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By Graham Masterton
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2006 Graham Masterton
All rights reserved.
It was a sweltering Thursday afternoon and I was caught in the usual southbound traffic jam on the Kennedy Bridge when WRKA played 'Diana', and I felt as if my entire skin-surface was shrinking.
'Diana', by Paul Anka. That song has haunted me for the past fifty years, and I guess it always will. Whenever I hear it, I can't stop myself from turning my head around, just to make sure that I'm not being followed, or that somebody isn't watching me from some shadowy doorway on the opposite side of the street.
'I'm so young and you're so old.' It brings everything back. The glassy heat of the South London suburbs in the middle of summer, the large 1930s houses with their red-tiled roofs and their tennis courts, the flat sweet smell of British pubs, the shabby clothes and the tiny little cars.
And those things that ran through the streets, dark and voracious and utterly cruel. Clinging to ceilings, rushing up walls. You think that you know what it's like to be frightened? You don't have any idea.
When I finally arrived back home in Kenwood Hill, I closed the front door and stood for a long time with my back pressed against it, and my heart was beating like a jack-hammer. Two semicircles of crimson light shone on the wall from the stained-glass window at the top of the stairs, like bloodshot eyes. It was then that I thought, dammit, whatever the government might do to me, it's high time that you knew the truth. That's why I'm going to tell you what really happened during that summer of August 1957, and what hideous carnage we had to face. I'm going to tell you what happened afterward, too, and for me that was even more of a nightmare. All I did was put off the evil day. Sooner or later, the decision that I could never bring myself to make is going to be yours.
I was officially warned never to talk about it. Two days after I was relocated to Louisville, a pimply young man came round to my house in a shiny grey suit and warned me not to say anything, ever, not even to my wife Louise. Even after all these years, I guess the government could still have me arrested for breaching national security, or lock me up in a nuthouse, but they can't terrify me the way that I've been terrified every single day for the past fifty years.
Because vampires never, ever forgive you for anything.CHAPTER 2
Captain Kosherick led me up the uncarpeted stairs of this narrow, unlit building on Markgravestraat, in the north-west part of the city. Two small children with grubby faces were standing in a doorway on the second landing, a girl and a boy, and Captain Kosherick said to them, 'You're going to be OK, you understand? We're going to arrange for somebody to take care of you.'
Behind them, in the gloom of her sitting room, an old woman was sitting in a sagging brocade armchair. Underneath her black lace widow's cap, her hair was white and wild, and her face looked like a shrivelled cooking apple.
'Somebody from the children's services will be calling around later!' Captain Kosherick shouted at her. Then he turned to me and said, 'Deaf as a fucking doorpost.'
'Mevrouw!' I called out. 'Iemand zal binnenkort de kinderen komen halen!'
The woman flapped her hand dismissively. 'Hoe vroeger hoe beter! Deze familie is verloekt! Niet verbazend dat hij de mensen van de nacht heft gestuurd om het mee te brengen!'
'What did she say?' asked Captain Kosherick.
'Something about the family being cursed.'
'Well, I think she was right on the money about that. Come take a look for yourself.'
He led me along the corridor and up another flight of stairs. I could smell boiled cabbage and another smell much stronger and more distinctive: the smell of blood. Although it was mid-October, it was unseasonably warm; the stairwell was alive with glittering green blowflies.
At the top of the stairs there was a much smaller landing, and then a door with two frosted-glass panels in it. The door was half ajar and even before we opened it I could see a woman's leg lying on the floor with a worn-out brown brogue lying close by.
Captain Kosherick pushed the door wide so that I could take in a full view of the room. It was a one-room apartment, with a large iron-framed bed in one corner, a fraying beige couch and a wooden wheel-back chair. There was a small high window over the sink, which had a view of a light grey sky and the dark thirteenth-century spires of the Vrouwekathedrall. Beside the sink there was a small home-made shelf with a red-and-white packet of tea, a blue pottery flour jar, a glass dish with a tiny square of butter in it and three potatoes that were already starting to sprout.
A picture of the Virgin Mary hung on the wall beside the shelf. Both of her eyes had been burned out with lighted cigarettes.
I looked down at the young woman lying face-down on the streaky green linoleum. She must have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight, with wavy brown hair which she had obviously tried to colour with henna. She was wearing nothing except a reddish wool skirt which had been dragged halfway down her thighs. Her skin was very white and dotted with moles.
There were spots and sprays of blood all around her, and several footprints, some whole and some partial, including some smaller bare footprints which must have been those of her children. But considering what had been done to her, there was remarkably little blood.
'Want me to turn her over for you?' asked Captain Kosherick.
I nodded. I was sweating, and the air was clogged with the brown stench of blood, but I had to make sure.
Captain Kosherick hunkered down beside the young woman and gently rolled her on to her back. She was quite pretty, in a puffy Flemish way, with bright blue eyes. Her breasts were small, with pale nipples. She had been split wide open with some very sharp implement from her breastbone to her navel. Her heart had been forcibly pulled out from under her ribcage and her aorta cut about three inches from her left ventricle. It looked like a pale, saggy hosepipe.
'You seen this kind of thing before?' said Captain Kosherick. 'The MPs told me to call you in as soon as they found her.'
I lifted my khaki canvas bag off my shoulder, unbuckled it, and took out my Kodak. I took about fifteen or sixteen pictures from different angles, while Captain Kosherick went out on to the landing for a smoke.
After I had finished taking pictures I searched the young woman's room.
Captain Kosherick came back in again. 'What are you looking for, if you don't mind my asking?'
'Oh, you know. Evidence.'
He was very young, even though he had a streak of grey hair and a bristly little moustache. But I guess we were all very young in those days, even me.
I lifted up the thin threadbare mat beside the bed. There were signs that one of the floorboards had been lifted, so I went to the sink and took out a knife to pry them up. Underneath, in the floor space, I found a rusty can of cooked ham, two cans of Altmecklenburg sausages, three cans of condensed milk, a box of cocoa powder and a box of powdered eggs, as well as three packs of Jasmatzi cigarettes.
'Quite a hoard,' said Captain Kosherick, peering over my shoulder. 'All German, too. Where do you suppose she got these from? Fraternizing with the enemy?'
'Something like that.'
'So somebody found from the resistance found out and they punished her?'
'That's one possibility.'
'Listen ... I know this is all supposed to be top secret and like that, but who do you think might have done this?'
I looked down at the young woman lying on the floor. A blowfly was jerkily walking across her slightly parted lips.
'Oh, I know who did it. What I don't know yet is why.'CHAPTER 3
The Night People
I went downstairs again and knocked on the old widow's door. The two children were kneeling on the window seat looking down at the street below. A ray of sunlight was shining through the boy's ears, so that they glowed scarlet.
The old widow lifted her head to see me through the lower half of her bifocals, and made a kind of silent snarl as she did so.
'Did you see anything?' I asked her, in Flemish.
'No. But I heard it. Bumping, and loud talking, and footsteps. They were Germans.'
'The Germans aren't here any more. The Germans have been driven back to the other side of the Albert Canal.'
'These were Germans. No question.'
I looked at the children. I guessed that the girl was about six and the boy wasn't much older than four. In those days, though, European children were much smaller and thinner than American children, after years of rationing.
'Do you think they saw anything?'
'I pray to God that they didn't. It was three o'clock in the morning and it was very dark.'
'You want a cigarette?' I asked her.
She sniffed and nodded. I shook out a Camel for her, and lit it. She breathed in so deeply that I thought that she was never going to breathe out again. While I waited, I lit a cigarette for myself, too.
'You mentioned the night people,' I told her. Mensen van de nacht. I hadn't told Captain Kosherick about that.
'That's what they were, weren't they? You know that. That's why you're here.'
I blew out smoke and pointed to the ceiling. 'What was her name? Had she been living here long?'
'Ann. Ann De Wouters. She came here last April, I think it was. She was very quiet, and her children were very quiet, too. But I saw her once talking to Leo Coopman and I know they weren't discussing the price of sausages.'
'From the White Brigade.'
The White Brigade were the Belgian resistance. Even now they were helping the British and the Canadians to keep their hold on the Antwerp docks. Antwerp was a weird place in the fall of '44. The whole city was filled with liberation fever, almost a hysteria, even though the Germans were still occupying many of the northern suburbs. Some Belgians were even cycling from the Allied part of the city into the German part of the city to go to work, and then cycling back again in the evening.
I gave the old woman my last five cigarettes. 'Do you mind if I talk to the children?'
'Do what you like. You can't make things any worse for them than they already are.'
I went over to the window seat. The boy was peering down at three Canadian Jeeps in the street below, while the girl was picking the thread from one of the old brown seat cushions. The boy glanced at me, but said nothing, while the girl didn't look up at all.
'What's your name?' I asked the girl. My cigarette smoke drifted across the window and the boy furiously waved it away.
'Agnes,' the girl told me, in a whisper.
'And your brother?'
'Mrs Toeput says that Mommy was sick so she's gone to Hummel,' Martin announced, brightly. The Flemish word for 'heaven' is 'hemel' so he must have misunderstood what the old woman had told him. The girl looked up at me then, and the appeal in her eyes was almost physically painful. He doesn't know his mommy's been killed. Don't tell him, please.
'Our uncle Pieter lives in Hummel,' she whispered.
I nodded, and turned my head so that I wouldn't blow smoke in her face.
'Did you see anything?' I asked her.
She shook her head. 'It was dark. But they came into the room and pulled Mommy out of bed. I heard her say, "Please don't – what's going to happen to my children?" Then I heard lots of horrible noises and Mommy was kicking on the floor.'
Her eyes filled up with tears. 'I was too frightened to help her.'
'It's good for you that you didn't try. They would have done the same to you. How many of them were there?'
'I think three.'
Three. That would figure. They always came in threes.
The little girl wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her frayed red cardigan. 'I saw something shining. It was like a necklace thing.'
'Like a cross only it wasn't a cross.'
'Those are the good men,' interrupted the little boy, pointing down at the Canadians. 'They came and chased all the Germans away.'
'You're right, hombre,' I told him. Then I turned back to the little girl and said, 'This cross thing. Do you think you could draw it?'
She thought for a moment and then she nodded. I took a pencil out of my jacket pocket and handed her my notebook. Very carefully, she drew a symbol that looked like a wheel with four spokes. She gave it back to me with a very serious look on her face. 'It was shining, like silver.'
I gave her a roll of fruit-flavoured Life Savers, and touched the top of her dry, unwashed hair. Not much compensation for losing her mother, but there was nothing else I could offer her. I still think about them, even now, those two little children, and wonder what happened to them. They'd be in their sixties now.
The old widow said, 'You see? I was right, wasn't I? It was the night people.'
I didn't say anything. I wasn't allowed to tell anybody what my specific duties were, not even my fellow officers in the 101 Counterintelligence Detachment.
Captain Kosherick came back in. 'You done here?' he asked me. 'I got two corpsmen downstairs ready to take the body away.'
The little boy frowned at him. You don't know how glad I was that he couldn't understand English.CHAPTER 4
Frank Takes A Drink
Frank was sitting on the cobbles when I came out of the house, his purple tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
Frank was a four-year-old black-and-tan bloodhound who had been specially trained for me in Tangipahoa parish, Louisiana, by the man-trailing expert Roger Du Croix. Actually Frank's saddle spread so far over his body that he was almost entirely black, but Roger had explained to me that he was still officially a black-and-tan.
In Belgium, they called him a 'St Hubert hound', after the monk who had first trained bloodhounds in the seventh century, the patron saint of hunters. Frank's real name was Pride of Ponchatoula but I had re-christened him in honour of Frank Sinatra, who happened to be my hero at the time. When I walked along De Keyserlei, with my greatcoat collar turned up, I liked to think that I looked as cool and edgy as Frank Sinatra did.
'How's it going, Frank?' I asked him. 'Hope you've been conducting yourself with decorum.'
Frank was a pretty obedient dog but now and again he had a fit of the loonies, which Roger Du Croix said was brought on by him picking up the smell of dead rats.
Corporal Little said, 'He's been fine, sir. I fed him those marrowbones and then he took a dump around the corner.'
'Well, thanks so much for the update,' I said. 'Listen – we'll be going out tonight, soon as it gets dark.'
Corporal Little looked up at the flat, narrow front of No. 5 Markgravestraat and said, 'Screechers?'
'No question about it. They split her open like a herring.'
'Holy Christ. Did you find out who she was?'
'Ann De Wouters, aged twenty-eight or thereabouts. I don't know why they specifically came looking for her, but her landlady seemed to think that she might have had some connection to the White Brigade. Could have been a revenge killing, who knows? Maybe they were just thirsty.'
Corporal Little looked around, his eyes narrowed against the bright grey October light. 'Think they've gotten far?'
'I don't think so. By the time they finished with her it must have been nearly daylight, and this whole area was heaving with Canucks by oh-four-thirty. My guess is that they've gone to ground someplace close by.'
Corporal Little reached down and tugged Frank's ears. 'Hear that, boy? We're going to go Screecher-hunting!'
Corporal Henry Little was an amiable, wide-shouldered young man with a red crew cut and a face covered in mustard-coloured freckles. He had a snub nose and bright blue eyes that looked permanently surprised, although I had never yet known him to be surprised by anything. Even when it was first explained to him what his duties would be, he did nothing but nod and say, 'OK, sure,' as if hunting vampires through the shattered cities of France and Belgium was no more unusual than chasing rabbits through the underbrush. Corporal Little's family had bred pedigree tracking dogs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was why the detachment had enlisted him to help me. If Bloodhoundese had been a language, Corporal Little would have been word-perfect. Frank had only to lift up his head and stare at Corporal Little with those mournful, hung-over eyes, and Corporal Little would know exactly what he wanted. 'Cookie, Frank?' Frank had a thing for speculoos, those ginger-and-spice cookies they bake in Belgium, preferably dipped into Corporal Little's coffee to make them soft.
We climbed into my Jeep and Corporal Little drove us back through the narrow sewage-smelling streets, jolting over the cobbles until I felt that my teeth were going to shatter. We passed a dead horse lying on the sidewalk. A German shell had landed in the square two days ago and torn open a big triangular flap in its stomach, so a passer-by had killed it with a hammer.
Somewhere off to the north-west, from the direction of the Walcheren peninsula, I could hear artillery fire, like somebody banging encyclopaedias shut.
We turned into Keizerstraat and stopped outside De Witte Lelie Hotel. It was a small, old-style building with a sixteenth-century facade. The lobby had oak-panelled walls and a brown marble floor and it was milling with officers from the British 11th Armoured Division, as well as an argumentative crowd of Belgian politicians, waving their arms and pushing each other and shouting in French. The British officers looked too tired to care. One of them was sleeping in an armchair with his mouth wide open.
I went to the desk where the deputy manager was trying to rub soup from the front of his shirt with spit.
'I need to talk to Leo Coopman.'
He stopped rubbing his shirt and looked at me with bulging brown eyes.
Excerpted from Descendant by Graham Masterton. Copyright © 2006 Graham Masterton. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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