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Authors: A. M. Jenkins

Night Road (7 page)

BOOK: Night Road
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And, miracle of miracles, Gordon did.

First he tore his gaze away from the tempting fingers. And he resisted the temptation to look at her neck, Cole noted. No, the boy wasn’t hopeless. Not completely, anyway.

Then he said something, spreading his hands out in a gesture of apology. He kept eye contact—that was good. It might even be enough to keep her with him.

No. “Just get away from me,” the girl said in a loud voice, and walked off the dance floor.

Sandor watched Gordon with pity. “We should help him.”

“No,” said Cole. “Not yet.”

A shamefaced Gordon slid into his chair with Cole and Sandor.

“You’ve got to be quicker,” Cole said immediately. “If you’d gotten your mouth on fast enough, that girl wouldn’t have noticed anything at all.”

“She was so hot,” Gordon said, depressed again. “I’ve never had a girl that hot act interested in me.”

Sandor grinned. “Get used to it.”

Gordon’s head shot up. “What do you mean?”

“Oh ho, my friend, you haven’t noticed? We are an attractive people.”

“I don’t look any different.”

“It’s the attitude. Something in the eyes, the smile. You must smile more now. Isn’t that so, Cole?”

“Yes, but not all the time or you’ll look like a moron.”

“My attitude hasn’t changed,” Gordon said. “Except I’m a fucking miserable loser with no home now.”

“You don’t see it,” Sandor said, “but already you move with more confidence. You make eye contact and hold it, but without seeming odd about it. People are attracted to our kind. The more so as we get older.”

Gordon stared gloomily at his full beer glass. Then Sandor’s words seem to really sink in, and he looked across the table at Sandor with the first sign of interest Cole had seen in him thus far. “You’re serious? You mean I can get hot girls now?”

“No,” Cole said quickly. “You’re not getting hot anything. Right now you are to concentrate on
feeding.
Beginners are not concerned with hotness. You’d better start off with homely omnis. Look for the less attractive ones in a group, the ones left behind when their good-looking friends are up dancing. Those are the ones that are easiest to get close to, and quickly. And the drunker the better.”

“Can I get a buzz off a drunk one?”

“No. You are done with all that. You are here to feed and nothing more.”

“God. I can’t get drunk. I can’t go after hot girls. According to you, I can’t die. I can’t go home, because—because everything’s messed up. I can’t do anything.”

“You can have sex,” Sandor said. “Plenty of sex—isn’t that nice? And you can’t get sick,” he added helpfully. “And you can’t get a girl pregnant, so no need for those things, those what-do-you-call-thems.”

“What he means to say is that you are sterile,” Cole pointed out.

So many emotions were flickering across Gordon’s face, it was hard to separate them. Was he surprised? Upset? Angry? Disbelieving? He reminded Cole of a cartoon character whose head is about to explode.

“Anyway, try again,” Cole said. “Look at that girl over there, the one at the bar. See, in the black dress? Take your time. You still feel all right, don’t you? Why don’t you go sit and talk to her for a few minutes.”

But Gordon failed again. This time the girl screeched and then started yelling. All eyes were on Gordon now, and the big guy by the door headed toward him.

Cole and Sandor jumped up to intervene. Apologizing profusely for their drunken friend, they walked him out, one on each side.

Outside the door, they stopped. The sidewalk under the awning was brightly lit. All three were silent.

“Well,” said Cole. “Let’s move on, shall we?” He looked up the street, thinking.

“It would be better if this was a weekend,” Sandor mused. “Tuesdays are not a night for people letting their hair down.”

Cole ignored him. “Look over there, at that place.” There was another awning over windows tinted dark, with neon lights against the gloom. “Let’s check it out. Gordon, how are you feeling?”

“Fine. Just—you know.” He shifted on his feet. “Fine.”

“Come on.” Cole started walking. “It’s been a bit tantalizing, is all. Are you still in control?”

“Yes. I’m ready, though,” Gordon admitted.

“Good. Keep your focus.”

“Yeah.”

The three of them entered the bar. This one was heavy with polished wood, with mirrors and glass and bright loops and swirls of colored neon on the walls. Cole ordered drinks—or decoys, as Sandor called them—and found a corner table.

Gordon didn’t even pick up his drink. He hunched over the table, muttering to himself. “I can do this. I can do this.” Finally he stood up. “I can do this,” he told Cole and Sandor, and walked off.

But he couldn’t. For the next hour or so, Cole and Sandor watched him fumble his way around the room, awkwardly trying to start conversations. Finally he was back, drooping again.

“I just can’t get close enough to anybody. Not without getting really perverted.” He was beginning to sound desperate. “Let’s just go back. I don’t see why we even need to do this.”

Cole and Sandor traded glances. “He’s only going to get sloppier,” Cole remarked.

“I’ll get one started,” Sandor said. “Give me a moment.” He pushed his chair back with a screech and headed toward the bathrooms.

Cole waited a minute or so, then got up. “Come on,” he told Gordon.

In the small hallway by the restrooms, Sandor stood behind a man who had been using the phone between the two bathrooms. Sandor couldn’t really look up, because he had his mouth on the man’s neck, but evidently he could see them coming, because one hand gestured wildly at Gordon, motioning him forward.

Gordon didn’t move. Cole gave him a little shove, and he finally headed over. There was a bit of jostling as Sandor and Gordon switched positions, but otherwise the transfer was made without incident.

“Big guy,” Sandor commented, standing beside Cole
with arms folded. “I think Gordon could go a little longer, don’t you?”

“Gordon,” Cole said, enunciating carefully, “you can count to thirty instead of twenty.”

He counted silently to himself, noticing that Sandor’s lips were moving also. He could hear the person on the other end of the line saying, “Hello? Hello?” The man stood there in a state of dazed bliss.

“When you’re done,” Cole told Gordon, “step away and walk off quickly. You’ve got a couple of seconds before he’s aware again.”

“I’ll meet you back at the table,” Sandor said over his shoulder as he walked away.

“Thanks,” Cole told him, backing away from Gordon and his feed. He was ready to step in if the guy had to be quieted. He hoped Gordon could at least get off without making a scene.

And—another miracle—Gordon did. He simply let go and stepped away, and then he was smoothly walking out of the hallway and back into the bar.

Cole followed casually behind. He saw the man’s expression—fear and wonder. There was never any telling what the omnis thought about this sort of thing.
Cole figured most of them dismissed it pretty quickly, but then he also wondered if it stayed with them, if sometimes they took it for some sort of religious experience. Or perhaps some form of stroke or seizure.

As he sat down at the table, he decided to give the kid a “Nicely done” for the few things he had done right tonight. Just so the boy would know that he
did
have some skills that could be built on.

But Gordon spoke first.

“You know,” he said, twirling a cardboard coaster around and around, “I really don’t like you guys watching me like that. It’s totally perverted.”

“Sorry,” said Sandor. “We wanted to make sure you didn’t go too long.”

“And that guy tasted funny,” Gordon complained.

This annoyed Cole, but Sandor nodded, unperturbed. “He’d had Italian for dinner,” he explained helpfully. Then, in answer to the look Gordon gave him, he added, “You can always tell, because of the garlic. Curry is even stronger.”

Cole decided he would
not
compliment Gordon after all. “You can’t even get your own feeds,” he told him, “so you have no right to gripe about the service. And I don’t
believe you thanked Sandor for helping you out of a jam.”

“Oh no, Cole, that’s all right,” Sandor said.

“It’s not all right. It’s rude, that’s what it is.”

“Thanks,” Gordon mumbled at Sandor.

“You’re welcome,” Sandor said quickly.

“But this is so stupid,” Gordon added. “What’s the point? It’s, like, really hard. And humiliating. And it’s gross.” That guy was gross. He had a pimple on his neck. Back at the Building all I have to do is sit there and girls come asking me—”

“Omnis are not your own personal smorgasbord,” Cole said.

But he’d decided. Johnny had been right: Cole’s earlier failure
had
stemmed from an entirely different situation. That difference was quite clear now that he’d worked with the kid a little. With Bess he’d been mucking around in his own emotions, wanting to make her happy rather than pushing her toward independence.

With Gordon there were no complications or distractions. The kid was childish and pouty, but Cole could deal with that. Taking him on his first road trip would not be easy, but Cole could do that too.

“We need to get going,” he told Sandor. “We’ll go back
just long enough to pack, and then we’re going to get out of town. We’ll replay this over and over again, every night, until he gets it right.”

“You mean leave tonight?”

“Yes. He needs to be out of the Building.
Now
,” Cole added with certainty. “The longer he’s there, the more he has to unlearn. Sandor, he has to fight for control
just from the scent of a puncture
.”

“Oh. That’s not good.”

“No. It looks to me as if he’s been feeding multiple times a night. He’s like an unweaned baby. Gordon,” he said, “you are to feed once a night. No more, no less.”

Gordon looked from one face to the other, bewildered, very omni-like. Cole said nothing, but pushed his chair back and rose to leave. He was ready—ready to be severe, even brutal if necessary. As quickly as possible, the kid had to absorb the fact that he had an eternity of self-discipline ahead of him.

COLE
had everything laid out in neat piles on his bed: jeans and knit shirts rolled up like sausages, ready to go into the backpack; dress shirt, slacks, and tie—which he hadn’t used—folded and set aside; shampoo and shaving gear sealed into a large plastic bag.

That was when he heard the knock.

The door to four-and-a-half had many locks, but he’d only fastened one, just enough to keep any omnis from strolling in. Now he opened the door a crack to see who it was.

Johnny.

Cole opened the door all the way. There was no one else on the landing. “Everything all right?”

“Everything’s fine. I just wanted to have a private word with you before you left.”

Cole nodded. He stepped back, and Johnny followed him in. “Do you want to sit down?” Cole asked.

“No. Go on with whatever you’re doing. Don’t let me interrupt.”

So Cole led the way to the bedroom. The room was back exactly as he’d found it upon arrival, except for his clothes scattered on the bed. That, and he’d taken the cover off the window.

All the windows in the Building had them: wooden covers that fit perfectly into the window frames, overlapping the walls a few inches on all sides. All were meticulously constructed so that they could not fall, but Johnny would take no risks—he’d also had each window fitted with bolts that clamped the covers on.

Cole had not only removed the cover of the bedroom window, he had opened the window itself earlier, when he’d gotten up. It was hard to sleep well with the occupied apartment on the fifth floor just a few steps away; sometimes the ceiling felt like a live thing hovering over him, pressing down. It was always a relief when the clock said night had arrived and he could at least open the window. The only thing visible outside was the brick wall of the building opposite, but he felt he could breathe more deeply with fresh air coming in, and some
of the tension that had collected while tossing and turning would drain from his shoulders and neck.

Now Johnny came over to lean against one of the bedposts. “I appreciate your help on this, Cole,” he said, watching Cole place the rolled-up clothes side by side on top of his shoes.

Cole knew he meant Gordon. He nodded but said nothing. It would do no good to unload on Johnny.

“Something to remember,” Johnny said. “New hemes are always afraid.”

Cole shot him a glance. “Afraid of what?”

“Of being left alone. Being left behind. When they change over, they lose everything in just seconds—everything they thought was real and true about themselves and their world. Even more so with Gordon. Sandor was not able to get to him in time, you see, and there was some violence. Gordon’s had his whole life ripped away from him. You and Sandor are the only way he has of making sense of it all. He may not like that, but he’s going to know it’s true, deep down. And if he gets…”—Johnny hesitated—“…difficult, you can use that fear to your advantage.”

Cole thought about it as he picked up his leather file
case. He vaguely recalled feeling a nameless, wordless panic when Johnny had left him alone for brief periods of time in those early days.

Johnny eyed the case as Cole dropped it into an outside pocket of his backpack. “Still taking your photographs, I see.”

“Not so much anymore.” In fact, he had not taken any in years.

“I always thought they were a good idea. It’s too easy to get dulled to the world. It’s our ability to feel that keeps us human.”

Cole didn’t know what to say to that. He gave Johnny a brief, tight-lipped smile, then put his dress clothes inside the backpack, tucking them around the casual clothes that were already packed.

“I wanted to tell you, too, that if Gordon gets completely out of hand, Cole—if you feel he’s becoming a danger to the rest of us—”

And there it was, laid out in all its ugly nakedness: What could happen if Cole failed.

For the good of society, a mad dog had to be put down. No matter if one liked animals, no matter if the dog in question was a beloved pet. It must be humanely
put to sleep in order to protect the rest.

Of course, a heme couldn’t be put down exactly. Johnny had done it once that Cole knew of. Cole hadn’t been there, but he knew the story. One of the Old World hemes had appeared, bringing with him a firmly entrenched belief in his right to feed to the death whenever he wanted. He’d left a trail of new hemes behind him; that’s where Alice, Seth, and Elise had come from. No amount of talking made a dent in his conviction that he had no obligation to anyone but himself.

Johnny had locked him in a shed—a shed without windows but with cracks between the boards. Not full sun—that was why the screaming had lasted for a few days. The poor sod had healed a little each night until finally the sun took him. Johnny said that guy had torn at the boards of the shed with his bare hands; Johnny had found broken-off fingernails among the splinters on the ground.

It wasn’t something the Colony hemes liked to remember. Cole certainly didn’t want to think about it, and he hoped to God he wouldn’t have to anytime soon.

“I know what needs to be done,” he told Johnny. “And I’ll find a way to do it.”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant that you can call me. And I’ll come. I don’t ask anyone to do something I won’t do myself.”

“I can handle it,” Cole said, stubborn. No matter how horrible this got, he would not dump it on Johnny. He had already shirked his responsibilities; he had done nothing to help in the apartment on the fifth floor. Ever.

He owed Johnny so much—owed them all, but especially Johnny.

“I know you can handle it. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. I honestly believe that the boy will do fine, with you and Sandor there. And,” Johnny said with a grin, “I’m always right, don’t you know?”

Cole didn’t smile back. He could almost feel the burden settling into place onto his shoulders.

“Sandor has a cell phone,” Johnny said lightly, changing the subject. “I wish you’d start carrying one too.”

“No thanks.”

The bed was empty now, except for the backpack and his wallet lying next to it. Cole picked up the wallet and opened it. “I expect we’ll be back in a few months.” All of his Colony-owned credit cards were there, plus a bit of
cash. Bookstore discount cards. His driver’s license—state of California.

“Any particular destinations?” Johnny asked as Cole slid the wallet into his back pocket.

“No. We’ll avoid Missouri, of course—that’s where Gordon is from, right?”

“Yes. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the police were looking for him.”

Cole gave Johnny a sharp look. But he did not ask; he wanted to get Gordon out of here, get himself out of here, get this thing started.

He’d be stuck in cars and hotels with Sandor and Gordon for hours on end. There would be plenty of time to hear what had happened to the kid.

“I figure once we’re out on the highway, we’ll wander a bit.” He checked his backpack, making sure nothing was sticking out that might get caught in the zipper. “We’ll move every night, at first. After Gordon gets the hang of things, maybe we can slow down.”

“You like the West Coast.”

“Yes. I don’t know whether we’ll head there or not. Well,” he added, zipping his backpack shut in one practiced movement, “I guess I’m ready.” He lifted the backpack and swung it over his shoulder.

Johnny didn’t move but remained leaning with one shoulder against the post. “Do you have any questions, Cole?”

About Gordon? About how to subdue him if he got out of control?

About the fifth floor?

“No,” Cole said. “No questions. Are you coming down to see us off?”

“No, I’ll finish up in here.”

“Shall I shut the window?”

“No.” Johnny gave him another grin. “I’ll close up the place. You go tend to our Accident. I know you, Cole, and I’m not worried. I know you’ll do it.”

This time Cole managed a short smile back. “Right. Still…wish me luck.”

“Good luck.”

They didn’t shake hands, didn’t hug. Cole just left, sliding his other arm into the backpack strap as he headed toward the door. When he looked back, Johnny was lifting the cover into the window frame.

Outside four-and-a-half, Cole ran easily down the stairs. On the fourth floor, as he waited for the elevator, he glanced up the long flight to the fifth. He hadn’t even asked how things were. He could still go up there,
quickly drop in. Somebody would be sitting with her, reading or watching television in the silence.

But that would be pointless. Painful for him, and nothing at all to her.

He decided he would not stop by the downstairs apartment on the way out either. Sandor was big on good-byes, and hellos too, but Cole and Johnny were alike in not caring much about either. Cole knew he would see everyone again. They might have different haircuts or hair colors, different clothes, different things to talk about (except Frederick). But, aside from superficial details, everyone had always been the same, and always would be.

That’s just the way it was. Nothing changed, not even in the apartment on the fifth floor. No more change than a rock. Except that a rock got to melt sometimes and turn into lava—or be eroded to bits, into sand. Rocks got to make islands and mountains.

Even a rock
, Cole thought as the doors opened before him and he stepped into the elevator for the interminable ride down,
has it over us
.

BOOK: Night Road
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