They planned to set off from across the bottom of the Hateg Mountains just as the sun began to climb above the eastern rim, giving a tawny hue to the forests. The surface of the lake was polished green and blue by the sky and surrounding hills. The grey-green mudstone of the soil ran along the lower rim of the lush woodland like opulent layers of marzipan. There was a sluggish beauty to the landscape slowly unfolding with the rising of the sun. Ridges of rich green vegetation sprawled upwards, knotted and clumped and dappled in shadow, turning a hazy blue the further up it went. Off in the distance, the swells and points of the mountain range itself were bleached by distance; an anaemic swirl of crags and peaks.
It’d been a while since they’d killed the old man, but still they had to hide up here in the mountains.
Jed looked around, hands on his hips, sniffing.
‘Get a load of all that fucking virgin air,’ he said. ‘Not one inch of it tainted by modern man’.
‘Stop swearing,’ said Mitch. ‘At least until you’ve had breakfast.’
‘Shove it up your arse an’ give yourself an’ enema with it,’ Jed replied, grinning. ‘And anyway, we’re in Transylvania, so nobody’ll understand me.’
‘You need a little more refinement in your life, Jed,’ said Mitch.
Jed stretched and yawned, and Mitch heard his spine crack. ‘Yeah, well, some of us didn’t study at Oxford an’ have the milk from our Cheerios dripping from a silver spoon.’ Then he grinned and flipped his friend the finger.
‘What an arse-hole,’ Mitch said, smiling.
‘Yeah, but you love me an’ wanna have my babies,’ Jed said, hawking a wad of phlegm into a clump of pink thistle by the edge of the lake.
‘And don’t spoil the landscape,’ Mitch told him.
Jed knelt down by the mouth of the tent, strands of his unkempt hair fluttering in the breeze. ‘I annoy you ‘cos I can, Candyman.’
‘Candyman’ was Mitch’s nickname – something that Charlotte came up with; a joke that contrasted strongly with the Clive Barker Candyman horror movie of the same name. She’d started calling him it on their fifth or sixth date, when it had become obvious to her - that amongst his many collective traits - Mitch had an overt capacity for goodness that was almost infuriating. ‘You’re too sickly sweet sometimes, you know that?’ she’d told him. ‘I’m gonna start calling you Candyman.’
He missed Charlotte a lot lately.
More than anything, Mitch wanted to be gone from here. He wanted to be back in England, with Charlotte wrapped around him – romantically or sexually, either one would do – and he wanted it now; not next week, not tomorrow, but right now, a need that grew in him, expanding.
He also wanted to put the killing of the old man behind him, stuff it into some interior locker and throw away the key. But they had to play some exasperating waiting game, and the Ops unit had told them that they had to keep their heads down until getting the official nod from Whitehall.
How long ago did we do the hit? Mitch thought to himself, finding that he couldn’t remember.
Their bogus papers and ID – hidden inside a dead-drop spike in some woodland on the outskirts of the target zone - told the world that Mitch was now Daniel Whiteley, while the guys at Central had decided – in a moment of hilarity – that Jed’s new name would be Reginald Harrington-Barley.
‘Fuckin’ piss-taking pricks,’ Jed had said, staring at his new passport disbelievingly. ‘Makes me sound like one of them Tom Brown twats who had their arses stroked with a paddle every night before beddy-byes.’
After they’d done the kill, Mitch’s cover had been that of an academic doing research for a comparative paper on Bram Stoker’s version of Dracula and the historical reality of Vlad III. He’d thrown himself into it wholeheartedly, touring around the country with Jed in tow, always asking questions, doing the relevant investigations, jotting down stuff. Every hotel and motel they stayed in, they paid in cash - no credit cards because plastic tells every fucker where you’ve been. Every day they checked the streets and alleys around their accommodation for signs of being watched; random strangers turning up twice in different places; taxis with two people in the back that might recur; parked vans or other vehicles.
And, of course, they’d ditched their mobile phones. Mobiles gave out trace signals.
‘So when d'you reckon we’ll start seeing the vampires?’ Jed asked now as they trekked along the lip of the forest toward the base of the mountains. In the distance, the peaks were lost above the treeline in frosty breaths of mist.
‘It’s daylight, Jed,’ Mitch said, ‘vampire’s burn.’
‘What a crock,’ Jed said. ‘Hard to believe the locals still bang on about all that Dracula shit; as for that turd pile, Bran Castle? What the fuck was all that about?’
‘I enjoyed it,’ Mitch told him.
‘It was a waste of time!’
‘It was not!’
They’d both visited Bran Castle, nestled high amongst the treetops on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. Mitch and Jed had spent a day there, taking the guided tour and poking through the museum park, taking obligatory photos of Romanian barns and cottages.
Later, back at their motel room, Jed had thrown his rucksack onto his bed in disgust.
‘What a fuckin’ con!’ he’d said
‘It works,’ Mitch had said.
‘How does it work?’
‘It’s how the film industry sees Dracula’s castle,’ Mitch had said. ‘So the locals decided to cash in on it. They adapted it and marketed it for the tourists. You can’t blame people here for making money from something we’ve embraced as part of our culture.’
‘We could be doing better things with our time.’
‘It’s our cover, turd-brain,’ Mitch had aid. ‘Anyway, I just thought it would be good to visit and make a small deposit towards keeping all that Bram Stoker stuff bumping and thriving while we’re actually in Transylvania. Where would we be without it? No Vampire Diaries or Robert Pattinson, man.’
‘I’d like to make a fucking deposit,’ Jed said. ‘Drop a fucking dookie on the whole place.’
‘Classy, Jed, real cultivated stuff.’
‘Everywhere we go in this fucking country is barbeques and kegs of beer,’ Jed had said. ‘That’s what it all boils down to. I expected more.’
‘Shut up bitching,’ Mitch had replied. ‘You enjoyed Sighisoara, didn’t you?’
Sighisoara had been a fucking blast, straight from the pages of Stoker’s novel. Filled with compressed, cobbled streets and 16th Century houses stacked and piled on the surrounding hills; the birthplace of Vlad III had been all that Mitch expected it to be – which was the unqualified illustration of all that Romanian folklore displayed for the benefit of the tourists.
Jed had pretended to hate the whole deal, but Mitch had known that he’d secretly relished the atmosphere of the inns and the rock bands that played till the sun came up. They’d stayed at an inn called the Casa cu Cerb, and had done the whole tour bit for a day with The Transylvanian Society of Dracula. The guide had spoken – with glee - of how some villagers in the surrounding towns and villages still believed in the concept of vampires, and how, in the Danubian plain, villagers had recently walked a white stallion over a woman’s grave, eventually ploughing it up to put a stake through her chest. He’d also told them about another woman in Olthenia, who was reported to have gouged out her husband’s heart, cut it into quarters, and then to have flushed it down the toilet because she’d thought he’d come back from the dead.
‘The customs and superstitions of the Romanian people are still steeped in the belief of the strigoi’, the tour guide had said, prompting a few nervous giggles from those gathered around him under the statue of Vlad The Impaler near the city hall.
‘Say what?’ Jed had asked.
The tour guide – who’d looked about one step away from a walking cadaver himself – had smiled, his mouth folded into leathery ridges. ‘The strigoi means those that have trouble staying in their coffins. It means the walking dead, my friend.’
‘Will we see any of those while we’re here?’ an American tourist had piped up.
By the time they got to the foot of the mountain it was late afternoon, and although it was a steady walk-up, they both thought it would be wise to set up base camp. Pools of shadows began to spread out and a murky haze rode the sky. The land seemed poised for change, the clouds smudged purple and stoked up with inky clots of black.
‘Reckon the weather change will hold?’ Jed asked.
‘Looks that way,’ Mitch said.
‘If it does, we’re fucked.’
‘Let’s do an equipment check,’ said Mitch.
Jed didn’t complain. They both knew the drill; it was as natural as breathing: foodstuffs, woollen caps, water- bottles, cooking and eating utensils, ropes, carabiners and slings. They left the other stuff in their bags. Mitch studied the clouds, accounting for weather variations. They decided to put the tent up, even though the worst of it looked like it was heading north. Off in the distance, coils of lightning etched themselves above the remote peaks.
‘What gear are we leaving?’ Jed asked. ‘Ditch the tent and make do with the bivvy bags? Gonna be a bitch climbing with it.’
‘Dunno,’ said Mitch. ‘We don’t wanna start freezing our arses off halfway up.’
‘You always talk sense,’ Jed commented. ‘When we grow old, I want you to be my mystic navigator.’
They’d rolled and packed the tent and took a thorough inventory of all the gear they’d packed the night before at the inn. Mitch decided they were going to take an easterly route along the Cincis Lake, traversing Paderini Land and down into the foothills of the Hateg range. From there they’d start a 1,800 foot climb - not exactly as perilous as Nanga Parbat or K2 where the summit success was low, but still challenging. Just the two of them, a couple of hard-boiled pricks reaching up and trying to scratch the surface of the sky, baby. Then they’d maybe move onto the next one. Eventually, stuff some Carpathian soil into their kit bags; take some goofy pictures of them fucking around on various summits, and then abseil back down, lapping up the glory and the funds when they got back to England.
‘Bet you miss Charlotte,’ said Jed.
‘Yep,’ Mitch replied.
‘Speaking of that mouth-watering wench of yours, when are you two marrying?’
‘Never,’ Mitch said. ‘We both want different things at the moment.’
‘Oh, come off it,’ Jed said. ‘Don’t string her along, Candyman, ‘cos that is one girl who deserves better.’
‘Our line of work doesn’t exactly endorse domesticity,’ Mitch said. ‘You know that.’
‘Yeah, but we’ve got a limited lifespan, Candyman,’ Jed replied, sitting down and cleaning the sludge from his crampons. ‘Make an honest woman of her before it’s too late.’
‘When’s too late?’ Mitch asked him.
Jed shivered and glanced around at the suddenly cheerless landscape, the wind picking up, throwing phantom sounds amongst the rocks. ‘Who can say?’
They both fell into a morose silence. Mitch ate some grub and Jed cleaned his boots and picked his nose.
The last of the sun was browbeaten into submission by the dense clouds rallying across the sky. A dim, churlish glow hung in the west, bathing the land in a miserly lustre. The canvas of the tent issued curt cracks in the breeze, and they both looked at the soaring ledges and outcrops of the Hateg Mountains, the tops hidden beneath a pallid, dim mist.
‘Christ, why’s it turned so fucking cold?’ said Mitch.
‘Screw this,’ said Jed. ‘I’m going to bed; you joining me honey?’
Sometime in the early hours, buried in the layers of his sleeping bag, Mitch dreamt that Charlotte was straddling him, wearing a white wedding dress and veil, her chestnut hair pooling across his chest as she went at him, issuing, breathless, grunting hunh, hunh, hunh sounds. He could see his erect penis sticking into her, but he couldn’t feel it. Behind her, the serrated teeth of the mountains loomed against a woeful sky filled with blood and rain. Charlotte produced a knife and stabbed it into his chest, chiseling his heart out and cutting it into quarters. The mountains banged together, rupturing and splitting, sounding like God throwing a tantrum.
He woke and Jed was sitting up. Mitch could see him silhouetted against the semi-transparent skin of the tent.
‘Candyman, you awake?’ Jed whispered.
‘Yeh-wha?’ he mumbled.
‘Candyman, there’s someone outside the tent!’
Mitch was instantly alert. ‘What?’
‘Somebody’s creeping around outside!’
Mitch lowered his voice to a whisper too. ‘You sure?’
‘Course I’m fucking sure; there’s someone out there playing silly buggers. Whoever they are, they’re good. But I heard ‘em, an’ that means they wanna be heard.’
‘How many?’ Mitch said.
‘Two, maybe four,’ answered Jed.
Mitch was already reaching silently for his rucksack.
‘How d’ya want to play this?’ he asked.
He heard Jed sigh; not overly concerned, just weighing up a tiresome problem.
‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘If they’re waitin’ fer us, we have to be fuckin’ slick.’
Mitch waited for the darkness to make sense. Motes of light frolicked before his eyes. His fingers found the zip of his rucksack, and he slowly peeled it open, listening all the time for drifting sounds from outside. His hand closed around the handle of his gun and started to pull it out, then decided against it. The Walther PPS’s slide retraction was too noisy; it would be like advertising yourself through a fucking bullhorn.
Jed’s Glock had a disengaging trigger mechanism, but Jed’s rucksack was shoved over to the far side of the tent, and it would mean climbing over the sleeping bags to reach it; a hell of a lot of tell-tale rustling, so they remained quiet, listening, their senses cranked to the max.
A shadow brushing against the canvas wall of the tent got them moving. Mitch grabbed the handle of Jed’s rucksack and slung it over to him. Jed was fast – always had been – and he had the Glock out in seconds, freeing the trigger and cocking the striker, ready to fire. Mitch tugged the Walther out and also had it ready by the time Jed was out through the tent opening.
They hadn’t come straight out of a brightly lit area, so it took less than the standard forty seconds for their eyes to adjust.
Nothing moved outside, the dark-hued landscape steeped in silence. Both of them stood, back-to-back, guns sweeping, their eyes adjusting. The outline of the mountains showed as a whiskery outline and a brittle wind grazed their cheeks and hair. The moon came out, cuffing the slurred edges of darkened clouds.
‘Where the fuck did they go?’ whispered Jed.
Mitch tried to hold his gun steady, but his hands shook. ‘Christ,’ he hissed. ‘They were here, I saw the shadow.’
There was something else that they both sensed, vaguely tangible, like smoke.
‘What the fuck is that?’ Jed breathed. ‘Can you feel that?’
Mitch could, and wanted more than anything to be away and gone from this place.
‘It’s something that’s here, but not,’ he replied, squinting out into the foothills, his nerves jittering. ‘It’s like a smell, but not a smell; it’s like someone’s here, yet not here.’
‘How the fuck can that be?’
‘Keep your eyes peeled,’ Mitch told him. ‘They haven’t gone, I can feel it.’
They stayed poised and ready; eventually Jed lowered his gun.
‘Forget it, man,’ he said. ‘They’ve disappeared, just like fucking magicians.’
Mitch honed in on the immediate area in front of him, trying to determine black against black; a twinkle of movement. But there was nothing; just them and the darkness.
‘You’re right, there’s nothing here,’ he agreed.
‘But they were here; I heard them,’ Jed said. ‘Someone was goofing around with us; sounded like they were playing ring-a-ring-a-roses around the outside of the fucking tent.’
Not for the first time, Mitch started to wonder about the old man, and whether it had really gone as smoothly as they’d thought. Maybe someone who had worked for him had followed them up here and was deciding it was time to pay the piper.
‘Gregorescu?’ said Mitch, voicing his fears.
‘Never mind about Gregorescu,’ Jed said. ‘He’s gone. We killed him.’
Jed walked around the tent, looking for signs. Mitch took one last look out at the stiff blackness; the conquering sense of some shadowy wrongness nuzzled in the rocks came back to him, as did the dream about Charlotte; the havoc raining down from the sky as she bucked, sweating across his abdomen, and the stony bulk of the mountains ramming together and splitting the earth with their ungodly noise.
Jed came back with a torch, tinted green, conserving night vision.
‘Come and take a look,’ Jed said. ‘Show you something weird.’
They walked around the perimeter of the tent, searching the ground. Jed led them around once, and then turned and swept the beam of light back in the opposite direction. Mitch realised he was still holding his gun, clenched over-tightly in his hand. He tucked it into the back of his combats and realised – despite the early morning chill – that his palms were sweating. He wiped them on the seat of his pants.
Jed shone the torch light onto the ground by the pegs.
‘See here,’ he said. ‘We’ve got animal tracks; we’ve got sole walkers – your common variety smaller species; rabbits and stuff. We’ve also got larger walkers; goats and what looks like a lynx. Probably showed up attracted by the tent and the smell of our dinner, took a quick sniff around and then fucked off.’
Jed – who was now crouched down – peered up at him. ‘What do you mean, so, Candyman?’
‘I mean, so what? I thought you were gonna show me something weird.’
Jed lowered his head in mock exasperation. ‘What did they teach you way back in the sad old, glad old days of 22 SAS jungle training and tracking, my friend?’
The dream had made him peevish, and Mitch kicked Jed roughly in the arm. ‘Stop jerking me around and get to the point!’
‘My point,’ replied Jed ‘is that the only fucking tracks are those of animals. Now, seeing as I was listening to three or four cheeky fuckers taking the absolute piss while they pranced around outside the tent, I find it incredibly fucking interesting that they left no tracks, don’t you?’
Mitch thought about it, feeling edgy. He had a transient image in his head of old man Gregorescu’s scoured and snarling face just before they shot him. He walked slowly away from the tent, and stopped, gazing out at the darkness.
They waited until morning, Mitch firing up the Jetboil for coffee, which remained untouched. As the emerging sun suffused the horizon in a pink bouquet, they both examined the ground around the camp. They stopped and inspected vegetation inside cracks and crevices for signs of boot scuffs along the surface of rocks; dark or damp spots across the ground where small stones or rocks may have been accidently kicked up; squashed insects.
They found nothing.
‘We both saw that shadow outside the tent,’ Mitch said. ‘How can this be possible?’
Jed was crouched, sifting earth through his fingers. He straightened up, absently rubbing his jaw. For the first time he looked worried, almost fretful. ‘Fuckin’ spooky is what it is.’
Both of them stared at each other and then looked around, both thinking the same thing. The cogent, rational conclusion was that nobody had been here, and that they’d both imagined the whole thing. Yet they’d both seen the shadow.
‘Fuck me sideways, Candyman,’ Jed said. ‘What’s goin’ on?’
Mitch began to close down the openings, paring it down. Whoever it was hadn’t come down from the mountains, especially at night. As the sun began to rise, he strained his eyes, checking for openings, signs of disturbance 20 to 30 metres out – back towards the lake - following standard track pursuit drill.
‘There’s not gonna be any sign of quarry movement,’ Jed said, joining him. ‘If they didn’t leave anything outside the tent, then forget it.’
‘That’s daft,’ Mitch replied. ‘What did they do, levitate?’
Jed said nothing.
Mitch regarded his friend. ‘I only saw the shadow,’ he said. ‘How long were you listening to them before you woke me up?’
‘Not more than a minute,’ he said. ‘I could hear them tittering and giggling as they crept around; fucking freaky, if ya know what I mean.’
Again Mitch could feel that unease swelling inside him. ‘Giggling? Why the fuck would they be giggling?’
‘I dunno, but whoever it was, they were having fun, like they were teasing me. At one point I thought I heard a female voice, but I wasn’t sure. It was like when you hear people on the other side of a closed door. It was too fucking weird, man. Like one of them acid trips that start off all fine and sexy, but there’s a threat of something underneath that’s really gonna fuck with your mojo.’
Mitch regarded his friend. ‘Sometimes you scare the shit out of me, Jed.’
‘Oh come on, Candyman,’ Jed told him. ‘All joking aside; there was someone here.’
‘Then where’d they go?’
‘If I knew that, then we wouldn’t be standing here, with our arses exposed, having this conversation.’
Mitch walked over to the tent, and remembered something with such extreme clarity that it nearly clobbered him senseless. He felt a slump in reality, and tottered a little, leaning over and planting his palms onto his knees, breathing heavily.
‘Mitch, you OK?’ Jed asked from far away.
‘Fine, man, I’m hunky-dorey.’
Except he wasn’t, not by a long chalk.
The newspaper in my rucksack, he thought, then dismissed the idea as soon as it occurred.
Mitch waited for the dizziness to pass, hawking out a wad of spit to stop puking up.
‘You sure you’re alright?’ Jed asked, coming up beside him and planting his hands on his hips, looking around. ‘Nobody’s just fired a tranquiliser dart at you or anything, have they?’
‘You can be such a fucking child at times, d’ya know that?’ Mitch told him.
‘’To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child’’, quoted Jed, adding with a grin: ‘Cicero wrote that.’
‘What are you, a scholar now?’
‘I have my moments.’
Mitch looked around, then at Jed. ‘Aren’t you worried?’
‘Course I’m worried,’ Jed replied. ‘We’re two of the best fuckers in the business, an’ someone’s got the drop on us.’
‘So what’d you wanna do?’
‘Nothing,’ replied Jed, wrinkling his nose. ‘If they come back, we’ll be ready for ‘em.’
They’d packed and stowed everything by nine that morning, and began plotting a course, using a Silva Compass, setting the variations to the travel line routes and orienteering the map so that it matched ground characteristics. Then they began locating visual features on the surrounding terrain from their position and converting the magnetic bearings to the grid references, plotting and crossing the two lines to locate where they were.
‘How far up shall we go before we dig in?’ Jed asked, ‘taking into consideration that we’ve been up all night?’
Mitch thought about it. ‘We’ll have a fair old crack at least,’ he answered. ‘I reckon we’ll reach the first summit, bed down and then move on.’
Jed squinted up at the distant mountain peaks. ‘How long we gotta stay here?’
‘About three to five days,’ Mitch replied.
Jed blew out exorbitant breath. ‘Wheeoow, man, do I miss civilised life!’
‘We’ve gotta wait for Central Ops,’ Mitch said. ‘Climb the mountain, get back down and check the contact point.’
They’d had strict instructions from Central Ops to clip the old man, get out of Satu Mare and do the whole sightseeing/tourist thing, using the fake ID’s; Mitch morphing into the role of the geeky Dracula scholar, doing sabbatical research with his pal. Mitch had thrown himself so completely into the role that he’d shoved thoughts of the old man from his mind.
‘This eighty year-old gentleman is slipping through our legal system and bringing brutality onto our streets,’ Central Ops had told them during their briefing. ‘He’s currently at the top of the Romanian Mafia hierarchy, inundating our shores with prostitution, illegal drugs, human trafficking and racketeering. We know that he’s overtaking both the Duduieni and Caran clans in Bucharest, so he’s now a priority. Every time we try to tackle him, we’re bogged down under legal restrictions. He must be dealt with both swiftly and rigorously.
‘After completing the hit, It’s best you don’t try to jump a plane straight off,’ Ops Command had told them. ‘At least not until the incident becomes old news and the Romanian authorities get the bugs out of their arses. Try to blend in with the other tourists, and that means trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. We need you to play the part of the obsessed academic. Travel round a bit, and then burrow in some high country for a few days, at least until we give the all clear; should be easy-peasy stuff for you boys with all that larking about you did in Afghanistan.’
Jed clapped him on the arm, bringing him back. ‘Come on, man, cheer up. We’re cool. Everything’s gonna be alright.’
‘Yeah, you’re right,’ he replied.
Apart from that Romanian newspaper, he thought, shivering.
Prior to killing him, they’d staked out Gregorescu’s mansion, stowed away deep within the hills just outside Satu Mare. Bundled in dark clothing, they’d lain in a field for two days, faces smeared with charcoal and mud, groggy shapes merging into a backdrop of foliage and clustered woodland. Gregorescu had dogs, which meant they’d had to ditch basic hygiene such as tooth-paste, soap, shaving gel and deodorants, anything giving off a scent.
They’d watched men in suits swishing in on luxury wheels; Lexus RX’s; BMW’s; Volvo Coupes. The men had laughed, shaking hands, polaroid glasses and slicked back hair. They’d only been four guards, two at the front and two at the rear. All armed with Heckler and Koch MP5K submachine guns. The ones at the back had dogs.
‘That is one complacent cunt,’ Jed had muttered. ‘The place is wide open.’
‘Everyone’s terrified of him,’ Mitch had replied. ‘They’ll be a lot more muscle inside though.’
They’d slipped on Pulsar Edge night goggles. Jed had skirted around the back and Mitch had taken the first guard up front, coming up behind him, choking him by pressing his thumbs against the back of the guy’s neck and folding up his fingers, his knuckles cracking the windpipe. The second guard had been ready, coming at Mitch with eyes that were patches of hate. Mitch had looped his knife across the guy’s forehead, blinding him with the gout of blood gushing from the wound, then he’d sliced across the neck, dropping the guy across the dewy lawn, his legs flopping as he died.
Jed had come back round to meet him, and they’d swiftly attached a circular glass cutter to one of the ground floor windows.
‘What did you do with the dogs?’ Mitch had whispered, screwing a suppressor onto his gun.
‘Opened one of ‘em up an’ spilled its guts,’ Jed had replied. ‘I bared my teeth at the other one, an’ it whimpered like the fuckin’ Andrex puppy before I did the same. Killed all the pooches in the kennels, too.’
‘There’s always the RSPCA as a retirement option,’ Mitch had replied.
Within minutes they were in. They’d crossed a wide, carpeted entranceway, a flap of moonlight showing a Queen Anne dresser and a Howard Miller grandfather clock. An oak-panelled staircase swayed open, the upper levels buried in darkness. A door stood to the left and from behind it came animated chitchat mixed with the aimless thud of hip-hop music. Moving like wraiths, they flanked it, Mitch slowly testing the door-handle, lifting it up to minimize the risk of it dropping on faulty hinges.
Inside was a huge kitchen with green limestone flooring, an oak dining table and plasma TV screens along the walls. Hand-carved chandeliers bloomed along the ceiling. A boom-box with an Ipod dock stood in the centre of the table where four men were seated around a Backgammon board, snuggled in for the night. One of the dudes at the table had a huge Danish protruding from his gob. He glanced at Mitch and Jed, eyes widening. A fifth man was rinsing out coffee cups. All were armed.
‘Futu-i!’ exclaimed the guy at the sink, reaching for his gun and dropping a cup, sending it sploosh-ing into soapy water.
Mitch took out three with head shots, the only noise coming from a chair clattering across the tiles as one of the men made it to his feet before copping it. The man eating the Danish fell forward, butting the table, a thick blotch of jam and cream spurting out. Jed offed the other two, the brains of the guy washing up forming a rorschach blot across the oak shaker wall panels.
They swept the kitchen, checking mop cupboards, closets.
‘Clear!’ Mitch said.
‘Clear!’ confirmed Jed.
They exited the kitchen and progressed down the hallway, moving up the staircase, keeping to the edges, avoiding creaky risers. Oblique strips of moonlight clipped the walls and carpets, slicing the darkness. Outside, a light drizzle had began to fall, sprinkling the windows, protean shapes flitting and trickling along the ceilings. The house burned under a heavy silence as they skirted the upper level, looking for the old bastard.
In the graveyard silence, they heard it. The fatty, oily chuckle coming from an open door, almost gluttonous. They stopped and looked at each other. The sound seemed to glue itself to Mitch’s soul, sickening him.
Jed nodded, confirming he understood.
Flanking the door, they went in, Mitch dropping down low and Jed following.
The old man lay across a carved Jacobean mahogany four-poster bed sitting in the centre of a huge expanse of LuxTouch marble flooring, plump and naked. A blonde girl - also naked - sat across his abdomen, polished fingernails reaching behind her and tugging at his penis. Along the wall by the side of the bed was a gold rococo gilt framed mirror.
‘Grabestete!’ the old man ordered the girl in a throaty voice. ‘Grabestete!’
Slowly they approached, moving in from both sides. The old man was grunting, his eyes clamped shut, doltish pleasure on his face. His sagging jowls were rucked and drenched in sweat, his crinkled skin pale in the bare light. The girl saw them, her eyes lacquered under a benzodiazepine haze as she continued jerking his joystick.
Jed tucked his arms under her and pulled her off. A vague twinkle of oil spread across her breasts reflecting from the lamplight, and then Mitch pressed the muzzle of his weapon against the side of the old man’s head.
Gregorescu snapped his eyes open, staring up at Mitch in shock. Then his face changed, becoming predatory. For a moment, Mitch felt sealed by the hatred he saw, felt it gnawing him like a rat.
‘Blestem să trăiască în Iad!’ spat the old man.
‘Yeah, whatever,’ Mitch told him and pulled the trigger.
The side of Gregorescu’s skull exploded in a coughing surge of blood and brains, spattering the sheets, pillows and the gilt framed mirror along the wall. Mitch turned to Jed, who was still holding the girl. She looked at the old man’s brains seeping into the satin sheets with washy interest. Then Jed looked at the mirror and tensed up. He let the girl slump to the floor.
‘Shit!’ he exclaimed. ‘Candyman! Look sharp!’
‘Fucking two-way mirror!’
The door burst open, hitting the wall. Six bodyguards sprayed through the doorway at once, getting comically wedged. One of the bastards had an F2000 Assault Rifle and raised it to his shoulder, letting loose a hellish uproar of gunfire, catching the girl in the face and hacking her nose off. Jed rolled across her body and let off three rounds, splintering the doorframe and demolishing the guy’s lower jaw.
Mitch dropped and took out two guys. Both himself and Jed dug themselves in behind the end of the four-poster. The remaining three piled into the room in a tumbling, formless blast of shouts and curses. Gunfire from their Uzi’s reverberated off the walls and floor. The pillows and mattress of the bed throbbed, creating a shambles of feathers and upholstery. Fuelled by outrage, the three men were uncoordinated and reckless, confident in the destructive capabilities of their weapons. They remained clumped together, open and easy.
Jed dashed off a couple of shots, hitting two in the head and sending out mists of blood. Mitch took out the final one, hitting him in the neck. The guy clutched his throat as if choking on a piece of meat, issuing a throaty cough as he thudded to the floor.
In the growling silence, they both stared at each other. Jed looked gaunt and wasted.
‘I think we’re done,’ he said.
Outside, near the edge of the woods, with a full moon blazing down and a pageant of stars glimmering in a sober sky, Jed whipped off his night-vision gear and fell to his knees.
‘Killed everything in the place,’ he said. ‘Are we fucking dudes or wot?’
Mitch stayed silent, watching the darkness between the trees.
‘Christ, Candyman,’ Jed said. ‘How old was that fucking kid in there? Eighteen? Nineteen?’
Then he threw up until there was nothing left, spitting the remnants out onto the wet grass, his head sagging.
By mid-morning, they were making good progress. From their position they could see the greasy smear of the lake looping north, the land beneath locked in a honeyed haze and threaded in mist. Soon they hit difficult terrain and stopped, fishing out the ropes and carabiners. Jed took lead, threading a figure eight and double knot through his waist and leg hoops, tugging himself up a fractured and split outcrop.
‘Don’t take all day, man,’ said Mitch. ‘I don’t wanna be standing down here like a dick-head waiting.’
Jed twisted and coiled himself up, ramming his fingers into the tiniest cracks, sunlight glazing off the top of his helmet. Mitch could hear him puffing as he neared the top. Soon he began to sing the Spiderman theme, changing the words to suit himself.
‘Afghan man, Afghan man, does whatever an Afghan can. Is he strong? Listen, Bud, he’s got Paratrooper blood…Watch out, here comes the Afghan man.’
A white-tailed eagle swooped down, checking him out, narrowly clipping the top of his helmet. Jed – true to form – swore at it and then deftly swung himself onto the ledge above, standing up and stoutly planting his fists into his hips and shouting euphorically out into the vast emptiness. ‘Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd, lay odl lay odl loo…Folks in a town that was quite remote heard, lay odl lay odl loo-hoo-hoo…’
A low rank of clouds scudded in, turning everything dark. Jed peered up, his mouth hanging open in mid-song. ‘Oh shit and fuck,’ he said. ‘It’s gonna piss down.’
‘When you’re ready, Julie-fucking- Andrews, I’d like to get up there any time before Christmas,’ Mitch told him.
‘Sorry, compadre,’ Jed replied.
Soon Mitch was standing beside him, and the pair sat and stared out at the vista of hills and mountains stretched out before them like a tapestry; the metallic tang of rain hanging in the air. Down below, the surface of the lake was a cobalt mirror dotted with white puffs of cloud.
‘Whoever they were, they won’t be able to follow us up here,’ Mitch said.
‘Unless they’ve had the same training,’ Jed said.
‘So, you think it might have something to do with Gregoresu?’ Mitch said.
‘I’ve been thinking about that,’ Jed replied. ‘If it was anything to do with Gregoresu, how could they know where we’d be? We killed everyone. Did the old bastard have a fucking oracle stashed somewhere in his mansion that someone found?’
‘Unless we’ve been followed,’ Mitch said.
‘We haven’t been followed, Candyman. We’re too good for that.’
‘Doesn’t matter who it was or how; let’s deal with it. We have to stay pumped and ready. If it was Gregorescu’s goons outside the tent this morning, we’re dealing with some cunning bastards. We’ll kip outside the tent tonight, use it as a decoy.’
‘Right,’ said Jed, ‘guns cocked and ready by the side of the bivvy bags.’
That night, lying on a plateau a few hundred yards out from the tent and listening to the wind ruffling the canvas and groaning around the mountain, Jed asked Mitch to tell him about the myths and legends of vampires. They kept their voices low.
‘Just because I’m bored and can’t sleep, you understand,’ Jed informed him. ‘Not that I’m interested in all that shit. It’s just that you threw yourself into it so much that I hate to see all that useless Intel go to waste.’
Mitch stared up at the prolific sprawl of stars perforating the night sky, feeling an almost nostalgic yearning that he couldn’t place.
‘If you’re having trouble sleeping, go into those bushes and knock one out,’ he told Jed. ‘Some of us actually want some sack time.’
‘Come on, Candyman,’ Jed urged. ‘Send some of that mumbo-jumbo my way, baby. Especially stories about nympho fang-fuckers; got any of those?’
‘No I haven’t.’
‘D'you know what, Mitch? You can be a real spoilsport sometimes.’
‘The only nympho fang fuckers are the three brides in Dracula who try to seduce Jonathan Harker,’ Mitch said. ‘Apart from that, forget it.’
‘Just like that, forget it?’ Jed said. ‘Come on, Mitch, I thought vampires are supposed to be sexy, and Romania is the land of sexy vampires.’
Mitch sighed. ‘That’s the film industry, not reality,’ he said. ‘The reality is that Romanians aren’t keen on the Dracula myths and legends. They see it as a bad representation of their country. They think it makes them look like a stunted culture and not part of the rest of Europe.’
‘Yeah, but they still believe,’ Jed replied. ‘Some of the old villages in the mountains still live under the old fears and shadows.’
‘Oh yeah, it goes way back. Whole villages were emptied because they thought there were vampires around. The first case was in 1725. A guy called Peter Plogojowitz was supposed to have strangled people in their sleep – only problem was old Peter had died three months before. When they dug his body up, they found his mouth full of blood.’
‘Is that what the old boy back on the tour was talking about? What did he call them, the stringosi, or some shit like that?’
‘The strigoi,’ Mitch explained. ‘Dead people that come back and eat their families. Some folklorists say that these strigoi don’t have to conform to the archetypal image of graveyards and fog and hovering above the ground with dripping fangs.’
‘How’s that?’ asked Jed, turning over in his sleeping bag and staring at Mitch, the whites of his eyes bright and keen in the dark. ‘What other types are there?’
Mitch smiled. ‘Getting interested, are we, Jed?’
Jed snorted. ‘Fuck that, man, it’s all bullshit, but tell me anyway.’
‘I wasn’t exactly telling the truth when I said that vampires burn during the day,’ Mitch said. ‘Some legends talk about the strigoi acting like normal people when the sun’s out, but their souls leave their bodies through the mouth when they’re asleep. When that happens they meet up with other strigoi and party till daylight.’
‘Your soul leaving your body, eh,’ Jed said. ‘Had a view experiences like that in Afghanistan, didn’t we my old son?’
‘Yeah,’ Mitch agreed.
He closed his eyes and was hit with images of gunfights with insurgents in and around the Nimruz Province frothing to the surface of his brain, mixed with tangled blonde hair matted with brains and blood. He thought that he might’ve fallen asleep, and snapped his eyes open. Then he gazed at the blackness above him steeped in its radiant throng of stars, listening to Jed snoring.
He rolled on his side. He felt his eyes closing and couldn’t fight it. Just before he dropped off, he thought he saw lumps of darkness shifting, becoming solid, approaching the empty tent.
Then he was gone, his snores joining those of Jed’s.
In the dream, they were standing somewhere high, the moon fat and swollen and bursting with light. Jed was standing in front of him, his eyes filled with misery and his arms held out loosely from his sides. His mouth and cheeks were stained with blood, almost ebony under the glare of the moon, and he was crying.
Tell me about the fang-fuckers, Candyman, he said, his voice bogged with fear. I need to know.
Mitch came awake, hearing a noise; something that came and went, leaving a crust of itself behind in the form of tinkling laughter and a residue of fading noise. It was the noise that brought Mitch awake, and he stared at the blazing constellation above him, confused.
Somebody screaming, he thought. Then: Someone else laughing.
He sat up and stared over at the tent. It was still there, a vague blemish of dark canvas in the night. To his left, Jed shifted, smacking his lips sullenly.
‘...whassat?’ he mumbled. ‘...you’re meltin’ away...’
‘Jed,’ hissed Mitch. ‘Wake up, man.’
‘...haven’t got the knack yet..,’ Jed slurred ‘...takes fuckin’ practice...’
‘For fuck’s sake, Jed! Wake up!’
Jed suddenly struggled, convulsing violently. He gave out a woeful moan, the sides of the sleeping bag bulging and snapping. For a moment Mitch was panicked, thinking that he was suffering some form of epileptic seizure. Then he snuffled loudly, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
‘You OK?’ Mitch asked.
Jed looked at him, the skin under his sockets raw, then he nodded. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I heard a noise,’ Mitch said.
‘What was it?’ Jed asked, his eyes still murky.
‘I heard somebody screaming.’
Jed let his head fall into his hands, massaging his temple. He sighed lengthily. ‘Candyman, I didn’t hear anything.’
‘You didn’t you hear anything?’
‘No,’ Jed replied. ‘I was asleep, an’ you woke me.’
Mitch felt an uneasiness slump in from nowhere. ‘What were you dreaming about?’ he asked Jed.
‘Just now, before I woke you,’ Mitch said. ‘You were dreaming, talking out loud about someone ‘melting away’ ‘.
‘Probably Megan Fox, ya fuckin’ douche-bag.’
Mitch unzipped his bag and took the safety of his gun. ‘Yeah, well, I know what I heard,’ he said. ‘There was somebody here again.’
‘You say they were screaming?’ Jed queried.
‘Dunno,’ said Mitch, unsure. ‘Maybe laughing too.’
Mitch was already approaching the tent, the cold grazing his body, congealing his eyeballs. He scoped out the area, taking stock. Amorphous shadows twisted, dark and smoky, merging with the landscape. He felt a knot of bouncy panic coming in and was confused by the immediate danger it suggested. He saw Jed, a stammer in the dark by his right, his own weapon gripped and ready.
The tent flap smacked outward, tussling with the wind. They exchanged startled glances. Mitch gave the nod and Jed tugged the flap open wide.
The severed head of a blond man lay on its side on the ground, as if thrown. Plump sprays of blood were slapped along the canvas walls in a lavish sprawl. A rod of torn trachea trailed along the ground from a ripped section of neck. His jaws had been cracked open, exposing the meaty pink flap of his epiglottis and the nub of his tonsils. His skull was discoloured and caked with dried claret.
‘Shit on a brick,’ muttered Jed.
Mitch was suddenly hit with an image of tearing and clawing, a bulging cascade of shattered bones and cracking fangs clanging like bells inside his head. He saw himself besieged under a crimson canvas of savagery, and struggled to compose himself.
He stepped cautiously into the tent. The smell hit him, solid and angry; a strong, unreeling montage of fangs and tearing flesh hit him again, and he held himself up against the tent pole, feeling dizzy. He was aware of Jed watching him from the corner of his eye.
The newspaper, he thought again. Whatever you do, don’t look at the newspaper.
‘You OK?’ Jed asked.
‘Yeah,’ Mitch replied.
‘You don’t look OK. You look like you’ve just swallowed a gallon of snot.’
‘I’m OK, Jed.’
Jed squatted down, examining the mutilated head. ‘Anyone we know?’
‘No,’ Mitch said, steadying himself. ‘Doesn’t look like a Romanian gangster.’
‘Jesus,’ exclaimed Jed, lowering himself further down. ‘The back of his skull’s been pried open. A big hole’s been dug into his brain. Whoever did this doesn’t fuck around.’
Mitch rummaged inside Jed’s rucksack until he found the torch. He snapped the tent flap back, stepping out.
‘Where’re ya going?’ asked Jed, coming after him.
‘To see where the rest of the body is,’ he replied.
‘What makes you think there’s a body?’
‘Because I heard him screaming,’ Mitch said.
They found it, still wearing a grey North Face Sangro jacket with a red hiking pack strapped to its back. It had been hoisted up against a rock, propped there casually, its legs splayed, dressed in Kiwi combats. The wind played morosely around the body, tugging gently at the sleeves of the jacket and clapping softly against the canvas backpack.
‘Again, no tracks or footprints,’ Jed said.
Mitch played the torch over the grisly remains, while Jed bent down and reached behind it, his fingers going through the inside of the rucksack. He found an Apple Iphone with a dead battery. He also brought out a wallet, opening it up while Mitch gave him some light.
Inside the wallet they found money and a Hostelling International card which identified the headless corpse as being a guy by the name of Donald Peterson; the wallet also contained Donald Peterson’s University of Portsmouth student card complete with photo ID of a sandy haired spectacled male in his twenties smiling wryly above a crew neck jumper.
‘Oh, man,’ Jed muttered. ‘You have got to be fucking kidding me.’
‘A tourist,’ Mitch said. ‘A fucking student. Why the fuck would someone kill a fucking student and drag the poor bastard up here to throw his head in our tent?’
Jed stood, hands on his hips, his lips pursed. He looked toward the drop they’d climbed earlier, a pouch of blackness beyond.
‘This don’t make sense,’ he said. ‘How the fuck did they drag his body up?’
‘They didn’t drag him,’ Mitch said. ‘He was alive, I heard him scream. Look at his boots. They’ve got crampons on. Our friend here was a climber.’ He peered up at the sheer rock face tapering off into windy darkness. ‘Maybe he came down the mountain instead of up.’
‘Makes sense,’ Jed replied. ‘We didn’t pass anyone on our climb. But that still doesn’t explain why there’s no footprints. Also where’s his climbing gear?’
‘He can’t have been thrown down,’ Mitch said. ‘His body would be badly battered.’
‘Doesn’t add up,’ Jed replied.
‘They’re psyching us out, like before.’ Mitch said. ‘But now they’ve kicked it up a notch.’
Jed looked at the ground, shaking his head. ‘You’re still going with the idea that this is connected to the old man?’
‘Who else could it be?’ Mitch asked him. ‘Somebody’s playing mind games with us, and it’s gotta be linked. Nobody else would have the motive.’
Jed shook his head. ‘Nah, man, I don’t buy it,’ he said. ‘We got outta there an’ didn’t leave any witnesses.’
‘Did we?’ Mitch said.
Jed gave him a wary look. ‘What the fuck you suggesting?’
Mitch looked around, up at the dark lump of the mountains. ‘Maybe we missed someone, or left behind a clue as to who we were, something that could be traced.’
‘Bullshit,’ Jed muttered. ‘Told ya before; we’re too good fer that.’
‘Who else could know we’re up here? Who else knows what we’re capable of doing, and is playing us by the same standards?’
‘That would mean someone hid in the house during the fighting,’ Jed replied. ‘None of Gregorescu’s bodyguards would’ve done that. That would make them cowards.’
‘It’s possible,’ Mitch said.
‘I disagree,’ Jed said. ‘You know the fucking code these guys live by.’
‘OK, then we left something behind.’
Jed shook his head. ‘We didn’t leave anything behind.’
‘Well, we’ve got a headless corpse in front of us,’ Mitch said. ‘So maybe you’ve got another theory, ‘cos the poor bastard sure as hell didn’t walk up to our tent and rip his own fucking head off.’
‘There’s nothing to connect us to this guy,’ Jed said. ‘He’s a complete stranger. Why would a bunch of Romanian scumbags toss a dead body into our tent that we couldn’t give a hoot about?’
‘Because they’re letting us know they can,’ Mitch repeated. ‘It’s standard Psych Ops. Fuck with the opposition, screw up their emotions and reasoning. Fuck, Jed, we did the same training!’
There was a lengthy silence while they both looked around, listening to the wind hacking its way through the mountain pass overhead. Jed looked over at the headless body again, suddenly frowning.
‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Candyman, gimme the torch a second.’
Mitch handed him the torch, watching as Jed bent down and played the light over the ragged tear in the neck where the head had been wrenched off. An almost agonised look of puzzlement came onto his face.
‘Oh, Candyman,’ he said, ‘you are not going to believe this!’
‘What is it?’
Jed handed the torch to Mitch, his face withering in the dark. ‘Come and have a look,’ he said. ‘Tell me that we’re not dealing with some frazzle-brained nut-nut here.’
Even before he looked, Mitch knew what he was going to see; almost a familiar image sketched on his mind. Bite marks on the bleached surface of the neck, the holes clotted with dried blood.
‘Seems like someone’s been taking your vampire stories and using them against us,’ Jed said. ‘Making it look like a bloodsucker’s turned the poor fucker into a strigoi snack-a-jack.’
Mitch straightened up. ‘OK, so now we’re getting somewhere. They know all about our cover story and they’re taunting us with it.’
‘Which brings us back to your theory that it was some of Gregorescu’s goons.’
‘The only people who know about our cover are Central Ops,’ Mitch said. ‘Or someone that’s been tailing us.’
‘We have to let Central Ops know,’ Jed said. ‘There’s no way we’re staying here now; they have to extract us.’
‘I agree,’ said Mitch. ‘The only problem being that we have no way of contacting them. The next rendezvous isn’t until next week, when we’re supposed to come back down the mountain.’
Jed shook his head. ‘Yeah, well, screw that,’ he said. ‘We’re fucking sitting ducks, man. We wait till morning, then we start back down.’
Mitch turned back towards the tent. Jed watched him.
‘What’re you doin’?’ he asked.
‘Fucking screw this,’ he replied. ‘I ain’t waiting till morning.’
‘What we gonna do, Candyman?’ Jed asked. ‘Whatever you decide, I’m wiv’ ya, brother.’
‘I’m getting our backpacks, and then we’re gonna go for a climb,’ he told Jed. ‘Find out where our dead student friend was when they plucked him from the side of the mountain and brought him down here. I wanna find out how high up he was and where the rest of his team are.’
Mitch went first, taking his time in the dark. Despite his training in Norway, eight months on the Mountain Leaders Course, and his time served in 148 Commandos in Afghanistan, going up the side of a mountain on a fucking rope at night was still something you did carefully.
Brackets with caving lamps were fitted to their helmets. They climbed for over an hour, Mitch using parallel-sided cracks for placing the cams, picking their way silently and swiftly along and up the rock face, the temperature dropping rapidly every 100 metres, so that soon, Mitch felt the cold under his fingertips and saw gullies sheened with hard mirrors of ice. All the time he climbed, he felt a presence of chuckling evil using the freezing gusts of wind around him as a dance partner.
Soon they reached another plateau, thrusting out from the side of the mountain like a shattered tooth. Both of them pulled their guns out from their combats, looking around, the high-powered LED’s mounted to their helmets colliding with each other, dissecting the darkness. Their shadows stretched, grotesquely embedded into the serrated crevices of the towering sandstone walls. Immediately, Mitch felt it; something hidden and waiting.
‘Yeah,’ Jed whispered. ‘Me too. I feel it, brother; can you say hallelujah?’
Mitch took the safety off his gun. He heard Jed do the same. ‘Stay sharp,’ he said.
Jed began moving forward, his weapon clutched in both hands and tucked against the side of his leg. ‘We’re being baited here, Candyman,’ he said. ‘Ya know that, don’t ya?’
He’s right, Mitch thought. Someone’s thrown us a fishing line, and we’ve bitten the hook.
The air was dewy and cold, the darkness swarming around them. Mitch could smell death even before he saw it; pressing in on them from all sides. The moon nudged its way through blackened clouds the colour of spilled oil, casting an impoverished light across cracked stone. To the left, Mitch could see the side of the ledge, falling away to a tufty tangle of bushes. He vaguely made out a pale, oval shape entwined amongst the leaves and twigs, bobbing in the wind.
‘Jed,’ he hissed. ‘10 o’clock!’
They glided toward the object, sweeping the area as they went. When they got closer, they saw that it was another severed head, this time of a girl in her twenties. The sides of her skull had been repeatedly bashed in, crushed strands of blonde hair meshed in with the blood, her temporal bone and optic canal.
‘Christ Almighty,’ breathed Jed.
Mitch bent down, taking a closer look. ‘Look’s like someone played football with it; kicked it around some before lobbing it into the bushes.’
‘Jesus, fuck! How’d ya know that?’
‘Because there’s a boot print on the side of her face.’
‘Fucking sick bastards,’ Jed replied, spitting on the ground.
Mitch prodded the side of the girl’s head with the end of his gun. It tumbled lower into the bushes, jostling and bouncing before hitting the granite and rolling to a stop at his feet. She stared up at them, one glassy eye locked in astonishment, the other smashed flat.
‘Stuck up here with a bunch of barbaric psychopaths,’ Jed said, looking around. ‘Oh, happy days.’
They left the head where it was, Jed leading. As they moving swiftly and cautiously through the blackness, Mitch’s ears were flooded with the rushing sound of his own blood. He was aware of how exposed they both were and how quickly their own deaths could come bustling forward.
They heard sudden noise, swivelling their weapons around, but it was only a salamandra, skittering through some bushes, the gash of its yellow stripes vivid in the gloom. Mitch felt maniacal laughter bubbling in his head at the thought of them both blasting a fucking lizard to bits up a mountain in the middle of the night.
It wasn’t long before they found two bodies; one was the remains of the blonde girl - dressed in a blue hooded trinity jacket with kaki combats - and the other was a dark-haired male, heavily muscled, decked out in grey parka and tan carbon pants. His face was hacked down one side, eyes wide, frozen in a mass of deranged panic. His arms were fastened protectively around the girl’s body and they knew he’d been killed trying to save her. Jed stared down at them.
‘Look at his face,’ he said. ‘Caught him completely by surprise. Something blew through here and hit ‘em as fast as a gust of wind.’
‘The guy was built like a rugby player,’ Mitch murmured. ‘It wasn’t enough. Someone cut him down like he was nothing.’ He stole furtive glances at the jabbing blackness around them.
‘This shit’s mashing my mojo, Candyman.’
Mitch squatted, examining the bodies. He found puncture marks in both of their necks and rifled through both jackets, trying to find ID. Lying on the ground, just by the body of the dismembered girl, he found a sterling silver heart locket with the name MAGGIE engraved into it. The pockets of the male were empty.
‘Same bite marks in the neck,’ he told Jed.
Mitch eased the guy’s head up to get a closer look at the puncture wounds and stopped, looking up at Jed and frowning.
‘His algor mortis is all wrong,’ he said.
‘His death chills, man,’ Mitch told him. ‘When the body turns cold.’
‘I must’ve missed Grey’s Anatomy,’ Jed replied, shivering. ‘Plain English, Candyman.’
‘Assuming they were all killed within the last hour, then their body temperature should be the same,’ Mitch explained, straightening up. ‘But they’re not. He’s a lot colder.’
‘Why would that be?’
Mitch stared down at the two bodies. ‘The only thing that would cause it is if some of the blood’s missing from his body.’
‘Ya mean like, drained?’
Mitch only nodded.
Jed regarded him as if he’d just sprouted horns. ‘Come off it, Candyman,’ he said. ‘Let’s stick with reality.’
Mitch swallowed, his throat clogged with hard, grimy fear. ‘‘Uncover mine eyes, and I behold wonders out of Thy laws’’, he said.
Jed blinked. ‘What?’
‘Don’t tell me it’s nothing, Mitch,’ Jed replied. ‘I had a parochial education, man. I know what you’re talkin’ about…. Psalm 119:18 - I just don’t get the fucking reference.’
Mitch shook his head, clearing the shuffling fear. ‘It’s nothing,’ he repeated. ‘C’mon, let’s see if there’s anything else to find.’
‘Don’t keep tellin’ me that, Mitch. You’re subscribing to some superstitious shit, ain’t ya? I don’t need ya to do that, man. I need ya to keep it clear that these are nothin’ more than fucking scumbags who are playing wiv’ us.’
‘OK,’ Mitch said. ‘Keep calm.’
‘Yeah, I fuckin’ will,’ he said. ‘As long as you do.’
Then he gave the bodies a final glance and surprised Mitch by passing his hand solemnly across his chest, giving the sign of the cross.
They found the tent just around a curve on the ridge. It was a large yellow and grey sided North Face VE 25, fluttering and snapping in the wind like a huge, exasperated insect, lit up from the inside.
Mitch gingerly nudged the flap open with one hand. An LED camping lantern hung from the centre rafter and the tent was clean and orderly. Three unzipped sleeping bags were spread out on the floor and a couple of rucksacks were stowed along the back, along with a coil of guy rope and a yellow plastic container lying on its side and spilling out waterproof matches. A Campingaz battery air pump, a chrome plated Zippo Handwarmer and a mobile phone lay just inside the entrance.
‘So there was three of ‘em,’ Jed said. ‘Two died instantly, and one was left outside our tent and managed to scream on the trek down.’
Mitch went through the rucksacks while Jed stood guard at the entrance. Amongst the clothes and underwear, he found two sets of BMC membership cards, identifying the corpses as Maggie Phillips and Mark Goole, along with BMC insurance documents covering ‘High Altitude and Remote Areas’ and Romanian currency and traveller’s cheques. The side pockets contained the usual assortment of water bottles, energy bars, and torches. Mitch picked up the discarded mobile, slid open the ‘unlock’ screen and hit the ‘Emergency’ option.
‘What the fuck’re you doing?’ inquired Jed.
‘Calling Central Ops to ask for an extraction,’ he replied. ‘We’re not fucking around with these cranks any more.’
‘Amen to that,’ Jed breathed.
‘Shit,’ Mitch muttered. ‘No signal.’ He held the phone up, sweeping it an arc around the inside of the tent.
‘Come outside, man,’ Jed told him. ‘Let’s try it there.’
Mitch ducked through the opening and stood up. He paced around outside, swearing softly at the phone, while Jed watched.
From somewhere out beyond the ledge, floating in the swirl of darkness, a salacious tinkle of laughter reached their ears. Mitch dropped the phone, and they both raised their weapons as something slumped along in front of them, chafing the blackness.
‘What the fuck?’ hissed Jed.
‘Moving to the left!’ barked Mitch.
‘Jesus, can you see anything?’
‘No, but I can feel it.’
A narcotic numbness swept through Mitch; his gun grew heavy and his mind snuggled in on itself, reality becoming oblique.
You know you can’t, something whispered to him in the dark.
‘What?’ he asked the cluttered shadows.
‘Candyman!’ Jed spat.
You must try harder, it said, filtering through his brain like smoke.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
Jed nudged him sharply, his eyes huge as they swept the darkness. ‘Candyman! Who the fuck are you talking to? Don’t zone out on me!’
‘Can’t you hear them?’ he asked Jed, tubby clouds of confusion filling his mind.
But Jed didn’t answer him, instead edging out towards the edge of the drop, weapon thrust forward.
Something sprang pluckily through the air, arching across the gap between the body and the tent. Jed let off two rounds, splitting the darkness with the blotchy stutter of gunfire. Rambling laughter pealed off the walls of the mountain, tingling with malice. Jed fired again, blindly this time, panicked flashes streaking the night. A face loomed out of the darkness; glassy eyes; a mouth filled with teeth and smudged with blood. Something hit Mitch and he went down on his arse, his own weapon going off.
Before he could scramble to his feet, something else appeared, gauze-like, butting against his boots and rolling his body over. Mitch caught a snapshot glimpse of flailing hair and eyes lit like smouldering embers. Coming to rest on his stomach, his mouth gritty with dirt, he watched as something cast itself across the star sprinkled sepia sky, hands hooked into claws, before it hit the side of the mountain slope and disappeared.
Jed fired again, the rock walls blushing with orange light, showing dusky shapes skimming the slopes in a flurry of liquid movement.
Jed came over and squatted beside him. His face looked pale and worn, his eyes loud with shock.
‘Jesus!’ he sputtered. ‘What the fuck!’
Mitch scrambled to his feet and they both ran for the tent. The darkness seemed to murmur at their backs, smooth and garrulous laughter tinkling like bells, unfurling around them.
Once inside the tent Jed kept his gun pointed at the opening, gulping air in like a fish out of water. Outside the wind tugged and pulled at the canvas of the tent, inviting them back out. The minutes ticked by with incalculable slowness.
Jed broke the silence. ‘Don’t say it,’ he told Mitch. ‘If you say it, I’ll ram this fucking gun barrel up your arse.’
‘I don’t have to say it,’ Mitch told him. ‘You know what they were!’
‘Fuck off, Candyman,’ Jed replied. ‘They don’t exist.’
‘What doesn’t exist, Jed?’
‘Why don’t you say it?’
Jed shot him an almost accusatory look. ‘OK,’he said. ‘Fucking vampires, man!’
‘Then what were they?’ Mitch asked. ‘Mountain fairies?’
‘Stop talkin’ like that, Mitch!’
‘You saw them as well as I did!’
‘They weren’t fucking vampires!’
‘What, I’ve gotta start believing in things like that, just because we’re in fucking Romania?’ Jed snapped, looking at him.
Outside, Mitch could feel the night shifting once again; he could sense something stirring and stroking the landscape with soulless fingers, widening the cleft between what was accepted as reality and what wasn’t. Whatever moved out there did it with a sparkling and fiendish glee that Mitch found working its way into his brain, slowing his actions, turning him numb.
Jed ejected the spent magazine from his gun, reached into the pocket of his combats for a fresh one, and slapped it in. He turned to Mitch. ‘I don’t know about you,’ he told him, ‘but I’m gonna flush the bastards out, just like we did in the Kunar province.’
Mitch felt suddenly lifeless. He glanced over at his rucksack, stuffed in the far corner of the tent. The newspaper, he thought. Take a look at the newspaper.
When he spoke, his voice was dead and listless. ‘Jed, don’t go out there, man.’
Jed shook his head. ‘This is bullshit, Candyman,’ he said, and yanked open the flap, disappearing into the darkness beyond.
‘Jed!’ Mitch called, coming through the flap after him.
His friend paused, regarding him in the gloom. Mitch could see the uncertainty glazing Jed’s eyes. In the distance, he thought he heard a wail of laughter.
‘What’s wrong?’ Jed asked him.
Mitch lowered his head, feeling drained. ‘I don’t think you’ll like what you find,’ he told Jed.
‘What the fuck you talkin’ about, Candyman?’ Jed demanded, but Mitch could see the doubt spreading across his face.
‘Nothing,’ Mitch replied. ‘I’ll take the western slope, you check the east.’
When morning came, tinting the sky with pigmented swirls of orange and pink, Mitch sat, head bowed, just outside the entrance to the tent. They’d stayed there for two hours waiting for the sun to come up, nerves cranked and trigger fingers ready. But nothing else had occurred and the the rising sun had diluted the night, draining it like filthy water washed down a sink. Overhead, a CH-53 military transport helicopter skimmed the tops of the mountain pass, its blades clattering, its squat body glinting dully. Mitch watched it as it swooped, angling down towards the lake. Jed walked over to a stand of bushes by the drop and urinated, lifting his head and tracking the copter.
Mitch unsnapped his backpack, and finally brought out the thing he’d been dreading to look at. The Romanian newspaper, Jurnalul NATIONAL was clenched tightly in his hands, its pages fluttering slightly in the breeze. Mitch glanced at the front page and held his gun loosely in one hand.
Soon Jed came walking back, his head lowered, looking ashen in the dim morning light. Mitch thought that he’d never seen someone looking so sad and ineffectual. His own gun swung uselessly at his side.
Jed reached the entrance to the tent, peering down at Mitch. Almost as an afterthought, Mitch raised his head and looked at him.
‘What the fuck are you doing, Candyman?’ Jed asked. ‘Shouldn’t we signal that chopper?’
Mitch shook his head. ‘No.’
‘Because I’ve been sitting here, thinking; remembering.’
Jed’s face darkened. ‘What?’
‘It’s here for us,’ Mitch told him.
‘The chopper,’ he replied. ‘We made it come.’
Jed’s eyes - which had been distant - suddenly sharpened, narrowing in on Mitch. ‘What the hell you talkin’ about?’
‘It seems as if Donald Peterson did manage to call in an emergency,’ Mitch told him. ‘From inside the tent, while his friends were being slaughtered.’
Mitch sighed, knowing he was about to defile everything; knowing he was about to unleash untold horrors.
He picked up his gun, turning it over in his hands. He indicated the newspaper with a nod of his head. ‘When did I buy that?’ he asked Jed.
Mitch saw something form in Jed’s face, swelling, angry and virulent, like a fresh boil. He glared down at the front page of the newspaper.
‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘About two weeks ago, in Sighisoara.’
‘C’mon, Jed,’ Mitch said. ‘You know that’s not true.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Jed demanded.
‘Check out the date on it,’ Mitch told him.
Jed plucked the newspaper up and snapped it open, scanning the front page. Mitch watched him, feeling pity for his friend; the way his face remained openly, blissfully innocent.
Why is it only me that remembers? he asked himself.
‘July sixteenth, 2011,’ Jed read. ‘Almost three years old. What’s this, Candyman? Am I missing something?’
Mitch didn’t reply. He merely stared out at the orange-pink spokes of the sun splicing the hills and mountains .
‘OK, so you bought an old newspaper,’ said Jed. ‘So what?’
Mitch barked out a dry laugh. ‘Why would I do that?’
Jed looked lost, erratic. ‘Mitch what the fuck?’
‘The old man cursed us,’ Mitch said. ‘Just before I shot him, he cursed us to live in Hell. My Romanian language skills aren’t great, but I’m sure that’s what he said.’
Jed shrugged, looking at him blankly. ‘So what? The old cunt’s dead. You plastered the inside of his head all over the bedroom.’
‘Yeah,’ Mitch laughed, ‘killed every fucker in the place, ain’t that right, Jed?’
‘Yeah, that’s right.’
‘Only we didn’t.’
‘Kill everyone,’ Mitch said. ‘We just thought we did.’
A vast silence stretched between them, and Mitch could see slow understanding draining into his friend’s face. Jed sat down heavily, looking suddenly crushed.
‘Oh, Candyman,’ he sighed. ‘Oh, shit.’
‘You remember?’ Mitch asked.
‘Yeah,’ said Jed. ‘I do.’
‘Sorry, man,’ Mitch said, meaning it.
‘They were fucking vampires, weren’t they? That’s why the place was so light on security.’
Mitch looked at the helicopter as it weaved out over the lake and came down low, tearing the threads of mist above the water and flicking silvery ripples across the surface.
‘Some of the guards were human,’ Mitch said. ‘And the girl was, too. But Gregorescu and the main bodyguards in the mansion weren’t.’
Jed shook his head in bleak denial. ‘I saw his head explode when you shot him. He was definitely dead.’
‘No he wasn’t, Jed. The strigoi always come back. You remember what the old tour guide told us; they’re the walking dead. By the time we were outside, everybody was probably back up and moving. We were taken for suckers -’ He broke off, realising what he’d just said, and laughed bitterly.
Jed’s face slouched, his eyes suddenly vacant of life. He’s remembering, Mitch thought. About time.
‘We’ve been up in these mountains for three years,’ he slowly said. ‘Living every fucking day like it was only a few minutes or seconds. Goin’ round like hamsters on a fuckin’ wheel. How could we have not known?’
‘It must take time to work fully into your system,’ Mitch replied. ‘It must take time to get used to the fact that you’re no longer human.’
Jed scrubbed his face with one hand. ‘We’ve been stuck on these mountains all this fuckin’ time an’ not known we’re dead?’
Mitch nodded. ‘I bought the newspaper just after the hit went down,’ he said. ‘I’ve had it in my rucksack ever since, the memory of what happened to us always bubbling to the surface. Every time I’ve gone to remember, it’s terrified me to the point where I’ve just wiped it from my mind. I also think that after every time we hunt and kill someone, a reset button goes off in our head and we start all over again, not knowing what we are.’
‘Thinking we’re human all over again?’ Jed said.
Mitch nodded. ‘All part of the curse.’
Jed looked at him. ‘It was when we got to the woods at the edge of the mansion, wasn’t it, just after I threw up? Something was waiting for us in the trees.’
Mitch could hear the dulcet tones of madness twinkling in his head and echoing off the wistful peaks of the mountains; a sinister narrative that was as old as the timeless landscape around them.
‘We took our night-vision goggles off,’ Mitch said. ‘Not that I think they’d have done any good. The strigoi came out of the woods and got us - turned us into one of them. Those things we’ve been hearing outside our tent - we’ve been part of them. That’s why they’ve been laughing and giggling - they’ve never been a threat to us; they’ve been inviting us out to play, trying to get us to realise what we are. Sometimes we’ve gone along with it - while we’ve been sleeping - and hunted mountain animals, became part of the pack, and sometimes….’ he trailed off.
‘We’ve taken it a stage further,’ Jed finished, staring bleakly at where the bodies lay.
A crow came down, its dark, serrated wings rudely cuffing the silence, before jabbing its beak into the dead, ashen flesh around Mark Goole’s cheek. Jed plucked a rock up, hurling it at the bird, his eyes suddenly streaked with tears. It let out an belligerent squawk before flying off.
‘Why didn’t Gregorescu just kill us?’ Jed asked. ‘The fucking bastard. Why’s he done this to us?’
‘Because we had to suffer,’ Mitch said. ‘We had to pay - for our arrogance - for the fact that we thought we could go in there and fuck with something that’s been part of the tradition of power and fear here for centuries...Something that’s been seen as nothing more than superstition; an oral tradition. The old man condemned us to live in Hell, and that’s what we’re doing. Everyone we knew or loved have given us up for dead and moved on.’
‘All those weird dreams I’ve been having,’ Jed said. ‘I’ve been trying to remember.’
‘And now we do,’ said Mitch. ‘We’ve seen the light.’
As he said this, Mitch had a vivid image of himself, cocooned and wrapped in some crusty, bloodless shell and hanging, globule-like, from a damp ceiling. He shivered and felt sick. He ran his fingers along the length of his jugular, pressing against the holes that were there; that had been there all the time.
‘‘Uncover mine eyes, and I behold wonders out of Thy laws’’, Jed muttered. ‘I get it now.’
The listless clatter of the helicopter’s blades were getting nearer as it flattened out, a dull speck against a crayola sky, homing in on the phone’s signal that they’d found in the tent. Mitch could hear bloated voices calling to them from the surrounding peaks. It was time for them to go.
‘I can’t be a vampire, man,’ Jed told him somberly. ‘I ain’t cut out for all that wandering by night an’ butchering villagers shit.’
‘I’ve got news for you, bud,’ Mitch said. ‘That’s what we’ve been doing.’
‘Yeah, well, doin’ ain’t the same as knowin’,’ Jed told him.
‘There’s nothing you can do, man,’ Mitch said. ‘Just accept it.’
‘I ain’t accepting nothing,’ he replied, lifting his gun. ‘Adios, amigo.’
With that he pressed the muzzle of the Glock against the underside of his chin and squeezed the trigger. The sound smashed through the silence, skimming off the mountains, and Mitch winced. The top of Jed’s skull blew out in a squall of blood and brains, slapping the rocks behind him. He slumped to the ground, fingers twitching.
Mitch sat and waited for him to get back up; it would take some time, but it would eventually happen. He glanced up as the chopper got nearer. Soon it would be hovering over the site and they’d send a winchman in with a recovery and medical kit.
Mitch smiled. He could already feel his mouth filling with blood.
He was quite hungry.