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Marty Volk has a guardian angel. For the past five years, since he was twelve years old, it has saved Marty whenever he’s been in danger. And from a single darkened glimpse one night on the streets of London, he thinks it’s his long-lost sister Rose—ten years older than him, beautiful, intelligent . . . and deceased. For Rose has become a creature of legend that thrives, along with her undead companions, in the shadows of the human world . . . one who tenaciously holds on to her new existence, and who will do anything to survive. . . .
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Tim Lebbon is the author of over fourteen novels and novella collections, and his short fiction has appeared in over fifteen anthologies, including The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. He is a winner and multiple nominee of the British Fantasy Award and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ROSE, THE COLOR OF BLOOD, wrung the final drops from the clear plastic bag. They dripped onto her tongue, the last dribbles tasting just as good as the first. Chilled, old, dead, still she took strength from this drink and relished its goodness. Some of the others hunted rats and cats, but this was her choice, and the only way she knew to remain undamned in her own eyes. Anything warm would be too much like the real thing.
As usual, as she licked her lips and sucked any traces from her fingers, she wondered who this had been. The blood could have come from anyone in the city: one of the soldiers she saw disembarking from a train the previous night; a stranger looking for love; a lover seeking strangeness. Once, Rose might have understood the act of willingly giving away one’s own blood, but now that things had changed, such an act seemed abhorrent to her. She was glad people did so, of course ... but she no longer understood.
She hoped Marty never did it. The idea of drinking something of him ... She would know, of course. That would make it worse. She’d know, and she would not be able to stop.
She sighed and closed her eyes, relishing the power and strength the blood gave her. It’s just food, she thought, and she imagined Francesco’s mocking grin if she ever said that aloud. He was the oldest among them, and sometimes he disturbed her. It wasn’t that he had seen more than she could imagine; it was the fact that he found no compulsions to talk about it.
Rose buried the blood bag at the base of the garden wall, pushing it deep and compacting the soil on top of it. Then she sat motionless for a while, hiding in shadows and looking around to make sure she was not being observed. There were still several lights on in the terraced street—she rarely saw places like this where everyone was asleep—and from the open window twenty feet from where she crouched she heard the sounds of lovemaking. She felt a twinge of sexual stirring, but only a pang, a memory more than a sensation. As the man groaned and the woman cried out, Rose leapt the wall and started making her way through the gardens.
She startled a cat and sent it scampering. An urban fox drew back, hissing, hackles raised as she ran past and jumped into the next garden. A dog started barking, but quickly stopped again when she moved beyond the range of its delicate senses. She climbed the walls with ease and cleared the gardens in three paces, and within a minute she lowered herself into the street and watched again for the boy. She had only been away from him for five minutes—she knew the route he always took home, and she could already smell him on the still night air.
A taxi passed by, driver a vague hunched shape. Sometimes—on late evenings, mostly—she rode in taxis, enjoying the driver’s banter if he was a talkative one, relishing the silence if not. Sometimes she simply craved the company of humans.
She walked quickly, passing through the oases of light beneath streetlamps. A few late revelers approached on the other side of the street. Rose kept her head down, her stride confident, her bearing assured. Passing before the barred gates of a small garage forecourt, security lights flashed on and threw her shadow across the road. The revelers’ voices grew quiet, and then stopped altogether. Still they walked, staggeringly drunk, only one of them looking her way. The man had a smile frozen on his face, and she almost felt the way his eyes rode up and down her body. She met his gaze, and he looked away. Tonight, she thought he might have a nightmare.
She passed across an area of derelict land—it was rumored the houses here had been bombed during the Second World War, and ever since the place had been “scheduled for development”—and heard a gang of winos arguing over the last sip in a bottle. They were gathered around a fire, shielded from the road by a thick mass of shrubs and small trees. She passed close enough to smell their blood, and it was rank. Their shouting accompanied her into the darkness again, and she slipped through a rent in the wooden hoarding surrounding the forgotten site.
The boy was close now. This was his usual way home from his friend’s house, and ever since she’d diverted to pop one of the blood bags she always kept on her, a consistent clock had been ticking in her mind. She knew where he would be, and berated herself a little for losing sight of him.
But she couldn’t be there for him all the time, could she? He was growing now, seventeen years old, tall and lean and strong, and one day he’d have to face the future without her because—
Why? Why should he? I can always be here for him, and perhaps as he’s starting to grow old ...
But she couldn’t face the idea of turning Marty. She was handling her own condition as well as she could, but she would never visit it on someone she loved. Not without giving him the choice.
She crossed a street and jogged along another road, and just as she caught sight of Marty disappearing around a corner at the far end, she sensed that she was being followed.
Rose’s first instinct was to turn and face her pursuer, but she kept jogging as if unaware. She tried to work out exactly how she knew. Even after five years, it sometimes felt as if she were still settling into this new life, a stranger thrust into an unknown body and told to live with it. The disorientation sometimes sickened her. So she listened, tasted the air, felt the caress of a gentle breeze passing along the street, and it was all and none of these things. She heard and felt and tasted nothing out of the ordinary, and yet the night was suddenly alight with glee.
For a moment, Rose was taken aback with shock. She paused directly beneath a streetlamp, wide-eyed, and when a curtain to her left twitched she saw a young girl’s face watching from an upstairs window. The girl did not blink or look away, and the shadows at her throat danced minutely to her heartbeat.
Something after him. Chasing. Hunting!
Her feet slapped the pavement without making any sound, and she started moving only by shadows, avoiding the streetlights and passing through the night like a part of it.
It was only as she heard the cry of terror that she let herself speak her brother’s name.
Marty Volk was not a people person. His T-shirt attested to that—Do I Look Like a Fucking People Person?—and his friends were often eager enough to confirm it as well. Usually when there was a girl he was trying to chat up. Sometimes it worked in his favor, when the girl saw him as the strong, silent type. And when he was just a miserable bastard, sometimes not.
There’d been no girls that night. In fact there had been just him and Gaz, spending the evening in his friend’s room playing CDs, downloading music, and drinking cider. It had been a fun night, and Marty always felt comfortable and safe in Gaz’s company. They were best friends, and he even believed that Gaz understood a lot of why he was quiet and withdrawn. More than the others, at least. They’d been friends five years ago when Rose disappeared, and as Marty had watched his parents crumbling before him, Gaz and his family had been a great support.
He could still be a bit of a dick, though. Like tonight, drinking a flagon of cider before Marty even arrived and ending the evening puking from his bedroom window. His dad’s lean-to greenhouse was below, and the sound of his friend’s vomit striking glass had turned Marty’s stomach. It wasn’t the first time it had happened and it wouldn’t be the last, and he knew that Gaz would be busy with a hose and scrubbing brush next morning. Twat. He smiled softly as he walked along the darkened streets, and realized for the hundredth time how much he treasured his friends.
Marty never got that drunk anymore. He’d done it once a couple of years ago when their little gang had managed to procure a bottle of vodka from a shop owner who should have known better. That night had ended in a fight, Gaz falling and slicing his hand open on broken glass, and Marty passing out in the gutter on the way home. Right about where he was now, in fact. He’d banged his head somehow as he went down, and when he came to ...
It had been early morning. His parents had agonized later about how many people must have passed him by in cars and on foot, but Marty could understand their caution. He was out later than his parents most nights now, and he’d seen enough stuff on the streets to make him just as reticent about helping others—junkies, pissheads, and once a dead guy who they reckoned had been a hit-and-run victim. Marty had opened his eyes, and through the alcohol haze and the pain of his bashed head, in the weak streetlights, against the background of all London’s night lights reflected against low-lying cloud ...
He shook his head and looked down at the gutter where he’d lain so long ago. Standing about here, he thought he’d seen his sister. Missing now for five years, presumed dead by his parents, but not by him. He could never say why he thought she was still alive, and they didn’t ask. Sometimes he thought he saw jealousy in his father’s eyes that he could hold out such hope.
Whoever he’d seen at the time, she had helped him up and sent him on his way.
He glanced at his watch now and walked on. Almost one A.M.; he should be getting home. His parents were pretty liberal when it came to allowing him out, insisting only that they know where he was going. But Marty was a bright kid, and he knew the worry he must be putting them through. They’d lost one child, and they’d do anything within their power to avoid losing another. Once he got home, they’d go to sleep at last.
He passed a bunch of drunks, yuppies in sharp suits and high skirts, and one of the women called something to him. He walked on without looking. Male laughter followed, and he was glad to turn a corner and put buildings between them.
It was the eyes that had convinced him it was Rose. It had been too dark to see their expression, but it had been like looking into his own.
He followed his familiar route, the couple of pints of cider he’d drunk tiring him more than anything else. He was looking forward to bed, and perhaps he’d dream of Paulina. Gaz kept telling him he didn’t have a chance, but the sexy Spanish girl he’d met at their local pub two weeks before had been on his mind ever since—olive skin, dark eyes, and a permanent smile that held a promise of wonders. She’d apparently moved into the area with her extended family—there had been at least six of them at the Dick Turpin that evening—and that first time she’d got drunk on white wine and made out with Marty in the pub’s beer garden. He’d slipped his hand inside her blouse and held her breast, small and smooth, with a nipple as large and hard as an acorn, and she’d giggled and pushed him away, wagging her finger as she staggered backwards toward the pub. Since then she’d given him only coy smiles, and Gaz didn’t believe for a second that Marty’d had a handful.
Yeah, Paulina. Maybe tomorrow he’d—
Something came. Marty paused, looked around. Nothing had changed, but the night suddenly felt loaded, silent darkness thickening, breeze faded like a held breath. He was standing in front of a Laundromat, its neon sign flickering on and off as it had for years. Beyond that was a closed restaurant, then a bank, then ...
Nowhere to run, he thought. He looked around in a panic, searching for whatever had scared him but seeing nothing. A car drove along the street, not too fast, not too slow. A woman drove, hunched over the wheel and not even sparing him a glance. Should’ve flagged her down. Asked her for a lift home. He knew she wouldn’t have stopped, but ...
But something was here.
Marty backed into the Laundromat’s recessed doorway. It stank of piss. His bladder suddenly felt full and hot. The darkness gathered, not increasing but solidifying, and then there was someone standing in the middle of the road. A man. Marty hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know where he’d come from, but he started walking toward Marty, with a casual gait but unbelievably fast, and in the second it took the man to cross the road and pavement and let his shadow fall across him, Marty had time to see what was so wrong.
The man’s fingers were too long and tipped with claws. His legs bent unnaturally, like an animal’s limbs grafted onto a person. And his face ... it was inhuman. It bore all the normal features, but their combination produced something other than the man it pretended to be: nostrils flared as if smelling fine food, not a drunk’s piss. Eyes deep and impossibly dark. And his mouth ... was crammed with teeth.
Marty screamed, the man crouched and hissed as if ready to leap, and then something else powered into the stranger, knocking him out of the streetscape framed by the shop doorway. Marty froze, unable to move as he listened to the terrible sounds emanating from somewhere out of sight. A scream, a growl, and then a noise that could only have been claws ripping flesh.
He leaned forward so that he could see fully into the street, staring to the left. The pavement was wide here, but the two fighting things seemed to span from shop to curbside. Limbs flailed, shadows twisted and tore, strangled and pulled, and here and there Marty saw the gleam of streetlights reflected from something pale and wet. At first he thought they were those teeth he’d seen, gnashing in a black maw. But then he heard a sickening snap, and knew that they were exposed bones.
The person he’d seen coming at him from the road—the thing—pounced from the melee, reaching for him with one clawed hand. His face was that of a ravening animal. His mouth opened wide, and something squirmed in there, as if a snake had replaced his tongue and was now tasting the blood-flecked air.
Marty was so shocked that he did not even pull back.
The other thing—he hadn’t yet made it out, couldn’t concentrate long enough to see who or what it was—swung a limb around the attacker’s face and pulled, twisting and rolling backwards. Marty heard the snap of bone, and through the paving slabs he actually felt the thud as bones gave way.
Marty retched, puking a thin gruel of cider and peanuts onto the pavement before him. All the while, he tried to keep his eyes open and focused on the conflict.
His potential attacker stood, seeming to rise and rise, even though he stood not much taller than Marty. Though he looked ragged and broken, still he retained the power and threat Marty had seen moments before. Head tilted to one side, mouth still open and displaying those terrible teeth—too many teeth, too long—he faced Marty’s savior, hissing words that he could not understand.
“Speak English, fuckhead,” his savior said, and though she had her back to him—he could tell it was a she by the curves, even though she wore a thigh-length jacket, and the stance, even though she stood crouched to repel another attack—something jarred in his chest. He did not recognize the voice or the words she spoke, but there was something there ......
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