But I'd give him one hell of a fight.
"Interesting," the vamp finally mused, almost to himself.
"I forget, sometimes, the complexities of the human race.
We've reduced so many of you to animals-savage, cowardly, so willing to turn on each other to survive. And yet, in the darkest places, I can still find those who are still, more or less, human."
He wasn't making any sense, and I was tired of talking, of waiting for him to make his move. "What do you want, vampire?" I challenged again. "Why are we still talking? If you're going to bite me, just get on with it already." Though don't expect me to lie down and take it. You'll have a pocketknife shoved through your eye socket before I'm done, I swear.
Amazingly, the vampire smiled. Just a slight curl of pale lips, but in that granite face, he might as well have beamed from ear to ear. "I have already fed tonight," he stated calmly, and took one step backward, into the shadows. "And you, little wildcat, I suspect you have claws you wouldn't hesitate to use. I find I am in no mood for another fight, so consider yourself lucky. You met a heartless, soulless bloodsucker and lived. Next time, it might be very different." And just like that, he turned on his heel and walked away into the darkness. His final words drifted out of the black as he disappeared. "Thank you for the conversation." And he was gone.
I frowned, utterly confused. What kind of vampire killed four people, had a cryptic conversation with a street rat, thanked the street rat for talking with him, and then walked off ? I swept the f lashlight around the tunnel, wondering if it was a trick to get me to lower my guard, and the bloodsucker was lying in ambush just ahead, laughing to himself. That seemed like something a vampire would do. But the tunnel was empty and silent in the f lashlight beam, and after a moment, I picked my way over the still-bleeding corpses, hurried to the ladder and scaled the tube as fast as I could.
Aboveground, the city was silent. Nothing moved on the streets; the crumbling stores and houses and apartments lay quiet and dark. Overhead, looming above everything, the vampire towers glittered in the night, cold and impassive like their masters. It was still the predator's time, this silent hour before dawn, and everyone was off the street, huddled in their beds with their doors and windows barred. But at least on this side of the Wall, the darkness didn't conceal savage, mindless horrors that had once been human. Here, the predators were more complex, though just as dangerous.
A cold wind blew down the street, stirring up dust and sending an empty can skittering over the ground. It reminded me of what I'd left behind, on the other side of the Wall, and anger burned its way into my stomach, killing the last of the fear. So much food! So much wealth, to have to leave it all behind.... The thought made my gut boil, and I kicked a rock into a dead car, the stone clanking off the rusty frame.
I had to get back there. No way was I going to huddle behind the Wall, eating cockroaches, fantasizing about shelves and shelves of real food rotting away in someone's basement.
One way or another, I was going to return to that place and reclaim what I'd lost.
But right now, my stomach was full, I ached from my fall, and I was damn tired. The f lashlight beam shone weakly in the darkness, and I clicked it off, not wanting to waste valuable battery life. I didn't need artificial light to navigate the Fringe, anyway. Slipping my single prize into a back pocket, I headed for home.
"Oh, my God, you're alive."
I gave Stick a disdainful look as I slipped into my room, kicking the door shut behind me. He scrambled off my mattress, gaping, as if I was a hallucination. "What's that look for?" I frowned at him. "And why are you here, anyway?
Have you been waiting up for me all night?"
"You didn't hear?" Stick's eyes darted about, as if someone could be lurking in the shadows, listening. "Lucas didn't tell you?"
"Stick." I sighed and collapsed on the mattress. "I just got back from a rather hellish night out," I muttered, putting an arm over my eyes. "I'm tired, I'm cranky, and unless someone is on the verge of death or the vampires are breaking down our doors, I want to go to sleep. Whatever this is, can it wait till morning? I need to talk to Lucas, anyway."
"The vampires were out tonight," Stick continued, as if I hadn't said a word.
I removed my arm and sat up to face him, a chill crawling up my spine. His face was pale in the shadows of the room, thin mouth tight with fear. "I saw them. They were going from sector to sector with their pets and guards and everything, breaking down doors, going into people's houses. They didn't come here, but Lucas moved us all into the basement until he was sure they had moved on. I heard...I heard someone was killed...trying to run away."
"Was anyone Taken?"
Stick shrugged bony shoulders. "I don't think so. They just came through, went into several buildings and left. Lucas said they were looking for something, but no one knows what it is."
Or some one. I thought back to the vampire in the tunnels below the city. Was he part of that search party, exploring the underworld for whatever item the bloodsuckers wanted?
Or...was he the mysterious thing they were all searching for?
But that didn't make much sense. Why would the vampires be hunting one of their own?
And if they were, why couldn't they do it more often?
"There are rumors of a citywide lockdown," Stick went on in a low, frightened voice. "Curfews, guards, area restric-tions, everything."
I muttered a curse. Lockdowns were bad news and not just for Unregistereds. There had been two in the past, once when gang warfare swept through the Fringe, clogging the streets with dead bodies, and once when an infestation of rabid rats created a citywide panic. Lockdowns were the vampires' last resort, their answer when things got out of control. Everyone was required to stay in their homes during curfew hours, while armed guards swept the streets. If you were caught outside during lockdown, they would shoot you, no questions asked.
"Allie, what are we going to do?"
"Nothing," I said, and he stared at me. I shrugged. "Nothing tonight. It'll be dawn in a few hours. The bloodsuckers will go back to their towers, and nothing will be done until this evening. We can worry about it then."
"Stick. I. Am. Tired." I rose from the mattress and, taking his elbow, steered him to the door. "If Lucas is still up, tell him I need to speak to him tomorrow. It's important. Really important." He started to protest, but I firmly pushed him over the threshold. "Look, if you want to stay up and worry about vampire hunts, you can do it for both of us. I'm going to sleep while I still can. Wake me when it's dawn, okay?" And before he could make any more excuses, I shut the door in his face.
Collapsing on the mattress, I turned my face to the wall and closed my eyes. Stick's news was troublesome, but I'd learned that worrying about things you couldn't change was useless and just kept you from getting sleep. Tomorrow, I'd talk to Lucas and tell him about the food cache I'd found, and he could convince the others to go after it. Before the city went into lockdown, of course. Working together, we could probably clear that whole room in two or three trips and not have to worry about the coming winter. Rat was a dick and a bully, but he was part of my crew, and we looked out for each other. Besides, it would take a single person forever to clear that place, and I didn't want to be in the ruins any longer than I had to be.
With plan firmly in mind, I dismissed all thoughts of that night-of rabids and manhunts and vampires in the sewers-and drifted into oblivion.
"Allison," Mom said, patting the cushion beside her, "come up here.
Read with me."
I scrambled onto the threadbare couch that smelled of dust and spoiled milk, snuggling against her side. She held a book in her lap, bright happy animals prancing across the pages. I listened as she read to me in a soft, soothing voice, her slender hands turning the pages as if they were made of butterfly wings. Except, I couldn't see her face.
Everything was blurry, like water sluicing down a windowpane. But I knew she was smiling down at me, and that made me feel warm and safe.
"Knowledge is important," she explained patiently, now watching an older version of me from across the kitchen table. A sheet of paper lay in front of me, marked with scrawling, messy lines. "Words de-fine us," Mom continued, as I struggled to make my clumsy marks look like her elegant script. "We must protect our knowledge and pass it on whenever we can. If we are ever to become a society again, we must teach others how to remain human." The kitchen melted away, ran like water down a wall, and turned into something else.
"Mom," I whispered, sitting beside her on the bed, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest under the thin blanket. "Mom, I brought some soup for you. Try to eat it, okay?" The frail, white form, surrounded by long black hair, stirred weakly.
I couldn't see her face, though I knew it should be somewhere within that dark mass. "I don't feel well, Allison," she whispered, her voice so faint I barely caught it. "Will you...read to me?" That same smile, though her face remained blurry and indistinct.
Why couldn't I see her? Why couldn't I remember? "Mom," I said again, standing up, feeling the shadows closing in. "We have to go.
"A is for apple," Mom whispered, falling away from me. I cried out and reached for her, but she slipped away, into the dark. "B is for blood."
Something boomed against the door.
I jerked awake, the door to my room still rattling from the sudden blow. On my feet, I glared at the door, heart pounding. I was already a light sleeper, hypersensitive to footsteps and people sneaking up on me while I slept, so the first bang nearly made me jump through the ceiling. By the fourth, I had wrenched the door open, even as Lucas was pulling his fist back to knock again.
Lucas blinked at me. Dark and muscular, he had large hands and a curiously babylike face, except for his thick, serious eyebrows. When I first joined the group, Lucas had been intim-idating; a serious, no-nonsense figure even as a twelve-year old. Over the years, the fear had lessened, but the respect had not. When our old leader started demanding a food tax-a portion of everything we scavenged-Lucas had stepped in, beaten him to a pulp and taken over the gang. Since then, no one had challenged him. He was always fair; survival was his priority, regardless of feelings. Like me, he'd watched members of our gang die of starvation, cold, sickness, wounds, or just vanish off the face of the earth. We'd burned more
"friends" than anyone should ever have to. Lucas had to make hard, unpopular decisions sometimes, and I didn't envy him the job, but everything he did was to keep us alive.
Especially now that the group was so small. Fewer people meant fewer mouths to feed, but that also meant fewer bodies to hunt for food and to protect us from rival gangs if they ever got the notion to invade our turf. It was just the four of us-me, Rat, Lucas and Stick, not enough protection if Kyle's gang decided they wanted us gone. And Lucas knew it.
Lately he confused me. We'd always been friends, but this past year his interest in me had changed. Maybe because I was the only girl in the group, maybe something else; I didn't know and I wasn't going to ask. We'd kissed last summer, more out of curiosity on my part, but he had wanted more and I wasn't sure if I was ready. He hadn't pressed the issue when I'd stopped him, saying I needed time to think about it, but now it hung between us, unresolved, like a big f lag. It wasn't that Lucas was ugly or undesirable; I just didn't know if I wanted to get that close to someone. What if he disappeared, like so many of our kind did? It would just hurt that much more.