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ROSE, THE COLOR OF BLOOD, wrung the final drops from the clear plastic bag. They dripped onto her tongue, the last dribbles tasting just as good as the first. Chilled, old, dead, still she took strength from this drink and relished its goodness. Some of the others hunted rats and cats, but this was her choice, and the only way she knew to remain undamned in her own eyes. Anything warm would be too much like the real thing.
As usual, as she licked her lips and sucked any traces from her fingers, she wondered who this had been. The blood could have come from anyone in the city: one of the soldiers she saw disembarking from a train the previous night; a stranger looking for love; a lover seeking strangeness. Once, Rose might have understood the act of willingly giving away one’s own blood, but now that things had changed, such an act seemed abhorrent to her. She was glad people did so, of course … but she no longer understood.
She hoped Marty never did it. The idea of drinking something of him … She would know, of course. That would make it worse. She’d know, and she would not be able to stop.
She sighed and closed her eyes, relishing the power and strength the blood gave her. It’s just food, she thought, and she imagined Francesco’s mocking grin if she ever said that aloud. He was the oldest among them, and sometimes he disturbed her. It wasn’t that he had seen more than she could imagine; it was the fact that he found no compulsions to talk about it.
Rose buried the blood bag at the base of the garden wall, pushing it deep and compacting the soil on top of it. Then she sat motionless for a while, hiding in shadows and looking around to make sure she was not being observed. There were still several lights on in the terraced street—she rarely saw places like this where everyone was asleep—and from the open window twenty feet from where she crouched she heard the sounds of lovemaking. She felt a twinge of sexual stirring, but only a pang, a memory more than a sensation. As the man groaned and the woman cried out, Rose leapt the wall and started making her way through the gardens.
She startled a cat and sent it scampering. An urban fox drew back, hissing, hackles raised as she ran past and jumped into the next garden. A dog started barking, but quickly stopped again when she moved beyond the range of its delicate senses. She climbed the walls with ease and cleared the gardens in three paces, and within a minute she lowered herself into the street and watched again for the boy. She had only been away from him for five minutes—she knew the route he always took home, and she could already smell him on the still night air.
A taxi passed by, driver a vague hunched shape. Sometimes—on late evenings, mostly—she rode in taxis, enjoying the driver’s banter if he was a talkative one, relishing the silence if not. Sometimes she simply craved the company of humans.
She walked quickly, passing through the oases of light beneath streetlamps. A few late revelers approached on the other side of the street. Rose kept her head down, her stride confident, her bearing assured. Passing before the barred gates of a small garage forecourt, security lights flashed on and threw her shadow across the road. The revelers’ voices grew quiet, and then stopped altogether. Still they walked, staggeringly drunk, only one of them looking her way. The man had a smile frozen on his face, and she almost felt the way his eyes rode up and down her body. She met his gaze, and he looked away. Tonight, she thought he might have a nightmare.
She passed across an area of derelict land—it was rumored the houses here had been bombed during the Second World War, and ever since the place had been “scheduled for development”—and heard a gang of winos arguing over the last sip in a bottle. They were gathered around a fire, shielded from the road by a thick mass of shrubs and small trees. She passed close enough to smell their blood, and it was rank. Their shouting accompanied her into the darkness again, and she slipped through a rent in the wooden hoarding surrounding the forgotten site.
The boy was close now. This was his usual way home from his friend’s house, and ever since she’d diverted to pop one of the blood bags she always kept on her, a consistent clock had been ticking in her mind. She knew where he would be, and berated herself a little for losing sight of him.
But she couldn’t be there for him all the time, could she? He was growing now, seventeen years old, tall and lean and strong, and one day he’d have to face the future without her because—
Why? Why should he? I can always be here for him, and perhaps as he’s starting to grow old …
But she couldn’t face the idea of turning Marty. She was handling her own condition as well as she could, but she would never visit it on someone she loved. Not without giving him the choice.
She crossed a street and jogged along another road, and just as she caught sight of Marty disappearing around a corner at the far end, she sensed that she was being followed.
Rose’s first instinct was to turn and face her pursuer, but she kept jogging as if unaware. She tried to work out exactly how she knew. Even after five years, it sometimes felt as if she were still settling into this new life, a stranger thrust into an unknown body and told to live with it. The disorientation sometimes sickened her. So she listened, tasted the air, felt the caress of a gentle breeze passing along the street, and it was all and none of these things. She heard and felt and tasted nothing out of the ordinary, and yet the night was suddenly alight with glee.
For a moment, Rose was taken aback with shock. She paused directly beneath a streetlamp, wide-eyed, and when a curtain to her left twitched she saw a young girl’s face watching from an upstairs window. The girl did not blink or look away, and the shadows at her throat danced minutely to her heartbeat.
Something after him. Chasing. Hunting!
Her feet slapped the pavement without making any sound, and she started moving only by shadows, avoiding the streetlights and passing through the night like a part of it.
It was only as she heard the cry of terror that she let herself speak her brother’s name.
Marty Volk was not a people person. His T-shirt attested to that—Do I Look Like a Fucking People Person?—and his friends were often eager enough to confirm it as well. Usually when there was a girl he was trying to chat up. Sometimes it worked in his favor, when the girl saw him as the strong, silent type. And when he was just a miserable bastard, sometimes not.
There’d been no girls that night. In fact there had been just him and Gaz, spending the evening in his friend’s room playing CDs, downloading music, and drinking cider. It had been a fun night, and Marty always felt comfortable and safe in Gaz’s company. They were best friends, and he even believed that Gaz understood a lot of why he was quiet and withdrawn. More than the others, at least. They’d been friends five years ago when Rose disappeared, and as Marty had watched his parents crumbling before him, Gaz and his family had been a great support.
He could still be a bit of a dick, though. Like tonight, drinking a flagon of cider before Marty even arrived and ending the evening puking from his bedroom window. His dad’s lean-to greenhouse was below, and the sound of his friend’s vomit striking glass had turned Marty’s stomach. It wasn’t the first time it had happened and it wouldn’t be the last, and he knew that Gaz would be busy with a hose and scrubbing brush next morning. Twat. He smiled softly as he walked along the darkened streets, and realized for the hundredth time how much he treasured his friends.
Marty never got that drunk anymore. He’d done it once a couple of years ago when their little gang had managed to procure a bottle of vodka from a shop owner who should have known better. That night had ended in a fight, Gaz falling and slicing his hand open on broken glass, and Marty passing out in the gutter on the way home. Right about where he was now, in fact. He’d banged his head somehow as he went down, and when he came to …
It had been early morning. His parents had agonized later about how many people must have passed him by in cars and on foot, but Marty could understand their caution. He was out later than his parents most nights now, and he’d seen enough stuff on the streets to make him just as reticent about helping others—junkies, pissheads, and once a dead guy who they reckoned had been a hit-and-run victim. Marty had opened his eyes, and through the alcohol haze and the pain of his bashed head, in the weak streetlights, against the background of all London’s night lights reflected against low-lying cloud …
He shook his head and looked down at the gutter where he’d lain so long ago. Standing about here, he thought he’d seen his sister. Missing now for five years, presumed dead by his parents, but not by him. He could never say why he thought she was still alive, and they didn’t ask. Sometimes he thought he saw jealousy in his father’s eyes that he could hold out such hope.
Whoever he’d seen at the time, she had helped him up and sent him on his way.
He glanced at his watch now and walked on. Almost one A.M.; he should be getting home. His parents were pretty liberal when it came to allowing him out, insisting only that they know where he was going. But Marty was a bright kid, and he knew the worry he must be putting them through. They’d lost one child, and they’d do anything within their power to avoid losing another. Once he got home, they’d go to sleep at last.
He passed a bunch of drunks, yuppies in sharp suits and high skirts, and one of the women called something to him. He walked on without looking. Male laughter followed, and he was glad to turn a corner and put buildings between them.
It was the eyes that had convinced him it was Rose. It had been too dark to see their expression, but it had been like looking into his own.
He followed his familiar route, the couple of pints of cider he’d drunk tiring him more than anything else. He was looking forward to bed, and perhaps he’d dream of Paulina. Gaz kept telling him he didn’t have a chance, but the sexy Spanish girl he’d met at their local pub two weeks before had been on his mind ever since—olive skin, dark eyes, and a permanent smile that held a promise of wonders. She’d apparently moved into the area with her extended family—there had been at least six of them at the Dick Turpin that evening—and that first time she’d got drunk on white wine and made out with Marty in the pub’s beer garden. He’d slipped his hand inside her blouse and held her breast, small and smooth, with a nipple as large and hard as an acorn, and she’d giggled and pushed him away, wagging her finger as she staggered backwards toward the pub. Since then she’d given him only coy smiles, and Gaz didn’t believe for a second that Marty’d had a handful.
Yeah, Paulina. Maybe tomorrow he’d—
Something came. Marty paused, looked around. Nothing had changed, but the night suddenly felt loaded, silent darkness thickening, breeze faded like a held breath. He was standing in front of a Laundromat, its neon sign flickering on and off as it had for years. Beyond that was a closed restaurant, then a bank, then …
Nowhere to run, he thought. He looked around in a panic, searching for whatever had scared him but seeing nothing. A car drove along the street, not too fast, not too slow. A woman drove, hunched over the wheel and not even sparing him a glance. Should’ve flagged her down. Asked her for a lift home. He knew she wouldn’t have stopped, but …
But something was here.
Marty backed into the Laundromat’s recessed doorway. It stank of piss. His bladder suddenly felt full and hot. The darkness gathered, not increasing but solidifying, and then there was someone standing in the middle of the road. A man. Marty hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know where he’d come from, but he started walking toward Marty, with a casual gait but unbelievably fast, and in the second it took the man to cross the road and pavement and let his shadow fall across him, Marty had time to see what was so wrong.
The man’s fingers were too long and tipped with claws. His legs bent unnaturally, like an animal’s limbs grafted onto a person. And his face … it was inhuman. It bore all the normal features, but their combination produced something other than the man it pretended to be: nostrils flared as if smelling fine food, not a drunk’s piss. Eyes deep and impossibly dark. And his mouth … was crammed with teeth.
Marty screamed, the man crouched and hissed as if ready to leap, and then something else powered into the stranger, knocking him out of the streetscape framed by the shop doorway. Marty froze, unable to move as he listened to the terrible sounds emanating from somewhere out of sight. A scream, a growl, and then a noise that could only have been claws ripping flesh.
He leaned forward so that he could see fully into the street, staring to the left. The pavement was wide here, but the two fighting things seemed to span from shop to curbside. Limbs flailed, shadows twisted and tore, strangled and pulled, and here and there Marty saw the gleam of streetlights reflected from something pale and wet. At first he thought they were those teeth he’d seen, gnashing in a black maw. But then he heard a sickening snap, and knew that they were exposed bones.
The person he’d seen coming at him from the road—the thing—pounced from the melee, reaching for him with one clawed hand. His face was that of a ravening animal. His mouth opened wide, and something squirmed in there, as if a snake had replaced his tongue and was now tasting the blood-flecked air.
Marty was so shocked that he did not even pull back.
The other thing—he hadn’t yet made it out, couldn’t concentrate long enough to see who or what it was—swung a limb around the attacker’s face and pulled, twisting and rolling backwards. Marty heard the snap of bone, and through the paving slabs he actually felt the thud as bones gave way.
Marty retched, puking a thin gruel of cider and peanuts onto the pavement before him. All the while, he tried to keep his eyes open and focused on the conflict.
His potential attacker stood, seeming to rise and rise, even though he stood not much taller than Marty. Though he looked ragged and broken, still he retained the power and threat Marty had seen moments before. Head tilted to one side, mouth still open and displaying those terrible teeth—too many teeth, too long—he faced Marty’s savior, hissing words that he could not understand.
“Speak English, fuckhead,” his savior said, and though she had her back to him—he could tell it was a she by the curves, even though she wore a thigh-length jacket, and the stance, even though she stood crouched to repel another attack—something jarred in his chest. He did not recognize the voice or the words she spoke, but there was something there … an attitude …
“Rose,” Marty whispered, and the attacker’s eyes flickered to him again. The stranger grinned. His mouth seemed far too wide for his head, and a moment of disbelief made Marty nauseous again. This warm night was suddenly unreal, and he wondered whether Gaz had put something dodgy in his cider. Gaz had been experimenting with drugs, Marty knew that. Nothing too heavy, he claimed, but who knew what was in some of those pills?
Rose, if it was Rose, did not react to his voice. Instead she leapt at the man-thing again, knocking him back into the road. A taxi had been approaching and its brakes screeched, tires laying rubber, but when the driver leaned from his window with a curse on his tongue, Marty saw him quickly change his mind and duck back inside. Instead of driving around the fighting pair, he reversed, ricocheting from several parked cars and setting off an alarm. The screaming engine provided a counterpoint to the all-but-silent struggle before him.
Marty slipped from the doorway and started moving along the shop fronts. Thirty yards along the street was an alley; he could cut in there, jump across a few gardens, and exit into the next street. From there he could lose himself, and it would only take a few minutes …
That thing will sniff me out. His legs weakened at the thought, but it could not be denied.
The fight was relentless. There was no pulling back, circling, stalking; just close-in fighting. The shapes crashed across the street, piling into a car and setting it rocking. The windshield and side windows shattered, the glass sparkling to the ground, and by the time each shard had fallen they were already twenty yards away, one shadow holding the other against the side of a white van, pummeling a fist into the other’s face again and again, metal buckling, paint darkening as it was splashed.
Lights came on in several houses, residents reacting to the singing car alarm. Marty saw curtains shifting, and most of the lights went out again. One stayed on, and from that window he saw several flashes as a camera started snapping away.
The fight stopped as quickly as it had begun. The woman stood and backed away, hands held away from her sides as if ready to strike again. The man stood in the center of the street, in almost exactly the same place he had been when Marty first saw him. He looked as if he’d passed through a thresher, shredding skin and flesh, breaking bone … yet still he grinned. Swaying, he appeared ready to fall.
“Weakling,” he said, his voice heavily accented even through the damage done to his face. And then he turned and was gone, darting away between blinks. Marty looked left and right, trying to see where he had vanished to, and for a moment he glimpsed movement on the terraced rooftop across the street. There was a distant scream, the smashing of glass, and the window that had flashed with camera shots suddenly grew dark.
The woman started walking away.
“Wait!” Marty shouted. “You saved me from … You can’t just …”
She paused, motionless, and Marty thought, That’s how Rose would stand if she was thinking about something, a bit of tension on the shoulders, looking down at the ground in front of her as if the answer might be written there. She stood like that for some time, her left hand clenching and unclenching, and Marty wasn’t sure whether it was the newly revealed moonlight that made her appear to be shivering.
And then she turned around.
Without a body, there could be no death. That was always Rose’s concern. Once turned, she had disappeared from the map of London life, becoming something else entirely and viewing the city through different eyes. She had left her family behind, guided into her new life by Francesco and the others, but her thoughts had always been for young Marty. They had fought like cats and dogs but loved each other with an intensity that only siblings could achieve. He would be bereft, and she knew that the wondering would be the most painful part of her disappearance, for him and for their parents. Wondering if Rose had run away or been murdered; whether she lay in a shallow grave, or chopped up and stored in a killer’s freezer; or whether she had been dragged into prostitution, drugged and beaten, as so many had through the years.
She had wanted them to think she was dead. But she could not give them a body.
Now, turning and looking Marty in the eye for the first time in five years, she realized that Francesco had always been right: disappearing would have been best.
“Marty,” she said, and his eyes grew wider. She was still wound up from the fight, and knew that he saw her teeth. She could do nothing about that. Becoming involved had been her choice; now she had to deal with the consequences.
That thing would come back. Perhaps in moments, or maybe in days, sniffing Marty out, following him home, taking later what it had intended on taking tonight. She’d seen its kind before, and knew what this meant. She could not let her brother die.
“Rose,” he said, and there was not as much surprise in his voice as she’d imagined. “Rose.” He came toward her and she held up both hands.
“Stay back,” she whispered, and her jaws ached. She could smell Marty’s fear.
“Rose, I knew it was you. And it was those other times, too, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That time, when I fell over drunk and banged my head. I really caught it from Mum and Dad for that, I can tell you, but they were glad enough to have me home that it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. And when those shitheads ganged up on me a couple of years back outside the leisure center, and that one big bastard pulled a knife … that was you too? You ran by and grabbed it out of his hand, broke his wrist?”
“No,” Rose said, remembering the thrill she’d felt while snapping the thug’s arm like a twig.
“I saw your hair,” Marty said, “and the way you ran.”
“I run differently now,” she said.
“Yeah.” He was staring at her, and Rose was surprised at how uncomfortable she found it. No one ever stared at her. Francesco and the others looked and saw someone like themselves. Lee Woodhams didn’t even know what she was. And other humans … generally she kept away from them, or if she was close she would hide herself away. Dark glasses, a scarf, a hat. Anything to avoid their stares, because if they saw something that scared them and their heart rates increased, she’d see their pulse, and hear their hearts, and consider the blood that should be her food.
She had only ever drunk warm once, and she had vowed to never do so again.
Marty stared but did not seem afraid. He was happy to see her.
“Marty, I’m gone,” she said. “Pretend you never saw me.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You have to! I’m not here anymore, not like I was before. I’m somewhere else. Some thing else. A memory for you, that’s the best I can be.”
“My guardian angel,” he said, and Rose almost crumpled. He’d encapsulated her weakness in two words, because she had never been able to fully let go. It was a weakness some of the Humains shared, and though the vampires did not acknowledge it as such, they all knew deep down that it was a fault. They were no longer human, yet they viewed the world of humans in a way that could not sit right with their existence. They had always known of the existence of the more brutal vampires—like the one she’d just fought, and which she and the others would have to hunt down and destroy—but they viewed themselves as something more controlled, and more natural. They existed alongside humans rather than killing them for food. But this meant that they all carried links to their old lives and ways of life that was often difficult to break.
Ten years before, when the Barrow thing happened in the United States, the Humains’ sheltered and unusual existence had been brought home to them more powerfully than ever before. When Rose had been turned, part of the care they gave her was lessons in their species’ history.
“I can’t ever be your guardian angel,” Rose said. “I can’t be with you all the time. You were lucky I was passing by this time, otherwise that thing—”
“That … vampire,” Marty said, and she saw his eyes watering with terror.
“You’d be dead,” Rose said after a slight pause. “But you can’t count on me.”
“Oh my God, you’re one too.” He took a step closer and Rose stepped back into the road. She looked around for cars and scanned the shadows for the thing she’d fought. She had sensed his surprise as she bettered him, felt his flesh and bones breaking beneath her grip and punches, but she had no doubt he would seek revenge. That’s what his sort were like. Proud of their monstrousness.
What have I done? she thought as Marty kept walking toward her.
“Marty, stay back,” she whispered, injecting as much menace as she could into her voice. His eyes went wide and he scampered back a few steps, tripping over his own feet and sprawling on the bloodied pavement.
“I won’t tell anyone!” he blurted.
“Fuck,” Rose muttered. She looked around, saw that a couple of lights had come on again. She’d heard the scream soon after the thing fled and knew that in one of those darkened rooms, walls and ceiling would be dripping and the stink of death would hang heavy. It didn’t matter so much if she was seen, but if Marty was spotted and identified by anyone watching now …
“Come on,” she said. Faster than he could blink she grabbed his arm, and his warmth bled through the leather jacket. She steered him along in front of the shops, moving through shadows and using her body to shield him from the view of houses across the road. All the while she kept watch for things that should not move, wondering who that vampire had been and where his strange accent originated. Since she’d been turned, they’d had only one vampire in London, and the Humains had acted quickly to hunt her down and eject her from the city. Still, she had killed fifteen people before being caught. It had been a terrifying time for Rose, the first time she had confronted the naked truth of what she was. The Humains had shielded her. But in a way, Francesco had said afterward, it was good for her to know.
Now there was another. And for some reason which she dare not attribute to chance, the thing had come for her still-living brother.
They ran through the night, Rose having to hold back because Marty could only sprint so fast. All the while she felt him burning with questions, but she ran him so hard that he could not find breath to ask them.
Before he even seemed to realize where they were going, they stopped at the end of his street.
“Rose—” he began, but she cut in. She’d spent the time running planning what to say.
“Rose is dead,” she said. “She died five years ago when she was bitten by a vampire. Okay? I’m what’s left of her. A husk. I drink stolen blood to survive, occasionally animal’s blood. I’m not glamorous, I’m pathetic. I’m not your guardian angel. I don’t mourn my old life, Marty. And that is the truth.” She paused, wondering how far to go, how much she should say about what she had become and how it made her feel. Running with Marty had once again displayed to her the constraints of being human.
“But I’ve seen you,” he said. “Always knew you weren’t really dead.”
“But that’s just it,” Rose said, leaning in close so that he could feel her cool skin, smell her stale breath, see the teeth that no living human could ever have. “I am dead, as far as you’d judge it. I’m beyond any life you know. The Rose you think you’re looking at is just a memory.” She stood up straighter again, and she could feel the fear in his gaze.
“So, what do I do now?” he asked. And that was what she was conflicted about: she’d started something by saving Marty. She’d started it years ago by following him, keeping an eye on him, making sure he never came to any harm. Now was the time to move on.
“You’ve got to leave London,” she said. “Tell your mother and father they have to get out, before sunset tomorrow. Daytime’s safe.”
“You mean it’ll come back? It knows where I live?” His eyes were wide, and she hated seeing her little brother so scared. But she couldn’t show him any emotion. Could barely show it to herself. She sometimes thought that undead made her truly dead inside.
“He didn’t like being beaten,” she said. “And yeah, good chance he’s been stalking you.” I would, she thought. Wounds in her side were itching, gored flesh knitting and burning as it healed. The back of her left hand had been stripped of skin and flesh, sucked into his mouth when his teeth had torn her open there. Bones showed through. That would take a couple of days to grow back, she knew. Her long coat hid the terrible damage to her right thigh and buttock, where she knew that pounds of flesh had been stripped away. If she wasn’t already undead, she’d be dead now, but that didn’t detract from the agony of the healing as it commenced. Her only comfort was that he’d be feeling a lot worse.
“But … you’ll make sure he doesn’t, right? You’ll talk to him?”
“I don’t even know him. He’s not one of …” She trailed off, knowing that she’d already said too much.
“There are others like you?”
Rose didn’t answer. Instead she walked along the street, keeping to shadows just in case her old mother or father happened to be looking from their window right now. Awaiting Marty’s return, perhaps. Or maybe just looking out into the darkness that had eaten their daughter.
She heard Marty following her. She’d already said too much, interacted with him when she had no right doing so. She’d planted hope in his young heart when there was no hope. And her own thoughts confused her. To begin with, there had been a subtle sadness at what she had lost. But now it felt more like resentment at the weakness she’d left behind, and at the weak thing her brother still was. And that sat heavy on her vampire heart.
“Get out of London,” she said again over her shoulder. “You’re in danger and I can’t protect you again.”
“Forget about Rose.” And without glancing back she moved quickly into the night, Marty’s astonished gasp the only sound that marked her leaving.
She moved quickly, climbing to cross the warren of terraced streets across rooftops high above, avoiding chimneys that might crumble, stepping lightly over loose tiles. She became unseen and unknown once again, cursing herself for letting Marty see her. She’d had no choice, but she knew exactly what Francesco would say when she told him what had happened.
And she had to tell. The Humains had to group together again, hunt down and expel this new London vampire. Murder and exposure threatened the delicate existence they had built up for themselves over so long. She knew their history, and she also knew what something like this could do to their future. Once the living believed in and feared them, their days were numbered.
Francesco … yes, she knew exactly what he would say.
© 2010 Steve Niles