Way of the Wolf
Chapter Thirteen

 E.E. Knight

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The Zoo: Lincoln Park, a green oasis between the shores of Lake Michigan and the shattered city, is considered the premier entertainment tract of Chicago, and indeed the Midwest. From what had been the oldest zoo in the United States at the south to the Elks' temple in the north, Lincoln Park as run by the Kurians is a mixture of Sodom and Mardi Gras. Along with its adjacent gambling ship tied up at the old Chicago Yacht Club in BelmontHarbor, it offers diversions to suit the most jaded palate. From late March to November, "Carnal-val" is in session. This nonstop party provides much-needed relief for the favored Quislings who are allowed to attend. During Chicago's dreary winters, the action is limited to the indoors but remains just as wild. With good behavior, a Midwestern Quisling can expect a trip into Chicago to visit the Zoo every few years. They are released in groups, and anywhere from two to a hundred go to Chicago together,-with the direst warnings about what will happen to the rest should any desert. Parties from places as far away as Canada, Ohio, and even Colorado and Kansas visit for up to a month. But as the money runs out to the point that even shoes are sold to pay for unholy delights, the trips are ended early by mutual consent. Everyone knows the destination for those left penniless in a city where there is no such thing as a free meal or room. Within the confines of the Zoo, there is no curfew as there is everywhere else in the city. There is ample if poor-quality food and drink to be had at any hour from street vendors, tented cantinas, and permanent restaurants. Mounted officers, equipped like the statue of Phil Sheridan with sword and pistol, patrol the area from their headquarters in the old Chicago Historical Society building. They do very little to break up disturbances, and only a fistfight that threatens to grow into a riot will cause them to do anything but pause and sit their horses to watch. Everyone from magicians to three-card monte operators to street musicians tries to make a living on the streets, but nothing can be sold on the grounds of the park save food, drink, tobacco, drugs, and flesh.
It is this last that is the real attraction of the Zoo. Under every lamppost, at every corner, and inside every barroom, women, a few men, and the occasional child can be found for a price. At the top of the carnal hierarchy are the showgirls, performing everything from stripteases in the clubs on Clark to variegated sexual displays behind the bars of the Zoo that would make those performed in pre-Kurian Bangkok seem tame. Next come the geishas. These women, found in some of the better bars, act as short-term girlfriends to the Quislings on vacation who want more than just sex, providing a sympathetic ear as well as other favors. The full-time companionship of a geisha for a week or two is out of the price range of all but the wealthiest Quislings, but bar girls in the saloons will do the same as long as the soldier keeps buying them watery drinks. Finally there are the colorful streetwalkers in a variety of flavors, offering their services anywhere from alley and bush to the little flotilla of old boats anchored in the park's Lake Michigan-fed waterways.
The careers of the Zoo women are short, and most come to a sad end in the Loop. A few make enough money to retire to Ringland or open an establishment of their own. A few more leave the Zoo permanently in the company of a Quisling. But for most, it is a degrading road that leads to servicing the most perverted and violent customers before the final trip downtown.
As for the Quislings, like carnivorous flowers attracting insects with bright color and perfume, only to trap and devour them within, the wanton joys of the Zoo leave many too broke to get home and, unless they are smart or lucky, they become prime candidates for the Loop.
The night breeze no longer blew just cool, but downright cold. Scattered clouds crossed the full moon like inky stains. Below, the color had drained from Chicago's streets, leaving a world of low-contrast black and white. As Valentine drew farther away from Rush Street, the streetlights became irregular, and those that still functioned gave light to a few square yards around the pole. Scattered figures clutched their coats or thrust hands deep into their pockets, shoulders hunched against the wind as they brushed past Valentine without a word or a glance. Beater cars and small trucks chugged along the streets, most without benefit of headlights, as clattering bicycles dodged out of their way. Valentine could hear the clopping sound of hoofbeats on pavement down a nearby alley. He cast about with his nose; the city seemed overwhelmed by an oily petroleum smell and dusty coalsmoke. The gutters reeked of urine.
Valentine glanced up again at the moon. Its chalky whiteness comforted him somehow. Full moon, good night for a Wolf. But a sudden wave of fear passed through him, leaving his back running with cold sweat and his hair bristling. He paused under a light, ostensibly to check his map, when motion ahead caught his eye.
Pedestrians parted like a school of fish swerving to avoid a cruising shark. A Reaper garbed in a shirt, trousers, boots, and a cape-rather than the usual robes-moved toward the dead heart of the city. It ran with great multiyard leaps, like a deer bounding through the woods. Valentine's hand fell instinctively toward his gun, but he managed to change the gesture into a simple thrust of his fist into his coat pocket. The Reaper passed without a glance in his direction, its sickly yellow eyes blazing like tiny lightbulbs. Valentine turned and watched it go. It reached the back of a slow-moving car, a ramshackle vehicle with wood planks where the panels and roof used to be. The Hood leaped over it in a single bound, cape flapping like bat wings in the night, and disappeared out of sight as the startled driver stood on his squealing brakes.
Somewhere to the east, Valentine could hear Lake Michigan lapping at its breakwaters. He sensed lights and music somewhere to the north, a mass of noise that could only mean the Zoo. To either side of him, ruined blocks of rubble sprouted shanties like wooden toadstools. Some buildings still stood and showed signs of irregular maintenance-everything from glass to iron bars to wooden shutters covered the windows, and the smells of cooking wafted out into the street. He could make out trees in the lights ahead, and now several figures had joined him in moving toward the Zoo. Most of them had brightly colored cards dangling from thin beaded chains around their necks.
He noticed a line at a kiosk on the edge of the park and joined the cluster of waiting men, almost all of whom wore assorted uniforms. An elephantine redheaded woman sold the white cards on chains to the lined-up men under the supervision of a cigar-smoking baldie with the watchful, sullen air of a pit boss. Valentine looked at the prices, which started at five hundred dollars a day. He extracted the pass he'd obtained from the Duke and passed it to the meaty hand of the redhead.
"Three-day pass, huh, boy?" the woman said, reaching under her counter for a card on a chain. "You one of the Duke's couriers?"
The supervisor's eyes narrowed as he evaluated Valentine.
"Sort of," Valentine said. "What do I get with the pass?"
She did not really smile so much as smirk, but her eyes favored his with a friendly twinkle. "About anything your heart desires." She peeled a covering off the paper and began to recite the rules in almost a singsong manner. "This card will stay green for seventy-two hours; that's guaranteed. When it turns red, you gotta leave the premises. But while it's green you can see any show, go in any bar, and get free coffee or iced tea on the Lady Luck of the Lake if you're playing. That's the gambling boat," she added, breaking out of the recitation. "Real plush carpets and more lights than you've seen at once in your whole life, I'll bet."
A gruff voice broke in from over Valentine's shoulder. "Hey, there's people waiting."
"Shut your trap, you," she barked, "or I'll start readin' to him outta the '22 yellow pages." She turned her attention back to Valentine, drawing close enough for him to smell the beer fumes on her breath. "You take my advice; just spend your three days here. The food's cheaper than most anywhere in Chicago, and when you want to sleep just pay one of the girls for an all-nighter. You'll get a woman and a bed for what you'd pay for a bed alone in one of them ripoff hotels by the Michigan Avenue Market. And a guy with your looks will maybe get another tumble in the morning, free of charge."
Valentine slipped her a bill. She slid the toke into her udder-size bosom with a deftness that belied her size. "You got a map?" he asked.
"Listen to him," the voice from behind grunted. "Kid thinks he's in Dizzyland."
"Naw, it ain't that big a place. You'll find your way around. Why, you lookin' for something in particular?"
"The Black Hole. I heard it's really weird."
She did not look surprised. "It's always you nice-looking, quiet ones," she mused. "You can't miss it. North side of the Zoo, a big lit-up pit with walls all around. Last night the Grogs worked over this little beauty from Michigan. By the time they were done, she didn't have enough blood in her to fill up a Reaper's tongue. I hear the main attraction tonight's gonna be some real cute young thing from your Wisconsin. Enjoy."
V'Nattie, you got other customers," the cigar-chomper said.
"Okay, okay. Just talkin' to the Duke's friend. The Duke would want us to make sure he got happy here. Geez, where'd he go?"
Valentine heard her expostulation as he strode off across Clark Street and into the Zoo, but the noise of music and shouting soon drowned her out. Bars lined the road on Clark, marching up north toward darkened high-rises. He glanced at a few of the names: Paradise Found, Jack Off With Jill On, the Gold Coast Grotto... Heavily made-up women enticed customers inside, strutting and promising greater delights within. He ignored the twinkling tableaux and moved into the cluster of old Zoo buildings. Women in assorted stages of undress challenged him with everything from a throaty "Hi, there," to a bellowed "Best head in the Zoo, twenty bucks!-Over here, handsome." A sickly stench struck him, and he stepped around a pool of vomit half covering the sidewalk. A shoeless drunken shape in bright orange overalls leaned against a boulder with the words everything goes scrawled in white paint across its chipped surface.
There seemed to be nothing preventing people from coming and going as they wished, but security troops mounted and on foot wandered the grounds, mostly looking at the colored cards dangling from the revelers' necks. One of them motioned to an apelike Grog, pointing at the shoeless drunk. Valentine watched as the Grog hoisted the man into a wheelbarrow cart and trotted off, pushing the drunkard south on wobbly wheels.
A long lagoon filled with little boats bordered the Zoo. Couples got on and off in a steady stream. Far to the north, Valentine spotted a glittering wedding-cake shape of light, obviously the Lady Luck of the Lake. He circled back into the Zoo's cluster of buildings from the north. A couple of small Grogs were picking up trash from the sidewalks and grass. Valentine walked up to them and pressed some very special toke into their hands before moving off toward another crowd.
A domed cage the size of a tepee stood in the center of a little depression. A ring of twenty or thirty laughing soldiers stood around it, hurling small stones and pieces of fruit through the bars. An extraordinarily tall man, dressed in a simple khaki uniform, stood before the crowd with a long pole with a metal club on one side and what looked like a noose on the other.
"Hey, let's have him change shape again," one of the men called, throwing a small rock into the well-lit center of the cage. He passed some bills to the khaki-uniformed man.
Valentine craned his neck to look within the bare cage. A single tree, barkless and dead as a piece of driftwood, decorated the twelve-foot circle within. A serpent lay coiled around the tree, hiding its head in the crotch between two branches.
"I can get him to switch, no fail," the keeper said, and poked the metal end of the pole into the cage. He rapped the snake twice on the head.
A shiver seemed to course up the body of the snake, a shiver that turned into a blur. Before Valentine's astonished eyes, the snake transformed into an orangutan, which hung from the tree by one long arm and then dropped to the ground. It thrust a rotten apple in its mouth and worked its jaws hungrily.
"How the hell did you do that?" a voice called from the crowd.
"I didn't do it, he did," the keeper explained. "What you have here is a relative of the Kurians. It's the only one that's been captured and put on display. They can change their shape at will, and they can practically go invisible. They're the masters of some of the terrorists and rebels that hide out in the hills. The rebs worship them as gods. Only way to please them is to bring scalps, and the rebs aren't particular about whose hair they take. They tell me this one had fifteen, twenty little blond scalps. God knows what the rebs did to them before lifting their hair."
"Motherfucker," one of the soldiers said, throwing a stone in at the seated figure. The rock made an impact in the sand next to the orang, kicking dirt up onto it.
The orang's eyes gazed sadly over the crowd. A few more stones flew in, some hitting the illusory ape on its broad back. Its eyes met Valentine's, and he jumped as if shocked by the spark that passed between their eyes.
Lee... Lee Valentine, a voice said inside his head. Please let this not be the madness again. Oh, Lee, is it you, can you be here? It's Rho, the Ancient. Of the firstwalkers. By the Bonds and by the Gates, have you come to end my torments? Please say Paul Samuels is with you somewhere, and Ghang Ankor. The years... the years have sung their songs and moved the earth itself since we last met. Please say I will be finally free of their smacks and stares.
All this passed through Valentine's mind in a flash. He responded. No, I am not the Valentine you knew. I am his son, David. My father has been dead for over ten years.
Son? Son? I can sense you are a Hunter. I do not know what brings you here, but I feel it is not I. You are anxious to be gone and fearful and worried and hateful and hopeful and... in love. Oh, I would cast myself into oblivion if I could, but they watch, always watch, with their dull eyes. You cannot know what I've been through. Years of abuse and bad weather and no food and torment. The orangutan stared at Valentine. Please just kill me if you cannot get me out. If my life runs its course, I could be here for hundreds of years until these bars turn to rust and new ones replace it.
Something sought his mind. Valentine pulled back and into himself.
I'm sorry, so sorry, Valentine thought, breaking out of the ring and filling his mind with sorry over and over again. The agony of the trapped Lifeweaver had been palpably transmitted through its thoughts. Valentine could not let despair overtake his mind with Molly waiting in some cage and a Reaper hunting for his lifesign.
He hurried past the converted animal displays. Inside one, a nude woman cavorted upon an artificial tree, alternately hiding and exposing herself to the whistling admirers. A few men threw money into the cage, and she picked up a thick green cucumber and sucked on it. More bills littered the floor of the cage, and she began to move one end of the spit-moistened vegetable down across her breasts and belly.
He reached an open pit. Black paint covered the stone barriers surrounding it and forming the deep walls of a large hollow. A uniformed Zoo patroller sat on the wall, idly smoking a sharo-smellin' cigarette. Valentine approached the nit and looked in. A central mound, built up to the point that it was al-most level with the ground outside the pit, sported two stone lions facing each other. From the mouth of each dangled a long leather strap, and the ground between the opposing lions had badly stained rugs spread out, covering the dirt. A Grog was scrubbing at the broad back of one of the lions, trying to remove bloodstains. To the far south in the pit, a gallowslike structure had a pair of ladders leaning against it and numerous hooks embedded in the posts and lintel. To the far right on the north end, a simple pole lay buried in the ground, with four sets of shackles dangling from the top. Valentine took in this three-ring circus of de Sade and moved over toward the smoking patroller.
"Is there going to be a show tonight?" Valentine asked, handing him one of the few remaining cheroots.
"You bet your ass. In a couple hours. You lining up for a good view?"
"Maybe. What do they do?"
"Make the ladies here scream themselves to death," the patroller said, putting the cheroot in his mouth and lighting it with the end of the hand-rolled cigarette. The scrubbing Grog paused in his work and watched the glowing red tip of the cheroot as the patroller inhaled.
A group of soldiers, civilians, and hookers walked by. Half-empty bottles dangled from their hands. While passing the pit, one of the prostitutes whispered something into her escort's ear. "Yeah, I seen a Black Hole show before," her John answered. "I've even seen Reapers in the audience."
"I heard that private parties can be arranged," Valentine ventured, after the party passed on.
The officer blew out the rich smoke with an air of approval. "If you've got the cash, just about anything is possible."
Valentine slipped the officer a hundred dollars. He glanced at the bill for a second before it disappeared into his shirt pocket. "I'll get you in to see the Head Keeper, sport. Wait here. He agrees to talk to you, you gimme another toke the same size."
"Fair enough," Valentine agreed. The patroller moved off toward a long brick building with a busy rooftop eatery.
Valentine looked at the Grog, who was similar in size to the one at the MiskatonicUniversity. He lit a match from the tin and waved it back and forth. The Grog applauded with a childlike, patty-cake motion and waddled down toward the edge of the pit by Valentine. It looked up at Valentine expectantly.
"You want to see more?" Valentine asked. The Grog cocked its head from side to side like a woodpecker looking for termites. Valentine looked around, but the few Zoo patrons close by were paying no attention to the empty Black Hole.
The Wolf took out one of his tins of matches and rattled it for the Grog. The Grog held out both of its hands, just like the inhabitant of the Institute's catacombs. Valentine tossed the tin down to it. The Grog gave a little hoot of pleasure and thrust the matches into a pocket in its tattered trousers. Valentine made a slow circle of the Black Hole and found another Grog changing lightbulbs on a lamppost. He tried to hand a few more matches to the low-caste worker, but it shook its head and put its hands behind its back. Perhaps it had been punished in the past for something to do with matches.
Valentine's patroller, still smoking the long cheroot, returned. "You're golden," he said. "It's getting toward the end of the year, and they're not so busy anymore. You want to visit before or after the show? Sometimes it gets a little crowded after. Plus, there's a few less girls to choose from, you know?"
Valentine forced a smile. "Thanks. I'll see him now, if that's okay with you." Valentine handed over another hundred dollars in toke.
"Wise choice. After the show, Burt's usually drunk and ornery anyway. He tries, but he's just not smart enough to come up with new ways of killing people every week. Plus, he's pissed 'cause they're making him do a show tonight. He'd rather wait until the weekend, advertise it a little bit and work up a decent crowd. They toss in money and tell him what to do. But I guess the management wants this girl done fast and dirty... ho now, button up a sec," the patroller said, looking up at a Reaper moving down the path. It felt similar to the one who had pursued him to the alley. David assumed it was still searching for him. Or perhaps it was one of his siblings, animated by the same Master Vampire.
Valentine breathed slowly and deeply, letting his eyes go out of focus. Death passed in silence.
The officer led Valentine though a wooden fence screened by trees and overgrown shrubbery. The patroller rapped on the door and called, "Open up, Todd, it's me. I've brought a customer for Burt."
The brown-painted door swung open, and Valentine followed the patroller past a shotgun-toting guard and into a long brick building with a green peaked roof. It was half barn, half fort. The patroller brought Valentine to a metal door and opened it with a key from a small ring on his belt. He entered, holding the door open for Valentine.
They walked down a hallway and entered a linoleum-floored room. An unshaven man sat in a chair, legs extended and arms dangling tiredly. A few more chairs stood against the walls, and an empty desk at the corner shone under a hooded light. The cop gestured toward one of the open chairs.
"Take a seat. Looks like there's not much action tonight. I'll go get Burt."
Valentine sat down opposite the rag-doll figure. The bedraggled man wore a jumpsuit, new and shiny, made out of what looked to Valentine like nylon. He had long, unkempt black hair and a mustache. A prisoner-like pallor made his skin seem anemic against his dark beard. A pair of comfortable-looking black sports shoes with new soles covered his feet. Obviously a favored Quisling, if a tired and dirty-looking one. The jumpsuit had a high collar, almost a turtle-neck, and Valentine had to look twice at the insigne in silver stitching just under the man's chin: a reversed swastika. The Twisted Cross? Valentine thought.
The man, noticing Valentine's stare, yawned and looked across the room at him.
"Howdy, pal," the man in black said. "Burt's kinda slow tonight. He's probably in one of the bars on Clark drinking. I've been waiting almost an hour." He had a drawling accent which Valentine identified as more western than southern.
Valentine looked at the pattern on the linoleum floor. It resembled a cross section of sedimentary rock strata. "I'm in no hurry. Got a three-day pass, and it's my first night."
"You in the Service?"
"Yes. In the patrols. Madison Triumvirate. How about you?"
"I get around. I'm on the General's Staff."
Valentine hazarded finesse. "You're Twisted Cross, right? You guys work pretty tight with the Reapers. Where are you operating now?"
"Some people up here call us that. Can't discuss it, though. You know, security."
"Oh, I hear you. Looks like they work you pretty hard."
The man smiled. "Depends on your definition of work. But it is exhausting, in its own way."
Valentine nodded. "You look kind of sick or something."
"This is nothing. You should have seen me when I first got out of the tank. I'd been connected for six days. Couldn't even stand up until they got some orange juice in me."
Valentine nodded. "Sounds like tough duty. I'm sure it's more interesting than driving around in an old car, though, making sure nobody's hiding milk cows in the hills."
"Funny, I've never been to Wisconsin, but damn if you don't look familiar," the man mused.
" You been up in the north woods?"
Valentine fought the urge to lower his face, but he looked the man square in the eye. "Then I don't know where else you might've seen me. I've never been south of Indianapolis."
The man shrugged. "I dunno. I never forget a face, and-"
A heavy tread echoed from the hallway, and the cop returned, escorting a shuffling man with the bulky build of a power lifter. He had a battered face that looked like he drove railroad spikes with it. "Burt, this guy wants to do some business with you," the patroller said.
"Sure, sure. Be with you in a minute, kid. Hey, Jimmy King, you look tuckered. You need the usual?"
"A nice juicy one, Burt."
There was a look of raw lust in the man's eyes like nothing Valentine had ever seen. It sickened him, but he was glad of it; the mystery of Valentine's face was plainly the last thing on Jimmy King's mind at the moment.
Burt grinned. "Then follow. Pickings are a little slim this time of year, but I know you ain't particular. Some of your friends have been through, and I have a lot of empty cells."
As Burt and Jimmy King left the room, Valentine toked the cop yet again. "Thanks again," he said.
"Have fun, kid. Pleasure doing business with you."
As soon as the cop had passed out the metal door to the yard, Valentine hardened his ears. Burt and the Twisted Cross man seemed to be going down some stairs.
"Got the old thirst, huh?" Burt asked.
"You know it," King said, his rubber-soled feet squeaking a little against the stone stairs.
"Your bro recovered from that shotgun blast yet?"
"Yeah, sure. He won't win any dance contests, but he gets around well enough. For a while there, I was limping even when I wasn't in the tank."
"How long were you hooked up this time?"
"Almost a week. Fucker fed three times. Made me want it so bad I almost bit the guy pulling me out. But the general was happy with what we did; gave the whole team two weeks off. We wiped out a whole nest of rebs in the Smokies."
Valentine heard keys rattling and the sound of a door being opened somewhere below.
"General shouldn't make you pull such long shifts. I heard some of your guys went nuts after..."
The clang of the door shutting echoed loudly enough for Valentine to hear with soft ears. The voices were gone.
He waited fifteen minutes before the basement door opened again, and Burt's ponderous step ascended the stairs, key ring jangling. Burt returned to the linoleum-floored room, and Valentine rose to meet him.
"My name's Pillow, sir. First visit to the Zoo."
"Burt Walker. Chief of One-Way Exhibits."
"Now and then we get troublemakers the management wants to make an example of. Don't matter how they die, as long as it's ugly. Whatcha lookin' for, Pillow? Something the girls out there can't handle?"
"You might say that. It's something I don't like talking about."
"Hey, kid, I heard it all, believe me," Burt said, in a rich, world-weary tone. "But I respect people's privacy. You just gotta let me know one thing... Will she still be alive when you're done? "Cause if you kill her, I gotta charge you big-time."
"She'll live, Mr. Walker. That's a promise."
"Okay, then, but remember what I said and don't get carried away. I gotta see the cash, though."
Valentine flashed his breast-pocket wad. "I want to see the girls first. I'm willing to pay, but I don't want anyone whose already used up. Someone kind of innocent and fresh," Valentine said.
"Hey, Pillow, you want innocent and fresh, you have to come to the special show tonight. When I saw her, I almost decided to come out of retirement. But I'll let Clubber and Valkyrie and my two best Grogs do her."
Walker took Valentine to the basement stairs.
"This'll be private, right?"
"Kid, there's curtains on the cells. Don't worry about noise; no one's going to disturb you."
They came up against the metal basement door. Walker thumbed through a ring of keys and opened it. They passed though to a spacious lower level.
It reminded Valentine of a stable, except for the dirty white tile everywhere. A series of cells with barred doors lined the walls. Valentine smelled blood, urine, and feces without even using his hard sense of smell. Another man in a khaki uniform sat at a desk, talking animatedly over a phone.
"Hey, Burt! There are problems up top. There's a fire in the Grog pens, and the stables. Can you believe it?"
"Oh, fine," Walker said, disgusted. "Stupid Grogs. "Cause they're cheap and eat anything, we gotta employ 'em. They're more trouble than they're worth. Find Clubber and go help out at the stables. I don't give a shit if the Grog pens burn right to the ground. They can spend the winter under Lakeshore Drive for all I care."
The man nodded and disappeared up the stairs to the first floor.
"Okay, kid. Check out the cells, and then we'll talk price."
One of the doors slid open, and Jimmy King staggered out. He was nude, hollow chested, with spindly arms and legs. His face was covered in blood, and it ran down his chest into a mat of sticky black hair. He wiped blood from his eyes with slow, tired movements.
"Hey, King," Walker called. "Go use the hose, will ya? You're dripping all over the place."
The Twisted Cross man went to a washbasin with a floor drain beneath and began to hose himself off. Valentine walked up and down the cells, looking at the battered, pathetic figures behind the bars. Most of the stable-stall-size rooms were empty, and one held the remains of King's purchase, lifeless legs spread wide and throat torn messily open. Valentine reached a smaller hallway, empty of cells with another gate at the end of it, and wandered down it. The sliding barred door blocked his way, and he could see a long, poorly lit tunnel on the other side of the bars.
Something from down the tunnel tickled at his nostrils. He hardened his sense of smell and sniffed at the air. His heart skipped a beat as he recognized the odor of rose-petal soap. He returned to the tiles of the wide central hallway.
King had dressed again and was leaving, almost scuttling out the door to the upstairs. Walker shook his head and hefted his bulk up from behind the desk.
"Okay, boy. I'm a busy man. Which one? King's left me with a mess for the Grogs to clean up."
"Sir, how about you let me have the one for tonight's show? I won't even bruise her."
"Naw, sorry, kid. I'm already in Dutch about her. One of the guys got a little rough when she first got here, and I caught hell. They want her with a lot of energy for the show, you know? The guys always like it better if they aren't half-dead to begin with." Valentine looked in one of the pens at a curled up, sleeping black woman. "This one looks unspoiled. But I think she might be dead. I can't see her breathing."
"Eh? What's that?"
"I don't see anything moving. And her head's at sort of a funny angle."
Walker came over to the cage, reaching for an old-fashioned key. He looked inside.
"What the hell are you talking 'bout, junior? I can see- graak!"
Walker's last choked cry came as Valentine whipped the thin leather belt, wrapped tightly in each fist around the man's neck. The chief's massive frame heaved, and latissimus muscles the size of halved watermelons bulged against his shirt. Valentine leaped onto Walker's back, wrapping his legs around his thick waist, and pulled on the leather garrote until his muscles flamed in agony. Walker crashed over backwards onto Valentine, trying to crush him with his weight, but the Chief of One-Way Exhibits weakened. Valentine rolled him onto his stomach with a heave, digging his knee into his opponent's kidneys. Walker flapped like a landed fish as the muted crackling of his throat's collapsing cartilage sounded through his gaping mouth. Valentine continued pulling until he could no longer hear a heartbeat. Then he stood, the odor of Walker's feces and urine rank in his nostrils.
He turned the chief over, avoiding looking into the bulging eyes. Removing the key ring and a club from Walker's belt, he pulled the body feetfirst into an open stall, closed the curtains, and slid the door shut, locking it. His hands shook as much from nerves as from muscular exhaustion as he went to the smaller corridor. The rose smell cahned him as he tried the barred gate. It did not yield until after he tried several different keys.
Perhaps the corridor had been brightly lit once, but now only a dank gloom filled his eyes. He used his nose to guide him, following the homing beacon of the rose smell to a cell door. The sound of quiet breathing behind the door reassured him.
"Molly, it's me, David... I'm here to get you out," he whispered, trying the keys. She did not respond, and he grew frantic. The lock finally yielded. He pushed the squealing door open. The cell was bare and dark, the cracked cement floor sliding down to a drainage hole.
Molly Carlson lay curled up in a corner, arms around her drawn-up legs, head resting sideways on her bare knees. She wore the tattered remnants of her white shirt from yesterday-yesterday, he thought, or a year ago?-and blood smeared the side of her face where it had dried from a bloody clot of pulled-out hair. Valentine's heart ached at the purple bruises on her face and in her eye sockets. He knelt next to her.
"Molly, Molly! Molly," he almost shouted, gripping her hand. He patted the side of her pallid cheek and futilely searched for a response. He felt a strong, steady pulse under her wrist. Was she drugged?
He reached around her shoulders and under her knees. "I'll carry you out, then, Melissa," he said, lifting her into his arms.
Like a jinni summoned by the use of its name, her eyelids fluttered open. "David?" she croaked. "No... yes... how?"
He bore her out of the cell and down the tunnel, away from the basement. "Explanations will have to wait. We're both in a fix. But we're getting out of here," he said, quietly but with all the confidence he could muster.
Tearing himself away from the smell of roses on her skin, he caught the scent of fresh air and followed it like a bloodhound on a trail. Soon they reached a small corridor, jutting off from the main one at an empty doorframe. Following the now stronger odor of the outdoors, Valentine reached a short set of stairs.
"Can you walk?" he asked.
"I think so, David. I thought I was dead. I made my mind die-Valentine looked into her battered features. He wanted to kiss her, but something in her haunted eyes held him back.
"Did they hurt you? Were you-?"
"Don't ask, David. Maybe I'll tell you someday. Now... now it's out of my mind, and it's staying out for a while. Where are we?"
"Chicago. The Zoo."
"That's where they said they were taking me. They said some big shots from downstate were going to come here and watch me... die."
"You're going to disappoint them, Molly."
"But you can't get out of Chicago. Not with me, anyway."
"Watch us."
"David, just shoot me. Shoot me and go, because after... I want you to get out, no matter what."
He looked down at her, shaking his head. "Oh, no... 'promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep." We'll be out of their reach by midnight, one way or the other."
"But how?"
"A Reaper is going to help us."
The arena of the Black Hole glowed under bright arc lights. Valentine heard distant fire bells and smelled smoke; the Grogs had made good use of their matches. He covered Molly with his leather coat and took her wrist, then brought her out into the bright lights of the pit. Giving her a boost up the side of one of the walls, he followed, taking her offered hand.
The cool night air chilled his skin, and Molly gripped the coat around her as her teeth chattered. Confusion hung in the air along with the smoke from the fires. Through the scattered trees, Valentine could see two fires burning, and noisy crowds clustered around, perhaps helping, perhaps simply enjoying the excitement. Valentine got his bearings and hurried along the deserted sidewalks, ignoring the knots of people rushing to and fro. He sensed Reapers searching near the fire.
In the little dome-shaped cage, the Lifeweaver now wore the shape of a large sloth. The audience that had been present earlier was gone now save for two drunks passing a greasy bottle back and forth. Ignoring them, the tall keeper snapped shut a final shackle to the sloth's curved paw and rapped it across the nose with a short black club similar to the one Valentine had taken from the body of the strangled chief. "Looks like you're done for the night," he said. "Everybody's watching the Grog Quarter go up in flames."
Valentine brought Molly around to the low cage door. "Hello, in there," he called, flashing a handful of bills. "When you're done, I need a favor."
A look of tired distaste came over the keeper. "Hey half-breed, beat it. Go get your Big Medicine elsewhere. Just 'cause it looks like an animal doesn't mean it actually is. It's just a trick. If you're looking to fuck an ostrich or something, you're outta luck."
The keeper fastened the last cuff to the dried-out tree limb and approached the door. Valentine passed him the bills with his left hand, casually holding the right behind his leg. The keeper grabbed the money, counting it with his eyes. "Okay, okay, you got my attention. Now what-," he began, bending almost double to squeeze his frame out of the low door to the The' keeper never ended his sentence; the hard wooden shaft of the club crashed into the back of his skull with a kraak. The keeper dropped, unconscious or dead.
Valentine added the keys to his growing collection and hurried to the tree. The ones for Rho the Lifeweaver hung from a second, smaller ring. If we make it, we live. If we don't, nobody's going to be an exhibit, he silently promised himself, and Molly. And Rho. As he unfastened the leg irons on the sloth, he patted it gently on the head.
A Hunter? The other mind inside his head asked. A fleeting mental touch. Valentine, it's you.
The shape blurred again as it fell to the ground, released from its bonds. Valentine knelt and grasped it by the shoulders. He found himself looking into the rugged face of his own father.
"Dad?" Valentine found himself saying without even thinking about it.
The shape blurred again and became a hawk-nosed, deep-eyed old man with a tuft of white hair at the temples. "Sorry, Valentine the Younger. I was thinking of your father. My control isn't what it was," it said in a croaking voice.
Molly grabbed at the bars behind him. "David, we don't have much time. Those two drunks just took off!"
Valentine helped the Lifeweaver to his feet. "Sir, we have to move. Can you walk?"
"I would love to walk. Run even, Valentine. But I fear I won't be able to go far."
"I'll see what I can do. Now let's see what you can do," Valentine said, explaining his plan. "But we have to hurry."
Somewhere, somehow, the Reapers knew. He felt them coming.
Following a Reaper through the crowds made negotiating the press of humans a simple task. People parted for the Reaper like the Red Sea before the Israelites. Valentine and Molly only had to stay a respectful distance behind the flowing cape.
"Open your stride a little more," Valentine said in a low tone. The Reaper complied, almost goose-stepping into the street. "That one, the cab," Valentine added.
A dirty yellow lump of dented metal sagged to one side on a broken suspension. The Reaper stepped to the driver's side, reaching up to tap at the window, and paused, finding no window to tap on.
i need your ride, the Reaper breathed down at the driver. The grizzled driver looked up and lost perhaps two pounds while staring at the death's-head face gazing down at him.
Valentine and Molly climbed in, and the young woman sagged against Valentine the instant they were seated on the badly sprung bench. The Reaper joined them, squeezing into the backseat. The driver did not offer to have the Reaper sit up front.
"Where to, sir?" the driver asked, the effort to sound normal sticking in his throat.
the great pier, the Reaper said as Valentine pointed to his small map, which was illuminated by the streetlights shining into the car.
"Be there in five minutes, sir." The driver started his car. Valentine wondered if the man's hair had always been that gray. The taxi began to roll, engine sputtering as diesel fumes leaked into the car.
The Lifeweaver switched to his telepathy. It gripped Valentine's hand to make a more secure connection. Valentine, you have saved me. In ways you cannot imagine.
Don 't fool yourself, he thought back. We're not out of it yet.
The audacity of this... It is worthy of your father. Once a rat passed through the Zoo, but she was so sickened by the goings-on she barely touched my mind before hurrying away.
How well did you know my father?
I trained him, Valentine the Younger. I invoked him as a wolf and saw in him the potential to be a great Bear. He and others forged Southern Command out of a few camps in the mountains. The worst days. But the Kurians grew to know and hate your father. He killed five of them. Not Grogs, not Reapers. Kurian Lords. They had a fortress in Saint Louis, suspended from the arch like a spider's egg sac. He stole a small plane and parachuted onto it. When he finished, no Kurian within ever drank another aura.
I never knew this, Valentine thought back after a moment.
He was the best of men, beyond our design.
He once had a family in the FreeTerritory, but they were swallowed in a battle that raged years before your birth. He sought solace in the remoteness of the north, and I never met him again. I hope he found some measure of happiness before he died.
He did, Valentine responded.
They made their way through the pier, checkpoints and all, with the same simplicity granted by Rho's Reaper aspect. Guards looked busy elsewhere, and port officials sprang into action, driving their work gangs into greater and greater efforts. Valentine urged them on, sensing a Reaper approaching from behind.
What had been Chicago's Navy Pier was now only an ill-lit and deserted utilitarian warehouse for merchandise moving into and out of Chicago by water. The great concrete pier sprouted wooden docks like leaves from a branch. Valentine found a responsible official by searching out the most well-maintained uniform.
"You there," he said, stepping from behind the Reaper. "Is there a ship here, the White-something-or-other?"
"Whitecloud, sir?" the officer said briskly. "She left this evening. Just under two hours ago. Probably halfway to Milwaukee by now."
Valentine's disappointment may have helped with the act. He thought for a moment. "Is it possible to still catch her?"
"Yessir. We have a fast motorized patrol boat. She could catch up in an hour."
bring it, the Reaper said, searching the dark horizon of the lake.
"Uh, follow me, sir," the man stammered. "There's only a skeleton crew. If you want more men for boarding, the White-cloud is pretty big, crew of a dozen or so-"
"I think we'll be enough. The woman there just needs to go on board and identify someone. There's a terrorist on board," Valentine explained.
The port official walked them down a long, narrow wooden dock extending into the lake, held up by thick wooden pilings. The warped wood creaked under their feet.
Ahead they could see a long, low shape. The aged speed-boat gleamed in the distant reflected light of Chicago. Valentine prayed that they would still get away with no one questioning a Reaper's orders.
The Reaper.
The real Reaper was somewhere close.
Valentine tried to hurry the other three along by trotting out ahead toward the boat, his hackles rising like a wary dog's. Rho seemed to blur, but his Reaper aspect re-formed.
They've found me. They are homing. I give off life sign like a firework, Valentine the Younger, the Lifeweaver thought to him.
"The Reaper grew closer. Valentine knew it was just behind them now.
The port official scuttled up the gangway. He began speaking to a pair of figures on board. Valentine pressed the pistol into Molly's hand. "Keep this in your coat pocket," he whispered. "Don't let them take you alive."
The Reaper approached. Its cold shadow was at the jetty, moving down the boards.
Valentine drew his parang, turned, and went to meet it.
When Valentine was fourteen, he had read Livy. Tonight his was the role of Horatius at the SublicianBridge. What had seemed heroic now felt suicidal, with two meters of genetically engineered death moving toward him at cheetah speed.
At first he was afraid that the Reaper, coming out of the dark like a bounding tiger, would simply leap over him to tear and toss his charges lifeless into the lake. But Valentine stood, legs planted with the balanced blade of the parang resting in his hand against the back of his thigh.
The Reaper stopped.
It regarded him, drawn skull-face expressionless and yellow eyes sunken in bony sockets.
ahh, thefoodling stands, curious after the long chase, it is your nature to run, human, it breathed, did you think you could steal and escape with our bauble? you would not get out of sight of this pier. It crouched, froglike.
Valentine tried to keep the fear out of his voice even if he couldn't banish its shadow from his mind. His bowels suddenly seemed made of water, and his tongue was thick and dry.
"Your time is up," Valentine said, speaking quietly to keep his voice from cracking. "In a few seconds, your Master is going to have one less drone."
Go, Rho. Take Molly and haul out of here, he mentally implored.
The Reaper did not laugh, did not smile. It pulled back its lips to reveal obsidian pointed teeth.
oh, no, foodling. it is high night, and your world is mine, soon you will be as cold and empty as the moon, your woman, too. all you have done is spit into a hurricane.
Behind him Valentine heard the motorboat sputter into life. The thing looked for a moment at the vessel, ahh, a boat, i thought so. your luck has run out. It reached into its robes and pulled out a short, thick gun. Valentine took a step back in confusion; he had never heard of a Reaper using a gun, but it fired into the air, in the direction of the speedboat. A parachute flare opened, bathing the pier in red light.
"Do you know me, creature?" Valentine asked.
i know your kind, boy. weak and easily emptied, i feast on your fathers at will, as i shall consume you, the Reaper hissed, rising and opening its arms for the deadly embrace.
Valentine brought his blade up. "Not my father. My name is David Valentine. Son of Lee Valentine. Have you met my kind, creature?"
The thing's face lost animation. Perhaps the Kurian Lord at the other end knew dismay.
Valentine attacked. He lunged, hitting it with a backhand swipe that narrowly missed its neck. His blade struck the skull, cutting and glancing off its face with a resounding thwack.
It lashed out with a foot, almost caving in Valentine's chest. He fell backwards onto the dock, gasping for air, his parang teetering at the edge of the wooden jetty.
With a soft plop it dropped into Lake Michigan.
And David Valentine knew he would die. The vampire-avatar advanced four steps, then bent to take him up in its long arms. But Valentine would meet it on his feet. He rolled away in a blur and got up with the balance of a judo champion recovering from a throw. Exhilarated, he felt a rush of power, a presence that lifted the fear away.
With him stood a phalanx of spirits who had also faced the Kurians. His father and mother, holding hands. Steve Oran and Gilman DelVecchio formed an unflinching wall to his right and left, and behind him Gabriella Cho went on tiptoe to reach his ear.
Go on, Davy. He's not as tough as he seems, she seemed to whisper in his mind.
A terrible strength filled Valentine as the rush infused his belly with fire. The thing paused to wipe sticky black blood from its eye, and Valentine was upon it. The force of his leap knocked it over. Valentine clawed at its back, pinning an arm that tried to tear him off. He wrapped his arms around it. The Reaper flopped and rolled like a netted fish.
It rose, bearing Valentine like a backpack. It began to totter down toward the boat, which seemed to Valentine bathed in a red mist. It tried to shrug him off, but Valentine's arms had turned to steel cables.
Molly Carlson stepped out of the darkness, sighting down the pistol's barrel with tear-streaked eyes. The Reaper moved toward her, no longer struggling with Valentine but reaching for the woman. Valentine shifted his grip and tore open the Reaper's robes at its chest, baring the rippled surface of its rib cage.
"Shoot! Molly, shoot!" he yelled.
She fired, putting bullet after bullet into the vampire's chest. Valentine felt the impact against his own body as the heavy slugs tore into the Reaper's flesh. Black blood fountained out of its mouth.
He slid off the thing's back to avoid the bullets, falling to the ground. It turned its armored back to Molly and staggered toward Valentine, leaning over him as if it sought to at last crush and smother him under the fall of its body. Its deadly jaws opened wide, revealing the pointed tongue behind its fangs.
Valentine brought his knees to his chest and grabbed at the Reaper's sleeves. He brought the creature's weight to the soles of his feet, using its momentum against it. Now almost standing on his head, Valentine kicked out with both legs.
The hissing nightmare flew, thrown upside down into Lake." Michigan, arms clawing at empty air. It splashed into the water.
Valentine rolled onto his stomach, looking at the circle of waves emerging from where the robe-weighted Reaper sank from sight. Turbulence broke the water; perhaps the thing was still struggling as it descended into final darkness...
Now it was Molly's turn to help him up. The pair returned to the motorboat, where the fake Reaper still glowered at the two-man crew.
"What the hell was that back there? Who called the Snappers to the pier, of all places? They'll kill us all!" the port officer yelled as they climbed on board.
nothing for you to know about, if you wish to see the dawn, Rho said in imitation of a Reaper's breathy hiss, return to your duties, and let us catch the whitecloud.
The port officer ran.
Molly sat next to Valentine, leaning against his shoulder. He watched the two men nervously casting off the boat under Rho's glowing eyes. Just in case, he reloaded the gun. While moving out of the slip, the boat hit something and rocked to a halt.
"What the-?" the man at the wheel said.
The engine sputtered and died.
"You have more guns?" Valentine asked. They ignored the question and stood looking out at the water around them in confusion, He fired a bullet into the windscreen. It spider-webbed, and the men turned to him.
"Get your damn guns!"
The pilot grabbed a shotgun, and the other followed his example and took a revolver from the map case. The boat rocked, and Valentine lurched toward the side. Molly threw herself down, pulling him into the bottom of the boat. Rho clutched at the throttle levers.
Humanlike hands and a dripping face appeared over the side. The Reaper. Valentine fired the pistol and missed, but the face disappeared nevertheless.
"Grenades on this boat?"
"We have a few," he said. He reached into a locker.
"Drop them over the side."
"Can't we get away?" Molly asked.
"The propeller's wedged," the pilot shouted.
"Here!" the man at the locker said, finding a canvas bag with soup-can-style grenades.
Valentine handed his gun to Molly and grabbed a sharpened boathook. He listened and tried to guess where the Reaper would appear next while the mate yanked the pin of a grenade and turned to throw it overboard.
An arm lashed up out of the water, catching the man in the temple. The unpinned grenade fell into the bottom of the boat, bounced and rolled toward Valentine.
Molly scrambled for it on her hands and knees. She scooped it with a shoveling motion, as if it were a hot rock. The grenade spun into the water. It exploded, sending a column of water into the air.
The Reaper climbed onto the front of the boat. It had shed its robes and boots. Bullet wounds showed as black patches on its chest like three extra nipples.
"What the hell?" shouted the man at the controls.
Valentine raised the boathook and leaped onto the bow of the speedboat, but the Reaper knocked him aside. It went straight for Rho, jumping into the back of the boat. The Reaper struck the Lifeweaver with a raking blow across his chest.
Rho's masquerade blurred for a moment as he fell, giving Valentine a glimpse of an amorphous blue-green shape. Molly reached for Valentine's gun.
His vision blurred from pain, the Wolf grasped the boathook in both hands. He moved toward the Reaper as it bent to take up the Lifeweaver, a hungry light shining in its eyes.
now, i take-
Valentine buried the curved prong into the thing's back. It reared up, and reached for the boathook in its back by using its elbow joints in the opposite direction from how they worked on a human being.
shoot him, stupid foodling, the Reaper hissed at the pilot, pulling at the hook.
"Don't," Molly shrieked. She pointed the Colt at the pilot.
The Reaper lunged at Valentine. The blow sent him flying. He landed on the prow of the boat. Something hard poked him in the back: he had fetched up against the anchor.
The thing launched itself in the air, landing astride him. It bent, yellow eyes blazing.
Blue-white light flashed, and a shotgun blast tore through the side of the Reaper's face. Skin and stringy black hair exploded in shreds from the skull. A second shot caught it in the back, toppling it over Valentine and into the water.
"Always wanted a crack at one of those sumbitches," the pilot said, breaking open the shotgun to reload it.
Valentine could only lie and watch as a pair of ghostly white hands gripped the tube-steel of the low front rail of the boat.
"No, goddammit," Valentine said. "You're through." He put the pain away and unclasped the anchor, making sure the line was not attached.
Mechanically, the Reaper pulled itself onto the boat. Its face had lost all animation, its limbs moving in uncoordinated jerks.
Valentine lifted the Danforth anchor by the shank, and turned it so the twin flukes pointed down. He brought it down on the Reaper's spine, burying the steel into its torso. Still holding on to the anchor, the Wolf strained every muscle and picked up the Reaper. He heaved and threw the weighted abomination into Lake Michigan.
Beyond the splash, he saw gray humps in the water moving toward the boat.
"Shit, the Snappers are coming," the pilot said.
Rho rose to his feet, the Reaper disguise gone. His human form looked like a wind-bent old tree, white hair streaming in the lake breeze. A misty patch at his chest throbbed with a faint blue light.
"I'm so tired," he said. "But perhaps I can help."
The Lifeweaver closed his eyes and gripped the boat. It began to move.
The boat picked up speed. Valentine saw more humps closing in from the sides. But they avoided the boat, gathering around the turbulence where the Reaper had disappeared in its final plunge.
"I've got the other grenade," the pilot said.
"We won't need it," Molly said, looking out over the stern. "Whatever they are, I hope they have strong stomachs."
Once clear of the harbor, Valentine and the pilot went over the side and unwound the Reaper's robe from the propeller.
"You two just helped three terrorists escape Chicago," Valentine told the Quisling as Molly helped them back into the boat. His friend was still unconscious, under a blanket in the forward cabin. "You can come with us and be set down somewhere, or join the fleet if they'll have you. It's the least I owe you for your help. That is if you don't want to paddle back and have a talk with the Reapers."
"I think we'd better come with you, sir. The name's J. P., by the way. My mate's name is Cal Swanson."
"Thought you might, J. P."
With the powerful motor again in action, they spotted the two-masted ship's lights before dawn. The speedboat tied up against the Whitecloud in an easy swell. The sailors, a mixed group of ten men, women, and children, came on deck to look at the visitors.
Rho stood still as a carving for a moment, looking at the new faces, then sank to his knees.
Valentine rushed to his side. He turned the Lifeweaver's face to him, but Rho did not react.
"I'm exhausted, Valentine the Younger. You are among your kind now?"
"Close enough," Valentine said. "We're safe, if that's what you mean."
The masklike expression did not change. Valentine looked into eyes filled with thousands of years of memories. "I will go in peace, then." Something that might have been a smile appeared on his lips. "I escaped them after all."
"Maybe you just need rest and food, sir. I'll help you up."
The Lifeweaver's mind touched his.
Too tired to talk. You've helped me more than you know. They would have dined long on me, but now I'll fly away free in death. Bring me to the cabin, the others should not...
"Molly, you and J. P. clear out the cabin, would you?" Valentine said.
He picked up the featherweight Lifeweaver. The former Quisling dragged his comrade Cal out into the night air.
"Help us, please," Molly implored to the faces above. Two sailors from the Whitecloud swung down.
Valentine took Rho into the dim compartment. A pair of tiny bunks angled together into the sharp prow of the vessel. He laid the Lifeweaver down.
Thank you, Lee... David. You have a strong aura. It might be best if... the others didn't see me, after... The mind's touch faltered.
"It's not over, sir. Just rest."
It... Rho began, but never finished. He flickered one final time, before shifting back to his natural form. The thing he knew as Rho collapsed into a rubbery mass the size of a teenage boy. Rho sagged-there was no skeleton to support his body-into something that looked like a blue octopus with a bit of bat in the evolutionary tree. Leathery fins ran the sides of his tentacles, the longer limbs at the back of his body joined by the veiny membranes almost to the sucker-tipped ends like a ribbed cape, the shorter ones at the front unattached and with smaller, more delicate suckers. His aqua-colored skin, more blue around cephalopod skull, changed to sea-foam green along his limbs, with a latticework of delicate black lines covering the skin that he found eerily beautiful, though if they were decorative or functional Valentine could not say. Spicules and flaps formed a band under the brain-in-a-bag of its head, but whether they were noses, ears, breathing tubes, or even sexual organs was anyone's guess. The bulging eyes, lids opening wider and wider as it relaxed into death, drew Valentine's gaze back every time he looked elsewhere. They were like yellowish crystal balls flecked with red, with a black band running across the middle.
God, it was ugly for an angel. Or a devil, for that matter.
Valentine hugged the moist, limp form to himself. He owed his and Molly's life to the dead Life weaver. When the warmth had left the body, he covered it with a blanket.
He should stuff Rho's body in a bucket or a big jug, preserve it with alcohol, and get it back to the Miskatonic. The researchers there might be able to find a weakness, some flaw that would allow them to kill the Kurians without blasting into their lairs and blowing them to bits. Duty, and loyalty to his species, demanded it.
He exited the cabin and went to the engine.
"Take any gear and fixtures you want out of her," he said to the crewmen of the Whitecloud. "But don't go in the cabin."
He found a hose and siphoned some gasoline up into a water bottle. He took the fuel down into the forward compartment and splashed it on the carpet and wood paneling. He repeated the process until the gas was gone and the speedboat reeked of fumes. He followed his shipmates into the sailing vessel as the sailors pulled the powerful outboard up out of its mount with a block and tackle.
Valentine reached into his pockets and found one more tin of matches. He struck them all at once, and tossed the flaming handful into the cabin. Flames raced through the boat, and the Whitecloud sailors cast it off.
He watched and waited until the lake consumed the flaming wreck. The smoke dissipated into the fresh breeze.
Sailors are used to the unexpected. A woman with a long, thin-boned face introduced herself as Collier, the captain of the Whitecloud, and offered them blankets and hot coffee.
She invited them below to the cramped galley. Valentine showed the captain his card, the chit given him by Captain Doss of the White Lightning. She agreed to take them north, where they could transfer to another ship, which could take them anywhere in the Great Lakes they wished to go. "I'd do it anyway, even without Dossie's card. Something tells me you went through a lot to get here."
He, Molly, and J. P. discussed their options on the coming voyage. They decided to winter in the familiar (at least to Valentine) reaches of the Boundary Waters. He would see Father Max again. Only when spring came would he have to make new decisions.
A very weary David Valentine took Molly into the clean, cold air of the Lake Michigan morning. They looked west as the shoreline slowly became distinct and the sun penetrated the clouds. He thought of all the doomed souls beyond the distant, mist-shrouded shore. He had saved Molly, but how many others had died to feed the Reapers in the last three days?
He remembered a story that Father Max used to tell, and a quote he had to memorize from the green blackboard, of a tireless nun named Mother Teresa. She and her Sisters of Mercy had worked with the multitudes of impoverished, disease-stricken people in India. A journalist had asked her how she managed to keep her spirits up, when despite her unceasing labors there would always be more suffering than she could possibly cure.
Mother Teresa had thought for a moment, and then said: "You start with one."
David Valentine turned to watch the dawn, Molly's hand in his.