The Big Smoke, страница 1
THE BIG SMOKE
Vampires in the Sunburnt Country 2
Kevin Matheson is coming to Brisbane with revenge on his mind. Even for a vampire, there is no time like the present. He has a score to settle with Mira, the sadistic killer who tore his life in outback Queensland apart.
For Mira's bodyguard, Reece, worn out and fading a little more each day, the present is all he has. He is determined to spend it protecting his mistress, for better or worse.
But, as the two men head for a collision, the vampires of Brisbane have their own plans - plans that will lead Kevin and Reece down roads they never expected to travel.
And at the end of the line, at the intersection of loyalty and vengeance, both face the question: who are they willing to sacrifice to win the war?
To the Harper clan:
sometimes you do get to choose your family
Kevin could still smell his mother's corpse on the back seat of the car. A month since, but the reek remained. It'd lain there only a day, under a blanket, in a garage; but a day in the Queensland outback, at the height of summer. By the time he'd returned, there'd been bloat and leakage and that unmistakable smell of rot. He'd taken her down into the ground, his body against hers, cloth to cloth, skin to skin; he still smelled her on him, at odd times, when sleep wouldn't come. He saw the cruel rips in her chest, her arms, her throat. He heard the flies. He imagined their eggs in the torn flesh and the worms chewing at the corruption. But she was gone. Except for the smell. And for the memories — the life taken from her veins, ingested and preserved in the unnatural veins of another.
His maker, Taipan, had told him that taking something and keeping it were two different things. He'd been talking about von Schiller's goons impounding the Monaro, but the thought still tormented him. His father was well and truly gone, but his mother lingered inside Mira, the Strigoi; Maximilian von Schiller's daughter.
Kevin still felt Mira's presence at the edge of memory. He had a little of the bloodhag's extraordinary blood in him, fused into his DNA when he'd been in the change from human to vampire. They were linked, he and she; she was seared into his molecules: the sound of her, the feel, the scent. Possibly he even possessed a little of her ability to use blood and the life experiences it contained in almost magical ways. It helped to make him a quick learner, but it also meant he could never get Mira out of his system. He relived Mira fucking him, blood smearing her chest, cruel delight twisting her lips. He couldn't think of her without his cock growing hard, even as the bile rose in his throat. And he thought of her often.
He thought of his mother, trapped inside Mira, and was revolted.
Mira knew his mother better than he did.
But that would change when he killed her. Killing her would set them all free.
He missed his mp3 player desperately. It was long gone, lost in the battle at Jasmine Turner's. Destroyed or stolen, it didn't matter. The coupe's passenger seat was empty, and despite the roar of the Monaro's engine, the thrum of wheels on bitumen, the shake and shiver from passing trucks, that emptiness was deafening.
Kala and Danica had refused to join him, had tried to talk him out of leaving. Having escaped Mira's net, they were content to swelter in the tropical isolation of Cairns. They'd recruited red-eyes who were happy to feed and guard them in return for the benefits that came from drinking vampire blood: accelerated healing, faster reflexes, greater strength, slower aging.
At least Kala had given him the Monaro. It's hot,' she warned, they'll be looking for it.' But he didn't care: the V8 coupe was a classic, an Australian icon of the late sixties. This parting gift was all he had.
It took three nights to drive down the coast to Brisbane, almost 2000 km of cane fields, brown paddocks and towns the highway hadn't bypassed yet, all-night roadhouses smelling of diesel and dust, grease left too long in the hot box. Days were spent parked under whatever shade he could find as far off the road as he could nurse the Monaro. Farm tracks, forestry access roads, gravel pits. Lying on the seat under a tarp, too scared of discovery to sleep, but unwilling to leave the car for fear of finding it gone, this last link to his recent past, his one good thing.
And the entire way, he was stuck with radio, having to constantly retune as he passed town and city in the night, condemned to playlists of classics and current flavour, interrupted by inane chatter and irrelevant news. What matter to him the latest war, a new casino, the price of the dollar?
Close to Brisbane, he turned off the radio, the better to concentrate as the lanes grew from one to two to four. As the lights brightened, the stars dimmed. He squinted at road signs, clenched the wheel and peered at the cars closing in on him.
What if he couldn't find his way? What if Maximilian and his stormtroopers knew he was coming? What if one man — he used the term liberally, clung to it, in fact — wasn't enough to stop them?
He followed the barest threads of memory, grasped them like a swimmer to rope in an oil-slick sea, and like a float was pulled along in their wake into the city's reach. Through the sprawl of shopping centres, car yards, neon beacons for motel pay TV and air-conditioned rooms; a confusion of signs pointing to places he didn't know, hadn't even heard of. The cloying petroleum stench invaded the cabin; the stars faded behind the bright wash of the streetlights and the city's sickly amber glow.
It was close to midnight and few vehicles other than buses, taxis and police cars cruised the lanes. Signs told him where he couldn't go, where he didn't want to go, where it would cost him to go. He stop-started through the traffic lights, working his way toward the centre, following the bare clues in his blood, an uncertain second-hand familiarity stale with time and too-little exposure.
And yet he found it, like a bee to a hive: Maximilian's towering base, Thorn.
He drove slowly past the dark monolith, feeling small and obvious, bathed in light in the middle of the night. A gate of iron bars in a surrounding wall revealed a wide fan of stairs leading to glass doors. Guards in green uniforms stood at the top. The building loomed, a black marble tombstone carved from a mountain.
Mira was in there somewhere. She might even be hidden behind the glass, watching him drive past. Kevin clamped down on the vestiges of Mira within him, the elements of her that had hooked into him during the change. Danica had made a putsi for him with blood magic, the amulet warm on his chest even through the leather pouch from which it hung around his neck. He trusted the combination of it and Danica's mystical training would keep him from Mira's sight. If she knew he was here, his mission would be over before it even began.
He pulled into a cross-street and tried to work out if he could park there. Would he be ticketed, clamped, towed? Would he return to find a ring of Maximilian's soldiers circling the Monaro? Would he turn the key to have the car explode while a cheery assassin wiped their hands for a job well done?
From beyond the horizon he felt the pull of the plains, calling him home. But home was gone. He saw again his mother, still and pale on the sofa at Jasmine Turner's property; felt again the earth parting around them as he sank in the graveyard soil, bearing her down to final rest. Heard again Mira's taunt:
She tastes like sunshine
He forced himself to get out; a snail without a shell, feeling the threat of voracious magpies perched in the shadows.
Kala and Danica had told him not to come. To stay. To find a new life. But they couldn't tell him how.
How to forget the murder of his family.
How to forget the fact that his mother had been consumed, probably lingered still, an album of experience kept alive inside her killer's bloodstream.
Pale-barked trees shaded the pavement. He took comfort in the many darknesses where street lights and glowing shop fronts didn't reach. Hands in pockets, hood up, shoulders slumped, he hunched in a doorway; a metal grille sealed the door but left enough space in the entrance to shield him from the light.
On the other side of the street, towered Thorn — all dark concrete and black glass. A red warning light blinked atop a spire. The tower had been named for a fortress of old. That memory too nestled deep, an aside, but he clung to it as an omen; the Teutonic fortress had fallen. He regarded the tower, hoping for history to repeat. He was struck by the memory of a movie, of people with guns, lots of guns, kicking open doors and battling their way to the upmost floors, of righting wrongs, of saving the world.
Thorn had a wall, a forecourt, armed guards and many, many floors. There would be no kicking down of doors. He would need to be cleverer than that.
Kevin returned to the car and found it untouched, unguarded. So far, so good. He turned the ignition, felt the instant comfort of the motor's rumble, the chassis' vibration; the suppressed power under the bonnet.
Now to find the one they called the Needle.
The city was bigger than he remembered. He had been here once, his own memories less useful than the memories of the others residing within him. Brisbane was quite the haystack. But he had time.
As long as no one knew he was here, he had all the time he needed. All the time his hunger would allow.
'I hope this won't take long, Reece. I go on duty at nine.'
Felicity's voice followed him up the stairwell, echoing with their footsteps. The air tasted stale; the warehouse had been shut up for a long time, and Reece's occasional visits had done little to freshen the place.
'You still on the soup van?' he asked.
'It could be worse.'
'You haven't fallen that far. Yet.' Half humour, half warning. Fair enough. He hadn't told her why he'd called her here. It wasn't just the heat that'd made her take her jacket off. Basic training made a point of warning them how hard it was to pull a Staker from a shoulder sling; it was either that, though, or stick out like dog's balls in a trench coat if one was to conceal the metal tube.
He was in civvies today. Jeans, button-up shirt, leather jacket and Broncos cap. Sword in scabbard held in one sweaty hand.
She drew level with him. 'You're still hunting Matheson? Is that what this is about?'
'Kind of. I figure he's up north. Far north. Fuel thefts, some clothing, a couple of sightings of the Monaro.'
'You and that damn car.'
'It'll turn up. Whether he'll be with it is the thing.'
He paused at a landing, catching his breath. He was too old for this. And getting older by the day.
She waited beside him, her freckles glowing with exertion, her hair pulled back in a tight, short ponytail. She carried her jacket over one arm, exposing the double shoulder holsters for sidearm and Staker, her tightly stretched blouse he had to remind his eyes not to linger on. They'd been partners, after all; of sorts. Still were; of sorts.
Felicity had proven capable in the outback, when they'd been tracking Taipan's gang of outlaw vampires. So capable, Mira had taken a shine to the plucky Hunter.
That relationship linked them now in this conspiracy: save Mira, save themselves.
'So what is this about?' Felicity asked.
'All in good time. Have you heard anything about Mira?'
'She's still under wraps, still borderline bedlam. Though I think the doc's sugar coating it, for the Old Man's sake.'
The Old Man. That was an understatement. Maximilian von Schiller was centuries old, a product of his time. By all accounts, he was struggling to keep up with modern developments, and concepts such as democracy and women's lib. He relied on his vampiric daughter to help him cope, using her blood magic in his service. The power had come from her mother, Danica: Danica the betrayer, who had, tired of death and politics, fled Maximilian's organisation. The disastrous attempt to recapture her at Jasmine Turner's outback property had forced them to this risky course of action.
Reece had been there when Mira had fallen, one of the most horrible sights he'd ever seen. And after decades in her service, that was saying something.
Mira, injured and craving blood, had killed one of her own and taken his life into herself. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. Unable to navigate the storm of the lives she'd absorbed, she'd lapsed into the coma-like state, a prisoner in her own overcrowded mind.
Reece shrugged away the memory and resumed clomping, until they emerged on the roof. He blinked, the sun staring at him from the west where it hung low over the mountains, swollen and dirty red as it glowered through a haze of pollution.
Felicity reached for her sunglasses, then almost dropped them as she saw the figure tied to a rusting air-conditioning unit.
'Jesus, Reece, you've had him up here all day?' She stared around at the surrounding buildings. Over-exposed, aren't you?'
'There's no one around.' The building, one of the highest in this part of South Brisbane, was empty; one of many waiting for the urban renewal creeping out from the city like a slow wave of chrome, glass and lattes.
'No reason for the foxes to be this far south. And the chances of airpol taking their cameras off the highways long enough to notice is remote. No money in it.'
She walked to the prisoner.
Bhagwan's groans were barely audible. Bone showed through the blistered flesh; he looked like a log that had rolled off a fire, black and grey and veined with soot. And there was the smell.
'Is this how you did it, back when you were a real copper?'
Ouch. 'We were more subtle back then. And the crims were more ordinary.'
She looked at him, biting her lip in that endearing manner. 'Was it worth it?'
'He gave me a name.'
'Do you believe him?'
'No reason not to.'
And I'm here because?'
'To witness. You found him, after all.'
She looked around again. The city's lights were coming on, warning lights flashing, a slick Legoland of dark and light burnished by the sunset. Buildings reflected blood.
'If anyone saw—'
'We'd know it. I only called you in so you could know it was over.'
'Noble of you.'
'Despite the popular misconception, chivalry is not quite dead.'
Felicity had found Bhagwan staked out in a hidey hole in the wreckage of Jasmine Turner's place, one of few survivors of the clusterfuck referred to around Thorn as "The Debacle". She'd smuggled him away, desperate to find some advantage in the disaster that had befallen them.
Reece drew the standard-issue broadsword, a cheap replacement for his Hunter's blade — a personal gift from Mira — that was probably rusting away somewhere out west.
'It's time for Bhaggy to go back to being dead,' he said.
Felicity nodded, her arms folded across her chest.
The blade cut through the throat as though it were dry grass and clanged against the metal of the air conditioning unit. The head plopped on the ground. Bhagwan had had a few years on him. The decay accelerated, the body shrivelling in on itself, until the ropes fell slack and the corpse crumbled. By the time the sun had sunk to touch the mountains, there was nothing left but a pile of dust. It eddied in the faint breeze coming in off the river, a dry wind carrying the smell of brine and petrochemicals. Reece sheathed the sword, then rolled and lit a cigarette.
Felicity held a hand up against the sunset. Her mirrored shades reflected the out-of-kilter world, an out-of-kilter Reece.
'So what was the name he gave you?'
'Are you sure you want to know?'
'We're both in it, Reece. Unless Mira recovers and reinstates us, we're in the doghouse for the rest
'Bhagwan said the Needle told him about Jasmine.'
'Why would he do that?'
'More to the point, how did the Needle know? He's not part of the firm.'
'We've got a leak.'
'And I'm going to plug it. See if I can't get us back in the good books.'
'Nice of you to care, old man. You going looking for the Needle then?'
'In the proverbial.' He gestured to the city, lights sparkling in the descending dusk. He imagined he could see Thorn amid the towers clustered in the city centre.
'I can check the rota, see when he's due to tithe,' she said.
'Not for two weeks. No, I'll have to find him sooner than that. Which means finding a snitch of my own. What you can do is start tracing from the other end. Draw up a list of anyone and everyone who might've known about Jasmine's expansion into the bovine business.'
'Should be a reasonably small list. It was meant to be hush-hush.'
He gripped her arm. 'Do it quietly. We don't know if the leak was intentional or just careless. Either way, they'll be keen to keep it quiet.'
She pulled on her jacket. An object fell from the pocket and bounced off her shoe. She retrieved the MP3 player, rotating it in her hand as though she was reassuring herself it was the one she'd dropped. Something red flashed as she turned it. She rubbed a thumb over the piece of tape, smiled grimly, the player bringing back a bad memory perhaps.
'Is that new?' Reece asked.
'Souvenir.' She tucked the player away, adjusted her holsters. 'Don't worry, Reece. I've got your back. We might not be able to save the Strigoi, but we just might be able to save ourselves.'
To hear her say it, there with the sunset reflecting bloody on her shades, the set of her mouth, her hand squeezing his arm, he could almost believe it.