Excerpt: CITY OF THE DAMNED
For grins, I decided to post the first few chapters of City of the Damned, which lays out the groundwork for the rest of the book. It’s not about zombies though, it’s about vampires–the killing kind, not the sparkling-in-the-sunlight type that young schoolgirls fall for. The book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords for those who might be interested in reading some high-octane, paramilitary-on-vampire action.
[Prehistoric man] knew that life was uncertain and sometimes short, that death was inevitable and sometimes abrupt. Every time he set out for the hunt he was aware that some day…the end would come with a slash and an outpouring of blood. It is not difficult to understand why…he should have come to the conclusion not merely that blood was essential to life, but that it was the essence of life itself.
—ANTHROPOLOGIST REAY TANNAHILL
“Ellenshaw says he’s coming with us.”
Mark Acheson looked up from the map he had spread across the Humvee’s hood. Four rocks pinned it to the sheet metal, preventing the dry breeze from carrying it away. Julia McGuiness’s eyes were unreadable behind her dark sunglasses.
“Really.” Acheson wiped a hand across his forehead. It was damp with sweat, which wasn’t surprising, given that they were in the middle of Bumfuck, Arizona. “Did he say why he wants to violate the rules of engagement?”
“He just asked me to let you know he’s coming along,” Julia said.
Cecil Hayes grunted and shuffled his feet. Rivulets of sweat ran down his bald head, making his black skin glisten in the hot Arizona sunlight. “Man should be in the TOC, havin’ himself a stay-cation.”
Acheson pushed his sunglasses up on his thin nose, and glanced back at the big GMC RV that served as the team’s tactical operations center. The windows were tinted, so he couldn’t see anyone inside.
“I’ll talk with him,” he told Julia. “Sharon, you continue with the brief.”
Sharon Thompson nodded. “Roger that.”
Acheson walked away from the Containment Team and headed for the RV. His boots kicked up dry dust that was snatched away by a breeze so arid it could have come from a hair dryer. A large German shepherd trotted across the desert, and it bounded toward Acheson when he separated from the group. His tongue lolled from one side of his mouth as he pranced about Acheson, sniffing and huffing. Acheson patted the dog’s head.
“Keep cool, Zeke,” he said.
Zeke huffed again, then bounded over to a nearby Saguaro cactus and baptized it with a stream of urine. As Acheson stepped into the RV’s shadow, the door opened.
“Hello, Mark.” Robert Ellenshaw stepped out of the RV. He wore the same dun-colored Army battle dress utilities as Acheson. He closed the door behind him and looked out across the desert, squinting against the harsh light. He slipped on his sunglasses.
“Did Julia give you my message?”
Acheson nodded. “Yeah. You’re not coming with us, Robert. It’s against the ROE.”
Ellenshaw smiled tightly and ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “I authored the rules of engagement, Mark. You don’t need to remind me of them.”
“Apparently I do. I lead the containment team in the field, while you stay behind and monitor things from the tactical operations center.” Acheson slapped the side of the RV with one hand. “Right here. You don’t go any further.”
“Things are different this time out.”
Acheson gritted his teeth and turned away. He watched Zeke prance around the desert before Nacho Delgado, his trainer, called to him. The German shepherd ran toward Nacho, bounding about like a huge puppy without a care in the world.
Acheson watched Ellenshaw from the corner of his eye. The older man looked out across the desert. Beneath the placid expression on his face, Acheson detected a core of tension.
“Helena can feel him, even with the sun high in the sky. Can you imagine just how powerful he must be, Mark? Even the strength of daylight doesn’t seem to weaken him any longer.”
“You’re not field personnel, Robert.”
“I’ve gone through all the weapons and tactics training.”
“That was years ago. I’m not going to risk a breakdown in unit cohesion. You’re staying here.”
Ellenshaw smiled grimly. “Osric is the big game here, Mark. He’s eluded us—me—for years now, taking a human here, a human there, growing his clan. We don’t know how many vampires Osric has spawned, but he’s had the time to organize a small army. It’s imperative that we bag him.”
Acheson snorted. “So at the end of the day, it’s all about you? Osric’s shown you up, so you want revenge?”
“I just want to ensure the job is done right.”
“And we can’t manage without you? Horseshit. If the tables were turned, would you let me go on the hump with you?”
“That’s enough!” Ellenshaw snapped. “I have my reasons. All I ask is that you respect them.”
“Don’t make me laugh!” Acheson fought to get his temper under control. He shot a glance at the rest of the team, still clustered around one of the Humvees. They all looked back at him, and Acheson knew they’d heard the harsh rebuke in Ellenshaw’s voice.
Ellenshaw faced Acheson directly, not intimidated by his greater height or his acrimonious demeanor. When he spoke, his voice was clear and crisp, as if he were lecturing a classroom.
“I’m the head of this division, Mark. In conjunction with Washington, I make the rules.” He smiled tightly. “You’ll have full tactical control, as always.”
Acheson turned away from Ellenshaw and punched the TRANSMIT button on the radio transceiver at his shoulder. “Team, this is Two-Six. Fall back to the TOC for turnout.” As the team members radioed their acknowledgments, Acheson put his hands on his hips and gazed out across the desert.
Zeke sidled up to his side. Acheson reached down and scratched him between the ears. The dog stood still as a statue and stared at the horizon.
Acheson checked every team member’s weapon to ensure they were locked and loaded. Once satisfied all was in order, he turned to a hard-shell backpack. He opened it carefully and inspected the tapered cylinder within. It was just shy of three feet long and made of a durable gray metal. Two handgrips were bolted to either side, and at the wider end was a single pin. Attached to the pin was a red streamer printed with the innocuous legend, REMOVE TO ARM.
Acheson patted the cylinder almost lovingly. Nothing like a little fuel-air explosive to brighten up your day.
Once he sealed the FAE in its case, Acheson turned to Helena Rubenstein. Her pale blue eyes met his. Whenever he looked at her, Acheson got the impression she was a child trapped in a woman’s body. The fact she hailed from the cold metropolitan canyons of New York City was a source of amazement. With her strawberry-blonde hair and unblemished, tanned skin, she looked more like a waif from the San Fernando Valley. Acheson smiled at her and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. He knew she feared him on some basic level; her ability to see the true nature of a man revealed something to her that frightened her almost as much as those he hunted. More than once he had asked why that was, but she could not explain it. That he was used to dispensing violence as casually as she might order an alfalfa and vinaigrette salad was the closest analogy she had been able to draw.
“What are you feeling, Helena?” he asked. He removed his sunglasses so she could see his eyes, so that she could see he was as human as she was, despite his skills.
“Death is near,” she said. Acheson understood her to mean him, and he let go of her shoulder. Helena suddenly took his hand in hers. Her abruptness startled him; Acheson had never seen her move with such instinctive speed. She smiled at him.
“I wasn’t talking about you,” she explained. “I know you would never hurt me.” She looked away as her smile faded. “I can feel him, Mark. I can’t feel any others, because his signature is so strong—it’s drowning them out, like white noise. All I get is… static.”
“How close is he, Helena?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Acheson patted her hand. “Nothing to be sorry about. What you do isn’t exactly a precise science—”
“Take care of Robert. I’m pregnant,” Helena blurted.
Acheson blinked, totally caught off guard. “Uh—what…?”
“I said I’m pregnant. You’ve got to take care of Robert.”
Acheson was shocked. The thought of Helena having sex was something foreign, almost dirty, like sudden pedophilic urges. “Ellenshaw’s the father?”
She nodded, looking away.
“Well, ah… does he know?”
Helena shook her head. “Don’t tell him,” she said. “That’s for me to do. Okay?”
“I understand,” Acheson said woodenly. “I’ll make sure he stays here—”
“No. This is his calling. This is why I haven’t told him. He needs to sanction Osric. To see it done. To take part in it.” Helena looked at him. “Don’t interfere with this, Mark. This is Robert’s… destiny.”
Acheson sighed. He rubbed his eyes and slipped on his sunglasses. His head started to pound. “Okay, listen, Helena. You get in the TOC and button it up tight. George and Phil will take care of you. I’ve given them orders to vamoose at the first sign of trouble. You’re not to interfere with them if they try to leave the area, understand? If the TOC comes under attack, they’re to get the hell out of here—”
“I know, Mark. I won’t interfere.” She held his gaze for a long moment, her eyes unblinking in the harsh sunlight. “You’ll look after Robert?”
Acheson nodded. “Yes.”
She smiled, child-like and trusting. “Then I know he’ll be safe. And once Osric’s been sanctioned, Humanity will be safe.”
“At least from Osric,” Acheson muttered, turning away.
It began with the stories of El Cucuy, the Mexican equivalent of the Boogeyman.
When the usual stream of illegal immigrants dried to a mere trickle in the Arizona frontier and the legends of El Cucuy were whispered more and more frequently—by illegals detained by the Border Patrol, even by the coyotes who smuggled them in—it served as a vector for the Group’s intelligence analysts. The poor wretches who were captured by the BP told grave stories of how El Cucuy set upon them, decimating them, littering the landscape with their corpses. No bodies were recovered, but the Border Patrol was quick to rationalize the rumored violence as cartel-related, though sometimes American groups such as the Minutemen were fingered as potential culprits. It was those veiled accusations which elevated the story into a newsworthy item, as Minuteman spokespersons vehemently denied involvement in the murder of illegals.
But it was the rumor of El Cucuy which sealed the deal.
If ever there was such a thing as the boogeyman, Osric was it. And so Containment Team 6 deployed to the deserts of southern Arizona, where the inhospitable landscape might possibly serve as a hiding place for one of Mankind’s greatest enemies.
The road leading to the Santa Clarita copper mine had fallen victim to the elements decades ago after being abandoned in the 1920s. The annual monsoons had swept the remainder of the road away, leaving only jagged ruts and gullies behind. These were so extreme the team was forced to abandon the Humvees two miles from the mining area. They had no choice but to continue on foot, in the oppressive heat, carrying their gear on their backs.
Even foot travel was difficult. Zeke ranged ahead with Nacho, scouting out the territory. Cecil was next up, cradling the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon across his barrel chest. Acheson trailed him, his AA-12 held at port arms, the FAE secure in the hard pack on his back. Chiho Hara, Julia McGuiness, and Robert Ellenshaw walked twenty meters behind him. Sharon Thompson played rear guard, holding her MP-5 with both hands. They marched across the hot Arizona landscape, counting on Zeke to provide the necessary cues; the dog relied on senses beyond olfactory, something primal, an instinctive guidance system that nature had purged from man but left in some of the so-called lower life forms. Not for the first time, Acheson marveled at the irony of it. Most animals had some natural self-defense mechanism that clued them to a predator’s presence. Against the threat posed by Osric and his kind, mankind was as helpless as a babe.
With the exception of Robert Ellenshaw and the group he had formed, that is.
Nacho held up his right fist as he grabbed Zeke’s harness with his left hand. The dog’s demeanor changed, and he pulled against Nacho, straining to move forward.
“Got a shake,” Nacho said over the radio.
Acheson and Cecil hurried forward. Acheson tightened his grip on his AA-12; behind him, Velcro parted with stitching rips as the rest of the team drew their weapons.
Ahead, three mangy dogs stood in a semi-circle before an open mineshaft, their ribs as prominent as stripes. They bared their teeth in a growling, mindless rage. Zeke snarled a reply, straining against Nacho’s grasp. Nacho spoke to him in soothing tones, but couldn’t put the dog at ease.
The pack advanced, snarling. Acheson nodded to Sharon, and she raised her MP-5 to her shoulder. She took aim and fired three rounds in quick succession, the retorts choked into bare pops by the weapon’s long suppressor. Before the brass cartridges had even stopped tinkling on the rock, the three dogs were dead, each with a single shot to the right eye. Flies alighted on the corpses, drawn by the smell of fresh blood.
Zeke continued to growl, his dark gaze rooted on the mine’s entrance. And with good reason, Acheson saw; several pairs of human footprints led in and out of the shaft.
Not that they were left by humans.
He pressed the Push-To-Talk button on his transceiver. “Three-One, Two-Six, over.” Ellenshaw approached him, staring into the mine’s dark maw while pulling a hand-held GPS receiver from a holster on his belt.
“Two-Six, Three-One. Go ahead,” said George Sanders, who sat in air-conditioned comfort back at the TOC.
“Three-One, we’ve made initial contact. GPS coordinates are…” Ellenshaw held the GPS unit toward him, and Acheson read the position off its small liquid-crystal display. Sanders repeated the information back to him.
“Roger, Three-One, that’s a good copy. Stand by. Two-Six out.” Acheson motioned toward the shaft. Sharon and Julia advanced, one on each side of the opening, MP-5s at the ready. Acheson took Ellenshaw by the arm and pulled him back a few meters; the older man kept his eyes glued to the mineshaft, but didn’t resist him.
“They’re in there,” he muttered.
“Zeke agrees with you,” Acheson said. “Chiho, get Zeke ready. Cecil, you’ve got security. Nacho, stand ready with a flash-bang.”
Ellenshaw remained entranced by the mineshaft’s opening. Acheson let go of him as Cecil stalked past, the barrel of his SAW pointed into the darkness. Nacho held onto Zeke until Chiho arrived and took over, keeping one hand on the dog’s harness. Nacho moved to the left and pulled a tube-shaped concussion grenade from his belt. Acheson shrugged out of the heavy pack and set it on the ground beside him.
Chiho worked quickly, her nimble fingers attaching a small video camera to Zeke’s harness. A fiber optic cable connected the camera to a hand-held video display unit clipped to Chiho’s belt. At her signal, Acheson led the team toward the shaft. At its boundary, where darkness and light mingled to create twilight, he paused and slipped on a pair of PVS-7B night vision goggles. The NVGs would augment the available light a thousandfold, allowing him to see in total pitch conditions. Grasping the shotgun’s pistol grip in his right hand, Acheson crossed over into darkness.
The shaft was rocky and narrow. Old rails ran along the floor, twisted and rusting from the occasional floods that marked the Arizona monsoon season. Flies buzzed. The NVGs became increasingly efficient the deeper he progressed, revealing rock and rotting wooden beams that supported the overhead. Torpid scorpions meandered sluggishly along the ground. Through the NVGs, everything was rendered a ghostly green-white. A dry breeze sidled past him, more inferred than felt.
Riding the breeze was the fetid stench of death.
The soles of his boots scraped against rock and twisted, pitted iron. With every step the shaft grew ever smaller. Not far ahead, Acheson could make out a jagged tumble of boulders—a cave-in. The gaps between the rocks had filled with sand and silt. At the base of the cave-in, another maw yawned, this one a yard in diameter. The smell of rot was strongest here. Keeping his weapon pointed at the aperture, Acheson knelt. He had never grown used to the stench, the fetid spoor of decay that surrounded his quarry like a cloak. For the longest time, it had made him vomit uncontrollably. Years of work in the field had hardened him to it, but his stomach still roiled. There were some things a human being was never meant to adapt to, and the smell of death was one of them.
Acheson sidled away from the small grotto, never removing his eyes or his weapon from it. “Approach is clear,” he whispered into his headset. “Send in Zeke.”
“Roger,” Sharon replied, her voice a distant whisper over the radio. A moment later, Zeke padded up behind Acheson, snuffling. Acheson marveled at how easily the dog seemed to withstand the olfactory assault. If the smell was enough to make him feel ill, then it should have been overpowering for the German Shepherd. Acheson reached over and checked the camera on Zeke’s harness. It was secure, and the fiber’s SC connector was snug.
“Chiho, how’s the transmit quality?”
“Very good, Mark.”
Zeke stopped at the edge of the hole and peered into it. After a brief hesitation, he hunkered down and slinked in, trailing the fiber optic cable behind him.
“Zeke’s on his way. Two-Six is outbound.”
Acheson backed away from the hole, his jangled nerves sending phantom alerts to his brain. His dread did not diminish even when harsh sunlight from the Arizona sky overloaded his NVGs, blanking out the displays with white snow. He switched them off and pulled them from his face, allowing the goggle assembly to dangle from his neck by its elastic straps.
Outside, he stood next to Chiho as she watched the feed from Zeke’s camera. Ellenshaw joined them while the others maintained their positions, covering the shaft entrance.
“Did you see anything?” Ellenshaw asked. It was a virgin question that reinforced Acheson’s opinion the older man should have stayed back in the operations center.
“No, but I smelled them.” Acheson turned his attention to Chiho’s flat screen monitor.
The tunnel Zeke crawled down was a meter wide. The camera attached to the dog’s harness was not only optimized for low-light operation, but it carried audio as well; the small speaker on Chiho’s display unit relayed Zeke’s panting in all its tongue-lolling glory. So far, all there was to see was rock and sand.
“How’s my boy doin’?” Nacho asked. He couldn’t see the monitor from where he stood, flash-bang and MP-5 at the ready.
“Great, Nacho. You did a real good job with him,” Acheson said. Delgado had trained the team’s K-9 detachment, and they all knew Zeke was something special. It was a sad fact that the K-9s were usually the first ones to go when a containment operation went bad. Acheson hoped that Zeke would be around for years because he was the best scout they’d had.
“He’s in the den,” Ellenshaw whispered.
It was then they spotted them, lying supine in the dank darkness several meters beneath their feet. Acheson gritted his teeth when Zeke approached the first one—a small form, rendered in gray and white. A child. Dark hair. Eyes closed. Mouth open. Fangs visible.
“How deep’s this cavern?” Acheson asked.
“Approximately five meters below the mineshaft,” Chiho said.
The display revealed more forms, lying motionless in the dark confines of the cavern. Twenty, perhaps thirty of them. Maybe a dozen women, several men, and a handful of children. The confines were so close that Zeke must have been walking on their cold bodies. Deep in the sleep of the dead, they did not stir.
In the middle of the menagerie lay their target. A huge casket, so dark that even the camera’s light-intensification electronics couldn’t read its detail. A growl came over the speaker, and the camera came to rest. Zeke reached his limit. He would get no closer to the casket.
“Bingo,” Acheson said.
“Strange…” Ellenshaw sounded troubled. “How did they get the casket in there? There must be another opening.”
“If there’s another exit, it must be camouflaged.” Acheson pointed at the sun. “But even Osric can’t travel while it’s light out. If there’s an escape route, he’ll never be able to use it.”
“We have to make sure.”
Acheson smiled grimly. “We’ll make damn sure, Robert.” He stalked back toward the mine’s opening. “Let’s get it on, folks! Nacho, call Zeke out of there. Sharon, Jules, get the FAE ready.” He pressed the PTT button on his transceiver. “TOC, this is Two-Six.”
“Two-Six, TOC, go.” Static.
“We’ve verified the infestation is at these coordinates. We’ll be smoking the hole in two minutes. Stand by.”
Sanders’s voice was all business. “Roger, Two-Six.”
Nacho whistled into the shaft twice. “Is he coming out?” he asked Chiho. “Can he hear me?”
She nodded, still staring at her display. “Yes, he’s—ah!”
Inside the mineshaft, Zeke snarled and howled. His snarls trailed off into a series of yelps. Everyone froze.
“Gud damn it!” Cecil muttered, his first such exclamation in at least an hour.
“Is he all right?” Nacho shouted.
“One of them was awake,” Ellenshaw said, staring at the display. “It was waiting for him. A woman. On the cavern ceiling—”
“Impossible!” Acheson said. “They’re dead when it’s daylight!”
“Evidently, Osric is more powerful than we thought.”
“You mean they took out my dog?” Nacho said. “Motherfuckers!”
Cecil looked back at Ellenshaw. “Holy shit Doc, are you sayin’ they can come outta there?”
“They won’t get the chance,” Acheson snapped. “Nacho! Throw that flash-bang!”
“Motherfuckers,” Nacho muttered as he pulled the pin and hurled the grenade into the mine. A second later, the gut of the mine was briefly illuminated by a bright flare. A single, thunderous report echoed throughout the shaft.
Acheson advanced toward the mineshaft opening, his gait unwavering. “Cecil, you’re with me. Sharon, you and Julia get the weapon ready. Cecil and I will secure the hole. Nacho, give them cover as they bring in the FAE.” He glanced at his shotgun’s firing configuration, then looked over his shoulder at Chiho. She stood next to Ellenshaw, and Acheson pointed at him.
“Chiho, keep him out of the way.” He waved the others toward the shaft. “Let’s move it, people!”
Acheson stopped at the mineshaft’s threshold and slipped on his PVS-7 night vision goggles. Cecil did the same, trailing his boss by a few yards and off to one side.
“It’s gonna be tight in there, man,” Cecil said. “You keep well to the left, okay?”
“Roger that,” Acheson acknowledged. “Fight’s on!”
Acheson charged into the opening, slowing just long enough for Cecil and Nacho to catch up. He hugged the left wall of the shaft, while Nacho stayed to the right. Cecil’s bulk filled the center. He coughed from the dust the flash-bang had kicked up.
A chill descend upon him despite the Arizona heat that penetrated even through the dusty rock. The black scorpions were no longer torpid, and they flitted about beneath his feet. He crouched as he walked, reducing his silhouette; scorpions crunched beneath his boots. Cecil was a few steps behind him.
Ahead, the hole in the floor of the cave grew larger through the NVGs. Despite the sophisticated gallium-arsenide arrays that augmented the light and allowed for visibility in the near-darkness, it remained black and enigmatic.
Chiho’s voice whispered over Acheson’s headset: “Two-Five and Two-Seven entering the shaft. FAE armed and ready.”
A shape burst out of the hole with such speed that Acheson’s fire went astray. The flurry of silver-jacketed anti-personnel shot missed entirely, burying into the rock right above the hole. Jolted, Acheson took a step back.
The vampire clung to the wall like an ungodly insect. As Ellenshaw had reported, it was female—a Latina teenager. Its long, raven-black hair was dusted with rock sediment, and its clothes were spattered with fresh blood. It watched the three men draw near with dead eyes. Silver irises stood out in sharp relief against black scleras, and wide slitted pupils lent a feline look to them. As he drew near, it opened its mouth and hissed, revealing two pair of fangs. Traces of Zeke’s blood still lingered on its serpentine tongue. Acheson brought the shotgun up. The vampire stared at it and grinned wildly.
“Guns can’t kill us, little man,” it said, its voice low and murky as air pushed through dead vocal chords. Acheson grimaced. Apparently this one had been a vampire for quite some time. Only the older ones could speak. The newly Undead were barely more than animals, ghouls the master vamps controlled and trained until they eventually returned to sentience. The vampire facing him could have been a dozen years old. She turned her pale face toward Acheson, and her eyes glinted in the dark like a cat’s. Even through the NVGs, Acheson could sense their power. A small voice wormed about in his mind…
Give up. Do not resist. Come to me.
Acheson returned the smile and pulled the trigger. The AA-12 bucked in his hands as the shot exploded from the muzzle with a brilliant flash. The three-inch magnum shell ejected automatically. Most of the vampire’s head disappeared in an eruption of ropey black ichor. The body fell to the ground and thrashed about madly.
Acheson fired three more rounds into the creature. One blast decimated one of its taloned hands. The other two penetrated the creature’s thorax, bursting it like a balloon. More foul-smelling ichor boiled forth, thick as hot tar. The thing continued to thrash about, but with waning vitality. Already it was shutting down, entering its recuperative cycle, where over the course of time it would heal itself completely. If the job was left undone, the creature would stalk again.
“Cover the hole!” Acheson shouted to Cecil. His ears were ringing from the gunfire in the confined area, and he could barely hear his own voice. He stepped forward and slammed one of his boots against what remained of the vampire’s throat as he reached into his knapsack with his right hand. His fingertips brushed against the smooth wooden surface of a stake carved from ash. He plucked it from the knapsack and, gripping it tightly, knelt over the vampire and slammed the stake through its ribcage with all his might. The resistance offered by undead skin and bone was minimal, and the stake passed through without any trouble. The vampire went into a death knell, its legs and remaining arm slashing through the air with enough force to break Acheson’s legs had he not already scuttled out of range. A gurgling rasp came from its ravaged throat before the vampire fell silent.
Through the hole in the mineshaft floor came a chorus of snarls and howls, accompanied by the slithering sounds of vampires hauling themselves out of the cavern below.
“Clear!” Acheson reported as he crawled over the corpse, not wasting a second. Ahead, another ghastly figure emerged from the hole like a trapdoor spider. Acheson saw, to his horror, that it was the first child Zeke had crawled over. Her whey-colored hair was limp and dank, framing a face that was gaunt and angular. Death had made her no more beautiful than Acheson reasoned she’d been in life. Fangs glistened as she hissed through a wide-open mouth, tongue flailing.
Acheson raised his shotgun…
… and the vampire leapt toward him like an arrow launched from a bow. He pulled the trigger prematurely. The blast succeeded in disintegrating her left foot, an injury that didn’t slow her in the least. The vampire batted the weapon out of his hands with a lightning-fast move and descended upon him like a locomotive, driving him into the ground. It hissed and spat and slashed at his ballistic armor, its talons shredding the tough fabric that covered the Kevlar beneath. Acheson went for his MP-5, but it was trapped beneath him. He grabbed the creature by the throat and rolled over onto his back while struggling to keep its fangs away from his neck and face.
“Shoot it, Cecil, shoot it!” he shouted. Despite his frantic attempts to maintain a distance, the vampire grabbed hold of his armor and pulled itself toward his neck. Undead physiology overwhelmed living almost immediately. The vampire’s jaws parted wide, dislocating like a snake’s…
Crack! The vampire’s head snapped back as a nine-millimeter round from Nacho’s MP-5 drove a furrow through its skull before exploding out the back. The ghoul hissed and reared back, just in time to receive the full brunt of Cecil’s drawn stake. The vampire released a keening wail as Cecil gored it before collapsing backward like a sack of potatoes. It thrashed once, then stiffened.
“You all right, man?” Cecil yelled, advancing toward the hole. He didn’t wait for an answer and instead began firing bursts down the dark maw. Every fourth round was a tracer, and they flashed through the mine like lightning.
“FAE, now!” Acheson cried into his headset, rolling to his feet. He straightened his NVGs, then swept up his fallen shotgun and fired two rounds into the hole with one hand. He’d regret it later. The shotgun’s kick would leave an ache in his wrist that would last for days. With his left hand, he pulled a white phosphorous grenade from his belt. He dropped the shotgun and ripped the pin free with his right hand while clamping down on the can-shaped explosive’s safety spoon with his left. As Cecil pumped grazing fire into the hole, Acheson hurled the grenade. It went off with a muted thump that reverberated throughout the mineshaft. Acrid smoke boiled upward from the darkness, and carried on it were the howls of demons.
“FAE coming in!” Sharon’s voice was calm and crisp over their headsets above the gunfire as Cecil continued pouring rounds into the hole. Another vampire emerged, its skin and clothes and hair smoldering from the grenade blast. Cecil consolidated his fire on it for a moment, driving it back into the darkness. The 7.62 millimeter rounds blasted its left arm and shoulder into shreds.
Acheson took up his shotgun again and shouldered Cecil aside as the abomination thrashed its way back to the surface, howling and spitting. He fired burst after burst into it, the AA-12 jerking in his hands, driving it back down into the hole. It howled with every shot, losing ground to the force of the shotgun’s onslaught, until finally it fell backwards into the roiling smoke.
The AA-12’s trigger locked—it was empty. Acheson dropped it again and tore his MP-5 from its carry rig. Cecil resumed firing into the darkness, the reports of his SAW echoing throughout the shaft.
“FAE comin through!” Nacho yelled from behind them. “Acheson, toss a grenade, man!”
Acheson pulled another grenade from his belt, armed it, and tossed it into the hole. It would hold them at bay long enough for the team to make its escape… or so he hoped.
“Fire in the hole!”
THOOMP! The mineshaft shuddered again, and more foul-smelling smoke roiled out of the hole. Cecil continued firing, his lips moving soundlessly, the sweat trickling from his bald head, rolling down his cheeks and onto the casing of his NVGs. The tracers disappeared into the smoke like comets into a black hole.
Acheson felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Sharon, who along with Julia carried the fifty-pound fuel air explosive that would put the vampires below to sleep for eternity.
Acheson emptied his MP-5 into the hole before he stepped aside. Sharon and Julia dumped the FAE into the pit. It was already armed, its timer winding down from 20 seconds.
“Fall back!” Acheson shouted.
The team retreated from the mineshaft, with Cecil as rear guard, firing at yet another demonic abomination as it scrabbled out of the hole. It scurried after them, mindless of the bullets that tore at it, blasting away fragments of its anatomy. Cecil’s M249 ran empty, and the big man had no choice but to run as fast as he could. Pausing to rearm would bring certain death.
“Hey, a little help here!” he shouted when he felt the vampire’s claws rake his back.
Acheson dropped back, drawing his last firearm, a SigArms P220. He emptied the entire magazine of .45 caliber rounds into the creature, catching it with a neat grouping that would have made even the most seasoned Delta Force trooper proud. The assault merely slowed down the vampire, but gave Cecil time to bolt past Acheson with his spent M249 SAW hanging from his shoulder by its patrol strap.
“Thanks,” the big black man gasped while running like hell. Acheson was right behind him. The mouth of the mineshaft loomed closer, and as the two men bore down on it, a figure stepped into the gloom. It was Ellenshaw.
“Ellenshaw, get the fuck out of here!” Acheson yelled. He could hear the vampire snarling, only milliseconds behind him. No time to reload, no time to fight, but plenty of time for Acheson to die thirty feet from the safety of bright sunlight.
Ellenshaw raised his weapon, an M4 carbine equipped with an M203 grenade launcher mounted beneath the barrel. Ellenshaw squared himself and firmed his grip on the M203’s trigger.
“Mark, move to your right!” he shouted as Cecil passed him.
Acheson did as he was told, his right shoulder contacting one of the wooden supports that held up the mine’s ceiling. At the same time, a dull thump reached his ears as the M203 spat out its 40-millimeter round in an explosion of sparks. The projectile zoomed past Acheson like a freight train hurtling along at 250 feet per second. There was a startled choke behind Acheson as the round impacted its target, followed by frantic screaming as light flared. Ellenshaw had hit the vampire with a phosphorous round.
Acheson grabbed Ellenshaw’s shoulder, dragging the older man with him as he ran into the brassy, late-afternoon sunlight. From the mineshaft, the burning vampire shrieked like a banshee. Acheson yanked his NVGs off his face.
“Gud damn it!” Cecil howled, tearing the ammo box off the SAW. His NVGs were pushed up on his head. “I almost crapped my pants!” he said as Acheson dragged Ellenshaw away from the mineshaft.
“Did you drop the FAE?” Ellenshaw asked, stumbling along.
“Damn right,” Acheson panted. “Cover, everyone!” He pushed the older man to the ground behind a cluster of rocks, then landed on top of him. Acheson clasped his hands behind his head and hunkered down, making himself as small as possible. Beside him, Sharon did the same.
God smote the earth with a hammer.
The ground undulated beneath them as the FAE exploded, sending seismic energy radiating through the desert with the force of a tsunami, dislodging rock and dust. The entire hillside surrounding the mineshaft rose up a few feet, then slammed downwards like an abandoned building during a demolition, spewing dust and rock amidst a sound like a thunderclap. Fissures opened in the earth around the mine, including one good-sized sink hole that had lain dormant for ages. Acheson squirmed as pebbles and rocks and even a few small boulders rained down around them.
Eventually the thunder died away, leaving in its wake a dissipating cloud of filth and the sounds of settling earth.
Acheson coughed and pushed himself off of Ellenshaw. His NVGs were destroyed, the tubes smashed. He tossed them aside and shook Ellenshaw’s shoulder.
“Robert? You okay?”
Ellenshaw groaned and turned over. Blood welled from a cut in the center of his forehead. Acheson helped him into a sitting position with one hand, the other going for the first aid kit in his knapsack. At the same time, he looked for the rest of his team.
“Everyone all right? Sound off!”
Through the settling dust came coughing replies. “A fuckin boulder landed on my weapon,” Cecil reported. “Barrel’s twisted like a pretzel!”
“Too bad it wasn’t your head,” Nacho said, clambering to his feet. He inspected his MP-5 for damage.
Acheson pulled a bandage from his medical kit and pressed it against Ellenshaw’s forehead.
“Hold that here,” he said. “You’re bleeding.” With that, he pushed to his feet and trotted back toward the mine.
The hillside was a sunken, misshapen mass riddled with fissures. A fuel air explosive was the most powerful non-nuclear weapon made, ideal for blasting a landing strip in a dense jungle or collapsing an underground bunker. They were dangerous weapons to employ, but the nature of the team’s work sometimes left them with few options. Anything in the blast would be instantly immolated. Which was exactly the point.
Still… Doubt was something Acheson had learned to live with, but the nagging worry in the back of his mind was strong enough to give birth to a new breed of caution.
“Let’s take a look around and make sure we’re good to go,” he said.
“I agree,” Ellenshaw added. “This is too important to just walk away from with nothing to show for it but high hopes.”
Acheson sighed, irritated by Ellenshaw’s presence even more now that the action was over.
They spent the next thirty minutes poking around the area, looking for hidden entrances, exits, or hide sites. The lack of a search dog made it more difficult—Acheson felt another twinge of regret at the loss of Zeke—but the humans were no less apt at ferreting out the telltale clues using methods other than scent. Communication with the TOC was fruitless, and Helena offered nothing substantive. Acheson regarded the collapsed mineshaft, mindful of the fading daylight. He felt worry squirming about in his gut, but there was nothing to validate it.
“It’s never easy, is it?”
Acheson turned around. A few feet behind him stood Ellenshaw, his hands on his hips, the bloodied bandage crumpled in one fist. He also surveyed the flattened hillock before them, his expression a rueful one.
“I used to do this, before you came on board. Not as artfully, and never with such great skill, but I’ve sent a few of these… things… back to Hell on occasion. And I always had a hard time believing a mission was truly complete.”
“You ever blow one?”
Ellenshaw studied him for a moment. “A containment operation? No… never, thank God. Though there were times when I was certain I had.”
Acheson motioned toward what remained of the mine. “I halfway want to dig everything up and make sure.”
Ellenshaw nodded slowly. “I understand the feeling.”
Sharon approached. She held her MP-5 in both hands, a combat stance that communicated to Acheson her uneasiness as clearly as a flashing neon sign advertised the location of a roadside diner.
“Area is secure,” she reported. “No fortified exits or hide sites, no evidence of foot or vehicular traffic that didn’t originate with us.”
Acheson checked his watch. “Okay… let’s boogie. Follow-on attack is scheduled to commence in a little over an hour. We need to be way clear before then.” The follow-on attack would be conducted by U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers carrying Longrod Penetrators, a munition that had been introduced during the 1991 Gulf War. An effective weapon, it had decimated scores of deeply buried Iraqi bunkers. On paper, their combat effectiveness stood at nearly 100%.
“Let’s saddle up, people!” Sharon said over the radio net. “We’re done here!”
The team retreated to the Humvees.
The sun touched the peaks of the mountains to the west, bathing them in a halo of fiery orange. While Cecil drove, Acheson regarded the mountaintops from behind his sunglasses as the Humvee bounced across the desert, retracing its path to the TOC. No one spoke; there was nothing to be said. The job was done until they heard otherwise. The only thing left now was for them to get comfortable with it and perhaps celebrate the fact they had survived it. Acheson rubbed his face with one hand. Gritty sand clung to it. He had tried to scrub it off, but with no success.
“Fast movers on the left,” Cecil noted.
Acheson leaned forward and looked through the windshield, catching a glimpse of the two F-15E Strike Eagles as they slid past at 15,000 feet, their tapered noses pointed in the direction from which the two Humvees had come. Acheson had no idea what arrangements the group had made with the Air Force. More than likely, the Air Force was given a cover story, just like everyone else. Maybe they’d been told Al Qaeda had an underground hideout in the Arizona desert. Whatever worked. Acheson leaned back in his seat.
His radio headset crackled to life.
“Six, this is TOC. Steel on target,” George Sanders said over the radio. “Strike flight reports steel on target.”
“TOC, this is Six. Roger that. It’s a wrap. Start packing up. We’ll be onsite in ten minutes, over.”
“Roger that, Six. TOC, out.”
Acheson closed his eyes for a moment as the vehicle continued to hurtle across the desert at a good forty-five miles an hour. He felt the tension slowly draining out of him, leaving in its wake a jittery kind of exhaustion. He yearned to be back in Los Angeles, and the feeling made him smile. One of the most violent cities in the world, and Acheson felt safe there.
“Hey, Nacho.” Acheson looked over his shoulder. Nacho Delgado sat in the left rear bucket seat. “Zeke was tops, man. You did a fantastic job with that dog, and he went out doing exactly what you taught him. I’ve got to thank you for that. Without your dogs, some of us might be tits-up back there.”
“But one thing—stop getting attached to them.” Acheson nudged his sunglasses up on his nose. “Easy say, hard do, but that’s what’s got to happen. You started freaking back there, and I don’t want to see that again. Dogs I’m willing to part with. People I’m not. You reading me on this, Nacho?”
“I hear you, man,” Nacho responded softly.
Acheson pulled his SigArms P220 from its holster. He made sure there was a round in the pipe and that the hammer had been decocked. Just busywork. Something to keep his mind off the forlornness in Nacho Delgado’s voice.
Ten minutes later, the Winnebago RV came into view. It lay in deep shadow, as the sun was only a fiery afterglow on the horizon.
“TOC, this is Six. Crank it up and turn around, we’re getting out of Dodge. Over.” There was no response, and the RV did not move as instructed. Acheson frowned. What the hell, were the radios fritzed now?
“TOC, this is Six. You copy my last? Over.”
Cecil slowed the Humvee. “What the fuck?”
Acheson leaned forward. The door to the RV stood wide open, sagging on its torn hinges.
“Guns, guns, guns!” Acheson said over the radio. “Shake at the TOC!”
Cecil accelerated again and cranked the Humvee’s steering wheel hard to the left, sending up a cloud of dust as he veered away from the RV.
“Muthafuck!” he snarled. “We was almost gone!”
“Go around back,” Acheson told him. Over the radio: “Five, this is Six. You guys take the front, we’re coming in from the rear, over.”
Sharon’s reply was terse. “Roger that.”
From the back seat came the sounds of metal-on-metal as safeties were clicked off and weapons were cycled. Nacho and Julia were ready. Acheson pulled his MP-5 from its tactical carry harness and charged it up. Cecil flipped on the Humvee’s lights as he charged past the RV and fishtailed to a halt thirty feet behind it. Acheson, Julia, and Nacho bailed out immediately.
“Cecil, stay with the vehicle!” Acheson ordered the instant his boots hit the ground. “Keep an eye out!”
“Damn straight,” Cecil shot back. He already had his two-tone Colt 10mm in his right hand.
“Five, dismount and take up overwatch positions while we go in. Leave Ellenshaw in the Humvee, over.”
The second Humvee slid to a halt, kicking up another cloud of dust. Its doors flew open, and before Sharon Thomas could respond, Robert Ellenshaw flung himself out of the vehicle and ran toward the RV as fast as he could. Behind him, Chiho Hara struggled to chase him down. Acheson swore to himself as he ran.
He got to the RV first and flattened against the side of the vehicle next to the door. Ellenshaw pounded up and did the same, his jaw set, breathing hard and fast. The two men regarded each other for a moment before Acheson held up a hand and signaled that he would go in first. Ellenshaw nodded and shouldered his M4.
Acheson sprung into the doorway, his MP-5 at the ready. The disemboweled remains of George Sanders lay draped across the threshold, his eyes wide and staring and full of dust. His neck had been torn open, the hallmark of feeding ghouls. Acheson stepped on the body—there was no other way—and hurled himself into the RV. Two other bodies in similar condition lay inside. Their blood was splattered across the expensive radio consoles and the rubber-matted floor. Heather Jensen and Philip Mack had been happy people in life. They had departed it anything but.
Acheson checked the small bathroom and found it empty. The sleeping area was also vacant, the twin-sized bed unrumpled. No one had been attacked back here. Everything had gone down out in the RV’s salon.
“Where is she?”
Ellenshaw stood in the salon near the radios, and Acheson could tell his panic was cresting. Julia crept in behind him, all business. She looked over George’s body first, then at Heather and Philip. She pulled the Beretta 92F pistol from Philip’s right hand and sniffed it, then toed a single cartridge with her right foot.
“One round from Phil,” she said. “George and Heather’s weapons are still holstered.”
“Where is she?” Ellenshaw asked again, louder this time. “Where’s Helena?”
“She might’ve escaped,” Julia said. “She might be hiding nearby—”
Ellenshaw pushed past her, almost knocking Julia on her ass as he bolted out the door. “Helena! Helena!”
Julia straightened her gear and looked at Acheson, her lips compressed into a tight line. Acheson nodded. If the TOC team had gotten off only one round, then the chances Helena Rubenstein had somehow escaped the carnage and made it to safety were on the high side of astronomical.
“Five, this is Six.”
“Go ahead, Six.”
“TOC team is dead, Rubenstein is missing. Your team’s with Ellenshaw, but don’t go too far. Over.”
A pause. “Roger that, Six. Breaking station, over.”
“Roger. Six out.”
Julia watched Acheson as he headed for the door. “What’s the plan?”
“We stick to procedure. We clean up and get out of here.”
“We’re just going to…” Julia shrugged her shoulders after a moment, and Acheson reached out and touched her arm.
“The ROE’s clear on this, Jules. Help me with Sanders.”
The two of them lugged the corpse into the RV. When they were finished, Acheson stepped outside and hurried to Cecil’s Humvee. Ellenshaw, Sharon, and Chiho were a hundred yards away. The older man was still calling out for Helena.
“What’s the deal?” Cecil asked when Acheson walked up. “Rubenstein’s gone?”
Acheson opened the right rear door and pulled out a box from beneath the seat. It held six body bags. He opened it and counted out three, then closed the box and put it back.
“Stay sharp. We’ll be leaving in about ten minutes.” Acheson scooped up the body bags and slammed the door shut.
“What about Rubenstein?” Cecil called after him.
Acheson didn’t answer. He loped back to the RV, body bags under one arm, MP-5 in his free hand.
Ellenshaw continued calling out for Helena Rubenstein.