MY first moments at waking were the worst I'd ever had in a long parade of bad times, and it went downhill from there, headlong into hell.
The trip was in stages, like Dante's ten-cent tour, and not nearly as nice.
It began with a bewildering dream.
I became dimly aware of being dragged, carried, and awkwardly shoved into a cramped space. My eyes shut, my brain gathered information but was unable to take meaning from it. A single question floated through the shadows-Where's my earth?-then drifted out again, getting no answer.
After that, the space was in motion, bumping and roaring over pavement for an unguessable time.
Another bout of being carried and set down. I was dead, my body not responding to anything, unable to move. My limbs were arranged flat on something, not a bed. My arms were stretched wide, palms up, knuckles hanging.
Then my earth must have been returned, for the dream ceased.
Eyes wide, internal alarm bells on full, I shot awake in absolute darkness. I hated the dark. After my change, my eyes could make use of the least little sliver of light-if it was there to be used.
This kind of dark was cold, damp, and rock solid. I tried to reach for the cot-side lamp, but something kept my arm from moving, and at the same time hot, sickening agony shot from a spot below my elbow and straight into my brain like a spear. It was so intense that I yelled, tried to pull away, and that made it ten times worse-for both arms.
Things went cloudy for a long, terrible stretch as my body fought against whatever held it. The more it fought, the greater the pain, until I howled nonstop like a trapped animal.
When exhaustion set in, it was a blessing. The pain remained, but did not increase so long as I kept still.
When I was able to think-and that was a struggle-I wondered why I'd not vanished away from the pain. Even as the thought came I tried slipping into the gray oblivion that had always healed me.
But nothing happened. I remained anchored in flesh, and the effort exhausted me fast, like racing a car in neutral.
Panicking did no good. I knew that, but still failed to stop a choking wave from sweeping over me. I heard myself bellowing God knows what until the fit passed.
This wasn't like the seizures. I could escape them by vanishing, and that had been unaccountably made impossible.
I forced myself quiet, pushing the fear to one side, trying to find out... anything.
Flat on my back on something hard, arms spread wide, and hellish pain if I moved either of them, yes, that was pretty damned bad. Whatever rope or chain bound me in place was too tight, and gouging into me in a way I couldn't figure out.
The hard surface ran out a few inches from my wrists. My hands were over free space. I could move them, but it hurt.
The room, cave, whatever, was empty and silent, but... someone was nearby... in another room. There was a little distance and a wall or floor between, but I heard a heartbeat and the quick saw of breath and imagined him listening in turn.
Of course I yelled for help, but none came, and no one replied. Was he in the same boat? Was he the one who'd brought me here?
My next wave of panic was more subtle, not as noisy, but there was no coherent thought going on. I struggled, fresh agony stabbed through my arms, and soon the physical pain pulled me clear of the fit.
Eventually I lay quiet, and again tried to work out what was around me. My other senses failed to provide much help. Arms held in place, pain if I moved them, and the sharp smell of my own blood and terror. Whatever was wrong with my arms... dammit, they were bleeding. A lot, enough to flow over the edge of something and drip to the floor. I heard the soft regular patter as it hit a hard surface, sounding like a faucet leak you can't shut off. Oh, hell. Too much, and it would kill me.
I held perfectly still. I had fed well last night but could not afford to lose any of it. Couldn't tell how much I'd already lost, only feel it as a cooling wetness beneath my forearms.
They began to itch. Annoying, but a good sign, it meant healing. Whatever wounds were there would seal up quickly enough, even without vanishing. Let them be and...
I was hungry again. God, it hurt. Not as bad as my arms, but given time and no replenishment it would worsen. I never allowed myself get so starved. Too dangerous. The last time... yeah... the damned meat locker.
Okay, one thing at a time: what the hell had happened?
I was no longer on the cot under the seating tiers at Lady Crymsyn. Someone had invaded that sanctuary and taken me elsewhere. Poor Myrna had tried to warn me.
He'd come softly and cut the timing fine. Had he been in the building earlier, I'd have heard him. In those last moments before sunrise, he must have crept in, and only Myrna had known.
I had a choice of suspects: Kroun-or rather his cronies, Michael or Broder-near the top of the list. He could hypnotically control them into doing whatever he wanted. The why of it... I couldn't guess. Maybe he wanted to be the king vampire of Chicago. Great, fine, he could have the job, I'd leave, no fuss.
Next up was Strome. He'd seen me walking around just fine after having much of my skin stripped off and might have gotten curious over that improbability. Just a couple nights back he'd seen me appear out of thin air, which surprised the hell out of us both. I'd popped him unconscious and been fairly sure he'd not remembered the Houdini act, but he could have faked it. With his stone face, he was the perfect liar. Again, the why escaped me.
Number one choice-and I hated it: Shoe Coldfield.
I didn't want to believe it. The idea made me sick, but he'd shown his violent side by pounding me flat the other night. Standing over Escott's dying body, he'd promised to kill me. Escott's recovery might not have been enough to change Coldfield's mind.
He had a serious grudge on and knew my weaknesses.
He was more than capable, but-and I grabbed hard onto this one-it wasn't how he worked. Coldfield would look me in the eye and slam me through a wall, but hold me prisoner?
I went back to Kroun again. When he fell into those blackouts where his eyes went strange... but that was also direct and short-lived. Why would he do this? Had he gone back on his decision not to execute me for Bristow's death?
There was a long list of mob guys I'd annoyed. While some might take a shot if they thought they could get away with it, none would know how pointless it would be. Whoever had done this knew how to deal with me.
Back to Strome... but I just couldn't see it. Back to...
What if Michael and Broder were acting independently of Kroun? Michael might have made a guess about my nature. Hell, he could know all about Kroun as well. There was no guarantee that he'd been able to keep his big secret. Michael could learn that I survived Bristow and a lot more besides-it was cheap talk at the Nightcrawler's bar; if you knew what clues to look for...
But I couldn't see the why of it, either-unless he was keeping me on ice in order to gain some kind of control over Kroun. Of course it would only work if Kroun was concerned about my welfare. I had no confidence in that.
However bad the thoughts, the thinking steadied me. I noticed more about my surroundings and myself. I lay on, perhaps, a long and very sturdy table. It had held out against my struggles without shifting. Maybe it was bolted to the floor or just exceptionally heavy.
I was dressed, so far as I could tell, in the same clothes, but the lower part of the sleeves were gone on my coat and shirt, cut away. What remained covered my chest; even the tie was in place. I longed to loosen it and undo the collar button. My legs seemed to be tied down to something. The restraints there gave a little and could be rope rather than chain. Strong, though. I wasn't moving, no leverage. I was under a heavy blanket or tarp, implying someone was either concerned for my comfort or wanted to be able to conceal me if needed.
The air was chill, but not freezing; there was an earthy scent to it, and my voice had bounced off hard surfaces. I heard no traffic or other outside noises. My best guess for location was a cellar with no ground-level windows. The utter silence-except for the heavy breather keeping his distance-indicated a deep and private hole.
Which was strangely familiar.
And threatened to bring on another wave of panic.
I crushed it. Quick. Giving in to more mindless fear was not going to help. I had to stay in control. Whoever had done this had kept me alive, had gone to considerable effort over it. He wanted something from me or would use me to get something. Maybe he was just waiting until I calmed down.
Okay. Why the hell not?
"Ready to talk now?" I bellowed. I sounded a lot braver and more confident than I felt. "Let's start the lodge meeting!"
I chose to think he was mulling things over. I chose to think that I was not down here to starve to death in the dark.
No reply. I waited a good long time.
I did hear something during the wait. Footsteps from the floor immediately above as someone paced around, unhurried. He was free to stroll, not tied up.
The steps halted, probably in reaction to my yell. Good. I needed a way to get his attention.
A lunatic part of me with nothing to lose took over. I started singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" in an offensively loud bawl.
I have no vocal talent and limit my musical outbursts to the car or the shower when I'm alone. What isn't flat is off-key, or my voice just doesn't reach certain notes or cracks like an egg. It's a shame, because I like music.
In this case I hoped the racket would prompt a reaction. Even if all he did was come down to gag me, I'd at least get a look at him.
Nothing on the first chorus. I didn't know the other words, so I repeated it, putting in a remarkable amount of cheer and gusto. Maybe he'd think I'd gone nuts. Whatever it took.
Halfway through a third repeat a light came on.
The brilliance was too much after the darkness, lancing into my eyes. My lids hammered shut on their own, but I stubbornly kept singing. I tried to force them open and couldn't. I wanted to rub them-they were dry. After a bit I was able to squint past a veil of red and black sparklers and take in quick glimpses of the place.
Basement, as I'd guessed, gray concrete walls, low ceiling with dusty support beams for the floor above.
I was indeed on a table, broad, long, and sturdy, a Victorian behemoth built to withstand anything except modern times. Someone had shunted it down to the basement to age in solitude... until someone else came along and tied me to it.
My legs, not moving at all. I was bound like a mummy.
My arms-what the...? No, that couldn't be right.
I blinked, desperate and disbelieving. The song died on my lips.
Both arms-no-that was goddamned impossible.
My fingers twitched when asked, but it hurt. There was something between them and my order-giving brain, something that went miles past mere horror and straight into stomach-turning grotesque.
I couldn't see for a moment; a gray mist settled on my eyes. I thought I was at last vanishing, but my body held solid. My mind simply didn't want to accept the straightforward cruelty of it.
Vision clearing... cleared... and the awfulness was still there.
My arms stretched out-and midway along below the elbows was a vertical piece of threaded metal rod.
The steel was half an inch thick and in my flesh, piercing right through, passing between the two bones of my lower arms.
The tops of the rods were at a right angle like the flat handle of a walking stick. If I pulled my arms straight up the L-shape of the angle would stop them. Presumably the rest of the length went through the table. I was held fast. I'd seen miniature versions of this used to pin insects to display boards.
It was too much. I couldn't help but struggle. This wasn't happening to me. The panic flooded back, full force.
Flailing against the immobile steel was useless, but I couldn't stop, not until exhaustion overtook me again. I finally collapsed, shivering from head to toe.
You're not supposed to be able to faint lying down, but I went blackout dizzy, and my guts wanted to turn themselves out. There was no waking from this nightmare.
"It's just going to get worse."
I looked around for the source of that voice. He sounded familiar.
Oh. It was me.
I was standing right over myself: cleaned up and in a sharp new suit, I looked sympathetic, but clearly unable to offer more than an opinion.
That other me usually turned up when I was right out of my mind.
Still, I was company of sorts. However crazy I got, I didn't have to be alone in the pit.
"Any ideas?" I asked in a shaky whisper.
"Try singing some more."
What the hell, why not?
Couldn't bring myself to do it just yet. No energy. My struggles had me bleeding again, and every drop falling to the floor weakened me. I'd lost a lot, and the hunger would continue to grow. My corner teeth were out, I was in all kinds of pain, hallucinating, and there wasn't a damned thing I could do.
Helplessness. I'd been here before, hanging in a meat locker, convulsing in the throes of a seizure, standing at the foot of Escott's hospital bed while he lay dying...
I imagined him rising to look at me, his face distorted by the bruises I'd put there, but still recognizable, wearing a sardonic expression.
"You're the strongest man I know," he told me.
I didn't feel it, but he was a good judge of character. I could put up a front, fake a courage I did not possess. If some bastard wanted me to die like this, then I'd go with a little pride.
Howling a fourth chorus, I sounded absolutely insane, even to me. That was scary, but I kept going.
"I know you can hear me," I called. "I can do this all night."
The me in the new suit smiled and nodded, giving a thumbs-up, and looked across the room.
A door opened. I couldn't see it but heard the drawing of a bolt and creak of hinges. Footsteps on wood stairs, descending, one-two-three-four... I counted sixteen steps, storing the information.
He crossed into my field of view. He was also in a nice suit and also smiled, though that was the natural expression of his pale face. It was how his mouth was shaped, giving him an air of smug perpetual amusement. He held a.45 revolver in one hand and seemed very confident.
My short list of suspects failed to include this man. The familiarity of a basement prison had been a clue from a hidden corner of my mind. Not so very long ago I'd chained Hurley Gilbert Dugan to a wall in a very similar place.
He'd gone me one better with this variation.
I stared, and Dugan smiled back, and damn, but he was enjoying the situation.
No reason why I shouldn't as well. I began to laugh again. The laughter was odd; I'd never laughed like that in my life. The me standing opposite Dugan approved, grinning as well. This was goddamned funny. It really was.
And it spoiled Dugan's moment.
He must have anticipated some other reaction from me, anger or fear, cursing or begging, but not this. His intentional smile soured, replaced by a flash of irritation. The man had no sense of humor, not the normal kind. He liked feeling superior to others and relished a good gloat, but take it away, laugh at him-he hated that.
I was in no position to be antagonizing, but there was little he could do to me that Hog Bristow hadn't done first. If Dugan found a way to improve on that, well, I'd die a little bit quicker.
And I would die.
I wasn't getting out of this one. I saw it in his eyes, knew in my heart that for him it was a practical necessity. This was where it would happen, no coming back from this lonely grave.
But if there was any way I could take him with me...
In the short time since my change, I'd killed. I was a murderer. There were deaths I'd caused indirectly and others that were without question my own doing. To one degree or another each had a measure of regret attached, not that I would have changed things in a couple cases, but taking a life lessens your own. It leaves a wound on your soul that never quite heals.
But sometimes... it's worth it.
Hog Bristow, yeah, I'd kill him again and no problem. There would be a certain physical disgust for the act itself, like stepping on a poisonous spider and leaving a mess. But you do it anyway.
Hurley Gilbert Dugan was different. I would take a great deal of pleasure in the act of killing him. I might even prolong it to give him a taste of the terror he'd given to others. As a kid he was probably responsible for at least two deaths: a governess and another kid. As an adult he was the brains behind a girl's kidnapping and the murder of a harmless old couple whose isolated farmhouse he wanted for a hideout.
There might be more, and I wondered about the fate of the owner of this place. Dugan lied, manipulated people for fun, and wrote countless essays arguing the merit of executing those he thought to be inferior specimens of humanity. He was genuinely puzzled when anyone disagreed with him. Clearly they were just the sort of shortsighted fools he would have culled from the herd.
He'd been in that meat locker, too, running loose in the background, not important enough for Bristow to bother with, and witnessed my torture. It had made him sick. He had no belly then for violence, not when he could get someone else to do the work. But he'd learned much in that hour. He knew things about me that I didn't want to know myself; for that alone I wanted him dead.
He would be dead if not for the rods holding my arms. That was why he'd not been present at my waking. He wanted to be sure I was safely pinned in place. Everything in me wanted to tear loose and rip him in two. But if I'd been unable to get free by now, then it wasn't going to happen. I was just too weak.
That was a hell of a lot of frustration, more than enough to make a man crazy.
So I laughed in his endlessly smiling face and sang off-key and laughed some more.
Until he gently pressed the muzzle of that revolver against my temple.
I trailed off but kept grinning. If he shot me in the head under these circumstances, it just might do the trick. I'd be dead without finding out what he wanted, though. If he'd simply meant to kill me, that would have happened back in the nightclub. He'd gone to a lot of trouble to get me here.
Dugan examined the threaded rod on his side, poking at the area where the metal went in. It hurt when he did that. From what I could see from my angle, the skin was healed tight around the metal, red and puffy, like an infection swelling around a splinter.
He abruptly grabbed the handle part of the rod and gave it a full twist all the way around. My skin parted from the metal, blood welled, and I couldn't stifle a gasp. When a small portion of the red-hot haze in my brain receded, he twisted the thing back again. I was almost prepared for it, but not really. I squirmed in vain to get free.
He watched with a calm detachment.
Well dressed, well fed, and yes, that complacent expression was starting to return. But I'd seen him puking and terrified. That gave me one up on him. Anything to boost my morale.
He'd made his point, though: this was his show.
He reached out of my view and drew up a chair, settling in. He seemed to be ready to spend a good long time with me.
God, what had I done to deserve this?
"I've been following you," he said.
No greeting, no preamble, he spoke as though continuing a conversation begun hours ago. Some people do that, usually the most self-absorbed.
"You never once looked over your shoulder. You made it easy."
I felt no need to reply, resigned to what promised to be a lengthy recitation of his life and hard times since our escape from the meat locker. He loved himself more than anyone I'd ever met, and he assumed others also found him fascinating.
He'd taken ten grand from a misguided lady friend and disappeared himself, a difficult task what with every mobster in Chicago looking for him on my say-so. I'd tentatively concluded that he'd left the city and hoped he'd departed from the country altogether.
Optimism can be a very, very evil thing.
Dugan must have been preparing his little speech for some while-there was a rehearsed quality to it as he told his story. I didn't give a tinker's damn how clever he'd been at watching me from afar. Nor could I work up any interest for his account of how he'd learned to use firearms. The.45 made him dangerous, not tough.
It was clear he cherished the sound of his own voice, and it was a nice voice: educated, articulate. He reminded me of Michael that way, but Michael was someone I could deal with; Dugan was not.
"Every night I've kept a close eye on you, Fleming," he said. "You never knew."
"You need a better hobby."
"Watching and studying and learning exactly how you waste your abilities."
"Should've gone to the movies. They have cartoons."
Dugan was very proud about how he'd broken the window and gotten into the house. He thought himself to be very slick, indeed. He'd found my basement shelter eventually, for he had reasoned I must have something like that.
Only my own caution had spared me from being kidnapped that night. He'd returned during the day, intent on hauling me out, but I'd slept safe in the neighbor's attic. Had I done so again instead of staying at the club, I'd still be free.
Dugan broke into Crymsyn that day, covering his tracks better, and scoured it for hidden sanctuaries. I'd been smart to have one someplace other than the basement; but being such a genius, it was inevitable he would discover it.
He'd been watching from afar when Kroun and I had gone to the Stockyards the other night. Good thing Kroun hadn't left the car. Dugan gave no hint of knowing there was another bloodsucker in town. He complimented me for later buying blood at a butcher shop, and it was unsettling to learn he'd been so close behind. How could I have not noticed?
I was sick of him. "You want applause? Undo my arms."
"Please, I went to too much trouble setting this up. I remembered what you told me when that two-legged animal had you hanging from the ceiling. You couldn't escape because a piece of metal lodged in your body prevented you from vanishing. That's fascinating. I'm delighted that my experiment to keep you here was so successful."
Some experiment. But I had to admit, it worked like a son of a bitch.
Dugan twisted the rod again, so the healing skin parted from the metal and fresh blood appeared. The sight of it and my pain didn't bother him tonight.
In one of those infrequent flashes that usually occur just a little too late to do any good, I began to get a glimmer of what this was about, and the bottom dropped out of my belly.
I could not show fear, hell, I couldn't even tremble. I was absolutely petrified.
He saw that, and it pleased him.
He rose from the chair, going around and behind the head of my bed, out of sight. I heard odd noises, a rustle and slither like stiff fabric shifting, a metallic click, his step as he returned.
He'd put on a butcher's apron. It covered the whole of his front.
And he'd traded the revolver for a scalpel.
My thinking he'd go one better than Bristow and kill me that much faster... I'd been crazy. Even if death was at the other end, I couldn't go through it again. I just couldn't.
I closed my eyes. In a safe and well-sheltered part of my mind there was a single perfect hour from a perfect summer day. I'd floated alone in the cool water of a stock tank, master of the world and content. In memory, I breathed sweet, hot air, felt the still water holding me up, and the lazy wind whispering over my skin.
It was fragile protection against what was to come. Far stronger was the memory of Bristow stripping my skin off. I'd done all I could to blot that out, but Dugan brought it hurtling back.
Unable to run, I trembled, head to toe.
My scars began to burn.
If he wanted me to beg, I would.
I'd do anything, say anything.
I had no pride, no courage.
He owned me.