Dreaming The Dark
A bleak exercise in urban gothic, this is a story ostensibly about vampires, but really about secrets and the yearning for the dark that I suspect lies within all of us, more or less well-hidden. The story (then called 'Bad Moon Rising') was first written in 1989 at the request of Clarence Paget, then the editor of the Pan Book of Horror Stories series, for inclusion in volume 31. Sadly, the series was cancelled by Pan before that volume could be publisged. It was considered for Dark Voices, the successor to the Pan Book of Horror Stories, but not used in the end, I suspect partly because of its length - at 15,000 words it is closer to a novella than a short story. It was suggested by one of the editors at Pan that I expand it into a novel but other work intervened and I never completed the expansion. Unfortunately, I missed the boat rather as, at that time, it contained a 'modern' take on urban vampires that was just starting with the film 'The Lost Boys' and found its full expression some years later with 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Now, its treatment of the vampires, which I thought at the time was pretty innovative, has become quite commonplace. Oh well. It eventually saw the light of day, very slightly re-edited and split into its current three 'acts', in Johnny Mains' anthology "Back From The Dead - The Legacy Of The Pan Book Of Horror Stories" which features sixteen new stories and five reprints from the original series. The book won the Best Anthology Award at the 2011 British Fantasy Society Awards.
"The bright day is done.
And we are for the dark."
"The sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark."
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge]
Big Jackie was only thirty yards from the security of the brightly lit main street when he first heard the footsteps. Three yards later he half-turned in surprise. Ten yards after that he was dead.
He lay on his back in the narrow alley, surrounded by the scattered contents of the four carrier-bags that were all his worldly possessions, blindly staring up at the scudding clouds. The night sky was the colour of a bruise, fading to a nicotine yellow where the light of the sodium-lamps bleached it. In that unreal light the blood that pooled around him was black. Blood had streaked his face, matted his thinning hair, puddled and clotted in the dead sockets of his eyes. There was an awful lot of blood, but there did not seem to be enough somehow, considering the size of the gaping tear that ran from the soft flesh of his neck down to the waistband of his ragged trousers. Slick loops of intestine and wet red-purple organs spilled from the opened body-cavity. One hand was still out-stretched as if to ward off the sudden violence that had come upon him out of the night. A siren wailed suddenly, several streets away, and a dark shape at the edge of the alley shifted in a fluid blur of motion and was gone, shadow merging with shadow.
A scrawny yellow dog limped out from behind a pile of refuse and sniffed warily at the still body. It circled, bent to lap at the congealing blood. Something moved behind it, concealed in the darkness behind a hoarding. The dog froze, its hackles rising. It skipped away from the body, lips skinned back over its teeth. Then it shivered and scampered off, pausing a safe distance away to listen to the soft movements and the noises of tearing and splintering. There was a low sucking sound. The dog edged closer and froze again at a low coughing growl, deep and reverberant, pregnant with menace. Silence. Lifting its muzzle, the dog howled once, a thin, plaintive cry. Then it licked its lips and pattered away, leaving death the only occupant of the street.
A chill rain had begun to fall as Ross left the doorway of the pub, and the wind whined hungrily around the edges of the buildings, sending waste-paper scuttering through the streets. Ross glanced up at the sky, something he did automatically now at night, from habit; the occasional glimpse of stars on a clear night cheered him unreasonably, as if the implied immensities that they represented threw into a proper proportion the squalid, day-to-day miseries and petty cruelties of the city. This night, however, the stars were hidden by a tattered shroud of dirty grey cloud, and only a bloated, pendulous moon hung in the sky like a rotten fruit, furred with corruption. It leered down over the city like the face of an idiot clown. Ross shivered. What was that old Creedence song? 'I see a bad moon rising...’ He scowled, turned up the collar of his raincoat and walked into the drizzle humming along to the jangling guitars and the cracked voice in his head.
As he walked his mood darkened. He hated the city in its slow dying - its nightscape of lurid neon and pooling shadows, the feeling of constant aggression it instilled in those who moved beneath its orange haze of smoky, cloud-reflected light. As he crossed the shopping centre people pushed jerkily past him like automata, fast and wary even in the light, the corners of their eyes wincing fractionally against the glare of the storefronts, their bodies flinching from the constant brush and touch of others, every brief contact holding the threat of potential violence. Ross kept his eyes focussed on his feet mostly, scuffing through debris, cans and broken glass, newspapers and fast-food wrappers, the excreta of the city. His nose wrinkled as if he was snarling, trying to block out the acrid compound of exhaust fumes and sweat, stale urine and rotting garbage that clung like an almost organic skin to the buildings around him. City-breath. The rank exhalations of someone in the last stages of terminal disease. The systems were failing; the social and personal relationships that kept a community together were dead and rotted long since, the inhabitants of the city as voracious and impersonal now as maggots stripping a corpse. For a while the toys of mass technology had provided a veneer of life, but now they too were crumbling from neglect and overuse. In his youth Ross had read a story - required reading at school - which had first turned him on to the idea that technology might simply be a crutch, creating artificial needs and aspirations simply in order to fulfil them - bringing not freedom but a kind of luxurious slavery - and then finally unable even to fulfil the basic needs that everyone had long since forgotten. It had stuck with him, peripheral, all the while he had grown up in and around the city. The Machine Stops. Yeah, but what then?
Thunder rolled as he climbed the dingy stairs to his flat, past the faded film posters held tacked to the wall in a vain attempt to brighten the place - Tourneur's 'I Walked With A Zombie', Schrader's 'Cat People', and his own first screenplay 'Fleshdreams' - and pushed open the door, braced, as usual, against the discovery of burglary; ever since he had come home drunk one evening without his key and kicked the lock in the door had remained unlocked. Not that there was anything to steal; the second-hand television and the CD player apart, the only thing of any value in the flat was the battered computer on the desk beneath the single window.
All seemed normal, even to the stench from the remains of week-old meals from the kitchen. A siren whooped somewhere in the city. He switched on the television. A bland newsreader was winding up the News with the top story of the day - a family of five burned to death in their own house; the fire service had been three-quarters of an hour getting there because two of their four tenders were out of commission and the two working ones had been called to a false alarm. A succession of talking heads mouthed the same tired phrases about cuts and inquiries and stiffer penalties for hoaxers. Ross counted the word 'tragedy' used five times, a commonplace nowadays mouthed by flint-eyed men in expensive suits lit by careful studio lighting. He changed the channel. Some American talk-show host with artificially silvered hair was interrogating a group of hyped-up posers about their sexual preferences to the accompaniment of a shrieking studio audience. The exaggerated behaviour made everyone on the screen look as if they were wired. The host turned on one of the 'contestants', demanding 'the truth!' Ross swore. What did any of these plastic people know about Truth, scittering about on the surface of experience, their problems and hang-ups cosmeticised for the mass audience? Truth was something you kept within yourself, Jealously guarded by the paranoia of everyday living, a dark secret at the heart of everything. Except if you were an artist.
If you were an artist you had to dig deep into that dark core, bring it out slimed and wriggling for everyone to see. All those fantasies that everyone had buried inside them; only the artist could show them off, psychological tumours. And by gazing in fascinated horror at the artist's cancers the audience were made to feel better about their own. Catharsis. Or, to put it another way, art as freak-show. But there are always levels beneath levels, Ross thought, and even the artist had inner aspects that, if they were revealed at all, were only hinted at. And how does the artist deal with those? Good question. He moved towards the desk where he kept completed manuscripts and artwork. His hand brushed the handle of the only locked drawer. No one had ever seen the pictures in that drawer; they were for Ross's own appreciation only. In them, given concrete, if two-dimensional, reality were his deepest, most private desires and obsessions, sometimes secret even to him until his pencil gave them form. In his more ironic moments he called it the Drawer of Darkest Dreams; in the bleaker mood of self-knowledge that occasionally came upon him it was Just 'the Monkey' - as in 'the monkey on your back'. He visualised them, dragging the images into his brain as his other hand found his growing erection. His eyes closed. Behind him on the silent television screen the programme had changed to a wildlife documentary; a spider, slowly and with infinite tenderness, was eating her mate in the very act of copulation.
Ross's hand drew back from the drawer. No. Tonight was bad, but not that bad. He'd do some more work on the new novel, 'Wolfdream'. It was the night for it, dreary and wild with wind, occasional lightning flashes whiting out the window. He threw a CD into the player and sang along to it as he powered up his computer. 'Better run through the jungle...'. Outside the window another siren wailed its way to another 'tragedy'. Yeah, he thought, isn't that we're all doing; running through the jungle.
The girl burst out of the dark mouth of the alley like a pale moth desperately seeking the light. Dirt and sweat streaked her thin limbs as she stumbled to a halt in the empty street, breath coming harshly. She flung her head from side to side, cursing in a low monotone and rubbing at a torn shin. With her head on one side, she listened intently, mouthing silently, as a minute crawled by and from above the low clouds there came the distant rumble of thunder. There was a burst of shouting from behind her and an incoherent bellowed chant. A bottle smashed somewhere. She stood motionless until silence stole back into the street. Then she relaxed slightly and her mouth twitched into a grin. From behind her came a low sibilant sound like a snake's hiss. Shadows congealed in the alley. Agonised, she flung back her head with a forlorn gasp that was half sob and half laugh. Clutching the stitch in her side, she spun on her heel. "FUCK you!" she shouted, and ran from the echoes of her shout, dodging and weaving between the piled rubble of toppled masonry, her hair a flash of silver-white in the darkness.
For a moment the street was empty. Then rubbish shifted suddenly with a clatter. Something came out of the alley and twisted into human shape.
Ross swore at the jangle of the telephone. He pushed the keyboard away from him, knocking several pages of the manuscript of 'Wolfdream' to the floor. The telephone continued to ring from somewhere under the clutter on Ross's desk. He burrowed under several A3 sheets of drawings of people, naked and in various stages of transformation into wolves and other less-recognisable creatures, and dragged the receiver to his ear.
"It's Clayton," said the voice at the other end of the phone.
"Clayton. Hang on a minute." He stopped the tape and rubbed his eyes to clear them. "How're you doing?"
"Been better," Clayton said. "Got something for you, if you're interested. Right up your street."
Ross glanced at the clock. It was one in the morning. Clayton was a cop. Ross distrusted cops as a rule - they were part of the machinery that kept the stinking corpse of the city alive, life-support for a society all but brain-dead. But Clayton was OK. Ross had needed to research some police procedure for a book a couple of years before, and Clayton had been helpful. During that first brief uneasy collaboration Clayton had moved from a grudging suspicion of Ross's line of work to a genuine if well-hidden pleasure at seeing his name featured in the dedication of the book, and Ross in turn had come to appreciate that even cops were human beings, and some of them were even pretty decent human beings. Since that first book, Clayton had always contacted Ross when a particularly bizarre case happened along, providing him with essential raw material for his work. They were not exactly friends - Ross didn't have friends; it interfered with his studied misanthropy - but they got along. Clayton never read the books he helped to form - his taste ran more to Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler - but he pretended that he had, and Ross accepted the pretence without taking offence, genuinely grateful for Clayton's bending of the rules.
"What have you got?" he asked.
"I don't know how to... I've never... Look, I'll meet you at the Dragon. Half an hour. Twenty years I've been doing this. . . road accidents, machinery... I've never seen anything like this..."
Clayton's voice was actually shaking. The older man was close to tears, Ross realised in amazement. In all the time he'd known Clayton he'd never seen him lose control, whatever the situation. He'd seen him angry, yes, sometimes upset, but never incoherent. What the hell had happened? Something that could almost make Clayton break down? This he had to see.
"I'll be there." Ross hung up and left, leaving the computer on. On the monitor the cursor flashed ceaselessly at the end of his last sentence.
The girl paused at the first street she entered and hunkered down in the shadow of a fallen wall, her heart hammering. She looked around as if in recognition, nodded to herself, and smiled. She spoke a name, one syllable. She fought for calm, quieting her breathing, and reached within herself, her eyes closed. Cautiously she extended her perceptions outwards. There was nothing at first but the edge-of-awareness tingle of non-sentients - insects, birds and a couple of scavenging dogs - and then she screamed as a wave of hatred spat out of the night at her. The dark, predatory thoughts of her pursuers slammed into her brain, turning her bones to dust within her. She screamed again, in fury this time, the scream reverberating louder and louder until it became a deafening howl of rage. It seemed impossible that any human throat could make that sound. It was the sort of sound that belonged in some primeval jungle, insensate, the bellow of some great beast of prey challenging the night.
A few lights came on in the dark houses adjoining the street, and several querulous human voices were raised, but the girl ignored them, as they would, she knew, ignore any cry for help - far better not to get involved. She was watching the shadows, her eyes mad. In the dark there was a fleshy sloshing sound as if raw meat were being churned. The shadows curdled. There was a humming sound and strands of silver thread danced briefly in the air. The alley smelled like yeast and burning metal suddenly. An insectile scuttling came from her left and one of the shadows detached itself from the wall and stepped out into the light. It snarled. The girl snarled back and started to turn. Something huge and impossibly fast shot out of the darkness at her back and wrapped itself around her. Shadows whipped and flailed around the alley, monstrous. There was a noise like tigers.
"His name was Big Jackie." Clayton pushed his way through the forensic team and turned to Ross as they walked. "That's the only name we could get out of his mates. Not the most lucid of geezers at the best of times, and after this..." He took a couple of deep breaths. "Tell you, Ross, I've never seen anything like this before. It's got me scared shitless, if you want the truth." He shook his head. Ross saw that he was sweating despite the chill. He glanced at the older man quizzically and Clayton glanced away, as if ashamed of even this indirect admission of weakness. A small muscle ticked in his jaw. "You take a look then!" he said with sudden savagery. "Mr. hard-case fucking Ross!" They rounded the corner into the glare of the portable arc-lights.
Ross stared unbelievingly at the corpse. He knew he was looking at a human body, but at first glance it was almost impossible to tell; the brain refused to make immediate sense of the picture the eyes were sending it. Big Jackie was ...had been... a big man, six-four or five perhaps, running to fat, sandy-haired, tattooed. He was naked. He had been hung upside down by his ankles, suspended against the wall of the alley by a crude 'rope' of knotted plastic carrier-bags hooked over a corroded overflow pipe. His body had been grotesquely mutilated, the flesh of the torso sliced open from groin to collar-bones and peeled back from the wet, white ribs and spine in great purple-red flaps that hung down like the petals of some obscene flower, veined with streaks of pale fat and dark clotted blood. The body gaped, its contents gone, a tattered empty bag of flesh. Small clots of viscera littered the ground beneath it. Ross stared in fascination, fighting a sudden gush of bile in his throat. This was death with a vengeance - not a quiet, looking-as-if-sleeping death, but a dismantling of the whole machine of the body, a ripping apart of life, a bright splash of violent ending, His groin tightened and he felt the first twitch of an erection. His palms felt clammy and arousal made his heart thump heavily in his chest. He realised suddenly that Clayton had called to him. Fighting for composure, he turned away, despite the need to keep on looking.
"OK, cut it down" Clayton said. As Ross joined Clayton he heard a soggy thump from behind him, and nausea overcame him. He turned his head and retched drily. Clayton glanced at him in grim vindication. He lit a Silk Cut and coughed.
"Got to give these up. Seen enough?" Ross nodded. He dragged himself away, fighting the urge to look back at the object of fascination, to drink in every detail in a desperate bid to commit it to memory.
Clayton coughed again. "It's got to be a psycho..."
Ross grunted. "What did he do with the guts" he said, almost to himself. Clayton looked puzzled.
"He'd been cleaned out," said Ross. "Every internal organ. Heart, lungs, guts, everything. Where did they go? And where was all the blood?"
"There was blood..."
"About as much as you get in the average knifing. Less than a pint. The human body holds about a gallon. If you open up a body like that, you're going to lose it all. So where was it?"
Clayton scowled, "You want to search the body for two puncture marks in the neck?"
Ross stopped. "Funny man."
"OK. I’m sorry. This is just too bizarre. It's got to be a psycho. No other motive. Robbery? Big Jackie had nothing. Revenge? He didn't have any enemies that we know of, even among the other dossers. Even the real crazies left him alone... But how long would that take. . ? There's a main street just fifty feet away. for Christ's sake!"
"Yeah." Ross felt uncomfortable with Clayton's near-incoherence. His own feelings were too damn close to the surface. "Let me have the autopsy report when it's in. I want to know how...that...was done, for a start." He felt he ought to say something conventional, if only to distract from his own state of excitement, He felt impatient with Clinton's presence, wanting to be away and on his own to savour every detail. His arousal was an itch he couldn't scratch. "Shit, Clayton, I don't envy you. This is a bad one."
Clayton regarded him oddly, as if aware of the artificiality of his tone. He looked about to speak. Both men pressed themselves back as the ambulance trolley rattled past in the narrow confines of the alley. As Ross brushed the wall his hand felt something sticky. "Hey, have you got a torch?" he said, grateful for the diversion.
Clayton handed over a penlight. Ross shone it at the wall.
"Blood?" he said. There was a crude design drawn on the bricks, a horizontal zig-zag line, the two outermost spikes longer than the others and slightly curved towards each other.
"Seen that before?" Clayton shook his head.
"Remind you of anything?"
"No. Street-gang graffiti. Changes from week to week. Bloody kids."
Ross shook his head, "Something. It'll come. Thanks for the call. I think."
Clayton laughed hollowly. Away from the grisly reality of the body he seemed somewhat recovered. "Yeah. Anytime." He looked at Ross ironically. "Useful?"
"Might be." Ross stared at the older man. "It’s given me a funny feeling. Stuff like that doesn't happen in real life, you know? Movies, you expect it – ‘hey, its just a special effect, right?’ I mean he looked like something out of ‘The Thing’. But real..."
"Never saw it. My kid did, on the video. Loved it. Bloodthirsty little toe-rag."
"Too scary for you, huh?"
Clayton scowled. "Too damn busy actually. You know he's got pictures of that stuff all over his walls? What's that guy – Frankie - with the knives on that shitty glove?"
Ross smiled. "Freddie. Don't worry, It's harmless. All kids love that stuff."
"Lot of adults, too. You sell your stuff. You ever feel responsible? I mean, I've seen your films. Read your books. Violence, death, horror, mutilation... You ever stop to think about you're doing to the people that read it?"
Ross stiffened. "It's dreams, Clayton. Not real. Monsters. Just like Frankenstein and the Wolfman, updated for a modern audience. It's not real. I don't produce stuff about real life, I produce fantasy. You got a problem take it up with the guys who make the vigilante pictures; if - and it's a big if - there's a problem it's with that sort of designer violence, set in the real world, real people - 'one man wins a war single-handed, while wearing nothing but several thousand rounds of ammo and what appears to be a howitzer'. 'Death Freak 5'. Stuff that can be imitated. Anybody can walk into a surplus store and come out looking like those guys, and if they can't get hold of a howitzer to wear around their neck, well, hey, there's always the kitchen knife, or the shotgun. It's a bit more difficult to turn yourself into Moloch the Nightstalker or to become The Keeper of the Bones for an evening's fun."
Clayton shrugged. "Maybe," he said stubbornly. "But that sounds just a bit defensive to me. You got to admit people might be affected by it."
"The kind of people that would be 'affected', as you put it, are going to be affected by anything," Ross said. "They’re just looking for a trigger to release stuff that's inside them anyway, If there were no horror films, no books or videos, they'd find something else as a trigger; something that means something only to them, something that we haven't even thought of. You can't judge everyone on the basis of a few psychotics, And it's unfair to blame writers and film-makers for all the bad shit an the world; all we're doing is letting out our own demons in a way that doesn't hurt anybody, and maybe letting other people that read or see our stuff do the same.
"Besides," he said, suddenly and with a strange intensity. "What makes you think it's always the ‘monster’ they want to want to imitate? Why shouldn’t they want to be the monster's victim?"
"What?" Clayton stopped and stared at him. Ross grinned and cleared his throat. His eyes flickered to Clayton and he made a half-hearted gesture as if of self-defence.
"A joke, Just a joke." he said. "Listen, I've got to go. See you around, Clayton. Watch out for the Killer Zombies from Hell, hear."
"You want a lift?" Clayton indicated his car.
"No. I'll walk. It's not far." Ross shuddered suddenly. Jesus! Not far! There's somebody around who could empty out another human being like a gutted chicken, and how far from where I live are they? Not far!
"Go careful." Clayton heaved himself into the car and drove off with the usual squeal of tyres. Ross had once questioned why he always made the tyres shriek when he was driving; Clayton had looked at him in amazement and said: "I'm a cop. It's expected."
Ross grinned and walked away, grateful that Clayton hadn't pushed him on the lift. He was dog tired, but another quarter of an hour with Clayton - with anyone - would have been unbearable. Christ, he'd nearly opened up to Clayton, opened up and spilled stuff that he couldn't tell to anyone. He liked the normally laconic cop - Clayton allowed Ross to see things that he otherwise wouldn't and he was pretty tolerant of a writer's foibles - but not enough to tell him stuff that no-one, no-one in the world, knew. Private stuff, the stuff of the Drawer of Darkest Dreams, That body had shaken him more than he realised; his defences were all down. The material of his jeans rubbed against the erection which had been with him all through the conversation with Clayton, and his mind's eye still saw the gruesome emptiness of the body. What had it felt like? Having that done to you? How would it feel to die like that, ripped open like a damp paper-bag? He shivered in delicious horror. Big Jackie had a lot of guts, he thought, had being the operative word.
A wind had started to rise as Ross took the short cut through the side-streets to his own area of town, his footsteps echoing off the grey brickwork and stale draughts of air muttered along the narrow streets, plucking at his clothes and tugging at his hair with insubstantial hands. At least the rain had stopped. There were no other people. He could have been the last man left alive - Charlton Heston as the Omega Man, alone in a world of vampires. He rounded a corner into a narrow alley between two blocks of flats and stopped, a cold prickle of tension in his belly.
Further down the alley there was a knot of figures illuminated in the flickering sodium glow of a defective street lamp. There were four of them standing, black leather gleaming wetly, and another prone at their feet, a spill of pale hair among the moving legs. One of the standing figures bent and Ross heard the smack of flesh on flesh. The prone figure lifted a white hand in supplication or defence. Ross swore savagely to himself. Just another random encounter in the city, pregnant with threat, that could leave you laughing at your own stupid fears... or leave you like Big Jackie, the secrets of your body spread over the tarmac like discarded fast-food. He tried to back away without a sound and a tin can clattered away from under his foot, The four standing turned pale smudges of faces towards him as he hovered, torn between fight and flight, Three males and a woman, the taller male and the woman in early middle age, the other two hardly out of adolescence, all of them with their skin washed pale by the light, dark smudges under their eyes. All of them wore their dark hair in the same style - swept back from the forehead and hanging wild to their shoulders. They looked at each other as if sharing a secret joke and there was soft laughter.
They moved towards him, the smaller of the young males in the lead. As they came he felt a strange sensation. At first he thought it was a sound. No, not a sound - the unhurried, noiseless menace of their advance was almost eerie, as if they brought a vacuum with them, sucking sound away. It was an almost tactile thing, a humming that was felt rather than heard. The skin of his face seemed tight and hot as if sunburned. It was, Ross thought suddenly, a feeling like the tension in the air around large quantities of electricity, a tingling of incipient and lethal power. What the hell was it? Frozen, he watched them advance, and as they came the street lights flickered and dimmed in their passing as if not only sound but light as well was being warped away and lost. The air smelled funny - heavy, meaty. They were grinning. His mouth dry, Ross suddenly knew they meant to kill him.
From the main street a block away there was a blare of car-horns and the screeching of brakes. Shocked into sudden movement, Ross turned and ran, skidding around the corner back into the side-street, his feet slipping in the oily puddles.
Halfway down the narrow street, still running, he risked a glance behind. It was dark, and the failing street-lamps made the shadows twist and shift confusingly. His vision was blurred from exertion and that tingling hum made his teeth ache. The group was closer, far closer than they should be, given the slow deliberation of their advance. They inched towards him, moving in a kind of menacing glide. The leading boy smiled like a shark. As he looked there seemed to Ross to be a movement among them, wholly unnatural yet so subtle as to elude the eye. It was as if he had caught just the end of a quicksilver change, not of position or stance but of individual appearance. There was a writhing at the edges of the group, as if a moment before there had been something other than four human figures there, a subliminal after- image of something all but unseen.
He ran on, his breath like a knife in his lungs. Once more he looked back. They were closer still, and again there was that sensation of having glanced back fractionally too late to see some mutation among the group. Had there briefly been too many limbs for the group's number, and those jointed in non-human ways? Had the individual heights changed since that first glimpse? And was that still leather they wore, or something else, something organic? What the hell were they? Ross, gasping for breath, his neck aching from the strain of looking over his shoulder while still running, shook his head to clear sweat from his eyes. The lights of a main road were visible now at the end of the seemingly endless street through which he ran, headlight beams crossing to and fro.
He risked a final glance despite the itch of imminent attack between his shoulder-blades. They were almost on him, still stalking him unhurriedly, gaining inexorably despite their seeming lack of urgency. He had the ludicrous thought that it was like some nightmarish game of Grandmother's footsteps, where no matter how fast he ran they would always be there, closer and closer. The humming in has head was a deep pulsating throb. Ross wondered if he was having a stroke. Then panic struck him. There were only three figures behind him, not four! The boy had gone. Ross almost faltered; there were no doors, no cover, just blank brick walls on either side. A heavy oily smoke the colour of rust drifted in the air around the remaining three, stretching tentacles of vapour towards and past him. The air smelled acrid, like heated tin. Ross found an extra burst of speed from somewhere. He was yards from the lights of the main road when a dark shape hit him from the side, sending him cannoning into the wall. He cried out as his shoulder crashed into the brick. The boy! He shouted and struck out wildly.
How had he got past him in the narrow confines of the street? He felt his fist hit something soft and yielding and grabbed it hard, feeling material give. Beneath his fingers something writhed like a snake, twisting with muscular power. Something burned his hand like acid and he found himself holding nothing suddenly. It was not that he had let go or that the boy had torn loose, rather that whatever he had hold of simply went away as if he had hold of nothing but air. At the same time something curved towards his face in a hissing blur of speed. He had a peripheral glimpse of some appendage, shiny-black and glistening, clawed and spined like an insect's limb. lt burned a line of fire down the side of his jaw as he desperately twisted his face out of the way. Again he lashed out vainly, and the others rushed him suddenly. In the last moments before they reached him he was reminded of a dog-pack he'd seen once on the television; the same sudden collective decision that turned a stalk into a killing dash towards the prey. He screamed and flung up his arms as they passed in a flurry of black-clothed shapes. The flickering shadows of the street-lamps rendered them amorphous. He was buffeted by their passing, cracking his head against the wall behind him. Then they were past, and he was still alive. He opened his eyes. They stood ten yards from him in the middle of the main street, silhouetted. Once more he had the insane feeling that they were shifting, things not fixed but caught by the eye in the process of change, frozen in their human shapes only by the observer's fleeting act of looking. One of them waved and blew a kiss to him.
"Bastards!" he shouted, his voice cracking ridiculously. Christ, he sounded like a schoolboy. They laughed at him. A taxi slewed past, horn blaring, barely avoiding the dark figures, and in the rush of its passing they were gone. But Ross was left with one last hallucinatory image; for an instant, as the taxi swept between them, he could have sworn that the woman's eyes had flashed eerily, blank and carious yellow, like those of an animal caught in a car's headlights.
Ross leaned against a shopfront, breathing hard and clutching at the stitch in his side, heat trickling down his neck from the line of pain on his jaw. He dabbed at it and his fingers came away red and wet. Jesus, he'd cut him, the little bastard! He replayed the moment when that something had arced out of the dark at him. No alien claw. Just a fist with a knife in it. Dangerous enough, but nothing monstrous. He laughed shakily. After the violent surrealism of the murder scene, his nerves were shot; imagining a bunch of street-gang thugs were monsters. Vicious bastards, maybe, and dangerous an their own mundane way, but that's all. Just a part of life in the shitty city. Maybe they hadn't even meant to hurt him; just scare him a little. Out for kicks.
Gathering the shreds of his dignity and scowling ferociously at the small crowd that had stopped to enjoy the sight of a tattered, bleeding lunatic sitting on the ground and laughing to himself, he pushed himself to his feet, shaking with reaction, Christ, what a night this was turning out to be! He stared up at the moon, still leering down from behind its shroud of ragged clouds. 'Bad Moon rising?' Yeah, no kidding! Then, with a sudden shift of mental gears as if the thought were not his own, he remembered the prone figure on the ground back in the alley.
The idea of going back down those narrow ways was not a good one, but Ross remembered the small hand upraised to ward off blows and knew he couldn't walk away. He swore at himself. Stupid! Then he turned away from the lights and retraced his earlier steps, cursing his own foolhardiness with every step, but feeling strangely drawn, as if he moved without volition.
The dark shape was still crumpled in the alley, Ross checked the shadows carefully and walked to where it lay. Black leather jacket, like the others. He crouched and carefully turned it over. It was a woman. Ross stared at her as she lay motionless. She was small, around five two he estimated, and thin to the point of emaciation. "Snow White," he whispered. Albino. Her hair was a pure-white thatch, roughly chopped short at shoulder level and matted with blood from a deep gash that bisected her right eyebrow. The thick white brows met above the bridge of her nose, lending her face a strangely fierce expression, and her lashes lay like ice-frosting on her translucent cheekbones. She was quite young, mid-twenties, but already faint strain lines showed at the corners of her mouth. Her eyes flickered open. They were a chalky achromatic grey, the pupils glassily crimson. Unfocussed as they were, they gave her a myopic, vulnerable look.
They stared at his and focussed. Ross felt a sudden pressure in his skull, gone as soon as noticed. The girl smiled at him strangely, almost proprietarily. Her eyes closed and her head lolled.
"Hey! Wake up!" Ross shook her gently but she was unresponsive. "Shit!" He heaved her up and staggered back along the alley, half-carrying her. She was a limp dead weight, surprisingly heavy, like a sleeping cat. He reached the main street and hailed a cab, thankful for once for the non-involvement of the few passers-by. He was not sure he could explain the situation if anyone decided to take notice of a bloodied man supporting an equally bloodied unconscious woman. But no-one did. The cabbie looked askance at him but seemed to accept his muttered explanation of a few too many drinks, a fall, the need to get his girlfriend home.
"Man, if she pukes, you're out, OK? Where to?" Ross gave him his address and leaned back, shuddering with delayed reaction. Jesus, what a night! He closed his eyes and let the cab drift him home through the darkness.
He stared at the woman lying in his bed with a strange sense of dislocation. The bed looked strange, alien, with another body in it. He felt jittery, defensive, and not just as a result of the night's violence. What was wrong with him? Why the fuck had he told the cabbie to come here? Why not to a hospital? It had never even crossed his mind. And it should have done. Even now, he found his mind somehow rebounding from the idea, every time he thought of it. Why? He wandered the flat aimlessly, tiding up as he went, the presence of another person in the flat making him aware of the room's squalor, embarrassed. He growled a curse, angry at being put in the situation of worrying about the state of the place, hating his own sense of vulnerability. After all, she'd be gone in a very short time, and he'd be alone again. Yet his eyes kept returning to the still figure, the curve of her legs beneath the blankets, the rise and fall of her breathing, the way her white hair spread out across the 'I think I'm allergic to mornings' pillowcase, the potential that she represented. Maybe this time it would be all right, he'd say and do all the right things, she'd like him, stay... He cut that line of thought off, miserably aware that precedent was against him. He wanted her to wake. But when she did they would have to talk; he would find himself locked into the defensive shell that he always put up around other people, especially women. He could never share his life, never open up fully to another. Because lurking beneath his fragile surface were the lightness, squirming depths of the Drawer of Darkest Dreams. And that was his alone and not for sharing. Because no-one else would ever understand. He checked the drawer, making sure it was secured, blocking out the thoughts of what it contained. There was a sound from the bed.
She was awake, her strange, glassy eyes open. But she was not looking at him. She seemed to be staring at the drawer, and a faint smile crooked the corners of her mouth upwards. She transferred her gaze to him. He felt the sudden beginnings of a headache. "Hi," she said.
"Hi, yourself. Although your line should have been 'Where am I?', I think." Ross grinned nervously. "You slept late. It's afternoon. How do you feel?"
"OK. Thank you."
"So, what was going on?" Ross said. "With you and those...?"
She looked at him and smiled again. Her smile was odd, a shift of her features into an expression that was only barely indicative of humour. The ambiguity of the expression was slightly disturbing. "Minor disagreement. Spider and me had a falling out. He decided to play the game. I played my own game, picked the time and place. Looks like I won."
"Minor disagreement? Looked pretty major to me. Who's Spider?"
"You saw him. Small. Dark hair. The leader"
"What are they? Street-gang?"
"You saw the sign."
"At the killing..."
"They did that? Christ, what are they?"
"You saw the sign. The sign of the vampire." There was an edge to her voice, almost a tone of grim mockery.
"Vampires!" Ross laughed, torn between revulsion and relief. So that was it. A street-gang trying to find some sort of identity and picking on mankind's oldest fear. Being human isn't enough any more - we're all dehumanised by the city anyway - so you become something else, something more-than-human. Vampires. But the killing...
He looked at the girl. "Clayton was more right than he knew. He told me to look for puncture-marks."
"A cop. No-one. How did you get involved with the Vampires?" Ross grimaced horribly and did a thick East-European accent on the last word, hoping to make her laugh. Instead she scowled at him, angry.
"You better believe," she said. "Vampires. Call them Vampires anyway, it's as good a name as any."
"What, you mean they turn into bats and wolves and stuff?"
She did laugh then, but there was little humour in it, and she eyed him mockingly.
"If that was all," she said. "They change, but why fix yourself into another solid form, no better than the one you've got already? If you're a shapeshifter why stop at forms that already exist? What you are is limited only by your own imagination. And others'. They take your most secret fears and become them. Whatever you're most terrified of, they are. Your nightmares in the flesh."
"And I suppose they're indestructible? Except for the old stake through the heart." She frowned. "Oh, and sunlight of course. And running water." Ross continued the joke automatically, despite the growing coldness in her manner. He cursed himself for somehow misreading the situation. Here it went again, the same old thing. Two minutes into a conversation with a woman and already things are falling apart. He felt the same old mixed emotion of loss and relief - relief that the relationship would go no further, that the dark core at the heart of him would remain hidden, safe from an intimate other's scrutiny.
She took his question seriously. "They're not invulnerable. You ever hear the word berserker - someone who works themselves into such a frenzy that they ignore pain, unthinking, blind, and just keep coming no matter what you do to them? The most frightening opponents you can face. Vampires are like that, except that they stay cool. No frenzy, And that makes them worse. Rational berserkers. They can be hurt, they bleed, feel pain. They just don't care."
"I don't believe this conversation," Ross said. "Look, what's supposed to happen is that I ask how you are, make a cup of coffee, we talk for a bit about inconsequentials, maybe discuss last night..."
"We are discussing last night."
"Yeah. But it's ridiculous. Vampires! This isn't seventeenth century Eastern Europe. We're in the middle of a twentieth century city for God's sake!"
"Why should that make any difference?"
"Because there are enough man-made horrors around! Things are falling apart anyway. We don't need any more spooks. There are enough human ones walking the streets and sitting in offices and boardrooms planning how to fuck up peoples' lives already!"
"Maybe that's why the Vampires are here. Because the defences are coming down. Because you've forgotten why you built them and you're starting to dismantle them...or letting them collapse."
Ross stared at her. "Jesus, You really mean it, don't you? You really believe it?"
"They're real, Ross." And suddenly, crazily, he believed her.
"Look," he said. "For most of my adult life I've made a sort of living from horrors, from lifting the veil and peering into the darkness behind. I've tried to look through the walls and round the corners and under the bed of the world, you know? And it's all imagination, that's what you tell yourself. But all the while I've had this nagging itch in my head. Where does the raw material come from that imagination moulds? It's got to come from somewhere. What is it that I'm subconsciously remembering when I'm dreaming the dark? Is there a reality behind it all? Now you're telling me that there is; that it's here, now, stalking the streets outside this room!"
He paced up and down, conflicting emotions warring in his head. He believed her, despite all his best efforts not to. Crazy! But They - Jesus, he was already thinking of them as 'Them' with a capital letter - They had felt not right somehow, alien. There was that humming power that had surrounded them, the sense of mutation in their forms. He had felt reality squirm around them, twisted out of shape by some irritating foreign matter. And if they were real...
"OK," he said. "So they're real. Christ knows why I'm even considering this, but... I can't just walk away. I've got to know. Where are they?"
"You must know," she said as if his response had been almost expected, and she smiled her ambiguous smile. "Yes, you must. It's important." She looked at him, serious. "You're really sure you want this? Truly?"
"The nest is in the old cinema on Hobbs Lane. That's where they are."
"I'll find them."
The girl's smile widened and she stared at him, her colourless eyes wide. Ross's head throbbed with sudden pressure.
"You'd have found them anyway," she said. "Or they'd have found you."
"Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before."
[Edgar Allan Poe]
The old cinema loomed out of the rapidly darkening twilight, its doors boarded up and chained. Faded posters still advertised long-gone films from behind the broken glass - sex-flicks mostly, Ross noted with disgust, the flesh tones of the pictured models faded to a sickly pallor that rendered them diseased-looking and leprous. Heavy rain was falling. The baroque facade of the cinema had a strange menace in the fading light and the narrowness of the street forced Ross to crane his neck back to see the whole building, foreshortening it so that it seemed to tower over him. He shivered and grinned nervously, remembering the classic shot of the Bates Motel in 'Psycho'. All it needed was a single lit window with a silhouetted figure in it. And at that moment a dim flicker did illuminate one of the smaller windows, a wavering greenish light like the pale glow of luminous paint, wan and somehow unhealthy-looking. Ross gritted his teeth and hunted for something with which to pry the doors open.
The interior of the building was dark. Ross switched on his torch and played it over his surroundings, revealing mildewed carpets and peeling plush wallpaper, stained plaster and broken glass. The air smelled musty from years of disuse, but underlying the staleness there was a thicker, acrid, yeasty smell, like old rot and decay. To Ross's left a cobweb-shrouded staircase led up to the first floor, the gilt of the banisters greenish now and rough with corrosion. He started towards the stairs, then paused as a breath of warm, tainted air blew towards him from the shadows at the far end of the foyer. Double doors stood open there, presumably leading into the auditorium. Ross moved cautiously through them into the cinema's cavernous maw. The seats had all been ripped out, revealing an expanse of mouldy carpet, scattered with plaster-dust and debris. The smell of rot was overpowering now, making Ross struggle to suppress a cough. At the far end of the space, the heavy curtains that had hidden the screen were torn down and lying in a heap. The milky white blankness of the screen was marred by a jagged tear from top to bottom. The edges of the rip moved slightly in a tired breath of air from behind, The greenish light that Ross had noticed from the window earlier glimmered through the tear like marshlight. Gripping the heavy rubberised torch like a cosh, Ross walked to the screen and stepped through, his heart hammering in his chest.
Breathing. That was the first thing Ross noticed, and the short hairs on the back of his neck rose and stirred. All around him, in the shadows, there was the soft susurration of breathing. The smell of decay was almost palpable here, as if the stench was being exhaled with the breath, and the green light wavered and flickered, sourceless and ghastly. Ross cupped the light of the torch and shone it around, The area behind the screen was quite small. Piles of old seats and curtains lay around. With a shock of recognition Ross saw that the walls were covered by the cryptic zig-zags that had been drawn on the wall next to Big Jackie's mutilated body, scratched into the plaster or painted on in a deep rusty colour that Ross thought with a thrill of fear might be dried blood. Here was proof that whatever it was that laired here was Jackie's killer. Against all his instincts of self-preservation Ross swept the torch-beam around the space again. Posters of vampire movies were tacked to the walls too - Vadim's 'Blood and Roses', Lommel's 'Tenderness of the wolves', and the Hammer 'Horror of Dracula'. Staring at Christopher Lee's blood-suffused face in the latter poster Ross suddenly realised the significance of the graffiti; there it was, the same stylised zig-zag shape, framed by Lee's snarling lips - sharp pointed teeth, framed by two long and lethal canines. Vampire teeth! Ross almost laughed at the banality of it.
"Come into my parlour...", said a voice from behind him, Fluorescent light flared suddenly, making him jump.
Ross spun round with a sharp cry of shock. He saw the boy the woman had called Spider clearly for the first time. Short black hair capped a pointed, angular face, inscrutable. He wore silvered glasses, and the lenses reflected back a caricature of Ross, twisted and bulbous. The mirrored shades hid any hint of expression. He might have been wearing a mask for all the lack of human feeling he showed. Once again, Ross seemed to see a subliminal shifting about the dark figure, as if the boy's shape was only stabilised by his own act of looking. All around him there was a stirring as more dark figures rose from behind stacks of chairs or heaped curtaining. They were all ages, from children through to grey-haired elders, some white, some black or asian. All were wearing black, and all were smiling, shifting round him like a wolf-pack round its prey. The tingling hum of power grew inside the room and bright motes of light danced in the air like the dots that flicker at the periphery of vision after over-exertion.
"Said the Spider to the Fly," continued the boy. He paused, his head on one side. "Hey, Fly, aren't you going to say 'help me, help me'?" He laughed softly. "Look for the fly with the white head!"
He pointed at Ross. "Dead man", he said.
Ross lunged at him in desperation, hearing the soft advance of the others all around him. He swung the heavy torch at the boy's head as hard as he could, feeling it connect with a crunch. Spider rocked under the blow, the sunglasses flying off and tinkling away into a corner. He straightened, there was a blur of ambiguous movement, a noise like screeching metal, and something hard yet somehow slick cracked into Ross's face with devastating force. He was flung backwards, landing hard in a cloud of dust and splintered wood. Ross felt blood running down his chin from his nose. Blind with pain, he felt himself yanked upright. The boy moved towards him through a veiled blur of tears, deliberate and menacing. He reached out suddenly with whiplash speed, his arm lengthening and stretching impossibly, far past its natural length. The hand was mutating as it came, turning from a human extremity into some terrible gnarled, spiked claw, each thick digit tipped with a gleaming spike from which viscous liquid dripped slowly. The hand glowed with its own light, a reddish glow as lf the blood within the distended veins were burning. Ross screamed in terror, wanting to disbelieve what he was seeing, yet knowing it for truth.
Through snot and blood, he sobbed like a child as the dreadful hand hovered in front of his eyes. Then the change reversed itself. It was a human hand that Spider raised to the bleeding gash across his temple where the heavy torch had connected. He looked at the blood on his fingers then slowly wiped it onto Ross's cheek. He stared at Ross and his eyes filmed over with red as if the orbs were slowly filling with blood.
"Ouch!" he said, and smiled gently.
Ross stared back, trembling with reaction. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said, like a mantra, as if the continued repetition could ward off the horror that was promised in the boy's quiet menace.
Apparently satisfied, Spider nodded to the two people holding him and they freed his arms.
"Took her from us," Spider said, conversationally. "Took our toy away. Now we're bored. Need a new toy." He produced a pack of cigarettes and shook one out. He struck a match and lit it. For an instant, as the match flared through his hand, Ross had the unsettling feeling that it was hollow, a translucent shell, containing... something not-flesh. Ross thought he saw something moving, a seething mass, writhing with a horrid insensate life. An image came to him, of lifting an old, damp log and hundreds of beetles, earwigs, scuttling creatures twisting and worming away from the light, That was what it was - a wriggling inside his hand. Then Spider flicked out the match with a peculiar boneless jerk of the wrist and the brief vision was gone, if it had ever existed.
He turned to Ross. "Playtime," he said and smiled his shark's smile.
"What in Christ's name are you?"
"What are we?" the boy mimicked. "What would you like us to be?"
Ross shook his head.
"We're vampires, Ross. Didn't she tell you? The white bitch."
"But vampires don't exist. They're just nightmares and superstition."
Spider grinned again. "You sound like a bad film-script - 'But Professor, surely you can't mean... I'm afraid I do, Joe...'. All right, let's discuss superstition. And vampires. There's just time...before dinner.
"You ever wonder why it is that the more complex a society the less belief there tends to be in the supernatural? Why superstition dies as technology increases? Superstition is a name that a complex society gives to that part of a so-called primitive society's reality that doesn't fit into the complex society's scheme of things. See, if you build a society - like the one outside these walls - where day-to-day life is safe, explained, known, you have to get rid of the unknown, the not-so-easily-explained, the scary. The dark. And as belief in those things - monsters, demons, things that go bump an the night - decreases, as they're forgotten about, so their hold on the world weakens, because they draw their power from people's belief, people's fear. They're forced out, banished. That's what civilisation is; a blocking off of the dark. It's a wall between the known world and the supernatural. But that's all it is. And the dark outside that wall is still there, just hidden, scratching at the surface, picking at the mortar, maybe removing a brick or two here and there, wanting back in. And so long as the civilised society keeps the wall in good repair that's it.
"But when the wall begins to crumble, the dark pushes back. And eventually, when the society breaks down further, one or two inhabitants of the dark get in. Then more. And more... And here we are."
The boy gave an ironic bow. The others applauded mockingly.
"Next question? Oh yes, Vampires. Well, you remembered us pretty well. You can forget all that stuff about bats and wolves and the stake through the heart shit, though. Middle-european folk-tales. And crucifixes - we were here long before that had any meaning. And we're not dead. But then we're not alive in the sense that you are. Undead? Yeah, why not?
"What are vampires? We're power and blood and beautiful violence. We're your most private fantasy and your secretest fear. We're whatever there is inside of you that lives in the warm dark and gnaws at your peace. We're the consummation devoutly to be wished. The ultimate fuck. We're sex and death."
He pointed to one of the others, a woman in late middle-age, streaks of grey in her dark hair.
"Show him," he said.
The woman he indicated moved slightly to one side, smiling at him. Ridiculously, she reminded Ross of his mother. She gave a peculiar kind of shiver and something impossible happened. The flesh of her face and arms writhed and twisted. Threads of luminescence ran through it, following the hidden pathways of veins and arteries. Then it fragmented, curling from the bone, the skin peeling away in wisps of pale vapour, flesh and muscle diffusing into thick, crimson smoke that drifted away revealing the white gleam of bone and tendon, and then even those glowed, melted and twisted away, dissolving as they did so into tendrils of heavy, oily vapour. Her clothes collapsed into themselves slowly as the smoke oozed out of the sleeves and collar. Her jacket and trousers fell to the ground with a soft sound. There she had been was a cloud of smoke, coiling and writhing in on itself despite the stillness of the air. There was a suggestion of burning eyes at the top of the cloud, like flames through fog, and then even those flickered and went out.
The smoke hung for a moment, then started to move towards him, increasing speed as it came. Ross cried out as it enveloped him. The smoke was warm, blood-heat, and it smelled of spoiled meat and burning, rose-petals and musky sweat. He couldn't breath; the smoke was forcing its way into his nose, his ears, his mouth, pressing past his clenched lips with a sickening force. It slid down his throat, filling his stomach. He felt something give down there, a small tearing. There was a terrible sucking sensation and his vision greyed. He could no longer feel the floor beneath his feet. The most terrible thing of all was that the sensation was not entirely unpleasant; there was a horrid sensuality about the slow, slippery progress of the smoke through his body, a burning glow that was almost sexual in its intensity. His prick rose to the occasion and he abandoned himself to the carnal sweetness that was eating him from the inside out As if from a great distance away, he heard himself moan with mingled pleasure and disgust. His balls throbbed. Sparks danced in front of his eyes.
Then he heard Spider's voice. "That's enough." The pressure inside his body slackened and the smoke withdrew as slowly as it had entered. His innards cramped painfully. He wondered fearfully what damage had been done to him. Shuddering with frustrated craving, he opened his eyes to find himself on the floor. Horrified and fascinated, he watched as the last tendrils of smoke trickled out of his nostrils and mouth, reforming into the original twisting cloud. The smoke poured back into the pile of discarded clothes which writhed and flopped, bulking out as flesh solidified inside them. They rose up and the woman stood there again, fresh blood smeared around the lower part of her face. She licked her lips, regarding him with predatory eyes that glowed a reddish silver. Her teeth were gleaming dark-brown spikes like rose-thorns. Dropping her gaze to the bulge in his trousers, she laughed coldly. Ross, torn between arousal and humiliation, enflamed and more scared than he had ever been in his life before, stared up at Spider.
"We're back, Ross," the boy said, as if to a child. He crouched and looked at Ross with terrifying intensity. "The monsters are back. You're tearing down the walls and letting us in. More and more of us. And we're angry. And we're sooooo hungry you wouldn't believe. The human race - your bit of it anyway - has come on a bit since we were last here. The world's changed. But we've changed too. Like chameleons, we take on forms which belong to the world in which we live. We're not the safe old myths made flesh. We're worse. Much worse. We always have been. You've just forgotten us except as fairy stories. But you've always needed us, always desired us. We've always been here in your dreams...and in your nightmares. You see? Dreams can come true. Even the Darkest Dreams."
He nodded at Ross's gasp of recognition, blood-red eyes burning. "No secrets. None. All out in the open now. You want it. You've got it, Enjoy."
For a moment he almost took the offer, hypnotised, wanting consummation of a kind. But then they rushed him, and he turned and ran, desperate. The suddenness of his move surprised them. He felt leather-clad flesh give as has shoulder crashed into one of the children. There was a high, keening shriek of rage. The air buzzed like hornets behind him as he retraced his steps, back out into the street. He plunged out into the night and ran blindly. Finally, he slowed to a walk, hearing no sound of pursuit behind him. He felt a strange sense of loss. Futility washed over him - there was no escape, no beating this. He wasn't sure he even wanted to escape. Not that he had a choice. The night was theirs, and darkness, and the dark was everywhere.
He turned a corner and they were there, coalescing out of mist and fog. They fanned out across the street, Spider in the lead, silver lenses covering his eyes again.
"Where you going, Ross?" he said. "Back to her? White death, Ross. Trust me. Come to us instead."
Another spoke, a middle-aged black man. "Let her have him, Spider."
"No! He's mine!"
"She loves too much!"
'Let her have him' the vampire had said. Ross knew then with a shock of recognition. Knew what she was, knew she was waiting. Her! 'She loves too much'. Jesus. Home was no refuge; darkness was there too, and so was she, a promise and a threat. No escape. Still he backed away and ran on, seeking crowds and life, but every time he headed for the lights the others blocked his way, menacing shadows, holding back, leaving him for Spider. Finally he found himself backed up against a wall. A broken neon sign flashed erratically green and red, splashing the puddles of the street with bloody light. Behind him was the vestibule of a closed down jewellers shop, the inner doors padlocked, the sliding outer doors of toughened wire-mesh glass ajar. He wheeled around. The street was empty, the vampires melted away into shadows and darkness. His heart thumped. For a moment he allowed himself to believe that they have given up the chase. A moment passed. Then the air split with a tearing rip of thunder and Spider came for him, mere feet away, stepping out of nothing in a blur of diffracted bloody light. He came fast, and power shrieked and buzzed around him. The air rotted before him, stinking. He was naked, changing as he came, his flesh bubbling with instability. He reached for Ross, eyes blazing with hunger.
Ross felt his collar tear as he flung himself through the first doors. As he twisted round Spider's hands were inches from his eyes. He ducked under the vampire's grasp and with a desperate strength spun and slammed the door closed behind him with a screech of metal as it slid in its rusted runners. There was a loud metallic snap as the door locked shut and a splintering crack as the safety-glass crazed into a spider- web pattern...then a shrill screaming. The door had slammed into its frame with such force as it locked shut that the metal had buckled and bent. The sharp edge had cut deep into the boy's outstretched arm just at the elbow, holding him fast like the jaws of a trap. Blood oozed thickly from the wound. Inches from Ross's face the boy's hand clutched and shuddered weakly, the skin rippling.
For an instant Ross was horrified at what he had done. He had a crazy impulse to claw at the door, open it, to help the boy in his agony. Then he saw Spider's face. Despite the shrieking there was no expression of pain on his features, only a blind rage. He stared at Ross through the cracked glass. The flesh of his face seemed to flow and shift, sliding over the bones of the skull like wax. The boy's mouth split open in that hideous, shark-like grin. Ross pressed himself back against the wall as far as he could go, hypnotized by the mouth pressed up against the glass. Teeth were erupting through the gums, dozens of them, in jagged shards and clusters, and the tongue had become a ridged, pulsating tube secreting greenish liquid that frosted the glass like acid where it smeared. Spider heaved and struggled, trying to free his arm, his shrieking reaching a new pitch of fury.
Ross searched his mind desperately for a way out, remembering the vampire woman's earlier dissolving into smoke. The door between him and the boy was locked but there were spaces all around it where the smoke could enter. The doors behind his back were firmly locked. No way out. Knowing he was lost, he waited for the boy to make the change.
It didn't happen. Realisation dawned on Ross. The raging desperation in the boy's attempts to free himself, his evident frustration, all were evidence that Spider was prevented from escaping in that way. He could not change. Ross laughed, a crazy howl of relief. There were rules, even if they weren't the old Hammer Horror ones. He wasn't out this situation yet, but a stalemate was better odds than none.
He jerked his face towards the boy's, reckless in his triumph. "Why don't you go to smoke?" he shouted. "Get me, why don't you? Just slide in here and get me, fucking son of a bitch!"
Spider bared his fangs, his features contorted with fury, and screamed with rage and frustration. Ross laughed in his face.
"You can't! You have to be free to go to smoke, don't you? You're trapped!" He laughed hysterically until he found himself sobbing instead and covered his face with his hands. He knuckled his eyes like a child and stared at Spider who had quieted and stared back at him without blinking. Suddenly the boy smiled, arrogant. He arched an eyebrow at Ross as if daring him; Ross found that he was sweating and trembling uncontrollably. His stomach cramped with stabbing pains suddenly and he wanted to piss desperately. Something very bad was about to happen.
When it came it was still unexpected.
Suddenly Spider whipped his body to one side as if starting a pirouette that, held fast as he was, he could not possibly finish. Ross flinched as a shoulder slammed into the glass in front of his face. There was a ghastly, wet, splintering sound like someone snapping damp wood, and Spider's trapped arm bent back on itself just above the trapped elbow joint, almost at right-angles. Sweat broke out on the boy's brow and his face went the colour of old, bad milk. His scarlet eyes locked on to Ross's and he grinned.
"Oops," he said. "Bad break." He spun back the other way and broken bone-ends ripped bloodily through the leather sleeve clothing his upper arm. Then he was snarling, and flinging himself from side to side like an animal in a trap. Ross bit back a horrified scream as he saw the leather tear and the flesh of Spider's arm stretch like putty suddenly. Sick grinding sounds came from inside the broken limb. The skin split and scarlet blood spurted, spattering the glass. The boy struggled harder, his mouth stretched in a grin of triumph. Abruptly both leather sleeve and the flesh of his arm tore and parted stringily, tendons snapping. The exposed tissue was bright red like meat in a butcher's window, and jagged white bone gleamed among the muscle and slick sinews. Blood sprayed the glass of the door with incredible force. Through the smeary redness Ross saw Spider leap backwards, free. He chuckled and waved the tattered stump of his arm tauntingly, spattering blood. His mouth opened impossibly wide, like a shark's, revealing a forest of needle-teeth, and he hissed at Ross venomously. "Freeeeeeeeeee..." There was a smell of old burning and power shook the air. When Spider's flesh started to drift and diffuse into crimson smoke Ross closed his eyes, and waited to die.
When he opened them again Spider had gone. The empty flashing of the neon lit the space where he had been. Ross knew that he would never feel safe again, forever. There was a foul smell of spoiled meat in the air. The limb that the vampire boy had left behind was rotten already, the skin a greenish-brown and furred with mould, the flesh dropping off the bones in strings and tatters. Ross turned around and brought up the contents of his stomach in a searing flood that left him weak and gasping.
"So now you know," the girl said from behind him.
The shattered glass door was open. She stood in the same place that Spider had stood, her white hair haloed by the light, her face in shadow.
"He's gone," she said. "You hurt him. He knew he couldn't face me, not hurt and on his own. He'll come again. But there's time. Come home..."
He heard the hunger in her voice. "Just get the fuck away from me!" he said and walked away. He paused after a dozen steps and looked back. She had gone. He felt a loneliness too deep for tears. All alone. He was all alone and out there was the night, and it was full of shadows. He needed time. Then he would go to her, he knew.
"If I must die
I will encounter darkness as a bride
And hug it it my arms."
He found a bar eventually, and drank to fill the emptiness, but he couldn't get drunk enough to dispel the void at the heart of him. He needed someone who would understand, to walk that last long corridor with him before the end. In films it was a priest, but Ross did not know one, and besides, no priest could help against what waited.
Ross had never owned a mobile, but there was a public pay-phone on one wall of the bar. Miraculously it was working. He changed his last pound coin and dialled Clayton's number. It was a wasted effort, he knew, to try and tell the cop what was going down, but he needed to try - even if what he was really doing was hearing a normal human voice for the last time.
"Ross? What time..?"
"It's vampires, Clayton. The murder. There'll be more."
"Wait a minute. Vampires? What the hell are you... Where are you..?"
"I'm in a bar. They're real, Clayton, and worse than anything you've ever known. They're all around us, stalking, feeding... They got Big Jackie. That was them. I've seen them. Christ! You wouldn't believe what they can do! I had to let you know, before... I called to say goodbye, Clayton."
"Ross! What am I, stupid? Vampires don't exist. You're shitting me...at four in the morning. That's it! Joke's over. Next time you get drunk just don't call me. I've had a bloody hard day! The hell with you, and your vampires!"
"You don't believe. That's why the wall is tumbling."
"Spider said that we'd built a wall..."
"Who's Spider? A wall? That the hell does that mean?"
"It's a metaphor, Clayton. lt's a writer's thing. Hey, I'm on a roll, so give you a better one. You don't even know what a metaphor is but I'll give it you anyway. Civilisation - all the stuff that we think is so important, so real - is a fire; something we built to give us light, and warmth, and safety. To keep the night away; fooling ourselves... We built a good fire, while it lasted, and it kept the wild beasts at bay. But they've always been out there, prowling, waiting. Every now and then, even when the flames of the fire burned highest, perhaps the more so then, we saw their eyes gleam in the dark, and we knew. We called it superstition, and we laughed at it, took the piss, because it felt real enough to be scary, and we always laugh at what we fear. And after a while we forgot it was real. But it was. It was real! All this time. And now the fire's dying because no-one bothered to tend it. And the darkness is pressing back. And the beasts are hungry. We invited them! We let them in!"
"That's voodoo bullshit," said the voice on the other end of the phone at last. "You said it yourself, remember. Fantasy, not reality. Out of that bottle you've fallen into, and that sewer that passes for your mind. But I'll tell you something in return. You asked me once why people should want to identify with the monster. You said why shouldn't they want to be the monster's victims. Well I've been in this business a long time now. And I can sense victims. I can smell them. And you smell like a victim, Ross. You've always had that smell about you. Look, I've played along with you, shown you murders, accidents... Oh, you always said it was research, but I've wondered... Now you phone me up at Christ knows what hour in the morning and give me this. I don't know what you're into now, but I'd leave it alone. All that stuff about monsters walking the streets, that's crap; all in your mind. But just because the monsters are in your own head doesn't mean they can't get you anyway. You take care."
"That's it!" Ross yelled in desperation, not caring about the muffled laughter and curious stares of the other drinkers in the bar. "Don't you see, that's it! They're in our minds. They give us what we want and what we want is death! The human race has a death-wish, and they're going to fucking grant it!"
There was a pause at the other end of the line, as if Clayton was coning to some decision. Then there was a click and the dialling tone buzzed in Ross's ear. He kept on shouting to it until the barman, tiring of the joke, showed him the door.
Ross found his way back to his flat. He stared around it, making a goodbye of sorts, he supposed. There was no more to do. He unlocked the Drawer of Darkest Dreams and glanced through the contents, terrified and eager. These were just dreams, pale mockeries of what was coming. And it would come. He knew that, even wanted it, but feared its coming. He thought of destroying the Dreams but could not. Instead he scribbled a few words on a reporter's pad, tore out the page, and placed it at the bottom of the drawer. Let someone find it. He left the Drawer unlocked and went to bed, still dressed. He slept. Dimly, through his dreams, he thought he heard the phone ring urgently, but it belonged to life, and he no longer did.
He came awake with a cry of terror and a taste like ashes in his mouth. Cold sweat was trickling down his ribs. The girl was there, a pale flame in the dark. He stared at her, desperately.
"I can't...everywhere...nowhere's safe," he said. "The bogieman's out of the cupboard and there's no way out." He laughed, a high, strained laugh that cracked into hysteria. He heard it and knew that he was that much away from madness. "No-one believes," he said, almost weeping.
She came towards him and he collapsed into her arms, hugging her to himself as he had hugged no woman since his mother, with a child's fierce and desperate need of comfort, burrowing his face into her.
"Please..." he said. She loves too much...
She stroked his hair. "It's OK, Ross," she said. "It 's nearly over. No more time. You had to know. And now you do..."
She left the end of the sentence hanging and pulled him down on to the bed. She undressed him, and then herself. She was as thin and pale as death, her flesh the colour of bleached bone, her hair like frost, but when she pressed against him she was warm. White heat. She smelled of femaleness, of musk and recent sweat. She kissed him. He responded, knowing as he did it was no good as yet. The old, expected frustration crept through him. He wanted her, he truly did, but she alone was not enough, not without the other that she offered. He fumbled at her, trying to force his body to respond. He failed, and rolled away from her, inadequate.
"I'm sorry," he said miserably. "I want to... badly... but I can't. I can't without... I don't know."
"It's all right," she said, soothing him. "This time it will be all you ever dreamed."
She looked at him with pewter eyes. "Trust me," she said, and made a dreadful noise - a kind of harsh, rasping purr, as if sandpaper were being rubbed over something hollow and reverberant.
"You know," she said. "You've always known. And you knew me, subconsciously. I called you. I looked inside your head, Ross. We can do that too; sense everything you feel, your fears and your desires. You know what's missing, what you really want. It's in your head. And in the Drawer of Darkest Dreams. Your darkest dreams."
"Yes. We're dreams and nightmares, sex and death. And all this time you've needed something only I could give. I'm the girl of your dreams."
She shuddered slightly. Abruptly, cold silver fire spilled from her eyes like madness. She was growling deep in the back of her throat and saliva drooled slowly from her mouth. Ross cried out once, quietly, unbelieving, and all sanity fled screaming into the dark as she changed. Her growling rose to a high, whining shriek as her body spasmed, warping and twisting into a new, non-human shape. He caught a glimpse of fur and scales amidst the insanely shifting flesh, and gleaming knobs of bone, and red, raw meat, as if her body was everting. Sick grating sounds of bone on bone came from deep inside her. She rolled on top of him, and the last semblance of humanity slipped away as she smiled. The smile widened and widened beyond the capability of any human mouth. The flesh of the lips and lower part of her face puckered and folded, extruding tubes and valves and siphons, turning the mouth into a terrible baroque monstrosity that looked as if it belonged on some giant insect. Like some organic chinese puzzle, flaps and plates of cartilage slid apart, opening a wet red hole, and a barbed spike slid out, a drop of streaky viscous fluid gathering at its tip. Somehow she spoke, through what was no longer a mouth.
"Your dreams come true," she said.
"No." Ross whispered. "I didn't know... I don't. Not like this..."
"You do!" she said. "You want!"
Things exploded from her like fans, bursting through the soft woman-flesh; tubes and pipes, ridged and segmented like worms, webs of slick, glistening sinew spread between them, dripping mucous. Her fingers traced his features, cool and dry and infinitely tender. Then mouths opened like stigmata in her palms and fastened to his face. There was a pushing at the softness of his cheeks, something gave, and his mouth was full of blood and probing gristle that was not his own. Thick muscular cables wrapped themselves around him in a terrible ophidian embrace, constricting and pulsing in time with her heartbeats. Bone hooks erupted from her body suddenly, scything into the flesh of his sides and stomach, gripping him like knives. Pain lanced through him and was immediately countered by a suffocating ecstasy that made him shudder and gasp with pleasure. The air smelled of corruption and attar of roses, sweet and cloying, and Ross's senses swam. She lowered her face onto his and breathed into him, her breath seeming to solidify as it drifted through his lungs and out into all his body's secret places. He could feel her inside him as he hardened inside her, pushing, exploring, hungry, a physical merging, her substance conjoining with his, strengthening as his cells dissolved and bled into her. He opened his eyes and saw her face superimposed upon the moon outside the window, huge and pale, floating in a night sky as dark as an anaesthetic. He laughed a little at it. Then she sucked and everything but her and the moment greyed out and went away. She opened up to allow his hardness further into her, and he moaned slightly at the heat and urgency.
"Yes," he whispered in the midst of agonised, delirious eroticism. "Yes!" He abandoned himself to her and this time it was wonderful as it had never been before. He hardly noticed when, slowly and with infinite tenderness, she began to feed.
His orgasm and his death came both together and indistinguishable.
Clayton pushed open the door, shaking his head at the splintered lock. "Ross?" he said. There was no reply. Clayton came into the room, followed by a young uniformed policeman. "Ross? You OK? Dammit, Ross, if that phone call was a joke I'll kick your arse so far..."
The curtains of the room were closed, shutting out the early morning light. The computer was still powered up and only a dim, eerie light came from the monitor screen in the corner. Clayton frowned at the clinging smell that hung an the air of the room. Incense? He'd never figured Ross for the type to burn joss-sticks. Behind him the young policeman clicked on the light.
"Jesus!" Clayton stared in horror at the bed. Behind him the younger man gasped and as Clayton crossed the room he heard him throwing up in the corridor. Clayton stared down at what remained of Ross, sliced, emptied, and scattered, spread out across the crimson-stained sheets in shreds and tatters of torn flesh and splintered bone. Here, there was a different smell underlying the sweet stench in the air, the coppery smell of blood... and something else, subtle, evocative... Clayton's eyes widened as he recognised it; the smell of recent sex. He fastidiously pulled a blanket over the wreckage, his own stomach churning, as the young policeman approached him.
"Sorry, Sir," he said.
Clayton shrugged, trying to hide his own fight for composure. "It happens. Call in. Tell them we've got another. Forensic will just love me."
He looked around the room, his gaze pausing at the wall by the window. There was something drawn on the woodchip wallpaper there, a horizontal zig-zag, the outermost points longer than the others. It looked to have been drawn in blood. He shook his head, suddenly feeling very old.
"Seen enough now, Ross, you bastard!" he said. "Got enough material!" He swore suddenly, savagely and at great length, making the younger man look up from his radio in surprise. Clayton scowled at him.
He crossed to the desk, lifting the drawings and typescript with his pen, just in case of fingerprints. He read a few words. More horror crap, he though in disgust. 'Wolfdream'. Jesus! Look at these things. Werewolves. Vampires. Why would people buy this crap? What was it about monsters that made people want them so badly? On the computer’s monitor, flickering words spread across the screen. The cursor flashed at the end of the last sentence. Clayton read, 'The Wolfdream is an embracing of the dark; it lies within each individual's secret heart, a memory of moon and magic, night and shadows...'
The bottom drawer of the desk was open slightly. Clayton pulled it fully out and frowned. Forgetting the pen he pulled out the sheaf of papers it contained. They were drawings, in pencil, paint, pen and ink, some finished in incredible detail, others simply hurried sketches. All were well-thumbed, the edges creased and grimed with handling. The same theme was portrayed in every one. Monsters. But not werewolves and vampires, ghosts and bolt-necked dead men; nothing so safe. Clayton had once seen a book of Bosch's paintings, stared in fascination at the hybrid forms that lurked in every shadow, their twisted anatomies a grotesque mingling of human and beast thrown together as if in some hellish blender. These were worse. It seemed as if Ross had unerringly gone to the worst aspects of every creature that existed, every phobia known to man, and stitched them all together in a way that made the whole more horrible than even the sum of its parts. Then he had merged the result with human form. That was the worst, that all the monstrous distortions glaring off the page were recognisably human at their core, no matter how far from the human norm their shapes were twisted. Some were like insects, some like beasts of prey, some unrecognisable except on some subconscious primal level. And some were almost human, until you took a closer look and saw the expression in the eyes...and those were the worst of all. They swarmed over the paper, and every one held in its grasp a human figure, grotesquely mutilated, wrapped in suckered coils or pierced on spikes or torn between serrated teeth. And all of them were feeding.
Clayton swallowed hard and shook his head, endeavouring to understand the mind that had produced these images. Then he realised something else.
"Why shouldn't they want to be the victim," he whispered.
For there was one more thing that all the pictures had in common. The victim's face in every one was Ross's, agonised or terrified or, worse, filled with a strange and horrible exultation. There were dozens of them, an obsessive repetition, a hundred tiny, gruesome deaths.
Clayton looked each picture over, without speaking.
"This guy was a psycho," the young policeman said, staring at the pictures over his shoulder. He glanced back at the shrouded bed, at the dark stain that had already soaked its way through the blanket. "Looks like he got what he wanted," he said and made a noise that was meant to be a laugh but didn't make it.
Clayton grunted and relentlessly worked his way down to the bottom of the pile of papers. At the bottom of the drawer was a smaller sheet, torn from a reporter's notebook. There were five words scrawled on it in Ross's handwriting. Clayton read them and stared out of the window. A siren wailed out there, somewhere in the night. Very deliberately, Clayton crumpled the note into a small tight ball and put it in his pocket. He looked at the other man, a small muscle twitching in his jaw.
"What did it say?" The young constable was shaking with delayed reaction and he had the forced tone of someone trying to keep a tremble out of their voice.
"Didn't make sense. An old song, I think."
"What did it say?" For some reason the question seemed terribly important to the younger man.
"It said 'There's a bad moon rising'..."
Outside, somewhere quite close, something made a high, whining sound and both men flinched. For a moment they looked at each other with something almost like recognition in their eyes.
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