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And I saw the dead, small and great.
Standing in the echoing pastel halls of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Dr. William Perlman listened carefully. For a moment, he'd thought he'd heard something-- ghosts? Maybe. He believed in them, oh yes, although eighteen months ago he would've laughed at anyone suggesting such a thing.
Of course, eighteen months ago the word vampires had meant Dracula and Christopher Lee.
Perlman was a tall man and the last ten months had taken its toll: his once well-fed frame weighed a thin one-forty now that he had to forage food from the supermarkets and stores along the Gold Coast. Like his wife Mera-- who had disappeared over a year ago with their small son-- he had taken their lifestyle for granted. He ached for Mera and what he had teasingly called her classic "Jewishness"; he often wondered if she would-- or could-- ever come back. And what would he do if she did?
He tucked his shirt into painter's overalls and pulled a comb from his back pocket from habit, running it through thinning hair the color of faded stone. Last night before bed he'd rinsed his face and found himself fascinated by his own flesh: living muscles expanding and contracting, oxygen-rich blood pumping through arteries, millions of fragile capillaries beneath the layers of skin. With a pang he'd also acknowledged that his body was dying-- slowly and naturally-- but dying nonetheless. He didn't want to die, ever. He wanted to live for a hundred years, or a thousand--
But not like that.
He touched his fingertips to the new crevices around his eyes and across his forehead, lines that he'd never noticed before. Mera had always kept her face bland, hiding her joy or sorrow in an endless attempt to outwit the wrinkles. Studying himself, he wondered if she hadn't been right; the once deep smile lines around his mouth had all but faded over the past year. Perhaps his cherished Mera had finally been successful in her search for eternal youth....
He shook the thought away. Workboots clomping loudly in the deserted building, Perlman smoothed his bright red shirt and checked his pockets before unlocking the delivery door and slipping into the alley off Chicago Avenue. He glanced around cautiously, then pulled the door shut, hearing the reassuring click as the sturdy lock engaged. With the lake only a block away the air was clear and vigorous as it fogged from his lips. A short jog west on Superior and he reached the crosswalk, looking up the instant the sun crept above the Barclay Hotel. In a microsecond one sun blossomed into a thousand as the rays caught and reflected on the rows of mirrored windows in one of the buildings bordering Michigan Avenue's west sidewalk. Perlman's breath hitched at the spectacular sight.
He pulled his gaze from the near-blinding display and light motes danced behind his blinking lids as he debated his direction. First, he decided, something to eat, a shot of carbohydrates and protein to bolster his daily vitamins. He turned north, staying on the east side until Water Tower Place rose in front of him, its proud white marble scoured clean by the spring rains and lake winds. Gone were the exhaust and pollution stains and the slabs of marble were almost painful to view. He tried the glass doors futilely and peered inside; he could see little besides shadows and the muted shine of chrome-edged escalators climbing into the dimness.
Shrugging, he turned away; shattering the doors would only open the Tower to nature's destruction. A glint of metal caught his eye and he returned and squatted by the doors, nose pressed against the glass as he struggled to see. There was a wide strip of tarnishing brass at the bottom, a toe kick, and just inside he could barely glimpse the edge of some sort of locking rod; at night it would be invisible. Hope rose in him and he touched his palms to the glass tentatively. Were there people inside? Even just one? He spent five minutes knocking on the thick glass and bruising his knuckles before he gave up, resolving to keep a closer eye on the Tower; the metal rod was much the same as the one he used across the entrance at Northwestern, though with glass doors it was only the sly illusion of an abandoned building.
Perlman slipped into Walgreens through a door he'd carefully jimmied some months ago; inside he saw further evidence of life in the food section where the shelves had been rifled for supplies though nothing was wasted on vandalism or carelessly ripped packages. He had food at the hospital and now took only to satisfy his immediate appetite; two cans of sardines and a small box of stale Ritz crackers. Outside he sat on the curb, ate and watched the sun climb a little higher in the sky, letting his eyes wander repeatedly to Water Tower Place and its imagined occupants. As usual, his hunger died after a few bites; he stubbornly finished the sardines and crackers then pocketed the other tin before dropping his garbage into a rusting trash can on the corner. More habit-- it was amazing that such an ingenuous, predictable man such as himself had survived in his back-assward world.
Perlman chewed the last bite of oily fish and swallowed it with difficulty, then stood, stomach fluttering uneasily. Tied in the hammer loop of his overalls was a coil of strong polyurethane rope; in his bulging pockets were duct tape, a heavy Mag-Lite flashlight with good batteries, a Schrade Lockback hunting knife and four thick plastic garbage bags. He could get the two-by-fours he'd need from the construction sites along Michigan Avenue. Then it was just a matter of searching a few dark storerooms and basements until he found what he wanted.
He was about to blow his predictable life to hell.
Knife in hand, Perlman sawed a generous length of rope and braced himself to enter the three-flat on the corner of State and Pearson. It hadn't taken long to choose, and he was certain there were scores of others around that would have been suitable. He'd doubled back to the construction site at 700 North Michigan, a massive jumble of open ironwork and granite slabs which would be forever incomplete. There he'd picked two sturdy lengths of wood, carrying them on his shoulders before finally stopping in front of this forbidding three-story brick. His eyes swept the structure, noting that the basement, second and third floor windows were shut tight against the elements. The upper floors might be simple coincidence but boards had been leaned over the basement windows and the first floor's destroyed picture window told another tale; Perlman shuddered as he imagined the family that must have cowered inside and their terror at hearing it shatter, then looking up to see--
He blinked and forced himself back to the present. Bad enough that ragged drapes fluttered in and out of the opening as though the building were breathing; now he was re-living by proxy the horror that had probably occurred there. He was breathing in fast, shallow gasps and he forced himself to slow down before he hyperventilated. He was not particularly brave and what he was about to do pushed beyond limits he hadn't known existed.
At the top of the stone steps, Perlman stopped and cut four generous lengths from the roll of duct tape, patching the sticky strips together so that they formed an square sheet-- his first protection. Bile crept up his throat and his hands began to tremble as soon as he touched the knob; if it had been anything but the sticky tape in his hands he would have dropped it. Swallowing, he pushed through the unlocked door into the foyer.
It had once been an expensive building. There was a metal stop on the bottom of the entry and Perlman toed it into position to keep the door from closing; the door itself, inlaid with large panels of rich stained glass, threw the hall into colorful shadows. To his right was another open door beyond which he could see stairs leading to the upper floors; mild daylight filtered from the grimy windows on each landing, enough to discourage anything from hiding in the empty apartments. But the door on the left held his attention. Once inlaid with the same stained glass as the others, now it was impossible to tell if the window was even intact beneath the plywood stacked in front of it. When he moved the wood, he found the doorknob still in place though it was only a formality; gouged into the wood where a small lock had been were deep groves. When Perlman touched the knob, the door swung open all too obligingly.
A heavy smell of dampness and decay saturated the air. Beneath the stench Perlman's senses detected something worse as he descended the stairs and tried to breathe through his nose. The hall's watery light carried only a few steps before he reached for the flashlight; its glow was little comfort in the deepening blackness. Nerves screaming, his leg jarred when the steps ended unexpectedly and he swung the flashlight in a jittery arc around the room to make sure he wasn't standing on top of something he wasn't yet prepared to meet. He was taking an incredible chance. He knew almost nothing about what vampires could or couldn't do, when they could do it-- nothing. Perlman's survival these past months had been based on two principles: stay well hidden at night and stay out of dark places. For all he knew, the cursed things could rise during the day as long as the room was dark. Well, he'd soon find out.
He played the light around more slowly; the basement was smaller than expected and the beam picked up everything from cardboard boxes and newspapers to a bicycle slowly corroding in the dank air. From his position it was easy to see across the room, where a set of weights had been scattered at the foot of a beat-up antique wardrobe whose wood was even blacker than the mildewy wall behind it and Perlman's heart skipped. He'd been half-hoping not to find anything; then he could run safely back to the hospital and its white-walled security and firmly pledge to try again another day. He'd never been a procrastinator, but fear was doing odd things in his head and he looked longingly at the staircase with its faraway dribble of daylight before forcing himself to cross the floor, clearing a path from the stairs to the wardrobe. The sounds he made as he pushed aside a bundle of magazines seemed as loud as a symphony, and he wondered if they could hear in their sleep. By the time he was standing within a few feet of the cabinet, he was shaking so badly he almost couldn't breathe; each step made the air in the basement thicker and so filled with evil that he didn't want it in his lungs anyway. The hair at the back of his neck, stubby from his awkward homemade haircuts, was standing so high he could have been moving through a field of static electricity. His hands, pale, slender and defenseless-- a surgeon's hands-- shone in the backglow of the flashlight. Could he actually go through with this?
Clutching the tape and rope, he watched in absent-minded horror as his other hand pulled open the wardrobe's door.
Thick, vile air spilled out. His heart pounded fiercely in his chest and at first he thought his blood pressure had escalated so dangerously that he'd lost his eyesight, because even with the flashlight he couldn't see anything inside the cabinet. Then he realized he was gazing at a filthy blanket nearly as black as the wardrobe's interior. Before his courage could flee, he yanked the blanket aside.
"Oh!" he whispered as he stared face-to-face with a child of about four years old. The boy's naked, dirty skin was a deep, emaciated grey, and twined on his sunken chest were stick-like fingers from which sharp, blackened nails curbed. Unwittingly, Perlman's gaze met the vampire's; beneath bloodless, translucent lids, unholy brown eyes sparkled up at him.
Daddy? The sweet voice in his mind was that of an innocent pre-schooler. Please hold me. I'm so cooold.... Behind Perlman's eyes formed a vision of this child as he had once been, and for an instant he imagined he'd found the boy alive, skin pink with health but shivering, brown eyes gazing at him trustingly. Daddy... please help me it said, and Perlman's heart nearly broke.
His body moved on its own and he began to bend, intending to pull the poor, tiny body into his warm arms. Beneath the pitiful cries swirling in his mind, Perlman sensed a building eagerness that caused his pounding pulse to stutter.
He stepped forward and reached--
His right foot cracked into a twenty-pound weight lying just under the front of the wardrobe and he cried out as sanity-bringing pain rocketed up his foot and ankle. His face-- which had been only a half foot from the boy's-- jerked up and away as his fingers fumbled with the tape and slapped it over the creature's face. The agony climbing up his leg was an immense thing competing with the voice that still rang in his head-- a voice which had gone from childish cajoling to fading screams of rage as he leaned back against the wall and panted for breath. When he realized that he'd almost become a human pacifier for this miscreation's daytime nap, the sardines and crackers he'd eaten earlier exploded from his throat in a smelly, wet mess across the weights at his feet.
His leg almost buckled as he took a step and Perlman wondered what damage he'd done to his foot. Moisture trickled into his eyes and he swiped at it with the back of his hand as he pulled out two of the garbage bags and tucked one inside the other; grimacing, he leaned back into the wardrobe and tugged the bags over the vampire's head and skeleton-like torso. As he worked the plastic around the frigid body, the voice tried to squirm into his mind again and he purposely ground his foot into the floor, hissing through his teeth as the pain cleared his thoughts. Even with a busted foot it didn't take much to lift the boy from the wardrobe and draw the other bags around it from the feet up.
The child weighed little and normally Perlman could have simply tossed him over a shoulder and gone on his way. As he tied the plastic tightly around the boy he was grateful that he'd brought the two-by-fours, though he'd done so because he'd assumed his captive would be an adult and considerably heavier. Now he placed a wood piece at each side of the creature and ran the thick duct tape around and around, twisting and circling until he was certain the body wouldn't slide down and scrape against the ground as he dragged it. With the extra length of wood at one end, he could pull it down the street like a travois.
He was never so relieved to see daylight as when he finally hauled his burden down the steps of the three-flat. Each time the wood bumped from one riser to the next Perlman felt the vibration run up his arms and travel to his injured foot. His head ached, his stomach churned and his foot throbbed, and to make matters worse, when he crossed the street and came out from beneath the tree shadows into the sun, the thing in the garbage bags began to try and wriggle free. With the amount of tape and rope wrapped around it, Perlman thought the boy could have undulated for a week and not gotten loose but it was a spooky thing to witness and Perlman tried to hobble faster and get the vampire back to the hospital as quickly as possible. The way it was writhing it seemed the sun's rays were going through the dark green plastic as though it was mesh. It had felt like hours inside but the sun, springtime bright and strong, had just reached its axis and Perlman relaxed, knowing he could still count on hours of daylight.
But he wondered what tonight would bring.
Chapter 9We need transportation.
And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth.
At mid-morning Louise and Beau were still in Rogers Park and she finally realized foot travel downtown would take all day and leave little time to find a place for the night. She checked her watch. No more mistakes-- the sun would set at about six and she intended to be safely cloistered by then, even if only temporarily. Holding Beau in the crook of her arm, she shifted her backpack and looked around. There were plenty of parked cars and people occasionally hid keys under the mats, or Western Avenue, with its stretch of auto dealerships, was fourteen blocks to her right; in a couple of hours she and Beau could be cruising in a Thunderbird, or maybe a Park Avenue.
She discarded the idea quickly. Closer to downtown it would likely become a game of motorized checkers as she tried to negotiate dozens of abandoned autos. They might end up on a bridge leading into the loop and find it so thoroughly blocked that she'd have to dump the car and hunt for a new one, look for keys, worry about fuel-- forget it.
A bicycle? Louise stopped thoughtfully in front of a small shop advertising Schwinns and eyed the dusty window display. She could get one with a basket so Beau wouldn't have to ride inside her jacket during the twelve or thirteen mile trip. When she tried the knob, the door pushed open without resistance. The shop was in an ornate, turn-of-the-century building and as she stepped inside Louise realized uneasily that it was deep and dark. The daylight struggling through the twisted display of detached wheels, handlebars and bikes extended only about twenty feet and was weakened further by the grime-encrusted window; the shadows beyond deepened steadily to black, and she'd learned to avoid lightless places even during the daytime. Louise prudently decided to make her selection from the stock closer to the window.
Nothing she saw had a basket but Louise put Beau on the floor so she could inspect a gold Schwinn twelve-speed with a jumble of gears and derailleurs at the back chain. Hefting it, she found it heavier than expected-- she wasn't much of a cyclist but she knew that two hours on this along bumpy streets and she'd be worn out. Unsure of his surroundings, Beau trembled and rubbed against her ankles for security; she used the toe of her shoe to push him gently aside as she set the Schwinn back in place. Next to it was a metallic blue one with the name Nishiki stencilled on the crossbar, a bike she guessed weighed only fourteen or fifteen pounds-- not bad.
Beau tangled around her ankles again as she swung the frame up and down a few times, and Louise opened her mouth to scold him when she realized she could feel him shaking all the way up to her thigh. She glanced down in surprise and saw the dog staring toward the back of the store.
Beau growled softly. In the stillness the sound was stunningly loud.
Equally shocking was the quick, whispering noise of shifting from the pitch-black rear of the store.
Her head snapped up as an alarm shrieked in her brain. The Nishiki still suspended from her hands, Louise stood paralyzed as the sound, a gentle slithering, came again. Like something crawling. Her elbows unlocked and Louise soundlessly lowered the bike, then bent and snatched up the dog without taking her eyes from the rear of the room. Blood pounded furiously in her temples, each fear-drenched pulse catapulting through her body in time with the tension running through Beau. He growled again.
"Shhhh!" she hissed. Her gaze flicked back to the ancient wooden door. Its spring had pulled it shut behind them and now she recalled hearing the click of the latch as it had closed. It was stupid not to have propped it; now she'd have to press the old-fashioned thumb plate and pull open the door. If something sprang at them in the meantime--
There was a muffled thump as something fell to the floor.
No more time to fuck around, Louise thought clearly. Get the hell out of here NOW!
She bolted, hands fumbling between a frantically squirming Beau and the door handle. For a sickening instant it stuck and Louise thought they were trapped, picturing with sudden, brutal clarity a hideously decayed beast leaping onto her back and tearing at her throat as she beat at the door glass. Then she heard a rattle as the antique mechanism lifted and she yanked on the door so hard it slammed against the inside wall; she leapt through before its rebound and sprawled on the sidewalk, twisting sideways to avoid crushing Beau. Clutching the dog, she scrambled backwards on her butt as the door crashed shut.
Her heart lurched and she heard herself moan as something inside pummeled the door, shattering its old window. A hand, clawed and shriveled, swiped from the jagged opening that had been the beveled glass pane, but the deep recesses of the doorway couldn't block the sun's rays and the creature screeched as light crossed its fingers and the tips split and sizzled. By the time Louise had sucked in her breath for a scream, the monster had gone, retreating to its hiding place at the rear of the building.
Gasping, Louise pulled herself up and hugged Beau furiously. As he licked her face and wagged his stubby little tail, she staggered along Clark Street, putting distance between her and that gaping doorway while her heartbeat calmed and her breathing slowed to a soft wheeze. A few blocks away she collapsed onto a bus stop bench; further north, the bicycle shop's sign swung mockingly in the slight breeze.
She was jolted almost senseless. Unearthing a bloodsucker was always a chance in a dark building housing a back room and this building's age and mustiness had masked the usual stench, but it had always been safe as long as the totally dark areas were avoided. It was incomprehensible that the creature's hunger was so great it would sleepwalk and risk the sunlight in an attempt to attack. If it had been cloudy, would the loathsome thing have followed her right onto the sidewalk? No, of course not-- the sun would have destroyed it.
Her legs were still pudding, but she forced herself to move on. Perhaps she was too eager to get all the way downtown today. This morning had already drained her, and riding a bike for miles would exhaust her and still leave the task of finding a safe place to spend the night. It might be better to work towards the loop gradually; at a couple of miles each day they could walk there in a week--
Vespa-- The Scooter of Steel!
Her eyes widened as the silver lettering on the display window they'd just passed abruptly registered. Turning back to the glass, Louise could see a well-lit showroom filled with brightly colored motor scooters, and she ruffled Beau's ears and grinned. "Bingo!" she told him. "I should've thought of this months ago! Why walk when we can ride?" His tongue lolled and he yipped at Louise's voice; already he seemed to have recovered from the cycle shop incident.
The door was firmly locked and she eyed the huge windows doubtfully. Breaking one would be stupid-- a scooter wouldn't roll three feet before getting a flat. A larger exit would probably be through the service area at the unlit rear, but she didn't want to chance it. So she'd have to try and jimmy the glass door-- if it wasn't a deadbolt. Louise found a crowbar in the open garage of a gas station a block away; as she bent to retrieve it Beau stiffened in her arms and her eyes stopped on a small, filthy door in the far corner-- the washroom. Closed tightly, she could easily guess its occupant. She darted from the garage before there could be a repeat of this morning.
Back at the dealership, the lock held stubbornly and she realized that it was either smash the glass or scrap the notion of taking a scooter. The thought of giving up after all this effort pissed her off, and instead she dug Beau's leash from the backpack and tied him firmly to the bench, then went back and beat furiously at the door with the crowbar until it shattered. Inside, she rummaged through the desks and turned up a box of ignition keys, each labeled in the dealer's code. Still, the sun wasn't at its peak, so she had plenty of time to find a key for one of these things, roll it out and learn how to drive it. Louise scanned the rows and chose a scooter that was bright yellow.
She'd never been particularly patient and Louise was gritting her teeth by the time she finally found the right key. The little yellow machine didn't have a fuel gauge, but unscrewing the gas tank cap showed her it was full. Getting more meant siphoning but she wasn't looking for extended transportation, just a way to get downtown. She used a desk blotter like a shovel to clear the broken glass before rolling the Vespa outside. Although the seat was cushioned and fit her rump comfortably, it was heavier than anticipated and Louise realized that this was not at all the glorified bicycle she'd believed. It was a machine, with a suspension system and brakes, and it was fast, provided the battery was still charged enough to turn over the engine. If she could get it running and head back to Lake Shore Drive, they might be downtown in half an hour.
Everything was marked: front and rear brakes, headlight, an accelerator much like a snowmobile, with which she had at least some experience. She took a nervous breath, twisted the accelerator a few times, turned the ignition key to ON and pulled the starter cord.
Eighteen tries later she was ready to give up when a loud whine spliced the air on her last yank. The noise bounced off the buildings then subsided to a jarring buzz that made her head ring and she resisted the urge to clap her hands to her ears, afraid the motor would die if she let up on the gas. She grinned as she saw Beau wriggling excitedly next to the bench. When Louise was sure the Vespa's idle was steady, she untied Beau and let him sniff the scooter and sneeze a few times. She would have to zip him inside her heavy jacket; he weighed only six pounds and she hoped her warmth would be enough to keep him from getting a chill. The first blocks were choppy; while she got used to the Vespa, Beau cowered inside her coat as everything around him moved at an almost forgotten speed, but by the time they putted up Hollywood Boulevard to its eight lane spread into Lake Shore Drive, the ride was smooth and holding at about twenty miles an hour. They were finally on their way.
The cool air became cold as it whipped the hair away from Louise's eyes and plastered it against her skull. She could feel Beau burrowing deeper for warmth, and although her face and hands quickly lost heat, her jacketed torso stayed comfortable. Already the scooter was closing the distance on the huge buildings that had seemed so far away.
"Yeah!" she yelled, her pulse hammering with excitement. The wind snatched her voice and tossed it away. "We're rolling now!" The buildings at their right grew larger with each passing block, the flats and apartment buildings giving way to the encroaching condominium complexes and skyscrapers.
And the Vespa carried them towards the heart of the city.
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