Extract from Undeadsville by Michael Reaves.
New York City, 1952
It is the first thing - the only thing - you know. It fills you, defines you, consumes you. It flows like molten pitch through your bloodless veins, through the still, icy chambers of your heart and the dark conduits of your brain. It illuminates you, uplifts you, propels you.
It is you.
The hunger cannot be denied. It drives you against the darkness, against the imprisoning wood. You strike and claw at the barrier so close to your face, rending, pushing with a strength that, even in your state of raw need, surprises you. If your body were dependent on oxygen to fuel this effort, the tiny amount in the casket would be used up almost immediately. But your lungs remain flaccid, inflating just enough to provide the grunts and animalistic snarls you hear yourself making.
Far, far back in your mind, a part of you is confused, frightened, appalled. This is not me, it cries. This is not the person I was. Not this primal, predatory thing that howls and pants as its fingers rip through the wood, splinters gouging its nails from their roots, this thing that rumbles in savage satisfaction as chunks of graveyard dirt rain down on its face. This is not who I was!
But you realize it doesn't matter. The soul that once possessed this body is gone now - where, you neither know nor care. All that is left is a template of a personality. It's nothing you have to worry about now. It's not important.
All that's important is the hunger. All that matters is the insatiable desire to feed.
You push, shove, claw your way through the implacable soil. The pressure of it grinds against your eyes, drives thick black loam down your throat. You don't care. You would crawl through the fires of hell itself to find the one thing that will quench this need, this emptiness that is equal parts hunger and thirst.
One hand bursts free of your grave.
You grope, trying to find something to grab, to hold onto. To anyone watching (and how you hope there is someone watching, someone warm, someone full of what you need) it must look like some grotesque flower blooming abruptly from the fresh-turned earth. You feel fierce joy as you pull your other arm free. Then you drag yourself up, up, until your head finally clears the ground in a savage, filthy rebirth.
You cough up dirt, spit it out. Your chuckle is guttural and thick. A final lunge and twist, and you're free! You sprawl on the grass, blinking, waiting for your eyes to focus. Six inches in front of your nose, its underground passage disturbed by the upheavals of your resurrection, an earthworm writhes. You grab it, stuff it in your mouth, swallow.
It doesn't help. It's not what you need.
You stagger to your feet. The suit they buried you in is shiny and slick with dirt. You look down at it, at your mud-caked hands. You turn, see the headstone they put there to mark your passing. Mitchell Parks, it reads. Born, August 2nd, 1910; Died, December 10th, 1952. Beloved Husband, Devoted Father. You wish your wife and children were here to witness your miraculous return. How exciting it would be to see their joy turn to terror as you battened on them.
No time for such thoughts now. You didn't think it was possible, but the hunger is getting worse.
You raise your head, sniff the night breeze.
Involuntarily something happens to you: You sense your face changing, the muscles writhing beneath your skin, bony ridges rising over your eyes, your teeth lengthening into fangs. And suddenly, so suddenly that you gasp in astonishment, your senses explode into overdrive. You can hear the night. A car passes on the highway, two hundred yards away, and you can hear the sound of its engine, the radio playing a Perry Como song, and the hushed conversation of the two inside it, even though the windows are rolled up. You look around. It's said that moonlight isn't bright enough to discern colors by, but now the night seems to flower before you - the jade slivers of grass, the palette of subtle shades that make up the last few leaves, the prisms of the stars themselves.
Someone is watching you.
You suddenly recognize, through a sense you have no name for, a presence not far away, standing in the door of a crypt, observing you. This is not one of the cattle. This is another being like you, and silent approval seems to radiate from him. You wonder if you should go to him, thank him. Because, though again you have no way of knowing how you know, you have no doubt that this one made you what you are now.
Even as you wonder, you realize it is not yet time. You must prove yourself first. But how?
The answer comes on the midnight breeze - a scent that galvanizes you. It is what you have been craving since you quickened in the grave. The one thing that can appease your hunger.
You turn, head held high, and start to move, tracking that delicious scent, moving in quick, feral bursts from headstone to mausoleum to tree. There's no mistaking it. Your need for it makes you frantic, but nevertheless you move cautiously. An instinct that you do not question keeps you from charging headlong into the cemetery dark. There is danger here. You don't know what it is, but you don't question the knowledge. Though what animates you is not precisely life - there is no real term for what you are now, you exist in the borderlands, your body a clinically dead marionette, yet somehow inspirited - you aren't anxious to give it up.
You pause behind a tall marker, and suddenly you feel pain. It takes you by surprise; it's not the gnawing emptiness of the hunger, it's something new, a revulsion so intense that it's physical. Confused, you stagger back, then look up at the monument. It rises into the sky, its cruciform shape silhouetted against the full moon.
A cross. Your fear and hatred of it are so abrupt and intense that you can hardly bear to say the words in your mind.
You back away. No question about it, there is danger here. Though you feel strong, though your reflexes are quick and your senses acute, you are not invulnerable.
Best you keep this in mind.
The scent rises in your nostrils again, beckoning, heady. You follow it. Another breeze comes, from the north this time, and you suddenly know that it will snow soon.
And then you come around the corner of an ossuary and behold your prey.
It is a girl, wrapped in a raincoat, sitting alone on a marble bench. She is young, with hair black as the night that bred you. Her veins are full of the elixir you need. It's too good to be true, but you don't question this gift of the dark gods. You'll take her, drain her. Perhaps you'll even turn her, as you were turned; you suddenly realize that you have that power. The possibilities excite you. But you can decide on that later. After you've fed.
You move forward. And now bloodlust overcomes caution; the desire is too great. You break into a run, charging ahead, a snarl escaping you -
And she looks up, revealing a face so innocent, and now so filled with delicious fear -
"You're mine!" you gloat, as you reach for her -
And then, astonishingly, she stands and hits you.
It's a short, quick punch to your chest - her arm doesn't travel more than two or three inches, driven by a twist of her torso and shoulder. You shouldn't even feel it. But you do feel it; it's hard enough to hurl you backward violently. You sprawl on your back, uncertain as to what just happened. The girl stands in front of the bench now, stands with fists cocked and ready.
You can't believe it. This girl, this tiny slip of a girl, just knocked you off your feet!
You growl deep in your chest, pure animal rage, and leap for her again. You'll do far more than just drain her now. You'll rip her head off, you'll reach down her throat and scoop out her entrails!
But that's not quite how it happens.
The girl steps forward, a featureless moonshadow. She quickly draws one leg up and pivots on her other foot, shooting the leg out. The kick hits you like a steel piston, knocking you off your feet and slamming you the length of a family plot. You impact against a tree with stunning force.
Shaken and confused, you stagger to your feet. This can't be happening - this body you're in, even though middle-aged and soft when it died, has more than enough power to overcome a teenage girl!
Yet the girl faces you, unafraid. Her stance is firm, her legs slightly bent, one hand extended in a warding-off gesture, the other...
The other hand holds a wooden stake.
Now you feel fear.
Something is badly wrong here. Deep within you are buried the shared memories of your kind, the instinctive wisdom that, along with the bloodlust, urged you out of your grave and into the night. Those memories stir now, stir uneasily, stir and whisper of a mortal girl who is human, and yet more than human, whose mission is to seek out and destroy your kind. The deadliest enemy of you and those like you - of all creatures of the night.
The one who kills vampires.
You hesitate, fear warring with the hunger roiling inside you. But it doesn't take long for the fear to win. You weren't a stupid man in life, and you see no reason to start being one now. You turn to flee-
And she's in front of you.
You turn again, and this time you see her move: an impossible leap, twisting in midair to land on her feet before you once more. A whine escapes your throat, the sound of a baffled, trapped animal. If your heart were beating, it would stutter in terror. You have to get away; everything is happening too fast. You spin about once more, only to find the Slayer again right before you.
"Sorry, Daddy-O," she says, "but you're dust."
The stake plunges into you. Her hand is like a striking snake - you don't have a prayer of stopping her.
You don't have a prayer at all.
As your vision fades, the last thing you see is the silhouette of the one you saw before, he who made you what you are - or were. You have failed him, and that knowledge is more painful than the stake in your heart.
You hope that you will be avenged.
Though it's wood, the stake feels as if it's made of ice - ice colder than the gulfs between the stars. The cold spreads outward from your heart, through your body. You can feel yourself desiccating, expanding, disintegrating in a soundless explosion...
You fall, and the darkness is deeper than the grave you just escaped.
Death Street bathes in the fire of Nietzschean knowledge.
Hipsters shamble on glistening cobblestones.
I witness the tombs of her face and her trey-chic Manifesto.
Nothing keeps the beat now within her breast.
The coffeehouse habitues live in atomic glare.
They ache for pointed release.
The hearse lingers long in the far latitudes.
Subterraneans struggle with non-reflecting wisdom.
They plead with heroin eyes.
My stake weeps sanguinary tears.
My heart dances to the blood of ancient agony.
Sepulchers shine like alien moons.
I admit it: I'm scared. This is the first time I've read my stuff to anyone. And even though the audience is small - twelve people in that little basement room, not counting Gerta - just about all of them're hep. It's not like reading it for Sykes, who curls that British stiff upper lip of his and calls it "troglodyte maunderings," whatever that means. No, these cats are the real deal. Most of 'em, anyway. There're a few squares - there always are.
A few vamps, too. But I'll get to them in a minute.
So Rosey Gildenstern's sitting a couple of tables back, next to the juke box, Rosey Gildenstern, who wrote "Deadsville." That was the most, man. And Gordon Whalen - I saw him come in, but I don't know if he stayed. The lights are bright when you're up on that stage.
Gordon Whalen. He hung with Allen Ginsberg. That is the coolest.
Anyway, the first minute or two after I finish, the place is as quiet as any mausoleum I've ever checked out. Then there's applause - not much, but right now it sounds sweet as bee spit. I get off the platform p.d.q., and Gerta gives me a big upside down smile as I reach the bar.
"What was that (snap) supposed to be?"
I never really liked Gerta. She's the only other waitress working graveyard at the White Unicorn, and she bugs me. She's Scandinavian, big and rawboned. She's got stringy red hair, no appreciation of culture, and even less manners. About the only positive thing you can say for her is that she's appointed herself defender of my honor, and all the other younger girls, too. Many's the time some band-rat full of stagger juice tries to order a little chicken dinner on the side, only to be heaved out by Gerta. If I didn't know better, I'd say she had Slayer strength.
She doesn't of course. She's not the Slayer. I am.
But I let her handle them, because it saves me from having to defend myself. Not that I'm scared, you dig? It's just that the coffeehouse patrons have a lot easier time believing a big, tough Swede chick can toss a moose-eyed Big Daddy like a Wham-O flyin' disc than they can a skinny seventeen-year-old kid.
"Okay, you had your time in the spotlight (snap). Now get that apron back on and start servin' customers (snap)."
Another thing about Gerta, she's always chewing gum. Just by where she snaps it in a sentence, she can make ironic commentary on damn near anything. Drives me nuts.
But, okay, so maybe she's not cool, but her heart's in the right place. (And if there's one thing I know, it's where the heart is.) So I don't say anything. I just pick up a tray loaded with lattes and start serving.
The Unicorn's a small place, like I said. Used to be a tailor shop, I think. There's room for a dozen tables, a bar, and the stage. There are pictures on the walls: reproductions of Pollock, de Kooning, Kline. Also quotations from philosophers like Heidegger and Nietzsche. One of Nietzsche's, hanging over the stage, has always seemed written especially for me: That which does not destroy me makes me stronger.
That Nietzsche was one cool cat.
A shy chick in blue jeans and a burgundy sweater is sitting by herself, not far from the door. She's huddled in a navy pea coat against the occasional blasts of cold air. I put a cup of java down in front of her, and I'm betting she won't be alone for too long.
By now it's way after dark - just after midnight, in fact - but despite that, and despite the dim light and smoky air, most of the bar hawks are wearing sunglasses. Bourdillon said the night has a thousand eyes, but these days nearly all of them are hidden behind cheaters.
Most do it to be cool.
Some have other reasons.
So I head toward Gildenstern's table. I'm both hoping and dreading that he might tell me what he thinks of my poetry. But as I pass one of the tables, a nosebleed in Ivy League threads grabs my arm. "Hey, baby," he says, "that was wild. I mean, more fun than a hot transfusion."
What a fream, I think. "Thanks," I say, and I pretend to have trouble breaking his grip. "What can I get you?"
"A shot of java, nix on the moo juice. And maybe later, after you're off we could -"
Gerta appears next to the table, almost magically. "Sure you could, lover boy. And then you could check into the big house for a long, long time. She's jailbait, mister."
The nerd suddenly gets very interested in the bongo and conga player setting up on the stage. I finish serving the mugs on my tray, including Gildenstern's, but he's too busy yakking up some dolly in a black turtleneck two sizes too small to even notice me.
Truth to tell, I'm not all that noticeable. I'm a first-generation Russian Jew, with black hair and a bad case of café sunburn; Gerta's always telling me I should get out more. Also, I'm built like two sticks - I'd need a couple of grapefruits to fill out a sweater like the dolly does. I guess it helps the whole anonymity thing, and being built like a boy has its advantages in a fight. But still...
Gerta yells at me to stop daydreaming. I come back for another round of orders.
Like I said, Gerta can be a pain in the neck, but she has her uses. After all, it wouldn't do for the vamps and other demons that infest New York to tumble that the Chosen One, the Slayer, the one girl in all the world charged with the sacred duty of battling vampires and other supernatural evils, blah blah blah, is a waitress in a Greenwich Village coffee shop.
Brother, do I ever know it. I've had it drilled into me for almost as long as I can remember by my Watcher, Ian Sykes. It's not like it was a big surprise. I've known from as far back as I can remember that I had the potential to be Chosen. When it happened two years ago, in 1950, I was ready for it.
Two years. Two years of life in the Big Apple, trying to make it on my own - my parents died in a car accident just after my fifteenth birthday. I don't have any other family in America - or anywhere - that I'm aware of, except for my cousin Illya, who's a few years older than me and going to college in the Ukraine.
So I live with my Watcher in a tiny cold-water flat on Bleecker Street, and that is the very definition of drag. With both of us working, we're just able to support ourselves; Sykes runs this hole-in-the-wall bookstore near Washington Square, and I'm a part-time waitress at the White Unicorn Café. The bookstore is mostly for storing Sykes's huge collection of occult reference books; whatever few dollars we have left over after the rent usually goes to feed it instead of us.
Look, Clyde, I didn't ask for this gig. It wasn't exactly my life's ambition to be the Slayer. Okay, it's better than being an orphan, but I don't think those are my only two options, despite what Sykes says. I found this job on my own; Slayer skills had nothing to do with it. Yeah, it's good to be able to walk the city streets and not fear any man, vampire, or demon - and all three are, as far as I'm concerned, pretty much interchangeable - but, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, what good am I doing? Straight from the fridge, Jack: It's a different world now from when the Watchers Council was formed. I mean, these days how scary are things that go bump in the night when any minute everything might go boom-lights out, permanently? Ask me, an atomic war's a hell of a lot more terrifying than any apocalypse the undead can drum up.
Something at the corner of my eye - I glance over at the table near the door. A greaser with enough oil in his ducktail to open a filling station is making his move. Just as I thought, the shy chick who's been sitting alone, nursing a cup of java for the past three sessions, is his target.
Greaseball's making pretty good time with the pretty young thing. As I watch, they stand and he leads her toward the door. No doubt she thinks they're going someplace private, maybe even his place, to make out, listen to some Charlie Parker sides, maybe even smoke some reefer. Yeah, right.
The only thing that's gonna be smoked is her, unless I stop him.
The vamp and his prey head outside and climb the snow-covered steps to the sidewalk. I give 'em a few minutes so I can trap the vamp in a dark alley - there's no shortage of those in the Village. Then I tell Gerta I need some air; she's not thrilled, but with all the beats in here and each one puffing like a tailpipe, she can't say no. She's a softie at heart. Besides, my birthday's only two days away. I'll be eighteen, I deserve a party - and I'm about to have one.
I head out. It's slaying time.
I spot them up ahead through the lightly falling snow. I can actually see a streetlamp's light reflecting for a moment off the vamp's hair. Then they turn and disappear between two brownstones.
I step up the pace. I need a good workout - been feeling a little sluggish all day.
The alley is old, a narrow, dark cul-de-sac with block paving. I've been here before - it was a favorite place for vamps to feed before I hit town. I've dusted many a deader in here, and now it's time to add one more to the list...
I turn the corner and eyeball the alley. It runs just a little more than a hundred feet, very dark... and empty as Hell's backyard. I see a lot better in the dark than most people, and right now I see there's no one in the alley but me.
It's a trap.
Don't ask me how I know. It's part of the whole Slayer package - a kind of intuition, an alarm that goes off sometimes when I'm in danger.
And right now it's screaming.
I look up. The sky's cloudy, but the lights of New York illuminate them from underneath, a cold gray light. Silhouetted against the clouds are two fire escapes, one on either building's wall.
They're covered with vampires.
There're at least twenty-four or twenty-five in all. They're clinging to the three platforms on each wall and to the ladders that link them. They don't move, they don't speak, they don't even blink - they just stare down at me. Then the clouds part and the full moon throws a big spotlight on everything.
I recognize the girl from the White Unicorn. She's grinning down at me from the first-storey platform, fangs gleaming in the frosty light, yellow eyes burning with bloodlust. Terrific. I'd been so focused on Brilliantine Boy that I'd just assumed he was leading a victim to the slaughter.
Well, he was... but not the one I thought.
It's too late to beat myself up now; even if I wasn't feeling slightly off my game, I can't defeat this many vamps single-handed. And there's no one to back me up.
I'm going to die - or worse.
I hear something - at first a hissing, like that leaky radiator pipe behind the couch. It gets louder.
I recognize it.
The laughter becomes the roar of predators, and they fall on me.
© 2004 Martin Reave. Taken from Tales of the Slayer Volume Four, published in the UK by Pocket Books November 2004. Reproduced with kind permission of Pocket Books.