Authors: A. M. Jenkins
headed down the alley behind the Vickery Moe. The ground under his feet was partly paved, partly dirt—a real mess when it rained, he could tell.
A chain-link fence marked the back of the alley. Behind it were small houses, some with windows boarded up, all silent and dark.
On Cole’s left were the rear entrances of the small businesses that lined the street beyond. The first few backed directly up to the alley; but as the fence ended on Cole’s right, opening into a vacant lot, the brick wall and doorways on his left also fell away; one of the businesses had a tiny parking area. A security light shone from a concrete loading dock the size of a small porch.
If it hadn’t been for the security light, Cole might not have even noticed the car.
It wasn’t near the business. It was parked under some trees at the edge of the vacant lot—not really in the alley, but not exactly in the lot either. It had seen better days, the rear window broken and taped over with what appeared to be black plastic garbage bags.
Cole wouldn’t have thought much about it if
hadn’t just been taping a black plastic garbage bag to seal out light. If Royal hadn’t been on his mind only a moment ago.
And if the security light hadn’t been bright enough to show that this plastic was mounted from the
So he stopped and took a closer look.
He was right; the plastic was plastered solidly against the inside of the glass. Not only that, but none of the glass was broken at all—it was completely intact.
Cole circled the car. It was a two-door, dark-colored Civic—probably black, although light played tricks with color at night—well over ten years old. It had been in a wreck at some point; the passenger side door had a rippled, limp look, as if it had been caved in and then hammered out. Both back side windows had been carefully covered from the inside as well.
Cole put a hand on the hood.
It was warm.
Cole looked around to make sure he was alone. He occasionally carried a jimmying rod in his trunk, under the spare—but he didn’t like to. Eighteen-year-old guys got stopped often enough by cops just for being eighteen. What he
have at the moment was a crumpled wire hanger; it didn’t work quite as easily but could usually be made to do the job, especially with older cars like this.
He went back to the Vickery Moe parking lot, to his own car, and got the hanger. Cole had had a lot of practice at this sort of thing; it took only a moment, and he had the Civic’s door open.
The interior light came on. He dropped the hanger and quickly slid into the driver’s seat. Then he leaned around to look in the back.
More black garbage bags were heaped on the floorboard, along with a roll of duct tape. A dark-colored pile of bedding took up most of the backseat itself; a zipper told Cole that the bedding was a sleeping bag.
He had no idea whether it was the one he’d seen in Royal’s apartment. Yes, it appeared to be brown—but as far as Cole was concerned, one sleeping bag looked pretty much like another.
And he knew it was unlikely that the car belonged to
Royal. Sunlight was difficult to seal out of any car, even with garbage bags and duct tape. Cole didn’t see how any heme could survive a day in this jerry-rigged vehicle.
He leaned over and opened the glove compartment. There was a flashlight and some papers; he dug through the papers to find an insurance card.
The carrier was Kimberly Lynn Brandywine.
He was suddenly aware that he was very close to getting himself in a ton of trouble.
He put back the card, closed the glove box, and got out of the car. He pushed the lock down and was about to shut the door when he hesitated.
Why was the car parked out here, almost in a no-man’s-land? Wouldn’t an omni have left it closer to the loading dock, or on the street out front?
He checked up and down the alley again. No one coming.
He stooped and pulled the latch that opened the trunk. When he heard it pop, he shut the driver’s door quietly and walked quickly around.
Another glance to make sure he was alone, and he lifted the trunk lid.
A small light came on, dimly lighting the contents: A pack rat’s nest of clothing, towels, newspapers. A roll of
black garbage bags. Empty water bottles. Scissors. A paint-spattered hammer, a screwdriver. Lightbulbs. Batteries.
Nothing worrisome. Nothing scary. Nothing dangerous. Only things any omni might toss in. Cole had seen plenty of omni cars loaded with junk like this in the floorboard and backseat and trunk.
But these were also things a heme would carry in case of emergency. Cole had many of the same items in
trunk, although not thrown all together like this.
What to do? He couldn’t stand here indefinitely, poking through some omni’s car. Kimberly Brandywine might come back. And she might have people with her.
On the other hand, if Royal had borrowed or stolen the car, he was obviously sleeping in it. And if it were his, he’d be back sometime in the next couple of hours, before the sun started to rise.
He might have even
come back. Cole realized—a little late—that there were several small dark places around him, where one person could be hiding and watching unseen. The space between the Dumpster and the loading dock. The recessed doorways all along the alley.
Cole shut the trunk as if he wasn’t even thinking
about being watched and headed back down the alley. As soon as he was out of the parking lot, he stepped quickly aside, into the shadows. He would see anyone following before they saw him.
He waited long moments.
No one came.
He had planned to feed now. But the thought that he and Sandor and Gordo might have been followed all this way gave him a creepy, spied-on feeling.
Cole wanted to know whether or not this car was Royal’s. He wanted to know
He moved into a recessed doorway under a rickety-looking fire escape, his back against the door: He could see the Civic from here, but no one would be able to see him. He’d grab a quick feed first thing tomorrow evening, when he went to select an omni to take to the Vickery Moe for the Siege of Gordo. For now he’d watch the car. If he just knew whether the stray were tailing them, he could start figuring out what to do about it.
He heard traffic in the distance, the faraway slam of a door—but there was no movement in the parking lot or alley. The car sat under the trees, just another piece of the background. It had an almost abandoned look—except for the odd, carefully applied window coverings.
Any heme who sheltered in that car would be living life on the edge in a way that the Colony hemes no longer had to. He would be desperate, cornered, afraid. And utterly, utterly alone.
That might explain why Royal would follow them for hundreds of miles over several nights. But it wouldn’t explain why he’d never made any kind of contact. If he was lonely, why not approach them?
The intimidating talk, the finger guard—maybe, Cole thought, it was all of a piece. He had seen plenty of omni wannabes posture in that same way, and it had always seemed to Cole that they were trying to make up for the impotence of their everyday lives. Maybe he’d let an emotional knee-jerk reaction keep him from recognizing the same thing in Royal.
He checked his watch. Twenty minutes had passed. Still no sign of anyone.
Light, Cole thought grimly, wouldn’t be the only problem for anyone who tried to get through a day in that car. It was June now, and summer heat would turn the Civic into an oven within a few hours. With windows rolled up and plastic in place, a heme would essentially be locking himself into an airless coffin.
Not to mention that it would take a lot of work to follow someone from eastern Pennsylvania to Ohio to West Virginia to Maryland. It had seemed unlikely back in Ohio. It seemed almost impossible now.
But Cole wanted to be sure. He shifted his weight again and leaned one shoulder against the doorway, waiting.
Another half hour passed.
Cole decided he’d give it till five
. The light would start growing soon after. After five o’clock there wouldn’t be enough time for anyone to get himself shut away in that little torture chamber.
When the hour came, Cole knew the sun had started its clockwork climb to the horizon. Still, he waited a few more uneasy minutes. Just to be positive.
At 5:10, he looked up. The piece of sky visible overhead was still black, but with a slightly faded look. It was hard to tell much, in cities.
He grew still, paying attention to his body. Yes. He felt a slight discomfort, as if his skin were dry and slightly chapped. The light was changing.
The hotel was two blocks away.
He left his shadowy recess and walked quickly back down the alley. When he turned the corner onto the sidewalk next to the Vickery Moe, he finally had a clear view of the eastern sky.
A portion of it was dulled by rain clouds, but the rest had a definite grayish tone.
There was still time, he knew, and he didn’t like to run—it attracted attention—but he walked very,
quickly up the sidewalk to the hotel’s front door.
He’d mention the car to Sandor sometime when Gordo wasn’t around. Still, he felt he could safely put the question of Royal aside for now. He was glad; tomorrow looked to be a long night.
his room, Cole found that his skin—especially his arms and face—was slightly pink and tender, like an omni’s mild sunburn. It would take time to go away, he knew.
He’d planned to take a shower before bed, but the thought of water hitting his skin made him wince. He changed into his usual shorts and T-shirt and went to bed, deciding not to read first. He wanted to be fresh tonight, be alert.
Once in bed, though, he had trouble sleeping. His skin was tingling as it healed, and he kept thinking about Bess, and about the Old World heme, the one Johnny had trapped. Cole knew they both must have felt this same dry discomfort turn to tenderness—but then
had to endure its quick growth into pain.
What courage—or despair—Bess must have had to climb that ladder into sunlight! Opening the hatch to expose herself to bright, bright sky. And—suffering and surely blinded by then—she’d had to scale the last remaining rungs. Drag herself onto the roof. Somehow cross it, all the way to the edge.
On that day he, Cole, had barely made it out the front door before he’d turned back. Hadn’t been able to get down even one of the steps that would take him to her.
But what he’d told Gordo that night in Castile was true. He hadn’t really thought it through logically before, but now he did, and he knew it was a fact: Nobody could have made it out there. Not even Johnny could retrieve another heme from full sun. Whatever drove Bess that day was something no one else had. Whatever it was, it had pushed her headlong, past human endurance, to its goal.
Cole had been curled on his side, but now he rolled onto his back.
he was thinking,
by the time she was on the sidewalk, she was unconscious and out of pain.
It made sense that she would be.
He hoped so.
But the Old World heme—what kind of animal terror
over, trapped, aware, with no escape from light?
Cole winced as he adjusted the covers over his chest. He had to admit now that—no matter what he had promised himself, no matter what he had told Johnny—he couldn’t do anything so cruel to Gordo. Whether he could do it to a stranger he didn’t know, but he could not do it to Gordo.
No, he would have to make sure it didn’t come to
He lay staring at the ceiling. A siren sounded in the distance, but it was very far away and soon faded. Muffled voices moved down the hall—two men, laughing and talking. Had to be omnis; it was late morning and light out.
As they passed, Cole turned his head; his nose had caught their faint, salt-and-soap scent.
That was odd. Usually his sense of smell wasn’t that acute—not enough to detect omnis through a closed door. Must be the airflow in this old building.
His skin was beginning to feel better. According to the clock, it was full daytime. The only sound now was the window unit, which might look like an antique but was proving to be a workhorse, its icy breath one long
unwavering blast so that the room was almost cold.
Cole shut his eyes and made an effort to clear his mind. And after a little longer, he finally managed to fall asleep.
Almost immediately he found himself in a patchwork of dreams—quick-flashing scenes of desire. He dreamed of combining, of omnis he had known, of soft, fragile, sweet-smelling skin under his hands and lips and tongue. The flashes gradually melted into a dream of sex—sex from long ago, and in his dream he had to peel, unfasten, burrow, just to get down to the girl’s bare skin.
It was all quite vivid; the delay, the frustration, his trembling fingers loosening the last layer of lace and strings and straps so that he almost burst just from the sudden sight of nakedness released.
He roused to wakefulness, the experience so real that the odor of talc and stale sweat seemed to linger in his nostrils.
was sweating now.
Cole kicked off the covers and lay under the cooling air. This was probably a weird aftereffect of sun. Even the pillow under his head felt hot.
He pulled it out, turned it over, plumped it up. Put it back.
This time when he dozed off he dreamed of an omni he’d kept for a while in the early days. She’d stayed with him, in full awareness of what he was, and sometimes he would deliberately hold off feeding until he was wild with it.
In the dream he pushed her up against a wall, put his hands flat on the wall on either side of her, trying to prolong the moment, play with her—he acted as if he were about to bite her, then pulled back so that she could just feel the scratch of his teeth. Nip at her but not break the skin. She knew what was coming and caught her breath; and at that tiny noise he lost it, lost himself completely to the feed.
He woke to find his hands curled in fists, gripping the sheets.
And he remembered how he’d smelled the omnis in the hall.
It was almost as if…well, as if he was starting to feel the barest wisp of Thirst. Thirst always took over the mind before it started to work on the body.
be—not so soon. He’d only gone two
nights without a feed. All right, it had been a long time since he’d missed more than a single night, and even longer since he’d actually felt Thirst; but he remembered,
—no mere two-night lapse had ever brought it on. No, it always took four nights. Three at the very least.
for God’s sake.
And anybody would have weird dreams if they were gearing up for a stressful night ahead, the way Cole was. Then, too, he’d been preoccupied with Royal. On top of that, he knew he’d cut it too close earlier—risked a touch of light just because he’d wanted to be sure about the stray.
All that would be enough to make anybody have strange and vivid dreams.
He got up and went to the bathroom. Checked the tape on the window. Checked the locks. Tried to read a bit but couldn’t. Finally he put down the book and shut his eyes.
Almost immediately he dreamed of a simple overpowering without thought of restraint or consequences—of attacking an omni in the open, from
behind, on a city street. In the dream he took no care but tore the flesh so that blood ran out of the corners of his mouth, too great a flow to contain. He didn’t stop even after the pulse slowed and the kill drooped in his arms. When there was nothing left, he dropped the empty and useless husk in the middle of the sidewalk and walked away.
What woke him this time was need: every corner of his brain and body pounding with it, every cell insisting that the emptiness be filled.
It began to fade a little as he came back to consciousness, and by the time he opened his eyes it had half dulled.
But after one disoriented moment he realized that he was standing at the door, barefoot in his shorts and T-shirt, hand on the knob.
With that he knew. It
Something had gone terribly wrong. Something inside him must have changed, to make him feel this way after only two missed nights.
had changed it. He was the one who’d trained his body to expect nightly intake. He had been priming his metabolism for decades.
He’d had such contempt for Gordo, unable to resist a few drops of blood because he was used to regular feeds. Cole had assumed it was a matter of will—well, maybe it was in Gordo’s case, but Cole hadn’t even considered that it could be a matter of one’s body adapting to regular use.
It would be ironic—if all the years of caution and control, far from keeping him sharp and fit, had instead been softening him up.
Gordo. He’d experienced Thirst plenty of times in the past. He knew how to handle it—especially at this early stage, when it had just begun.
He didn’t try to go back to bed this time. As long as he was awake he was sure he could keep the need pushed down. It still licked at him from inside, but now that he knew what it was he had the reins on. At this point, Thirst was merely a craving that hadn’t fully blossomed.
The trouble was that if he was feeling it, there was no question that Gordo—uncontrolled, inexperienced Gordo—must be feeling it, too.