It was mid-December, 1976. Following one of the longest, hottest summers on record, now Nature was trying to even up the score. Already it promised to be a severe winter.
Boris Dragosani and Max Batu were coming to England from a place far colder, however, and in any case climate had no part in their scheme of things. It was not a consideration. If anything the cold suited them: it matched precisely the emotionless iciness of their hearts, the sub-zero nature of their mission. Which was murder, pure and simple.
All through the flight, not too comfortable in the rather stiff, unyielding seats of the Aeroflot jet, Dragosani had sat and thought morbid thoughts: some of them angry and some fearful or at best apprehensive, but all uni­formly morbid. The angry thoughts had concerned Gregor Borowitz, for sending him on this mission in the first place, and the fearful ones were about Thibor Ferenczy, the Thing in the ground.
Now lulled by the jet's subdued but all-pervading engine noise, and by the hiss of its air-conditioning, he sank down a little farther into his seat and again turned over in his mind the details of his last visit to the cruciform hills...
He thought of Thibor's story: of the symbiotic or lamprey-like nature of the true vampire, and he thought of his agony and his panic-flight before merciful oblivion had claimed him half-way down the wooded slope. That was where he had found himself upon regaining con­sciousness in the dawn light: sprawled under the trees at the edge of the overgrown fire-break. And yet again he had cut short a visit to his homeland, returning at once to Moscow and putting himself directly into the hands of the best doctor he could find. It had been a complete waste of time; it appeared he was perfectly healthy.
X-ray photographs disclosed nothing; blood and urine samples were one hundred per cent normal; blood-press­ure, pulse and respiration were exactly what they should be. Was there any condition that Dragosani was aware of? There was not. Had he ever suffered from migraine or asthma? No. Then perhaps it had been the altitude. Had his sinuses been causing him any concern? No. Had he perhaps been overworking himself? Hardly that! Did he himself have any idea as to the source of the trouble? No.
Yes, but it didn't bear thinking about and couldn't be mentioned under any circumstances.
The doctor had given him a pain-killing prescription, against the possibility of a recurrence, and that had been that. Dragosani should have been satisfied but was not. Far from it ...
He had attempted to contact Thibor at long range. Perhaps the old devil knew the answer; even a lie might contain some sort of clue; but - nothing. If Thibor could hear him, he wasn't answering.
He had gone over for the hundredth time the events leading up to his terrible pain, his flight, his collapse. Something had splashed on his neck from above. Rain? No: it had been a fine night, bone dry. A leaf, a piece of bark? No, for it had felt wet. Some filthy bird's dropping, then? No, for his hand had come away clean.
Something had landed on the top of his spine, and moments later both spine and brain had been gripped
and squeezed! By something unknown. But... what? Dragosani believed he knew, and still hardly dared to give it conscious thought. Certainly it had invaded his sleep, bringing him endless nights filled with bad dreams - recurrent nightmares he could never remember in his waking moments, but which he knew were terrible when he dreamed them.
The whole thing had become a sort of obsession with him and there were times when he thought of little else. It had to do not only with what had happened, but also with what the vampire had been telling him when it happened. And it also had to do with certain changes he'd noticed in himself since it happened ...
Physiological changes, inexplicable changes. Or if there was an explanation, still Dragosani was not yet ready to face up to it.
'Dragosani, my boy,' Borowitz had told him not a week ago, 'you're getting old before your time! Am I working you too hard or something? Maybe I'm not working you hard enough! Yes, that's probably it: not enough to keep you occupied. When did you last bloody your oh so delicate fingers, eh? A month ago, wasn't it? That French double-agent? But look at you, man! Your hair's receding - your gums, too, by their look! And with that pallid complexion of yours and your sunken cheeks, why, you could almost be anaemic! Maybe this jaunt to England will do you good...'
Borowitz had been trying to get a rise out of him, Dragosani knew, but for once he had not dared rise to the bait. That would only serve to draw more attention to himself, which was the last thing he wanted. No, for in fact Borowitz was more nearly correct than he could possibly guess.
His hair did seem to be receding, true, but it was not. A small birthmark on Dragosani's scalp, close to the hairline, told him that much. Its position relative to his hair had not changed in ten years at least; ergo, his hair was not receding. The change was in the skull itself, which if anything seemed to have lengthened at the rear. The same was true of his gums: they were not receding, as Borowitz had suggested, but his teeth were growing longer! Particularly the incisors, top and bottom.
As for anaemia: that was purely ridiculous. Pale he might be but not weak; indeed he felt stronger, more vital in himself, than ever before in his life. Physically, anyway. His pallor probably resulted from a fast-develop­ing photophobia, for now he literally shunned the daylight and would not go out even in dim light without wearing dark glasses.
Physically fit, yes - but his dreams, his nameless fears and obsessions - his neuroses...
Quite simply, he was neurotic!
It shocked Dragosani to have to admit it, even though he only admitted it to himself.
One thing at least was certain: no matter the outcome of this British mission, when it was finished Dragosani intended to return to Romania at his earliest opportunity. There were matters, questions, which must be resolved. And the sooner the better. Thibor Ferenczy had had things his own way for far too long.
Beside Dragosani in the cramped three-abreast seats, but with a dividing arm up to accommodate his girth, Max Batu chuckled. 'Comrade Dragosani,' the squat little Mongol whispered, 'I am supposed to be the one with the evil eye. Had you perhaps forgotten our roles?'
'What's that?' said Dragosani, starting up in his seat as Batu commenced speaking. He glared at his grinning companion. 'What do you mean?'
'I don't know what you were thinking about just then,
my friend, but I'm certain it bodes no good for someone,' Batu explained. 'The look on your face was very fierce!'
'Oh!' said Dragosani, relaxing a little. 'Well, my thoughts are my own, Max, and none of your business.'
'You are a cold one, Comrade,' said Batu. 'Both of us are cold ones, I suppose, but even I can feel your chill. It seeps right into me as I sit here.' The grin slowly faded from his face. 'Have I perhaps offended you?'
'Only with your chatter,' Dragosani grunted.
'That's as may be,' the other shrugged, 'but "chatter" we must. You were supposed to brief me, tie up those loose ends which Gregor Borowitz left dangling. It would be a good idea if you did it now. We are alone here -even the KGB have not yet bugged Aeroflot! Also, we have only one hour before we arrive in London. In the embassy such a conversation might prove difficult.'
'I suppose you're right,' said Dragosani grudgingly. 'Very well, then, let me put the pieces together for you. It is perhaps preferable that you're fully in the picture.
'Borowitz first conceived of E-Branch about twenty-five years ago. At that time a large Russian group of so-called "fringe-scientists" were starting to take a real interest in parapsychology, still largely frowned upon in the USSR. Borowitz was interested - had always been interested in ESP - despite his very much down-to-earth military background and otherwise mundane persuasions. Strangely talented people had always fascinated and attracted him: in fact he was himself a "spotter" but hadn't realised it. When finally he did realise that he had this peculiar talent, he at once applied for a position as head of our ESPionage school. It was initially a school, you see, with no real application in the field. The KGB weren't interested: all brawn and bullet-proof vests, ESP was far too esoteric for them.
'Anyway, since his Army service was coming to a close,
and because he had good connections - not to mention his own not inconsiderable talent - he got the job.
'A few years later he found another spotter, but in very peculiar circumstances. It came about like this:
'A female telepath, one of the few girls on Borowitz's team, whose talent was just beginning to blossom, was brutally murdered. Her boyfriend, a man called Viktor Shukshin, was charged with the crime. His defence was t hat he'd believed the girl was possessed of devils. He could sense them in her. Of course, Borowitz was very
much interested. He tested Shukshin and discovered that he was a spotter. More than that, the ESP-aura of psychically endowed persons actually disturbed Shukshin, unbalanced him and drove him to homicidal acts �C usually directed at the ESPer him or herself. On the one hand Shukshin was drawn to ESPers, and on the other he was
driven to destroy them.
'Borowitz saved Shukshin from the salt mines �C in much the same way he saved you, Max - and took him under his wing. He thought he might exorcise the man's homicidal tendencies but at the same time save his talent for spotting. In Shukshin's case, however, brain-washing didn't work. If anything it only served to aggravate the problem. But Gregor Borowitz hates waste. He looked for a way to use Shukshin's aggression.
'At that time the Americans were also greatly interested in ESP as a weapon; more recently they've taken it up again, though not nearly to the extent that we have. In
England, however, a rudimentary ESP-squad already existed, and the British were rather more inclined towards the serious study and exploitation of the paranormal. So
Shukshin was put through a long term of spy-school in Moscow and finally released upon the British. His cover was that of a "defector".'
'He wassent over tokillBritishESPers?'Batu whispered.
'That was the idea. To find them, to report on their activities, and, when the psychic stress became too great for him, to kill them if and when he had to. But after he'd been in England only a few months, then Viktor Shukshin really did defect!'
'To the British?'
'No, to the country of the British - to their political system - to safety! Shukshin didn't give a damn for Mother Russia anyway, and now he had a new country, almost a new identity. He wasn't going to make the same mistake twice, do you see? In Russia he'd come close to life imprisonment for murder. Should he do the same thing in England? He could make a decent living there, a fresh start. He was a linguist, top-flight qualifications in Russian, German, English, and more than a smattering of half-a-dozen other languages. No, he didn't defect to anyone, he defected from the USSR. He ran, escaped -to freedom!'
'You sound almost as if you approve of the British system,' the Mongolian grinned.
'Don't worry about my loyalties, Max,' Dragosani grated. 'You won't find a man more loyal than I am.' To Romania! To Wallachia!
'Well, that's good to know,' the other nodded. 'It would be nice if I could say the same. But I'm a Mongol and my loyalties are different. Actually, I'm only loyal to Max Batu.'
"Then you probably resemble Shukshin a great deal. I imagine that's how he felt. Anyway, gradually over the months his reporting fell off, and finally he dropped out of sight. It put Borowitz on the spot but there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Since Shukshin was a "defector" he'd been granted political asylum; Borowitz couldn't very well ask for him back! All he could do was keep tabs on him, see what he was up to.'
'He feared he'd join the British ESPers, eh?'
'Not really, no. Shukshin was psychotic, remember? Anyway, Borowitz wasn't taking any chances, and eventu­ally he tracked him down. Shukshin's plan was simple: he'd got himself a job in Edinburgh, bought a tiny fisherman's cottage in a place called Dunbar, made official application for British citizenship. He kept himself to himself and settled down to leading a normal life. Or at least he tried to...'
'It didn't work out?' Batu was interested.
'For a while. But then he married a girl of old Russian stock. She was a psychic medium - the real thing - and naturally her talent was like a magnet to him. Perhaps he tried to resist her, but to no avail. He married her, and he killed her. At least that's how Gregor Borowitz sees it. After that - nothing.'
'He got away with it?'
The verdict was accidental death. Drowning. Borowitz knows more about it than I do. Anyway, it's incidental. But Shukshin inherited his wife's money and house. He lives there still...'
'And now we are on our way to kill him...' Batu mused. 'Can you tell me why?'
Dragosani nodded. 'If he had simply continued to keep a low profile and stay out of our hair, that would have been okay.Oh, Borowitz would catch up with him eventually, but not immediately. But Shukshin's fortunes have changed, Max. He's short of cash, generally down at heel. It's been the downfall of many another before him. So now, after all these years, finally he's turned blackmailer. He threatens Borowitz, E-Branch, the entire
'One man poses so great a threat?' Batu raised his eyebrows.
Again Dragosani's nod. 'The British equivalent of our branch is now an effective force. How effective we're not sure, but they may even be better than we are. We know very little about them, which in itself is a bad sign. It could well be that they are clever enough to cover themselves entirely, give themselves one hundred per cent ESP security. And if they're that clever -'
'Then how much do they know about us, eh?'
'That's right,' Dragosani looked at his companion with a little more respect. 'They might even know that we two are aboard this plane right now, and our mission! God forbid!'
Batu smiled his moonish, ivory smile. 'I don't believe in any god,' he said. 'Only in the devil. So the Comrade General fears that if Shukshin isn't silenced he might after all talk to the British?'
'That's what Shukshin has threatened him with, yes. He wants money or he'll tell British E-Branch all he knows. Mind you, that won't amount to much after all this time, but even a little knowledge about our E-Branch is far too much for Gregor Borowitz's liking!'
Max Batu was thoughtful for a moment. 'But if Shukshin did talk, surely he would be giving himself away, too? Wouldn't he be admitting that he came to England in the first place as an ESP-agent of the USSR?'
Dragosani shook his head. 'He doesn't have to give himself away. A letter is perfectly anonymous, Max. Even a telephone call. And even though twenty years have gone by, still there are things he knows which Borowitz wants kept secret. Two things in particular, which might prove valuable beyond measure to the British ESPers. One: the location of the Chateau Bronnitsy. Two: the fact that Comrade General Gregor Borowitz
himself is head of Russian ESPionage. That is the threat which Shukshin poses, and that is why he'll die.' 'And yet his death is not our prime objective.' Dragosani was silent for a moment, then said: 'No, our prime objective is the death of someone else, someone far more important. He is Sir Keenan Gormley, head of their ESPers. His death... and his knowledge - all of it - that is our prime objective. Borowitz wants both of them dead and stripped of their secrets. You will kill Gormley - in your own special way - and I shall examine him in mine. Before that we shall already have killed Viktor Shukshin, who also shall have been examined. Actually, he should not present too much of a problem: his place is lonely, out of the way. We'll do it there.'
'And you can really empty them of secrets? After they are dead, I mean?' Batu seemed to have doubts.
'Yes, I really can. More surely than any torturer could when they were alive. I shall steal their innermost thoughts right out of their blood, their marrow, their cold and lonely bones.'
A dumpy stewardess appeared at the cabin end of the central aisle. 'Fasten your seatbelts,' she intoned like a robot; and the passengers, equally robotic, complied.
'What are your limitations?' Batu asked. 'Strictly out of morbid curiosity, of course.''Limitations? How do you mean?''What if a man has been dead for a week, for example?' Dragosani shrugged. 'It makes no difference.'
'What if he has been dead for a hundred years?'
'A dried-up mummy, you mean? Borowitz wondered the same thing. We experimented. It was all the same to me. The dead cannot keep their secrets from a necromancer.' 'But a corpse, rotting,' Batu pressed. 'Say someone dead for a month or two. That must be quite awful...'
'It is,' said the other. 'But I'm used to it. The mess doesn't bother me so much as the risk. The dead teem with disease, you know. I have to be very careful. It's not a healthy business.'
'Ugh!' said Batu, and Dragosani actually saw him give a small shudder.
London's lights were gleaming in the dark distance on the curve of night's horizon. The city was a hazy glow beyond the small, circular windows. 'And you?' said Dragosani. 'Does your talent have its "limitations", Max?'
The Mongol gave a shrug. 'It, too, has its dangers. It requires much energy; it saps my strength; it is debilitat­ing. And as you know, it is only effective against the weak and infirm. There is supposed to be one other small handicap, too, but that is a matter of legend and I do not intend to put it to the test.'
'Yes. There is a story told in my country of a man with the evil eye. It's an old story, going back a thousand years. This man was very evil and used his power to terrorise the land. He would ride with his bandits into villages and rape and plunder, then ride out again unscathed. And no one dared hold up a hand against him. But in one village there lived an old man who said he knew how to deal with him. When the robber band was seen riding that way, the villagers took all their corpses and gave them spears and propped them on the walls. The robbers came and in the dusk their leader saw that the village was protected. He cast his evil eye upon the watchers at the walls. But of course, the dead cannot die twice. The spell rebounded and struck him down. He was shrivelled up no larger than a roasted piglet!'
Dragosani liked the story. 'And the moral?' he asked.
Batu grunted and shrugged again. 'Doesn't it speak for
itself? One must never curse the dead, I suppose, for they have nothing to lose. In any argument, they must always win in the end...'
Dragosani thought of Thibor Ferenczy. And what of the undead? he wondered. Do they, too, always win? If so, then it's about time someone changed the rules ...
They were met and whisked through Customs by 'a man from the embassy', their baggage delivered as if by magic to a black Mercedes bearing diplomatic plates. As well as their cold-eyed escort there was also a silent, uniformed driver. On their way to the embassy their escort sat in the front passenger's seat, his body half-turned towards them, his arm draped casually along the back of the driver's seat. He made small-talk in a frigid, mechanical fashion, trying to assume an air of friendly interest. He didn't fool Dragosani for a minute.
'Your first time in London, Comrades? You'll find it an interesting city, I'm sure. Decadent, of course, and full of fools, but interesting for all that. I, er, didn't have time to check on your business here. How long do you plan to stay?'
'Until we go back,' said Dragosani.
'Ah!' the other smiled thinly, patiently. 'Very good! You must excuse me, Comrade, but for some of us curiosity is - shall we say - a way of life? You understand?'
Dragosani nodded. 'Yes, I understand. You're KGB.'
The man's thin face went icy in a moment. 'We don't use that term much outside the embassy.'
'What term do you use?' smiled Max Batu, his voice a deceptive whisper. 'Shitheads?'
'What?' the escort's face slowly turned white.
'My friend and I are here on business which is no concern of you or yours,' said Dragosani in a level tone.
'We have the very highest authority. Let me make that clear: the Very Highest Authority. Any interference will be very bad for you. If we need your help we will ask for it. Apart from that you'll leave us alone and not bother us.'
The escort pursed his lips, drew one long, slow breath. 'People don't usually talk to me like that', he said, his words very precise.
'Of course if you persist in obstructing us,' Dragosani continued, without changing his tone of voice, 'I can always break your arm. That should keep you out of the way for two or three weeks at least.'
The other gasped. 'You threaten me?'
'No, I make you a promise.' But Dragosani knew he wasn't getting anywhere. This was a typical KGB automaton. The necromancer sighed, said: 'Look, if you have been tasked to us I'm sorry for you. Your job is impossible. Moreover it's dangerous. This much I'll tell you, and this much only. We're here to test a secret weapon. Now, ask no more questions.'
'A secret weapon?' said the other, his eyes widening. 'Ah!' He looked from Dragosani to Batu and back again. 'What weapon?'
Dragosani smiled grimly. Well, he had warned the fool. 'Max,' he said, carefully turning his face away. 'A small demonstration, perhaps...?'
Shortly after that they arrived at the embassy. In the grounds of the place Dragosani and Batu stepped down from the car and took their luggage from the boot. They looked after their own cases.
The driver attended to their escort. The last they saw of him was as he staggered away, leaning on the driver's arm. He looked back at them only once - stared round-eyed and fearfully at Max Batu - before stumblingly disappearing inside the gloomily imposing building. And that was the last they saw of him. After that no one bothered them again.
The second Wednesday after New Year, 1977. Viktor Shukshin had known this feeling of encroaching doom for well over a fortnight now, a leaden psychic depression which had lifted only marginally upon the arrival of Gregor Borowitz's fourth monthly registered letter con­taining one thousand pounds in large denomination notes. In fact it worried Shukshin that Borowitz had surrendered so readily, that he had made no counter threats of his own.
Today had been especially bad: the skies were overcast and heavy with snow; the river was frozen over with thick grey ice; the big house was cold and seemed invaded by icy draughts that followed Shukshin everywhere. And for the first time in as long as he could remember - or at least the first time that he had noticed it - there was a strange and ominous quiet about everything, so that sounds seemed muffled as if by deep snow, though little had fallen as yet. The ticking of an old grandfather clock sounded heavy, dull - even the warped floorboards seemed to creak a little less volubly - and all in all it had put Shukshin's nerves in a very bad way. It was as if the house held its breath and waited for something.
That 'something' came at 2:30 p.m., just as Shukshin poured himself a glass of iced vodka and sat down in his study before an electric fire, looking gloomily out through neglected, fly-specked windows on a garden frozen into white crystal. It came with the nerve-jangling clamour of his telephone.
Heart hammering, he put down the drink he'd almost spilled, snatched up the handset and said, 'Shukshin.'
'Stepfather?' Harry Keogh's voice seemed very close.
'It's Harry here. I'm in Edinburgh staying with friends. How've you been keeping?'
Shukshin choked back the anger which came on the instant, boiling to the surface. So that was it: this damned spawn of an ESPer was here, close at hand, sending out his psychic aura to crush Shukshin's sensitive spirits! He bared his teeth, glared at the telephone in his hand, fought down the urge to curse and rage. 'Harry? Is that you? In Edinburgh, you say? How thoughtful of you to call me.' You bastard! Your mutant aura is hurting me!
'But you sound so well!' the other sounded surprised. 'When I saw you last you seemed so -'
'Yes, I know.' Shukshin tried not to snarl. 'I hadn't been too well, Harry, but I'm fine now. Was there something you wanted?' / could eat your heart, you unnatural little swine!
'Why, yes. I wondered if perhaps I might come to see you. Maybe we could talk a little about my mother. Also, I've got my skates with me. If the river's frozen I could do some skating. I'm only up here for a few days more, you see, and I -'
'No!' Shukshin snapped, and at once checked himself. Why not get it over with? Why not get this shadow from the past out of the way once and for always? Whatever it was that Keogh knew or suspected - however he had come by Shukshin's ring, which the Russian had believed lost in the river, and whatever the psychic link between this youth and his mother, which apparently bound them still - why not bring it to an end right here and now? Common-sense stood no chance against the bloodlust which surged in Shukshin now.
'I meant only - Harry, my nerves still aren't up to much, I'm afraid. Living here all alone - you know, I'm not used to company. Of course I'd like to see you, and
the river is perfect just now for skating, but I really couldn't do with a houseful of young people, Harry.'
'Oh, no, Stepfather, I didn't intend bringing anyone with me. I wouldn't think of imposing on you to that extent. Why, my friends don't even know I have a relative up here! No, chiefly I'd just like to visit the house again and go on the river. I'd like to skate where my mother used to skate, that's all.'
That again! The bastard did know something - or at least suspected something - definitely! So he wanted to skate, did he? On the river, where his mother skated. Shukshin's face twisted into a leer. 'Well in that case... when can I expect you?'
'In about, oh, two hours?' came Harry's answer.
'Very well,' said Shukshin. 'About 4:30 to 5:00 p.m., then. I shall look forward to it, Harry.'
And he put the phone down before an utterly animal growl of hatred could burst from his writhing mouth and betray his true feelings: Oh, how I shall look-forward -to - it!
Harry Keogh wasn't nearly so far away as Edinburgh. In fact he was in the foyer of the hotel where he'd been staying the past few nights in Bonnyrigg itself. After speaking to Shukshin on the phone he shrugged into his overcoat and went out to his car, a battered old Morris he'd bought on the cheap especially for this trip. He had passed his driving test the first time around - or at least an ex-driving instructor in the cemetery in Seaton Carew had passed it for him.
Now he drove on icy roads to the top of a hill some quarter of a mile from the old house and overlooking it, where he parked and got out of the car. There was no one about; the scene was bleak and bitter; shivering, Harry carried binoculars to a stand of trees rising starkly naked against the sky. From behind the bole of one of them, he trained the glasses on the house and waited -for no more than a minute or two.
Shukshin came out through the study's patio doors and hurried through his courtyard garden, finally emerging from a door in the wall facing the river. In his hand he carried a pickaxe...
Harry drew breath sharply, let it out slowly to plume in the frosty air. Shukshin scrambled through brittle shrubb­ery and brambles down to the river's rim. He let himself down carefully on to the ice, tested it, sprang up and down at its very edge. Then he turned and looked all about. The place was quite deserted.
He walked to the centre of the grey-shining expanse of ice and bounded again, and once more seemed satisfied. And now Harry's eyes were riveted to the scene, that monochrome tableau which he almost felt he'd watched before, and the act which he was absolutely certain Shukshin had performed before.
For the figure trapped and enlarged in the lenses of his binoculars now crouched down, took his pickaxe and swung it in a wide circle, scoring a boundary, a demarcation, in the crusty surface of the ice. And all around that etched circle he strode, hacking periodically with all the strength and passion of a madman, until spouts of water jetted up each time the point of the pick struck home; so that in a matter of minutes a great disc of ice nine or ten feet across floated free in a pool of its own. Then the final touch:
Once more pausing to peer all about, finally Shukshin walked the perimeter of the circle, using his feet to brush icy debris from his assault back into the gap. The water would freeze over again, of course, but it would not be safe for hours yet, certainly not before tomorrow morning. Shukshin had set his trap - but he didn't know that the intended victim had watched him do it!
Harry could scarce control his shivering now, the trem­bling in all his limbs which had little or nothing to do with the actual temperature. No, it had more to do with the mental condition of that hunched figure down there on the ice. The binoculars were not powerful enough to bring the figure really close, but still Harry was sure that he'd seen its face working hideously through all the hacking. The face of a lunatic, who for some reason lusted after Harry's life as once he had lusted after - and taken - his mother's.
Harry wanted to know why, would not rest until he had the answer. And there was only one way to get it.
Feeling physically and mentally weary, and yet knowing that his work wasn't over yet, Viktor Shukshin returned to the house. Inside the walled courtyard, he dragged his pickaxe behind him across frosted flags, letting its haft fall clattering from his fingers before he stepped through the open patio doors and into his study. Head down and arms dangling at his sides, he took two more paces into the room - and froze!
What? Was Keogh here already? The entire house felt filled with strange forces. It reeked of ESP-aura, its very atmosphere seeming to vibrate with alien energies.
Instantly inflamed, now Shukshin sensed movement: the patio doors clicking shut behind him! He whirled, saw, and his jaw fell open. 'Who...? What...' he choked.
Two men faced him, stood there in his own study where they had waited for him, and one of them held a gun pointed straight at Shukshin's heart. He recognised the weapon as Russian service issue, recognised the coldly emotionless looks of the two men, and felt Doom closing its fist on him. But in a way it was not entirely unexpected.
He had thought there might be some sort of visit one day. But that it should be now, of all ill-omened moments.
'Sit down - Comrade,' said the tall one, his voice harsh as a file on Shukshin's ragged nerves.
Max Batu pushed a chair forward and Shukshin very nearly collapsed into it. Batu moved to stand behind him where he sat facing Dragosani. The ESP-aura washed all about Shukshin now, as if his mind swam in bile. Oh, yes, they were from the Chateau Bronnitsy, these two!
The blackmailer's face was ravaged, eyes sunken deep in black sockets. Looking over his head at Dragosani, finally Batu's round face cracked into a grin. 'Comrade Dragosani,' he said, 'I had always thought you looked ill - until now!'
'ESPers!' Shukshin spat the word out. 'Borowitz's men! What do you want of me?'
'He has every reason to look ill, Max,' Dragosani's voice was deep as a pit. 'A traitor, a blackmailer, probably a murderer...'
Shukshin looked as if he might spring to his feet. Batu placed heavy, stubby hands on his shoulders. 'I asked,' Shukshin grated, 'what you want of me?'
'Your life,' said Dragosani. He took a silencer from his pocket, screwed it tightly to the muzzle of his weapon, stepped forward and placed it against Shukshin's fore head. 'Only your life.'
Shukshin felt Max Batu step carefully to one side behind him. And he knew they were going to kill him.
'Wait!' he croaked. 'You're making a mistake. Borowitz won't thank you for it. I know a lot - about the British side. I've been giving it to Borowitz bit by bit. But there's a lot he doesn't know yet. Also, I'm still working for you
- in my way. Why, I'm on a job now! Yes, right now.'
'What job?' said Dragosani. It had not been his intention to shoot Shukshin, merely to frighten him. Max's getting out of the line of fire had only been a natural reaction. Shooting was messy and made for bad necromancy. The way Dragosani had planned Shukshin's deathwas much more interesting:
When he had obtained all he could get this way, by simple questioning, then they would take Shukshin to the bathroom and bind him. They would put him in a bath half full of cold water and Dragosani would use one of his surgical sickles to slit his wrists. As he lay there in water rapidly turning red as his life leaked out, then Dragosani would re-question him. The promise would be that if Shukshin told all, his wounds would be bound and he'd be released. Dragosani would show him bandages, surgical tape. But of course, Shukshin would only have so much time to respond. All the time the water was darkening with his blood, until he lay in a cold, crimson soup. It would have been a warning, a promise that ifShukshin continued to give them trouble, then Dragosani and Batu - or others like them - would be back to finish the job. That is what they would tell Shukshin, but of course the job would be finished right there and then.
Even so, still Shukshin might hold something back. Something, perhaps, which he did not consider important, something forgotten - maybe something too damning to tell. Maybe, for instance, he was already working for the British...
But whatever he said it would make no difference. When he was dead they would flush his drained corpse with fresh water, take him out of the bath, and then ...then Dragosani would continue to question.
Now Dragosani took the gun away from Shukshin's forehead, sat down facing him. 'I'm waiting,' he said. 'What job?'
Shukshin gulped, tried to force his fear of these men -and his hatred of their weird ESP talents - to the back of his mind. It was there, it wouldn't go away, but for now he must try to ignore it. His life hung by a thread and he knew it. He must get his thoughts in order, lie as he'd never lied before. Some of it would be the truth anyway, and of that much at least he could speak with absolute conviction:
'You know I'm a spotter?'
'Of course, it's why Borowitz sent you here: to find them and kill them. You haven't been too successful, apparently.' Dragosani's sarcasm was acid.
Shukshin ignored that, too. 'When I came in here a moment ago - the moment I stepped into this room - I knew you were here. I could almost taste your presence. You're powerful ESPers, both of you. Especially you,' he glared at Dragosani. 'There's a terrific, a monstrous talent in you. It... it hurts me!'
'Yes, Borowitz told me that,' Dragosani answered dryly. 'But we know about spotters, Shukshin, so stop stalling and get on with it.'
'I wasn't stalling. I was trying to explain about the man I'm going to kill - today!'
Dragosani and Batu exchanged glances. Batu looked down on the top of Shukshin's head and said: 'You were going to kill a British ESPer? Why? And who is he?'
'It was my way of getting back into Borowitz's good books,' Shukshin lied. 'The man's name is Harry Keogh. He is my stepson. He got his talent - whatever it is -from his mother. Sixteen years ago I killed her, too...' Shukshin continued to glare at Dragosani. 'She fascinated me - and she infuriated me! Is she the one you meant when you said I was "probably" a murderer? No "probably" about it. Oh, I killed her all right. Like all ESPers, she hurt me. Her talent drove me mad!'
'Never mind her,' snapped Dragosani. 'What about this Keogh?'
That's what I was trying to tell you. With you two, powerful as you are, still I had to actually enter the house to know you were here. But with Harry Keogh -'
Shukshin shook his head. 'He's different. His talent is...vast! I know it is. You see, the bigger it is, the more it hurts. So I'm not only killing him for Borowitz but also for myself.'
Dragosani was interested. He could always finish this thing with Shukshin later; but if Harry Keogh was that powerful, he would like to know more about him. And in any case, if he was a member of the British E-Branch it would be like killing two birds with one stone. As his interest expanded he forgot to ask Shukshin the important question: was Keogh a member of the British E-Branch? And that was something the other wasn't going to volunteer.
'I think we might be able to accommodate you,' Drago­sani finally said. 'It's always good when you can reach an understanding with old friends.' He put away his gun. 'When, exactly, were you going to kill this man, and how?'
And Shukshin told him.
After Shukshin had gone back to the house, Harry returned to his car and drove it to the foot of the hill in the direction of Bonnyrigg. Down there he parked again, off the road, then made his way on foot across a field to the river. Frozen over, the area was unfamiliar and made more so by the first feathers of snow where they drifted down from the leaden skies. Everything began to take on the soft, misty aspect of a winter painting.
Harry began to make his way upriver. His mother's resting place was up there somewhere, he couldn't say where exactly. That was one of the reasons he'd come
again to this place: to make sure he knew exactly where she was, that he could find her under any and all circumstances. Walking on the frozen water, he reached out his mind:
'Ma, can you hear me?'
She was there immediately. 'Harry, is that you? So close!' And at once her apprehension, her agony of fear for him: 'Harry! Is it ... now?'
'It's now, Ma. But don't give me any more problems than I have already. I need your help, not arguments. I don't need anything to trouble my mind.'
'Oh, Harry, Harry! What can I say to you? How am I supposed to stop worrying about you? I'm your mother...'
'Then help me. Don't say anything, just be still. I want to see if I can find you, blind.'
'Blind? I don't - '
She was silent, but her worry gnawed at him, in his head, like the pacing of a troubled loved one in a small room. He kept walking, closed his eyes and went to her. A hundred yards, maybe a little more, and he knew he was there. He stopped walking, opened his eyes. He stood in the curve of the overhanging bank, on the thick white ice which formed his mother's headstone. Her marker, and his marker, too. Now he knew he could always find her.
'I'm here, Ma.' He crouched down on the ice, scuffed away a thin layer of snow, looked at the heavy jack-handle in his gloved hand. That was the second reason he had come.
As he began to batter at the ice, she said: 'I see it all now, Harry. You've been lying to me, deceiving me,' she reproached him. 'You think there will be problems after all.'
'No I don't, Ma. I'm much stronger now, in many ? ways. But if there is a problem... well, I'd be a fool not to cover all the possibilities.'
Here, close to the bank, the ice was a little thicker. Harry began to perspire, but soon he'd made a hole almost three feet across. He cleared as much as he could of the broken ice fragments from the hole and straightened up. Down there, the water swirled blackly. And under the water, under the cold silt and mud...
All done, now Harry must go, and quickly. No good to let his sweat grow cold on him. Also, it was beginning to snow a little heavier. It began to get dark as the early winter dusk came with the snow. He had time now for a brandy at the hotel, and then, then it would be time for his showdown with Viktor Shukshin.
'Harry,' his mother called after him one last time as he hurried back across the field to his car. 'Harry, I love you! Good luck, son...'
One hour later Dragosani and Batu stood behind a clump of young conifers on the river bank twenty-five or thirty yards upstream of Shukshin's house. They had been there for a little less than half an hour but already were beginning to feel the cold biting through their clothing. Batu had commenced a rhythmic swinging of his arms across his chest and Dragosani had just lit a cigarette when at last the yellow light above the door to Shukshin's courtyard snapped into life - his signal to them that the scene was now set for murder - and two figures came out into the evening.
In real time it was not yet night, but the winter darkness was almost that of night and but for the stars and a rising moon, visibility would be poor. The clouds, so dense only an hour ago, had now drifted away and no more snow had fallen; but to the east the sky was black with a heavy burden and what little wind there was came front that direction. It would yet snow tonight, and heavily. But for the moment the stars lit the scene with their cold, soft light and the rising moon made a silver ribbon of the winding river of ice.
As the figures from the house picked their way down to the river Dragosani took a last drag on his cigarette behind cupped hands, threw it down and ground it out beneath his heel; Batu stopped swinging his arms; they both stood like stone and watched the play unfold.
At the river's rim the two figures shrugged out of their overcoats and placed them on the bank, then adopted kneeling positions as they put on their skates. There was a little conversation, but it was low and the wind was in the wrong direction. Only snatches of talk drifted back to the hidden watchers. Shukshin's voice, dark and very deep, sounded openly aggressive to Dragosani and wolfish - like the growling of a great dog - and he wondered why Keogh didn't take fright or at least show something of suspicion; but no, the younger man's voice was flat and even, almost carefree, as the two glided out on to the ice and began to skate.
At first they went to and fro, almost side by side, but then the slighter figure took the lead. And moving with some skill he rapidly picked up speed to come skimming upriver towards the spot where the watchers were hiding. Dragosani and Batu crouched down a little then, but at the last moment before he drew level with them Keogh turned in a wide loop which took in the entire breadth of the river and headed back the other way.
Behind him, Shukshin had almost slowed to a halt as Keogh made his run. The older man was far less certain on the ice, seemed awkward and even clumsy by comparison; but as Keogh sped back towards him he now turned to skate in the same direction, but in such a way as to impede the faster man. Keogh leaned over in a slalom at such an angle that his skates threw up a sheet of snow and ice as he missed the other by inches, then threw himself over the other way at a similar angle to bring himself back on course. And a scant twelve inches away, his skates carved ice on the very rim of the sabotaged circle where fresh-formed ice barely held the central disc in place.
And Shukshin was so close on his heels that he, too, must swerve wildly, his arms windmilling, to avoid his own trap! 'Careful, Stepfather!' Keogh called back over his shoulder as he sped away. 'I almost collided with you then.'
Dragosani and Batu heard. Batu said: 'A fortunate young man, this one - so far.'
'Oh?' Dragosani wasn't so sure fortune had anything to do with it. Shukshin had been unable to specify Keogh's talent: what if he was a telepath? He would have the power to pluck his stepfather's treacherous thoughts right out of his head. 'Myself, I think our blackmailer will find this more difficult than he thought.'
Shukshin had come to a halt now, standing still on the ice in a peculiar hunched stance and watching Keogh intently where he continued to skate. The Russian's shoulders and chest rose and fell spasmodically and his body visibly shook, as if he were in pain or suffering from great emotional stress. 'This way, Harry,' he called harshly. 'This way! You're too good for me, I'm afraid. Why, you could skate circles around me!'
Keogh came back, circled the other's hunched figure, and again. And with each sweep his skates went inches closer to disaster. Shukshin held out his arms and Keogh took his hands, spinning round the older man and turning him on his own axis.
'And now,' Max Batu whispered to Dragosani where they looked on, 'The coup de grace!'
Suddenly Shukshin stopped turning and appeared to stumble into Keogh. Keogh twisted his body to avoid him. Their hands were still locked. One of Keogh's skates dug in where it cut through a skim of powdery snow and into the groove of the channel hacked by Shukshin. He was jerked to a halt and only Shukshin's grip on his wrists kept him from falling on to the infirm disc of ice.
Shukshin laughed then, a crazed, baying laugh, and thrust Keogh away from him - thrust him towards death!
But Keogh held tight to the sleeves of Shukshin's coat and as he was pushed so he pulled. Caught off balance Shukshin jerked forward; Keogh bent to one side and threw him over his hip - but when he released Shukshin, still the Russian held fast to him! With a cry of outrage the older man fell inside his own circle, dragging Keogh after him.
Both of them crashed down in a tangle on ice which at once shifted beneath them. The circle made cracking sounds at its rim, like small gunshots; water spouted up in black jets as the disc tilted and broke in two halves; Shukshin gave a cry of horror - a strange, mad cry like a wounded beast - as the semicircle of ice supporting him and Keogh stood on end and tipped them into the freezing, gurgling water.
'Quick, Max!' Dragosani snapped. 'We can't afford to lose both of them.' He charged from behind the cover of the conifers with Batu close on his heels.
'Who would you prefer to save?' the Mongol rasped as they jumped down onto the ice.
'Keogh,' he answered at once, 'if it's possible. He'll know more about the British organisation than Shukshin. And he has this talent of his - whatever it is.'
Even as he spoke those words a fantastic idea had come to Dragosani, one he had never even considered before. If he could 'learn' necromancy from an undead
Thing and with it steal the thoughts and secrets of the dead, mightn't he also steal their talents? At the Chateau Bronnitsy the agents were all allies, working on the same side, towards the same end. But here in England the ESPers were enemies! Why not steal Keogh's as yet unknown talent itself - and use it to his own ends?
From the hole in the river where cakes of ice churned in dark, frenzied water, a great grunting and gasping sounded as Batu and Dragosani drew closer; but as they more cautiously approached the rim itself all sounds ceased and they were greeted only by the gurgle and slap of water moving under and against ice. For a moment a clutching hand shot dripping into view and clawed at the rim, but before they could make a move to grab it the hand was gone, sucked under.
'This way!' Dragosani gasped. 'Follow the course of the river.'
'You think there's a chance?' Batu obviously thought not.
'A very slim one,' said Dragosani.
They ran on the ice as best they could under a cold and silent moon.
Beneath the ice, tumbled and turned by the current, Harry Keogh somehow got his jacket off and let it go. Under his shirt he wore a rubber wet-suit vest, but still the cold was terrific. It must surely finish Shukshin, who was completely unprotected.
Harry started to swim, kept his head turned sideways with his face against the ice, actually found places where cold air was trapped in shallow pockets. He swam towards his mother, following her stream of troubled thoughts just as he had followed them unerringly two hours ago
with his eyes closed. Except then there had been plenty of air to breathe and he had been warm.
Panic gripped him momentarily but he put it out of mind. His Ma was over there - that way! He began to swim more strongly - and something grasped at his feet, his legs. Something fastened its grasp on him and clung to his trousers. Shukshin! The river was bobbing them along in tandem, like matches down a drain, gluing them together through sheer gravitational attraction.
Harry swam more desperately yet, with his arms, with one leg. He swam as never before, his lungs bursting, his heart a great gong clanging away in his chest. And Shukshin clawing his way up his body, his hands like the pincers of some great crab, snatching at Harry as if to pull him to pieces.
This was it; he could swim no more; the water was the black blood of some giant alien into whose veins Harry had been injected, where Shukshin was an alien antibody bent on his destruction.
'Ma! Ma! Help me!' Harry cried out with his mind as at last he was forced to draw breath, but drew only icy water which gushed into his straining jaws and nostrils.
'Harry!' she answered at once, loudly, close at hand, her own voice frantic in his head. 'Harry, you're here!'
He kicked backwards, lashed out with both feet at Shukshin, and thrust upward with his back and head, crashing himself against the ice cover - which immediately, mercifully, shattered into thin shards as his head and shoulders emerged into air!
And suddenly the water was still and his feet touched a muddy bottom five feet down, and even before his eyes had focused and his battered senses stopped spinning, Harry knew he had made it. Now he summoned his last reserves, threw out his hands and grasped at tough roots where they projected from the overhanging bank. And slowly he began to draw himself up and out.
Beside him the water swirled and gurgled as from some hidden commotion. Harry half-turned and terror drew his lips back from his teeth - as Shukshin's mad face came surging up alongside him, choking and gagging! The madman saw him, spewed water and a babbling scream of rage into his face, clutched at his throat with hands like steel grapples.
Harry brought his knee up into the maniac's groin. Bones broke but still Shukshin hung on. He dragged Harry inexorably back, slavered into his face. For a long moment Harry thought he meant to bite him, savage him like a rabid dog! He fought Shukshin, slammed his clenched fists again and again into his ghastly face, to no avail. The madman would win. Harry was about to go under ...
He reached out again for the tough roots in the river bank, but Shukshin's hands at his throat were shutting off the air, shutting off life itself.
'Ma!' Harry silently cried. 'You were right, Ma. I should have listened. I'm sorry.'
'No!' came her denial of defeat. 'No!' Shukshin had killed her, but he must not be allowed to kill her son.
And again the bitter water gurgled and churned - but more blackly yet!
Dragosani skidded to a halt not fifteen feet away, grabbed at Batu and drew him also to a standstill. Panting, their breath forming fragile feathers of snow in the air, they looked - they saw - and their jaws fell open. Two men had gone down under the ice back there, had been washed downstream to this hole, and until a moment ago two figures had fought and torn at each other here in the still water beneath the river bank. But now there were three figures there in the water, and the third one was as terrible a thing as ever Dragosani had heard of or imagined or seen in his blackest nightmares!
It was... not alive, and yet it had the mobility of life, the authority of life. And it had purpose. It clung to Shukshin, wrapped itself about him, put its mud-and-bones arms around him and its algae and plastered-hair skull against his. Of eyes there were none, but a putrid glow shone out from empty sockets with a semblance of sight. And where before Shukshin had only howled and gibbered and laughed like a madman, now he quite literally went mad.
Shriek after shriek pealed out from him as he fought with the awful thing, the shrillest lunatic screeching that Dragosani and Batu had ever thought to hear; and at the very end, just before the horror dragged him under, words which at last the petrified watchers could understand:
'Not you!' Shukshin babbled. 'Oh God, oh no, not you!'
Then he was gone, and the thing of bones and mud and weeds and death with him ...
And Harry Keogh was left to scramble out on to the river bank.
Batu might perhaps have gone blindly, numbly after him but Dragosani still clutched at his arm. He clutched it, almost for support. Batu began to adopt his killing crouch but Dragosani stopped that, too. 'No, Max,' he hoarsely whispered, 'we don't dare. We've seen some­thing of what he can do, but what other talents does he possess?'
Batu understood, relaxed, drew himself upright. On the bank above them Harry Keogh became aware of their presence for the first time. He turned his face towards them, found them, stared at them. His eyes focused on them at last and he looked as though he might speak, but he said nothing. For long moments they simply stared at
each other, all three, and then Keogh glanced back at the jagged patch of black water. 'Thanks, Ma,' he said, simply.
Dragosani and Batu watched as he turned, staggered, stumbled and then began to run weavingly back towards Shukshin's house. They watched him go, and made no attempt to follow. Not yet. When he was out of sight Batu hissed:
'But that thing, Comrade Dragosani? It wasn't -couldn't be - human. So what was it?'
Dragosani shook his head. He believed he knew the answer but wouldn't commit himself now. 'I'm not sure,' he said. 'It had been human once, though. One thing is certain: when Keogh needed help it came to him. That's his talent, Max: the dead answer his call.' And he turned to the other, his eyes darker still in sunken orbits.
'They answer his call, Max. And there are a lot more of the dead than there are of the living.'
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