Authors: John Steakley
Tags: #Adventure, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Paranormal, #Horror, #Thriller, #Vampire, #Urban Fantasy
Vampires Steakley, John
They were all there when Crow and his Team came rolling in for that last job. All the policemen and local officials. The mayor. The school board. It was that kind of small Indiana town.
It was that kind of hot summer day, too. The crowd faded quickly back from the billowing dust raised by the semis on the milk-white gravel driveway, holding hankies to their faces and coughing. Then they stood on the brown grass and watched the procession circle deafeningly around them and pull up in front of the great house.
The engines on all five vehicles stopped at once. Jack Crow stepped from the lead Jeep and stood there, all six-feet-two of muscle and resolve and mean. He stood for a moment, glancing up at the target. When he turned back the local officials stood about him in a semicircle, as if for warmth.
In fact for warmth.
Crow smiled easily at them. He shook hands with the round nervous-faced mayor. He glanced at his watch. It was high noon and 105 degrees.
Time to start killing.
They dynamited the south wing ten minutes later. The charge went off on a second-story balcony and drove the entire section flat to the ground like an angry fist. There was a lot more smoke, a lot more dust. They waited. Soon it was sunny again. The grapples began snagging at the wreckage and dragging it away.
The townsmen watched it all, wincing at the first screech of steel members on the masonry. They watched the machinery lumbering into position. They watched the crew of five appear from the van with their eight-foot-long pikes and stand ready. Mostly, they watched Crow.
They probably didn't jump more than a foot the first time the rubble moved on its own.
“Boss!” called a young blond man named Cat from his lawn chair crow's nest atop one of the semis. “I think we have one.” He stood up, shading his eyes against the bright sunlight and pointing. “Right there on the end.”
“Okay,” replied Crow calmly. “Rock and roll.”
The crew moved into position encircling the area as best as the broken shard footing allowed. From their back pockets they took what looked like women's long opera gloves and put them on. The steel mesh fabric glinted brightly. The townsmen, probably without realizing it, stepped closer together.
Then Crow, dragging cable from the broad grapple clenched in his huge right fist, stepped through the circle of his men and stabbed a prong deep into the cornice lodged heavily over the target area. He stepped back and held out his left hand. Somebody handed him a crossbow the size of a swingset and then everybody just stood there for a moment.
It started almost the instant Jack's signal to the crane pulled the cable taut. The masonry had barely tilted to one side when the first fiend came whistling and smoking into the agony of the sun's rays, shrieking like a harpy and stabbing out with black claws and dead gray fangs and then spouting a vile black glob as Crow's first shot drove a bolt the size of a baseball bat through its chest and spine and eight inches into the cornice behind it.
It writhed and howled and burned and cried and dragged with maniacal frenzy at the wooden stake, but the umbrella
barbs kept it lodged tight, killing it, killing it, rubbing it away from the world of earth and man and bright summer Indiana afternoons.
“Now that,” offered Cat after several seconds of heavy silence, “was weird.”
The mayor turned to the elder town councilman and chuckled. The latter responded in kind. Soon all the townsmen were laughing and laughing with the break of the tension and with the relief that maybe after all the honor of the past months and- And nobody else was laughing. Not Cat, peering disgustedly down from his perch above them, none of the other members of the crew, and not Jack Crow, whose look of withering disdain turned them pale to a man.
When they had gotten very quiet for a very long five seconds Jack said, “The leader shouldn't have popped first. He usually sends everyone else ahead.”
“How.. .” began the mayor before his voice cracked. cleared his dry throat and tried again. “How do you know it was the leader?”
Jack lit a cigarette and stared at the ground. “After a while,” he replied softly, “you can tell.”
He stood there quietly like that for several seconds. Then he looked at them, actually looked at the individual townsmen for the first time.
It had wilted them. The horror, the losses, the sense of total naked impotence.
And it was only going to get worse.
So what, he thought next, are you gonna do when it's over, gents? When your town has seen you as worthless and craven and you feel your manhood has been stomped?
Are you gonna do what others have tried?
Are you gonna take it out on us?
When it's over, are you going to cheat us to show you're still men?
Because it really is gonna get worse. That was just the first one.
“All right,” he barked abruptly, clapping his hands sharply together.
“Let's get on with it. Rock and roll.”
And they did. And it did get worse. The second eruption was a howler and a screecher, again vile and terrifyingly fast, and the black bloody flecks fountained when the bolt struck it and slammed it back down and still it would not die until long seconds after one of the crew had punctured its skull with his pike.
It was horribly gruesome.
It was a broad-daylight nightmare.
It was a woman each townsman had known for over forty years.
After the schoolteacher came the local postmaster, the prom queen and her fullback fiancé, some hapless young college girl with the irreversible misfortune to blow a tire on a country lane that actually was dark and long but only appeared empty.
The usual. But there was something wrong with the proportions.
“Nine in all, counting the leader,” said Anthony reading from Cat's clipboard an hour and a half after the last appearance. “But only three goons.” He looked up from the page at his boss. “They weren't very busy, were they?”
Crow took the clipboard from his hand and glanced at it. “Nope,” was his only response.
Both men looked up at the sound of the Jeep returning up the driveway bearing Cat and the graveyard team. One of the townsmen approached them while they unloaded empty cans of soil coagulant and tossed them into the back of the semi.
“Do you think there's another pit somewhere?” asked Anthony after a few seconds.
Crow looked at his questioner, whose bull neck and massive shoulders remained taut from the pressure of the day. Crow decided he looked awful after five hours of slaughter, decided that was probably good.
“No,” he answered. “This is it. I never heard of them keeping goons somewhere else. New ones need to be around the leader anyway.”
“Then how come-”
“Dammit, Anthony! I don't know why they didn't turn more recently. Maybe they had something else to do.”
“Like what?” Anthony wanted to know.
Crow sighed. They always came to him with questions like this. He was the elder veteran, three years at it now, and probably had, in fact, the longest career of this type in the world. But that didn't mean he knew shit about vampires. Nobody knew shit about vampires. Nobody lived long enough to learn, and it pissed him off the way they all looked at him to know all the answers. What right did they- lie caught himself, took a deep breath. He looked again
at Anthony, who had been an all-pro outside linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks when Crow had hired him. A man who was deeply loyal, sharply intelligent, and one of the bravest human beings he had ever seen, and who goddamn well deserved an answer from the man who claimed to be his boss and leader.
“I'm sorry, buddy. I just don't know.”
Crow told the pikemen to stand at ease, brought the demo bunch in to punch the last of the charges deep into the rubble and went over to talk to Cat who still stood chattering away with the townsmen. On the way he passed the local priest, Father Hernandez, stepping dully forward to turn his trick over the nine piles of ashes. Crow swallowed the resentment the old man's sighing gait brought up in him. Priests!
call it Joplin juice on account of Carl Joplin, the guy who put it together for us,“ Cat was saying to the mayor and another man whose name Crow didn't recall. ”It just makes it hard to climb up out of. Even without it, y'know, it's too hard for most of 'em. Getting the damn coffin open at all is most of it. Remember-"
“Cherry Cat!” Crow called abruptly, not being able to stand it any longer. The townsmen, who just hours before had been too frightened to speak, were now full of patronizing pretend-interest questions about procedure. It was the kind of transition Crow had expected since noon, of course, but that didn't make it any better.
Cat excused himself and stepped through their disapproving looks. Crow put an arm about Cat's shoulders and turned away with him, speaking in an obvious but inaudible whisper sure to be taken as the insult it was.
“Don't you see what's happening, goddammit?”
Cat sighed. “Yeah.” He looked hurt. And was, Crow reminded himself with more than a little amazement. “Damn,” continued Cat, “I liked these people. Y'know that banker guy, Foster? He's planning to build-”
“Planning to cheat your ass blind and mine both.”
Cat frowned. He glanced in the direction of the townsmen without seeing them.
- “Yeah,” said Cat at last.
They lit cigarettes and started walking toward the trucks.
“But, y'know, Jack? Not really,” cried Cat in an abrupt plaintive whisper. “They're just trying to pull themselves up outta the hole they're in.” He stopped. “You're the one who told me all this yourself.”
Crow was adamant. “Then they shouldn't have got themselves in the hole in the first place.”
“The vampires did that, Jack.”
“Like hell they did. No sympathy, Cat. If they'd had the damn guts to face it.. . And now they're trying to take it out on us for doing it for them.”
“Right in front of them, and the whole town. Their town.”
Crow stopped and looked back the way they came. “No sympathy,” he repeated.
"Look, just because they're feeling a little... I don't know-ashamed, I guess
“Did it ever occur to you that they have something to be ashamed about?”
They were silent for several seconds.
“All tight,” said Cat at last with a sigh. “I'll get it ready.”
Crow shook his head. “No need. Not this time. I'm not gonna put up with this shit this time.”
Cat eyed him briefly. “Just the same I think I oughta-”
“No, dammit!” Crow all but shouted. "Look! I'm so tired of these bastards crawling over and begging us on bended knees because they aren't man enough to stand up to the creatures turning their wives and daughters into blood-whores. And then they try to pretend they aren't groveling
little cretins by haggling over the price, like this is just another business deal, this- had nothing to do with the fact that we just cratered when it counted."
Crow stopped and panted with the anger, slamming his cigarette to the ground and lighting another.
Cat waited him out until he was calm. “Well, just in case,” he began as casually as so guileless a man could, “I'll set up the-”
“Do what you want,” Crow interrupted fiercely. “But I'm telling you I've fucking had it with these twerps and all the others like 'em. I'm putting my foot down.” He jabbed his trembling index finger under Cat's nose. “Do you bear me?”
Cat nodded meekly. "I hear you.
Crow nodded with satisfaction. He tossed his new cigarette to the ground, hitched up his pants, and stalked toward the circle of men still at the Jeep. He paused and jerked a ferocious glance back at his friend. “I'm putting my foot down!” he snarled.
Then he stalked ahead even faster. Halfway to the townsmen, Cat overheard his harsh whisper to himself: “Putting it fucking down!”
It was a nice jail-if you liked old westerns.
Crow's cell reminded him of every Rifleman he'd ever seen. It had a cot, a stool, a chamber pot without a lid, and a door that required the keys to the city to open it.
But the deputy was something so special it was almost worth it.
The deputy was a miracle.
To begin with, he had a gut Crow considered an anatomical triumph. But it was in the region of nose-picking where the man achieved greatness. Never in his lifetime (and, he suspected, anyone else's) had Crow seen anybody pick his nose with such fervor-not to mention tangible results-for so many hours at a stretch.
He had other virtues. Besides being a social slug he was also the town bully. During his first hour in the slammer Crow saw him grovel obscenely to his mayor's son-in-law, thump a large red-stoned ring off the crown of some high-schooler for being late to pay a parking ticket, and smash Jack's fingers with a reinforced flashlight to keep them off the bars.
The idea of killing him made Crow feel all warm and tingly. It made the hours bearable. Or rather, setting him up did. “Bullies don't like to fight,” Crow's grandaddy had long ago told him. “Bullies are scared of fighting. Bullies like to beat people up.” Keeping this in mind, Crow worked on a plan for the first hours. He decided at last on whining.
He whined about being shut up in the jail, about being cheated by all “those rich guys who think they're such a big deal 'cause they got money.” He whined about the food- or lack of it-claiming he was starving. He whined about the taste of the water and the smell of the chamber pot and suggested a connection.
He said his fingers hurt, sucked them loudly and often, held them up to show how swollen they were, and demanded to see a doctor.
The third time the deputy told him to shut up it was a snarl.
Crow's reply was equally ferocious. “Make me, fatso!” he snapped back but dropped his eyes when he did.
The deputy smiled, and stood with the flashlight in hand. He stepped around the desk smacking the weapon rhythmically into his fat palm.
“Maybe I will,” he purred menacingly.
Crow took a half-step back from the bars, appeared to catch himself, stepped back up, and declared, “I ain't scared of you!” in the least convincing tone he could muster.
It was bully heaven. The deputy's little pig eyes gleamed as he reached for the keys. His yellow front teeth-all three of them-were bared with delight as he saw the prisoner backing to the far wall of the cell. But when he opened the door of the cell his raspy fat-punk voice changed from a smug chortle to a clear-bell high-pitched scream.
Crow bounced him across the desktop.
The deputy pulled himself up off the splintered remains of the desk chair and peeked over the desk in shock. He couldn't believe this was happening to him.
Crow didn't hurt him. He just dribbled him about the office floor long enough to make him start to cry. Then he put him in the cell.
From the middle desk drawer he took an army Colt and an extra clip. He looked longingly at the telephone, wanting desperately to talk to Cat. But there was no way of telling who would answer the phone at the motel. Hell, be hadn't heard from the rest of his team the whole time he'd been in the slammer. There should have been the usual effort to get him. . . . Then he remembered his braying at Cat about not needing help. But surely Cat hadn't listened. On the other hand, Cherry Cat had the most infuriating habit of obeying him at the worst conceivable times. Damn.
He forgot the idea of calling. Best just get the hell away from the damn police station. He stuck the automatic down deep in his belt and headed to the door. He gave the deputy a little salute. “See ya, Homer. It's been real.” -
“How,” whimpered the deputy like the blob he was, “did you know my name was Homer?”
Crow laughed and eyed the heavens. “There is a God,” he whispered to himself. “And He's got a sense of humor.”
Then he dropped all other thoughts. He keyed off the lights in the room, took a deep breath, and put his hand on the door.
“All right,” he hissed, “rock and roll, dammit!” and jerked it open.
On the sidewalk outside the jail stood every cop in the world.
It was not Jack's best moment.
“Stop him, please!” cried a man Crow recognized as Banker Foster, and the cops surged forward en masse. Crow thought about the automatic in his belt, thought about the odds of winning, about the idea of shooting any policeman under any circumstances, muttered “Shit,” and lifted his arms over his head.
“No! No!' shouted the mayor, elbowing his way through the eager constables, ”not him!“ He grabbed Crow by the upper arm and tugged on it like a child. ”Mr. Crow, stop him!" he pleaded and turned and pointed across the street to the town square.
The crowd parted with the gesture and Crow could see, at last, his team. They had the crane set up on its highest elevation clamped onto their longest pike, which ran straight down from the starry sky into the chest of a vampire writhing and hissing on the base of the statue of the town's founder.
Anthony, standing on the hood of the Jeep, had his arm poised meaningfully in the air ready to signal the crane operator, who was even now taking out the slack in the cable.
“Let him go!” roared Anthony, “or we'll start your troubles all over again!”
Crow eyed the “vampire” as it spat and arched and wondered idly why they never recognized Cat in gray makeup. Then he turned to the mayor and said, “Well, what's it gonna be? Do we get paid or not?”
“Really, Mr. Crow!” spouted Banker Foster, “there was never a question about paying your fee, as such. It was just that the expenses seemed somewhat-”
“Foster, you are such a goddamn bore,” Crow drawled. He turned to the mayor. “Yes or no?”
“Yes” was decided upon. The procession made its way across the square to the bank. Anthony walked side by side with Crow, but every other member of the team-especially the crane operator and the still-writhing (and now silently giggling) Cat-stayed firmly in place. Crow noticed that there really weren't as many cops as he had at first thought. Perhaps a half-dozen or so counting state troopers and the sheriff's real deputies. The rest were the same crowd present at the mansion all afternoon.
There was some trouble at the bank door, it being ten o'clock at night. Banker Foster claimed he had no keys on his person and suggested they all wait until the next morning and while he chattered away about the door Sheriff Ortega kicked it in with a size-thirteen Tony Lama. It wasn't so much the kick that won Crow's heart but the mischievous grin on Ortega's face while he was doing it.
The vault itself, time lock and all, was a different problem but one Crow & Co. had met before. “You got a cashier's check machine, don't you?” Anthony asked bluntly. So the check was made out and Crow endorsed it and gave it to gray-faced Cat amidst a surprising amount of good-natured laughter-especially from the cops-and Cat drove away to mail it from any other nearby township.
Though Jack Crow was something less than a PR wizard, neither was he a complete fool. “Party time,” he announced gaily, being sure to invite each a nd every one of the city fathers and cops present. Most accepted. The liquor store owner was persuaded by Ortega's dead-eyed smile to give Jack credit. The “store,” as befitted a dry county in a God-fearing state, had no sign but was amply stocked. By now everyone was getting into the spirit of the thing. It took only twenty minutes to overload the Jeep with everybody helping.
“To the motelll-hoa!” cried wagonmaster Ortega, waving a bottle of bourbon from the window of his patrol car- Chevy pickup.
“Rock and roll!” chirped the little mayor who then blushed while everyone else laughed and cheered.
And the party began.