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Archangelis set in an alternative universe--Minneapolis in the late 1920s--after a decade of a devastating plague known as Hun. A young newspaper photographer discovers a weird series of murders that look like the work of a vampire. But in a world of bad news, even his own paper won't print his discovery. From 1993 Nebula Award-winning author Michael O'Connor.
The Archangel was broadcasting from Chicago tonight. Danny Constantine had set up his view camera and strung an aerial wire from the windshield of his Ford to a section of rusted out chain-link fence and he had been listening to her program, beamed from the deserted Blackstone Hotel in the heart of that dead, cold city, as she put it, for three hours, until his B batteries had gone dead. He cursed himself for not having charged the batteries before coming out tonight, because he loved the sound of the Archangel's voice, and loved the things she said. She was a wise guy and a cynic, but she was sweet, too, and she told the truth about the way things really were: here in Milltown, Minnesota, and now down in Chi, too.
Danny took down the aerial, checked his travel alarm clock, got back in the car, pushed the seat back as far as it would go, and sat with his feet up on the dash. Rising above him were the flour mills that had built Milltown. Danny's Ford was parked on a rail siding that lay between the mills and the river. There was a wall of them that ran for four city blocks, each mill six or seven stories tall, built of limestone or whitewashed brick that seemed to glow in the pale moonlight. They had been built that way purposefully, one against the other so that they hid the river, and the falls that powered them, from the rest of the city. The flour barons who had ground wheat into money at the turn of the century were jealous of the source of their power. On the downtown side of First Street they had built a power canal that diverted the river and fed the wheel pits and turbines that powered all the machinery on the work floors of the mills. Theyhad covered this canal with a rail trestle. Water still ran through the canal, but above it, the rails were orange with rust, and milkweed plants poked through the cinders and grew high between the cracked ties.
Once, that canal and the river had meant everything to the city; the mills worked twenty-four hours a day. Now, in the summer of 1930, all of them stood dark and abandoned. In the middle of this miller's row stood the ruins of what had been the largest flour mill in the world: the Crockett A mill. Two years ago last January, Crockett A had exploded and burned, launching a pillar of fire fueled by flour dust, and the timbers and floors inside the limestone shell, that shone like a candle for fifty miles around the frozen prairie. It had been fifteen degrees below zero that night, and when morning came and the fire brigade had given up, the walls of the Crockett A were clad with fantastic blue-white stalactites of ice that glittered in the weak sunshine, warmed, and fell off to shatter at the base of the wall.
Danny Constantine had taken pictures of all of that. When the fire raged at its peak, Danny had sneaked through the lines and stood on the spur between the mill and the grain elevators and taken shot after shot as pieces of burning timbers rained down on him. He had been up for a Pulitzer for his picture of the flaming rooftop monitor sagging over the wall, power shaft still turning and whipping the flames. But there had been no Pulitzers given that year, nor any since, just as there had been no effort to rebuild the mill. The ruins of Crockett A stood ghostly over the river. And every so often, when the moon was full, Danny liked to come out with his view camera and shoot them. He would bring a cot and an alarm and make long time exposures, lulled to sleep by the sound of the water slipping through the power canal.
Now it was summer, early Sunday morning; Danny slept while he made his third plate of the evening. He had set up near Portland Avenue, at a spot where a line of young willow trees had grown up along the spur. Their branches touched the mill walls and made a tunnel over the tracks. His tripod stood just inside the tunnel, shaded from the moonlight, looking out toward the ghostly white bulk of the walls to the north.
Portland Avenue ended at First Street. When the mills were open there had been a string of taverns on Portland between First and Washington Avenue. The taverns had been officially closed by the Volstead Act in '19, although most of them had continued to operate as social clubs or blind pigs. By the time Prohibition was repealed, however, there were no more thirsty mill workers coming out of the gates. Now only one of the old taverns remained in business. It was called Vern's, at the corner of Second Street and Portland.
Around three a.m., a man and a woman left the tavern, pushed through the broken mesh of the fence at the end of Portland Avenue, and walked unsteadily along the tracks over the power canal. After a few steps they stopped to take in the view. Toward the river, the big full moon was just touching the tops of the mills and the grain elevators. Ahead was the tunnel formed by the willows, a cylinder of darkness with silvery light at the end where the moonlight cut across the tracks.
"Oooh, it's ever so dark in there!" the woman said. She had a husky voice and platinum hair that was also very bright with the moon shining on it.
The man examined his companion.
"You talk like a Brit!" he said.
"You just figgered that out, did you?"
"I thought you talked funny. But I ain't talked to any Brits since the war."
The woman smiled up at him and took the lapels of his jacket and stroked them. "What's the matter, Charlie?" she whispered. "Don't you like the English?"
"Ain't supposed to be any here. They spread it, you know."
"Spread what?" the woman said, twirling her finger in his hair. "What is it we spread?" She smiled at him and pulled him close and kissed him. He kissed her back, and kissed her back good. A Brit! She could infect him with Hun just with one kiss, but he didn't care anymore. In fact, the danger made him even more excited. He kissed her harder, but she pushed him back and turned her head away.
"Well, you know, Char, I've always been a bit frightened of trains."
"Hasn't been a train down these tracks in five years!" Charlie said with drunken confidence.
"But maybe they might send one tonight. They could, couldn't they? You drive a streetcar. Couldn't a train still use these tracks?"
"I guess it could."
"Wouldn't that be something. To be kissing so hard you didn't even feel it hit you."
"You're teasing me--"
She took his hand and pulled him toward the willows. "Aw, I never was! Come on down this way, where it's nice and dark."
They walked, scuffing cinders, until she caught her heel on one of the ties and stumbled, her beret falling off. That was the end for the man. He gave up any pretext of reserve. He forgot about his job and his family, and whether she might be sick with Hun or not, and whether she might give it to him if she was. All he could see was her hair in the moonlight. She hadn't been that pretty in Vern's, but now she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Halfway inside the copse, the woman stopped, laughed softly, and put her arms around his waist. They came together and kissed again.
"I'm crazy to kiss you," Charlie said.
"Yeah, and why's that?"
"Shut up," he said and kissed her again. He could smell her and feel her against him and taste her, all of it a vapor that filled his head and reached down to the inside of his chest. His fists tightened into the silk of her dress, and he pulled up on it and pressed closer, kissing her neck now.
"You can't get sick, luv. I know you can't, you got some of that black blood in you. Don't you, luv? Who was it? Was it a granny, Charlie? Was it your grandmother?"
"Yeah," he said, and the thought of that got him, too. Only it wasn't his grandmother, it was his father, something Charlie never talked about. Nobody knew; it was a secret and he was light enough, and living in this town, nobody ever even considered the possibility, because there had been so few coloreds before the war. They couldn't stand the winters. Hell, Charlie hated them, too. But how did she know? He tried to remember what they had talked about at the tavern. There had been an awful lot of talk. Maybe he'd got drunk enough to tell her. Well, so what. He wasn't ashamed of it now. She liked that. She wanted him because he was that way.
The dress she was wearing, a green silk print, buttoned up the front. He put his hand between the buttons and pulled, trying to unfasten them, but instead he popped one, and the sensation of it coming away so quickly pushed him past all thinking and he ripped the whole front of her dress open.
"Charlie," she whispered as he put his hand down the front of her slip, felt the warm soft skin and a breast that seemed awfully small, but hard, with a hard nipple that pressed like a coat snap against the palm of his hand. She squirmed and kissed him back hard, shoving her tongue deep into his mouth.
"Charlie," she said excitedly. "Let's lie here on the tracks. Look, there's plenty of grass here, it's good and soft. Let's lie here and pray the bloody train don't come and cut us in half!"
"There's no fucking..." he was saying as she knelt, unbuckling his belt.
"What's that?" she said, kissing him again.
"No fucking train. "
"Yeah, there is, Charlie. Lie down here with me. Let's lean our heads against the rail, where the wheels can cut 'em clean off!"
"You're crazy," he said, but he did it. The top edge of the rail felt sharp against the back of his skull, so he pushed with his feet and slid up, so that the rail was underneath the top of his neck. She knelt over him. Her slip glowed silver in the moonlight.
"You want it, don't you, luv?" she said, unbuttoning his trousers. "Close your eyes. I don't want you watching for that train."
He closed them, waiting, feeling his whole body tremble and the world starting to spin. Too fast, he thought. He might get sick if he didn't open his eyes. But just as he started to, he felt something cold press against his neck, and heard a strong puff of air, like a BB gun firing. Something jarred his neck. And then everything below his head went numb. He tried to move and couldn't. He tried to move his arm and couldn't, either. She was still smiling down at him, pulling tubes from her purse, letting the straps of her slip slide down her shoulders. He could see all of her now, and grimaced in horror. She was pushing the tubes into a pair of black nipples that stuck out of the rib cage of her lower right side.
"Close your eyes, luv," she said. "It'll all be over soon. Give us a last kiss. And make it good."
She pressed her lips against his. Then something scraped against the side of his neck and she bent and kissed his neck and stayed there kissing it, making low moaning sounds, moving herself up and down on her knees. Then the dizziness took Charlie and flung him off far away above the trees and the river, spinning in the darkness toward the silvery moon.
Copyright © 1995 by Mike Conner