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 IV

I would happily remain for hours where we stand, serenely removed from the lifeless tableau stretched out below us, but Corinne won’t hear of it; that dynamic, restless mind has already darted ahead to the next point of importance. “We have to get out of this place, fast as we can,” she is urging as we make our way down the ladder. (I would have expected her to move more slowly, favoring her injury, but she is not one to be daunted when she has made a decision.) “Far as the rest of the world is concerned, we were never here at all. A whole freaking town gets wiped out, every law enforcement agency in the country will be camped here by tomorrow. Probably military intelligence, too, this is going to look like a chemical or bacteriological warfare test case. No way they’ll believe the truth — hell, don’t believe it — and I’m not about to sit in a quarantine tank for the next five years while they argue over what to do with us.”

Personally, I am unsure as to what any investigators will make of this scene; the two bodies at the base of the tower are now faint outlines of gray-brown ash, stirred by a morning breeze much softer at ground level. If all the town’s other former inhabitants have similarly desolidified, little if any evidence will last much past noon. “I spent the entire night looking for you,” I observe. “I thought I drove over every inch of ground a car could cover, but I never gave any notice to the water tower until I saw the light of the flare.”

“That was the idea.” Her voice is remote, no doubt the majority of her attention still turned to the details ahead of us. “I got in early yesterday, I found a quiet place back in the woods to relax for awhile and wound up falling asleep in the car. When I came out, all this had just started.” She shudders. “I saw Night of the Living Dead when I was a kid, gave me nightmares for months, I only needed one look at those things in the streets to know I didn’t want to stay down here. So I ditched the car, took the flares and the shovel, and climbed up to the maintenance platform to wait it out.”

Of course; as an architect, Corinne is accustomed to evaluating structures in terms of problems and possibilities. “You chose a good place to make a stand,” I say with approval.

“To hide,” she corrects me peremptorily. “But yes, I liked it for defense, too. First part of the night, only one of the things came looking for me, and I got him the moment his head came up past the top of the ladder. Then half an hour ago, those others showed up.” She bares her teeth in a snarl of satisfaction. “I took out the first in line, no problem, split his skull with the shovel and let the fall do the rest, just like with the one before him. I figured I could handle the others the same way, if I was fast and careful, but then that last one came swarming up the side struts like some big, horrible spider.” Again she shudders. “I knew that guy was more than just a mindless zombie, so I struck up one of the flares and went after him, I couldn’t afford to let him get a foothold. The bastard was too crafty, though, he kept me chasing him till the others made it onto the platform, and then I had to go backward up the second ladder, poking the flare at them to keep them away. I don’t know how I managed to hang onto the shovel.” She looks to me with a warmth I haven’t seen for many months. “I brought four flares from the car, and I was most of the way through number three when you popped in. I’m not ashamed to admit, I was really glad to see you.”

“We did it together,” I insist. “You picked the spot, I showed up when you were cornered and outnumbered, we backed each other up and got through it. For once, it was the way it was meant to be: we did it together.”

“No argument from me.” She scowls in a sudden perplexity that is very near to suspicion. “I still don’t understand the business with the weird writing, though. I never even really noticed it, how did you know to burn it away like that?”

“I suppose you’d call it a hunch.” I’m not sure why I hedge about Kendra’s role in all this, or even her existence; though she didn’t say it explicitly, I got the impression the general public wasn’t supposed to know of the activities of la Tueuse, but even so I should have no secrets from Corinne. “I know, that kind of intuitive leap is supposed to be your province, so maybe I used up my lifetime allotment in one shot. If so, I got a good bargain.”

At Corinne’s direction I range through the grass around the tower until I find the Glock, barrel packed solid with moist dark earth. It is registered to me, of course, and she wants to leave no traceable indication of our ever having been present. By the same token she sought out the exhausted flares and had me collect the spent shell casings from the walkway before we descended, wary of any fingerprints they might carry. (I know I fired sixteen shots up there, and I only found ten casings, but I don’t mention the discrepancy; while I am fairly certain any skin oils will have been seared away by the heat of cartridge ignition, I have learned not to argue with Corinne.)

She is still lining out instructions as we reach the Accord. “Neither of us ever made it here, you tell your co-workers I called to cancel because of car trouble and I’ll pitch the same story to my people. You get back to Memphis and act like you were there the whole time; if anybody checks on me, I’ll hint that I blew you off because I’ve got a little extramarital action going on the side.” She stops at the sight of the car. “Damn! Look, soon as you get back, you call the police and report that somebody broke your window and took off with, oh, say they got your briefcase, in a smash-and-grab. Collect all the glass you can find and throw it away in a public dumpster. Tape something over the window and run the car through a power car wash, then do it at least twice more at different places, then get the window replaced. We’ll figure out something to do about the dents in the bumper and hood and fenders, those aren’t too bad and a body shop might ask questions or even, God help us, tip off the cops. Come on, James, look sharp, we don’t have any time to waste here!”

The aftermath of the terrible night is catching up with me, and Corinne’s direction, necessary as it is, begins to grate. “I’ll do all that,” I tell her evenly. “Where did you park? I’ll take you there.”

She points the way to a stand of trees, and when we reach it I see a jet-black Lexus coupe, sleek and ominous as some evil gleaming insect. Corinne chuckles at my reaction. “Leased this sweetheart as soon as I got to St. Louis,” she explains. “Minivan’s fine for family stuff, but if I ever drove it to work … well, I might as well tattoo MOMMY TRACK on my forehead, they’d never take me seriously again. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”

I hate it on sight, though I could not present my objections in any form Corinne would accept. Hers is a many-faceted personality: contempt for “chick movies” (she prefers psychological exploration films, usually foreign), ruthlessly efficient household routine, love of classic jazz and shattering nihilistic heavy metal, rapacious predatory skill at draw poker and racquetball but utter mortifying ineptitude at chess. The relentless feverish ambition that powered her through architectural school while I continued my methodical advance up the hierarchy of an eighty-year-old accounting firm is balanced by her total devotion to the happiness and welfare and growth of our children, and this is the contrast before me now. The minivan represents one face of Corinne, the Lexus another, and the dissonance between them makes me uneasy.

“It’s nice,” I say as she eases herself into the driver’s seat. “Are you sure you can manage the trip back? I can see it hurts you to use that side.”

“I may be biting through my Day Planner by the time I get there, but I’ll get there.” She waves it off. “You still pay cash for gas, right? Good, keep it up. I did the same thing, this trip — didn’t want to use the company card for personal travel — so neither of us will leave a credit trail that points here. Give me a call as soon as you make it home, okay?”

“I will,” I assure her. “I just … I wish we …”

“I know,” she says. The resolute toughness falls away from her, and there is sadness in her smile. “We’ll set up another meeting, first chance we have, I promise. But for now, get moving.” She starts the engine and pulls away. No roaring off, no spray of gravel from spinning tires, just smoothly gathering acceleration. Absolute controlled competence. Classic Corinne.

Mindful though I am of her injunction that I make a swift departure, one matter still must be seen to. I turn again to the Accord, intending to drive back to the town square, and Kendra is emerging from the concealing screen of trees. I am no longer really capable of surprise, so I simply raise a hand in greeting. “Good morning. May I offer assistance in transportation?”

I have automatically shifted back to French, and she replies accordingly. “That would be of much help. My thanks.”

We have left the outskirts of the town, past a chain of empty trucks (some wrecked against one another or against trees or buildings, some jackknifed or overturned, some just standing unattended with grumbling engines) before either of us speaks again. “I was pleased to see that you survived,” she says, “and your wife also. The children?”

“Safe as well, in St. Louis.” My smile is faint but heartfelt. “She meant this to be an intimate rendezvous, a surprise for me. Fortunate for us all.”

“Yes, we have had a great deal of fortune. I saw the signs of fire on the side of the tower structure, and the fragments of the characters that remained. Your work, or that of your wife?”

“Mine.” Already it seems unreal. “She supplied the means, but when I saw the markings I remembered what you had told me of the power spell. I think I may have beaten the sunrise by less than a minute.”

She nods. “I was remiss in not investigating that area. I reasoned that Ucharne would choose a refuge that allowed him an avenue of escape; it did not occur to me that he might have set the sigils of the spell in a different location. I commend your perspicacity.”

“What of Ucharne himself?” Relief at my deliverance — and my family’s — hasn’t made me forget the instigator of the original danger. “Did you find any sign of him?”

“Ucharne is dead.” Neither satisfaction nor regret shows in the proud, lovely face. “He had barricaded himself inside a small manufacturing plant, with the true vampires as an inner guard. Five of them; I was mistaken about the number who could live here, perhaps the highway traffic passing through provides them with added nourishment.”

“Five.” I remember the feral quicksilver power and savagery of the one I faced on the tower, and feel a chill pass through me. “That must have posed some difficulty, even for you.”

“It could have. But Ucharne sent them after me once he knew I had penetrated his place of hiding. An error, that; he could easily have held until dawn if he had kept them around him, but I killed them one by one as they pursued me through the building.” She looks to me. “At the last I think he felt you break the sigils, and tried to construct buffers to maintain the spell, but by then I was assaulting him directly. I would not allow him to concentrate or gather his will, and the backlash consumed him as it did his infernal creations.”

I nod in slow comprehension. “We were fighting the same battle, on different fronts, at the same moment. You were correct, we have enjoyed great fortune.”

But, my mind insists, perhaps not blind chance. Effective diabolism shows the existence of Satan, so the corresponding presence of his greater adversary is at least strongly implied. And if evil men can call on hellish forces to work their will, why should not God guide His followers in opposing them? I think of Kendra’s courage and skill and dedication, of Corinne’s cunning and determination and final ferocity, of my own hopeless, despairing refusal to give up my search. We were soldiers, and faithful servants, and beloved children, and He has sustained us against the blackest evil.

Minutes later I say, “I did not think to ask where you wish to be taken.”

“Last night you spoke of Memphis,” she says. “If you are willing, I will travel with you that far. The city has a regional airport hub, and as I no longer need to contend with the awkwardness of transporting Ucharne, I can take a plane back to my current home.”

I can’t help smiling. “I never would have pictured you flying the friendly skies, like a common tourist.”

For an instant she returns the smile. “Sometimes I use an alternative system, so that I do not grow soft.”

No, she could not afford to become soft. “I did not argue with you last night,” I say to her, thinking as I speak. “We were in a death trap, and the only real hope of survival for us all was to find our enemy and destroy him. But now … how can you do what you do? Forgive me, I can see that you are superhumanly capable, but still you are little more than a child. What kind of life is this for you?”

“The only one I have ever known,” she replies, in the same pointing-out-the-obvious tone she used last night. “My destiny was read when I was very young, and those who watch over me have spent many years preparing me. Though the powers of la Tueuse came to me only recently, when the previous bearer died, there was never any doubt of what I would be.”

“Died,” I repeat blankly. Why the word so affects me I can’t say; I believed her dead before, following my rescue at the truck stop. But after speaking with her, after experiencing the electric vitality she radiates, such a thought seems impossible. “Died?”

“It is the way of my kind. ‘One girl in all the world …’ When that One dies, the next is called.” She turns her gaze on me, eyes as fierce and unflinching as those of a hunting falcon. “You are dismayed? Death awaits us all in the end; I will fall in battle, for a cause that makes a difference on this earth, and my name will be remembered in the annals of Those Who Watch. There are worse truths to face.” I can only stare, stricken, and her expression softens. “I ask your pardon. I know you mean to be kind, but such kindness would only weaken me. My fate was written at my birth, and cannot be changed. I did not choose this, but I choose to accept it.”

At last my voice returns to me. “I do not envy you, or your station,” I say with careful gravity. “But neither do I pity you. If you will tell me your full name, I will see that my children, too, remember you and what you have done for us.”

Some shadow crosses her face, and she answers quietly. “I do not remember my family’s name, if I ever knew it. That, too, is our way. I am alone; there is only Kendra.”

I do not know how to answer that, but something inside me is already speaking. “If it is not unwelcome or presumptuous of me, my family’s name would be honored if you were to use it as your own.”

She is so long in replying that I am sure I have offended or at least embarrassed her. When she does speak, it is with soft regret. “I do not wish to do what must be done. You do not deserve it, you are brave and loyal and full of caring. But it is necessary. I cannot turn away from what is necessary.”

This doesn’t sound good; do the watchers of whom she so glancingly spoke require that she remove inconvenient witnesses? I can’t believe such a thing of her, but all the same I am disturbed. With complete sincerity I say, “I do not understand.”

“I observed you with your wife, the few minutes before she departed. I kept myself hidden because I did not wish to interrupt your farewell with her, but there was another reason: I was concerned for your safety.” She looks to me then, her eyes holding a quality I can’t identify, but something inside me involuntarily clenches in response. “I do not know how matters stand between the two of you now, but this I say to you: the village where you were to meet her, where you found her at last, she came there intending to kill you.”

The words carry no impact, so distant are they from anything my mind can grasp. “You are wrong,” I tell her with unstressed flatness, my reply coming without thought and without heat. “What you say is insane.”

“No, it is not. Attend: after the accident which facilitated his escape, Ucharne reached that village through the forest to the south, I following some hours later. As I passed through in pursuit, I came across a small pit dug in the earth: half a metre wide, a metre and a half long and deep. It was a grave, with tire marks leading away from it —”

“You know not what you speak of,” I interrupt her, anger stirring within me. “You saw and heard her for only moments, you never met her at all. You have no conception of who she is —”

“Indeed, you know her as I do not,” she says, breaking in as I did. “But I know what my eyes have seen. Also at the excavation were footprints, their maker wearing …” She shakes her head. “Rubber boots, rain boots, I do not remember what Americans call them.” Her eyes meet mine again, still brimming with that nameless emotion, and a dead weight settles in my chest as I finally name it: helplessness, for here is a pain against which, for all her martial prowess, she cannot protect me. She believes what she says, and aches at saying it. “Seeking you after Ucharne’s immolation, I found your wife’s vehicle just before you brought her to it, and in the back were those boots, alongside a roll of plastic sheeting.”

“No.” The word is a dry croak. “You are wrong. This cannot be.”

“I saw what I saw. I sorrow for you, I have seen your devotion to her, but I speak the truth. Until her plans were disrupted by Ucharne’s, she meant to kill you, wrap you in the sheeting to prevent any stains of evidence on the upholstery, and drive your body to a grave already prepared, then fill the grave again and leave. It could have been done in twenty minutes or less.”

I say nothing, speech is impossible, madness roars in my ears. She raises a hand as if to touch me, and my arm jerks away in an automatic spasm of revulsion. The hand falls, and she turns in her seat to look straight ahead. “I have said what must be said,” she tells me in the voice of the warrior. “Whether you believe, how you respond, these are yours to choose, but I have done what honor demands.”

Still I make no answer. She is insane, her view of the world warped by those who shaped her into a weapon. She doesn’t know Corinne, has no experience of the depth and complexity and interlinked contradictions that make up this intense, tempestuous, extraordinary woman.

… I got in early yesterday, found a quiet place back in the woods  …

… I don’t know how I hung onto the shovel …

… extramarital action going on the side …

… no credit trail pointing this way …

No. Please, God, no.

The highway unreels before us, and Kendra and I hurtle forward into the barren miles. Beside me she sits mute and motionless as chiseled stone, the beautiful fearsome stranger who has saved and destroyed me in the space of hours. The distance that separates us is measured in inches and infinity, the first fluttering threads of connection between us forever severed. Far back in our wake, long lost from sight, the empty town bakes under the pitiless sun, life and dreams and promises burned away to random ash.

So, too, my heart. So, too, the scorched mocking desolation of my heart.



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