Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
THE BURNING MEN
This much is true
In 1867, a young sailor was tried and convicted of murdering two of his crew mates and drinking their blood.
The papers called him a vampire.
President Andrew Johnson pardoned him, sparing his life. He spent the rest of his days in an asylum for the criminally insane.
At least, that was the cover story.
The truth was far stranger. The young man, named Nathaniel Cade, was actually a vampire. Bound by a special blood oath, he swore to follow the orders of the President of the United States and protect the nation from the forces of darkness that cannot ever be allowed to invade the daylight world of ordinary humans. For over 145 years, Cade has been a secret weapon in the war against the Other Side, both the first responder and the last line of defense.
Zach Barrows was a young political operative with a bright future on his way to becoming the youngest chief of staff in White House history. Then he was called into the Oval Office and given a much different assignment. Zach became the latest in a long line of human handlers to work with Cade. Zach thought it was all a bad joke until he met the vampire in the flesh; then he wet his pants. Things have only slightly improved for him since then.
The two may appear close in age, but Cade is an inhuman, blood-drinking monster. Zach is an ambitious political creature. They are worlds apart, but have managed to forge a grudging respect since Zach’s first mission. Zach now uses his intellect and resources to do the things in the daylight world that Cade cannot. He relays the president’s orders and deals with all the
logistics necessary to keep Cade hidden in a world that’s increasingly hostile to secrets.
And Cade kills the monsters.
Here was the place where the kids from the high school sat down in a group. They were laughing, probably, each one jostling for position, trying to get next to their current crush and/or best friend. One of the chairs was split neatly down the middle, pristine on one side, a melted ruin on the other. Maybe someone was now thanking God they didn’t get to sit where they wanted.
Here was where the first-time parents sat. A night out, away from their infant son, who was at home with his grandmother. Zach wonders how that woman is handling this, how she will deal with the sudden knowledge that she now has to raise an 18-month-old again.
This spot is where one young man — a soldier from the local base, Zach has learned — got up and ran. According to witnesses, he was not trying to get out. He was running toward the center of the flames. Trying to help.
But there was no helping any of them. Zach looked at the burned-out area, a perfect circle in the middle of the theater. Inside the radius, the heat was intense enough to melt the plastic chairs into puddles. The carpet had been melted to vapor, the floor scoured all the way down to the concrete. The bodies were gone now, carried away by the first responders.
Except for the one who did it. His remains were at the center of the circle, somehow still standing. He looked like a statue. Except he was made of charcoal.
His arms were outstretched to the ceiling. He had stood up, the survivors said, then there was a terrible flash of light and heat, and everything began bursting into flame.
Within seconds, everything around him in a twenty-foot radius was consumed. Outside of that radius, everything else looked almost normal. Carpet not even singed. There was still a tub of popcorn in the cupholder on one of the seats. It was unspilled. Some kind of miracle. On the edges of the theater, if it were not for the smell of roasted flesh and boiled plastic, you would never know what had happened here.
The bomber — because that was what they were calling him — somehow turned this movie theater into a crematorium, but without burning anything outside his 20-foot range. No one saw him trigger any device or splash any gasoline or even light a match. Just a flash of light, and then a small circle of hell opened up.
Now he just stood there — what was left of him, arms still reaching for the sky.
It seemed very much like the skull, black and hard as coal now, was grinning.
Cade suddenly appeared at Zach’s side. He had been lurking in the shadows. It was what he did. He could see things in the dark.
“It’s not a firebomb,” Cade said. “I can’t smell any gasoline or any accelerant in the air. There’s no scent of thermite or napalm or phosphorus. Nothing short of a thermobaric weapon could have burned fast and hot enough to melt plastic and burn bodies to ash, and there’s no trace of that, either. This was not natural, or technological. This is outside ordinary human means.”
No bomb, no chemicals, no device. Nothing.
It was impossible.
That was why Zach and Cade were here. This was an inhuman act, and dealing with the inhuman was their job, not least because Cade himself was not human, either.
Cade was a vampire. Zach had finally gotten over that. For the most part. Other people could argue about how vampires didn’t exist, how they were just relics of folklore and sexual repression and nightmares. Zach had to work with Cade. Denial only got in the way.
They had started the day in Washington D.C., in the Reliquary, the hidden rooms beneath the Smithsonian where Cade made his home. Trophies from his previous hunts lined the walls and tables around his coffin: bits and pieces of impossible animals, ancient relics, sinister weapons. Zach’s predecessor had explained that Cade was a hunter, and like any hunter, he kept trophies from his 145 years on the job.
Zach had a coffeemaker and a desk.
When CNN began running alerts about the bombing outside Brockton, Mass., Zach did not think he’d have to get Cade out of his box. A bunch of regular people who had no idea they were about to be made extras in some lunatic’s personal action movie. Like a school shooting or a workplace massacre, just another atrocity, just another day. Zach expected they’d find a loser huddled in his parents’ basement and that would be the end of it until the next time.
Then he noticed the narrowing of the story. Information got tighter. The facts from the official sources, usually eager to prove they were on top of the situation, trickled down to nothing. The press conference devolved into “No comment” repeated over and over. Interviews were cancelled at the last minute. He’d been in politics long enough to recognize the signs. Someone was panicking.
He knocked on Cade’s coffin lid right before the encrypted line from the Oval Office rang.
President Samuel Curtis was facing re-election soon; he’d pay attention to the bombing no matter what, but his opponents loved to cast him as soft on national security and terrorism, especially after the attack on the White House. (Zach often wondered how they’d react if they knew it had been zombies marching on the Rose Garden, not a Jihadi sleeper cell like the cover story said.)
The first bomb techs on the scene couldn’t find a bomb. That tripped all kinds of alarms. Eventually, it got all the way to the White House, and the president made the decision to send in Cade to check it out. They flew out of Andrews on a private Gulfstream jet with blacked-out windows and were in the theater less than four hours after the incident.
“No bomb. You’re sure?” Zach asked.
As always, Cade’s face was nearly expressionless. But Zach had learned to find the meaning in the vampire’s very subtle shifts of tone and emphasis.
The look Cade gave him was one of a series that was basically variations on the same theme:
how dumb are you?
“So it wasn’t a bomb,” Zach said. “Do you know what did this?”
Cade shook his head. “No,” he said. “I have never seen anything quite like this. That’s what concerns me.”
That concerned Zach, too. “Concerned” in this case meaning a throb of fear that went down his spine all the way to his bowels.
“So maybe it was a freak accident. Bad wiring under the seats. Ball lightning. We haven’t even had our pet scientist check it out yet.”
Cade just kept looking at him. He never spoke unless it was absolutely necessary. Once again, the message Zach got was disappointment. This was so obvious that Cade believed even Zach should be able to see it.
Zach was in no mood for guessing games. “All due respect, we don’t even know what this is yet. How do you know this is our job?”
Cade pointed at the burned man, in the center of the circle.
“Look,” he said.
Zach looked. And saw it through Cade’s eyes.
The burned man. Frozen on that face, burned down to its essence, was a smile.
Whoever — whatever — he was, he had died happy.
“This wasn’t an accident,” Cade said again. “This is just where it starts.”
Just once, Zach would like to report back to the president that it wasn’t something that went bump in the night. Just once.
Not this time, apparently.
Cade turned and walked away. Zach followed.
The burned man stood there, still smiling.
Cade and Zach exited the theater. Across the street was a mall, quiet and deserted now. The FBI had men standing guard at the perimeter. They paid no attention to Zach and Cade, who carried credentials from high up the chain of command. The agents probably figured they were another pair of official gawkers, one of the many interested parties who wanted to get a good look at the carnage if only to say they’d seen it in person. The lab technicians and photographers waited, not exactly patiently despite earning overtime.
Zach had a quiet word with them, told them to take the burned man to the local medical examiners’ office. Ramos would meet them there.
This late at night, only a few reporters were still standing outside the crime-scene tape. Cade turned away just as one of the people in the crowd tried to snap a cell-phone picture. Cade never showed up very well on camera anyway, but he didn’t like having his image out in public.
“Lock it down,” Cade told Zach.
Zach was already on it, tapping commands into the one piece of super-spy tech he was allowed. It looked like a smartphone, but its insides were crafted by the maddest scientists at the NSA and CIA and Area 51, for all Zach knew. Zach pressed a button, and suddenly every camera, every phone, and every piece of recording equipment, in a 300-foot radius stopped working properly, fuzzed by low-level EMF interference.
Then he sent encrypted texts that would issue orders to collect every picture of the crime scene, every second of digital video. Along with the preliminary police reports and 911 audio and transcripts, it would all vanish into a black box sealed with the label PATRIOT ACT. Nobody in the real world could be allowed to see this.
At the same time, his spy phone was also scanning, sifting for the relevant data through all the bandwidth out there, piggybacking on the NSA’s giant computers, searching for keywords in the billions of Internet posts, phone calls, and instant messages talking about the bombing.
Right now, they had basically nothing. The victims were identified by the survivors and witnesses. The man who caused it all was a cipher. He came in alone, paid cash for his ticket, and for obvious reasons, they couldn’t check his pockets for ID. They didn’t even know where he lived.
But Zach’s typed messages would send a truly scary amount of artificial intelligence out into the electronic universe, hunting for leads. Eventually, they’d get a name. Everyone left a trail in the modern world.
It was all in motion before they walked back to their car.
Cade started the engine. Zach checked his watch. Not even 1:00 AM yet. Plenty of night left.
“Okay, boys. The phrase of the day is ‘Spontaneous Human Combustion.’”
Dr. Carolina Ramos stood over the burned man in his clear plastic box, laid out on top of a steel autopsy slab.
Zach and Cade did not work entirely alone. They had technical support and clean-up crews, hidden, like they were, in the byzantine structure of the government, paid for with hidden line-items in other agencies’ budgets or off-the-books funding.
This was the first time they’d worked with Ramos, however. Despite flying in from DC in the middle of the night, she looked so fresh and new she practically shone in her lab coat. She smiled at Zach and even Cade when they entered, and moved around the autopsy table with a grace that was like barely restrained dancing. She was a bright light in the middle of the morgue, which was empty except for bodies at this hour.
Zach wasn’t entirely sure he trusted anyone who liked her job this much, especially when it involved being elbow-deep in corpses.
Being close to Cade didn’t even seem to bother her, either. Where most people cringed, she got closer. She walked right up to him and offered her hand.
“Mr. Cade. You’re the famous vampire.”
Cade looked at her for a long moment, then shook her hand gently. She didn’t even flinch.
“You know, I’d love to spend some time updating your files,” she said. “Nobody’s done any serious work on you since Dr. Kavanaugh, and that was in the 70s.”
“I’ve been busy,” Cade said.
“A lot has changed since then,” she said.
“The last time I was examined, it turned out to be quite painful.”
“You’re tough. I’m sure you can handle it.”
Zach saw Cade’s lip curl in a microsecond smile. It was the only way he ever knew the vampire was amused.
“I didn’t say it was painful for me.”
Ramos looked at him with a peculiar, intense interest. Like she couldn’t decide whether she wanted him in her bed or on that slab. “If I could just have a few hours with you alone, I promise it would be genuinely worthwhile.”
“Trust me,” Cade said. “You don’t want that.”
Most people would back off when they heard that graveyard voice. Ramos just smiled.
“I think I know what I want, Mr. Cade,” she said.
Zach did not need to see any more speed-dating among the undead. He tried to draw Ramos’ attention back to the job.
“So what’s Spontaneous Human Combustion?” he asked.
“Well, Mr. Barrows, basically, it’s this,” she replied, pointing at the burned man. “The body is burned, usually reduced to nothing more than scorch marks. Sometimes only part of the body burns, leaving other pieces — like a hand, or a foot, or in one case, a head — totally untouched. A crematorium has to produce heat of 1,800 degrees for over two hours to reduce a body to ash. That’s hot enough to melt aluminum. And in these cases, this happens without significant damage to anything else in the room.”
“This has happened before?”
“Oh, for centuries,” she said brightly. “Cases of SHC have been recorded for at least 300 years. Charles Dickens killed one of his characters with it. And it keeps happening. Just last year in Ireland, an elderly man burned to a crisp with no known source of fire. The chair he was sitting in was singed. There was smoke damage to the ceiling and floor. No other burns. And the body looked as if it had been cremated. Coroner ruled it was SHC.”