Night's Shadow

By Steve K Smy

Copyright © 2012 Steve K Smy

Published by Steve K Smy at Smashwords

The right of Steve K Smy to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

                         

There was no doubting the fact. Alex wasn't like other men. He was moderately good looking, if you ignored the fact that his nose looked too big for his face when seen in profile. His hair was black, with a light dusting of grey, and his eyes were large, dark pools of warmth that women had tended to find very attractive. It was a shame, then, that for the last six months he had failed in every relationship he had attempted. It shouldn't have been a surprise to him, though. Being restricted to only ever leaving home at night, and having a disturbing coldness to his flesh, he found it difficult to live a normal life. He ought to have known it would be like that, but he was a stubborn man. Even when he had woken to this new way of living, he had denied the reality of what he was. Despite that denial, he continued to curse that almost hypnotically irresistible girl who had wrought such a vast change in his existence.

 

Alexander Thomas Whelan, thirty-seven years old, middle son of moderately successful parents, looked across his bedroom in the dingy flat and, for the umpteenth time, shook his head at the mirror on the wall. The mirror, with fine disregard for the room's sole occupant, continued to reflect everything in the room. Everything, that is, except Alex himself. It still unnerved him, to both lack a reflection and to be able to see, effectively, right through himself. In his mind, it was ridiculously impossible. The fact that he could see, in that impassive reflection, the indentation he made by sitting on his bed just made it all the more unbelievable. His presence obviously impacted on his surroundings, so he should have a reflection. Hell, before that torrid night with her, he had used that mirror every morning, with definite, egocentric satisfaction. With a curse, he threw a pillow at the uncooperative mirror.

 

He checked behind the heavy black blind at the window, peeking carefully around one side of it. It was dark outside, thankfully. He could get out at last. Throwing on his favorite coat, a dark blue camel-hair thing, he slammed out of the flat, determined to leave behind the annoyances and frustrations that it tormented him with. The communal passageway was empty, stinking of cleansing materials used by the janitor. Barging through the front door, he stepped out into the cold night, to be greeted by a few random, lethargic flakes of snow. He shrugged deeper into his coat, even though he no longer ever felt the cold, and set off towards the clubs that clustered nearby, in a backstreet of the town.

 

As he walked, Alex was again made conscious of just how acute his sense of smell had become. The odors of the streets assailed him in a revolting cocktail. He really wished he'd remember to use the nose plugs he had bought weeks back. As he drew closer to Club Alley, as it was known locally, the stench just got worse, sourer, rancid, with ever step. But if he wanted to get some relief from his solitary existence in the flat, and at least meet people, he had to suffer the consequences. And there was always the alcohol. Not that it had the anesthetic effect it had before. In fact, it only helped because he focused so firmly on drinking that it left little room for other thoughts. Besides, he might be lucky this time, and find a girl who didn't end up rejecting him before he'd even gotten her out of the club.

 

A stray dog saw him coming, whimpered, and scampered away. That was another change. There had been a time when animals came to him, as if he was a magnet to them. Now, even the rats in the block of flats didn't approach him, or his two rooms.

 

There was a commotion outside Alex's favorite club, way down the far end of the street. Lots of shouting and screaming, people milling everywhere. Then the two huge bouncers waded in and the violence was brutally crushed. It had happened before, but more than a year ago. Alex carried on walking. In the pathetic lighting from the lampposts, he could see a bundle on the ground, behind the swing-sign that stood on the pavement, advertising the club's latest cheap booze offers. As he drew closer, the bundle became distinguishable as a man., curled up, arms wrapped around his belly. A dark pool was spreading slowly from under him. Alex was suddenly aware of a thundering in his brain, a vast hollowness inside his body. He was drawn, unable to resist, towards the wounded man.

 

Alex crouched down by the man. There was a new scent in the air, one that reminded him of when he had still been able to smell his food, and enjoy it, but this intensified the strange feelings that had gripped him. He licked his lips and leaned close over the huddled form. The man's eyes flickered open, pleading for help, though his groans and weeping had begun to subside as weakness spread. Alex looked into those desperate eyes and saw a reaction. No understanding. Accusation. He stooped closer still and the man managed one last groan, of horror, loathing.

Alex's head snapped up as one of the bouncers approached, looming menacingly. The moment the giant of a man saw Alex's face, however, he began backing away, shaking his head and utterly terrified. Blood trickled unheeded down Alex's chin. His lips were twisted in a feral snarl, and a pair of long, stained canine teeth glinted in the meagre light. All he could think of was the need to feed, to drive off any who dared contest his right to do so. But even as he snarled up at the bouncer, who was twice his size, a din broke in on his mind. Sirens, loud and fierce. Leaping to his feet, he was away, running at an impossible speed, things flashing past as nothing but blurs.

Back in his flat, Alex threw himself on his bed and tried to compress his body into the smallest space possible. He had perfect memory of what he'd done, and it sickened him. He sobbed, wanting it all to go away, to be revealed as some awful nightmare, but it wouldn't. He could still smell the blood, urging him to find and drink more, his body screaming for it. Only now did he realize how long it had been since he had gone without real food, food his body demanded, needed.

Outside, police cars sped by, hunting for the maniac described by the bouncer. Blue lights rushed by, flaring blindingly in the night. Sirens echoed and re-echoed. Alex just lay trembling in utter self-loathing. Even when the fists started banging on doors throughout the block of flats, Alex was too consumed by agony to care. His own door shuddered to the impacts of a heavy hand, barely muffled the call of that accompanied them. He just covered his head and begged silently for them to go away, to leave him alone. Car doors thudded dully outside and an engine revved up before the vehicle pulled away, taking the hunters with it.

 

Alex was lost in torment.

 

She used him, in ways that he had never even imagined, until he had no more to give, until he had to beg her to let him rest. She'd laughed then and her cool lips had brushed his cheek. He plunged into sleep, luxurious, ultimately sated. Then the morning had come, with its cold, brilliant light that suddenly hurt him, made his skin feel as if he was on fire. He'd risen quickly and pulled the dusty old curtains closed, cutting out the worst of it. Turning back to the bed, he'd seen that, as he'd half expected, she was gone. But there, close to where he had slept, leaving his impression on the sheet, was a large, dark stain. He cursed, thinking that he'd had a nose bleed during the night. It had happened before. Then he smiled, grinned to rival the Cheshire Cat. What a night!

Alex rolled over, waking from the memory, the too vivid dream. He felt exhausted and disorientated. Blinking, he slouched into the other room, with its tattered furniture and the corner with what passed for a kitchen area. He switched on the stained kettle, found a passably clean mug and thumped it onto the counter. Automatically, he switched on the radio before opening the mini-fridge to look for milk.

 

Police continue the manhunt for the person, who remains unidentified, as the dry, disinterested voice crackled and hissed from the radio. They say that they are confident of an early arrest. In other news, Councilor Mendon has been……

 

Alex didn't hear any more. He stood, carton of milk in one hand, holding the fridge door open with the other, unable to move. A creeping terror was spreading from the radio, out of the dark corners of the room, but mostly from somewhere deep inside him. He began to tremble. His staunch determination to deny everything abnormal crumbled at last. It was true. Horribly, inescapably, unalterably true.

 

Hours of thought, and battling against the terror that kept threatening to overwhelm him. But in the end he came to a decision, a plan that he just hoped he could accomplish. He knew, now, with a sense of ineffable sadness, that he had lost everything, including life itself. He was dead. His life had been taken by a callous creature, hungry for blood, and perhaps just as hungry for the pleasure of the kill. Now, he would hunt her down and his vengeance would be satisfied with her destruction. He could stop her destroying more fools, like himself. He could visit justice on her. And then? And then he would destroy himself, before he became a predator just as dangerous as her.

 

He dressed in different clothing and slipped out into the night via the back door of the block of flats. He moved with a stealth he had never possessed in life, flitting through the night's shadows less visibly than a moth. Cats, prowling and courting, made haste to move from his path, their bright eyes huge with fear, fur bristling as they hissed before vanishing in a few bounds. Twice, lights flashed on in a torrent of harsh brilliance, sensors triggered by his swift passage. Traffic noise came through the night.

 

Ahead, Club Alleyway continued without a pause for the previous night's events. There was a difference, though. The bouncers now kept firmly in the pockets of lights outside the doors of each place, and the way they acted suggested that they now had more than fists for weapons. There was also a car, hidden in a gap between buildings, its nose barely protruding. The police were waiting, ready to pounce.

 

Alex walked normally, straight to The Rite Spot. He handed over the exorbitant fee for entry, smiling stupidly at the three lurking bouncers and the woman behind the grille, who took his money without looking up, her spot-covered jaws working lazily on chewing gum. Through a pair of doors that had once been padded but were now just a mess of torn leatherette and escaping foam rubber, into a dark room. Colored lights flashed and spun, allegedly enhancing a cacophony that he had once thought was cool music. At the far end, behind a heavy cage curtain, raised six feet up on a platform, a DJ worked furiously at his trade, occasionally yelling at the people crushed into the place.

 

Alex forced his way through the mob, heading for the bar that lined one wall. There, at the counter, he waited. Lights illuminated only the area behind the bar, where four men and two women worked flat out to satisfy the demands of the clientele. The counter was slick with spilled alcohol and was covered by a litter of glasses and bowls of stale snacks. Young men and women were leaning on it, yelling at the bartenders or each other. But at the far end, he had hoped, there was what seemed a small island of peace, in which a dark man held court, smiling constantly.

 

Threading his way through the crowd, Alex gained the sanctuary the dark man's presence afforded. The man's eyes locked with Alex's. There was recognition there. Recognition, disdain and a mocking humor. Alex knew immediately that here was another like him. Somebody who had cheated death, in the same way. As he held the other's eyes, he also saw the growth of hatred. The dark man had sensed that Alex had not, would not, accept the remaking.

 

Go, â the dark man said, and his coterie backed away, knowing that they were no longer welcome. A few shot angry glances at Alex as they left.

 

Where is she? âs Alex demanded.

 

Not here. She's gone. Like she always does.

 

Where?

 

How should I know? She goes, she comes. No telling with Celeste.

 

And I suppose you won't let me know if she comes back?

 

No, I don't think I'd do that. Go away. Get out of town while you can. You've no idea what you've gotten into. Get out before you're caught by the police, or others find you.

 

The dark man's eyes shifted focus to the entrance. Alex glanced over his shoulder and saw two men entering, obviously police.

 

There's a back door, over there, the man said, nodding to the corner to the right of the DJ's stage.

 

Why help me?

 

I don't give a damn about you. I just can't afford to have you caught here, on my turf.

 

Fine, I'll go, but if I find out that you're hiding her, I'll be back.

 

The dark man gave a shrug, not impressed by the implicit threat. Alex walked away casually, not looking to see where the police officers were. There was a moment of almost total darkness, and he slipped out through the door. A short passage led past the stage entrance and a grubby little office to a heavy, steel-plated door. Alex hesitated, trying to see if there was an alarm rigged to it. There was nothing obvious so he thrust down on the bar handle and ducked out into the night.

 

It was snowing heavily and Alex shivered, despite himself. A quick look around revealed a narrow gap between two large wheeled bins. He squeezed through and was soon hurrying down an alleyway towards the town center.

Alex looped back away from the town center, heading for his flat. As he entered the road in which he lived, however, he saw two police cars outside the building and several officers moving in and out. A police estate car arrived a few moments later and the driver got out and fetched a big, shaggy German Shepherd dog from the rear, leading it into the building. A crowd of people had gathered to watch. He moved up to the back of the onlookers and, making sure that he was in deep shadow, asked what was going on.

 

They've found where that lunatic lives, a woman, around fifty and dressed in a heavy dressing gown, replied without turning. He weren't home though, more's the pity. Still, trey’s taking stuff out of his place. Frightening' it is, how his sort can be let live with normal folk. Why, there's babes and all live there. Makes you shudder, don't it?

 

Yes. You never know who your neighbors really are, Alex agreed.

 

I heared that the police caught some girl in his flat, said a man, possibly the woman's husband, judging by his appearance. She were asleep and when they went in, she fought like a wildcat when they woke her up. Jack says he saw two coppers taken out with blood all over them, and one had a broken arm at least! Probably as nuts as the loony is.

 

A coldness took hold of Alex. A girl, in his flat. It only made sense one way. Celeste had been waiting for him to return, in his own home. He listened as the gossiping spread to others, hoping for more information. All he gleaned was that the police had used tasers on the girl and some big men had gone in, to come out a few minutes later, dragging the semi-conscious girl. She'd been in a straitjacket. A little old man reported seeing her being bundled into the back of an ambulance-like vehicle. There were plenty of complaints from the crowd, about lunatics being allowed to live with normal folk. Alex couldn't feel anything but shame.

 

The officer with the dog emerged from the building. They began to move slowly but steadily along the pavement, towards the crowd. Alex, needing no urging, slipped away. He had no idea what to do now, though. He couldn't just wander around until morning. He needed somewhere to hide from the sun, but he also needed to find out where the girl had been taken. If he was right, she would have been taken for psychiatric assessment rather than going to whatever police station was running the hunt. As far as he knew, there was only one facility that was suited to establishing whether Celeste could be interrogated or not. Saint Luke's Hospital was known to handle just about all psychiatric cases. Presumably they had a secure unit which would be used to house the most dangerous individuals, who had not ended up in a prison hospital. That meant he had to cross the town and get out to the isolated estate where the hospital was situated, hidden in large grounds full of trees. That would take a good hour or more, walking.

The gates were closed, controlled from a small hut inside the grounds, from which light spilled through a small window. Alex could see a man in uniform sat inside the hut. The hospital itself was barely visible, through the trees. A high fence surrounded the place, with barbed wire 'tumblers' along the top. As Alex walked along the fence, hoping to find a gap, he reached one point where the angle allowed him to see a police car sat outside the hospital's main entrance. Most of the lights were off on this side, suggesting that offices hid behind the darkened windows. A lamp lit the area of the entrance itself, and there were hits of light elsewhere, deeper in the hospital.

Alex prowled along the fence but gave up after a couple of hours. He'd found no way in and he had come to realize that gaining entry would have been of little value, anyway. What could he have done? He couldn't have gotten into the secure unit, even if he had successfully entered the hospital without being challenged. All he could hope for was that Celeste would be proved fit to be questioned by the police. He felt sure that she would be able to talk her way to freedom. If that was the case, he needed to be where he could get to her as she left the police station. It would be difficult. He couldn't think of anywhere, safe from the sun, where he could watch the police station. Assuming that the main town station was coordinating the manhunt, the buildings around it were mostly office blocks or other commercial buildings.

 

He set off at an easy loping stride, slowly gaining speed. He was again passing the main gates of the hospital when he saw a police van entering the grounds, its windows reinforced by steel mesh revealing that it was a prisoner transport. That had to mean Celeste was about to be released by the hospital. Alex increased his pace, until he was no more than a shadow flitting through the night.

 

With the town slowly becoming silent, in that gap between nocturnal activity and the arrival of morning, Alex made good time. He had had to be more careful, though, as police vans were cruising slowly everywhere. Some of those cars bore markings of forces from other towns. Obviously the manhunt had brought extra police into the area. Only once, however, did he almost blunder into the loose net. There was a point where there was only one route he could take, to cross the river that bisected the town. A police car sat on either end of the bridge but Alex only saw one of them. The other was hidden in deep shadow. He was almost across when the car surged forward and blue lights erupted, strobing in the darkness, emphasized by a brief burst of the car's siren. The vehicle halted directly across his path and two officers jumped out, each ready with a taser gun. Alex ignored the shouted command to stop and dodged up onto the wall of the bridge. As the thin wires of one of the tasers snaked past, he leaped. His foot touched the roof of the car and then he was away, turning a corner as the other taser fired and missed.

 

He heard them trying to pursue him, but they hadn't a chance against his speed. Within fifteen minutes, he was studying one of the oldest buildings overlooking the central police station, the sound of sirens distant. He found a window that had been left unlatched and slipped into the building, a print shop, and made his way up several flights of stairs. The top floor was clearly unused, judging by the age of the scattered boxes that sat deep in dust. Alex moved across to the front of the building and found a window, thick with grime that gave him a chance to keep watch over both the police station's vehicle entrance and main doors. Dragging a box over, he settled down to wait.

 

Alex saw the prisoner transport arrive, and the slight figure of Celeste being bustled into the station via a side door. He assumed that she was cuffed, as her struggles were ineffective. After that, the long wait began. It was nearly dawn, so Celeste was unlikely to use her wiles to gain her release until sunset. She would, after all, be as vulnerable to the sun as he was. He got off the box and stretched out on the floor to sleep for a few hours, while he could.

 

Sleep wasn't easy. The world outside was noisy, especially whenever police cars roared from the station yard, sirens ending up to their howling. Then, too, there was a lot of noise coming up from the lower floors of the building, as the new work day got into full swing. One of the machines being operated down there also kept causing flurries of dust up in this top floor, and its vibrations sounded through the floor and walls. Added to this, there were the nightmares. Alex even dreamt of being home, with his parents, and a scene of domestic ordinariness suddenly exploded into a bloodbath as his new self took control and slaughtered his parents and siblings. He woke with a sobbing cry. Sitting up, he waited anxiously to discover whether he had been heard. Nothing.

 

In the afternoon, Alex found some paper in one of the boxes, along with a pen that, miraculously, still worked. He sat and began to write. It was not something he was particularly gifted in, but then all he needed to do was to write some explanation. The facts wouldn't do. They'd never be believed. Instead, he framed it terms that would make some sense, and might even do some good. He said that he had been seduced by Celeste, but he embellished it. She worked for the dark man at The RiteSpot, now, and he dealt not only in sex, but in drugs too. Dangerous drugs that made people change, become animals. That was why he'd behaved so deplorably. He wasn't insane. He was, in fact, a victim. The truly dangerous people were the dark man and Celeste, though, Alex wrote, he suspected there were others. People the dark man knew, maybe worked with or for. He ended by apologizing. He was about to add his name when he changed his mind and added a paragraph, begging the police to explain to his family, and to give them his love.

Beyond the grimy window, the world was growing dark. Alex took up his position at the window again, forcing it open enough to have a clear view, though its long unused hinges complained loudly. The tall front of the police station was a patchwork of lit and unlit windows. Outside the main entrance, a lamp guttered, threatening to fail at any moment. To one side, a powerful light illuminated the brassy police crest, fixed to the wall, from beneath. A few people were moving along the pavements.

As the darkness deepened, oddly making the few lights appear to be brighter, Alex began to tense up. He played with the length of electrical flex he had found, rehearsing how he would use it to bind Celeste when he caught her. His plan after that was vaguer, but involved finding somewhere to light a fire. He couldn't think of any other way to destroy somebody who was already dead. Fire was the ultimate destroyer. He shuddered. The idea of throwing himself into the same inferno that he intended to cast Celeste into was starkly terrifying. He tried to avoid thoughts of the pain, but they kept returning.

 

The main doors of the police station opened. A very tall policeman, with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeves, escorted the small figure of Celeste out. She was dressed more appropriately now, not in the flimsy nightwear she had been dragged away in. Presumably, somebody had fetched her some clothing, or they had a supply in the station. She faced the sergeant and her right hand reached out, to brush his hand. He blushed and stood as rigid as a steel post. Celeste turned and, with a single backward glance, headed out of the shelter of the porch which projected from the building.

 

Alex was already moving. He was out of the print shop in seconds. Celeste was wandering unhurriedly along the pavement, towards the town center, and Club Alley beyond. As Alex got closer to her, moving silently, he could hear her singing to herself, as if she hadn't a care in the world. He felt the anger rising in him, a desire to leap upon her, rip her throat out and drink all her blood, to rend her flesh until she was unrecognizable. Battling such instincts, he just kept close enough to strike when a safe opportunity presented itself. Here, there were too many people, too many witnesses.

 

At one point, Alex almost lost her. She walked calmly through a cluster of policemen, men whose eyes followed her hungrily. Alex had to give them a wide berth, just in case. He almost missed seeing Celeste turn down a side street. Then, hurrying to catch up with her again, he almost blundered into her. She was looking in the well-lit window of a jeweler shop. He pulled up sharply and dodged into a doorway. A moment later, she was walking on and he moved back into his patient following.

 

At the bridge, which connected the two halves of the town, Alex was able to use a large group of people to shield himself from the police who were watching the route. Beyond that, there were a couple more streets of shops, some of which were only just starting to close up. Club Alley was close now. He followed her around a corner, and there she was, standing facing him, expecting him.

 

"Hello, lover," she said, that wonderful voice of hers caressing him as he stopped dead. She moved close, so that her body was pressed hard against his. "Why were you following me? You must know I've been looking for you."

 

Her head was tilted back a little, so she could see his face. Her hands and body made tiny movements that sparked little fires of lust in him. She was smiling and her eyes spoke of her desire.

"I have a place," she said, almost whispering. "It's close by, safe from these annoying men in their dark uniforms. Come with me, lover."

 

He wanted to snarl at her, to let her know what his intentions were, but he smiled instead, and wrapped his arms about her. He tipped his head and kissed her, long, lingering. With a little laugh, she broke free and, grasping his hand, hurried down the street, moving at an angle away from Club Alley. He let her lead him, even as visions of her extinction, hard and cruel, flooded his mind. They came to a row of small terraced houses and she pulled him to the door of one. She took a key from its hiding place, under a flower pot, and opened the door. As Alex followed her in, she turned on the hall light and released his hand.

 

Celeste made no attempt ot enter any of the downstairs rooms. Instead, she ascended the narrow stairs, her glances encouraging Alex to follow. She passed one door on the landing and entered the back bedroom, stopping to hold the door open and welcome him into her own, private space.

Alex stepped past Celeste, into the dimness of her room. He was turning when the light came on in a vicious glare. His eyes screwed shut for a moment and he felt something hard and cold touch his left wrist. Even as he reopened his eyes, his body was moving, reacting without his volition. There was a grunt from behind him as his right leg lashed out backwards. He had just a moment to see that he was surrounded by big men, dressed all in black, wearing dark glasses. Immediately, they were rushing him.

 

He ducked down and the men met in a collision that left them tangled together. Alex, untouched, struck out. He saw one man's leg break and a gap appeared. He dived through, rising behind one of the men, his elbow crashing into his heavy neck, causing a strangled scream as the vertebrae broke. Spinning, his left foot struck another man in the knee, bending it backwards with a sickening crunch. One of the men tried to grab him, but Alex just let him close and then ripped his throat out with his oversized canines, sending him staggering back. But it couldn't last. There were too many of them. With a great leap, Alex plunged past them, their hands trying to seize him, and smashed through the bedroom window, the heavy curtains offering only passing resistance before he hit the glass and plummeted to the ground out back. He landed on both feet and rolled. Without a glance back, he sprang away, vanishing into the long rectangle of abutting gardens.

 

He heard at least some of the heavier men hitting the ground behind him. Assuming some would have also gone out the front way, to head him off if he tried to return to the street, he just kept running through the adjoining gardens, leaping fences, no matter their height. Behind, he heard a dog yelping in fear. A little later, a cat yowled defiant rage and terror. But he knew that his pursuers, all heavier set than he, were falling further behind with every pace. Then he glimpsed light off to his left and changed direction. In seconds, he was emerging from between two houses into a different street, an old lamppost directly in front of him.

 

There were terraced homes on the side of the road he came from, but the other side had larger houses, with a semi-detached house at each end of a block of four, repeated the length of the road. That side of the road also had a grass verge between road and pavement, with ornamental cherry trees marching along it. Parked cars lined both sides of the street. Alex crossed over and fled, away from the town center. He was gone before one of his pursuers broke through a gap further up from the one he had used.

 

Moving swiftly, Alex finally found himself at the end of a cul-de-sac. Ahead, a large open area stretched. It could be just a recreation ground, or it could be a major park. He didn't know this area of town at all. He didn't dare risk ending up in the open at dawn. Turning aside, he crept down the side of a bungalow that looked like it was probably the home of somebody elderly. It was decaying on the outside and the garden was a mess, though he could see enough to know that it had once been lovely. He cleared a high wooden fence and landed on an overgrown lawn. In the starlit night, he could just make out a sturdy shed at the bottom of the garden.

 

The shed had obviously been very well built. The door was locked by a padlock and hasp but the fixings gave at a single wrench. Alex entered the darkness, cursing when his shin collided with something hard. Moving with more care, he made it to the back corner and crouched down. He was exhausted. His body screamed out for sustenance, but he refused to even consider what food it demanded. He knew, deep down, that it would be so easy to get into the bungalow and feed, but he rejected the thought angrily.

 

It had all seemed so easy. He would get Celeste back to her home and there end her existence. No problem. But now he knew. He wasn't the hunter any more, he was the prey. He remembered the words of the dark man. The warning about 'others', who weren't the police. Judging by the uniform appearance of those who had been lying in wait for him, there was an organization out there. An organization to protect people like Celeste and the dark man, and probably to keep their vile activities below the radar of the authorities. His behavior in Club Alley had brought unwanted attention, and his confrontation of the dark man had made matters even worse.

 

Trying to pull his jacket tighter against the chill of the night, somehow comforted by the smells of the garden shed, Alex drifted into an uneasy doze, which eventually became a deep sleep. If he had nightmares, they failed to wake him this time.

 

He woke to bird song. He hadn't heard that for years. Not since he'd moved into the heart of the town, 'where the action is'. At the far end of the shed, sunlight penetrated a little way, dusty rays creeping past a pair of small curtains at a wide window. Now, he was thirsty as well as hungry. He tried hard to prevent it, but a dry cough escaped him. Stretching carefully, he discovered a multitude of aches and pains. Little fragments of window glass dropped from his hair and jacket onto the floorboards.

 

In the dim light, he could see all the usual paraphernalia of the best garden sheds. Nothing, however, was new. Even the mower, which was apparently what he'd bumped into, was an old push type, its grass box resting upside-down on it. One long wall was lined with tools, all hanging neatly in their proper places. The other side had a bench against it, with various smaller tools hanging above that and a whole load of jars standing at one end, filled with screws, nails and other bits and pieces. On the door, a coiled hose hung.

 

Around midday, he heard a door open. Carefully peering past the curtains at the window, he saw an old woman walking towards a dustbin. She was stooped with age, her hair a thinning aurora of white. A big cat followed her to the bin and then back indoors. The back door remained open. It was oh so inviting. Alex shook himself and clamped down on the instincts that were again stirring. A sound intruded on his thoughts. A radio, turned up to beat the poor hearing of the old woman. The music was nowhere close to contemporary, so it was probably a 'family' station. Every so often, there was a silent passage. Presumably that was when the presenter was talking.

 

It all had a pleasing familiarity to it. Probably from his childhood. He smiled and settled back down, ignoring the thirst and hunger as best he could. It would soon be dark again, and then he would have to decide what he was going to do next.

 

The darkness was offset by a veil of white. Snow lay deep across the garden, a little drift up against the door of the shed. And the snow was still falling, those flakes that said that this was a genuine fall, determined to settle. Alex looked out and realized, unhappily, that there was no way he could leave the shed without leaving footprints across the snow. He thought hard. He had no desire to worry or frighten the old woman. The solution was obvious when it came to him. He carefully lifted himself up onto the roof of the shed, leaned over to close the door as best he could, and then dropped down into the adjoining garden, behind the shed.

 

This new garden was full of bare fruit bushes, which helped hide his passage through the snow. A gravel path led down one side, past a lumpy area that was probably a vegetable plot, and a small lawn. The layer of snow, some three inches deep now, helped muffle the sound of the gravel, crunching under his feet. The path ended at a stretch of wooden decking that butted up against a conservatory. A path, presumably concrete, from its solidity underfoot, went down the side of the house, interrupted by a tall brick wall and an inset wooden gate. The gate was bolted and locked but Alex simply went over the top of it, dropping down on the other side and crouching low. The front garden was contained by a low hedge and a light gate. Creeping up to the gate, he checked the street beyond. It was deserted.

 

Trudging through the snow, Alex made his way towards the town center. He was looking for some way to return to the house Celeste had taken him to, hoping that she would still be there, but alone now. The others had changed the difficulty level of his self-appointed mission, but he remained determined. Somehow, whatever the odds, he would find the girl, and destroy her. If anything, after her new treachery, the prospect of revenge was even sweeter to contemplate.

 

At last, he came to a street that headed in the right direction. Other people were about, but they were stooped over, trying to just reach their own destinations with the least suffering from the weather. The new road curved gently, but not enough to throw him off. Eventually, it ended at a larger road. There were older, but much larger, houses lining both sides. He turned right and crossed the road. On that side, he found a narrow path that connected the road with a less salubrious street behind it. Looking about, Alex spotted a junction a little way up, on his left. He estimated where he was and a certain excitement began to stir in him. He knew that he was close.

 

Alex got over a wall into gardens. A quick check at the end of this short street had confirmed his location, and the fact that there was a very suspicious looking vehicle parked outside his target house, a massive car with its windows darkly tinted. He wasn't stupid enough to use the front way anyway. Slipping silently through garden after garden, he finally halted at a dense hedge. From there, he could see the shattered bedroom window of the next house. He moved even more stealthily, using his enhanced senses to try to detect anybody lurking in the other garden, Alex got to the wall that was shared by the houses. He climbed a metal downpipe until he could drop into the garden beyond the hedge. Crouching, he waited for any hint of danger.

 

He was able to force a way in through a louvre window at ground floor level. Inside was a bathroom. There was a scent here, a scent he remembered too well. Carefully, he left the bathroom and crept along a narrow hallway. He could hear no movement, or voices. He glanced into a room and discovered that it was the kitchen. The next door he came to, only a few feet from the front door, opened onto a living room. There was something wrong about it. Treading warily into its darkness, he discovered what his senses had detected. A young woman sat unmoving on a sofa. Her eyes were open but unseeing, her throat a bloody mess. Alex gently closed her eyelids.

 

He looked up the stairs. A memory of one of the treads creaking came to the fore and he stepped over the tread as he ascended silently. He checked the first door, finding an unfurnished room, with packing boxes piled everywhere. Then, at last he came to that room. The bedroom where he had been betrayed again. But now he knew. It wasn't Celeste's. It had belonged to a young girl, who was probably making her first decisive move into full independence. A girl who had been brutally murdered, just so that a trap could be set, for him.

 

There was still an echo of last night's violence. And a hint of the perfume Celeste wore. Various things in the room had been knocked over or broken. He couldn't remember that happening. Cold air came through the gaping wound in the window. Patches of blood stained the floor and bed, more blood sprayed in arcing lines on the walls. He remembered tearing out one man's throat. The blood had oozed thickly from the ragged wound, not spurted as it should have. Of course. There was no heart beating to push the blood around the body. It must somehow move in a slow river, perhaps impelled by simple movement of the body. Alex shook his head, dismissing speculation.

 

It was then that he saw her. She was crumpled in the bottom of a slender wardrobe, its door pushed open by the weight of her corpse. He walked over to her slowly. How could he be certain, after all, that she was truly ended? She didn't move and her pale eyes were fogged. As he crouched near her, there was the hint of the odor of death, of a body too long unburied. Her cheeks had sunk and her hair had gone lank. Carefully, he hefted her up a little. Her blouse was wrecked and her exposed chest was marred by a gaping wound. Alex knew how her unnatural existence had been terminated. Her heart had been torn from her body. Obviously, while that organ no longer behaved as it should, it still served some vital purpose. He stood up, letting her body flop down with a dull thud. He didn't care.

 

Alex left the room. Behind him, Celeste's open eyes continued to stare.

 

He got as far as the back door. He had no idea why Celeste had been executed, but a suspicion had begun to grow. It was confirmed as his hand reached for the back door's handle. Sirens. Cars skidding to a halt out front and doors slamming. The front door burst in as Alex hurled himself out the back door and into the night. Shouts, one angry, others calm and professional. Alex hid in one corner where no light fell. Police in protective gear could be seen in the house. Then two came through the back door. They were armed, and not with tasers. Torches swept the garden but Alex remained unseen, a shadow amidst shadows.

 

One of the armed officers signaled silently and they both went back indoors.

Alex was relieved to see the armed officers leave. Now, the house was alive with forensics people in white coveralls and face masks. The windows had all been covered by white sheets but powerful lights created a shadow play on them. When the back door closed, Alex moved off.

 

He felt at a loss, aimless. Celeste was done. He had been denied his revenge. Just what he was supposed to do now was beyond him. He got clear of the gardens and wandered the streets with no purpose in his mind. Passing a parked car that had its engine still running, he heard its radio change from blaring music to a news report. It was quick, getting the information out to the media. He paused to listen.

 

The female newsreader sounded mildly distressed over what she was reporting. There was the announcement of the slaughter in a terraced dwelling, two young women slain, one body already revealing that death had been some time back. There was a brief statement from a senior police officer, expressing the outrage that his whole force felt and their determination to bring the perpetrator to justice. That was followed by an appeal for anybody with information to come forward immediately. A hotline telephone number was given. And then, there it was. The linking of this barbaric act with the animal depravity witnessed in Club Alley. It was obviously all the work of a single crazed individual.

 

Alex hurried on as a front door opened and a man headed towards the car.

He found himself in a service road behind a parade of shops. He had no idea how he had come to be there, or even where there was. Halting, he became aware of a faint trace of a scent on the frigid air. Suddenly, he knew why he had arrived here. The central building of the parade was much taller than the rest. Looking up, he saw that every window had been blacked out. A dull red light hung over a steel door, at the top of three concrete steps. Alex moved to the door and tested it. It was locked, of course. But standing that close, the scent was stronger. He looked around. On the other side of the service road was a dilapidated garage.

 

The garage was a dumping ground for all manner of items. Alex pushed his way inside and explored as best as he could in the darkness. He felt an immense sense of satisfaction when he found a large axe. Testing it, he assured himself that its wooden haft was sound and the axe itself was securely attached. He carried it with him as he returned to where he could observe the steel door.

 

Hour after uneventful hour passed. Dawn was approaching. Reluctantly, Alex moved back to the rear of the garage.

The following day was as tedious as any Alex had ever experienced. Snow continued to fall, unrelenting, but apart from a delivery truck trundling slowly past during the morning, nothing happened. Wherever this shopping parade was, it was a pretty dead area. That thought made him smile wryly.

 

Night came, and Alex crept forward again. The snow was thick on the service road. Thick and unspool. Alex left the garage, keeping tight to the edge of the road, where an untidy mass of dead weeds would hide his footprints, and moved round to the front of the shops. Four of the seven shops were obviously empty, victims of insufficient business. The tall building had a dark aspect, with its large windows coated with some kind of tinting film. The windows on the upper floors were blacked out the same as those at the rear. Across the top of the shop front, the words "Turn hill’s Insurance Services" were barely legible. Warily, Alex tested the front door. It was as firmly locked as the steel door, and he could see the fine wires of an alarm system on the two glass panels.

 

A thought came to him. He'd found some cans in the derelict garage. It had taken no effort to identify their contents. Making a decision, he hurried back to the garage and found a few bottles and some rags. He emptied whatever was in the bottles and then filled them from the cans. An old bag served to let him carry the bottles to the front of the building, the axe in his other hand, its haft resting on his shoulder.

Alex had just halted at the front door to the building when a door inside opened and a tall man appeared. For a few moments, they stared at each other. Then, the man shouted and charged at the door. Alex stood his ground. Glass from the door showered him, slicing the flesh of his face and hands. But the axe, swung almost casually, had done its work. The man's head fell onto the snow, staining it red. The body remained stuck in the door, leaning over the center bar.

 

Alex used the axe to shove the body out of the way. Two more men had gotten themselves in a tangle, both trying to get through the interior doorway at the same time. Alex got through the shattered front door and again wielded the axe. One of the men fell, trying to hold his head on his neck, his eyes bulging. The other lost half his face to the wicked blade and fell back, screaming. Another swing and his screams ceased abruptly. There was a sharp bang from above and something gouged the wall. Looking up, Alex saw a small man pointing a revolver at him from the top of a flight of stairs. It took no effort for Alex to recognize this man as a normal, living person. Why he worked here was a matter for others to ponder. Alex just sped up the stairs, snarling and waving the axe. Another bullet struck the ceiling before Alex knocked the gun from the little man's hand.

 

"Get out!" Alex snarled.

 

The man edged past him, his face full of unadulterated terror, then raced down the stairs and away.

 

Alex turned his attention to what lay ahead. He was in a corridor. Passing closed doors, he paused only long enough to put one of the bottles in a corner. Another flight of stairs, the treads protesting as he climbed them. A big man, a crowbar in his hand, struck as Alex reached the landing. The crowbar only caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder. The axe sliced down, smashing the man's shoulder as he dodged. This time, the crowbar drove end on into Alex's abdomen and he staggered back. His left arm hanging useless, the heavy made the mistake of trying to retreat. The axe split his skull.

 

Again, he planted a bottle on the landing, but closer to the stairs this time. At the far end of the landing, he set down another bottle, near the bottom of a third flight of stairs. These he climbed with greater caution. Before he emerged onto the new landing, he banged the axe against the wall. A shotgun blast ripped into the other wall, showering him with plaster, the blast almost knocking him down the stairs. He heard a click and leapt from the stairs, too the far side of the landing, swinging the axe as he jumped. Another heavy, busy reloading the shotgun, took the blade straight into his face. Alex had to tug it free this time. It was getting sticky with this gruesome activity.

 

He dropped a bottle on the man and moved slowly, with a certain sense of relish, towards the only door on this floor. He could hear people inside, arguing. Halting at the door, he took out the last two bottles. Resting the axe against the wall, he fished a lighter from his jacket pocket. For a moment, it had him worried, as it sparked but refused to ignite. Then a feeble flame appeared and he quickly set the rag stopper of one bottle to it. Flames exploded joyously on the fabric. With both bottles sporting flaming tops, he kicked open the door. Each bottle flew in, to shatter and create a blast of flame as the volatile contents ignited.

 

Staring at him from the other side of the room was the dark man. Beside him, stood a man in a pristine police uniform, with the badges of a chief superintendent, if Alex had known what they were. The dark man pushed the policeman and grabbed an automatic weapon off his desk. Alex ducked aside, grabbing his axe. Bullets tore up the door and the far wall of the landing. Alex allowed his turn to become a full rotation. The axe left his grasp, flying across the room. A shriek and the dark man was toppling back, the axe embedded in his chest. Flames had already spread far enough to lick at his outflung arm.

 

Alex crossed the room and grabbed the policeman.

 

"Leave, before it's too late!" he snarled. "You disgust me, working for a creature like him, but you're not one of us. I won't kill any living person!"

 

With that he gave the man a shove towards the door. Flames pursued him. Alex stood in the center of the inferno. He couldn't quite care whether the police officer escaped or not. Risking the flames, he retrieved the axe and smashed a blackened window. He reached inside his jacket and took out a piece of very carefully folded paper. Leaning out as far as he could, he tossed the paper into the air, to float down with the snow.

 

He turned from the window. Flames had blocked the way to the door. But that was all right. He had always intended this. He sat down behind the dark man's desk and leaned back in the comfortable chair. From somewhere below, there was a sudden roar and the sound of a major collapse. The floor sagged under him. Outside, sirens sounded. He could make out their differences now. Police, strident and commanding. Ambulances, begging. Fire engines, blaring and urgent.

 

He smiled. It was over. No more nightmares. A lightness took him and drew him away, away from what would have been agony, as fire consumed his body in a pillar of fury. Then... nothing.