If there was one thing Redlaw knew how to do, it was locate vampires. He was in a strange, alien city, and the weather was diabolical. But wherever you were and whatever the conditions, certain aspects of vampires behaviour were constants. They took refuge in shabby, tucked-away places, mostly through necessity but also by preference. They tried to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. And they always left traces, signs that the eye could be trained to detect.
It might be a litter of dead vermin, rats especially, heaped in a basement lightwell. It might be a pile of faeces, unusually red, spattery and pungent. It might be the urine with which, doglike, they left their scent and alerted other vampires to their presence. Vampires were not the cleanest or most foresighted of creatures. They were as much animal as human, and didn’t think to tidy up their own mess or consider that others could track them by their detritus.
Redlaw, with Cindermaker lodged in trouser waistband, steered clear of the well-lit avenues with their shops and restaurants. He ranged southward, down to where the city’s grid pattern broke up and intersections were no longer invariably right-angled crossways. The rigid geometry of upper Manhattan and midtown gave way to something he found more recognisable: unplanned urbanisation, a street layout that seemed to have occurred naturally rather than been imposed by ruler and set square.
Here, between the ruins of the World Trade Center and the vaulting arrogance of the financial district, was the sort of warren of cramped old buildings he could see vampire immigrants favouring. He assumed that, like the City of London, this part of New York tended to be busy by day but unfrequented at night, which also suited the Sunless.
Patiently, doggedly, Redlaw trudged through the snow. He bent to check doorsteps for the telltale, acrid-smelling stains that betokened territorial marking. He scanned the upper-storey windows of the more dilapidated tenement blocks, looking for crude methods of blotting out daylight such as newspaper pages and scraps of cardboard box taped inside the panes. He was a big game hunter searching for spoor, but to passers-by – of which there were few – he looked like nothing so much as a madman, one of those quietly tormented schizophrenics of which New York seemed to have more than its fair share, performing arcane public rituals to stave off some private apocalypse.
Midnight deepened into the small hours, and Redlaw had nothing to show for his efforts except sodden shoes, damp feet, and an uncontrollable shiver that came and went but was more violent each time it returned. He had never, ever been so cold. Tomorrow – note to self – buy warmer clothing.
To add to his woes, around 2AM fresh show started falling. The flakes were huge and silent, floating down like autumn leaves. They clumped on his eyebrows and built up in white epaulettes on his shoulders. His unprotected head was soon snowcapped, which made his scalp ache, especially at the crown where the covering of hair was thinner.
He forged on because that was the sort of man he was. A bit of snow – no, a lot of snow – wasn’t going to deter John Redlaw. He could almost hear Róisín Leary telling him he was an idiot and he should get his arse indoors now or he’d catch his death. His former SHADE partner had not been one to mince her words.
Similarly, he could almost hear the voice of Illyria Strakosha, the shtriga he had allied himself with not so long ago, saying much the same as Leary. Putting it less bluntly, perhaps, but with an equal amount of eye-rolling exasperation. Really, Redlaw, stop this bally nonsense. You’re only human, old bean.
Ghosts of the dead. The sounds of his conscience. Redlaw knew they were just memories, disembodied echoes haunting the hollows of his mind, but sometimes he thought of them as angels.
And then, at last, success. A result. Persistence rewarded.
He had passed the deconsecrated church twice already, and only on the third time did something about it strike him as anomalous. A small round window high in its façade appeared to have been neatly removed. Not vandalised, as some of the others were, with starred holes in their stained-glass panes where stones had been hurled at them. This one window was simply not there any more, leaving a circular aperture that was just large enough to permit a human-sized body to squeeze through.
Looking closer, Redlaw discovered scratches in the stonework below the empty window. A column of little runic scuff marks led up the wall, the kind that might be left by unnaturally sharp and powerful talons. For a vampire, climbing up the sheer face of a building was a far from impossible feat.
The church was tall and sandwiched between two former warehouses that had been converted into blocks of fashionable boho loft apartments. In its day, it would have been quite something. No doubt a property developer was eyeing it up with a view to making it quite something again in the near future. For now, though, it was very much nothing. A useless hollow excrescence. A place of worship that was no longer needed, especially in a part of the city where money was God and the general opinion of religion was that it was a madness that made people fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers. The world had moved on and left this church behind like a large, steepled gravestone.
The handles on the double doors were secured by a padlocked chain. A laminated notice warned that, by civic ordinance, trespassing on this property was an offence punishable by a steep fine and a possible jail sentence.
Redlaw glanced both ways along the street. Nobody around as far as the eye could see. Nobody but him. The snow tumbled in thick flurries, encrusting streetlamps and burying parked cars. His gaze fell on the railings that fronted the church. Vandals had been busy there too. Several of the railings had been worked loose from their settings. A couple lay discarded, poking up out of the snow. Redlaw fetched one. The sturdy iron rod promised to make a decent crowbar. He inserted it inside the loop of chain. Several minutes of wrenching and twisting him did him no good. The chain held fast. He tried another tack. He stuck the railing inside the shackle of the padlock. Bracing the tip of it against one of the doors, he leaned back like a signalman pulling a lever to change points. The padlock resisted. Redlaw strained, putting his back into it, all his strength. He grimaced. Breath steamed through clenched teeth.
There was a loud metallic snap and the shackle sprang open. The sudden release caught Redlaw by surprise and he collapsed backwards.
The chain rattled loosely to the ground. Redlaw picked himself up and grasped one of the handles. He dragged the door open, heaving it against the knee-deep snowdrift that had accumulated in front. He made a gap just wide enough to slip through. Drawing his Cindermaker and chambering a round, he went inside.
* * *
The moments it took his eyes to adjust to the gloom were the most dangerous. Anything could happen while he was temporarily blind.
At SHADE, image-intensification goggles were standard issue equipment. Now that he was “freelance”, Redlaw was having to learn to do without the things he had once taken for granted.
Dimly, the church interior took shape. Pews stood in haphazard rows, some overturned. The font had been removed – presumably a nice piece of marble masonry, worth reselling – leaving just a bare plinth. The pulpit was intact, and so was the life-size crucifix that stood in the apse behind the altar. On it hung a Christ depicted in that pose that so many ecclesiastical sculptors seemed to think appropriate. The Son of God wasn’t exhibiting any apparent pain. There was only profound sorrow written across His face, His anguish spiritual rather than physical.
The presence of the crucifix gave Redlaw pause. Perhaps he’d made a mistake. He had assumed the church would be bare inside, stripped of its holy regalia. How could there be vampires here with this large sacred symbol still dominating the place? To them it was as toxic as radioactive waste.
Then he caught the distinctive, meaty whiff of vampire scat. It smelled fresh.
And, above his head, he detected faint, furtive movement.
Vampires were up there. Watching him. He could sense pairs of crimson eyes staring down.
He walked further into the church, along an aisle over whose flagstones countless congregations must have passed, and many a bride, many a funeral procession too. He tried to exude an air of calm and peaceability. He didn’t want to alarm anyone. The Cindermaker hung by his side, concealed discreetly in the folds of his overcoat.
As he reached the end of the nave, he sensed vampires descending behind him. It was instinctual as much as anything, a prickling of his nape hairs. They were putting themselves between him and the doorway, guarding his exit route. Some were coming down the church’s pillars as well, with almost imperceptible stealth, shadows shifting amid shadows. They weren’t going to challenge him openly. Not yet, and maybe not at all. They were waiting to see what he did. If he turned round and left, they would most likely let him, sinking back into the darkness as if they had never been there.
The vampires had nothing to gain by being aggressive, and nothing to lose by adopting a cautious stance.
Redlaw halted at the altar, a bare block of stone not unlike a raised tomb. Experience was telling him he was in the company of at least two dozen Sunless, perhaps as many as thirty. He could read the acoustics in the church much as a bat could map its environment by sonar. The tiny scraping clicks of talon on stone, which to most ears would have seemed just random background sibilance, to him spoke volumes.
His right shoulder gave a sudden involuntary spasm, reminding him of the last time he had been in a large building full of vampires. An industrial unit on the Isle of Dogs. A trap laid for him by one of the few people in the world in whom he had had complete, implicit trust.
The episode had left him with extensive scarring and an arm that was stiff every morning and needed to be loosened up by exercise.
His faith in his fellow man had suffered greatly, too.
“I am here,” he said in a loud, clear voice, “only to talk. I mean you no harm whatsoever.”
His words were met with absolute hush. He pictured the vampires hanging from the walls and pillars, stock still, ears cocked, listening.
“You’re probably aware that I’m carrying a gun,” he went on. “You can smell the cordite and the ash-wood bullets. I promise it is only for self-defence. I have no intention of using it unless necessary, by which I mean unless I am provoked and in fear of my life. As a show of earnest, I’m putting it down here on the altar and stepping away.”
He did so, taking three paces backward.
“Now it’s out of easy reach. You have the advantage over me. Like I told you, I’m not out to harm. I really only want to talk.”
Whispers crisscrossed the gulfs of the church. Nervous chatter. He caught the gist of it. Who was this? Could he be believed?
“I can give you my name, though it may not count for much here. John Redlaw. Formerly my job was to police your kind. I’ve since assumed a more pastoral role.”
It occurred to him that many if not most of these Sunless were not native English speakers. He should simplify his language.
“You might call me a human shtriga.”
That set tongues wagging. The word shtriga carried weight. Non-vampires weren’t even supposed to know it.
“How interesting,” said someone to Redlaw’s left.
A man appeared from the transept on that side, sauntering round the base of the pulpit. He was dressed like a priest, from dog collar to ankle-length black cassock, yet he didn’t move like one. His gait was delicate, feline, full of grace and sinew. He had a pronounced widow’s peak and a lean face that tapered to a very pointed chin.
He was no ’Less. His eyes were normal-looking, not bright vampiric crimson.
But he wasn’t just a man, either.
“You do yourself a disservice,” he continued. The accent was American but bore a trace of east European. Russian, perhaps. The way the “r”s rolled and the intonation rose and fell. “You’re too modest by far. The reputation of John Redlaw has spread beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s global but it’s undoubtedly international. Within a certain stratum of society, that is.”
“And you are…?”
The priest, if he was a priest, smiled. And all at once he was no longer standing in front of Redlaw, he was behind him, crouched on the altar with the Cindermaker in his hand.
“Faster than you,” he said, levelling the gun at Redlaw. “And ready to blow your head off if you make the slightest false move.”