Nikola, as he ran, wished many things.
He wished he was faster. He wished he had wings. Above all he wished he had never strayed beyond the fence. They had warned him against it. Everyone had. Countless times. The fence, they had told him, is there for a reason. Not to keep us in. To keep them out. So do not go over it. Stay this side. It is dangerous out there for our kind.
Nikola had listened. But he hadn’t listened. He’d seen little of London since arriving on the ferry from mainland Europe. In fact, once he’d been discovered stowed away in the back of the articulated goods lorry, all he’d seen was a detention centre, the inside of a van, then the housing estate. He was sixteen, and he did not care for being confined.
So tonight he had scaled the fence. All but vaulted over it, in fact. It was not that high, four metres or thereabouts. The barbed wire had scraped his hands but drawn no blood. An easy escape. Everyone was right: the fence was a deterrent to the rest of the world, not to those inside it.
Tentatively, curiously, Nikola had begun to explore.
In the immediate vicinity of the estate there was nothing much. Dead shops, hollow houses, pavements latticed with weeds. Nobody wanted to live here, so close to a Sunless Residential Area. Local Londoners had decanted themselves elsewhere.
Nikola startled a stray cat, which yowled and spat at him like a demented thing before scurrying away. A short while later he had to hide as a SHADE patrol car rolled by, sweeping its searchlight. Emerging from the basement stairwell down which he’d ducked, he carried on his voyage of discovery warily. He hugged the street shadows, of which there were plenty, as he moved out towards where the city was alive and humming.
He only wanted to take a look, that was all. Just to see what it was like, this English capital, this fabled metropolis that was now, by default, his home. He was certainly not on the prowl, hunting for victims. He could smell them from afar, and the smell was unbelievably exotic and intoxicating, but he had no intention of taking one of them for himself. He knew how insanely unwise that would be, how it could have dire repercussions for his whole community. A little curiosity, though, a little sightseeing—that was allowed, wasn’t it?
His attackers came out of nowhere. There was no warning. They were quick, and they were wrapped head to toe in thick clothing, which masked their scent. This, more than anything, told Nikola that they were specialists. They’d been lying in ambush, hoping for precisely this opportunity, waiting for someone like him to happen along. Someone rash. Someone reckless.
There were four of them, all in motorcycle helmets with leather neck guards. Two were on rollerblades, leading the attack, hurtling unexpectedly around a corner, keeping low as they kick-thrusted themselves towards Nikola, arms pumping. He started to move, but they were on him in no time. A blow from a chainmail-gloved fist caught him on the side of the head and sent him reeling.
Nikola staggered to his feet, only to see the two rollerbladers arc around each other in the middle of the street and veer at him again. As he turned to run, he came face to face with the other two members of the gang. They stood with their legs apart, braced, each carrying an ash-wood stake.
Nikola felt fear then like he had never felt before and had believed he would never feel again. The stakes’ sharpened points were bright white in the darkness. The visors on the helmets of the men wielding them were implacably black and blank.
He sprang sideways. It was all he could do. He collided with a set of railings, which he hurdled clumsily. Within seconds he was scaling the face of a three-storey terraced house. He heard shouts behind him, below him. He scuttled up the brickwork as fast as he could, finding finger purchase in the narrowest of crevices. Height. If he gained height, surely he would be safe. These men could not follow him up onto the rooftops, could they?
But they could. While the two rollerbladers raced off in opposite directions, heading for the ends of the terrace to cut off Nikola’s escape that way, the other two men lodged their stakes in their belts and went in pursuit of him on foot, propelling themselves up the front of the house much as he had, if not quite so straightforwardly. Drainpipe, window ledge, door lintel, anything that projected outwards, however slightly, was of use to them. They were free runners. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, it made no difference—it was just a surface to be negotiated, just a series of handholds and toeholds they could employ to get to where they were going.
Nikola reached the roof, moments ahead of his pursuers. He darted along the vertex, doing his best to keep his balance on the rounded tiles. The two men thundered after him. Nikola swung round a chimney stack. A second afterwards, so did they. Only a couple of houses lay between him and the end of the street. One of the rollerbladers was waiting for him there, at the corner. Nikola jinked right and slithered down the angle of the roof towards the houses’ backyards and the alley that furrowed in between. He leapt off the gutter, landing lightly on a wall below. Then he was in the alley, skirting overturned dustbins and upended shopping trolleys. The pair of free runners weren’t far behind.
The rollerblader intercepted him at the alley’s mouth. Nikola, however, sprinting with all his might, barged straight into the man, his shoulder low. The rollerblader was shunted backwards, went scooting across the street, and whacked into a lamppost, letting out a loud grunt of pain. He recovered and joined the two runners in chasing after Nikola; soon all three of them were at Nikola’s heels. Nikola pounded on, praying that he was going the right way. The tower blocks of the Residential Area loomed ahead, but the street he was on seemed to be curving away from them. He had no idea whether to take a right or a left at the next junction. If he could get to the Residential Area he would surely be okay. The men would not dare follow him over the fence. But he felt that he was in a maze, and any wrong turn he made would be the end of him. He was strong, stronger than any of the four men, but they outnumbered him, and they had weapons.
Then Nikola slammed face first into the ground. He didn’t know how it had happened. Had he tripped? He tried to get up but couldn’t. His legs were stuck fast together. Ropes entwined his ankles, attached to weighted steel spheres. A bolas. Frantically Nikola began to unpick the ropes, but the three attackers now had him surrounded. The other rollerblader appeared, skidding to a halt. Nikola looked up at them all, baring his teeth and hissing in rage. He swiped at the nearest of them, raking talons across the man’s leg, but his trousers were made of Kevlar or something. Some fabric that talons couldn’t penetrate.
Knees pinned Nikola’s wrists roughly to the road. He struggled with all his might, but the men bore down, holding him in place. A stake was brandished. Nikola writhed and spat. All he could think of, even as he lay there helpless and apparently doomed, was tearing open the throats of his four attackers and feasting on the delicious warmth within. His thirst, spurred by anger, was a feral thing. He despised them all. They were nothing but cattle. Prey. Given the chance, he would drain every last drop of life from them.
The stake hovered, poised above his chest. The fist around it tightened its grip.
The voice was deep, calm. Its tone did not expect refusal.
“I’ll give you to the count of three. Drop it, or I drop you.”
Nikola’s English was not good, but he knew enough to tell that the person speaking was threatening his four attackers, not him. He twisted his head round on the tarmac to look. He saw boots, a long overcoat, a tall man with moon-white hair and a face as craggy and imperturbable as a chalk cliff. He saw, too, a high shirt collar like a priest’s, one that went all the way up to the jawline, and a gun, a weighty, long-barrelled handweapon of the type he knew was called a Cindermaker.
Which meant SHADE. The Night Brigade.
Which in turn meant Nikola was no less doomed than he had been a few seconds ago.
* * *
“One last chance,” said the SHADE officer. “Put down the stake or be put down. A bullet’s a bullet. Wooden or not, it’ll still put a damn great hole in you.”
“Fuck off, fangbanger,” said one of Nikola’s attackers. “This here’s a vamp and it’s out of its nest. If we weren’t about to dust it, you’d be doing the same yourself.”
“Maybe,” came the reply. “The difference is that I’m a servant of the law. You, you’re nothing but vigilantes. Stokers, right?”
“So, drop the stake and move away from the Sunless.” The SHADE officer advanced, Cindermaker to the fore. “One. Two…”
“Wait,” said another of the Stokers, one of the rollerbladers. “Wait just a second. Let us poke a hole in the bloodsucker”—he gestured at Nikola—“and we’ll be gone. No one will know we were ever here, and you can claim the dusting as your own. Come on, what do you say, shady? That’s reasonable, isn’t it? Everybody wins.”
“Do you know who I am?”
The Stokers shook their heads.
“The name John Redlaw ring a bell?”
Not with three of them, but the fourth man stiffened. “Yeah, I’ve heard of this geezer all right. Tough bastard, they say.”
As for Nikola, he was truly terrified. He might not have been in this country long but even he had heard of John Redlaw. The man was spoken of among his kind often and only ever in hushed tones, the name rarely uttered louder than a whisper.
“Then,” said Redlaw to the man, “you’ll know I can’t be dissuaded and I can’t be bargained with.” He halted less than five paces from the Stokers and Nikola. “I’ll happily blow each and every one of you out of your socks, and to hell with the paperwork. The ’Less is mine. Leave now, and you leave intact. My best and final offer.”
The Stokers looked at one another. Then the one with the stake said, “Fuck it,” and flung it at Redlaw. As Redlaw twisted to evade it, the Stoker pounced on him. He punched Redlaw’s gun hand, sending the Cindermaker flying, then he punched Redlaw himself, full in the face. Blood spurted from the SHADE officer’s nose.
“Fuck’s sake, come on!” the Stoker yelled to his cohorts as Redlaw went down. “There’s just one of him, and he’s old. Let’s have some fun here.”
The other three needed little encouragement. They relinquished Nikola and dived in to beat up Redlaw.
“Wave a gun at us, will you?” one cried.
“Ash-wood fucking bullets?” snarled another. “Ash-wood? On people?”
Kicks and punches flew. Nikola could not see Redlaw any more. The SHADE officer was buried beneath the Stokers, the hidden eye of a storm of violence. He didn’t appear to be fighting back. Why not? Was he really not so fearsome as his reputation suggested? Was he, in fact, nothing without a gun in his hand?
Then there was a loud crunch, and one of the rollerblader Stokers whirled to the ground, clutching a broken knee.
A snap, and a second Stoker sank down, shrieking, his left arm skewed hideously at the elbow.
Suddenly Redlaw was on his feet, and he was gripping the other rollerblader by the jacket, swinging him into the fourth Stoker, and sending them both crashing onto the road in a heap. Redlaw straddled them, grabbed the uppermost by his neck guard, and began pounding his head against the man below’s. The helmet visors shattered; splinters of black polycarbonate were hammered into skin. Redlaw didn’t relent until both Stokers were half senseless and their features were like bloody maps of hell. Then he went over to the rollerblader Stoker with the crippled knee and, almost clinically, stamped on his good knee until it was crippled too. Finally he turned to the man with the broken arm, who was hobbling away, whimpering. He yanked the man’s helmet off, exposing a pain-wracked, tear-streaked face.
“If there’s one thing lower than vampires,” he said, “it’s people who prey on vampires. I want you to carry a message to your cronies, all those other Stokers who think they’re so self-righteous and clever. A personal message from me. Will you do that for me?”
Desperately the Stoker nodded.
“Tell them this, from Captain John Redlaw of the Sunless Housing And Disclosure Executive…”
The Stoker toppled backwards with a ghastly yelp. His skull cracked on the road surface, and he lay still.
Redlaw straightened out his shirt collar, smoothed down his overcoat, and went to retrieve his Cindermaker.
* * *
Throughout the fight Nikola did nothing but gawp. He knew he should flee while Redlaw was busy with the Stokers, but he was still badly shaken from the attack. He’d been moments away from getting staked, his immortality over almost as soon as it had begun. He was hollowed with fear, and besides, once the tide of the fight turned and Redlaw started taking the four men apart, he wanted to watch. It was an awesome sight, Redlaw despatching the Stokers with such ruthless, savage precision. Gratifying, too, to Nikola. They deserved what they were getting. Every bit of it and more.
In hindsight, he realised he had made something of an error. For now Redlaw was striding towards him, Cindermaker in hand, its barrel levelled at Nikola’s heart. Nikola started scrabbling to free himself from the bolas ropes.
“Bună seara.” Redlaw said. “Labvakar. Blaho večer. Jó estét.”
The last one, Nikola recognised. “Jó estét,” he replied. Good evening.
“Ah,” said Redlaw. “Hungarian. Magyar?”
Nikola nodded. “Igen.”
“You speak English?”
“A little. Please, not shoot.”
Redlaw glanced at his gun, then back at Nikola. “Don’t give me a reason to shoot and I won’t. You understand?”
Nikola did, just about. The SHADE officer’s expression was, if not gentle, then marginally less severe than when he’d been addressing the Stokers. His face’s solidity had softened just a fraction, though his eyes remained hard and watchful.
“It would help if you stopped staring at the blood from my nose.”
Nikola averted his gaze guiltily. The fresh blood sang to him. Its sweet ferrous smell was unbearably enticing. As a boy—a human boy—back in Miskolc, the most wonderful aroma he’d ever known was his grandmother’s hot chocolate, warming on the stove, and the most wonderful flavour he’d ever known was the drink itself, laced with spices and a dash of apricot palinka. But blood was a hundred, a thousand times more wonderful than even that.
Redlaw dabbed at his upper lip with a linen handkerchief. “Lucky shot. I should never have let the idiot catch me unawares like that, or get so close. Old man. Losing my edge. Although, having said that, I did fancy a bit of a scrap. Listen, sonny.”
Dark eyes bored into Nikola’s.
“From the looks of you—incompletely emerged fangs, still a trace of pink in your complexion, only the faintest reddening of the sclera—it wasn’t so long ago that you were turned. My guess is you don’t just look young, you are young. So I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s not something I often do. Ever do, actually. But I’m prepared to make an exception. You wanted to see the outside world. I get that. Don’t. Don’t ever want that. You can see why.” He indicated the four Stokers strewn in their various poses of agony and semi-consciousness. “You don’t belong out here. No one wants you out here. The Sunless Residential Area is your home. Your only home. Forever. Clear?”
More or less. His tone, if not his words. Nikola nodded.
“Then go. Get back behind the fence. Before I change my mind.”
The Cindermaker continued to point, unwaveringly, at Nikola’s beatless heart.
Ropes loosened, Nikola ran no longer in an ecstasy of dread, but suffused with relief and joy.
* * *
Learned his lesson, thought Redlaw as the boy vanished from view.
The four Stokers had doubtless learned theirs too.
Redlaw pulled out the crucifix that hung round his neck. The wood was warm against his lips as he kissed it briefly. He murmured a prayer of thanks—for victory, for deliverance from his enemies. The prayer was perfunctory and low, so much so that even the Almighty might have missed it.
As he was returning the crucifix to its rightful place next to his sternum, Redlaw’s phone sounded. His ringtone was the opening chords of “Jerusalem” played on a thunderous cathedral organ.
“John.” The throaty, no-nonsense tones of Commodore Gail Macarthur.
“What can I do for you, Commodore?”
“GPS puts you down Mile End way.”
“That I am.”
“But your car’s not moving and you’re not in it.”
“How do you know I’m not in it?”
“Well, if you were you’d have heard the bulletin from dispatch and be en route already. There’s a disturbance at the Hackney SRA.”
“What a surprise.”
“Local units have responded, but they need backup. Someone with some seniority.”
“Anything better to be doing?”
Redlaw scanned the street; eyed the Stokers. “Not much, marm.”
“Right, then. Off you go.”
Redlaw pressed End Call with a sigh.
It was going to be a long night.
But then weren’t they all?