What is this place?” asked Quin.
“Safe house,” said Matheus. “We’re supposed to meet here if there’s an attack.”
The four of them huddled together in the alley across the street from the run-down factory. Sheets of plywood covered the windows. Graffiti, done with varying skill, obscured the brick. Scraggly grass grew around piles of refuse, littered with broken glass.
“Where is everyone?” Alistair asked. “Some of them must have gotten away.” He stroked Freddie’s back, his fingers leaving channels in Freddie’s thick fur.
“They’d be inside, wouldn’t they?” Matheus frowned. “I mean, a great lot of people hanging around outside isn’t exactly stealthy.”
“I suppose,” said Alistair. He frowned as well. He exchanged looks with Matheus, before they both turned back to the factory. Alistair’s fingers tightened on Freddie’s fur.
“So, we should go.” Matheus didn’t move. He watched the factory for a few more seconds, then let out a long exhale. He stood. “Oka—ah!”
He hit the pavement with a thud.
“Wait,” said Quin, releasing Matheus’ ankle. “It’s not safe.”
“Of course it’s safe.” Matheus pushed himself up onto his knees. His nose and chin stung, the skin raw and sticky to his touch. “It’s a safe house. It’s in the name.”
Quin shook his head, his jawbone pulsing against his cheek. He knelt in a runner’s pose. His eyes flicked back and forth as he scanned the abandoned factory. He reminded Matheus of a bottle of soda someone had shook up, then left on the shelf for an unsuspecting victim.
“How did Apollonia find us?” Alistair asked.
“Maybe she had someone follow you back after you found me?” Matheus said.
“And then waited almost two weeks before attacking?” asked Quin. He didn’t look away from the factory.
“I—” Matheus stopped. “Shit.”
“What?” asked Alistair.
“It’s Eamon. Or maybe Gwen or Salvatore. One of them.”
“No,” said Alistair. “One of the new people. Someone must have slipped away alone and—”
“Apollonia knew I—” Matheus cut himself off. He trusted Alistair, but Quin worried him. He cleared his throat. “She had information that only Eamon could have given her. Maybe he was trying to bargain or…or something. If Apollonia has Gwen or Salvatore—”
“Any one of them could have broken.” Alistair buried his face in Freddie’s fur. “Faust never found them. Juliet hadn’t heard anything either.”
“Apollonia’s not working alone,” said Matheus. He swallowed, trying to push down the lump swelling in his throat. “There’s my father.”
Quin twitched. He turned, staring at Matheus.
“He probably has a new headquarters somewhere.” Matheus pressed on, ignoring the look boring into his skull. “Did Milo ever find—?”
“No,” said Alistair. He raised his head, and rested his chin on Freddie’s shoulder. “You really think your father has them?”
“Do you think they’re still alive?” asked Alistair.
“I don’t know,” said Matheus.
“Well, this has been just fascinating,” said Quin. “But who is that?” He pointed to a man wandering out of the factory.
Freddie growled, his ears going flat against his head. The man strolled toward the road. He searched through his pockets, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. He tapped the pack against the palm of his hand, then unwound the plastic wrapping and tossed it aside. The man patted his jacket, then produced a lighter. Blowing out a stream of smoke, he settled down on the curb, stretching his legs out in front of him.
“I don’t recognize him,” said Alistair.
A radio squawked. Cigarette dangling from his lips, the man unclipped a walkie-talkie from his belt. He spoke, then waited for a response. Matheus caught every third word, enough to know the man hadn’t stopped by for a spot of urban exploration. The man made a rude gesture at the walkie-talkie before replacing it on his belt. He leaned backward, blowing smoke out of his nostrils.
“Let’s go,” said Quin.
“Wait,” said Matheus. “I think someone’s coming.”
The smoker had stood up. He stared down the road, then tossed his cigarette aside. Gliding backward, he disappeared into the shadow of the factory.
Matheus squinted. The newcomer approached slowly, keeping away from dark corners, and pausing to scan the area every few steps. Blood covered the left side of his face, and crusted in his long hair.
“Is that Thomas?” asked Alistair.
“We have to stop him,” said Matheus.
Thomas reached the factory. He crept around the edge, searching for the loose board that marked the entrance.
“He’s going to be killed,” said Matheus.
“Probably,” said Quin.
“You aren’t helping,” said Alistair, with a look at Quin that Matheus didn’t recognize.
Thomas tried a piece of plywood. The board rattled, but didn’t come loose. He turned the corner of the factory. His back scraped over the spray painted bricks as he inched around the building.
The smoker stepped out of the shadows, drawing a stake out of his pocket. He waited, out of Thomas’ line of sight.
Matheus leaned forward, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Tho—mmph!”
Quin grabbed Matheus’ arms, while Alistair clamped a hand over his mouth. Matheus squirmed. He snapped at Alistair’s fingers, but only managed to graze his skin.
“We don’t know how many there are,” Alistair said, leaning in to whisper in Matheus’ ear. “We can’t risk it.”
Matheus let his body go limp. Quin staggered backward. He recovered a fraction of a second later, but not soon enough to stop Matheus. Matheus wrenched his arms free. He lunged for the end of the alley. Quin’s fingers closed in his hair at the same time a heavy weight knocked him into brick wall. Matheus watched as Freddie raced across the street.
“What is he doing?” Alistair asked. “That…idiot!”
Freddie leapt onto the smoker. They hit the ground. Freddie’s jaws closed around the man’s throat. He jerked, cutting off the man’s scream before it had a chance to be heard. A second bite tore through the man’s spinal cord. Freddie shook the man’s head, then flung it aside. The head hit the bricks with a wet thud. Blood splattered over Thomas’ face as he stood there, fixed in place.
“Goddammit,” said Alistair. “Freddie! The roof!”
Matheus looked up. A half-dozen archers had appeared over the parapet. Each one held a crossbow trained at Freddie. None of them seemed ready to forgive and forget. Thomas still hadn’t moved, but he stood too close to the building to make a good target.
“Run!” Matheus shouted.
The plywood covering entrance swung open. Five or six people, armed with machetes that glinted under the streetlamps, raced out. They approached Freddie, forming a loose circle around him. The archers took aim.
“Get out of there!” Alistair yelled.
Freddie howled. The sound, trapped between human and animal, echoed off the buildings. Matheus felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention. He backed away, running up against Quin’s chest. Quin gripped his wrists; for once Matheus didn’t object.
The machete-wielders paused. A visible shudder passed through them, but the moment didn’t last. They closed in. Freddie darted between them, dodging the downward swing of blades. He leapt at Thomas, his teeth clamping onto Thomas’ arm.
Thomas screamed. He continued screaming as Freddie barreled across the street, dragging Thomas with him. Bolts from the archers chased after them; the machete-wielders followed a second later.
Quin spun Matheus around, pushing him toward the other end of the alley. “Run.”
Matheus didn’t need to be told twice. He dodged around the piles of debris. Behind him, he heard Freddie’s claws scraping over the pavement. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Alistair give Freddie a quick pat before running after Matheus. Thomas followed, his arm clutched to his chest.
Matheus emerged from the alley onto a narrow street, little more than an access road for the various factories in the area. He skidded to a stop in the middle, searching left and right. He felt Quin take his arm again. He’d have bruises for a week, but if holding onto him kept Quin from exploding like a hotdog in a microwave, Matheus didn’t mind.
“We need a car,” Matheus said as Alistair, Freddie, and Thomas clustered behind him.
“There isn’t time.” Quin turned to face Matheus as the machete-enthusiasts reached the end of the alley. He grabbed the back of Matheus’ throat, pulling him in for a hard kiss.
Matheus tasted blood in his mouth. His head spun as Quin thrust him toward the others. He blinked, trying to focus on Quin’s face. Alistair held his arms, as though he doubted Matheus’ ability to stand. Matheus wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. Blood smeared across the skin.
With a disgusted noise, Quin turned toward the oncoming attackers.
Matheus leapt forward, latching onto Quin’s biceps.
“Don’t even,” Matheus said, hauling Quin backward. “You don’t get to kill yourself this way.”
Quin shook him off. “You’ll all die. Go. Run.”
“Listen to the man, Matheus. He’s—” said Alistair.
The squeal of tires demolished the rest of his sentence. A truck took the corner on two wheels, tearing down the road. The machete-wielders jumped back just in time to avoid being caught in the truck’s massive grill. Although, one let out a shriek as she tumbled to the ground, clutching her foot. The truck swung around, leaving tire marks on the pavement as it screeched to a halt. Milo leaned out the driver’s side window.
“Get in,” he said.
Matheus and the others scrambled into the bed of the truck. Quin had barely swung his leg over before Milo hit the gas. Matheus grabbed Quin and they fell in a heap on the metal bed. Quin disentangled himself with a punch to Matheus’ gut. He crawled to the corner, clinging to the frame as the truck sped down the narrow road. A moment later, he pulled Matheus over next to him. Matheus wondered how long he’d be able to put up with Quin’s bipolar affections before he broke under the emotional whiplash.
The machete-wielders chased the truck, but quickly fell behind. Matheus caught sight of one yelling into his radio before Milo took the corner. Holding onto the side of the truck, Matheus leaned over the side, looking for reinforcements. He didn’t see any cars waiting to give chase. Surprising; he had expected Apollonia to break out the Abrams tanks and grenade launchers. Matheus settled against the metal frame. He bounced and slid with every bump and turn.
Freddie’s claws scraped over the smooth floor as he tried to find purchase. Whimpering, he crashed into the gate. Alistair wrapped an arm around him neck, holding him tight.
“It might be time to change back, darling,” he said.
Milo hit a pothole, sending all of them flying. Thomas gave a half-strangled yelp as he banged his arm on the wheel well. Freddie shifted, fur rippling, skeleton snapped and stretching. Matheus closed his eyes. Some things a person didn’t need to see more than once, and sometimes not even then.
“Keep that thing away from me,” said Thomas.
Matheus opened his eyes. Freddie sat next to Alistair, naked, tired, and bemused. Matheus didn’t see even a hint of a movement toward Thomas.
“He saved your life!” Alistair said. “Either say ‘thank you’ or shut your damned trap.”
Freddie gave Matheus a small smile, then laid his head in Alistair’s lap. Within seconds, a light snore emerged from his mouth.
“You’re all insane,” said Thomas.
Alistair glared at him, and Thomas subsided. He withdrew to the other corner of the bed. He stared out of the truck, looking more like a stoic Viking than ever before. Shame that Matheus considered him a pedantic waste of blood and tissue. He wondered what had happened to Heaven. Another shame that he didn’t get to pick and choose the people to rescue. Then again, that sounded uncomfortably close to point of view.
“I think you’ve been replaced,” said Quin.
“Huh?” Matheus blinked, shook out of his thoughts. He followed Quin’s nod to Alistair and Freddie.
Alistair stroked Freddie’s hair, his expression unreadable. His fingers circled Freddie’s ear, then trailed down to rest on Freddie’s throat. Matheus felt a tightness in his stomach.
“Maybe so,” he said.
The air smelt of the harbor. Matheus rested his forearms on the side of the trunk, watching the city change around them. Milo drove to toward the older section of city, the former downtown before the big building boom in the eighties that shifted the center of Kenderton farther inland. The shops and apartments had a shabby look, as though nothing had been updated for thirty years. A depressed Store 24 sat on the corner, but most of the other shops had family names painted across the dingy windows. A huge, run-down movie theater dominated the street. The marquee offered the number of a local real estate company, but the theater looked as though no one had been inside since the fifties. Milo turned down a narrow side street and stopped at the back entrance to the theater.
“Why here?” Matheus asked as Milo hopped out of the cab. The rest of them scrambled out of the bed of the truck.
“You’ll see,” said Milo. He led them to a side door. The handle had broken off and someone had scrawled ‘go fuk you’ across the warped metal. Milo picked a piece of scrap wood off the cracked pavement, and wedged the tip between two bricks. He wiggled one of the bricks loose, then reached inside. A faint click, and the door popped open.
“After you,” Milo said, gesturing toward the open door.
Inside, age stained the walls; layers of paint had peeled away, leaving chips scattered across the floor. A few patches of carpet revealed a deep red color; the rest had faded to a threadbare pink. Legions of mousetraps lined the hallway. Matheus inhaled. Judging from the faint smell, the mice had seen through the gifts of free peanut butter.
The hallway deposited them in the main lobby. Once, the room had been done up in grand old style, when movie houses oozed gilt and glamour. Now, the velvet had rotted and the gold leaf rubbed away. The ornate columns and arches remained, marred with age and neglect. Matheus had the impression of being inside a Greek temple, all the bright colors gone, leaving only the elegant bones behind.
“Is this your secret hideout?” he asked, running his hand over a column. Some plaster came loose, spilling over his feet.
“Something like that,” said Milo.
A bank of computers sat in the center of the room, bundles of wires leading in all directions. An industrial grade air conditioner let out a low hum. Green and red lights winked. The equipment didn’t fit with the rest of the dilapidated splendor, giving the room a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic feel.
“You had this place the whole time and you didn’t say anything,” Matheus said. “Why?”
“Do I need to define secret?”
“Yeah, but why stay with us? What about the house you were living in before?”
“I find it’s best to have somewhere my employers don’t about.” Milo threw his jacket onto the concessions counter, then sat down in front of the computers. “Rent is two thousand a month. I’ll add it to your bill.”
“Thanks,” said Matheus.
Alistair nudged him.
“That wasn’t sarcastic,” Matheus said, speaking to Milo, but glaring at Alistair. “I really mean it.”
“Two thousand,” said Milo. He switched on the monitors. A blue-white glow fell over his face, reflecting in his glasses.
“Right.” Matheus turned to small group gathered around him. He noticed Thomas had made sure to keep both Quin and Alistair between himself and Freddie. “So what now?”
“I need to feed.” Thomas nodded at his arm.
“Okay,” said Matheus. He looked from Quin to Alistair. Someone had to go with Thomas. “Quin, go with him.”
Quin’s head snapped up. He narrowed his eyes at Matheus. “I don’t take orders.”
“Please, oh, great Quin, will you go with Thomas? I’d be ever so grateful.” Matheus hoped Quin’s desire to get away from him at least matched his own. Standing too close to Quin tended to muddy Matheus’ thinking. He needed at least an hour without having to worry about anyone else’s mental stability. Keeping track of his own neuroses provided more than enough stress. He matched Quin glare for glare, unable to hide his surprise when Quin glanced away first.
“Don’t get used to this.” Quin grabbed Thomas’ shoulder, and dragged him away. Impressive, considering that Thomas outweighed Quin by at least thirty pounds.
“Wait!” Thomas struggled in Quin’s grasp. “Don’t I get a say in this?”
“Nope,” said Matheus. “Have fun, kids!” He waved, then slumped as Quin and Thomas disappeared down the hallway.
“What was that about?” asked Alistair. “What if Quin loses it and kills Thomas?”
“If he kills anyone, it’s going to be me. Or himself. Which would probably also kill me, so….” Matheus sighed. “This has been a long night.”
“Oh, Lord, that’s an understatement,” said Alistair. “What are you going to do now?”
“I have a plan,” said Matheus. “Step one, find Freddie some pants.”
“Manager’s office,” said Milo without turning around.
“And how much are you going to charge us for them?” Alistair asked.
“Nothing,” said Milo. “It’s public service.”
“Thank God,” said Matheus. He flapped his hand at the door marked Man g er Off e in chipped gold paint. “Freddie, go. Embrace the joys of fabric.”
As Freddie loped off, a figure appeared at the top of the ramp leading to the theaters. She floated toward Matheus and Alistair, her skirt charred and stained with blood.
“Heaven.” Matheus grinned, then pulled Heaven into a hug. “You survived.”
Heaven patted his back. “Of course.”
Matheus released her. He glanced away, and cleared his throat. “Well. It’s good.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Alistair.
Turning in a circle, Heaven smiled. She stopped in front of Matheus, and spread her arms wide. “This is a house of fantasy and dreams. It will bring us luck.”
“Fantastic,” said Matheus. “I thought it was the house of overpriced popcorn and cheap melodrama, but your thing sounds better, so let’s go with that.”
“Is anyone else here?” asked Alistair.
“A few,” said Heaven.
“We should go back to the safe house,” said Matheus. “Catch anyone before they try to get in.”
“Freddie and I will go,” said Alistair.
“No, all of us.”
Alistair shook his head. “Apollonia is getting desperate. She thought she had you, and you got away again. She’s going to be furious. Right now, the rest of us are just a bonus. You need to stay here, not go running off like a madman with a death wish.”
Heaven nodded along with Alistair’s speech.
“I’m not going to hide,” said Matheus.
“Yeah, you are,” Alistair said. “I know you might not like it, but you’re a symbol to everyone who’s fighting against Apollonia. You’re Goddamned Protos reincarnated. Frankly, you’re too important to waste on a simple rescue mission.”
Heaven continued nodding. Matheus worried her head might topple off.
“That is complete bullshit,” he said. “And you know it’s bullshit.”
“So what? For once, you have to be the one who stays behind.” Alistair tucked a stray lock of hair behind Matheus’ ear, then kissed his cheek. “I care about you too. Even if you are an idiot.”
“Gosh,” said Matheus. “I’m touched.”
“As you should be. Freddie! Heel!”
Freddie emerged from the manager’s office, fully panted. He jogged after Alistair, a goofy grin threatening to break across his face. Matheus wondered what had happened to the feral wolf they’d picked up.
“Lapdog!” he shouted after Freddie. Without pausing, Alistair held up his hand, middle finger extended. With a sigh, Matheus turned to Heaven. “Now what?”
Heaven rested her hand on Matheus’ arm.
“Come with me,” she said.
The story continues in...Real Vampires Don’t Sparkle, Episode 74: