiasm.

"That threat accomplished what none of our talking had managed before; we united against the lycanthropes, and waged a long and bitter war. In the end we destroyed them. I myself confronted the last, and greatest, of the breed, and I slew him with great pleasure. He had been terrorizing the city of London while using a name which he knew would taunt me."

"Vlad Dracul."

He nodded.

"And now you wonder if you really killed him at all."

"No." He sat slowly. "I do not wonder at all. I know now that I did not kill him; that somehow he survived what I had believed were mortal wounds."

"You'd better tell me everything about these things. Especially how to kill them."

"Silver is the only way. I do not know in what manner, but the metal somehow disrupts their internal balance. Both teeth and claws, in their lupine form, are of some crystalline substance of great toughness. Their strength is immense, their cunning formidable, and their ability to shift shape, though confined to a wolflike predator on the one hand, is unlimited in the human range; they can be anyone at all. They do not fear night or day, nor does the phase of the moon have any effect upon them. They also have a talent similar to my own to charm and cloud other minds. They do not have my people's ability to dematerialize, but they can prevent us from using it if they get a hold on us."

"Ugh. Tell me, do they become stronger with age like you vampires?"

"I am afraid so."

"And this one was the biggest, oldest, baddest of the werewolves when you fought him?"

"Quite. I was not alone, however."

"Not alone? You mean you couldn't handle him by yourself?" The thought was terrifying. I knew how strong Klein had been, how hard he was to kill, and since then I'd seen what Verne was capable of; trying to imagine something powerful enough to beat a vampire as ancient as Verne . . . 

He showed his fangs in a humorless grin. "I will admit that we never found out. I had two companions . . ." He hesitated again before continuing, " . . . both of them . . . leaders of their own clans or families of vampires. Though normally enemies, we had realized that these creatures were more of a threat to us all than any of us. We ambushed him, all striking at once with the silver knives I had designed, and threw the body in the Thames. He never had a chance to strike back."

"Marvelous." I shook my head. "Well, at least you've eased my mind on one thing."

"That being . . . ?"

"I hate coincidences. I don't believe in them. Now I know why he's ended up here." I looked across the table. "He's been tracking you. And he's going to kill you if he can."

Verne Domingo nodded slowly.

 

 

 

19

"Okay, Jason, what've you got?"

That was Renee, straight to the point. "A whole lot. But first, come here; there's someone I want you to meet."

She followed me to the living room. Verne rose from the red chair, bowed as I introduced them. "Renee Reisman, Verne Domingo."

She didn't shake hands. "Jason, we've had our eye on this man for some time. I'd like to know just what his connection is with you."

"I shall explain, my lady," Verne said. "Look at me," he continued in a low but commanding voice.

Reflexively she shot a glance into his eyes—and froze.

He stepped closer, touched her temple gently with his right hand. He gazed intensely at her for several seconds. "Remember," he said.

Renee's eyes widened. A choked scream burst from her lips, and she staggered back, sagged, pale and shaking, onto my couch. "Oh dear God . . ." She closed her eyes, massaged her temples, and took several ragged breaths. Finally she raised her head. "I . . . I remember now. But until now, it was like those memories didn't even exist." She stared at Verne, still shaking.

"My sincerest apologies, Renee—may I call you Renee? Those memories were still there; merely locked away, as you requested. But Jason has convinced me that we need your aid, and we both knew that you must have your full memory to help us."

The old Renee was reasserting herself, albeit slowly. "That bad, huh?" She raised an eyebrow at me. "I'd assume that his being here means that he isn't our killer."

"You're right."

She turned back to Verne. "Okay, Domingo. Now that my brain is back, this had better be real good. Because," she shivered again, "I don't think that I'll be able to go through that again. Having my memory switched on and off like a light . . ."

Verne smiled, the gentlest expression I'd ever seen him use; his fangs didn't show. "Milady, you showed courage far greater than mine to undergo that treatment once; neither of us either desired or expected that you would once more ask to forget."

"Damn straight." She ran her fingers through her hair, took a deep breath, and crossed her legs. "All right, let's have it."

 

 

 

20

I logged on and checked; I had a secured e-mail waiting. I pulled it up onscreen.

The message decoded just as though Manuel had sent it . . . but it wasn't from Mannie at all. That was so close to impossible that for a moment I couldn't do anything except gape. Then I reread the signature at the bottom, and understood.

* * *

Mentor (or should I say, Jason?): I'm sorry to tell you that Manuel has gotten himself into a bit of trouble by poking his nose into this. He doesn't have nearly the clearance necessary. He's being debriefed right now, but I'd suggest you not contact him for a while; not only is he more than slightly peeved at you, but any more contact from the outside might be taken seriously amiss by his superiors.

Since he emphatically assured me that you're too stubborn to be frightened off, and because we happen to be kindred spirits in a way, I'll give you what information I can. But let me warn you: this is dangerous. You and everyone you know could get killed if you play these games. So give serious consideration to just dropping it.
 

"Vlad Dracul" is apparently another alias being used by an independent operator called "Gorthaur." Gorthaur plays no favorites; he's been bypassing security and penetrating installations on five continents. Very rarely does he take direct credit for his actions except for those which he perpetrates on the Net—that's where he gets his name.
 

What tells us that Gorthaur's involved is the sheer perfection of his work. In every case, Gorthaur penetrates the installation in the guise of a high-clearance individual who is well known to the personnel. Fingerprints, retinals, passwords, everything checks out perfectly. These individuals vary in age, height, weight, and even sex to such a degree that we are utterly unable to imagine how one person can be doing all of these impersonations. Yet other subtle indicators tell us that it is just one person. So far, three agents have been killed in particularly savage ways while trying to locate Gorthaur. The one found in Morgantown thought he had found a hot trail. Apparently he had. Gorthaur exhibits psychopathic strength and savagery, and has killed several other people who apparently offended him at one point or another. Our best psych profile makes him out to be a complete sociopath with a megalomanic complex, but there are enough anomalies that we can't even begin to classify him. He's unique.

Watch your back. If he can disguise himself this well, he could be anyone.

The JAMMER

* * *

The Jammer; hacker legend, thief, one of the few completely nonviolent criminals to make the ten-most-wanted list, and probably the only one who never had a picture to go with the wanted poster. No one knew anything about him—even the "him" was in question. He'd disappeared a couple of years ago, and everyone had thought he'd retired, having made far more money than he'd ever need. Now it was clear that he'd been caught and recruited. But someone with his talents couldn't be forced to work, so they must have shown him something so important that he chose to work for them rather than against them.

I erased the message and sat back, sweating. Who knew what this werewolf wanted, really? Vengeance against Verne Domingo I knew about, but that would hardly drive him to go breaking into top secret vaults in other countries. He had to have some other, larger agenda. And how in the name of God could you catch something that could change sex, fingerprints, and genetics at will?

There wasn't any way, I realized. The only chance to catch Gorthaur was to get him to come to us, and only one thing was keeping him here: Verne Domingo. Once he settled with Verne, he'd vanish forever.

I logged off that one, got on to the Demon's board. He didn't respond to my query; probably at dinner, which was where I should be. Then I noticed one of my status tags:

 

Email: Waiting: 0 Old: 3

 

The last time I'd been on, there'd only been two old messages. I called up the last one:

* * *

>>From System Operator DEMON<<

Okay, if it's that important we can meet in person. Be here at six; we'll have dinner. I don't like it, Mentor; this had better be worth it.
THE DEMON

(____)
\* */
\#/

* * *

What the hell? I hadn't written him in mail at all lately! Who . . . ?

Suddenly it hit me. If even the Jammer couldn't catch this guy . . . I shut the computer off and sprinted for Mjolnir. I had a sickening feeling I was too late.

 

 

 

21

I slammed the brakes on and skidded into place in front of the Demon's house. I was out the door before the engine finished dying out, my S&W 10mm out and ready. I rang the bell. No answer. I tried the door.

The door swung open quietly at my touch; it was already unlatched. The hallway was dim and silent. "Yo! Demon!" I called.

No answer.

My heart was hammering too damn fast; I'd swear it was audible a hundred feet away. I stepped slowly into the house. In the faint light I could see the hallway and the stairs going to the second floor, and two entryways; I knew that one led to his living room, the one on the left, and past that was the den where his computer was. I took my coat off slowly and threw it through the entry. It hit the rug; nothing else moved. I dove into the living room, rolled as I hit, came up with my back to the far corner, gun up.

Nothing. Just furniture.

A faint creaking noise came from ahead of me. I stood stock- still, listening. The wind outside moaned. The creak came again. It was emanating from the den. The den door was ajar; I could see the white glow of his monitor screen leaking from the room.

I went forward one step at a time, trying to watch all directions at once; my ears would have pricked up if they could. The only sounds I heard were the whistle of the wind and that faint, periodic creaking.

I reached the door. Taking a deep, shaky breath, I flung the door wide.

A horrid red-splotched face swung toward me; I almost fired, then stopped and lowered the gun. "Jesus Christ . . ." I muttered.

Jerome Sumner, aka the Demon, hung head-down from one of the big beams of his old house. The rope that was tied around his ankles creaked as he swung slowly in the wind from the open window. His eyes stared blankly at me; his mouth was jammed open with a crumpled floppy disk. The place was filled with the faint metallic scent of the blood on his face, his clothes, the floor. I glanced away, saw his computer.

It was covered with spatters of blood; lying on top of the keyboard was a shapeless dark object. I moved closer.

It was the Demon's tongue. I swallowed bile, looked at the screen.

The BBS was off; instead there was a banner-making program on. Four giant words blazed on the screen:

He Talked Too Much  

I was still staring a few minutes later when the NSA arrived.

 

 

 

22

I looked up as the cell door opened. Renee entered. She walked over and took my hand without a word. After a moment, she said, "You okay?"

"I guess," I said finally. "Am I getting out of here?"

"Fucked if I know," Renee said. "Jason, what were you doing over at Jerome Sumner's?"

"Bending over and getting screwed by the bastard who killed him." The fury overwhelmed me for a moment; I slammed my fist into the wall, then nursed my bruised hand. "I was set up perfectly. He was killed by this 'Vlad' guy you're looking for, and I'm supposed to take the fall."

She might have been in uniform, but she was here as a friend. Her hand on my shoulder told me that. "You won't. No one who knows you will believe it."

"But the NSA doesn't know me. How does the evidence look?"

Renee Reisman screwed up her face. "Not good. You were found there. Your fingerprints were all over the place, including on the keyboard . . . on just the keys necessary to put up that banner."

Jesus Christ. Of course they were. The bastard was imitating me! "But the way he was killed—I don't even think I could do that, even if I wanted to."

She shook her head. "You know the answer to that. Besides, you're a smart guy, Jase. Always were. Prosecution wouldn't have any problem convincing people that you could figure out how to do it." She hugged me suddenly. "I just came to let you know I'm with you. I could pull strings and get myself here. Sylvie's pulling for you too."

I hugged her back, feeling suddenly scared. If the NSA followed the evidence . . . and Gorthaur was as good at this as he seemed to be . . . I could end up put away for life. "Thanks, Renee. I mean it."

"We should get together more often. Not in a jail cell, either." She smiled faintly, and for a moment she looked like the same girl I'd first met in junior high. "You aren't going to jail. I promise you."

"Exceeding our authority a bit, Lieutenant?" a precise voice said from the doorway.

We both jumped slightly. The woman who entered was in her mid to late thirties, sharp-featured, with red hair and a tall, athletic frame. She was followed by a sandy-haired, somewhat younger man carrying a brown paper sack and a briefcase. The woman continued, "Fortunately, I don't like to make liars out of my professional associates. You aren't going to jail, Mr. Wood. Jeri Winthrope, Special Agent, at your service; this is my assistant and second pair of hands, Agent Steve Dellarocca." She extended her hand.

I shook it, then waited while Steve put down the stuff he was carrying and shook his, too. "Thanks. Glad to meet you. These have been the longest hours I've ever spent waiting anywhere."

"Couldn't be helped, I'm afraid. We didn't think you were the responsible party, but the evidence didn't look good. We had to check everything out thoroughly." She looked at Renee. "I'll have to talk to Mr. Wood alone now, Lieutenant Reisman."

Renee nodded. I gave her a smile and said, "Thanks, Renee."

"Don't mention it." The door closed behind her.

"Me, too, Jeri?" asked Steve.

"For now," Jeri said. "I want you to keep tabs on the rest of the operation."

"Gotcha. You know where to find me."

I became aware of the aroma of Chinese food coming from the bag Dellarocca had brought with him.

"Hope you like pork lo mein." Jeri said. "I thought you'd be hungry, and lord knows I never get a chance to eat in this job."

"Thanks." I started unpacking the food. "How did you people get there so fast, anyway? I only ended up there out of sheer luck."

"We got a call. Person said he heard screams from that house and saw a car pulling out fast."

"You got a call? That sounds more like police business."

She nodded. "We're manning the police phones. Mostly we just pass the stuff on, but it gives us the chance to keep sensitive material to ourselves."

"But what made that call sensitive?"

"The address. Your friend Jerome, the Demon, was on our little list of people who were potential targets of Gorthaur."

So she wasn't going to pretend I didn't know what was going on. That made it easier. "Why did he go after the Demon?"

"Several reasons. The major one is that Gorthaur hates to be laughed at or threatened; he's an utter psycho when it comes to insults. The Demon had thrown Gorthaur off his board and threatened him with exposure."

Nodding, I started to dig into the pork lo mein. Poor Demon. An image of him hanging head-down flashed in my mind; I put my fork down quickly; all of a sudden I wasn't hungry. "Okay; you seem to assume Gorthaur did him in. So what in the evidence keeps me from being Gorthaur?"

Winthrope gave a snort I interpreted as a chuckle. "Gorthaur may be able to do a lot of things we don't understand, but he's not omnipotent or omniscient. He's good at planting evidence, but apparently he either doesn't understand or neglected to remember what modern technology can do. Despite the caller's description matching your car, we were able to determine that your vehicle hadn't been there previously. We could tell how long it had been standing there—not long at all. Also, if you were calm enough to put up the banner program, you were very unlikely to have forgotten anything . . . and thus you'd never have come back." She smiled. "Interesting car, by the way. In your profession I suppose the electronic gadgetry should be expected, but I don't recall ever seeing an armored Dodge Dart before. Made us wonder if you were in our line of work for real, except that most of the other work seemed homemade rather than professional."

I grinned back. "Picked it up at one of those seized-property auctions; I think it belonged to a mid-level drug-runner. It was the silver-and-black color that caught my attention. That and the fact that I'd been shot at twice recently made an armored car sound like a good investment."

"I can understand that." She finished off an egg roll, then sat back. "Okay, let's get working. Everything here's being recorded, of course. We've got some questions for you and I hope you'll cooperate."

"Hey, I want this twit caught as much as you do. Maybe more; he killed my friend and tried to get me sent up."

"Right." She pulled out a laptop computer from a case slung over her shoulder, and opened it up. "First, tell me how you got into this and what you know so far."

I told the whole story, leaving out certain small points—like vampires and werewolves—starting with my arriving on the scene in the woods, and finishing up with finding Jerome dead. "That's about it."

"I don't suppose you'd like to tell me who your contact was that spilled the beans on Gorthaur and his particularly annoying technique?"

"Don't even think about it. Confidentiality is a large part of my business. If the police can't trust me to keep my mouth shut, they wouldn't hire me. Nor would a lot of other people."

"Thought not." She glanced at a few papers. "Okay, Mr. Wood, now let's have the whole story, shall we?"

Oh-oh. "What do you mean?"

"Give me some credit for brains, please. Interrogation is my business. I've been doing this for sixteen years now, and I assure you I know when I'm not getting everything. So far you haven't lied to me once . . . but I know damn well that you're hiding something. So let's try specific questions and answers, shall we?"

"Go ahead," I said, trying to look confused. "I'll tell you what I can."

"First, tell me: just what was your part in the death of Elias Klein."

What the hell had put her on that track? "He was trying to kill me and accidentally electrocuted himself; you can look that up in the records."

"Funny thing about those records," Winthrope said with a nasty smile. "I find the entire thing written up as you describe it . . . but the coroner's report is about as vague as I've ever seen. In fact, our analysis department gives a ninety-percent certainty that the report was totally fabricated."

Oh shit. "I'm not the coroner; you'd have to ask him."

"Oh, I intend to. But let's go on. What was Elias Klein working on before his unfortunate demise?"

"I'm not exactly sure. Sometimes I wasn't kept up on everything he did."

"Now, that's very odd, Mr. Wood, since he appears by this receipt to have used your services just days prior to his death. What is also very odd indeed is that Klein's files for his last investigation are not to be found."

Damn, damn, damn! Renee must've forgotten the accounting office files. Either that or, more likely, some of the stuff had been misfiled and was found and properly filed some months later.

"And finally, it is very interesting that neither of Mr. Klein's partners can give a detailed account of his investigations. However, we are fortunate in that the wife of one recalled a name that her husband had mentioned during the time in question: Verne Domingo."

That tore it. The great vampire coverup was full of more holes than a colander. "Okay, Ms. Winthrope. I'd like to tell you a story. But I can't do it without permission—it affects a lot more people than just me, and like I said, confidentiality is my business."

She studied me a moment. "Sure. Here, use mine. I'll be sitting right here, of course."

I grimaced. "Naturally." I took her cell phone and punched in Verne's number.

"Domingo residence, Morgan speaking."

"Hey, Morgan, this is Jason. I have to talk to Verne."

"Of course sir." A few moments went by, and then that well-known deep voice came on the line. "Jason! I heard you were arrested! Are you all right?"

"Physically I'm fine, but we have a serious issue. I'm being interrogated by an NSA agent named Jeri Winthrope, and she's been asking some really pretty pointed questions. In particular, she's been looking into the past history of certain people, and she wants the truth about Elias Klein."

Verne was silent for a few moments. "You do not believe you can, as you would put it, 'scam' her?"

"I wouldn't want to try. I tried tapdancing around the whole subject and she yanked my chain but good. They've found some remaining files and gotten a few comments that give them you as a lead."

I could sense the consternation on the other end. Finally he sighed. "Jason, I trust you. I have to, in this instance, for you have had it in your power to bring me down for months now, had you wished, and instead you have proven to be a friend. Tell her what you must. I will prepare my household to move, if things become impossible."

"I don't want you to—"

"I know. But also, if you do not tell her the truth—about myself and about what is behind this entire series of murders—we may be condemning her to death. Do as you must."

I swallowed. "Thanks, Verne. Maybe it won't come to that. Bye."

I turned back to the agent. "Okay, Ms. Winthrope, you win. I'll tell you everything. But I'm not going to argue it out with you. If you don't believe what I tell you, it's going to be your loss, not mine."

 

 

 

23

"What was her reaction?"

"About what you'd expect." Verne raised an eyebrow. "Well, she didn't believe me, that's for sure. But she also wasn't comfortable not believing, either; the stuff Gorthaur's been up to has already got them spooked."

"And she let you go rather than have you examined by a specialist? Isn't that a bit odd?

"Not really. She'd already admitted she knew I hadn't killed Jerome, and she wanted to trace me and find out who I met with and who I knew."

"How do you know that, Jason?" asked Syl; her high boots with shining metal inlay rapped loudly on the wood as she crossed the floor with the coffeepot for herself and Renee.

"Simple." I held up a small, silvery object that looked like a fat button. "She'd stuck this inside Mjolnir's front bumper." I dropped a few other tiny gadgets of varying color on the kitchen table where we were all seated. "And these were planted around the house."

Verne reached out and picked one up, examining it carefully. "Monitoring devices? How very rude. I presume you have deactivated them?"

"No."

They all stared at me. "Why in the world not?"

"Because I've already told Winthrope everything we know, so I don't have a thing to hide from her, and if I shut these off she could just put in some more that I'd never find. Right, Winthrope?" I said, addressing my words to the audio bug I'd removed from the business phone. "Besides, if Gorthaur tries to nail me, he'll be doing it on prime-time with the NSA watching. That should make the bastard think twice."

"Perhaps," conceded Verne. "But perhaps not. Have you not realized the most important part of your latest adventure?"

I thought for a moment. "I guess not. What is it?"

"Our opponent was able to imitate you perfectly. While his powers are vast, they still do have certain limitations. In order to imitate anyone, he must at least have seen them at close range. That means that you have been close to him in the past few days."

That made my skin prickle. "How close?"

Verne considered. "I would say no more than five feet. Werewolves can assume any form they can visualize, but to pick up on details as explicit as fingerprints would require them to be close enough for their aura to interact with yours."

"And the Demon's death shows he's aware of your involvement," Renee added.

I frowned. "So who . . . no, that question won't work either. He doesn't have to be a single person. He could have been a hacker watching the local boards and that's how he got on to me; then all he had to do was be someone on the street bumping into me, or even a customer."

The doorbell rang. I went to the door, looked out the peephole. "Agent Winthrope? Come in. I've been expecting you."

"I rather thought so," she said, her assistant Steve following her in. "Since you made it clear you wanted us to hear things, it seemed a waste of comfortable seating to hang around in a van trying to listen that way." She glanced at Renee. "I thought we told you to stay out of this, along with the entire police department. Oh, never mind. I've been known to ignore orders on occasion myself."

With two more people my house was too crowded; we all moved next door to Sylvie's shop, which had a big conference-room style table in one room; Syl rented the room to various groups, usually psychic types for seances.

"So all of you people are in on this clusterfuck? What in hell happened to security, Lieutenant Reisman?" Winthrope demanded, the faint smile taking some of the edge off her question.

"Wood showed up before you classified the operation, ma'am," she answered. "And the only way to get him to drop anything is to put him in jail, or shoot him."

"Not practical solutions as a general rule, I'll admit." she said. "Okay. I know why you're in on this, Domingo. I'm not sure I believe in it, but I know why. And I see why Jason had to brief Ms. Stake—"

"Sylvia, or Syl, please," she broke in. "You understand why."

"Hm. Yes." She shifted in her chair, glancing around at the dark-panelled walls. "The important question is, how many others know about all this?"

Verne spoke first. "I assure you that I, at least, have told no one else. It would be a generally futile effort, and I need no advice on this subject."

Renee gave Winthrope a look. "I'd like to continue a career. If I mentioned this to anyone else my only career'd be inside padded walls."

"I've consulted with the Wizard—you remember him, don't you, Jason?—on how to deal with werewolves," Sylvie said.

"Really? And what did he say?" Winthrope asked. Her assistant Steve looked uncomfortable, probably either bored or wondering if he was trapped in a room of lunatics.

Syl made a face. "Not much. He said that most spirits can be controlled only if you know their origin, that is, what religious or spiritual discipline they belong to; otherwise you're limited to whatever their classic weaknesses are."

Verne agreed. "It is true. Vampires who believe in the Christian faith can perhaps be turned away by crosses and faith, or bound by a daemonic pentacle; but an enlightened nosferatu cares little for such things. There are certain mystical methods which work on all such . . . but even those are of no use against a Great Wolf. Silver, and silver alone, will suffice."

"Just what did you tell this Wizard character?"

"Actually not that much; I didn't want to get him involved, so I just asked about werewolves."

"And you, Mr. Wood?"

I shrugged. "No one outside of this room knows any of the weird stuff. A couple of the BBS users know I'm poking around in a classified investigation, but no more."

Steve smiled suddenly. "Thanks. That's all we needed to know."

His teeth glinted sharply as he lunged.

Winthrope moved faster than anyone I'd ever seen, even Elias Klein. Her hand blurred and came up holding a 9mm automatic. Before she could fire, though, the werewolf's hand grabbed her arm and pitched her like a horseshoe straight into Verne Domingo. "Steve" was no longer human at all, but a shaggy, lupine nightmare with crystal-sharp claws and razor fangs. If the monster hadn't been delayed by its quick attack on the agent, it would have got us all in the momentary paralysis of shock. Chairs crashed to the floor as we all rolled, sprang, or ducked away from the huge, monstrous thing that had appeared in the place of Steve Dellarocca.

Verne caught Winthrope, set her aside. "You must be a fool, Virigar. Though this mortal was not prepared for you, the rest of us have expected to deal with your sort. And our prior duel seems to have rendered you less than what you were. Against us you stand little chance."

It smiled, showing glittering rows of crystal teeth. "Not so. My name is Shirrith. I am honored that you mistake me for the Great King, yet I am but His servant. And we are not unprepared ourselves." It gave an eerie howl.

In a shower of glass, two more werewolves crashed in through the large windows. One sank claws into Verne's shoulder, but Verne smashed it aside with a tremendous backhand blow that sent it back through the wall into the night. Verne shoved Winthrope towards me. "Run!" he shouted. His face showed shock and, chillingly, the same fear I'd seen before.

Shirrith began to dash after us, but Verne Domingo dove across the room and caught him. The third werewolf almost reached Renee, but she had her gun out and pumped three shots into him. The .357 magnum slugs drove the creature back enough for her to jump out and slam the door between the conference room and the Silver Stake's main floor. The werewolf tore the door off its hinges and threw it at us. The impact knocked me and Renee down, sending my 10mm with its silver bullets skittering out of my hand. The creature lashed out, caught Sylvie, and bent its muzzle towards her throat.

Silver inlay flashed as the toe of her right boot slammed into the werewolf's groin. Its eyes bulged; a ludicrously tiny whine escaped its lips, and it staggered back a step. As it folded in pain, Sylvie grabbed a large silver candlestick from a shelf and clobbered the werewolf over the head; it crumpled to the floor.

A tremendous crash shook the building as the battle in the conference room escalated. The second werewolf came flying out of the broken doorway; it rolled and came up, slashing at Sylvie. She swung the candlestick but it just glanced off the thing's arm; the claws left long trails of crimson across her dress. I had the pistol now; before the creature could lunge again, I put three shots into it. The wolflike face snapped back, glaring at me in astonishment. Then it sagged and fell.

"Syl! Jesus, are you okay?" I ran to her. Blood was soaking her dress, spreading quickly.

"I'm fine," she said weakly. "Help Verne!"

I hesitated, looking around. Renee had hit her head when the door got us; she was still dazed. Winthrope was just backed up against the wall, staring at the two bodies and repeating, "Oh shit . . . oh shit . . ." She cradled her right arm, which hung limply; Shirrith's grip had crushed it like a paper cup.

Another crash echoed through the Silver Stake. I heard Verne cursing in some Central European tongue. With one more agonized look at Sylvie, I charged back into the conference room.

I had the gun ready; then I stopped. "Son of a bitch!"

Verne Domingo looked back at me . . . Twice.

Two Vernes were locked together, straining against each other. They were identical, down to the tears on their clothing. The damn thing could even emulate clothing? That really sucks. There was simply no way to tell them apart; their curses sounded the same, and both were calling each other "Shirrith." One was faking . . . but which?

I could have kicked myself. How stupid can you get? I raised the gun and fired twice.

The one on the left twitched as the bullet hit; the one on the right screamed and tore itself away from the real Verne Domingo, its disguise fading away. It dove for the window, but as it did it presented a perfect target. I aimed and fired.

There was a clack as the gun jammed. "You bugger!" I cleared the jam, but it was too late. Shirrith was long gone.

Verne gazed out the broken window, then turned away.

I shoved past Winthrope, who was coming in muttering apologies, ran to Syl. "How're you doing, Syl?"

She tried to smile; she failed miserably. "Not so good."

Blood was pooling on the floor.

"Verne, call the hospital, quick! Get an ambulance!"

 

 

 

24

"Jason, you need your rest. It's been twenty-seven hours. Go to bed."

I was too tired to jump at the sudden voice from a formerly empty space. "Verne, I've got work to do. I'm going to find that bastard and silver him like a goddam mirror. I don't have time to sleep. You heard what Winthrope told me."

"About her assistant being found dead? Yes."

"Then don't talk to me about sleep. Every hour I sleep could get someone else killed." I rubbed my throbbing forehead. "Besides, every time I close my eyes, I see Syl getting slashed by that other werewolf." Fury took over. "That other werewolf, dammit!" I shouted at Verne, feeling my eyes sting. "You said there was only one, the last one, and all of a sudden it's The Howling III around here!"

Suddenly Verne looked tired himself, tired and very, very old. "I know, my friend. It was my arrogance and stupidity that lead to that mistake. I should have realized that to exterminate an intelligent race is well-nigh impossible; these are not passenger pigeons or dodos. Virigar must have survived and sought out the few that remained, perhaps only a single female, and for the past century they have increased their numbers, awaiting the time of revenge."

My anger evaporated. "Damn. Sorry, Verne. I shouldn't have taken it out on you. We all should have realized that where there was one there might be more." I wiped my eyes, half-noticing how damp they were. "It's just that Syl . . . Syl of all of us should have been the last to be hurt. She saved Renee and me—did you know that?"

He bowed his head. "I had not known. But I would have expected no less from her."

"She did. Then the last one got her. Now . . ."

"She will make it, Jason. I give you my word on that. Sylvia will not die for my mistakes." His dark eyes held mine, lent his words conviction.

"Thanks," I said, and meant it. "I hope you're right."

"I have never broken my word yet."

"Why didn't you go after him, Shirrith, when he ran?"

"Because . . ." He hesitated, staring down at his hands. "Because, I am ashamed to admit, my past century of soft existence has made me slow and not as adept in combat as I was in years past. I must remedy that. And because it would have done no good. He would never have led me to Virigar, unless that was his plan . . . in which case I would be dead." He sighed, and glanced at the odd tubular object on my workbench. "Since you will not rest, perhaps you can explain what you are doing?"

"Sure." I picked the tube up, showing the lens at one end with the eyepiece on the other. "This viewer fits onto this little headband, like this."

"I see that, yes. But what function does this device perform?"

"Well, it . . ." I broke off, thinking for a minute. "How well versed are you in the sciences?"

He made a modest gesture. "I am sufficiently educated that I consider myself a well-read layman."

"Good enough. Then you know that visible light is just one small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, right?" He nodded. "Well, I thought for a long time about how to find a hiding werewolf. Normal methods can't work. Their physical imitation seems to be so perfect that they may even be duplicating the DNA of the subject. But if that was true, then they must be more than merely material beings—you follow me?"

He thought for a moment, then nodded again. "I believe so. You are saying that if they were purely physical beings, once they assumed a perfect duplicate form, they would then become that person . . . and lose all their special powers."

"You've got it. So if they aren't just matter, that leaves some additional energy component. A werewolf has to be surrounded, permeated, with a special energy field." I locked the viewer into the holder, checked the fit. "That's where this comes in. That field has to radiate somehow, in some wavelengths outside the visible."

He raised an eyebrow. "I see. But what wavelengths? And would psychic powers, or mystic ones if you prefer, radiate in such mundane ways?"

"At some point I'd think they would," I answered, clipping on a power lead. "If these fields interact with matter, matter will produce certain emissions. As to what wavelengths, I'm betting on infrared. In the end, all energy decays to waste heat, you see. But I've also added an ultraviolet switch to this viewer, and these two little gadgets cover other areas—magnetic fields and radio waves, respectively."

He smiled. "I am impressed, Jason. I had thought you were only proficient with your computers and databases; I had no idea you were adept with the technical devices as well."

"Any real hacker has to have some skill with a soldering iron and circuitry," I answered. "But I just happen to like gadgets. The Edmund Scientific catalog is some of my favorite bedtime reading. Heck, most people think I named my car Mjolnir just because I'm weird. Actually, I've put thousands of dollars into gadgetizing the hell out of it. Mjolnir doesn't fly and if you drive it into water it just stalls like any other car, but it's got some optional features that even Lee Iacocca never thought of installing." The phone rang; I grabbed it fast.

"Hello? Doctor Millson?" I said.

"No." The voice was deep and resonant in a peculiar way; it sounded like a man in a tin closet. "We met earlier, though you did not realize it at the time. I am Virigar, Mr. Wood."

Adrenaline stabbed my chest with icy slivers. "What do you want?"

"To deliver an ultimatum, Mr. Wood. You know why I am here. I presume that you care for the young lady, Sylvia? If you wish her to survive the night, you will do one of two things: either you kill Verne Domingo for me . . . or you deliver him to me, that I might kill him myself. Do this, and my people—who even now walk that hospital's corridors—shall spare the lady's life."

"You bastard." I barely recognized my own voice. "If I'd known—"

"Yes, well, we all have things we'd have done differently 'if only,' do we not, Mr. Wood? You are worthy prey; it makes the chase and the kill sweeter. But for Domingo I will let you and your mortal friends live. Bring him, or the ruby ring he wears, to the old warehouse on Lovell Avenue within the next six hours. Any trickery or failure on your part, and the lady shall die . . . painfully." The line went dead.

I put the phone down slowly and looked up. Verne looked grimly back at me.

"I heard it all, my friend," he said softly.

 

 

 

25

"Why the hell not?"

I gestured at the ornate gold ring. "Why not, Verne? If he's going to be satisfied with the ring, just give it to him! Then we hit him later."

Verne rubbed the ring gently, turning it about his finger and making the ruby send out sparks of crimson. "The reason he would be satisfied with the ring, Jason, is because he knows that I will never remove this ring. Never. I gave my word many, many years ago, to one who meant more than life itself to me, that I would wear her ring until the final death claimed me." He looked up; his eyes were black ice, cold and hard. "I value my honor, Jason. Nothing, not even God himself, shall compel me to break my word."

"That's asinine, Verne! We're talking Sylvie's life here, and you're worried about honor! Whoever your lady was, I'm sure she'd understand!"

"You are probably right," Verne said, his eyes unchanged. "But I cannot decide on the basis of what might be. She and she alone could release me from my vow, and she cannot, unless she be born again and regain that which she was. I do not expect you to understand; honor is not valued here as it was when I was young."

"Where is the honor in letting a friend die?" I hurled the question at him.

He closed his eyes, drew one of his rare deep breaths. "There is none in that, my friend. I have no intention to let Sylvia be killed; did I not also give my word that she would not die?" He opened one of my drawers, looked inside.

"Then you are going to give me the ring," I said, relieved.

"No," he said, taking something out of the drawer and handing it to me. "You will take it from me."

I looked down. In my hand was a clip for my automatic; one loaded with wooden bullets; a vampire special.

It took a minute for that to sink in. Then I threw the clip against the wall so hard it left a dent. "Christ, no! Kill you?"

"It seems the only way. I would rather die by your hand than his, and only my death will satisfy him; else Sylvia dies."

"Look," I said, glancing back at the pistol clip, "Maybe if . . . well, I could shoot your finger off, I guess."

He made the dismissing gesture I'd come to know so well. "Impossible. It matters not how the ring leaves my possession, my word will still have been broken if it leaves my possession with my connivance and I yet live."

I couldn't believe this. "You want to die?"

"Of course not, Jason! I have spent many centuries trying to ensure my safety. But I will not break my word to her whose ring I wear, nor shall I break my word to you. That leaves me little choice."

"Bullshit! " I couldn't really understand this; how the hell could anyone take promises that seriously? But I could see he was deadly serious. "You only made that promise to make me feel better. Forget it, okay? I release you from that obligation. Whatever the formula is. You know as well as I do that Virigar has no intention of letting any of us go. For all I know, he's got a hit squad waiting outside."

He relaxed slightly. "I thank you, my friend. Yes, I also doubt Virigar's benign intent; but I had to make the offer. None of you would be imperiled were I not here . . . and were you not my friends."

"Bullshit," I said again. "Maybe we wouldn't be on today's hit list, but we'd sure as hell be on tomorrow's menu." I looked at him again. "Is this the same Verne Domingo who sent me out to take on Elias Klein with nothing more than a mental shield and moral support?"

For the first time I saw his features soften, and his smile for once held nothing unsettling. "No, my friend. For you are my friend now. I have had no true friends since . . . well, since before your country was born. In the past few months, you have shown me what a precious thing I was missing. More; you have given back to me the faith I lost, oh . . . when I lost my family. That, Jason, is a debt I shall be long in repaying."

I couldn't think of anything to say; I guess I didn't need to.

As quickly as it had come, Verne's gentle expression faded and his face returned to its usual aristocratic detachment. "We are agreed that Virigar's offer is without honor; thus we cannot follow that course of action. So what do you suggest?"

I stared at the ring again. "Well, even if he isn't trustworthy, if I did deliver the ring it might give us some advantage."

"I have already explained to you that I cannot—"

"I know that." I said, cutting off his protest, "I'm not saying take it off."

"Then just what do you mean?"

"For guys rich as you, jewelers make housecalls. Surely one could make a duplicate in a few hours?"

That stopped him. He looked very thoughtful for several minutes, but then shook his head. "I'm afraid it would never work. The time element aside—and we would be cutting it extremely close—you are underestimating Virigar. He would undoubtedly check the authenticity of the ring; I would not be surprised if he were himself an expert in jewelry. Moreover, we have no way of ascertaining if he has watchers about our residences; a visiting jeweler would tell him all he needed to know." He shrugged. "In any case, it is irrelevant. He would know that ring in an instant, for it is more than mere jewelry."

"Seriously, Verne, could he really spare that many to watch us? I mean, we killed one and injured another; how many more could there be?"

He gave me a look reserved for idiots. "You are the expert in mathematics, my friend. Calculate how many descendants a single pair could have in one hundred years, assuming a twenty-year maturity age."

I winced. "Sorry, so I'm slow. That'd be eighty from the original pair alone that'd be full-grown."

"That, of course," Verne admitted, "assumes that they maintain normal human birthrates and take no 'breaks,' so to speak, from parenting. In reality this will not be the case, but even so, I would be surprised if there were less than a hundred or so all told."

A hundred! Christ! I didn't even have that many silver bullets! "Outnumbered and outgunned . . ." Suddenly one of my favorite, if crazy, quotes came to mind: "It's you and me against the world . . . When do we attack?"

I put the viewer's headband on, fitted the straps, then took it off and packed it carefully in a foam-lined bag. "We're both targets as it is; the only chance we have is to attack. Get him off-balance, surprise the shit out of him. I've got to hope that one of the gadgets I've got can spot the buggers; I'm going to get to the hospital and protect Syl."

"And I . . . ?"

I grinned nastily, remembering what Verne had done to a drug-lord's estate and his thugs. I pulled out another drawer, and handed him the rings inside. "All silver rings; I got them because I liked the looks but I just never wear any of them. You are going to put those on and go down and beat Virigar's door in. Any werewolf that jumps at you then, just give him a left hook and keep going."

He put the rings on slowly. "I cannot enter a dwelling without permission of the residents, you remember."

"I didn't say enter; I said beat his door in . . . and his walls, and everything else. We have to disorganize him."

Now he smiled coldly, the fangs lending it the right predatory look. "Precisely so. Shall we . . . ?"

"After you."

We left by the back door; Mjolnir was parked in that alley.

I got into the car, locked the doors, and nodded to Verne; he faded into a cloud of mist, and then disappeared. I still stared at that; I don't think I'll ever get used to vampires. I started the engine, put Mjolnir in gear, began to pull out of the alley.

With a shuddering thump a shaggy, glittering-fanged nightmare landed on the car's hood. Then the car jolted to a stop; in my mirror I could see a werewolf that had grabbed the rear bumper and lifted the wheels clear of the ground. I swear my heart stopped for a second; then it gave a huge leap and tried to pound its way out of my chest. I yanked the gun out and pointed it at the one on the hood; the glass was bulletproof but hopefully it didn't know that.

It didn't; the werewolf rolled off the hood and to the side. I shoved the pistol into the gunport the previous owner had thoughtfully installed and fired twice. Neither shot hit it, but the werewolf decided that retreat was a good idea. I hit the hidden release and part of the dashboard flopped out and locked, revealing the small control panel. As the one in back began to yank harder on the bumper, trying to tip the car over, I pressed the second button.

Mjolnir's engine revs rose to a thundering shriek as the nitro supercharger kicked in; blue flame shot two feet from the tailpipe, and what I'd hoped for happened; the werewolf yipped in startlement and pain, and dropped the bumper.

I mashed the pedal to the floor; the V8-318 engine spun the wheels, throwing rubber smoke in the things' faces, and Mjolnir hurtled onto the street. By the time I passed Denny's I was doing fifty. A glance in the rearview almost made me lose control; three hairy killers were in hot pursuit, and they were closing in!

I searched the panel for any other tricks I might play, wishing I had James Bond's armamentarium . . . or even Maxwell Smart's. I triggered the rear spotlight, blinding them momentarily and gaining me maybe a hundred feet before they recovered.

Mjolnir shuddered as I hit a series of potholes at sixty-two miles an hour. I wrenched the wheel around, skidded onto the interstate entrance ramp. Behind me, I could see my pursuers catching up fast. On the straightaway I hammered the gas again, watched the speedometer climb towards triple digits. I heard myself talking: "That's right, come on, come on you little bastards, let's see how fast you really are!"

At seventy-five they started to fall back; the largest made a final desperate dive and hooked onto the rear bumper. I tried to bounce it off by running off and on the shoulder, but the creature just snarled and held on tighter. It started to claw its way up the back.

If Mjolnir had been an ordinary car, those crystal claws would've torn straight through and the thing would've climbed right into my lap. Instead, its talons made long gouges in the armor but failed to get any real purchase as I swerved the car back and forth. The werewolf scrabbled desperately at the trunk, but there was nothing for it to grab; with an indignant glare it pitched off the rear bumper and somersaulted to a defeated halt. I gave it a salute with my middle finger as it disappeared in the darkness. Then I turned down an off-ramp and headed Mjolnir towards St. Michael's Hospital.

 

 

 

26

The hospital was quiet; at three-thirty only the emergency crews were around. I parked, checked my gun, and put the viewer on. I looked weird but that didn't worry me; the only thing I was worried about was that the werewolves would be able to hide from anything technology could think up. I didn't believe that . . . but what if I was wrong?

I went in through the side entrance; I got some strange looks but no one got the courage to ask me just what I was doing before I was past them. I've often noticed that if you look like you know where you're going and why, people just don't ask questions. And once you get past them, they're too embarrassed by their hesitation to go after you.

I got to the fifth floor, where the ICU was set up. Outside sat a familiar figure.

Renee raised her head, looked, and looked again, a startled expression on her face. Then she smiled. "Hello, Wood. I thought you'd be home getting some shuteye."

"I thought the same about you. Why are you here?"

"Winthrope and I both agreed she should have some kind of watch over her. I took this shift." Renee glanced inside; Sylvie was sleeping. Renee turned back to me. "What the hell is that on your head?"

"An idea that doesn't seem to be working out." I'd looked at everyone I'd passed through it, and even glanced at the patients. I could tell when someone had a fever, but if there were any werewolves around the viewer didn't seem to be able to spot them. I looked at the magnetic indicator and the radio meter; none showed anything helpful; hell, with the MRI unit in this building neither one would be likely to pick up anything.

"Well, it's been quiet as hell here. You might as well go home. I'll call you if there's any change." She gave my shoulder a tentative pat.

I noticed a movement behind her.

Sylvie's eyes had opened suddenly. Her head turned weakly towards me; her eyes widened, and it felt like icewater was running down my spine as I saw her face: her "feeling" face.

I nodded my head sharply; the viewer dropped down, and I looked through it.

Renee Reisman's face sparkled in infra-red, a network of tiny sparks and lines rippling across it.

Everything seemed to freeze. I had never looked at anyone through the viewer at this range; it could be just what moving muscle looked like close up. If I was wrong, I'd be killing a police lieutenant and a friend.

But if I was right . . . 

It only seemed to take a long time; my body made the decision even as I glanced down. The 10mm fired twice before I was quite sure what I should do.

Renee staggered back, shock written on every line of her face, and I realized I'd made a horrible mistake; it wasn't a werewolf at all! I started forward . . . just as claws and fangs sprouted like deadly weeds from her twisting form. But the werewolf was dead even as it lunged for me; only one claw caught me, leaving a thin red trail across my left cheek.

Screams and shouts echoed through the hospital. Three figures appeared around the corner. When they saw my gun out, they dodged back. "Who are you?" one called out. "What do you want? This is a hospital, for Christ's sake!"

"I'm not here to hurt anyone," I said, realizing how utterly asinine that sounded coming from a man holding a pistol in front of the ICU. "I'm just trying to protect my friend in here." I could just imagine their thoughts: a homicidal paranoid is holding ICU patients as hostages.

"Look," one said very quietly, reasonably, "I'm going to just step around the corner, okay? I just want to talk with you, is that all right?"

I heard another voice mutter something in a heated undertone; it sounded like "Are you nuts? Don't do it!"

"Sure." I said. "Just do it slowly."

A young orderly, my age or a little younger, eased carefully around the corner. He had his hands raised. "See, I'm not going to hurt you."

"I know what you're thinking, but I'm really not crazy." I gestured to the body. "Just look at that; you'll see what I'm up against."

He walked forward slowly, hands over his head.

As he got closer, the viewer image slowly started to sparkle.

"Hold it right there. You're one of them."

The expression of sudden terror, the pleading look, they were perfect. I had another attack of doubt.

The claws almost took my head off before I fired. The werewolf howled in agony and died quickly. I saw two pairs of eyes staring widely in shock as the creature that had been playing their friend expired. "Fucking Nightmare on Elm Street, man! What is going down here?"

"Werewolves," I answered, "and if you're smart you'll get out of the hospital."

"I'm history," one said, "But I've gotta go through where you are."

"If you aren't one of them, go ahead. Otherwise you'll be number one with a bullet."

He had more guts than I would have. He just walked out, crossed the hallway to the nearer door, and started down the stairs. Once his friend had gotten across safely, the other one walked across with his hands up, then bolted down the stairs.

Just then I heard the hall window shatter. A tall blond man, rather like a young Robert Redford, dropped lithely into the hall from outside. He straightened and looked at me. "You are most extraordinarily annoying, Mr. Wood. I have been considering how best to kill you." The deep, strangely resonant voice was chillingly familiar.

I raised the pistol, centered it on his jacket. "Virigar, I presume."

He bowed. "At your service."

If Virigar was here . . . God, had he already killed Verne? "What are you doing here? I thought—"

"Yes, you thought I would be at the warehouse." For a moment the good-humored mask dropped. My blood seemed to freeze at the sheer malevolence in his face; had he attacked then, I couldn't have moved a muscle to stop him. Then he regained control. "In point of fact I was; then that thrice-damned vampire began his attack and I knew precisely what you had planned. I, also, believe in keeping my word, so I came to make sure the young lady was killed." He glanced around at the two bodies. "A wise choice, it would seem."

He inclined his head. "You have been lucky and resourceful so far. I look forward to tasting your soul; it should be a strong and, ah, heady vintage. Then I will finish with Domingo. Your interference has been really quite intolerable."

"Aren't you overlooking something?" I asked.

"Such as . . . ?"

"The fact that I'm going to blow you away in the next two steps?"

He laughed. "I doubt you could hit me. I am not one of these younglings."

I wasn't going to dick around with him. Before he could react, I put three shots in the bulls-eye where most people keep their hearts.

His eyes flew wide; he stared at me, then down at the three neat holes in his suit. He sank to his knees, muttered something like "Impressive aim . . ." and then his eyes rolled and he fell.

I waited a few minutes, keeping the gun on him; he didn't move. I went forward a few feet just to check.

Something hit my hand so hard it went numb, picked me up and hurled me down the hallway. I fetched up against the far wall, disoriented. When I focused my eyes again, I saw Virigar standing there with my gun dangling from his hand. Grinning pleasantly, he shrugged off his coat, revealing the bulletproof vest beneath.

"I should have blown your head off." I shook my hand, trying to get feeling back into it.

He nodded cheerfully. "Yes indeed, but I depended both on legend and training. The legend of three silver bullets to the heart for a Great Werewolf, and the fact that most people are taught to shoot for the body rather than the smaller target of the head." He tossed the gun aside. "Your friend Renee lasted for a few minutes, Mr. Wood. Let us see how well you do."

He began to change. I froze. I had seen another werewolf change . . . but this was not another werewolf.

This was Virigar.

This was no transformation like a morphing, but more; a manifestation of the truth behind the facade. The air seemed to thicken and condense, becoming black-brown shaggy fur. The eyes blazed with ravenous malevolence, flickering between blood-red and poison yellow. The head reared up, seven feet, eight, nine towering, hideous feet above the floor, the marble sheeting cracking and spitting powder from the energies that crackled about Virigar like black lightning. It drew a breath and roared, a shrieking, bellowing, rumbling impossible sound that shattered every window on the floor and deafened me. The head wasn't really wolflike . . . wasn't like anything that had ever lived. Dominating it was the terrible mouth, opening to a cavernous diameter, unhinging like a snake's, wide enough to sever a man in one bite, armed with impossibly long, sparkling diamond fangs like an array of razor-sharp knives . . . 

For a moment all thought fled; all I had was terror. I ran.

Virigar let me get some distance ahead before he began following; I remembered what Verne had told me, that they fed on fear; obviously Virigar wanted a square meal. I ran down the steps, taking them two, three at a time . . . but I could hear his clawed footsteps closing in on me.

I remembered a trick I'd first read about in the Stainless Steel Rat series. If I could do it I might gain a few seconds.

I jumped as I reached the next flight of stairs and hit them sideways, one foot raised above and behind the other, both slightly tilted. My ankles protested as the stairs hammered by underneath me like a giant washboard; I hit the landing, spun, and repeated it, then banged out the doorway, sprinted down the hall, ignoring the ache in my feet. It worked!

My heart jumped in panic as Virigar smashed out of the stairwell fifty feet behind me, the metal fire door tearing from its hinges and embedding itself in the opposite wall. Nurses and orderlies scattered before us, screaming. Oh, the bastard must be gorging himself now.

Somewhere in the distance I thought I heard gunshots. Too far away to make any difference now, though . . . 

Around the corner, trying to find another stairwell. Oh, Christ, I'd found the pediatric wing!

A young girl with dark hair in two ponytails blinked bright blue eyes at me in surprise as I raced past her wheelchair, her attention to her late-night sundae momentarily distracted. With horror I recognized her: Star Hashima, daughter of the artist Verne was a prospective patron to. Virigar skidded around the corner after me, growling in a grotesquely cheerful way. I faltered momentarily, realizing that the monster was already trailing blood; he wouldn't hesitate to kill again.

Her face paled, but at the same time I could swear there was almost an interested expression on her face as she saw the huge thing bearing down on her. Then Star calmly and accurately pitched her sundae into the King Wolf's face.

The laughter in its growl transformed instantly into startled rage and agony; blinded, Virigar stumbled and cannonballed into a wall, smashing a hole halfway through and clawing at its face. Star spun her chair around and rolled into one of the rooms, slamming the door behind her.

Virigar roared again, shaking the floor. "Bitch! I'll have your soul for that!"

I ran, praying this was the right decision. Would Virigar waste the time taking care of Star right now, or would he chase me first because of what I knew? And what in the name of God had that girl done? As I half ran, half fell down the back stairs, I suddenly remembered a faint sparkle from the ice-cream bowl. Silver-coated decorations.

No, Virigar couldn't afford to waste his time now. If I got out to Mjolnir, I could draw him off, outrun him probably, and then too many people would know too much. I shoved open a door, ran out.

Oh no. I'd come down one floor too many. This was the basement! Ammonia and other chemical smells from the labs filled the air. Above me I heard the stairwell door smashed open.

I ran.

Technicians and maintenance gaped at me. Signs flashed by, Hematology, Micro Lab, Urinalysis, Radiology . . . 

At Radiology I scrambled to a halt, dove inside. A last-chance plan was forming. Behind me screams sounded as Virigar charged after me.

I shoved the technician there aside. "Get the hell out of here!"

Hearing the screams, and the approaching snarls, the tech didn't argue; he split. I ducked into the next room, grabbing a bucket that stood nearby, slammed and locked the door. I worked fast.

Heavy breathing suddenly sounded from the other side of the door. "Dear me, Jason; you seem to have cornered yourself."

I didn't have to fake terror; I knew my chances were hanging on a thread.

The door seemed to disappear, ripped to splinters. "It's over, Mr. Wood!" Virigar leapt for me.

That leap almost finished me; but the door had slowed him just enough. With all the strength in my arms, I slung the contents of the pail straight into Virigar's open mouth. The sharp-smelling liquid splashed down the monster's throat, over his face, across his body, soaking the fur. Even as that pailful struck, I was plunging the bucket into the tank for a second load.

Virigar bellowed, a ragged-sounding gurgling noise of equal parts incredulity and agony. He was still moving too fast to stop; one shaggy arm brushed me as I leapt aside and he smashed into the tank itself, tripping and going to his knees, one arm plunging into the liquid. The metal bent, but then tore as he scrabbled blindly at the thing he'd run into, disgorging its remaining contents in a wave across his thighs and lower legs. Momentarily behind him, I doused him with my second pailful, soaking him from head to toe.

The Werewolf King's second scream was a steam-whistle shriek that seemed to pierce my head, but lacked the awesome force of the roar that had shivered hospital windows to splinters. Foul vapors like smoke were pouring from him, obscuring the hideous bubbling, dissolving effects the liquid was causing. The monstrous form staggered past me, mewling and screaming; incredibly, I felt the earth itself heave as it wailed wetly, and a flash of yellow-green light followed. Lamplight poured through a ragged gap in the far wall and was momentary eclipsed by the horrific silhouette of something half-eaten away as Virigar clawed his way to the outside . . . and disappeared into the night.

Cautiously, a patch of light approached. The flashlight ranged across me, then went to the tank, broken into pieces and leaving its sharp-smelling contents flowing harmlessly across the floor. The light showed me the way out, its beam illuminating the wall just enough to show the sign painted there:

X-Ray: Developer, Fixer, Silver Recovery   

 

 

 

27

Winthrope waved me past the yellow barricade. I pulled up a hundred fifty feet farther on. I got out, went around and helped Sylvie out into the wheelchair. She still looked pale and weak, but it was good to see her moving at all. She smiled at me, then looked up and gave a little gasp. "Verne did that?"

I felt as awed as she looked. The hundred-foot-long, three-story warehouse was nothing more than a pile of charred boards and twisted steel, still smoking after several days. The last rays of the setting sun covered it with a cast of blood. From the tangled mass of wreckage, two I-beams jutted up, corroded fangs, mute testimony to the power of an ancient vampire's fury.

"You still haven't heard from him, have you?"

"No. It's hard to believe, but . . . there were dozens of them in there. Winthrope's still finding bodies. They must've gotten him somehow, maybe by sheer numbers." I felt stinging in my eyes, blinked it away. "And Renee . . ." This time I couldn't blink away the tears. Syl said nothing, just held my hand.

It was hard to believe I'd never see her again. But Renee had been found in her house, her body sitting in a chair and her head on the table in front of her.

"I'm so sorry." Syl said finally. "All I remembered was looking over, seeing her, and knowing it wasn't really her at all. What about Star?"

"I got to see her the next day. She made me promise not to say anything to anyone about her helping me; her dad was already throwing a fit that she'd even been in the hospital when it happened. She thinks her father is the greatest thing in the world, and doesn't want to worry him. I just hope she'll be all right; that was quick thinking on her part, but I don't believe any kid that age could see that monster coming at her and not at least get some nightmares out of it."

Syl started to say something, but suddenly choked off; her hand gripped my arm painfully. I turned fast.

A man was standing next to Syl. He looked at me.

I knew that face, with the dark eyebrows, crooked grin, streaky-blond hair, and green eyes. I should know it; it looked at me every day in my mirror.

I went for my gun, found to my surprise that it wasn't there. The man before me smiled, his face shifting to the Robert Redford lookalike I remembered all too well. He held up his hand, my gun sitting in it. "Good evening, Mr. Wood. I believe we have some unfinished business."

"Never mind the dramatics," I choked out, hoping he'd prolong them, "Finish your business, then. Nothing much I can do."

"Dear me. No respect for tradition? I must congratulate you; I haven't been hurt that badly in centuries; even our mutual acquaintance, Verne, failed to injure me as grievously. Why, I'm genuinely weakened. A clever, clever improvisation, Mr. Wood. I'm minded to let you live for a while."

I blinked. "Umm . . . thanks. But why?"

The urbane smile shifted to a psychotic snarl. "So you will suffer all the more while everything you value is destroyed before your very eyes!"

I read his intention in his eyes, leapt hopelessly for his arm; he tossed me aside like a doll. His hand came up and the fingers lengthened, changed to diamond-glittering blades. Sylvie stared upward, immobile with terror.

Something smashed into Virigar, an impact that flung him a hundred feet to smack with an echoing clang into one of the two standing girders. The girder bent nearly double.

Virigar snarled something in an unknown tongue. "Who dares . . ."

"I dare, Virigar. Will you try me, now that I am prepared?"

Between us stood a tall figure, with a streaming black cloak, seeming to have materialized from the gathering shadows of night. "Verne!" I heard Sylvie gasp.

Virigar began to snarl, wrenching himself from the beam's grip. Then he stopped, straightened, and laughed. "Very well! Far be it from me to argue points with Destiny." He bowed to Verne, who made no motion to acknowledge it. "You have won a battle against me, Mr. Wood. And your friend here has surprised me. This game is yours. Your souls are still mine, and shall be claimed in time. But for now, I shall leave you. One day, I shall return. But no other of my people shall touch you, for that which is claimed for the King is death for any other who would dare to take it." He turned and began to stride off.

"Freeze! Hold it right there!" Jeri Winthrope had the Werewolf King in her gunsights, and I had no doubt that this time it was loaded with silver bullets. Even with the cast on her arm, I was sure she wouldn't miss.

Virigar turned his head slightly. He ignored Jeri entirely, looking at Verne. "My patience is being tried. Tell the child to put her weapon away now."

"Do it," Verne said.

Jeri glanced at him, startled. "But—"

"Do it!" Verne's voice was filled with a mixture of loathing, fury, and a touch of fear.

Slowly Winthrope lowered her gun. Virigar smiled, though the expression was barely visible. "Wiser than you look. Until later." He turned a corner around a large chunk of warehouse.

"Why?" Jeri demanded after a moment of silence. "I had him right there!"

Verne glared at her. "Think you that something as ancient as he didn't know of your approach? I heard you as soon as you turned from your post. Your bullet would never have found its mark, and he would have killed us all. Even the fact that he spared us was a whim. Something to amuse him," Verne spat the word out as though he could barely tolerate the taste, "until he has an artistic way to destroy us."

"I thought," I said, "he spared us because he wasn't sure he could win against us."

Verne shook his head. "If he appeared here, he was ready. Perhaps I could have defeated him." I noticed that he didn't say "we." "But I believe he left because . . ." Verne seemed to be searching for the proper way to describe something. " . . . because he had lost the game as he himself put it. This battle, even your injuring him, was to him nothing more than a game. The object was vengeance against me, and then against you once you became an impediment of note. But we managed to meet some . . . some standard he set for his opposition. You injured him; I reappeared from the dead. He is as immortal as I, and older; he must find his own amusement where he can. But where I find mine in the elegance of art, in friendship, in more ordinary games, he finds his in the dance of destruction and death, in evil versus good." Verne shuddered, a movement so uncharacteristic of him that it sent chills down my spine. "Perhaps I could have defeated him," he repeated softly. "But I very much wish never to find out."

Jeri shrugged. "Not my problem now. Okay. We'll talk later." She walked off.

I grasped Verne's hand, realizing how much it would have meant to lose him. "Jesus, it's good to see you. We thought you were dead!"

"Hardly, my friend." He looked even stronger, more assured and powerful than he had ever been. "Though not for want of trying on their part, I assure you. How does it feel to have changed the world?"

Sylvie spoke up. "Verne, pardon me, but I don't understand why any of them died in there. I thought—"

"That only silver could harm them? Quite so, my lady." He gazed at the wreckage. "Once I knew the werewolves had returned, I laid in a supply of diverse forms of silver—although I must confess," he bowed slightly to me, "it never occurred to me that preparations—compounds—of silver would be efficacious as well. Part of my armament was a large supply of silver dust. I hurled this into the warehouse from several different points with sufficient force so as to disperse it throughout the interior rather like a gas."

I winced at the mental picture. "Instant asthma attack. Ugh."

"Precisely. In addition, since nearly all surfaces then had silver upon them, even falling beams became capable of causing harm."

"That still doesn't explain where you've been the past few days."

"Ah, yes." He looked somewhat embarrassed. "Well, in the end the battle degenerated so that I was reduced to physical confrontation. By the time the last of them came for me, I found myself without silver of any kind. Your rings, I am afraid, were not meant for combat. They . . . ah . . . came apart. So when the last one attacked, I was unarmed against her great natural weaponry. I was thus forced to a course of action whose results I could not foresee."

"Well?" I said when he hesitated.

He coughed and examined the ruby ring studiously. "I . . . drained her."

"You mean you bit her? But you said that was fatal!"

He nodded. "Other vampires had tried it; they had all died along with their intended prey. I found out why." He shook his head slowly. "The power was . . . incredible. No younger nosferatu could have survived it."

I thought about that for a moment. "Then in a way you, also, drain souls?"

"Yes and no. There is a linking and exchange, usually, of energies. However, in the case of something like combat, it can become a direct drain, and against a werewolf or something of similar nature, it must be. As it was, my body fell into what you would call a coma for several days as my system adjusted. I was fortunate; we were underground in one of these abandoned buildings' basements; had that not been the case, I would have faced the irony of dying in sunshine on the morning of my triumph. But survive I did, and I find that I am stronger for it." He smiled, the predatory grin of the hunter. "It is fitting that their attempt to destroy me would only strengthen me; it is . . . justice."

We nodded, then Sylvie spoke. "What did you mean when you said Jason had changed the world?"

"Is it not obvious, my lady?" He gestured at the lights of the city, silhouetted against the darkening sky. "For centuries humanity has wondered if there were others out there, beyond the sky; but always they were secure in their science and civilization, knowing that here, at least, they ruled supreme. The Others—vampires, werewolves, and so on—hid themselves away, not to be found by the scientists who sought to chart the limits of reality, and so became known as legend, myth, tales to frighten children and nothing more. On this world, at least, humanity knew that it was the sole and total ruler of all they could survey.

"But now they know that is not true; that other beings walk among them. And this is not one of their stories, a book to be read and then closed, to disappear with the morning light." Verne shot a glance at me. "You recall, my friend, how you spoke about the horror stories, the Kings and Straubs and Koontzes?"

I thought for a moment, then I remembered the conversation he meant. "I think I see."

"Yes. You were disturbed by their stories showing such titanic struggles, and yet no subsequent stories ever referred to them; as though such power could ever be concealed. But this is the true world. The genie cannot be replaced in the bottle. Even your government has realized the futility of a cover-up. Winthrope speaks on the news of these events to an incredulous nation, and scientists gather to study that which is left. The world changes; we have changed it. For good or ill, the world shall never be the same."

He fell quiet, and we gazed upward; watching as the stars began to spread—like silver dust—across the sky.

 

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