Solitaire Till Dawn

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

Part III

Having no wish to draw more notice to myself than necessary, I have driven without headlights for most of this night, reserving their use for areas where I needed them to see my way. They are still off as I approach the access road, and here I must make a decision. I have not left the security of the Accord since trying the pay phone at the mini-mart (at which time I established the limited effectiveness of the Glock against the walking dead). If I try to go the rest of the way on foot, I will be terrifyingly vulnerable; if I drive it, even without lights, I will lose any possible advantage of stealth.

It is not an easy choice, but it is straightforward. Added safety now will only increase the risks later, and it was in hope of such an opportunity that I refused to consider any attempt at escape. I turn before reaching the road and pass behind the motel, and there I stop the engine and quickly abandon the car, unwilling to remain near it once its protective motion has ceased. I chose a moment when I could see no one ahead or in any of the mirrors, and I walk now in imitation of the loose, aimless gait I have had ample opportunity to observe. With luck, anyone tracking the vehicle’s progress from the tower will believe it has proceeded on some new or repeated variation of the pattern I have followed all night. With luck, no unliving fellow pedestrian (still none in sight, God be thanked) will hear my breath, or smell the chill sweat of dread on me.

The walk is interminable, fear a living thing clutching at my throat. I deal with it as I do with all pressing matters: icy, meticulous attention to detail. The Glock held close to my body, I remove the magazine and replace it with the unused one; then, tucking the pistol into my belt, I thumb the cartridges from the ejected magazine, counting, and reinsert them one by one. Four there, fifteen in the unused magazine, one in the chamber, for a total of twenty. I would prefer a long sword, a flamethrower, a scoped sniper rifle, and Kevlar armor around my throat, but I am not defenseless.

Halfway down the access road, I have seen no further incidence of the light that first attracted me, and it is time for me to begin thinking of the next step. A chain link fence surrounds the base of the tower, topped with barbed wire. Clearly it has done little to discourage teenaged visitors — the spray paint on the body of the tower attests to that — but it poses some problem for a man wishing to escape notice. Reaching the fence, I follow its perimeter to the back, where at least I am less visible from the road and the majority of nearby buildings. Even so, climbing the fence makes me feel freshly conspicuous and exposed. I use my jacket to pad the top strand of barbed wire (not how one of the undead would behave, I’m sure, but I can’t afford to lacerate my hands just before entering combat) and clamber over. I don’t fall, I don’t drop the Glock, no welcoming party awaits me on the other side. For the moment, disaster has declined to strike.

Within the fence, a ladder leads upward to the main body of the tower. I am almost to it when I realize that the nondescript heaps of rubbish at the bottom are in fact bodies, two of them, smashed and motionless. I watch them, myself unmoving, for well over a minute before my courage returns sufficiently to allow me to continue forward. I take hold of the ladder and begin to climb.

I try to ascend quietly, and listen for some hint regarding what waits above me. At first there are only random noises, muffled by the wind and difficult to distinguish, but as I near the point where the railed walkway circles the immense water tank, I can hear scuffling noises from the far side, feel the vibrations of vehement movement transmitted to me through the tower structure, and then the sharp clang of metal striking metal.

I am late to the party; Kendra has found Ucharne after all, and engaged him without me. I pull out the Glock and go up the last several rungs one-handed, so that I emerge onto the walkway with pistol ready. Forward, as softly and quickly as possible, prepared to loose an instant sleet of bullets but determined not to endanger Kendra by firing wildly. As I round the curve of the tower body I see them, and it is clear that my arrival could not have been more opportune. There are four of them, none immediately identifiable as a renegade wizard, she has retreated up the secondary ladder that arcs up over the dome of the reservoir and there, half-reclining, she holds them momentarily at bay with a sizzling, smoking highway flare (the light, that’s what I saw, that’s why she didn’t join me at the square) and tentative swings with some weapon I can’t make out through the glare of her impromptu torch.

In her current position she can’t use her speed and agility to their best effect; but her adversaries, hampered by the broad curving smooth surface, can only approach her by way of the secondary ladder she occupies. I brace myself in my best reproduction of the isosceles stance, aiming for the back of the head (body hits cause them pain, but only a direct penetration of the central nervous system will slow them for long), and squeeze off two shots in a fraction of a second. The one nearest her stands straight up, jerking as if in a seizure, and falls backward from the ladder. He doesn’t knock loose any of the others, as I had hoped he might, but his body strikes the railing at an angle that sends him cartwheeling over it, to be lost in the night depths below. His companions are too slow-witted or dumfounded to react at first, but the defender with the flare gives a little cry of surprise and alarm, and the shock of that sound all but freezes the heart in my chest.

I have been deceived by the angle, the shifting light from the flare, the urgency for quick action, and my own preconceived expectations. This is not Kendra. It is Corinne.

The other three on the ladder have begun to respond to my intrusion. I shoot the bottommost, for with their attention turned from Corinne the sharpest peril is now to me, and he is best situated to reach me first. The bullet takes him in the eye — good — but he falls to the walkway, screaming and clawing at his face, rather than going over. I dart forward, meaning to shove him off the edge beneath the railing, but the next one drops from the ladder to land in front of him, and it suddenly seems more desirable to backpedal, firing as I go.

My aim is well out, one bullet perforates the shoulder of the deputy’s uniform she wears and two more fail to find any target. The fourth catches her in the throat, and she promptly drops (spinal cord severed? that would be nice), and the last one is coming at me fast, eyes blazing golden from a face twisted into gargoyle-like planes and ridges.

I shoot as fast as I can pull the trigger, this one isn’t like the others, he staggers under the desperate fusillade but keeps on coming, awful teeth bared in a grinning rictus of triumph. “I can keep this up … longer than you can, pansy man,” he gasps in a bubbling wheeze, and the slide of the Glock locks back, I eject the spent magazine and grope in my trousers pocket for the depleted spare, still stumbling backward. I have practiced in range firing but not in combat reloads, so it actually speaks well of me that I have the second magazine in place and my thumb on the slide release when the wounded vampire lunges across the distance separating us and plucks the pistol from my grasp with a speed and force that numb my fingers.

“Oughtta use this on you myself,” he sneers, inspecting the Glock. His voice is stronger, the punctured lungs already healing. “But naw, living blood is too good to waste, and besides, I got orders.” He casts the pistol over the railing and starts for me, the horrible toothed grin widening in anticipation. Then he halts, his face going blank; his head inclines forward in a thoughtful nod, and keeps on going, toppling free from pilotless shoulders, and head and body dissolve in a cloud of dust, instantly whirled away and dispersed by the night wind that buffets us at this elevation.

Behind the empty space where he stood is Corinne. She’s a tall woman, five feet ten inches, and a dedicated racquetball enthusiast; she holds what I now recognize as a folding camp shovel, and still stands in the follow-through of the precise powerful backhand with which she decapitated my late opponent.

I am too weary for joy or even relief, I open my mouth to murmur some inane greeting and instead shriek, “Watch out!” She spins, slashing out with the shovel, the vampire I shot in the eye reels as the blade bites into his face but he reaches for her anyway, and the two of us retreat quickly as he pulls himself along the railing after us.

Corinne runs into me as I stop abruptly: we have circled the walkway, and in front of us the female deputy has come to her feet and advances on us without expression. “Shoot it!” Corinne urges.

“Gun’s gone,” I pant. “Flare, do you have another flare?”

She presses something into my hand. “Last one,” she says, and then we are back-to-back, she facing the male and I the female. I pull the cap off the end of the flare, my fingers still stinging from the forcible removal of the Glock, and fumble with the striker. The woman recoils as the flare ignites and I jab it at her face, and I feel Corinne’s shoulders bunch against my back with the effort of another swing. This can’t last, the flare won’t burn forever and these creatures, true vampires or no, will never quit. I thrust again at the female, and almost lose my weapon as she makes a grab for it, the fizzing flame throwing lurid patterns of light across the designs blazoned onto the surface of the tower —

It is a moment of utter clarity, perfect unity of being: instant comprehension, instant decision, instant reaction. I leap forward, jamming the burning end of the flare into the woman’s chest, and as she falls backward in her desperation to escape the torturing flame I withdraw it and rake it across the side of the reservoir dome. Silver reflective paint scorches and blisters and curls back … as do the other things drawn there, not spray paint and not initials or hearts or school slogans or even ordinary obscenities. The woman is up on one knee and about to rise and I can’t even spare the time for a proper follow-up attack, I kick her under the chin with all the strength I can bring to bear and continue to sear the flare back and forth along the tower’s side, scouring away the vile markings with righteous, purifying fire.

Corinne yelps with pain and I hear her rebound from the railing behind me, then something grips my shoulder with excruciating power. I stab back over my shoulder with the flare, eyes smarting from the acrid smoke, and simultaneously there is a noise like an axe chunking into cured wood. The grip on my shoulder falls away, I half-turn to put the tower dome behind me and wave the flare in a back-and-forth arc that briefly halts the two besieging us from either side, and from her knees Corinne swings the shovel into the shin of the one who felled her. The woman catches a corner of my jacket, this time I grind the flare into her face, forcing her back and down, then turn again to slash it through the cabalistic characters and symbols still remaining on the side of the tower.

We’ve only been fighting for seconds, and they’ve crowded us into a single three-foot area of walkway, our defenses crumbling by the moment. The man grabs me again, reaching over Corinne and ignoring her stab at his groin, and on her third try the woman secures a hold on the flare and tears it away from me. “Make a break for it!” I shout to Corinne. “Go under him and try to get down the ladder —!”

They both scream then, arching and jittering as if convulsed by electric current. I wrench myself away from the one holding me, but there’s nowhere to go and no time and, as it happens, no need. Slivers of roiling light break through crevices in their skin, spill from their eyes and open mouths, spread and join and brighten to blinding intensity. Then they are gone, Corinne and I alone on the circled walkway, green blotches dancing in my vision.

She pulls herself to her feet, drawing in a sharp hiss of breath as she straightens. “Are you all right?” I ask her.

“I think I cracked some ribs when he bounced me off the rail.” She looks to me with doubt and wonder. “I can’t believe you’re still alive.”

Her words jolt me back to awareness of the full situation, and sick fear surges through me. “The children,” I moan. “Oh, my God, where are Daniel and Jennyne?”

“I didn’t bring them,” she tells me. “I arranged for a weekend nanny in St. Louis.” The concentrated ferocity she displayed while wielding the shovel has faded, and she smiles with rueful amusement. “I wanted the two of us to have some … quiet time together.”

I put my arms around her, remembering the injured ribs and controlling the desire to hold her as tightly as I can. We simply stand, hair ruffling in the fitful wind, and when I open my eyes again it is to see that the sun has cleared the lowest ridge to the east, bright and blessed and shining with hope.

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