September ... Harry and Bonnie Jean were driving north through the Grampians, en route for the Cairngorms. In the boot of her hired car: surprisingly little by way of climbing gear; Harry had turned out to be 'a natural,' and B.J. was mainly scornful of such equipment. And in any case she was planning to use the easy route to Radu's lair, on the Badenoch flank of the Cairngorms. That way she could save time by making a kil, food for Radu's waking warrior, on the way up.
Harry was in 'conscious' mode; he was for the moment himself, and not under any mental constraints other than the deep-seated post-hypnotic commands of James Anderson, and those of Bonnie Jean herself, of course. In short, he continued to hide his talents as best he could, and B.J. continued to be an 'innocent' but strong- or wrong-headed young woman. She was also his lover, and Harry was loyal to a fault, or things might not be so easy for her ... or so hard. Radu had been partly right: there were other ways to enthrall a man - but some swords are two-edged.
Physically, the Necroscope was fit and well. But mentally or subconsciously ...
He was constantly uneasy. His worries, mainly unspecified - which seemed something of a contradiction in itself! -were many. And despite that he hid it from B.J. as far as possible, he often felt ... paranoid? That was the only way to describe it: the omnipresent feeling that he was the victim of some malicious plot. His memory, however, was much improved - especially since giving up his search for Brenda on a personal level. On the other hand, his sleep continued to be plagued by grotesque nightmares he could never remember in his waking hours but which he knew had grown worse than ever.
All he ever recalled of them was that they involved the Great Majority, the teeming dead, who were desperately trying to convey some message which he wasn't allowed to receive; and a picture of his beloved Ma, her face filled with concern, and her arms thrown wide open as if to protect him from the tumult of their thoughts.
And lingering over as he struggled to bring himself awake, always there would be that familiar moon motif, with a howling wolfs head in silhouette.
Oddly, these dreams didn't come when he slept with Bonnie Jean; she seemed to act as a buffer against them.
And something of a paradox, too, that in the conscious, waking world he found the dead less inclined to his company, while sensing in them an air of expectancy hard to define ...
'Penny for them?' said Bonnie Jean, luring the Necroscope from his inward-probing thoughts. She spoke mainly to fill the unaccustomed vacuum between them, an emptiness which - in her case, at least - felt like an ache in her bones, growing there from the moment Radu had told her to bring Harry to him.
'A total blank,' he lied, not wanting to worry her. 'I was just lying back enjoying it.'
'The ride? You can drive if you like.' (On the other hand, it would be better if he didn't. They were travelling north and it was past noon. If she let him drive, she would be uncomfortable in the warm sunlight coming through his window).
He shook his head, elevated his seat a little, sat up and glanced out of the window. Almost unnoticed, summer had slipped quietly away and made room for autumn. The trees were beginning to shed their leaves: red, gold, and umber, slipping by outside the car, and the occasional glossy blur of an evergreen. 'Where are we?'
'I chose a different route ... er, from my usual one,' she began to explain, then realized there was no need; Harry hadn't been out this way before. Anywhere north of the Firth of Forth would be new to him. 'I just thought - I don't know - a change of scenery?' She fiddled with her sunglasses, adjusting them on the bridge of her nose. The real reason she was taking a different route was to break the routine and confuse anyone, such as the watcher, who might try to follow her. Also, since she had rarely if ever sensed an intrusion during daylight hours, it had seemed a good idea to make the trip in daylight.
'A change of scenery?' he said. 'Well, that's why we're here. But I asked where.'
'We're through Blairgowrie, heading for Pitlochry,' she told him. 'Does that help?'
'Shouldn't have asked,' he shrugged. And, showing a rare flash of humour: 'It's all Irish to me!'
'Scottish!' she admonished. But the smile as quickly fell from her face, too. And she wondered what he was really thinking, the man inside this man. For the man inside knew why they were here, where they were going, and who he would be meeting. But the man inside was a prisoner in his own mind-cell, and he couldn't be set free - couldn't think his real thoughts - except by special command.
To Bonnie Jean ... suddenly Harry seemed much less than a whole man. He felt like some kind of zombie sitting here beside her - or a puppet waiting to jerk into life the moment she puled his strings - and she felt guilty; she didn't like it. But the fact of the mater was he would only become a zombie, or a puppet, if and when she commanded it. Then he would know, would remember, everything she had told him ... and not be able to do a damned thing about it! He was so much under her control that she felt sorry for him.
But at the same time ... maybe something of understanding had surfaced at that. The atmosphere between them felt unusual, uneasy, unnatural. And now and then, if she looked at him suddenly out of the corner of her eye -
- Was that an accusing look on Harry's face? If she were a faithless wife, it might be just exactly the sort of curious, vaguely doubting look she would expect from a husband who half-suspected. Or was she just imagining it?
'Oh?' Harry raised an eyebrow. He'd caught her giving him just such a look as she'd imagined!
'Just wondering,' she said. And before he could ask what: 'After Pitlochry, within the hour, we should be back on my usual route and into the Forest of Athol. Plenty of places along the way to stop and picnic, if you like? Or maybe a little cafe in the woods, for tea?' It al sounded so weak, so ... treacherous?
Even to her own ears, yes. Or especialy so, 'Whatever you say,' he said - which for some reason irritated her out of her mind. Bad enough that it was "whatever she said" when he was totally under her influence. But here he was like ... like a lamb on his way to the slaughter! And maybe not now, not this time, but soon, too soon, he realy would be!
'Do you put that much bloody faith in me, then?' she blurted, glaring at him. 'Whatever I fucking say?'
He was taken by surprise. 'Why, yes. Why not?'
Oh, mah wee man! B.J. cried out... to herself, yet stil managing to surprise herself. If only it were possible to break the chains on his mind and set it free - set him free - to fly, fly like a smal frightened bird! It would be worth ... almost anything! She thought it, and at once denied the thought:
What, and betray a cause she'd worked for for two hundred years? And defy her master, Radu? And throw away her own chance of immortality? And prove once and for all and beyond any reasonable doubt that she could never be a Lady, Wamphy'ri, but must always be a snivelling... woman!? Ridiculous!
It was her immature leech fighting back; fighting for its life against a power as strong as anything it ever met before, which it didn't, couldn't possibly, understand. Bonnie Jean's emotions boiled over; she glanced at Harry; he had tucned his face away to look out of his window. Damn, he was simply ignoring her outburst! As if she were a child! Probably because he subconsciously understood only too wel what was going on.
And there and then - in broad daylight, even at the wheel of the car -B.J. felt the change coming and couldn't stop it. It was as though she stood outside herself, watching in horror, frozen by her own hypnotic talent! She could even feel the eye-teeth - her dogteeth - curving up through pink-sheathing gums, cuting the flesh!
She could taste the blood on her gums. Her blood, as yet...
Harry glanced ahead, jerked upright, cried: 'Christ - the road ...!'
And the Lady in her was banished, and B.J. back in charge. For now at least.
She slammed on the brakes, hauled on the wheel, almost physicaly dragged the car round a sharp left-hand bend. Harry was thrown against her, and as they colided B.J. came close to losing her sunglasses. She knew her eyes would be crimson, but had to put every effort into bringing the car to a halt. The right-hand wheels bumped up onto the grass verge; the hedgerow made a sharp scraping against her window; her driving mirror was bent back. And the car stopped ...
The Necroscope colapsed his Mobius door where he had instinctively conjured it across the dashboard. It had been a close thing. If they had crashed, been thrown forward ... by now they would be in the Mobius Continuum! Nothing he could have said or done would have fooled Bonnie Jean this time. No
'drug-induced halucination' would have covered it.
He wiped the sweat from his brow and said, 'Did I say something?'
B.J. thumped the steering wheel with both hands, glared at him - and burst out laughing! Then, in the mirror, she saw the blood on her lower lip and sucked it inside her mouth.
'Hurt?' he said, at once solicitous.
'I bit my lip,' she lied. 'You?'
He shook his head. 'What happened?'
'I wasn't paying attention to my driving,' she answered. 'I suppose I'm just a bad driver, that's all.' A bad-tempered driver, anyway.
'Let's get on to the Forest of Atholl, then,' he said. 'I could use a cup of tea now - not to mention a leak!' Which set her off laughing again.
A few minutes later, cresting the next wave of foothills, B.J. saw the rim of a ful moon, so pale it was almost transparent, rising over a hazy, blue-pasteled horizon. Perhaps it explained something. She hoped so, anyway ...
They found a tea shop, sat outside under the trees, relaxed a little. And as they sat there, Bonnie Jean sighed and surrendered her problems to fate. What would be, would be. And anyway, who could second-guess the future? But this man, this Harry - oh, his attraction, his power over her was strong. She knew it could be argued that hers over him was stronger, but hers was artificial. Some of it. How much was real, she wondered?
She lay back in her chair, eyes closed behind the lenses of her sunglasses, and said, 'Harry, you know you haven't mentioned her in a long time.'
When he failed to answer, she opened her eyes a crack to squint at him. He was frowning, staring at a long low station-wagon where it had just pulled into the car park opposite the tea shop. She followed his gaze. 'Something?'
Harry didn't answer, just sat there staring. But as the occupants of the vehicle got out and headed up the path under the trees to the tea house, he averted his eyes, turning them on Bonnie Jean instead. And when the shuffling single-file of red-robed Asiatics had passed, he said: 'I saw this bunch, or one like it, in London once. Other places, too.'
'Hari Krishna types,' she said, shrugging. 'Pretty harmless, really. Do they bother you?'
The tinkling of tiny golden bells faded and died away as the group went into the cafe. Harry came back to life, smiled and said: 'Bother me? Not much. They don't talk to you or look at you. There's no eye-contact. They just do their own thing.'
But after that he couldn't seem to relax, and by the time the red-robes had come out of the tea shop and found themselves a table he was ready to move on. And B.J. noticed as they drove away how the frown was back on his face ... how he kept staring into his rearview mirror long after the tea shop sign had disappeared into the distance behind them ...
The roads were good and traffic light to nonexistent, but after their near-accident B.J. was taking it easy. If there was even the suspicion of a scenic 'short-cut' she would take it. And the closer she got to her destination the slower she went, stopping off at the slightest excuse -for the view, or a chance to dabble her feet in cool water over rounded pebbles - whatever. They even pulled off the road and slept for an hour, cuddled up on a patch of heather in the lee of tall rocks, where Harry had to fix a blanket over a couple of dead branches for shade. He'd done so protesting that there was hardly enough heat in the sun to bother with it, but B.J. was 'afraid of sunburn.'
Finally, as they covered the last few miles to Inverdruie, the light began to fade, the mist crept up from the streams and writhed in the copses, and the wooded slopes took on a cloaked, mystical look out of legend. The lights of cottages clustering at junctions and crossroads twinkled like elf-fires, while the backdrop of the mountains, black against an indigo V of starstrewn sky seen through the pass, might easily be the fac,ade of a gigantic set on some cosmic stage.
The gloaming,' B.J. commented, as she pulled off the road and turned tightly behind Auld John's cottage, parking the hire car in the shadows of birch and rowan.
'In which,' the Necroscope whisperingly answered, 'all the Jocks go a-roaming!'
The wee lads and lassies, aye!' Laughing lightly, she got out of the car. (Ah, but if only her heart were as light as her laughter.)
And what about his ... ?
Harry didn't quite know what to make of Auld John, but then he didn't quite know what to make of anything right now.
His heart seemed to spend most of its time in his mouth (which was why he made jokes whenever he could), and his nerves were stretched to breaking. He supposed it was some kind of paranoia, the latest attack of this ridiculous persecution complex.
But Auld John was ... something else. B.J. had told Harry that the old gillie used to work for her uncle - the one with the hunting lodge -and that while he was very respectful and trustworthy he was also very proper. And maybe just a bit peculiar? Understatements on all counts, Harry thought.
The old man didn't grovel but he came close. And not just to Bonnie Jean but also to the Necroscope. Bowing and scraping, he was very nearly obsequious - almost like a cringing dog who wants so badly to be petted but thinks he might be kicked. But as for proper: no doubt about it!
When Bonnie Jean went up to her tiny garret bedroom, the old man stayed downstairs with Harry; in B.J.'s absence he referred to her as 'the wee mistress: a verah special lady!' Well, and so she might have been once upon a time, Harry supposed - when she'd used to stay at her uncle's lodge ...
After a while B.J. called Auld John upstairs and for ten minutes or so Harry could hear them talking but couldn't make out what was said. Then Auld John came down again and offered him a nightcap - 'A wee dram shid put ye away nicely, aye! A guid nicht's sleep cannae hurt a man.' Maybe not, but the Necroscope refused anyway. If he was climbing tomorrow, he would need a clear head.
And when Auld John took Harry upstairs, he made a point of showing him the toilet, directly opposite the Necroscope's tiny room. 'Just so's ye cannae be mistaken ... ye ken?' Yes, he kenned well enough. And the wee mistress's room was at the other end of the corridor, with all those creaking floorboards in between. Wherever Auld John was in the house, he'd be sure to hear those boards.
But in fact they didn't creak once. B.J. was far lighter on her feet than Harry. And the way she was able to manoeuvre her way around a dark house was quite remarkable.
So thought the Necroscope ... while deep inside he didn't find it remarkable at all. But he was glad she came anyway, on this night of all nights. It seemed to have meaning other than sex. Indeed it must have, since they didn't make love but were content enough simply to lie in each other's arms ...
The morning was grey, overcast, and B.J. seemed pleased and in fairly good spirits. Pleased with the weather, anyway. The Necroscope couldn't say how he felt: 'odd' might best describe it. They breakfasted, took Auld John's car - B.J. didn't say why - and headed south-west along a road that paralleled the Spey on their right and the Cairngorms on their left. It was early and the roads through the valley were empty.
'How far?' Harry asked as they turned onto the main road. His voice and mood were very subdued.
'Just three or four miles,' she told him ... and then because she had been doing a lot of thinking and dreaming during the night, she abruptly changed the subject. 'Harry, would you mind telling me your thoughts about life?'
'Life?' He was looking in his rearview mirror again.
'Birth, life, death: the whole thing. I mean, how do you view it? You're still young - we are young - but we get old, we die, and it's all over.'
Harry knew all about that - knew how wrong she was, that death wasn't the end, and it wasn't 'all over' - but that was something he couldn't talk about. Right now, though, he could lie; because without consciously thinking about it, he was in control of himself. But maybe he didn't have to lie. That's a bit morbid, isn't it?' he said. 'What's brought this on?'
'Oh, I don't know,' she answered, trying to find a way to explain. 'It's just that as we get older, we seem to leave so much behind. Family, friends, even lovers - especially lovers. One partner is older, or gets old faster, and dies faster, and leaves the other to go on. It seems unfair, makes having someone to love seem pointless. Doesn't it?'
'Is this us you're talking about? Are you worrying about the future?'
She sighed and said, 'I ask a question, and you answer it with a question!' She could switch him on, of course, and find out how he felt that way. But in their situation that would be ... unfair? And what if she didn't like the way he felt? But:
'Very well, if it's important to you,' he said. The way I see it, life is some kind of learning process. We are bom, and we don't know anything except we're hungry. We grow older, and we start to learn things. Eventually we're "educated"; we figure we know everything! Except life isn't like that. The older we get the more there is to
understand, and less time to understand it. So that by the time we die - ' (which was something he knew all about) ' - we're only just coming to the conclusion that we don't know any fucking thing!' And then we really wise up - except it's too damn late! For by then we can't tell anyone how clever we are ...
'But what if we didn't get old?' B.J. said. 'I mean, what if we didn't have to, if there was a way to avoid it?' She knew she was treading on thin ice. She must be careful not to bridge the gap between Harry's conscious and unconscious knowledge. It wouldn't do to have the two start leaking into each other.
She needn't have worried, for Harry wasn't listening. Suddenly his knuckles were white where his fingers gripped his arm rest, and his gaze was riveted to his rearview wing mirror.
B.J. glanced in the central rearview mirror ... and gave a start! 'What the. . .?'
The station-wagon from yesterday, with at least two occupants from the red-robe troupe, was bearing down on them like a hawk stooping to its prey. And the way it was coming, it seemed aimed at their car, at them! So that a thought flashed unbidden through Harry's mind:
Is this it? I saw their monastery. That was Kyle's talent, warning me about my future. Are these people the end of my future? A bunch of kamikaze monks trying to force us of the road? Is it as simple as that? And is that what's been bothering me, somehow knowing that this was creeping up on me?
The car behind pulled out, looked like it would overtake. And B.J. gasped, 'Is that what they are - all they are - roadhogs? What idiot issued a driving licence to this maniac!' She gave way and applied her brakes ... which probably saved their lives.
As the station-wagon rocketed forward and overtook them, it swerved violently to the left, cutting in on their vehicle. The collision between the rear end of the station-wagon and the front of Auld John's car threw the latter to the left. The road ran parallel to a grass- and weed-grown ditch on that side, but right at this point there was a rickety wooden bridge that went angling off over the ditch to a woodlands track. Just how B.J. managed to control the steering and turn onto the bridge, Harry couldn't say; it seemed more likely that the shock of the collision was responsible, that it had physically shifted the front of their car to the left.
In another moment the bridge's boards were rattling and shuddering under BJ.'s wheels, and then they were into the woods and slowing down.
'Bad driving?' she gasped. That wasn't bad driving. That was fucking deliberate!'
Harry was looking ahead. The track curves right, probably back onto the road. Don't stop but follow it through the trees. If it was deliberate they may be waiting for us.'
'So what good wil that do?'
He grited his teeth and said, 'At least we'l know it was deliberate. We'l know to protect ourselves - and maybe to hit back.'
'Hit back?' She stamped on the brakes, stopped and threw open her door. 'How? Harry, we're in the middle of nowhere and unarmed. Wel, with one exception.'
In the boot of the old car: her crossbow. She got it, came back to her driving seat, passed the weapon to Harry.
He looked at it, and almost had to shout, 'What?' Because the ancient engine had decided to start racing.
'You'l want to hit back, won't you?' she yeled. (For it had sunk in that they realy might have to. She'd been expecting something like this for as long as she could remember; had known it must come eventualy. But like this?)
'Bonnie Jean, what the hell's going on?' he said, grating the words out. (Did it have to do with him - Alec Kyle's talent - or with her? And if with her, why? She was an innocent, wasn't she? But again, innocent of what?)
'Oh, load the fucking thing!' she snapped.
And as he made to do so:
They looked back. And there it was: the long, black, low-slung, now sinister-looking station-wagon. It was maybe ten to fifteen paces behind them, half-hidden in dangling foliage, its front doors open. And leaning on the doors, the driver and his front-seat passenger. Even as Harry and B.J. stared, the driver reached inside the car and honked again, then cocked his head on one side and smiled.
Harry looked at their faces - eye-contact - and knew from that moment that whatever this was it was life-endangering serious. In the dappling of the trees, their eyes were feral, ful of yelow, shifting light. And their grins were almost vacuous, like the grins of crocodiles or hyenas ... filed with malice!
Almost unnoticed, B.J. had taken the crossbow from him. He saw the grins slip from the faces of the red-robes as they fel into crouches behind their doors, saw their slanted eyes narrow, heard the vibrating, electric thrummm of the crossbow's string. And in the next split-second B.J.'s bolt slammed home into the panel of the driver's door, burying itself deep.
The driver was inside the car now; straightening up behind the wheel, he caled out to his passenger. That one had reached inside the car, come back out with
... a machine-pistol? Almost of its own accord the Necroscope's Mobius math commenced evolving on the screen of his metaphysical mind. But before he could conjure a door -
- B.J. had the car in gear, fishtailing as the rear wheels threw up a screen of dirt. Then they were round a bend, bumping through birch and rowan, and onto a bridge in worse repair than the first one! And
finally back onto the road. Then as B.J. put her foot down, without saying a word Harry took up her crossbow and reloaded it.
But as he slowly, carefully put it down again, he said:
'I thought they might have something against me, but now I'm not sure. You were sure! You must have been, because
"innocent" people don't go shooting at people for being bad drivers! So what's going on, B.J.? What do these men have against you?'
She didn't answer but looked in her driving mirror - and saw at a glance that it was time to switch him on. Definitely, because the black station-wagon was coming at them again, and B.J. knew she couldn't handle this on her own. 'Harry, mah wee man!' she yelled as the rear window shattered, showering diced glass inwards, and something hot buzzed and spanged inside the car. 'Are you listening? Do you understand? You can talk normaly.'
'Listening, yes,' he mumbled dazedly as the moon blinked out, the wolf quit howling and the inner man surfaced. 'Understand, no.' His voice was like a child's: uncertain, afraid.
'I told you the time might come when I would send you out after them, the Ferenczys and the - '
' - Drakuls,' he cut her off.
'Well, now they've come for us!'
'Vampires!' Harry said. And as suddenly as that, his voice had changed. This was the man she'd first seen in a dark garage in London -the one in the alley, after he had got her out of trouble - the one who had faced up to Big Jimmy in B.J. 's wine bar. Then for the first time in a long time she remembered just who he was supposed to be: Radu's Mysterious One! Maybe he was, at that! So it should come as no surprise that this Harry was a very hard, very cold one.
Up ahead, the road narrowed to a single lane on the left. The right-hand lane was coned off for some forty or fifty feet where the surface was badly potholed; but it was a Sunday and no one was working. Also on the right, a wooden fence guarded the road from a steep descent to the river. If a car went over, it would keep right on going until it hit the water.
Just as B.J. entered the defile, Harry reached his foot over and stamped on the brake. The car behind was almost on top of them. It skidded right, then sharp left; its nearside tyres skipped over the ditch, which was shallow here, and it ran nose first into a clump of springy saplings that bent over with its weight and finaly stopped it. It would take a litle while to untangle.
But: 'Shit!' Harry said, as he released the brake and B.J. shot Auld John's car forward again.
'What?' She was jubilant. 'But we stopped them!'
'Only for a little while,' he said.
Then they were round a slight left-hand bend and the road ran straight ahead for maybe a mile or more. At the end of the mile, the road was cut into the hillside on the left at another left-hand bend, while on the right the drop was sheer to dense woodlands. 'Drop me here,' Harry said.
'What?' She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
'Drop me here!' he repeated, harshly.
She gave a snort. 'What, and do you think you're the lone highwayman, or something?'
'Or something,' he nodded.
'You'l jump out and surprise them, wil you?'
'Drop me now, before they come round that bend back there and see us,' he said.
She saw that he was serious. 'They'l kil you.'
'No, they won't,' Harry shook his head. This is what I do, remember?' So she dropped him.
But as the Necroscope headed for the trees at the side of the road, he caled out, 'Now go like hel! That car of theirs is more powerful; if they're not back on your tail in a couple of miles you'l know I got them. Then you can come back for me. And if they are ...' He left it at that, and watched from cover as B.J. drove away ...
Harry fixed the contours of the forested hillside ahead in his mind's eye and registered the co-ordinates. He would have liked to double-check them but didn't have the time. Then, conjuring a Mobius door, he made a jump to the atic of his house in Bonnyrig. It took only a moment or so to colect what he needed and make a return jump back into the trees at the side of the road.
Speeding south-west, Auld John's car had almost reached the place where the road was cut into the hillside. But in the opposite direction -just coming into view and rocketing down the road - the black station-wagon! At the speed they were going, they'd catch her in about two minutes.
Harry stepped back under the leafy cover of the trees and a moment later felt the blast of pressured air as the black car swept by. He had forty seconds ... but needed only nine or ten. One: took him to a location on a bald bluff high over the road, midway between the two cars. Two: took him down again, to where the road bent under a rocky, wooded, almost overhanging granite formation. And three to ten saw him climbing just a few feet to a ledge where daisies sprouted in the cracks, where he was able to crouch down out of sight but yet keep an eye on the road.
In that position, by reaching out a hand, he would be able to touch a passing car. But simply to 'touch' the station-wagon wasn't his purpose. He had just less than thirty seconds. B.J. was a half-mile farther down the road, and her pursuers were on their way. Harry peeked out around the rim of the rock and calculated time and distance.
Twenty seconds ... fifteen ... ten. The Necroscope's calculations were almost perfect. He took a combination of deadly items from his pockets and armed them, then held them a little awkwardly both in one hand. And his time was up; no more than two or three seconds left when he leaned out and swung his arm towards the open car window, releasing the grenade and CS canister into the blurred interior.
In the last moment the occupants of the station-wagon had seen him; the passenger - the red-robe with the machine-pistol - was on Harry's side. He had jerked the top half of his body back into the car as the Necroscope swung at his window - but he had seen what had flown inside! After that: The activity in the station-wagon became frantic, a blur of motion, al to no avail. In just a moment the car began to swerve left and right as its interior filed with yelow gas, and the red-robe with the gun reached out and grabbed hold of the roof-rack, trying to drag himself out through his window! Then -
- The windows blew out and the roof blew off, taking the one with the machine-pistol with it! The vehicle had traveled maybe a hundred and fifty feet beyond Harry's position; but he threw up an arm to shield himself anyway, as the blast licked out and thunder shook the air, and the echoes started to come bouncing down from the valey wals. And when he looked ...
The car's top looked like it had been peeled or cut loose by a giant can-opener. It was floating in the air over the car, turning lazily like a leaf, and the red-robe had let go of his gun and was hanging onto the roof-rack, clinging to it for his life. But both the car and roof were still traveling at more than sixty miles an hour, and though the bend in the road was slight it certainly wasn't a straight line.
The station-wagon went through the wooden safety fence as if it were balsa wood, then seemed to very gradualy nose-dive into the canopy of trees; and the roof with its hanger-on went flutering after. The Necroscope half-expected a second blast but it didn't come; just the sound of branches shatering, folowed by the squeal of wrenched, twisting metal, several dul thuds, and silence ...
Harry found a way down to the wreckage. He could have used the Continuum but wasn't in too much of a hurry. Despite the blast, that red-robe who had been clinging to the roof as if it were a life-raft had still looked fairly agile. A vampire, it was possible he'd survived the fal. He would have come down on top of the car, however, which wouldn't have made for a happy landing.
The trees were dense and the way dark beneath them. Birds, mainly wood pigeons, were starting to setle in their branches, and cheep and coo again after the initial shock. Maybe that was a good sign. Looking back, Harry could just make out the broken fence through the foliage canopy; and looking ahead through the undergrowth down the steep, leaf-mould slope under the trees, a flash of bright water caught in a stray sunbeam.
When he stepped over the freshly fallen branch of a tree, its bark ripped back, he knew he must be close. The slope was very steep here; lots of leafy debris had come down from above; the Necroscope began skidding on his heels, deliberately aimed himself at the bole of a huge tree - an oak, he thought, well over three feet in girth - to slow himself down. Above him the canopy was dense, with patches of daylight showing through ... and one unmistakable large patch of dangling, broken branches.
Using the great gnarly roots of the oak as hand and footholds, Harry scrambled around the bole of the tree ... and was there. Directly overhead, trapped in a tangle of branches, the twisted, dented wreckage of the station-wagon's roof lay horizontal on a platform of crushed foliage, like a metal blanket flung carelessly into the tree. And down below -
- The vehicle was standing on its nose, which had dug in, then crumpled as the soil compacted. Its rear end was trapped, compressed in a fork of mighty branches, else the impact might easily have caused the petrol tank to explode.
Maybe better if it had, the Necroscope thought.
Better for the driver, anyway.
For the driver was stil in the car, pinned like a fly on the column of his stripped steering wheel, where the blast of the grenade had thrown him. His face had come forward so that his chin was resting on the frame of the shattered windscreen, and crimson trails were seeping from his ears, nose, and mouth down the vertical, crumpled bonnet and dripping into the dark soil. But his yellow, Asiatic face was mobile, drooling, grimacing, and even as Harry watched his eyes opened.
Inverted but on a level with his own eyes, they looked straight at him, and he saw how red they were in their cores ...
Then the mouth blew red bubbles and made a noise, and a bloodied, broken hand twitched up onto the window sill of the sprung door. It jerked and trembled there, making feeble beckoning motions. And those awful eyes pleaded.
The red-robe was asking for help.
'Oh, sure!' the Necroscope said, and stepped back a pace. But even if this one had been human - or especially if he were human - there'd be no helping him. Several pulsating loops of lacerated intestine were dangling out from under the driver's door, dripping blood.
Somewhere overhead, back through the tunnel of trees, the drone of a car's engine coughed into silence, and in the next moment a shout came echoing on the suddenly still air. 'Harry! Where are you?'
B.J. - she must have seen the broken fence and guessed something of what had happened.
'Down here!' Harry called back - which startled the wood pigeons again, set them fluttering, and broke the awe-stricken mood of the place. 'Be careful how you go. It's steep ...' And the thought struck him: just like we were out rambling! Except they weren't out rambling, and there was monstrous danger here. What about the other red-robe?
Then, smelling a new but no less lethal danger, he stepped back another two paces and began circling the suspended vehicle.
Along with the blood seeping into the soil there was a shimmering pool of vaporizing fuel in the area of the buried fender. A trail of petrol led back to the fractured tank ...
He became aware of B.J.'s sounds as she descended towards him through the trees. But suddenly everything felt wrong. What about the vampire who had been clinging to the roof? Where was he? And just who was it who was coming down the slope under the trees anyway?
Thinking of the one who had been on the roof of the station-wagon had caused the Necroscope to glance up into the tree again.
At which precise moment there was movement; the twisted blanket of metal tilted a little ... and a tattered, blackened sleeve, once red, came into view. But the hand projecting from the sleeve continued to hang on to the roof!
The roof tilted more yet and the red-robe came fully into view. He was conscious, furious! He saw Harry directly beneath him, and snarled; his eye-teeth were fangs! Then he let go his hold, slid from the roof face-down, and fell directly towards the Necroscope!
Harry hurled himself backwards, missed his footing, tried to conjure a door. The vampire was on all fours, muscles bunching to spring. His robe was in tatters, limbs and body a mass of cuts and scratches. And his face was a mask out of hell!
B.J. stepped over Harry, aimed her crossbow almost point-blank, squeezed the trigger. The bolt sprang free, buried itself to the flights in the red-robe's heart. He had seen her at the last moment and had started to come erect; her bolt seemed to knock him backwards, limbs flailing as he collided with the door of the station-wagon and slid to a sitting position. Then his mouth spat a stream of bloodied froth, his eyes closed and his head slumped onto his chest.
And B.J. panted, 'Harry, your lighter ...' She was shaken, yes, but there was a snarl in her voice, too.
Harry collapsed the invisible door he had conjured a little way down the slope, into which he'd been about to hurl himself. He fumbled out a cheap cigarette lighter, flipped its top and struck fire. He knew what B.J. would do; as they scrambled away from the car and its occupants, he did it for her:
He tossed the lighter in a lazy arc into the pool of vaporizing fuel. It hadn't even hit the ground before blue flames licked up, enveloped the car, making a whoosh! and a roar that threw out a wall of heat. B.J. and Harry kept going; they were into the trees, covered by the mossy boles of a clump of birch trees when the tank blew. And when they looked out the car was an inferno. The explosion hadn't shaken it loose, but already the foliage around was on fire, burning furiously. Nothing was going to get out of that hell alive, but still they kept watching.
'Look and learn,' B.J. said, hoarsely. 'One of them must be a lieutenant. A job like this could never have been trusted entirely to mere thralls.' Harry knew she was right, and knew which one was the lieutenant.
The driver,' he said, remembering how his eyes were crimson in their cores.
She glanced at him, frowned and said, 'Oh?' She might have been about to say something else, but a sudden commotion in the blazing car stopped her. It was the driver. For while his passenger was content to sit there and melt, and drip, he wasn't.
Through the envelope of blue-shimmering heat, the lieutenant's red-robed, blazing figure was plainly visible. Twitching and jerking, with al his limbs spastically threshing, he lifted his head from the window sil and seemed to look out through the wall of fire.
But his eyes were peeled white things with no sight in them.
'Dead,' B.J. grated, 'but his metamorphic flesh won't accept it. It wants to go on, wants more.'
Even as she spoke, the chest and guts of the thing in the burning vehicle erupted, putting out corpse-white tentacles or feelers to lash in the super-heated confines of the car. Bunching together, they blossomed outwards through the stripped roof and upward into the fiery slipstream, and floated there in the furnace updraft like the arms of some crippled anemone.
Other tentacles uncoiled out of the door, opened at their tips, and pissed an orange fluid all around that steamed where it fell to earth. Then the thing gave in, withdrew its melting appendages, crumpled down into itself and began to slop out of the door around the shoulders of the blazing thral. Body fats were on fire now and the stink of roasting flesh was sickening.
It masked what was left of the CS smel, which B.J. had taken to be part of the natural stench of the accident.
That one had been a vampire ... oh, for quite some time,' she said. 'If he wasn't Wamphyri, it was close. Now we have to go. It's over, and we don't want to be found here.'
And Harry, who could still converse normally, said, This was just two of them. There are four more that we know of.'
'I know,' she said, taking the lead and heading back up the slope under the trees. 'Our trip is off. I have to talk to Auld John - but by telephone! They might have tracked us from his place! If they'd held back
just a minute or two, they might even have followed us to ...'
'... To Radu in his lair?' Harry said.
She heard the confusion in his voice, looked back and saw it in his face. And she believed that she understood. Right now he was
'switched on' to the reality of things; he knew that she was in thrall to Radu Lykan, Wamphyri! He knew that he was working for Radu's agent, Bonnie Jean, against those of other vampire Lords. The 'myth' of their mutual affection - the bond he and B.J. had established - might have been compromised; Harry might have begun to suspect that he was being used.
Therefore ... perhaps she would be wise to erase this entire episode from his mind. But not here. Indeed the sooner they got away from this place the better. And so:
'It's okay,' she told him over her shoulder. Til explain things in the car. Then anything you don't understand will seem ... oh, very much simpler.'
And there might be one or two things she would like him to explain to her, too ...
... Like: 'How? How did you do it?' They were heading south for Dalwhinnie.
Despite that Harry was still under her spell, he couldn't answer her. Anderson's directive came first: that he must protect his talents at all cost. Wherefore he must lie. Beginning to sweat, he said, 'I played the highwayman, as you suggested, left it to the last second and jumped out on them. If the driver had had a moment to think ... he might have recognized me, run me down. But he didn't. He tried to avoid me, swerved, and never regained control.'
'But... are you crazy?' She gasped. 'You could as easily have died!'
'If they'd kept coming, I was ready to jump back into the bushes. It was them or me - or you.'
'You did it for ... ?' But there she paused. For she really didn't want to know this: that Harry had done it for her. She preferred to believe he'd done it because of her hypnotic programming - didn't she? But in any case, his answer had thrown her completely off track. So that she didn't think to ask how he had covered the mile from the place where she'd dropped him to the spot where the station-wagon had gone over the edge.
And she didn't even wonder why he'd been so quick off the mark with his cigarette lighter. But the Necroscope knew why: He hadn't wanted to give her time to notice the condition of the wrecked car's interior, the fact that he had bombed it. That would only have led to more questions, and he wasn't sure he'd have any satisfactory answers.
But in any case there were no more questions, never could be in connection with this episode. For long before they got to Dalwhinnie B.J. had already wiped it from the Necroscope's mind, told him it had been a nightmare to merge with al the others, and that he should simply forget it...
Unnoticed by the pair as they had puled away from the 'accident site,' another car parked on the grass verge three hundreds yards back from the bend had come to life, puled out onto the road, roled silently forward, and stopped where the fence was shatered and black smoke climbed in a column from the canopy of riverside trees to the blue-grey sky.
The driver - a slight man dressed in a lightweight black raincoat butoned to the neck, a huge white hat with a floppy brim, and side-shielded sunglasses - got out and made his way quickly down into the woods. Folowing B.J. 's and the Necroscope's tracks, and his nose, he was soon at the scene of fiery devastation.
The fire was burning uphil through the tinderlike undergrowth, towards the road which would form a natural firebreak. Thus the blazing vehicle, clearly visible as the source of the fire, was approachable. Likewise visible were the two blackening corpses, one slumped behind the wheel and the other seated upright beside the sprung door.
Keeping wel back from the fire, the slight man swept the scene with eyes that were bird-bright, yelow in the shade of his hat. A glistening black, steaming object roughly the size and shape of a cucumber hissed and made crackling noises some distance from the inferno. It shuddered and lay still even as the slight man took up a dead branch to prod it. Between this object and the car, a trail of sticky slime suggested that it had made its own way to where it had died.
It was dead, yes, but it couldn't be left lying there. Or sooner or later someone would be sure to examine it. And that wouldn't do at al. So using his branch, the man in the raincoat twitched the leech back into the inferno, into the furnace heat of the red-glowing car. That should do it.
Then without further ado the little man made his way back to his own vehicle, and drove quickly away from the scene. It was time he made report to his Masters in Sicily ...
In Dalwhinnie, B.J. 'phoned Auld John and told him what had happened, told him to bring her car, where to leave it, and where he would find his own car. And when he'd got that straight she said, 'And now it's up to you, John. Are you up to it?'
The weather's guid,' he answered, barely managing to contain his elation, 'and ah'll take the easy way up. Dinnae fret, mah Bonnie lass ... Auld John'11 be just fine! Why, ah believe ah'm even lookin' forward tae it - tae see Him again!'
'But the feeding, old friend, the feeding. You must promise me you'l be careful?'
'No need tae bother ye're mind,' he told her. 'Ah ken well enough. It's near His time and He'l be hungry. But ah'l be on mah guard.'
'Good. And make sure - make absolutely sure - that you're not followed. They may be onto you as wel, John!'
B.J. could picture his wolfish grin as he answered, 'Aye, but ah'm no so an easy target. And mah old shotgun's loaded wi' silver shot, as wel ye ken.'
'Good luck, then. And talk to me when it's done.'
'Be sure ah will.'
'So be it,' said Bonnie Jean, and put the 'phone down ...