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John Steakley

VAMPIRE$

PART ONE

Vampire$ Inc.

Chapter 1

They were all there when Crow and his Team came rolling in for that last job. All the policemen and local officials. The mayor. The school board. It was that kind of small Indiana town.

It was that kind of hot summer day, too. The crowd faded quickly back from the billowing dust raised by the semis on the milk-white gravel driveway, holding hankies to their faces and coughing. Then they stood on the brown grass and watched the procession circle deafeningly around them and pull up in front of the great house.

The engines on all five vehicles stopped at once. Jack Crow stepped from the lead Jeep and stood there, all six-feet-two of muscle and resolve and mean. He stood for a moment, glancing up at the target. When he turned back the local officials stood about him in a semicircle, as if for warmth.

In fact for warmth.

Crow smiled easily at them. He shook hands with the round nervous-faced mayor. He glanced at his watch. It was high noon and 105 degrees.

Time to start killing.

They dynamited the south wing ten minutes later. The charge went off on a second-story balcony and drove the entire section flat to the ground like an angry fist. There was a lot more smoke, a lot more dust. They waited. Soon it was sunny again. The grapples began snagging at the wreckage and dragging it away.

The townsmen watched it all, wincing at the first screech of steel members on the masonry. They watched the machinery lumbering into position. They watched the crew of five appear from the van with their eight-foot- long pikes and stand ready. Mostly, they watched Crow.

They probably didn’t jump more than a foot the first time the rubble moved on its own.

“Boss!” called a young blond man named Cat from his lawn chair crow’s nest atop one of the semis. “I think we have one.” He stood up, shading his eyes against the bright sunlight and pointing. “Right there on the end.”

“Okay,” replied Crow calmly. “Rock and roll.”

The crew moved into position encircling the area as best as the broken shard footing allowed. From their back pockets they took what looked like women’s long opera gloves and put them on. The steel mesh fabric glinted brightly. The townsmen, probably without realizing it, stepped closer together.

Then Crow, dragging cable from the broad grapple clenched in his huge right fist, stepped through the circle of his men and stabbed a prong deep into the cornice lodged heavily over the target area. He stepped back and held out his left hand. Somebody handed him a crossbow the size of a swingset and then everybody just stood there for a moment.

It started almost the instant Jack’s signal to the crane pulled the cable taut. The masonry had barely tilted to one side when the first fiend came whistling and smoking into the agony of the sun’s rays, shrieking like a harpy and stabbing out with black claws and dead gray fangs and then spouting a vile black glob as Crow’s first shot drove a bolt the size of a baseball bat through its chest and spine and eight inches into the cornice behind it.

It writhed and howled and burned and cried and dragged with maniacal frenzy at the wooden stake, but the umbrella barbs kept it lodged tight, killing it, killing it, rubbing it away from the world of earth and man and bright summer Indiana afternoons.

“Now that,” offered Cat after several seconds of heavy silence, “was weird.”

The mayor turned to the elder town councilman and chuckled. The latter responded in kind. Soon all the townsmen were laughing and laughing with the break of the tension and with the relief that maybe after all the horror of the past months and — And nobody else was laughing. Not Cat, peering disgustedly down from his perch above them, none of the other members of the crew, and not Jack Crow, whose look of withering disdain turned them pale to a man.

When they had gotten very quiet for a very long five seconds Jack said, “The leader shouldn’t have popped first. He usually sends everyone else ahead.”

“How…” began the mayor before his voice cracked. cleared his dry throat and tried again. “How do you know it was the leader?”

Jack lit a cigarette and stared at the ground. “After a while,” he replied softly, “you can tell.”

He stood there quietly like that for several seconds. Then he looked at them, actually looked at the individual townsmen for the first time.

It had wilted them. The horror, the losses, the sense of total naked impotence.

Wilted.

And it was only going to get worse.

So what, he thought next, are you gonna do when it’s over, gents? When your town has seen you as worthless and craven and you feel your manhood has been stomped?

Are you gonna do what others have tried?

Are you gonna take it out on us?

When it’s over, are you going to cheat us to show you’re still men?

Because it really is gonna get worse. That was just the first one.

“All right,” he barked abruptly, clapping his hands sharply together.

“Let’s get on with it. Rock and roll.”

And they did. And it did get worse. The second eruption was a howler and a screecher, again vile and terrifyingly fast, and the black bloody flecks fountained when the bolt struck it and slammed it back down and still it would not die until long seconds after one of the crew had punctured its skull with his pike.

It was horribly gruesome.

It was a broad-daylight nightmare.

It was a woman each townsman had known for over forty years.

After the schoolteacher came the local postmaster, the prom queen and her fullback fiance, some hapless young college girl with the irreversible misfortune to blow a tire on a country lane that actually was dark and long but only appeared empty.

The usual. But there was something wrong with the proportions.

“Nine in all, counting the leader,” said Anthony reading from Cat’s clipboard an hour and a half after the last appearance. “But only three goons.” He looked up from the page at his boss. “They weren’t very busy, were they?”

Crow took the clipboard from his hand and glanced at it. “Nope,” was his only response.

Both men looked up at the sound of the Jeep returning up the driveway bearing Cat and the graveyard team. One of the townsmen approached them while they unloaded empty cans of soil coagulant and tossed them into the back of the semi.

“Do you think there’s another pit somewhere?” asked Anthony after a few seconds.

Crow looked at his questioner, whose bull neck and massive shoulders remained taut from the pressure of the day. Crow decided he looked awful after five hours of slaughter, decided that was probably good.

“No,” he answered. “This is it. I never heard of them keeping goons somewhere else. New ones need to be around the leader anyway.”

“Then how come—”

“Dammit, Anthony! I don’t know why they didn’t turn more recently. Maybe they had something else to

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