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Authors: Kate Thompson

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BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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‘But why?'

‘Why not? There are probably hundreds of ancient structures beneath the city that have never been excavated. I'd like to know where some of them are, that's all.'

Tess wasn't entirely happy with the explanation, but she didn't feel she could push it any further. Besides, there were more important matters to be sorted out.

‘Well, what about it?' she said.

‘What about what?'

‘About the phoenix. Will you help me to get him out?'

‘How do you propose to do it?'

‘I'm not sure, yet. Maybe we could come up with a plan together? I'm sure we could get some help from the rats if we needed to.'

‘Hmm.' Martin hitched himself up in the bed and rearranged his pillows. ‘The rats are fairly busy at the moment. Besides, I'm bored with all that squirrel and bunny stuff. I've grown out of it, you know?'

‘Who said anything about squirrels and bunnies?' said Tess. ‘I was a pine marten yesterday and it was brilliant! In any case, I can't see how squirrels and bunnies are going to help get Kevin out.'

‘No. You know what I mean, though. It's all a bit tame, isn't it?' Martin was looking into space as he spoke, as though seeing something in his mind's eye that Tess had no conception of. She was about to ask him what he meant when his mother appeared again at the door with a tray of tea things. She had moved so softly that Tess hadn't heard her approach, and she hoped that she hadn't overheard anything she shouldn't.

Martin made no move to help his mother with the tray, so Tess got up and cleared a space on the table. She was shocked again by the drained, bloodless look on the woman's face and by the way her hands and arms trembled as though the effort of carrying the tray upstairs had been too much for her.

‘Everybody happy?' she said.

‘Yes, thanks,' said Tess.

‘You can pour, I suppose?'

‘Of course I can,' said Tess.

Martin's mother turned to leave, but before she did so, Tess thought she caught an expression of gratitude on her face.

‘Why is she so pale?' she asked Martin, after a safe length of time had passed.

Martin shrugged, and a queer little smirk crossed his mouth. ‘The doctor says she's anaemic. He doesn't know why.'

‘Why don't you help her? You could have made that tea yourself, you know.'

Again Martin shrugged. ‘Mothers,' he said. ‘You know what they're like. They don't want you to grow up because then they have to let you go.'

Tess felt an intense irritation towards the slovenly boy, lying in bed waiting to be spoon-fed. She wanted to tell him to pour his own tea or go without it, but her nerve failed her. If she got on the wrong side of him he might refuse to help her, and she didn't believe that she could liberate Kevin on her own. Suppressing her anger, she filled two cups and handed one across. Martin took it without thanking her.

‘Do you want to watch a video?' he asked. ‘My mother will go and get one if you do.'

Tess noticed for the first time that there was a TV and video recorder in the corner of the room beside the window, placed so that Martin could watch from the bed.

‘No, thanks,' she said, struggling now with her still-rising anger. ‘And if I did want to watch one I'd get it myself.'

Infuriatingly, Martin giggled. Tess sipped her tea and looked at her feet. However weak he was, she needed him. She would have to get help from him even if she had to beg for it.

‘Will you help me?' she asked.

‘I might.' He thought for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. ‘I'll tell you what. I'll consider helping you to get your friend out on one condition.'

‘What's that?'

‘Well. You've told me about your adventures, and what you've learnt to do with your powers. I'd like you to know what I've learnt as well. How does that sound?'

‘Sounds great.'

‘Good. Only I'd prefer to show you than tell you. Does that make any sense?'

‘I suppose it does.'

‘Right. Come here tonight, then, and we can do the rounds together, OK?'

‘This evening?'

‘Tonight would be better. When dear mother is asleep. Say, one o'clock?'

Tess groaned inwardly. Another sleepless night. Another night of worry about leaving the house and getting back in time. But it had to be worth it.

‘It might be a bit later,' she said, ‘but I'll be there.'

CHAPTER NINE

T
HAT NIGHT, SOON AFTER
midnight, two figures walked quietly down a street in Phibsboro. A heavy frost was beginning to spangle the grass in the gardens they passed, and their breath curled billows of steam around them as they walked.

‘Warm enough?' said Martin, as they turned the corner of the street where he lived.

‘Just about,' said Tess, pulling her scarf up over her mouth and nose. ‘You must be freezing, though.'

‘I am,' he said, ‘but I won't be for long.'

They crossed the street and walked past an off-licence with padlocked aluminium shutters over all the windows, then turned on to the main road which ran from the outskirts of Dublin in towards the city centre.

‘Where are we going?' asked Tess.

‘Nowhere in particular. Just walking.'

‘Why?'

‘You'll see.'

Tess stuffed her hands deeper into her pockets, feeling irritated by Martin's secretiveness. What could be so special, after all? She followed rather sullenly as Martin crossed one small intersection in the road, then another. A few cars passed, every second one a taxi, bringing people home from the pubs.

Ahead of them, at the next intersection, was a red brick building which sold carpets and upholstery fabric. Outside, a group of young men were gathered, smoking and swigging from beer bottles, tussling with each other and laughing. Tess slowed down, uneasy about passing them by.

‘Shouldn't we cross over?' she said, coming to a halt on the footpath.

Martin turned to her with a smile, and as he did so it seemed to Tess that the darkness she had glimpsed behind his eyes earlier in the day had come right up to the front and was leering out at her in mockery.

‘Why?' he said.

Tess faltered, all her courage leaving her. She had a strong desire to Switch, to become a rat and scuttle down the nearest drain, or a creature with wings, to fly her out of there. The boys on the corner had noticed them now and they became quiet, all their attention turned towards the two strangers. Tess pulled her coat tighter around her, aware as she did so that it had been bought in one of the swankiest shops in town. It told everything about her and her family. Even though she had no money on her, she was an obvious target for anyone with mugging on their mind.

‘Martin,' she said, her voice pleading for reason. From the corner of her eye she saw the group of lads gather together and begin to advance.

Martin smiled, or leered, at her again. ‘Just watch,' he said. He began to walk forwards. It was too late now for Tess to break off on her own and cross the road. It was even too late to run. In a few quick strides she drew level with Martin, just as the first of the young men stepped into their path.

In that instant, Martin Switched. Tess saw and felt the strange fuzziness in the air around him as he lost substance and regained it again. She shivered; her mind was caught up in the moment of vacancy, then began casting around for the new form that Martin had taken. He had turned slightly away from her as he Switched, and it seemed as she looked at him that nothing had changed. He was still a boy in a light anorak, standing quietly in the edge of a street-lamp's glow. But as she watched, she became aware that there had, indeed, been a change. Even before she noticed the gang of boys backing off, Tess could feel some sort of power radiating from Martin. It attracted and repelled her at the same time, so that she didn't know whether to move away from him or towards him. As she stood still, trying to understand what was happening, the lads retreated towards the brighter light beneath the lamp-post and stood there uncertainly, huddled together.

Then Martin turned to face her. Tess's heart lurched. In a sense the boy in front of her was still Martin, but at the same time he wasn't. His face was deathly pale apart from his lips, which were strangely red and protruding, as though the teeth inside the mouth were too big to fit properly. The eyes which gazed out at her were dull and lifeless, yet they latched on to something within her, drawing her in, making it impossible for her to move away. As she gazed in a grim mixture of fear and attraction she knew what had happened, she knew what he was, but she just couldn't put a name on it. Until he smiled.

The only experience Tess could remember which had anything of the horror of this one was the time the first krool had suddenly reared up before her in the Arctic. That time she had reacted without thought; this time there was no reaction apart from complete paralysis. For when Martin, or the thing that had been Martin a few minutes ago, smiled, it revealed a pair of razor-sharp fangs, so long that they reached down over the bottom teeth and were hidden by the bulging lower lip.

‘Well?' he said. His voice was smooth and seductive. Tess looked over at the lamp-post, and as she did so two of the boys there made a sudden dart across the road. She turned back to the vampire, still leering at her, showing his fangs. As a boy he had been a moderate sort of height, but now he seemed to tower above her, sneering down.

Tess looked at her feet. There was a scuffle as the other boys raced across the road to join their friends and she felt suddenly alone. A few minutes ago those lads had been her enemies, but now that she was faced with this monstrous creature they seemed to be allies and she felt abandoned by them and desperately alone.

‘Are you going to back out on me?' said Martin.

Tess looked up, trying to avoid the lure of those vacuous eyes but failing. ‘What do you mean, back out?'

‘You promised to try my way, remember?'

Tess shuddered with revulsion. ‘I ...'

‘You what?' The voice was like sleep, sucking at her mind, dragging her under. She struggled.

‘I didn't know,' she shouted. ‘You didn't tell me!'

The vampire's smile broadened. ‘You didn't ask,' said the creamy voice.

Tess felt sick. What stood in front of her wasn't Martin. It was something that was dead and yet lived on, undead. She understood now why he had said that he wouldn't be cold for long. Vampires didn't feel the cold. They didn't feel anything at all, in any way. Tess knew beyond doubt as she looked into those dark eyes that there was no appeal under the sun that would release her from his power. She did not exist for him as an equal being at all. To him she was nothing more than an object, a victim, the source of his next meal.

Behind her she heard the sound of a car drawing up close to the kerb. Martin closed his lips over his teeth and glanced up over her shoulder to see who was behind her. Tess closed her eyes, released for a moment from that dreadful gaze, and fear welled up within her. She began to turn towards the car, ready to scream out for help, but even as she did so the car started to draw away. The garda in the passenger seat nodded towards Martin as his partner drove off. Tess called out, but it was too late. Beside her, Martin was exuding charm again, and before she could tear herself away he slipped a strong arm around her and began to walk up the quiet street which led away from the main road, into the darkness.

Tess tried to struggle but it was useless. The vampire was strong beyond imagining, and already his power was beginning to take over her mind again, drawing her in to the vacuum of his heart. At a corner beneath a tall sycamore tree, he stopped, and Tess leant against the wall, looking down at the ground. Leaves and sweet wrappers and crisp bags had gathered there during the last windy day. Martin leaned towards her. His voice was a harsh whisper in her ear.

‘It's up to you. You can join me if you want to, but if you don't ...'

He smiled again, that sinister smile that was as cold and distant as the moon. Tess knew what he meant. He was in front of her now, blocking any escape she might attempt. His breath was cold on her face and had a faint metallic scent.

Her mind felt slow and cumbersome, numbed by her fear. She could think of no creature on earth that would be a sure protection against the power that confronted her now; certainly there was none that could kill him. How can you kill what is already dead?

Slowly, inch by inch, his face was coming closer to hers, his head bowing, his teeth approaching her neck. The knowledge, when it came to her, seemed always to have been there, perfect in its logic. There was only one protection against a being like this, and that was to become like him. She resisted, waiting for the last moment, desperately searching her mind for an alternative.

His breath, colder than the frosty air surrounding them, touched her neck, freezing the area where he planned to bite. She was in an impossible position; whichever course she took seemed like a submission. She tried to dodge out to the side, but he was quicker. She thumped and pushed at his shoulders and knees, but he was like a statue: cold and immovable. His teeth met her neck; she felt the pressure of their points against her skin, and as they broke through she began to drift down, down, away from consciousness, into a dark oblivion.

‘No!'

At the moment that she shouted, Tess Switched. Martin drew back and regarded her, his cynical smile tinged now with an element of respect and comradeship. Tess returned it, feeling the new shape of her mouth as it accommodated those deadly teeth. She ran her tongue over them, careful of their sharpness, and lifted a hand to her face. The external change was small. She still fitted into her clothes; if she met someone she knew they would probably recognise her. But the internal change was enormous. Without ever testing it, she knew that she was possessed of fantastic strength and that no living person could stand up to her. And her mental strength was no less: a storehouse of power, just waiting to be used. The only problem was a deep and urgent hunger which could only be satisfied by one thing.

BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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