Midnight Mass Chapter 2

ZEV . . .

It had been almost a full minute since he'd slammed the brass knocker agains t the heavy oak door. That should have been proof enough. After all, wasn't the knocker in the shape of a cross? But no, they had to squint through thei r peephole and peer through the sidelights that framed the door.

Zev sighed and resigned himself to the scrutiny. He couldn't blame people fo r being cautious, but this seemed overly so. The sun was in the west and shi ning full on his back; he was all but silhouetted in it. What more did they want?

I should maybe take off my clothes and dance naked?

He gave a mental shrug and savored the salt tang of the sea air. The bulk of this huge Tudor mansion stood between him and the Atlantic, but the oce an's briny scent and rhythmic rumble were everywhere. He'd bicycled from Lakewood, which was only ten miles inland from here, but the warm May day a nd the bright sun beating on his dark blue suit coat had sweated him up. I t had taken him longer than he'd planned to find this retreat house.

Spring Lake. The Irish Riviera. An Irish Catholic seaside resort since befo re the turn of the century. He looked around at its carefully restored Vict orian houses, the huge mansions facing the beach, the smaller homes set in neat rows running straight back from the ocean. Many of them were still occ upied. Not like Lakewood. Lakewood was an empty shell.

Oh, they'd been smart, those bloodsuckers. They knew their easiest targets.

Whenever they swooped into an area they went after officialdom first  -  the civic leaders, the cops, the firemen, the clergy. But after that, they att acked the non-Christian neighborhoods. And among Jews they picked the Ortho dox first of the first. Smart. Where else would they be less likely to run up against a cross? It worked for them in Brooklyn and Queens, and so when they came south into New Jersey, spreading like a plague, they headed strai ght for the town with one of the largest collections of yeshivas in North A merica.

But after the Bensonhurst and Kew Gardens holocausts, the people in the Lakewood communities should not have taken quite so long to figure out wha t was going to happen. The Reformed and Conservative synagogues started h anding out crosses at Shabbes - too late for many but it saved a few. Did t he Orthodox congregations follow suit? No. They hid in their homes and sh uls and yeshivas and read and prayed.

And were liquidated.

A cross, a crucifix  -  they held power over the undead, drove them away. Zev's fellow rabbis did not want to accept that simple fact because they could not face its devastating ramifications. To hold up a cross was to negate t wo thousand years of Jewish history, it was to say that the Messiah had com e and they had missed him.

Did it say that? Zev didn't know. For all he knew, the undead predated Chris tianity, and their fear of crosses might be related to something else. Argue about it later - people were dying. But the rabbis had to argue it then and t here. And as they argued, their people were slaughtered like cattle.

How Zev had railed at them, how he'd pleaded with them! Blind, stubborn fo ols! If a fire was consuming your house, would you refuse to throw water o n it just because you'd always been taught not to believe in water? Zev ha d arrived at the rabbinical council wearing a cross and had been thrown ou t - literally sent hurding through the front door. But at least he had manag ed to save a few of his own people. Too few.

He remembered his fellow Orthodox rabbis, though. All the ones who had ref used to face the reality of the vampires' fear of crosses, who had forbidd en their students and their congregations to wear crosses, who had watched those same students and congregations die en masse. And soon those very s ame rabbis were roaming their own community, hunting the survivors, preyin g on other yeshivas, other congregations, until the entire community was l iquidated and its leaders incorporated into the brotherhood of the undead.

This was the most brilliant aspect of the undead tactics: turn all the comm unity leaders into their own kind and set them loose among the population.

What could be more dismaying, more devastating than seeing the very people who should have been leading the resistance become enthusiastic participant s in the slaughter?

The rabbis could have saved themselves, could have saved their people, but they would not bend to the reality of what was happening around them. Which, when Zev thought about it, was not at all out of character. Hadn't they s pent generations learning to turn away from the rest of the world?

But now their greatest fear had come to pass: they'd been assimilated -  wit h a vengeance.

Those early days of anarchic slaughter were over. Now that the undead held the ruling hand, the bloodletting had become more organized. But the dama ge to Zev's people had been done - and it was irreparable. Hitler would have been proud. His Nazi "final solution" was an afternoon picnic compared to the work of the undead. In a matter of months, in Israel and Eastern Euro pe, the undead did what Hitler's Reich could not do in all the years of th e Second World War. Muslims and Hindus had fared just as poorly, but that was not Zev's concern. His heart did not bleed for Islam and India.

There's only a few of us now. So few and so scattered. A final Diaspora.

For a moment Zev was almost overwhelmed by grief, but he pushed it down, l ocked it back into that place where he kept his sorrows, and thought of ho w fortunate it was for his wife Chana that she died of natural causes befo re the horror began. Her soul had been too gentle to weather what had happ ened to their community.

Forcing himself back to the present, he looked around. Not such a bad plac e for a retreat, he thought. He wondered how many houses like this the Cat holic Church owned.

A series of clicks and clacks drew his attention back to the door as numero us bolts were pulled in rapid succession. The door swung inward, revealing a nervous-looking young man in a long black cassock. As he looked at Zev hi s mouth twisted and he rubbed the back of his wrist across it to hide a smi le.

"And what should be so funny?" Zev asked.

"I'm sorry. It's just - "

"I know," Zev said, waving off any explanation as he glanced down at the w ooden cross slung on a cord around his neck. "I know."

A bearded Jew in a baggy serge suit wearing a yarmulke and a cross. Hilario us, no?

Nu? This was what the times demanded, this was what it came down to if he w anted to survive. And Zev did want to survive. Someone had to live to carry on the traditions of the Talmud and the Torah, even if there were hardly a ny Jews left alive in the world.

Zev stood on the sunny porch, waiting. The priest watched him in silence.

Finally Zev said, "Well, may a wandering Jew come in?"

"I won't stop you," the priest said, "but surely you don't expect me to invite you."

Ah, yes. Another precaution. The undead couldn't cross the threshold of a ho me unless invited, so don't invite. A good habit to cultivate, he supposed.

He stepped inside and the priest immediately closed the door behind him, re latching all the locks one by one. When he turned around Zev held out his h and.

"Rabbi Zev Wolpin, Father. I thank you for allowing me in."

"Brother Christopher, sir," he said, smiling and shaking Zev's hand. His su spicions seemed to have been allayed. "I'm not a priest yet. We can't offer you much here, but - "

"Oh, I won't be staying long. I just came to talk to Father Joseph Cahill."

Brother Christopher frowned. "Father Cahill isn't here at the moment."

"When will he be back?"

"I - I'm not sure. You see - "

"Father Cahill is on another bender," said a stentorian voice behind Zev.

He turned to see an elderly priest facing him from the far end of the foyer.

White-haired, heavyset, also wearing a black cassock.

"I'm Rabbi Wolpin."

"Father Adams," the priest said, stepping forward and extending his hand.

As they shook Zev said, "Did you say he was on 'another' bender? I never k new Father Cahill to be much of a drinker."

The priest's face turned stony. "Apparently there was a lot we never knew ab out Father Cahill."

"If you're referring to that nastiness last year," Zev said, feeling the old an ger rise in him, "I for one never believed it for a minute. I'm surprised anyon e gave it the slightest credence."

"The veracity of the accusation was irrelevant in the final analysis. The dam age to Father Cahill's reputation was a fait accompli. The bishops' rules are clear. Father Palmeri was forced to request his removal for the good of St. Anthony's parish."

Zev was sure that sort of attitude had something to do with Father Joe being on "another bender."

"Where can I find Father Cahill?"

"He's in town somewhere, I suppose, making a spectacle of himself. If there's any way you can talk some sense into him, please do. Not only is he kill ing himself with drink but he's become a public embarrassment to the priest hood and to the Church."

Zev wondered which bothered Father Adams more. And as for embarrassing th e priesthood, he was tempted to point out that too many others had done a bang-up job of that already. But he held his tongue. I'll try."

He waited for Brother Christopher to undo all the locks, then stepped toward the sunlight.

"Try Morton's down on Seventy-one," the younger man whispered as Zev pa ssed.

* * *

Zev rode his bicycle south on route 71. So strange to see people on the stre ets. Not many, but more than he'd ever see in Lakewood again. Yet he knew th at as the undead consolidated their grip on the rest of the coast, they'd st art arriving with their living minions in the Catholic communities like Spri ng Lake, and then these streets would be as empty as Lakewood's.

He thought he remembered passing a place named Morton's on his way in. And then up ahead he saw it, by the railroad track crossing, a white stucco one-story box of a building with "Morton's Liquors" painted in big black lette rs along the side.

Father Adams' words echoed back to him ...on another bender ...

Zev pushed his bicycle to the front door and tried the knob. Locked up tigh t. A look inside showed a litter of trash, broken bottles, and empty shelve s. The windows were barred; the back door was steel and locked as securely as the front. So where was Father Joe?

Then, by the overflowing trash Dumpster, he spotted the basement window at ground level. It wasn't latched. Zev went down on his knees and pushed it open.

Cool, damp, musty air wafted against his face as he peered into the Stygian d arkness. It occurred to him that he might be asking for trouble by sticking h is head inside, but he had to give it a try. If Father Cahill wasn't here, Ze v would begin the return trek to Lakewood and write off this whole trip as wa sted effort.

"Father Joe?" he called. "Father Cahill?"

"That you again, Chris?" said a slightly slurred voice. "Go home, will you? I'm all right. I'll be back later."

"It's me, Joe. Zev. From Lakewood."

He heard shoes scraping on the floor and then a familiar face appeared in th e shaft of light from the window.

"Well I'll be damned. It is you! Thought you were Brother Chris come to drag me back to the retreat house. Gets scared I'm gonna get stuck out after dar k. So how ya doin', Reb? Glad to see you're still alive. Come on in!"

Zev noted Father Cahill's glassy eyes and how he swayed ever so slightly, like a skyscraper in the wind. His hair was uncombed, and his faded jeans and worn Bruce Springsteen Tunnel of Love Tour sweatshirt made him look mo re like a laborer than a priest.

Zev's heart twisted at the sight of his friend in such condition. Such a mens ch like Father Joe shouldn't be acting like a shikker. Maybe it was a mistake coming here.

"I don't have that much time, Joe. I came to tell you - "

"Get your bearded ass down here and have a drink or I'll come up and drag you down."

"All right," Zev said. "I'll come in but I won't have a drink."

He hid his bike behind the Dumpster, then squeezed through the window. Joe helped him to the floor. They embraced, slapping each other on the back.

Father Joe was a bigger man, a giant from Zev's perspective. At six-four h e was ten inches taller, at thirty-five he was a quarter-century younger; he had a muscular frame, thick brown hair, and - on better days - clear blue e yes.

"You're grayer, Zev, and you've lost weight."

"Kosher food is not so easily come by these days."

"All kinds of food are getting scarce." He touched the cross slung from Zev's neck and smiled. "Nice touch. Goes well with your zizith."

Zev fingered the fringe protruding from under his shirt. Old habits didn't die easily.

"Actually, I've grown rather fond of it."

"So what can I pour you?" the priest said, waving an arm at the crates of liquor stacked around him. "My own private reserve. Name your poison."

"I don't want a drink."

"Come on, Reb. I've got some nice hundred-proof Stoli here. You've got to have at least one drink - "

"Why? Because you think maybe you shouldn't drink alone?"

Father Joe winced. "Ouch!"

"All right," Zev said. "Bisel. I'll have one drink on the condition that you d on't have one. Because I wish to talk to you."

The priest considered that a moment, then reached for the vodka bottle.


He poured a generous amount into a paper cup and handed it over. Zev took a sip. He was not a drinker and when he did imbibe he preferred his vodka ic e cold from a freezer. But this was tasty. Father Cahill sat back on a case of Jack Daniel's and folded his arms.

"Nu?" the priest said with a Jackie Mason shrug.

Zev had to laugh. "Joe, I still say that somewhere in your family tree is Jewi sh blood."

For a moment he felt light, almost happy. When was the last time he had laug hed? Probably at their table near the back of Horovitz's deli, shortly befor e the St. Anthony's nastiness began, well before the undead came.

Zev thought of the day they'd met. He'd been standing at the counter at Ho rovitz's waiting for Yussel to wrap up the stuffed derma he'd ordered when this young giant walked in. He towered over the rabbis and yeshiva studen ts in the place, looking as Irish as Paddy's pig, and wearing a Roman coll ar. He said he'd heard this was the only place on the whole Jersey Shore w here you could get a decent corned beef sandwich. He ordered one and cheer fully warned that it better be good. Yussel asked him what could he know a bout good corned beef and the priest replied that he'd grown up in Bensonh urst. Well, about half the people in Horovitz's on that day - and on any oth er day, for that matter - had grown up in Bensonhurst, and before you knew i t they were all asking him if he knew such-and-such a store and so-and-so's deli.

Zev then informed the priest - with all due respect to Yussel Horovitz behin d the counter - that the best corned beef sandwich in the world was to be ha d at Shmuel Rosenberg's Jerusalem Deli in Bensonhurst. Father Cahill said he'd been there and agreed one hundred percent.

Yussel served him his sandwich then. As the priest took a huge bite out of the corned beef on rye, the normal tumel of a deli at lunchtime died away until Horovitz's was as quiet as a shul on Sunday morning. Everyone watch ed him chew, watched him swallow. Then they waited. Suddenly his face brok e into this big Irish grin.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to change my vote," he said. "Horovitz's of Lakewood makes the best corned beef sandwich in the world."

Amid cheers and warm laughter, Zev led Father Cahill to the rear table tha t would become theirs, and sat with this canny and charming gentile who ha d so easily won over a roomful of strangers and provided such a mechaieh f or Yussel. He learned that the young priest was the new assistant to Fathe r Palmeri, the pastor at St. Anthony's Catholic Church at the northern end of Lakewood. Father Palmeri had been there for years but Zev had never so much as seen his face. He asked Father Cahill - who wanted to be called Joe

- about life in Brooklyn these days and they talked for an hour.

During the following months they would run into each other so often at Horo vitz's that they decided to meet regularly for lunch, on Mondays and Thursd ays. They did so for years, discussing religion - oy, the religious discussio ns! - politics, economics, philosophy, life in general. During those lunchtim es they solved most of the world's problems. Zev was sure they'd have solve d them all if the scandal at St. Anthony's hadn't resulted in Father Joe's removal from the parish.

But that was in another time, another world. The world before the undead to ok over.

Zev shook his head as he considered the current state of Father Joe in the d usty basement of Morton's Liquors.

"It's about the vampires, Joe," he said, taking another sip of the Stoli. "The y've taken over St. Anthony's."

Father Joe snorted and shrugged.

"They're in the majority now, Zev, remember? They've taken over the whole East Coast. Why should St. Anthony's be different from any other parish?"

"I didn't mean the parish. I meant the church."

The priest's eyes widened slightly. "The church? They've taken over the buil ding itself?"

"Every night," Zev said. "Every night they are there."

"That's a holy place. How do they manage that?"

"They've desecrated the altar, destroyed all the crosses. St. Anthony's is no longer a holy place."

"Too bad," Father Joe said, looking down and shaking his head sadly. "It w as a fine old church." He looked up again. "How do you know about what's g oing on at St. Anthony's? It's not exactly in your neighborhood."

"A neighborhood I don't exactly have any more."

Father Joe reached over and gripped his shoulder with a huge hand.

"I'm sorry, Zev. I heard your people got hit pretty hard over there. Sitting du cks, huh? I'm really sorry."

Sitting ducks. An appropriate description.

"Not as sorry as I, Joe," Zev said. "But since my neighborhood is gone, and since I have hardly any friends left, I use the daylight hours to wander.

So call me the Wandering Jew. And in my wanderings I meet some of your old parishioners."

The priest's face hardened. His voice became acid.

"Do you, now. And how fare the remnants of my devoted flock?"

"They've lost all hope, Joe. They wish you were back."

He barked a bitter laugh. "Sure they do! Just like they rallied behind me when my name and honor were being dragged through the muck. Yeah, they wan t me back. I'll bet!"

"Such anger, Joe. It doesn't become you."

"Bullshit. That was the old Joe Cahill, the naive turkey who believed all hi s faithful parishioners would back him up. But no. A child points a finger a nd the bishop removes me. And how do the people I dedicated my life to respo nd? They all stand by in silence as I'm railroaded out of my parish."

"It's hard for the commonfolk to buck a bishop."

"Maybe. But I can't forget how they stood quietly by while I was stripped of my position, my dignity, my integrity, of everything I wanted to be . . ."

Zev thought Joe's voice was going to break. He was about to reach out to h im when the priest coughed and squared his shoulders.

"Meanwhile, I'm a pariah over here in the retreat house, a goddamn leper. S

ome of them actually believe - " He broke off in a growl. "Ah, what's the use? It's over and done. Most of the parish is dead anyway, I suppose. And if I'd stayed there I'd probably be dead too. So maybe it worked out for the b est. And who gives a shit anyway?"

"Last night I met someone who does. She saved me from one of the winged ones."

"You were out at night?"

"Yes. A long story. She was dressed rather provocatively and knew me beca use she'd seen me with you."

Joe looked interested now. "What was her name?"

"She wouldn't say. But she begged me to find you and bring you back."

"Really." His interest seemed to be fading.

"Yes. She said when you heard what they've done to your church you'd come back and teach them a lesson they'll never forget."

"Sounds like you ran into an escaped mental patient," Joe said as he reached for the bottle of Glenlivet next to him.

"No-no!" Zev said. "You promised!"

Father Joe drew his hand back and crossed his arms across his chest.

"Talk on. I'm listening."

Joe had certainly changed for the worse. Morose, bitter, apathetic, self-pityi ng.

"They've taken over your church, just as they've taken over my temple. But the temple they use only for a dormitory. Your church, they've desecrated i t. Each night they further defile it with butchery and blasphemy. Doesn't t hat mean anything to you?"

"It's Palmeri's parish. I've been benched. Let him take care of it."

"Father Palmeri is their leader."

"He should be. He's their pastor."

"No. He leads the undead in the obscenities they perform in the church."

Joe stiffened and the glassiness cleared from his eyes.

"Palmeri? He's one of them?"

Zev nodded. "More than that. He's one of the local leaders. He orchestrates th eir rituals."

Zev saw rage flare in the priest's eyes, saw his hands ball into fists, and f or a moment he thought the old Father Joe was going to burst through.

Come on, Joe. Show me that Cahill fire.

But then he slumped back.

"Is that all you came to tell me?"

Zev hid his disappointment and nodded. "Yes."

"Good." He grabbed the Scotch bottle. "Because I need a drink."

Zev wanted to leave, yet he had to stay, had to probe deeper and see how muc h of his old friend was left, and how much had been replaced by this new, bi tter, alien Joe Cahill. Maybe there was still hope. So they talked on.

* * *

Zev looked up at the window and saw that it was dark.

"Gevalt! I didn't notice the time!"

Father Joe seemed surprised too. He stepped to the window and peered out.

"Damn! Sun's down!" He turned to Zev. "Lakewood's out of the question for y ou, Reb. Even the retreat house is too far to risk now. Looks like we're st uck here for the night."

"We'll be safe?"

He shrugged. "Why not? As far as I can tell I'm the only one who's been in h ere for weeks, and only in the daytime. Be pretty odd if one of those leeche s decided to wander in here tonight."

"We'd have to invite it in, right?"

He shook his head. "Doesn't seem to work that way with stores. Only homes."

Zev's guderim twisted. "That's not good."

"Don't worry. We're okay if we don't attract attention. I've got a flashlight if we need it, but we're better off sitting here in the dark and shooting the breeze till sunrise." Father Joe smiled and picked up a huge silver cross, at least a foot in length, from atop one of the crates. "Besides, we're armed. An d frankly, I can think of worse places to spend the night."

He stepped over to the case of Glenlivet and opened a fresh bottle. His cap acity for alcohol was enormous.

Zev could think of worse places too. In fact he had spent a number of nigh ts in much worse places since the Lakewood holocaust. He decided to put th e time to good use.

"So, Joe. Maybe I should tell you some more about what's happening in La kewood."


King of the world.

Al Hulett leaned back in the passenger seat of the big Cadillac convertible t hey'd just driven out of somebody's garage, burning rubber all the way, and l et the night air mess with his spiky black hair.

As usual, Stan was driving with Jackie riding shotgun. Al and Kenny had the back seat with Heinekens in their fists, Slipknot's Iowa CD in the slot, and

"Skin Ticket" blasting through the speakers. Al finished his Heinie and tos sed the empty over his shoulder so it landed on the trunk top. He heard a fa int, frightened yelp from within, then a crash as the bottle bounced off and shattered on the asphalt behind them.

He leaned back and pounded a fist on the trunk. "Ay, shuddup up in there!

You're messin with my meditation!"

This brought a howl of laughter from Kenny, which didn't necessarily mean it was real funny, just that Kenny was always a good audience.

He and the Kenman had been together since grammar school. How many years was that now? Ten? Twelve? Couldn't be more than a dozen. No way. Whate ver, the two of them had stuck together through it all, never breaking u p, even when Kenny pulled that short jolt in Yardville on a B&E. Even wh en the whole world went to hell.

But they'd come through it all like gold. They'd hired out to the winners. Jo ined the best hunting pack around.

Coulda turned out different. He and Kenny coulda had their throats chewed ou t and their heads ripped off just like a bunch of guys they knew, but they h appened to be the right guys in the right place at the right time.

The right place was a bar they'd broken into, and the right time had been Ea ster morning - didn't know it was Easter then, only learned that later.

Al and Kenny and some friends had started partying Friday afternoon in thi s old shotgun shack back in the pines. By Sunday morning they'd run out of booze, so they rode their Harleys out to Route 9. That was when they lear ned about all the shit that had went down the past two nights. So they'd b roke into this bar-package store and were helping themselves to some liqui d refreshment when this dude in a cowboy hat walked in. Said his name was Stan. Said he saw their Harleys outside and was wondering if they was the kinda guys who might like to go to work for the winners.

Al and Kenny weren't too sure about that at first, so Stan said the chai-sl urpin, Chardonnay-sippin, Gap-wearin, hummus-dippin, classic-rock-listenin world that had thought "loser" every time it looked at them and had never g iven them a chance was on its knees now and did they want to help bust a co upla caps in its fuckin head to put it down for good?

That Stan, man, he had a way with words.

Still. . . workin for the vampires . . .

Then Stan had made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

So that was why Al was riding in a Caddy tonight 'stead of on a Harley.

King of the fucking world.

Well, not king, really. But at least a prince ... when the sun was up.

Night was a whole different story.

If you could get used to the creeps you were working for, it wasn't too ba d a set-up. Could have been worse, Al knew - a lot worse.

Like being cattle, for instance.

Pretty smart, those bloodsuckers. America thought it was ready for them but it wasn't. They hit high, they hit low, and before you knew it, they was in charge of the whole East Coast.

Well, almost in charge. They did whatever they damn well pleased at night, but they'd never be in charge around the clock because they couldn't be up and about in the daylight. They needed somebody to hold the fort for them b etween sunrise and sunset.

That was where Al and Kenny and the other cowboys came in. They'd all be en made the same offer.

They could be cattle, or they could be cowboys and drive the cattle.

Not much of a choice as far as Al could see.

You see, the bloodsuckers had two ways of killing folks. They had the usua l way of ripping into your neck and sucking out your blood. If they got yo u that way, you became one of them come the next sundown. But once they ha d the upper hand, they changed their feeding style. Smart, those bloodsuck ers. If they got too many of their kind wandering around, they'd soon have nobody to feed on - a world full of chefs with nothing to cook. So after th ey were in control, they got the blood a different way, one that didn't in volve sucking it out. You died unsucked, you stayed dead. Something they c alled true death.

But they'd offered Al and Stan and the guys undeath. Be their cowboys, herd the cattle and take care of business between sunrise and sunset, be their mu scle during the day, do a good job for ten years, and they'd see to it that you got done in the old-fashioned way, the way that left you like them. Unde ad. Immortal. One of the ruling class.

"Ay-yo, Al," Kenny shouted over the howl of "Disasterpiece."

"What kinda vampire you gonna be?"

Not again, Al thought. They'd worked this over too many times for Al's taste. It was getting real old. But Kenny never seemed to tire of gnawing this pa rticular bone.

Kenny had this pale cratered skin. Even though he was in his twenties he sti ll got pimples. Looked like the man in the moon now, but in the old days he'd been a real pizza face. Once he almost killed a guy who'd called him that.

And he had this crazy red hair that used to stick out in all directions whe n he didn't cut it, but even when he did it Mohican style, like now, all sha ved off on the sides and showing the ugly knobs on his skull, it looked craz ier than ever. Made Kenny look crazier than ever. And Kenny was pretty crazy as it was.

"I can tell you what kind I ain't gonna be," Al said, "and that's one of them fe rals."

"Ay, I'm down wit that. I'm gonna be a pilot, man. Get me some wings."

Jackie turned down the music and swiveled in the front seat. She was thin an d blonde, with a left nostril ring and a stud through her right eyebrow, and she had this tat of a devil face sticking out a Gene Simmons-class tongue o n her left delt. She dangled an arm over the back near Al's knees and sneere d.

"Wings? You'll be lucky if you get a plate of Buffalo wings."

Stan seemed to think this was real funny. Even Al had to laugh a little.

Kenny made this sour face. "Funny. Real fuckin funny."

"How many kinds of vampires are there, anyway?" Al said.

He wasn't just trying to take the heat off Kenny, he really wanted to know.

In the weeks since he'd joined the posse he'd noticed that some of the blo odsuckers could sprout wings and fly. Most just walked around like everybod y else - only at night, of course - and looked like everybody else, although so me had faces that seemed to turn uglier and uglier as time went on.

Then there was the kind that were pretty much like animals. These were sca ry. Al had only seen a couple of them from a distance and that was plenty close enough. Hardly nothing human left in their faces or the way they mov ed. Couldn't even talk. The other bloodsuckers called them "ferals" and th ey were like vampire shock troops. These were the guys they let loose when they first blew into a town. Al gathered they must be kinda hard to contr ol because the other vampires kept them locked up pretty much of the time.

Good thing. Al had a feeling if he ran into a feral at night the thing woul d be on him and chompin on his windpipe before it noticed he was wearing a cowboy earring.

That special earring - a dangly silver crescent-moon thing - said you were wor king for them. It gave you a free pass if you ran into one of them at nigh t.

Because the night was theirs.

Being a cowboy wasn't so bad, really. You could be assigned to keep an eye on their nests, make sure no save-the-world types - Stan liked to call them r ustlers - got in there and started splashing holy water around and driving st akes into their cold little hearts. Or you could be part of a posse, which meant you spent the day riding around hunting strays. One good way to earn brownie points with the bloodsuckers was to have a stray cow or two ready f or them after sundown.

They had a cow in the trunk right now. Some old bitch who'd scratched and clawed at them when they rounded her up. Deserved what she had comin to her. Plus she was good for brownie points.

Those points weren't nothing to sneer at. Earn enough of them and you got to spend some stud time on one of their cattle ranches - where all the cow s were human. And young.

Neither Al or Kenny or any of their pack had been to one of the farms yet, b ut they'd all heard it was like incredible. You came back sore, man.

Al didn't particularly like working for the vampires. But then he couldn't remember ever liking anybody he'd worked for. The bloodsuckers gave him the creeps, but what was he supposed to do? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. P

lenty of guys felt the same way.

Another thing that didn't set too well was being at the bottom of the pecki ng order. Seemed he had to take orders from everybody except Kenny. Stan sa id that would change. Told them how he'd started at the bottom too. Learned the ropes and soon got to be leader of his own posse.

Stan and Jackie was some sorta team. A good one. Al looked at Jackie. Not th e greatest looking piece with that wild bottle-blond hair all black at the r oots, but considering the severe lack of poontang around these parts lately, she was starting to look drop-dead gorgeous. Al could've really used a piec e of her, but he knew if he went for it he'd wind up on the wrong end of tha t Bowie knife Stan kept strapped to his belt.

Jackie might cut him too. Just for fun. One tough broad, that Jackie. But her real talent was smoking out the ladies. Like the old bitch in the trunk. Jac kie pulls out her piercings, gets dressed up in clothes that hide her tats, t hen goes knocking door to door, pretending to be looking for her little girl.

Nobody figures a broad's gonna be working for the bloodsuckers, so sooner or later one of them answers the door and then blammo, the posse's there like c oons on an open garbage can.

Al just wished the old bitch was younger. Then he coulda had a little fun w ith her before -

"Hail, hail, the gang's all here," Jackie said as they rounded a corner and pulled up before St. Anthony's. "And there's Gregor." She grinned at Kenny.

"Maybe you should go ask him what you gotta do to earn your wings. I'm sure he'll be glad to sit down and chat about it."

Kenny didn't say nothing.

The old church was like the unofficial meeting place for Stan's posse and G

regor, the numero uno bloodsucker in charge of the Jersey Shore. One mean s on of an undead bitch, that Gregor. Even the other vampires seemed to be li ke afraid of him. He was big, with these wide shoulders, long dark hair, ic e cold blue eyes, and square pale face. But then all the bloodsuckers had p ale faces. It was his smile that got to Al. Most times it looked painted on, but with all those sharp teeth of his it managed to make him look both ha ppy and very, very hungry at the same time.

The posses had to meet with Gregor every night and tell him how things had g one while he was cutting his Z's or whatever it was the bloodsuckers did whe n the sun was up. It was part of the job. Al's least favorite part of the jo b. He didn't know what it was that made his skin crawl every time he got nea r one. Wasn't their looks, their dirty clothes, their stink. Something else, something you couldn't see or smell. Something you felt.

Al spotted Gregor by the church steps with his guards. He was dressed as us ual in a dark suit, white shirt, no tie. Always the same, like he was going to a business meeting or something. Which put him a cut above most vampire s, who never changed their clothes. Ever.

Hey, this was weird. Usually he had one or two undead goons guarding him. Tonight he had four. What was up?

Al didn't get the bodyguard thing. Like who'd ever mess with Gregor? But he didn't seem to go anywhere without them. They didn't look like the typical pumped-up guard dog types, but all four carried Glocks and razor-sharp mac hetes on their belts.

The local undead bigshots stood around Gregor: Mayor Davis, Council-woman Ellis, Rabbi Goldstein, and the only black face in sight, big fat Revere nd Dalton.

Al had lived around Lakewood for years and never knew any of these peo pie's names - like he needed to know who was mayor, right? - but he knew t hem now.

He looked around for the priest, Palmeri, who was usually with Gregor, but didn't see him. Just as well. There was a bad dude. Almost as creepy as Gre gor.

As Stan eased the car into the curb, one of the bodyguards came over. He wor e black jeans, a black shirt crusted with old blood, and a worried expressio n.

"No report tonight," he said in some sort of fag British accent. "Do you 'av e something for Gregor?"

Here was another thing not to like about the vampires. All the high-ups wer e one kind of foreigner or another. Gregor looked like John Travolta but so unded like Bela Lugosi. His guard here sounded like Mick Jagger.

"Yeah," Stan said. "Got a cow in the trunk. What's up?"

"Not your concern. I'll bring 'er to Gregor."

"Okay. Al, you and Kenny wanna get her out?"

They did that. The ride in the trunk seemed to have taken most of the fight o ut of the old broad. She had to be sixty-five or seventy and she didn't look so hot at first, but she came to life, screaming and yelling when she saw the bloodsuckers.

The bodyguard made a face when he saw her. " 'Ere now, what's this? She t he best you could do?"

"We hit a dry neighborhood. We'll do better tomorrow."

"See that you do." He grabbed the old broad's arm and she fainted. He barel y seemed to notice. "Move on. Get to your 'omes and stay inside. We'll wake you at the usual time."

As Gregor's guard dragged the unconscious broad toward the church, Stan p eeled away from the curb.

"Somethin's up," Jackie said.

Stan nodded. "Wonder what's eatin them?"

"You don't think another one of us bought it, do you?" Kenny said looking a ll nervous.

Al knew how he felt. Someone had been offing cowboys lately. Nothing big s cale, just one here, one there, but enough to make you start looking over your shoulder.

"Nah," Stan said. "They'd tell us that. This is somethin else."

As Stan cranked up Slipknot again, Al looked back at the receding church.

The local undead were carrying the old broad up the church steps. Gregor st ayed on the sidewalk, his guards tight around them.

What could get vampires shook up enough that they didn't want their own pos ses near them? It gave him a crawly feeling in his gut.

As they turned a corner Al thought he saw a female vampire with her own s et of bodyguards step out of the shadows and move toward Gregor.

GREGOR . . .

His get-guards tensed and turned at Olivia's approach but Gregor did not a cknowledge it. He'd been informed of her arrival from New York an hour ago and had been aware of her presence in the shadows, watching him. He waite d till she spoke.

"Good evening, Gregor," she said with a light French accent.

He whirled and smiled. "Why, Olivia. What a wonderful surprise!"

It appeared she'd dressed for the occasion: a red gown - plucked from the window of a Fifth Avenue designer shop, no doubt - and an elaborate Marie Antoinette wig over her own hair which Gregor knew to be short and mousy brown.

Their guards - she'd brought six with her - stood around and between them.

She smiled. "I'm sure." She waved her hand. "Step back, gentlemen. Gregor a nd I have private matters to discuss."

They did, albeit reluctantly.

Gregor shook his head as he watched the ten form a rough circle around Oli via and him. Considering recent events, he should have taken comfort in th e number. That didn't make them any less of an inconvenience. One or two g et-guards at all times were a nuisance, but four - he felt strangled. And Ol ivia with six tonight. How did she manage?

"You've come about Angelica, I suppose," he said in a low voice.

She nodded. "You knew Franco would send someone."

Yes, he had. Somehow, some way, someone had killed Angelica last night. G

regor - over the objections of his get - had personally tracked down her rema ins before dawn and had them removed to a place where they could be burne d. Secretly burned. It wouldn't do to let the cattle know that one of the undead elite had been brought down while on the wing.

But Angelica's death was no secret among the undead. Gregor had been expe cting an emissary from New York tonight, but Olivia of all people. Raw am bition from a rival get-line. This would not do.

"It could have been an accident, you know."

"I doubt that," Olivia said. "Angelica was too experienced."

Angelica - Gregor had never liked her, and hated her now. The old bitch had to go out and hunt alone. Not that any of her get-guards could have acco mpanied her - none of them had wings. No reason for Angelica to hunt. With her status she could have had cattle brought to her every night.

Gregor pressed his point. "It's not as if Angelica was shot down with a cros sbow or the like. She was pierced with a tree branch, one that was snapped o ff a tree not a dozen feet from where we found her. It was quite evident tha t she flew into the tree and - "

Olivia smiled, showing her fangs. "I certainly don't believe that, Gregor.

And neither, I dare say, do you. The situation around here has been preca rious for some time, what with some sort of vigilante group running around killing your serfs. How many dead now - four?"

Gregor stiffened. "Where do you get your information?

"That's not important. Franco is concerned that the situation is getting out of hand."

"Nothing of the sort." He was sure she was overstating Franco's concern. "E

verything is under control. As for these so-called vigilantes - "

"Four serfs in four weeks, Gregor. Not just killed - their throats are slit an d then they're strung up for all to see. Bad enough. But now these vigilante s have taken down Angelica."

"We don't know if it was the same group."

"That's the trouble. You don't know a thing about the perpetrators, do you."

Too true. Whatever group was killing the serfs - an older term; Gregor had b ecome used to calling them cowboys - wasn't announcing itself. No fliers, no graffiti, no name, no identity. Just a corpse twisting in the wind. They did their dirty work and then faded away.

"Some of the killings could be by copycats," Gregor offered.

"Even worse! Our hold is fragile, Gregor. We need our serfs. We can't have t he night if they don't hold the day for us. The carrot-and-the-stick approac h is usually sufficient, but they're as loyal as cockroaches, and if someone else comes along with a bigger stick, our carrot may not be enough."

"Scum," Gregor growled.

"Of course they are. Who but scum would sell out their own kind? But they'

re our scum. And we need them. Without them guarding our daysleep, we're v ulnerable. If we can't protect them, they won't protect us."

"I hardly need a lecture on this, Olivia."

"Maybe you do." She pointed a long-nailed finger at him. "Because if you don't straighten this out, I'll have to do it for you."

Gregor glared at her. He knew what that meant: he'd be sent back to New Y

ork where Franco would demote him to some sort of low-level functionary.

He was a veteran of the battle of the Vatican, damn it. No one could humiliat e him like that.

His thoughts drifted back. What a week that had been. Vatican City was immu ne to the ferals because of the plethora of crosses - crosses everywhere, on the walls, the ceilings, even the floors. The priests and the Swiss Guard h ad fought valiantly against the serfs. It was not until turned military com manders and soldiers began shelling the buildings with tanks and artillery that they made any progress. Vatican City eventually was reduced to rubble.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the Pope had died in the she lling. It would have been such a coup to turn him and make him an icon for the Catholic undead.

Gregor missed those good old days of head-on assault: Prague, Berlin, Rome, Paris, London. They'd all fallen in days. But that approach had run into unf oreseen problems. Franco was trying a new tack. Gregor agreed that it made m ore sense, but it lacked the heady rush of the blitzkrieg. And it allowed up starts like Olivia to rise.

If Olivia had her way and Gregor was called back to New York, she would r emove all his get - which now included the mayor, the councilwoman, the pri est, and the reverend among others - and install her own in their place. Ol ivia's domain would expand while his would contract to near zero.

Gregor would not allow that. These vigilantes would be found and run to grou nd if he had to do it himself.

ZEV . . .

After a few hours their talk died of fatigue. Father Joe gave Zev the flashlig ht to hold, then stretched out across a couple of crates to sleep. Zev tried t o get comfortable enough to doze but found sleep impossible. So he listened to his friend snore in the dusty darkness of the cellar.

Poor Joe. Such anger in the man. But more than that - hurt. He felt betrayed, wronged. And with good reason. But with everything falling apart as it w as, the wrong done to him would never be righted. He should forget about i t already and go on with his life, but apparently he couldn't. Such a sham e. He needed something to pull him out of his funk. Zev had thought news o f what had happened to his old parish might rouse him, but it seemed only to make him want to drink more. Father Joseph Cahill, he feared, was a hop eless case.

Zev closed his eyes and tried to rest. He found it hard to get comfortable wi th the cross dangling in front of him so he took it off but laid it within ea sy reach. He was drifting toward a doze when he heard a noise outside. By the dumpster. Metal on metal.

My bicycle!

He slipped to the floor and tiptoed over to where Joe slept. He shook his sh oulder and whispered.

"Someone's found my bike!"

The priest snorted but remained sleeping. A louder clatter outside made Ze v turn, and as he moved his elbow struck a bottle. He grabbed for it in th e darkness but missed. The sound of smashing glass echoed through the base ment like a cannon shot. As the odor of Scotch whiskey replaced the musty ambiance, Zev listened for further sounds from outside. None came.

Maybe it had been an animal. He remembered how raccoons used to raid his garbage at home... when he'd had a home ... when he'd had garbage ...

Zev stepped to the window and looked out. Probably an animal.

A pale, snarling demonic face, baring its fangs and hissing, suddenly filled the window. Zev fell back as the thing rammed its hand through the glass, r eaching for his throat, its curved fingers clawing at him, missing. It pushe d up the window, then launched itself the rest of the way through, hurtling toward Zev.

He tried to dodge but was too slow. The impact knocked the flashlight from hi s grasp and it rolled across the floor. Zev cried out as he went down under t he snarling thing. Its ferocity was overpowering, irresistible. It straddled him and lashed at him, batting his fending arms aside, its clawed fingers tea ring at his collar to free his throat, stretching his neck to expose the vuln erable flesh, its foul breath gagging him as it bent its fangs toward him. Ze v screamed out his helplessness.

JOE . . .

Father Joe Cahill awoke to cries of terror.

He shook his head to clear it and instantly regretted the move. His head we ighed at least two hundred pounds, and his mouth was stuffed with foul-tast ing cotton. Why did he keep doing this to himself? What was the point in ac ting out the drunken Irish priest cliche? Not only did it leave him feeling lousy, it gave him bad dreams. Like now.

Another terrified shout, only a few feet away.

He looked toward the sound. In the faint light from the flashlight rolling acr oss the floor he saw Zev on his back, fighting for his life against -

Jesus! This was no dream!

He leaped over to where the creature was lowering its fangs toward Zev's thro at. He grabbed it by the back of the neck and lifted it clear of the floor. I t was surprisingly heavy but that didn't slow him. Joe could feel the anger r ising in him, surging into his muscles.

"Rotten piece of filth!"

He swung the vampire by its neck and let it fly against the cinderblock wall. It impacted with what should have been bone-crushing force, but bounced of f, rolled on the floor, and regained its feet in one motion, ready to attack again. Strong as he was, Joe knew he was no match for this thing's power. Heturned, grabbed his big silver crucifix, and charged the creature.

"Hungry? Eat this!"

As the creature bared its fangs and hissed at him, Joe shoved the long lower end of the cross's upright into the gaping maw. Blue-white light flickered al ong the silver length of the crucifix, reflecting in the creature's startled, agonized eyes as its flesh sizzled and crackled. The vampire let out a stran gled cry and tried to turn away but Joe wasn't through with it yet. He was li terally seeing red as rage poured out of a hidden well and swirled through hi m. He rammed the cross farther down the thing's gullet. Light flashed deep in its throat, illuminating the pale tissues from within. It tried to grab the cross and pull it out but the flesh of its fingers burned and smoked wherever it came in contact with it.

Finally Joe stepped back and let the thing squirm and scrabble up the wall and out the window into the night. Then he turned to Zev. If anything had happened -

"Hey, Reb!" he said, kneeling beside the older man. "You all right?"

"Yes," Zev said, struggling to his feet. "Thanks to you."

Joe slumped onto a crate, momentarily weak as his rage dissipated. This is n ot what I'm about, he thought. But it had felt so damn good to let loose on that vampire. Almost too good.

I'm falling apart. . . like everything else in the world.

"That was too close," Joe said, giving the older man's shoulder a fond squee ze.

"For that vampire, too close for sure." Zev replaced his yarmulke. "And wo uld you please remind me, Father Joe, that in the future if ever I should maybe get my blood sucked and become undead that I should stay far away fr om you."

Joe laughed for the first time in too long. It felt good.

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