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by Kathryn Meyer Griffith
Category: Horror/Dark Fantasy
Description: Behind the lovely façade of a grand old theater?a bloodthirsty vampire family lurks and kills. For years the vampire family lived in the shadows, hidden by the night and people's disbelief; feeding on animals or throw away people who would never be missed. But as the family moves into an old theater, and uses it to cover up their crimes, the youngest of them are restless and determined to live as they like. Reckessly. Killing and feeding when and where they want. Feeding on who they want. Only the oldest vampires have managed to keep them in check. But no longer. Unaware of the nightstalking menace, the townspeople of Summer Haven, Florida, blithely go about their daily lives until, one by one, they begin to disappear. Screams are heard in the night. Fear grows. But the lost are never found?alive. But Jenny Lacey and her father, who are hired to renovate the old Grand Theater, can't escape when they find themselves caught up in the middle of the vampire's war. And, in the end, it's up to Jenny, her brother and her ex-husband to get rid of the bloodthirsty fiends that are destroying their town?if they can. Excerpt: The creature's fur rippled like velvet over iron. There was the crack of bone, a tearing of skin, as it reshaped before his eyes from a wolf into a sylphlike woman with long flowing blond hair, a stone white face, blood red lips, and vicious black eyes that narrowed in triumph. She spread out her hands and slightly bowed her head as if to introduce herself. She was beautiful and yet evil emanated so strongly from her that it tainted that beauty. "Jesus help me," her victim prayed. Then something snatched him high into the air, his feet dangling into nothingness; knocking the wind out of him and smashing his ribs. He glazed up with glassy eyes, his mind leaving. Nothing can help you now. The words echoed in what remained of his mind. You're going to die?
eBook Publisher: Eternal Press/Damnation Books LLC/Damnation Books, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: July 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [345 KB]
Reading time: 205-287 min.
It was too risky to light a campfire, but too cold not to wish for one. Jeff settled for body heat from Ace. The dog had succumbed to a troubled sleep, his chronic nervous barking finally quieting to an occasional twitch or whimper. Jeff moved closer to the animal and embraced him, laying one hand across the dog's sinewy dark neck. At least the boulder gave them some protection from the wind.
Jeff closed his eyes and lay back on the thick grass, listening against the rustling of leaves for the footsteps of anyone who might have followed them. Nothing.
He tried to sleep. An April night in Montana should last long enough for him to catch a few hours and then awaken while it was still dark enough to slip past the sentries and re-enter the camp undetected. They had done it often enough before. The fatigue of so many nights spent hidden in the mountains was catching up with Jeff, but there was not much chance of oversleeping. Ace's anxious barking usually woke them both well before dawn.
Not today. Bright sunlight pierced the morning mists and cast its glare into Jeff's eyes, jarring him awake. He pushed himself up to a sitting position, brushing bits of grass and dirt out of his short brown hair. He would miss morning muster with his platoon for the third time this month. He could try to convince Lieutenant Waleski he had lost track of time while out for an early morning walk with his dog, but that excuse was wearing thin. Jeff turned toward the ungainly animal, preparing to shake him awake.
Ace still slept fitfully, trembling and snorting at the unseen creatures of his dreams. Jeff reached out an arm to push on the dog's shoulder and stopped. The grass he had shaken from his hair was dried and shriveled, as was all the grass around them. Just beyond the immediate patch of brown grass, eager green stems thrust up from the moist dark earth.
Jeff gasped and jumped to his feet.
A slow circle of decay widened around Ace, killing healthy green plants and leaving lifeless brown stalks in its wake. The lichen that covered the boulder was dried and flaky. A nearby bush died from the ground up, its branches withering, cracking, and snapping, its leaves rotting and falling away.
"No! Not again!" Jeff slapped the dog's bony flank to get his attention. "Ace! Wake up!"
Ace shook himself awake and got to his feet, a skinny wide-eyed beast with a silver-streaked snout and thin, tightly muscled legs flecked with crimson and gold against a black background. His whole body trembled in frenzied alertness. White vapor shot from his mouth and nostrils in nervous spurts as his narrowly spaced crimson eyes fixed first on Jeff, then on the trees, the skies, a bird in flight, and back on Jeff. The metal clasp on Ace's leather collar had buckled and oxidized. Dead insects littered the ground beneath him while others crawled out of the dry earth to writhe in agony at his feet. The smell of rotting vegetation crept into the air.
"Ace, look what you're doing! Stop it!"
Ace yipped twice, his black and silver tail thumping the crumbling foliage, and then yipped again. Tiny flames erupted and rippled quickly through the decaying vegetation, sending swirls of hazy gray smoke into the air.
The stench of burning vegetation stung Jeff's nostrils. He stomped on the smoldering fire with the forest-green camouflage boots that were part of his US Army uniform.
"Snuff! Ace! Snuff!"
Ace had the training; he was supposed to understand the command to snuff. All the hermesdogs were taught to extinguish tiny fires toward the end of their first year as a prerequisite to defensive weapons training.
Ace lifted his snout to the sky and let out a long, mournful howl.
"Soldier, you need to get that dog under control, and I mean now!"
Jeff spun around to face a lean, lanky figure with close-cropped blond hair and unwavering blue eyes. Like Jeff, the man wore a camouflage Battle Dress Uniform; unlike Jeff, his BDU was as crisp and clean as if he had just put it on.
"Keith! What are you doing up here?"
"I came looking for you, Thompson. You and Ace the batdog over there." Keith smirked at Ace's name, as he had ever since Jeff told him he had named Ace after Batman's dog in the 1950s comic strip. "I found you too. We found you." Keith bent slightly to stroke his hermesdog, Jewel, who stood calmly at attention beside him, her massive shoulders reaching just above his knees. "I told them we would."
Jeff felt the bottom of his stomach melt away. He tried not to show it. "Who did you tell? Who else knows you're here?"
"Come on, Thompson. You're not fooling anyone with your morning walk routine. Your dog is Salvage equipment waiting to happen. You can't hide his fear barking and hysterical outbursts from the Review Board by sneaking him away from the Camp every night, hoping nobody will see him when he breaks something or blows something up. You really think the guards haven't caught on to your little trick? Just because their dogs are one step away from Salvage too doesn't make them stupid."
"There's nothing wrong with Ace! He's not even a year old yet. He just needs more time..."
Keith spat into the circle of burning grass. "Right. Jewel!"
The big H-dog looked up at her handler, ears pricked and eyes focusing from blue to green. A cool breeze sprang up, swaying the tiny flames in front of her and rippling the green grass behind her.
Keith pointed. "Snuff!"
The hermesdog bounded forward, a muscular eruption of sable and silver, crimson and gold. The slow-burning flames wavered and shrank as she approached; her silvery paws hit golden embers and left cooling debris behind. Scattered gusts of air followed her as she ran, chilling Jeff's face and knocking the remaining leaves off the dead bush. Jewel wagged her tail with delight and spun around for another pass.
"See that, Thompson? That's what a real H-dog looks like."
Ace shied away from Jewel's approach with his tail between his legs. His snout wrinkled defensively and his ears pressed flat back against his narrow skull as he cast furtive glances at Jeff, Keith, and Jewel. Hairs stood up from the back of his neck to the base of his spine. He jumped as a spark popped and hit his flank.
"Good girl, Jewel!" Keith said as the hermesdog returned to his side, her eyes still green with excitement. Wisps of smoke drifted in her path, but the flames were extinguished and her accompanying breeze had died down. Keith reached out to scratch the back of Jewel's broad neck, and she thrust herself under his outstretched hand.
Jeff watched with dismay. It wasn't fair that genetic variation should be so extreme. Ace and Jewel were fourteenth generation H-dogs, distant cousins born only a few months apart. Jewel was more typical of the breed, with her alert confidence and disciplined manifestations, while Ace, with his nervous behavior and unmanageable H-phenomena, was bound to fail the first-year obedience tests. For the Hermes Project dogs, first-year failure meant reclassification from Training to Salvage, and Salvage meant death.
Ace started barking again, pacing back and forth over the burned area and flicking his tail from side to side between his legs.
Keith looked from Jewel to Ace to the expression on Jeff's face. "Genotypic heterogeneity is a bitch, ain't it?"
"Why are you here?" Jeff asked. "Is this part of your Retrievals training? You can't be doing field work already."
Keith shrugged. "I just wanted the practice. You've got a bad case here. Everybody knows it." He pointed at the dead insects at Ace's feet. "Is that what you were trying to hide? Adverse metabolic impact?"
"They're just bugs!"
"You might get away with killing a few plants. Everybody makes mistakes, but you don't mess with animate metabolisms. It's in the rules."
"It's not Ace's fault! He doesn't mean to--"
Keith reached into his shirt pocket.
"You brought the kill pills."
"We're not supposed to call them that," Keith said. "They're euthanasic preservatives."
The capsules were dark brown and smelled like meat so they would be irresistible to the dogs. They were designed to induce heart failure while leaving the central nervous system intact for later inspection. The kill pills were every first year handler's nightmare.
"You're supposed to report if they turn hazardous, Thompson, and have the vet sacrifice them, but don't worry. We're friends. I won't turn you in if you do it yourself."
"He just needs more time. His evaluation isn't for another month."
"If he's impacting metabolisms, he has to die now. You know that." Keith shook one of the capsules into his palm and held it out to Jeff.
Jeff stared at the pill and then at Ace. The dog was sniffing around the large boulder. A beetle pushed itself out of the ground, quivered, and collapsed. Ace lifted a rear leg and sprayed the dead lichen.
"Come on," Keith said. "Take the pill. Some animals don't make it. That's the whole point of a selective breeding program. How else is that nut case Crandall supposed to control the gene pool? You have to do your duty to the Project."
The Project. Jeff was a soldier, and a soldier had responsibilities. He sighed and took the capsule from Keith's hand.
"A wise decision."
"Shut up," Jeff said. "Ace! Here boy! Good dog! I've got a treat for you..."
Ace raised his head and his tail at the same time. His eyes bright yellow, he lunged forward and sniffed at Jeff's outstretched hand. He thrust his tongue at the pill and swallowed, then nuzzled Jeff's hand for more.
Jeff laid his hand over the dog's head. "Good boy," he murmured. The dog's irises grayed as he staggered and fell. Jeff caught him and dropped cross-legged onto the cold ground as Ace closed his eyes. He cradled the dog's head in his arms, speaking softly and stroking his neck and sides until the animal finally shuddered and went limp. A quiet tear streamed down one of Jeff's cheeks.
Keith turned away from them to head back down the mountain, Jewel moving into position a few paces ahead of him. "Try not to be so broken up about it, Thompson," Keith called over his shoulder. "They'll give you another one."