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Richard Laymon

The Stake

This book is dedicated to Frank, Kathy & Leah De Laratta

Great friends

Fellow explorers

&

Ghost town busters

Prologue

Charleston, Illinois

June 23, 1972

He had stalked the demon to her lair. Now he waited. Waited for dawn, when she would be most vulnerable.

The waiting was the worst part. Knowing what was to come. The legends, he’d learned, were not to be trusted. The legends were wrong in so many ways.

Vampires slept in beds, not coffins — a clever ruse to fool the unknowing. And although daylight sapped their powers, it did not render them helpless. Even after dawn they could wake from their sleep of the dead. They could fight him, hurt him.

He rubbed his cheek. His fingers trembled along crusty ridges of scab. She’d had sharp fingernails, the one in Urbana.

He shuddered with the memory.

He’d been lucky to save himself.

Maybe he’d used up his luck on that one. Maybe, this time, it wouldn’t be fingernails ripping his cheek. Maybe, this time, teeth would find his throat.

Ducking down against the steering wheel, he reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. He twisted off its cap. He drank. The liquor was lukewarm going down, but it spread soothing heat through his stomach. He wanted to drink more.

Later, he promised himself. No more until the task is done.

You must keep your wits about you, he thought. It was the liquor that almost got you killed last week. These monsters are clever.

Again he rubbed his scratched cheek.

He took one more drink, then forced himself to cap the bottle. He slid it under the seat. As he straightened up, a car turned the corner ahead. Its headlights were on, but the morning sky was light enough to show the rack on top. A patrol car.

He threw himself down across the passenger seat.

His mouth felt dry. His heart thundered.

It’s not right, he thought. I shouldn’t have to live like a fugitive. I’m as much a public servant as those police out there.

He held his breath as the patrol car cruised by. It passed so close that he could hear crackles, squawks, and a garbled voice from its radio. He regretted his decision to leave the windows down. They might find that suspicious. But his car would’ve been stifling if he’d kept it closed up.

He breathed again as the sounds faded.

He stayed low, counting slowly to one hundred. Then he sat up and peered out the rear window. The red taillights were mere specks.

Opening his door, he leaned out and studied the sky. It was still gray beyond the peaked roof of the vampire’s dwelling. He placed a foot on the curb, straightened up and peered over the roof of his car. To the east the sky was pale blue.

From long experience, he knew that the sun would soon appear above the horizon.

It would be up by the time he was in position.

He sank back into the car. His silver crucifix hung against his chest. He fingered its chain and pulled the cross out from under his shirt. Then he lifted a leather briefcase off the floor in front of the passenger seat. Reaching into the case, he pulled out a necklace of garlic cloves. He looped it over his head.

Briefcase in hand, he stepped out of the car.

The overgrown lawn was surrounded by a picket fence. He swung the gate wide, kicking its bottom past tufts of weed that were high enough to hold it open. Coming out this way, he would be carrying the body. He didn’t want the gate slowing him down.

The porch stairs creaked under his weight. The screen door groaned. Inside the porch he used a wicker chair to prop the door open.

Twisting the knob, he found that the front door wasn’t locked. That made it easy. He wouldn’t need his pry bar. He crept silently into the house, and didn’t shut the door.

He knew where to find her room. Shortly after she’d entered, last night, lights had appeared in the front windows to the right of the porch. She’d stepped up to each of the windows and lowered the shades.

The house was silent. The faint light that found its way into the living room cast a gray shroud over the old sofa, the rocking chair, the lamps and piano. The wallpaper looked faded and stained. Above the piano hung an oil painting of a forest clearing with a peaceful, running brook. In the gloom, it looked dim and somber, as if dawn hadn’t yet come to the forest scene.

At the far corner of the room was a wood-framed entrance to a hallway.

He crept to the hallway and followed it to the open door of the vampire’s bedroom.

His mouth went dry and his heart pounded as he gazed in at her. She lay on a bed between the two windows, curled on her side, facing away from him. The first rays of the morning sun glowed against the blinds, filling the room with an amber hue. She was covered only by a sheet. Her dark hair was spread against the pillow.

Crouching, he set his briefcase on the floor. He spread its top, reached in and lifted out the hammer.

A sledge with a heavy steel head and a foot-long haft.

With his other hand he took out a pointed stake of ash wood.

He clamped the stake in his teeth.

He stood up. Staring at the vampire, he willed her to roll over. Face up or down, it didn’t matter. He could pound the stake through her back as easily as her chest. But she had to be lying flat, not on her side.

Somehow, he’d known this would be a difficult kill.

Should he wait? Eventually she was bound to turn over.

The longer he waited, the more danger of being seen when he carried the body out. And he hadto do that. Take it far away in the trunk of his car and hide it where it would never be found.

People vanished all the time, and for many reasons. But to be discovered here with a stake in her heart...

The police would stupidly mistake it as the work of a homicidal maniac. The news would spread. The populace would panic. Worst of all, a legion of vampires would suddenly be put on guard that a hunter was in their midst.

And this morning’s efforts would be in vain, for the police or coroner were certain to pull the stake from her

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