The farther they walked, the more guards populated the corridor, and they left their posts when Gregor and Connie passed, treading single file behind father and daughter. Connie took her father’s hand, like she hadn’t done since before she started middle school. He wanted to tell her that these men, dangerous as they were, wouldn’t betray their mission, but seeing fear in her was good. She needed to feel that now more than ever.
And maybe Gregor liked that she needed him today.
Two guards stood at the last corridor. Gregor recognized former British officer Michael Trently, who had a little more hair on his face and a little less on top of his head since Gregor last saw him. “Russo,” he said. “How is your father?”
“Old and tired,” Gregor said. “How’s your prisoner?”
“Same.” Michael stepped aside, then added, “As always.”
The door opened. Michael hadn’t been kidding. The room was exactly as Gregor remembered, and for a moment he was a teenager again, walking dutifully beside his father for whom he had all the admiration and respect in the world, the man he could never please because his son would never carry out the family legacy. Gregor didn’t understand back then. It was like a blacksmith demanding his son follow in his trade after the industrial revolution. There was no job to do. With Connie, some semblance of his father’s disdain made sense. Not that Gregor felt any disdain for Connie, but there was a sadness in watching the family’s purpose die.
At least Connie needed to see this, he thought. It has a point for her. The purpose of my visit was to know about all this so I could help her.
Connie clung tighter to him as the guards shuffled into the room. The chamber was a wide circle of white walls. No windows, no other doors. In the twisted underground of barracks, restrooms, a supper hall, and a research lab, this was the simplest place because it had to be. At the center of the featureless white floor laid a marble box. Embedded above it, at the center of the featureless white ceiling, was a purple light fixture that could fill the room with enough artificial sunlight to give everyone skin cancer at the flick of a switch, or so Gregor’s father had told him. He had never seen it turned on. He hoped the guards tested it periodically.
The men down here carried weapons filled with lead, like the guards on the surface, but they carried wooden and silver stakes and bottles of holy water, both for drinking and spraying. They stood at attention around the marble coffin.
Michael approached the foot of the box. “Russo, would you do the honors?”
Gregor nodded and started toward the head.
Connie held onto him. “Aren’t we gonna pray or something?”
“It’s not really … not exactly.” Gregor looked around. Though only his grandfather had been excommunicated and Gregor kept up his proper duties of bringing his family to church, eating wine and crackers, and having his daughter attend confirmation, and all the other practices a good Catholic was supposed to do, he hadn’t felt a need for any of it. “Why don’t you pray, Connie?”
She held his hand a moment longer and then dropped it. “That’s okay. I just wanted to know.”
Gregor lingered. She was scared already and needed him. She needs this too, he thought, and approached the head of the marble coffin. The lid was eight inches thick and silver clasps latched it to the lower side, but these were mainly precautions to keep one rogue man from releasing the monster. At this stage of weakness, it couldn’t lift the lid at all, and if it was stronger, the clasps would mean nothing. Michael unfastened his first and Gregor followed. The two took the lid’s corners.
“And together,” Michael said. “Now!”
Gregor dragged the lid and the scream of scraping stones filled the room. He caught Connie in the corner of his eye, pale and trembling, one hand clutching the other. “Come to me,” he said. She took a slow step closer. The guards that surrounded them tensed. Gregor wanted to laugh. Most had probably only seen this box opened once and been scared at the sight alone. They forgot that the monster they learned about was extinct and all that remained was weakness.
Connie’s breath hissed through her teeth and she froze two feet from the coffin’s edge. That was fine by Gregor. She could see plainly from where she stood that what lay inside was no high school stud, no romantic tall, pale, and handsome, not the kind of thing that shined in the sunlight. Not something that loved or could be loved.
It was paler than Gregor remembered, but that sickly gray-white skin clung to the bones just the same as when he had seen it last. Beneath sunken eyes and a flat nose, cheek bones stretched the face to each side. A dry, black worm hung from the vampire’s mouth, flicking back and forth across the marble as if sanding the stone. The sound was the same. The monster’s hands and feet ended in chipped, black chunks that had once been claws, long ago worn down from trying to escape the stone prison. From the way its back bent, Gregor could hardly believe it had ever disguised itself as a human, unless it was swinging from the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
“He’s not breathing,” Connie said softly.
Michael coughed. “It.”
“They don’t breathe,” Gregor said, watching his daughter’s eyes. They didn’t waver from the monster. “It’s a corpse. A walking, eating corpse. Its blood doesn’t run, it doesn’t need food. The blood it drinks feeds its power, not its life. That’s been gone for a long time. They’re dead things, Connie. Not people.”
Connie took another step nearer to the coffin and a pale arm of the bony creature twitched. The look on Connie’s face was exactly what Gregor had hoped to see—disgust. Her fear wasn’t enough to overpower her repulsion for the vampire. She wasn’t sick or confused anymore. She understood.
“Do you always keep him like this?” she asked.
“It,” Michael repeated.
“Always,” Gregor said. “The box is never opened unless someone needs a sample or to see it, and then never when the sun is down.”
Connie took another step and Gregor flinched. She wasn’t properly equipped in case it lunged. Don’t make her more afraid, he told himself. This thing hasn’t moved from here since before Papa was born. It can’t even lift its head. Connie moved closer, close enough that she could have reached inside the coffin if her hands weren’t busy grasping each other. I’m more afraid than she is. Gregor smiled. He had every reason to be proud of her. In his father’s time, she would’ve been perfect for hunting. She is perfect. Dr. Murry can go to hell.
Someone was shouting in Romanian, then Italian, and then English, all the same basic message: “Hands down!”
Gregor broke from his adulating reverie and saw Connie’s hands on the coffin’s marble edge, her fingers stretching into the darkness, and one leg lifting, her knee reaching over. She was trying to climb inside. Click, click—safeties were being switched off from semi-automatic weapons. Connie would die before she touched the monster.
“No!” Gregor shouted, and thanked God that word crossed most language bridges. He let go of his end of the coffin lid and shoved Connie away. Her hands slid out of the darkness and her knee slipped back with the rest of her body, tumbling onto the marble floor.
The crack was heavy, worse than any bone break Gregor had heard in his life. Then he realized the sound was no bone—his end of the marble coffin lid shattered against the floor, leaving Michael with only a jagged half that pointed downward. The Romanian was cursing. Two other guards swept in behind Connie, taking her arms and yanking her forcefully away from the box.
“Don’t hurt her,” Gregor said.
“No man will harm her,” the Romanian said, speaking English now. “Your head should kiss my gun. I said it was wrong, letting a woman in here.”
“She’s not a woman. She’s just a child.”
“Worse. Child with attentions.”
She’s a child with something. Gregor couldn’t face it, not now, not after this trip had gone so well. Dr. Murry might as well have been in the room, waving a bottle of pills in his face. He turned away from Michael and the Romanian, saying nothing else. They could drag him away too if they wanted. He didn’t care anymore. Bringing her to this monster had been a mistake. All he had done was confirm the vampire’s existence. Her delusion had flesh—pale, dead flesh that wouldn’t rot, and a face not even a mother could love. Connie could. Gregor’s eyes fell on that flat, gaunt face. The vampire hadn’t lifted its head, hadn’t made a move after the girl.
But its eye was open. An icy, white-blue eye glared at Gregor for one frozen moment, boring into his thoughts and soul. Then the guards grabbed him, pulled him away, and a pale eyelid hid the monster’s gaze.
“You brought a teenage girl diagnosed with a psychological disorder to one of the most secret militarized buildings in the world. What were you thinking? Were you thinking at all? Or were you so fucking blind with love for your little girl that you couldn’t see she’s sick, that she’s exactly like those girls who jumped into wolf pits, the only difference being her fantasy wasn’t real until you showed her it is! You asshole!”
Gregor let out a haggard sigh. His throat was dry and hurting. This chewing out would’ve been easier if he was listening to someone else berate him, but the guards had locked him in a bedroom alone, so he had to do it himself. Eventually they would start thinking he was crazy, that Connie’s problem was genetic and not from Donna’s side like his mother would insist.
“Crazy.” Gregor sat on the bed and laid his face in his hands. “She couldn’t tell that monster from the pretty fairy vampires in her books. I can’t do anything right.”
“Couldn’t agree more.” Michael opened the door and stepped into the room. Someone else closed it behind him. “I think this should be your last visit to Italy.” His voice turned grave. “Or anywhere with one of these facilities. Of course, not visiting another creature like him would be the least of your problems. There’s talk of excommunicating you and your daughter. Won’t that make your father proud?”
“It’s not much of a threat these days,” Gregor said. “We’re not very religious.”
“Perhaps you should have been.” Michael sat down on the bed and gave a hard stare, the kind Gregor’s father used to give back when he cared if Gregor did something wrong. Gregor turned away. This wasn’t a day for facing what he couldn’t stand. “Perhaps you should have told her to pray,” Michael said.
“It wouldn’t have meant anything. Her faith—it’s not what’s wrong with her. It’s her head. That’s why we took this trip. You know how it is. No one needs hunters. Not these days.”
“You don’t think so?”
“We were unimportant when I was a kid. What could Connie gain from knowing about her past?”
“Then why show her?”
Gregor shook his head. Not judging, he thought. Then he had another thought. Now is the time for judging. Now is the time for deciding. “She’s sick. She’s delusional. I came here running, because that shrink wants my baby on pills and I convinced myself there was nothing wrong with her. But there is. Has to be. You don’t show someone a vampire, a real monster, and have them try climbing into its coffin. Her head isn’t on straight.”
Michael patted Gregor’s shoulder. “It isn’t your fault. You brought her here—that’s your fault. Her illness isn’t. Madness may visit anyone and the young are susceptible to manipulation. Influence.”
“That’s the problem, what I couldn’t accept,” Gregor said. “The way her psychiatrist put it, the problem was there, just waiting for an outlet, and I didn’t want to listen. I didn’t want to think she’d have paranoid delusions about whatever her head latched onto. Those books gave her vampires to love. And then I did this. I fed it.”
Michael stood abruptly. “Fed?”
“Showed her it was real.”
“And she’s been influenced to … love him?”
“With our family history, you see why I couldn’t just lie down and accept it. That shrink doesn’t even know vampires exist. I just thought—”
“You did the best you could with what you understood,” Michael said.
“It isn’t your fault that you failed.”
Gregor shrugged. “It won’t matter. She’ll still need the pills. She’s still crazy. They’re doing God-knows-what to her—”
Michael raised a hand. “They’re doing nothing to her, my friend. Your daughter is an interesting girl. Unique.”
“No. She’s one in a million with this problem.”
“Then it’s an interesting world.” Michael approached the door. It opened as if someone had pulled it, but there was no one in the doorway. “Still, I think I’ll keep her. It will bother you more knowing she’s out there, beyond you, beyond help, and hanging from my arm. I can’t promise this will be the last time I feed from her. I’m surprised you brought her here with a fresh wound. Just the same, there are apparently a million like her.”
Gregor turned to stare Michael in the face, but when he looked, the room was as empty as the doorway. The door hung open. “Michael?” No answer. He didn’t expect one. A bad feeling had wormed under his skin the moment he turned his head. He just hadn’t noticed until now, when it spread through his chest and his breathing went shallow.
Am I going crazy after all? he wondered. How did Michael put it? Madness may visit anyone. “Michael?” Nothing. Gregor stood and approached the doorway. He saw no one in the hall. “Connie?” She could have been in any room. He turned the outside lock of the one next to his and threw the door open. “Connie?”
He didn’t find Connie inside, but Michael was there. He lay on the bed, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, his skin taking on a striking pallor and his neck twisting at an odd angle. The bad feeling jumped from Gregor’s heart and into his throat. He refused to scream.
Could be anything, don’t panic, don’t judge, oh, come on, I know what this is, everyone can tell. Gregor shut the door and staggered up the hall. “It can’t be. It’s too gentle. Those monsters are never gentle.” Unless they want something. He reached the dining hall, hoping they had taken Connie there for some food and drink, something to get her back in the right mind.
What he found was no place for right minds and Connie clearly wasn’t the one who had fed. From the body parts splashed across the floor, tables, and serving counter, Gregor guessed there had been many more guards assigned to this facility than he had known. Then he guessed his count was thrown off by how many separate pieces could have come from a single man.
If that wasn’t Michael in the bedroom, how can I be sure any of this is real? “Connie!” Gregor shouted. “Connie, are you here?” He hoped not. He didn’t have the mettle to pick through the pieces in search of her and ran back into the hallway, clinging to the small hope that she was alive.
At the other hallway end, the elevator dinged, announcing its arrival in the subterranean dwelling. Gregor hurried. He wanted to see Connie barreling into that elevator, on her way to sunlight and a clear escape. He turned the corner—there she was. Stepping into the elevator, staring emptily.
“Connie!” Gregor screamed. “Go! Just go!”
Her hand moved slowly, reaching for a button as if there was no urgency at all. “And then it goes up,” she said.
She’s not alone. Gregor’s feet pounded the floor and he opened his mouth to call his daughter’s name again. A force pounded his face like he had run into an invisible wall and he ricocheted onto his back, his nose gushing blood. “Connie?” He looked up, struggling to stand and settling for a crawl. “Connie, wait.”
On a second glance, the other figure was clear in the elevator. The creature stood beside her, wrapped awkwardly in a bed sheet, hunching so its gaunt face lingered not far from Connie’s chest. It turned its icy eyes Gregor’s way, fixing him with another cold stare as he crawled closer, leaving a bloody trail.
“What are you making her see?” Gregor asked. “Me? Connie, it’s not your father. I am. Connie, stop!”
But it wasn’t showing Connie her father or any guard from the facility. She was teaching it how the elevator worked the way she would need to teach a monster that had been locked underground for centuries, ignorant to the intricacies of the modern world. In the moment before the doors closed, the hallucination must have spread, because Gregor saw what he was certain Connie saw—a tall, strong man, broad-shouldered, sharp-faced, with just enough facial hair to look sexy. He wore a black suit that had been yanked out of the 19th century and instead of one bony claw, he offered Connie a strong hand. The monster was feeding the delusion and she was eating it up. She laid her fingers in his palm, one of them wrapped in a reddening bandage—a fresh wound.
“No.” Gregor could see it now. The wood at the field. The scrape of Connie’s fingers on the marble coffin reopening the wound. The broken lid. “Connie, stop.”
She didn’t stop. She held hands with the monster, hung from its arm, and her smile couldn’t have been wider.
Then the elevator doors snapped shut and the shaft hummed with the elevator’s ascent. Gregor went on crawling, his shirt covered in blood. Connie wouldn’t see her prize murdering the men upstairs. She wouldn’t see him hide under their black cloaks as they ventured into the sunlight. In the promise of all that horror, he could only wonder if she wouldn’t see because she was so deep in the vampire’s power, or because she was crazy and would refuse to see. And as the elevator returned empty and Gregor clambered inside, he wondered if ripping the robes away and killing the monster with a stake to the heart would break what remained of Connie’s mind.
It was dark upstairs, but Gregor didn’t need much light to see the bodies. He moved as fast as he could. They would make for a car. The vampire would let her drive—it didn’t know how and she desperately wanted to do it. If Gregor could get it into the sunshine, its power would weaken, maybe its hold on Connie would loosen, and father and daughter could stop this together before it became a nightmare that spread across the face of the Earth.
Gregor pushed through the Ivory Monastery’s front doors and collapsed. “God, no. God, please, no.” It didn’t seem possible that he was locked-up for so long. Of course, it didn’t seem possible that any of this was happening, that he had messed up to such extremes. Maybe he didn’t want to face his mistake. Maybe he was the one who didn’t understand things and Connie was the one who saw it all clearly. He didn’t see the monster, or Connie, or the car. He could scarcely see anything.
The sun had already set. Night had fallen. The two could be anywhere, doing anything. The nightmare had already begun.