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A Hidden Darkness

Haven is a dark city.

The narrow streets huddled together, the plain stone and timber buildings leaning on each other for support. Out-leaning upper storeys bowed to each other like tired old men, shutting out the light, but even in the shadows there was little relief from the midsummer heat. The glaring sun scorched down on the sprawling city, driving all moisture from the air. The streets were parched and dusty and thick with buzzing flies. Being a seaport, Haven usually got all the rain it wanted, and then some, but not in midsummer. The long days wore on, and the baking heat made them a misery of sweat and thirst and endless fatigue. The days were too hot to work and the nights too hot to sleep. Tempers grew short and frayed, but it was too hot to brawl. Birds hung on the sky like drifting shadows, but there was never a trace of a cloud or a breeze. Haven at midsummer was a breeding ground for trouble. The heat stirred men’s minds and brought forth hidden evils. Everyone watched the skies and prayed for rain, and still the long dry summer dragged on.

Hawk and Fisher, Captains in the city Guard, strolled unhurriedly down Chandler Lane, deep in the rotten heart of the Northside. It was too hot to hurry. The grimy, overshadowed lane was a little cooler than most, which meant the heat was only mildly unbearable. Flies hovered over piles of garbage and swarmed around the open sewers. The squat and ugly buildings were black with soot from the nearby tannery, and the muggy air smelt strongly of smoke and tannin.

Hawk was tall, dark, and no longer handsome. He wore a black silk patch over his right eye, and a series of old scars ran down the right side of his face, showing pale against the tanned skin. He wore a simple cotton shirt and trousers, but didn’t bother with the black Guardsman’s cloak required by regulations. It,was too hot for a cloak, and anyway, he didn’t need one to tell people he was a Guard. Everyone in Haven had heard of Captain Hawk.

He didn’t look like much. He was lean and wiry rather than muscular, and he was beginning to build a stomach. He wore his dark hair at shoulder length, swept back from his forehead and tied with a silver clasp. He had only just turned thirty, but already there were a few streaks of grey in his hair. At first glance he looked like just another bravo, not as young as he once was, perhaps a little past his prime. But few people stopped at the first glance; there was something about Hawk, something in his scarred face and single cold eye that gave even the drunkest hardcase pause. On his right hip Hawk carried a short-handled axe instead of a sword. He was very good with an axe.

Captain Fisher walked at Hawk’s side, echoing his pace and stance with the naturalness of long companionship. Isobel Fisher was tall, easily six feet in height, and her long blond hair fell to her waist in a single thick plait. She was in her mid to late twenties, and handsome rather than beautiful. There was a rawboned harshness to her face that contrasted strongly with her deep blue eyes and generous mouth. Like Hawk, she wore a cotton shirt and trousers, and no cloak. The shirt was half-unbuttoned to show a generous amount of bosom, and her shirt sleeves were rolled up, revealing arms corded with muscle and lined with old scars. She wore a sword on her hip, and her hand rested comfortably on the pommel.

Hawk and Fisher; partners, husband and wife, guardians of the city law. Known, respected, and mostly feared throughout Haven, even in the lower Northside, where the very rats went round in pairs for safety. Hawk and Fisher were the best, and everyone knew it. They were honest and hard-working, a rare combination in Haven, but more important still, they were dangerous.

Hawk looked about him and scowled slightly. Chandler Lane was deserted, with not a soul in sight, and that was ... unusual. The afternoon was fast turning into evening, but even so there should have been people out selling and buying and making a deal. On the lower Northside everything was for sale, if you knew where to look. But all around, the doors and shutters were firmly closed despite the stifling heat, and the shadows lay still and undisturbed. It was like looking at a street under siege. Hawk smiled sourly. If his information was correct, that might just be the case.

“There’s going to be a full moon tonight,” said Fisher quietly.

Hawk nodded. “That’ll bring out the crazies. Though how anyone has the energy even to plan a crime in this heat is beyond me.”

“You do realise this is probably nothing more than a wild goose chase, don’t you?”

“Not again, Isobel, please. The word is he’s hiding right here, at the end of this street. We have to check it out.”

“Three months,” said Fisher angrily. “Three months we’ve been working on that child prostitution racket. And just when we’re starting to get somewhere, what happens? The word comes down from Above, and we get pulled off the case to go looking for a vampire!”

“Yeah,” said Hawk. “And all because we raided the Nag’s Head. Still, I’d do it again, if I had to.”

Fisher nodded grimly.

The Nag’s Head was a hole-in-the-wall tavern on Salt Lane, just on the boundary of the Eastside slums. The upper floor was a brothel, and the word was that they were interested in acquiring children. Cash in hand, no questions asked. Child prostitution had been illegal in Haven for almost seven years, but there were still those with a vested interest in keeping the market open. Like many other places, the Nag’s Head kept itself in business by greasing the right palms, but one man had made the mistake of trying to buy off Hawk and Fisher. So they had paid the place a visit.

The bravo at the door tried to bar their way. He was either new in town, or not particularly bright. Hawk gave him a straight-finger jab under the sternum. The bravo’s face went very pale and he bent slowly forward, almost as though bowing to Hawk. Fisher waited till he was bent right over, and then rabbit-punched him. The bravo went down without a murmur. Hawk and Fisher stepped cautiously over him, kicked in the door, and burst into the Nag’s Head with cold steel in their hands.

The staff and patrons took one look at them and a sudden silence fell over the crowded room. Smoke curled on the stuffy air, and the watching eyes were bright with fear and suppressed anger. Hawk and Fisher headed for the stairs at the back of the dimly lit room, and a pathway opened up before them as people got hurriedly out of their , way. Three bravos crowded together at the foot of the stairs with drawn swords. They were big, muscular men with cold, calculating eyes who knew how to use their swords. Hawk cut down two of them with his axe while Fisher stabbed the third cleanly through the heart. They stepped quickly over the bodies and pounded up the stairs. The upper floor was ominously quiet. Hawk and Fisher charged along the narrow landing, kicking open doors as they went, but most of the occupants were long gone, having disappeared down the fire escape at the first sound of trouble.

One of the prostitutes hadn’t been able to get away. Hawk found her in the last room but one. She was dressed in torn silks too large for her, and wore gaudy colors on her face. She was chained to the wall by the throat, and her back ran red from the wounds of a recent whipping. She sat slumped against the wall, her face pressed against the rough wood, crying softly, hopelessly. She was almost twelve years old.

Fisher joined Hawk in the doorway, and swore angrily as she took in the scene. The chain was too heavy to break, so Hawk levered the bolt out of the wall with his axe. Fisher tried to comfort the child, but she was too frightened to say much. She’d been abducted in the street two years ago, and been brought to this room. Her abductors put the chain around her neck and locked it, and she’d never been out of the room since. Both Hawk and Fisher told her she was free now, but she didn’t believe it. There’s a man who comes to visit me, she said quietly. He was here today. He’ll never let me go. You can’t protect me from him. No one can. He’s important.

She didn’t know his name. No one ever told her their name.

Hawk and Fisher never did find out who he was, but he must have had influence. Only two days later, the child was stabbed to death in the street. Her attacker was never found. Hawk and Fisher were officially taken off the case and sent to join the other Guards searching for the .supposed vampire that was terrorising the Northside. They raised hell with their superiors, and even talked about quitting the Guard, but none of it did any good. The word had come down from somewhere high Above, and there was no arguing with it. Hawk and Fisher had shrugged and cursed and finally given up. There would be other times.

Besides, it seemed there really was a vampire. Men, women, and children had been attacked at night, and occasionally bodies were found with no blood left in them. There were dozens of sightings and as many suspects, but none of them led anywhere. And then a lamplighter had come to see Hawk, and there was no denying the horror in his voice as he told Hawk and Fisher of the dark figure he’d seen crawling up the outside of the house in Chandler Lane....

“All the Guards in Haven, and that man had to choose us to tell his story to,” grumbled Fisher. “Why us?”

“Because we’re the best,” said Hawk. “So obviously we’re not afraid to tackle anything. Even a vampire.”

Fisher sniffed. “We should have settled for second best.”

“Not in my nature,” said Hawk easily. “Or yours.”

They chuckled quietly together. The low, cheerful sound seemed out of place in the silence. For the first time Hawk realised just how quiet the empty street was. It was like walking through the empty shell of some village abandoned by its people but not yet overgrown by the Forest. The only sound was his and Fisher’s footsteps, echoing dully back from the thick stone walls to either side of them. Despite the heat, Hawk felt a sudden chill run down his back, and the sweat on his brow was suddenly cold. Hawk shook his head angrily. This was no time to be letting his nerves get the better of him.

Hawk and Fisher finally came to a halt before a decrepit two-storey building almost at the end of the lane. Paint was peeling from the closed front door, and the stonework was pitted and crumbling. The two narrow windows were hidden behind closed wooden shutters. Hawk looked the place over and frowned thoughtfully. There was something disquieting about the house, something he couldn’t quite put a name to. It was like a sound so quiet you almost missed it, or a scent so faint you could barely smell it.... Hawk scowled, and let his hand fall to the axe at his side.

Vampire... revenant ... that which returns...

He’d never seen one of the undead, and didn’t know anyone who had. He wasn’t altogether sure he believed in such things, but then, he didn’t disbelieve in them either. In his time he’d known demons and devils, werewolves and undines, and faced them all with cold steel in his hand. The world had its dark places, and they were older by far than anything man had ever built. And there was no denying that people had disappeared from the Northside of late ... and one person in particular.

“Well?” said Fisher.

Hawk looked at her irritably. “Well what?”

“Well, are we going to just stand here all afternoon, or are we going to do something? In case you hadn’t noticed, the sun’s getting bloody low on the sky. It’ll be dark inside an hour. And if there really is a vampire in there ...”

“Right. The undead rise from their coffins when the sun is down.” Hawk shivered again, and then smiled slightly as he took in the goose flesh on Fisher’s bare arms. Neither of them cared much for the dark, or the creatures that moved in it. Hawk took a deep breath, stepped up to the front door, and knocked loudly with his fist.

“Open in the name of the Guard!”

There was no response. Silence lay. across the empty street like a smothering blanket, weighed down by the heat. Hawk wiped at the sweat running down his face with the back of his hand, and wished he’d brought a water canteen. He also wished he’d followed regulations for once and waited for a backup team, but there hadn’t been time. They had to get to the vampire while he still slept. And besides, Councillor Trask’s daughter was still missing. Which was why finding the vampire had suddenly become such a high priority. As long as he’d kept to the poorer sections of the city, and preyed only on those who wouldn’t be missed, no one paid much attention to him. But once he snatched a Councillor’s daughter out of her own bedroom, in full view of her screaming mother ... Hawk worried his lower lip between his teeth. She should still be alive. Vampires were supposed to take two to three days to drain a victim completely, and she couldn’t become one of the undead until she’d died and risen again. At least, that was what the legends said. Hawk sniffed. He didn’t put much trust in legends.

“We should have stopped off and picked up some garlic,” he said suddenly. “That’s supposed to be a protection, isn’t it?”

“Garlic?” said Fisher. “At this time of the year? You know how much that stuff costs in the markets? It has to come clear across the country, and the merchants charge accordingly.”

“All right, it was just a thought. I suppose hawthorn is out as well.”

“Definitely.”

“I assume you have at least brought the stake with you? In fact, you’d better have the stake, because I’m bloody well not going in there without one.”

“Relax, love. I’ve got it right here.” Fisher pulled a thick wooden stake from the top of her boot. It was over a foot long, and had been roughly sharpened to a point. It looked brutally efficient. “As I understand it, it’s quite simple,” said Fisher briskly. “I hammer this through the vampire’s heart, and then you cut off his head. We burn the two parts of the body separately, scatter the ashes, and that’s that.”

“Oh, sure,” said Hawk. “Just like that.” He paused a moment, looking at the closed door before him. “Did you ever meet Trask, or his daughter?”

“I saw Trask at the briefing yesterday,” said Fisher, slipping the stake back into her boot. “He looked pretty broken up. You know them?”

“I met his daughter a few months back. Just briefly. I was bodyguarding Councillor DeGeorge at the time. Trask’s daughter had just turned sixteen, and she looked so ... bright, and happy.”

Fisher put her hand on his arm. “We’ll get her back, Hawk. We’ll get her back.”

“Yeah,” said Hawk. “Sure.”

He hammered on the door again with his fist. Do it by the book.... The sound echoed on the quiet, and then died quickly away. There was no response from the house, or from any of its neighbours. Hawk glanced up and down the empty street. It could always be a trap of some kind.... No. His instincts would have been screaming at him by now. After four years in the city Guard, he had good instincts. Without them, you didn’t last four years.

“All right,” he said finally. “We go in. But watch your back on this one, lass. We take it one room at a time, by the book, and keep our eyes open. Right?”

“Right,” said Fisher. “But we should be safe enough as long as the sun’s up. The vampire can’t leave his coffin till it’s dark.”

“Yeah, but he might not be alone in there. Apparently most vampires have a human servant to watch over them while they sleep. A kind of Judas Goat, a protector who also helps to lure victims to his master.”

“You’ve been reading up on this, haven’t you?” said Fisher.

“Damn right,” said Hawk. “Ever since the first rumours. I wasn’t going to be caught unprepared, like I was on that werewolf case last year.”

He tried the door handle. It turned jerkily in his hand, and the door swung slowly open as he applied a little pressure. The hinges squealed protestingly, and Hawk jumped despite himself. He pushed the door wide open and stared into the dark and empty hall. Nothing moved in the gloom, and the shadows stared silently back. Fisher moved softly in beside Hawk, her hand resting on the pommel of her sword.

“Strange the door wasn’t locked,” said Hawk. “Unless we were expected.”

“Let’s get on with it,” said Fisher quietly. “I’m starting to get a very bad feeling about this.”

They stepped forward into the hall and then closed the front door behind them, leaving it just a little ajar. Never know when you might need a quick exit. Hawk and Fisher stood together in the gloom, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Hawk had a stub of candle in his pocket, but he didn’t want to use it unless. he had to. All it took was a sudden gust of wind at the wrong moment and the light would be gone, leaving him blind and helpless in the dark. Better to let his sight adjust while he had the chance. He heard Fisher stir uneasily beside him, and he smiled slightly. He knew how she felt. Patiently standing and waiting just wasn’t in their nature; they always felt better when they were doing something. Anything. Hawk glared about him into the gloom. There could be someone hiding in the shadows, watching them, and they’d never know it until it was too late. Something could already be moving silently towards them, with reaching hands and bared fangs.... He felt his shoulders growing stiff and tense, and made himself breathe deeply and slowly. It didn’t matter what was out there; he had his axe and he had Fisher at his side. Nothing else mattered. His eyesight slowly grew used to the gloom, and the narrow hall gradually formed itself out of the shadows. It was completely empty. Hawk relaxed a little.

“You all right?” he whispered to Fisher.

“Yeah, fine,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.”

The hall ended in a bare wooden stairway that led up to the next floor. Two doors led off from the hall, one to each side. Hawk drew his axe, and hefted it in one hand. The heavy weight of it was reassuring. He glanced at Fisher, and smiled as he saw the sword in her hand. He caught her eye, and gestured for her to take the right-hand door while he took the left. She nodded, and padded quietly over to the right.

Hawk listened carefully at his door, but everything was quiet. He turned the handle, eased the door open an inch, and then kicked it in. He leapt into the room and glared quickly about him, his axe poised and ready. The room was empty. There was no furniture, and all the walls were bare. A little light filtered past the closed shutters, taking the edge off the gloom. The woodwork was flecked with mould, and everywhere was thick with dust. There was no sign to show the room had ever been lived in. The floorboards creaked loudly under Hawk’s weight as he walked slowly forward. There was a strong smell of dust and rotten wood, but underneath that there was a faint but definite smell of corruption, as though something long dead lay buried close at hand. Hawk sniffed at the air, but couldn’t decide if the smell was really there or if he was just imagining it. He moved quickly round the room, tapping the walls and listening to the echo, but there was no trace of any hidden panel or passageway. Hawk stood in the middle of the room, looking around him to check he hadn’t missed anything, and then went back into the hall.

Fisher was waiting for him. He shook his head, and Fisher shrugged disappointedly. Hawk smiled slightly. He already knew Fisher hadn’t found anything; if she had, he’d have heard the sound of battle. Fisher wasn’t known for her diplomacy. Hawk started towards the stairs, and Fisher moved quickly in beside him.

The bare wooden steps creaked and groaned beneath their feet, and Hawk scowled. If there was someone here, watching over the vampire, they had to know there was someone else in the house. You couldn’t put your foot down anywhere without some creaking board giving away your position. He hurried up the rest of the stairs and out onto the landing. He felt a little less vulnerable on the landing; there was more room to move, if it came to a fight. The floor was thick with dust and rat droppings, and the bare wooden walls were dull and scarred. Two doors led off from the landing, to their right. It was just as gloomy as the ground-floor hall, and Hawk thought fleetingly of his candle before deciding against it. If the sound hadn’t given them away, a light certainly would. He moved over to stand before the first door, and listened carefully. He couldn’t hear anything. Hawk smiled slightly. If this house did turn out to be empty, he was going to feel bloody ridiculous. He looked at Fisher, and gestured for her to guard his back. She nodded quickly. Hawk tried the door handle, and it turned easily in his grasp. He pushed the door slightly ajar, took a deep breath, and kicked the door in.

He darted forward into the room, axe at the ready, and again there was no one there. Without looking around, Hawk knew that Fisher was looking at him knowingly.

I said this was a wild goose chase, Hawk....

He didn’t look back. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. He glared about him, taking in the darkened room. A sparse light seeped past the closed shutters to show him a wardrobe to his left and a bed to his right. A large wooden chest stood at the foot of the bare bed. Hawk eyed the chest suspiciously. It looked to be a good four feet long and three feet wide; quite large enough to hold a body. Hawk frowned. Like it or not, he was going to need some light to check the room out properly. He peered about him, and his gaze fell on an old oil lamp lying on the floor by the bed. He bent down, picked the lamp up and shook it gently. He could feel oil sloshing back and forth in the base of the lamp. Hawk worried his lower lip between his teeth. The house might appear deserted, but somebody had to have been here recently.... He took out flint and steel and lit the lamp. The sudden golden glow made the room seem smaller and less threatening.

Hawk moved over to the chest and crouched down before it. There didn’t seem to be any lock or bolts. He glanced at Fisher, who took a firm hold on the wooden stake in her left hand and nodded for him to try the lid. He clutched his axe tightly, and then threw the lid open. Hawk let out his breath in a slow sigh of relief, and he and Fisher relaxed a little as they took in the pile of old bed linen that filled the chest. The cloth was flecked with a rather nasty-looking mould, and had obviously been left in the chest for ages, but Hawk rummaged gingerly through it anyway, just in case there might be something hidden under it. There wasn’t. Hawk wiped his hands thoroughly on his trousers.

All this taking it slow and easy was getting on his nerves. He suddenly wanted very badly just to run amok and tear the place apart until he found the missing girl, but he knew he couldn’t do that. Firstly, if there was no one here the house’s owners would sue his arse in the courts, and secondly, if there was a vampire here he was bound to be well hidden, and nothing less than a careful, methodical search was going to find him.

One room at a time, one thing at a time, by the book. Follow the procedures. And he and Fisher might just get out of this alive yet.

He moved over to the bed and got down on his hands and knees to look underneath it. A big hairy spider darted out of the shadows towards him, and he fell backwards with a startled yelp. The spider quickly disappeared back into the shadows. Hawk quickly regained his balance and shot a dirty look at Fisher, who was trying hard not to laugh and only just making it. Hawk growled something under his breath, picked up the lamp from the floor and swept it back and forth before him. There was nothing under the bed but dust.

Not in the chest, and not under the bed. That only left the wardrobe, though it seemed a bit obvious. Hawk clambered to his feet, put the lamp on the chest, and moved over to stand before the wardrobe. It was a big piece of furniture, almost seven feet tall and four feet wide. Wonder how they got it up the stairs? thought Hawk absently. He took a firm hold on the door handle, gestured for Fisher to stand ready, and then jerked open the door. Inside the wardrobe a teenage girl was hanging naked from a butcher’s hook. Her eyes were wide and staring, and she’d been dead for some time. Two jagged puncture wounds showed clearly on her throat, bright red against the white skin. The steel tip of the butcher’s hook protruded from her right shoulder, just above the collarbone. No blood had run from the wound, suggesting she was already dead when the hook went into her. Hawk swallowed hard and reached forward to gently touch the dead girl’s hand. The flesh was icy cold.

“Damn,” he said quietly. “Oh, damn.”

“It’s her, isn’t it?” said Fisher. “Councillor Trask’s daughter.”

“Yes,” said Hawk. “It’s her.”

“The vampire must have been thirsty. Or maybe just greedy. I doubt there’s a drop of blood left in her body.”

“Look at her,” said Hawk harshly. “Sixteen years old, and left to hang in darkness like a side of beef. She was so pretty, so alive.... She didn’t deserve to die like this. No one deserves to die like this.”

“Easy,” said Fisher softly. “Take it easy, love. We’ll get the bastard that did this. Now let’s get the girl down.”

“What?” Hawk looked at Fisher confusedly.

“We have to get her down, Hawk,” said Fisher. “She died from a vampire’s bite. If we leave her, she’ll rise again as one of the undead. We can spare her that, at least.”

Hawk nodded slowly. “Yes. Of course.”

Somehow, between them, they got the body off the hook and out of the wardrobe. They laid the dead girl out on the bed, and Hawk tried to close the staring eyes. They wouldn’t stay shut, and in the end Fisher put two coins on the eyes to hold the lids down.

“I don’t even know her name,” said Hawk. “I only knew her as Trask’s daughter.”

The scream caught him off guard, and he’d only just started to turn round when a heavy weight slammed into him from behind. He and his attacker fell sprawling on the floor, and the axe flew out of Hawk’s hand. He slammed his elbow back into his attacker’s ribs and pulled himself free. He scrambled away and went after his axe. The attacker lurched to his feet, and Fisher stepped forward to run him through with her sword. The man dodged aside at the last moment and grabbed Fisher’s extended arm. She groaned aloud as his fingers crushed her arm, grinding the muscles against the bone. Her sword fell from her numbed fingers. She clawed at his hand, and couldn’t move it. He was strong, impossibly strong, and she couldn’t tear herself free....

He flung her away from him. She slammed against the far wall and slid dazedly to the floor. Hawk started forward, axe in hand, and then stopped dead as he finally saw who his attacker was.

“Trask ...” Hawk gaped at the nondescript, middle-aged man standing grinning before him. The Councillor was little more than medium height and painfully thin, but his eyes burned in his gaunt face.

“She was your daughter, you bastard!” said Hawk. “Your own daughter ...”

“She will live forever,” said Trask, his voice horribly calm and reasonable. “So will I. My master has promised me this. My daughter was afraid at first; she didn’t understand. But she will. We will never grow old and ugly and die and lie forever in the cold earth. We will be strong and powerful and everyone will fear us. All I have to do is protect the master from fools like you.”

He darted forward, and Hawk met him with his axe. He swung it double-handed with all his strength, and the wide metal blade punched clean through Trask’s ribs. The Councillor screamed, as much with rage as with pain, and staggered back against the bed. Hawk pulled his axe free and got ready to hit him again if necessary. Trask looked down at his ribs, and saw the blood that flowed from the gaping wound in his side. He dipped his fingers into the blood, lifted them to his mouth and licked them clean. Hawk lifted his axe and Trask went for his throat. Hawk fought for breath as Trask’s bony fingers closed around his throat and tightened. He tried to swing his axe, but he couldn’t use it at such close quarters. He dropped it, and grabbed Trask’s wrists, but the Councillor was too strong. Hawk’s gaze began to dim. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears.

Fisher stepped in beside them and cut at Trask’s right arm with her sword. The gleaming blade sliced through the muscle, and the arm went limp. Hawk gathered the last of his strength and pushed Trask away from him. Trask lashed out at Fisher with his undamaged arm. She ducked under the blow and ran her sword through his heart with a single thrust. Trask stood very still, looking down at the gleaming steel blade protruding from his chest. Fisher jerked it out, and Trask collapsed, as though only the sword had been holding him up. He lay on his back on the floor, blood pooling around his body, and glared silently up at Hawk and Fisher. And then the light went out of his eyes, and his breathing stopped.

Hawk leaned back against the wall and felt gingerly at his bruised throat. Fisher stirred Trask’s body with her boot, and when he didn’t react, knelt down beside him and felt cautiously for a pulse. There wasn’t one. Fisher nodded, satisfied, and got to her feet again.

“He’s gone, Hawk. The bastard’s dead.”

“Good,” said Hawk, and frowned at how rough his voice sounded. He wouldn’t have minded, but it felt even worse than it sounded. “You all right, lass?”

“I’ve felt worse. Could Trask be the vampire, do you think?”

“No,” said Hawk. “He hasn’t got the teeth for it. Besides, we saw him at the briefing yesterday morning, remember?”

“Yeah, right. Trask was just the Judas Goat. But I think we’d better stake him anyway. Just to be sure.”

“Let’s see to the girl first.”

“Sure.”

Hawk pounded the stake into her heart. It was hard work. He let Fisher stake Trask, while he cut off the girl’s head as cleanly as he could. There was no blood, but that somehow made it worse. Cutting off Trask’s head was no problem at all. When it was finished, Hawk and Fisher left the room and shut the door quietly behind them. Hawk had thought the air would smell fresher on the landing, but it didn’t. He held up the oil lamp he’d brought from the room, and studied the next door in its flickering light.

“He has to be in there somewhere,” said Fisher quietly.

Hawk nodded slowly. He looked at her, and then frowned as he saw she was holding a wooden stake in her left hand. “How many of those did you bring?”

“Three,” said Fisher calmly. “I used two on Trask and his daughter. If there’s more than one vampire here, we’re in big trouble.”

Hawk smiled in spite of himself. “You always did have a gift for understatement.”

He opened the door a crack, stepped back a pace and then kicked the door in. It flew back to slam against the inner wall, and the sound was very loud on the quiet. The echoes took a long time to die away. Hawk stepped cautiously into the room, his axe in one hand and the lamp in the other. The room was empty, save for a heavy metal bed pushed up against the far wall. Fisher moved slowly round the room, tapping the walls and looking for hidden panels. Hawk stood in the middle of the room, and glared about him. He’s here somewhere. He has to be here somewhere. He moved over to the bed, and looked underneath it. Nothing but dust and shadows. He straightened up and looked at Fisher. She shook her head and looked uneasily about her. Hawk scowled, and looked back at the bed. And then he smiled slowly as an idea came to him.

“Isobel, give me a hand with this.”

Between them they got the bed away from the wall, and Hawk studied the wall panelling carefully in the light from his lamp. He smiled grimly as he made out the lines of a hidden panel, fitted his axe blade into one of the cracks, and applied a slow pressure. The wood creaked and groaned loudly, and then a whole section of the wall swung open on a concealed hinge. Behind the panel was a hidden compartment, and in that compartment lay a huge coffin. Hawk felt his mouth go dry, just looking at it. The coffin was seven feet long and three feet wide, built from a dark red wood Hawk didn’t recognise. Glyphs and runes had been carved into the sides and lid. He didn’t recognise them either. Hawk looked at Fisher, standing close beside him. Her face was very pale.

“Come on,” he said quietly. “Let’s get it out of there.”

The coffin was even heavier than it looked. They had to drag it into the room, inch by inch. It smelled bad. It smelled of blood and death and decay, and Hawk had to keep turning his head away in search of fresher air. He and Fisher finally got the coffin out of the hidden compartment and into the room, then stepped back to take a look at it.

“Big, isn’t it?” said Fisher softly.

“Yeah,” said Hawk. “Look, as soon as I get the lid open, you get that stake into him. As soon as the stake’s home, I’ll cut off the head. I’m not taking any chances with this one.”

“Got it,” said Fisher. “We’ve been on some dirty jobs in the past, Hawk, but this has got to be the dirtiest.”

“Remember the girl,” said Hawk. “Now, let’s do it.”

They bent over the coffin and the lid flew open, knocking them both backwards. The vampire sat up in its coffin and grinned at them with pointed teeth. Hawk’s hand tightened round the haft of his axe till his fingers ached. He’d thought he knew what a vampire would look like, but he’d been wrong. The creature before him might once have been a man, but it wasn’t anymore. It looked like what it was; something that had died and been buried, and then dug its way up out of the grave. Its face was sunken and wrinkled, and there was a bluish tinge to the dead white skin. The eyes were a dirty yellow, without pupil or retina, as though the eyeballs had rotted in their sockets. A few wisps of long white hair frayed away from the bony skull. The hands were horribly thin, the fingers little more than claws. But the real horror lay in subtler things. The vampire’s black robes were rotting and falling apart. Graveyard lichens and moss grew here and there on the dead skin. Its chest didn’t move, because it no longer needed to breathe. And it smelled like rotting meat that had been left to hang too long.

It rose up from its coffin in a single smooth movement and looked at Hawk and Fisher with its empty yellow eyes. Hawk looked away despite himself, and his gaze fell on the shuttered window. No light showed around the shutters’ edges. We left it too late! The sun’s gone down.... The vampire stepped elegantly out of its coffin. Its bare feet made no sound on the wooden floor.

Fisher wrinkled her nose at the smell. “Dirty stinking bastard. Lying down or standing up, it makes no difference. Let’s do it, Hawk.”

Hawk nodded slowly, and then sprang forward, swinging his axe double-handed at the vampire’s neck. The creature put up a spindly arm to block the blow, and the axe bounced off, vibrating as though it had struck an iron bar. Hawk’s hands went numb from the impact, and it was all he could do to hang onto the axe. Fisher thrust at the vampire with her stake, using it like a dagger. The vampire avoided the blow easily, and knocked Fisher sprawling with a single backhanded blow. She lay where she had fallen, her head swimming madly. There was an inhuman power in the creature’s slender frame. Fisher clutched desperately at the wooden stake, and struggled weakly to get her feet under her. The vampire looked down at her and chuckled suddenly—a low, filthy sound.

Hawk swung his axe at it again. The vampire raised its head and caught the heavy blade in mid-swing, wrenching the weapon from Hawk’s hand. It threw the axe away, and reached for Hawk with its bony hands. He darted back out of range and looked desperately about him for another weapon. The vampire laughed again, and bent over Fisher. It grabbed her by the shoulder, and she moaned aloud as the clawlike fingers sank into her flesh. Blood ran down her arm in a steady stream. She tried to break free, and couldn’t. The vampire drew her slowly closer, grinning widely to show her its long pointed teeth. Fisher tried again to stab the vampire with the stake. It grabbed her wrist and squeezed hard. The feeling went out of her fingers and she dropped the stake. It rolled away and disappeared into the shadows.

Hawk watched helplessly. He’d found his axe again, but he didn’t dare attack the vampire. Cold steel was no use against it. He needed a wooden stake.... He glared wildly about him, and his gaze fell on the coffin. A vampire must always return to its coffin before break of day.... Hawk grinned savagely as the answer came to him. He stepped forward, lifted his axe, and brought it swinging down onto the side of the coffin. The heavy wood split and splintered under the blow. Hawk jerked the blade free and struck again. The side sagged inwards, and splinters flew on the air. The vampire threw Fisher aside and darted forward. Hawk dropped his axe, grabbed the heaviest splinter from the coffin and buried it in the vampire’s chest as the creature reached for him. For a moment they stood facing each other, the yellow eyes and grinning mouth only inches away from Hawk’s face, and then the vampire suddenly collapsed and fell limply to the floor. It made surprised mewling sounds, and clutched at the thick wooden splinter protruding from its chest. Hawk threw himself down beside the vampire, snatched up his axe, and used the flat of the blade to hammer the splinter into the vampire’s heart. It screamed and tore at him with its clawed hands, but he didn’t care. He hit the wooden splinter again and again and again, driving it deep into the vampire’s chest, and with every blow he struck he saw the dead girl’s face as she hung from the butcher’s hook. After a while he realised that the vampire had stopped struggling, and that Fisher was kneeling beside him.

“It’s all right, Hawk. It’s over.”

He looked down at the vampire. The dirty yellow eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling, and the clawed hands lay still at its sides. He raised his axe one last time, and cut savagely at the creature’s neck. The steel blade sliced clean through and sank into the wooden floor beneath. The vampire seemed to collapse and fall in upon itself, and in a few seconds there was nothing left but dust. Hawk sighed slowly, pulled his axe out of the floor, and then sat back on his haunches. Some of the tension began to drain out of him. He looked wearily at Fisher, still kneeling beside him.

“You all right, lass?”

“I’ll live.”

Hawk smiled slightly. “Well, we got the vampire. Not exactly according to the book, but what the hell. You can’t have everything.”

He and Fisher rose painfully to their feet and leaned on each other a while until they felt strong enough to make their way back down the stairs. They left Trask and his daughter where they were. Burning the bodies could wait. Let the backup unit earn its pay for a change. Hawk and Fisher slowly made their way through the empty house and out into Chandler Lane. It was still hot and muggy, and the air stank of smoke and tannin, but after the house and what they’d found in it, the lane looked pretty good to them.

“You know,” said Hawk reflectively, “there has to be an easier way to make a living.”