Vampire Thriller (Book 2): The Living Night, страница 1
THE LIVING NIGHT
by Jack Conner
All rights reserved
Cover image used with permission
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The Congo was hot and the mosquitoes weren't any nicer than Danielle remembered, but there was a wonderful familiarity here. A wonderful, eternal quality; the Congo was the darkest, thickest, most savage jungle in the world, had been that way since long before she was born and would be that way long after she died. It was the true immortal, a large, seething, and sultry beast. Green and lush, chaotic, and as noisy in its own way as Times Square.
Of course, whenever Danielle thought of the Congo, she always associated its smell with Kharker's cigars, and Lord Kharker himself, who seemed just as immortal and unchanging as the jungle he lived in.
So it was strange that he didn't greet the odd flock as they stepped down from the plane, as was his usual custom. Gavin was there in his place, flanked by a score of Caucasian guards Danielle didn't recognize.
"Welcome," Gavin said, taking first Danielle's hand, then Ruegger's. "Kharker's been looking forward to your visit."
"Then why didn't he meet us?" asked Danielle.
"I think you'll have to discuss that with him. Please, but could you remove all your weapons?"
Ruegger and Danielle exchanged glances, but did as they were asked. Gavin had never been anything but polite with them (although he'd never seen them together), and he wasn't impolite now. Once they'd handed their arms over to the host of soldiers, Gavin led them toward the main building, then veered off, moving toward the jungle as if he expected his guests to follow. Warily, they did.
The clearing around the estate soon gave way to fierce vegetation, but several trails snaked off into the wild and almost impenetrable darkness. Danielle immediately noticed that the jungle life was oddly quiet—the first signal of an ambush—and ordinarily this would've given her a few tense moments, but she heard the sounds of men working and, over them, Lord Kharker giving orders.
When they came upon the man himself, he was standing with the sleeves of his soiled white shirt rolled up past his elbow, the stub of a cigar sticking authoritatively from one corner of his mouth. Judging by the stubble on his face, he hadn't shaved in some time. The men he was ordering about seemed to be digging trenches, and pieces of piping material lay scattered around. When he heard the odd flock approach, Kharker turned and offered a huge smile.
"Ah! It's good to see you again.” He crossed to Danielle, hugging her, then embraced Ruegger roughly and stood for a long moment examining him. "I've missed you, son.” His voice was soft. "Here, let me look at you. Hair's a bit longer, but otherwise you haven't changed a bit, and I don't know why you should. You know, my boy, I thought I might never see you again."
The Darkling lit a cigarette, studying the Hunter. "I vowed never to come near you again, old man."
"I know. I've respected it. And old I feel, too. I celebrated my millennium just a short time ago."
"We heard. Celebrated it with Jean-Pierre."
Was there jealousy in Ruegger’s voice? Danielle wondered. Surely not.
"Indeed," said Kharker. "On safari, of course. That albino's turning into quite a hunter, become even a better shot with a rifle than yourself—soon to outclass even me, I'm sure, but I find that I'm looking forward to that. It's strange. Perhaps I really am just getting old, looking for a successor. But seeing you again ... after all these years ... it quickens my blood. Do you feel it, too?"
It was clear Ruegger did. When he removed the cigarette from his lips, his hand was shaking slightly.
"What are you doing here?" he said.
The Hunter smiled, cigar pointing up. "We're digging irrigation ditches for the alligator swamp I'm going to make."
"In fact, I'm thinking of making an entire zoo, replete with all the creatures I love. You see, recently I've begun to examine myself in different ways—isolation fosters this sort of thing—and I've found that one of the chief reasons I enjoy hunting so much is that I simply want to be in touch with nature. It's not so much that I enjoy killing, although that's part of it, of course, but that I enjoy animals themselves: their freedom, their simplicity, their energy.
“So I'm having a zoo built in my backyard to honor them, and so that I can enjoy them without going to the trouble of organizing a safari. There are some times in the middle of the night when I'd rather just walk outside and watch them. It calms me, and inspires me at the same time. However—well, I don't like the idea of them being in cages, you understand, so I'm trying to work out a system in which I can have them here and at the same time keep them liberated. It breaks my heart to see them imprisoned."
"Do you have any revelations to share?"
Ruegger glanced at Danielle, and Kharker nodded in sympathy. If they were to have a good old-fashioned chat, she would have to be absent. She watched them and understood what they were thinking, but it didn't bother her. Sometimes friends needed time to talk alone. On the other hand, the thought of Ruegger left alone with his old mentor made her edgy. He was too open-minded for his own good, and she was a little afraid he'd be susceptible to Kharker's corruption.
Plus, there was business to attend to.
"Ahem," she said.
Kharker gave his full attention to her. "You, my girl, look even more sumptuous than the last time I saw you. The albino still pines for you, you know." He said it with a trace of sadness, but it was obviously meant as a compliment.
"Anyway, what's the deal here?” she said. “To start with, why'd you have our guns taken away?"
He looked off into the distance. "I feared you might have planned to undertake the revenge of your good friend Ludwig, whom I had killed not long ago."
"Bullshit. What reason did you have to kill him?"
"He wanted to take over the world, enslave humanity. It's not in my interest to have humanity enslaved. That would spoil the fun, wouldn't it? There would be no more Hunt. Ludwig had to die. For your loss, I'm deeply sorry."
"That is the singularly biggest load of atrocious crap that I've ever heard in all my years,” she said. “For one, all the humans you ‘Hunt’ are captives anyway, so what does it matter?"
"The fact that I'm a hypocrite changes nothing."
She waved this away. "For another, Ludwig wanted to disband Liberty, not keep it going. Enslaving humanity was the one thing he was trying to prevent. It may be what he died for. Now what's the real story? And what's the deal with all the white guys?"
Kharker looked to Ruegger, but the Darkling offered no help.
"That's what we came here for," Ruegger said. "To find out what you know."
The Great White Hunter stared at the tip of his cigar. "I recruited the white guys, as you call them, Danielle, to help out in the event that Maleasoel organized an avenging strike on me."
"I don't buy it," said Danielle. "If you wanted extra help, you'd train some natives, not hire a bunch of Euro-trash mercenaries—if that’s what these are. Mercenaries are rough and independent. The soldiers we saw looked formally trained, and trained together. An army of some sort, I guess. No, the way we see it is that—and this is just one of many possibilities—you were afraid Roche Sarnova would be accused of Ludwig's death, so you took the blame yourself, and ..." She looked at Ruegger questioningly. "How to you figure in the Caucasians?"
She nodded. "Well, Kharker?"
The Hunter remained silent a moment. "You may not believe, or want to believe, that I killed Ludwig, but it's the truth. I hired Caucasians simply for a change of pace. Now why don't you join me for a nice glass of sherry?"
* * *
Once they were inside, Kharker showed them to the Elephant Room. Ruegger moved along the walls, studying the new additions to the chamber, and it wasn't long before he came across his old poem; each page had been framed and hung from left to right so that they could be read.
"Jean-Pierre gave me that for my birthday," Kharker said. "I couldn't have asked for a better present."
"Sorry I missed your millenium."
"Don't be. You didn't want any contact between us, and I understood that. It's why I didn't send you anything for your anniversary."
"You keep up with that sort of thing?” Danielle said.
"How could I not?"
She walked over to the poem on the wall, but it wasn't in English and she couldn't read it. "Darling," she said, "why don't you write anymore?"
Ruegger winced. "I don't have anything else to say. Everything I believed in I put into my poems, and I've said it all."
"You have more things to say than anyone I've ever met. When was the last time you wrote a poem?"
He paused, looking to her, then to Kharker. At last he let out a breath. "When Amelia died," he said.
Studying the two men, she realized that this had been an issue between them back when they were together. Kharker had probably urged Ruegger to write again, but Ruegger had resisted. The Hunter had tried to find a muse for his companion, but had been unsuccessful; all his attempts to enliven Ruegger had failed. Danielle could sense all this, or some variation of it, in the subtle gestures of the two.
"I don't wish to discuss it," Ruegger added.
A servant entered, carrying a silver tray bearing glasses of sherry. Danielle sipped hers and smiled.
"It's divine," she said.
"Thank you, my dear,” Kharker said. “Now what exactly is it that you wish to know? If it's okay with you, I'd rather get business out of the way first."
"That would be fine. We'd like to know whatever you can tell us about the War of the Dark Council. And about Ludwig's death."
"I'm afraid I've said all I can on the latter subject, but I wouldn't mind sharing what I know of the War with you. It's a subject I've been most interested in of late. That said, I never like to divulge information to someone who's unwilling to do the same for me."
Ruegger raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"I know of your quest to gather facts about the strange situations surrounding us these days, and would be very interested in what you’ve learned. In particular, what you've found out about the Scouring."
"Quid pro quo, eh?" said Danielle.
"If you like. I would be more than willing to share with you what I know, but I would be most intrigued by what you have to tell me—if you chose to do so. Here, I'll go first."
He reclined in a large, comfortable chair, and the other two joined him. Sipping his sherry, Kharker began recounting the discussion he'd had with Roche Sarnova on the day he'd arrived at the Castle to celebrate his birthday with the Dark Lord, after Sarnova had asked Jean-Pierre to leave the room ...
* * *
"Well," said Kharker.
"Indeed," said Sarnova, his voice sickly, his face pale and ashen, and nodded at Francois Mauchlery. "Ambassador, would you care to bring Lord Kharker up to speed on recent events?"
"Certainly," said Mauchlery, rising. He moved out from behind Sarnova's desk and started pacing. "As you may know, the Dark One here is the head chair of the so-called Dark Council, which presides over immortal matters in our immediate realm. Other than Roche and myself, the most prominent member of the Council is a female morbine called Subaire. About a month ago Roche made the bold decision to claim Romania in the name of all immortals."
"Excuse me?" said Kharker.
"Please," said Sarnova patiently, earnestly. "Allow me to explain."
Francois bowed his head.
"Shades have, as the term implies, always lived in shadow," Sarnova said, "but dependent on humanity for our very existence. We've always lived in fear of mortals, because they've historically outnumbered us beyond proportion. Recently, however, our ranks have swelled into a more fair distribution, do you agree?"
"I suppose.” Kharker started rolling a cigarette. He took a deep breath, leaned back in his seat, and lit it. He had the feeling it would be the first of many.
"Nowadays, even if humans knew of us, we could more easily defend ourselves—provided we were united." Sarnova’s nostrils flared, smelling Kharker's cigarette. He smiled and lit one for himself. It made him cough more, but he didn't seem to mind, even when a few droplets of blood came to his lips, which he gracefully dabbed at with a white handkerchief.
Roche leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes for a moment. His face took on a strange look, almost of longing. "I'm old, Kharker. I'm tired of living in the shadow of our lessors—or, if you prefer to think of them as equals, then I'm tired of living with our equals ignorant of us. Maybe it's just the voice of ego, but I've been so frustrated lately that I just want to run through the streets shouting at the top of my lungs, ‘I'm a vampire! Look at me, I’m a vampire!' Childish, maybe, but it's what I want. Don't you ever feel that way, my friend—that you just want to be recognized and unashamed of what you are?"
"I suppose," said Kharker, wary.
"But just imagine, humans knowing of us and accepting us, living in harmony with us. Sure, they might fear us, but we could make some sort of treaty with them—they could send their criminals to us for sustenance, and we wouldn't attack their countries. We need a land of our own, a Jerusalem for the Undead. Think how beautiful that would be." He sighed wistfully, then nodded at Mauchlery again.
The Ambassador resumed talking, and pacing. "Roche wanted the Council to come to a consensus on the subject; it wouldn't make sense to go ahead with the plan unless we had the support of our followers, would it? So we summoned them for a special meeting and gave the proposal. Many were outraged, but we fought it out. Finally, after everyone had turned it over, it developed that the Council was evenly split, right down the middle, with Subaire leading the opposition. The half in favor of the plan, our half, would not back down. Unfortunately, neither would Subaire's.
"It was a stand-off. The differences were irreconcilable. Subaire and her supporters stormed out, gathering all the troops that were loyal to them and fleeing to London, which has become their base of operations. We hear they get new followers every day, but so do we. Now we're at war with them, and neither side shows any sign of backing down. Most of the conflict seems to be taking place in Western Europe, but recently rumors have started circulating about the war coming closer to home.
"I was sent to the front lines several weeks ago to check up on our troops and to recruit supporters, and I returned two days ago with a werewolf named Victoria Lisaund, who accompanied me back under the guise of petitioning Roche for protection of her clan, who she said supported our cause. Apparently, though, she was an assassin—but worse, she had skills we weren't prepared for.
“She'd been trained to kill mortals with her mind, and she killed one that Roche was feeding from, causing him to drink dead blood. She attacked Roche when he was down. Also, she seemed to have been stronger than she should've been. It took both me and Roche to destroy her."
"How?" asked Kharker. "How was she so strong?"
Francois looked uneasy. "We think that she might have gotten ahold of the blood of a k
Kharker raised his eyebrows. "That's bad. That's very bad. But, Roche ... how did she get hold of such blood?"
"I wouldn't know," said the Dark Lord quietly.
"Wouldn't you? There are rumors ..."
"There have always been rumors. Let's not give them merit through discussion."
Kharker smoked in silence, then looked up again. "So all this is why the immortal world is in turmoil right now? Does this have some bearing on the Scouring?"
Roche Sarnova sat up slowly, but not too slowly. "Not quite. However, I'm afraid that I can't ... speculate ... on the reasons why things are the way they are now."
"But the War and the Scouring—they are related?"
Sarnova coughed again, his face solemn. "Perhaps," he said. "Perhaps."
* * *
"That's all he told me," Kharker said.
"But ..." Ruegger prodded.
"But he was keeping something from me, and I didn't like it. Why should I? I figured the best way to gather more information on the War would be to send some men to London, where most of it was—and is—taking place. Surely some information would be floating around.
“What interested me most was the widespread mystery surrounding the war. Surely if Sarnova and Subaire were getting more troops each day, the troops knew what they were fighting for. As it turned out, they didn't, not really. They knew of the break-up of the Dark Council, but that was it. They were just signing on with one of the sides because of the principles involved—they saw fighting for Sarnova as conservatism, keeping the old ways and the old power base alive, and fighting for Subaire as liberalism, fighting against the established power, and under a woman at that. As it happened, Roche was the real liberal and Subaire was the conservative, but that little bit of irony was about all the head-way I made; there was no more information to be gathered, except for the tactics of the armies involved—something I wasn't very interested in. But, just as I was about to recall my men, we heard some major news; Subaire, and a couple of her followers, had been kidnapped.”