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Illusions of Hope

Chapter 5

After the warmth of the loft, the streets were especially cold -- or so it seemed to Angel. He moved along in a blind stupor, trying to convince himself that companionship was a burden and he was better off being alone. There were moments when he almost believed the propaganda that he was feeding himself, until a chance encounter with a red-haired woman or a little girl clutching a Pooh Bear, crumbled that belief beneath a wall of grief.

The house where he'd taken shelter was still abandoned, hidden as it was along the shambled docks of the East River. Dark and lifeless, it matched his mood exactly. His meager belongings were where he left them, only ground water had seeped up through the basement floor and they lay in a fetid puddle. Angel picked up the battered sweatshirt and cargo pants and slung them over a pipe that hung from the ceiling. The monotonous drip was all that marked the passage of time as he sat huddled in the corner. A book floated face down like a drowned man, its bloated cover and pages unsalvageable. Having nothing to occupy his time, Angel slept fitfully; hazy thoughts of a blazing fire, a soothing voice and a pair of sparkling eyes haunted his dreams.

Feed, the demon enticed.

Hunger woke Angel hours past sunset, but he ignored the sharp pangs twisting his gut. Feeding meant contact with the outside world, a contact he told himself he didn't want. Wrapping his arms tightly around his stomach, Angel curled into a ball on the ground and willed himself back to sleep.

Feed. Kill.

Days passed with Angel mired in this same solitude, until the demon would be denied no longer. Forced to find sustenance, Angel rose shakily, weak from lack of blood, and stumbled up the stairs. He was ejected into the night like a baby from the womb. The odor of rats assailed his senses; the vampire followed their spoor in search of a meal, but the demon rebelled against such poor fare. Angel summoned the last dregs of his dwindling control and forced himself to feed on the first rat he could find, and then another and another, until both the demon and the hunger were assuaged.

Angel had no idea how many days he had lain, inert, in the cellar of the crumbling tenement. He only knew the cycle of sleep and hunger had seemed endless. The demon was relentless in tormenting him. Memories came unbidden to mind: a heart-shaped face, a man murdered in his bed; his mother's voice, the screams of his family as he slew them while they supped, still grieving his death.

The exhilaration, the power, these things can be yours again, the demon whispered temptingly to his subconscious. Go to her, be with her, the voice continued. She can be yours, forever.

Again and again, Angel denied the demon, but even the strongest man must relax his guard and succumb to a more powerful force. And so, seven nights after leaving the loft, Angel let himself be guided to that whitewashed building, a place which pulled his humanity too close to the surface for the demon's comfort. Tracing her route from the hospital to school to clinic, Angel followed Lina's scent. He came within a half block of her once or twice, and the hunger rose inside to a fever pitch.

Wait, the demon cautioned. Watch.

Angel sank back into the shadows, watching as Lina looked nervously over her shoulder. She slipped through the door, and the click of the lock was audible across the silent street. He came so close to loosing the demon to feed. His hand was suddenly on the doorknob and he shoved until the jamb creaked, but Angel found the strength of will to tear away from the threshold. He turned and ran, taking no notice of the two men who had trailed in his wake.

Waking up that next morning was horrible. The emptiness mocked her. Another failure. Another loss. Lina tried to convince herself that solitude was best, that having someone to care for was an over-rated pleasure. She repeated those words to herself until she nearly believed the mantra. She threw herself into work, and it helped. Hours passed without thinking about his face, that quirky smile, his strong arms. But a child's red sweatshirt dealt her a double blow of grief and guilt, dredging jumbled memories of Lif and Angel.

The loft felt cold. Even with a fire blazing away, an icy chill permeated the walls. She could almost see the frost hanging in the air. Dragging herself home every night, exhausted, was no solution. The dreams came unbidden, no matter how tired she was. The stars. A man with a knife. The wind. The body of the red-head, lying twisted on the cold concrete. The kiss. Eyes chatoyant in the gloom. Brown eyes wet with tears.

Lina ate little, her appetite nearly non-existent. Loneliness tied her stomach in a knot of tension. Her subconscious served her up a plate of pancakes, the light cinnamon and maple syrup aroma so real she nearly gagged on the sweetness. Cranberry juice poured red and thick like cold blood. Her students dragged her to John's Pizzeria in the Village, but the normally delicious pizza tasted flat and unappealing. Worried colleagues from the hospital treated her to lunch at Bouley Bakery, her favorite restaurant, but even the apple bread couldn't arouse a dead appetite. Her friends despaired when even a piece of succulent sea bass at Tribeca Grill failed to entice her overly.

Days passed in a blur, marked only by rounds or office hours or the slow minutes ticking by in the classroom. She lived in a mix of fear and hope that Angel would return to her. Lina talked herself out of searching for him at least twice a day, until that voice inside her wouldn't be denied. She walked out of her way, down streets where she thought he might be. Once, she went as far as the River, until the cold drove her indoors. Some nights, she felt a presence behind her, but the shadows were deep and impenetrable. Fear kept her from exploring.

When nearly a week had passed, Lina began to accept the fact that she'd never see him again. Her heart closed to a tiny pinpoint of light inside of her, an ember of hope surrounded by a wall of darkness. Her friends despaired. They offered a shoulder, but Angel was a secret Lina couldn't share.

Walking home late one night, she felt eyes on her back. A chill walked down her spine. You're just paranoid, she thought. When the door creaked far below, she chalked it up to the settling of an old house. A shadow moved within a shadow on the street beneath her window. "It's a trick of the moonlight," she whispered to herself. As Lina turned from the window, two shapes detached themselves from the darkness and moved closer to her door, replacing a tall man in filthy clothes.

The warehouse was cold and damp, but it was quiet. Frank and Derek had walked out of the hospital without incident. Frank was fired up with purpose. He had one thought: find that bastard and his little bitch. Coming back to the warehouse was his idea. She passed this way and he probably holed up somewhere nearby. It was a good place to start. Every redhead he saw or tall, homeless guy brought back sharp memories. They made Frank's arm throb with renewed pain. Derek didn't say much, but his eyes narrowed dangerously when a petite woman with auburn hair bumped into him and caused him to wrench his fucked-up knee.

The warehouse was only a mile or so from the hospital, but to make any serious ground, they needed wheels. There were easy pickings in the hospital parking lot. Covered by darkness, Derek picked the lock on an old Datsun 240Z and Frank hot-wired the ignition. Usually Derek was the wheel- man, but that cast on his knee got in the way, so Frank took over the driving duties. Stopping only long enough for heroes and a six-pack of beer, Frank and Derek made it to the warehouse before midnight. The pain-killers were in their systems and they fell asleep, sandwiches only half- eaten.

The office in the back of the warehouse was warmer than the loading dock, but neither man could get comfortable. They dozed fitfully, Frank in a chair with his feet propped on the desk, the battered couch given over to Derek so he could rest his leg full out. When sleep finally came, each man was wracked by dreams. Frank could hear his bone snap as though it was happening right then. He twisted sharply in his sleep and a dull pain intruded, threatening to wake him. Derek was moaning even before sleep grabbed him and pulled him down. A pair of murderous eyes studied him. Derek understood what was behind them and he tried to get away. His dream world was made of cement and he couldn't run, only stand and watch helplessly as his knee was shattered. That bastard just laughed and laughed. Derek screamed inside his mind and the dream dissolved, only to begin a new round a few seconds later.

Frank and Derek were laying low, nursing their wounds. Except for the occasional beer and food run, they stayed put in the warehouse. The floor of the office was littered with hamburger wrappers, empty potato chip bags and cans. Stale smoke hung in the air from Derek's cigarillos. An old radio that pulled in two stations, news and Latino music, broke the silence. Frank and Derek didn't talk much. The days went slow, like when Frank was doing time.

Frank was restless. He had to get out, get information, and he couldn't do it sitting around with his thumb up his ass. Leaving Derek to rest, Frank spent several nights on the streets, rousting vagrants, trying to get a line on where that crazed bastard came from. They're all no-account drunks, but sometimes they see things, Frank reminded himself. They had information and it was easy to get out of them. A bottle of cheap whiskey, a few rough shakes, and the information came pouring out like bile. Most of it was a bunch of shit, but Frank knew when he was being led by the nose and when he should pay attention.

Nearly a week passed without any word from their snitches and lookouts. Then one night, a drunk came stumbling into the warehouse. Derek almost choked the living shit out of the geezer before Frank could stop him. Christ, but he was high-strung. Frank forgot that, since Derek was always so quiet. He had seen his deadly temper in operation, though, and Frank paid the younger man a grudging respect.

"Found the guy you was looking for. Down by the docks, heading this way, moving like the devil was on'im," the wino rasped out.

Frank pointed to a drawer in the desk, and Derek hobbled over to fetch out a bottle. He tossed it to Frank, who tucked it into the wino's coat pocket along with a tenspot. He pointed the old guy in the right direction and gave him a hearty shove. Used to rough treatment, the wino caught his balance and scrabbled away, instantly absorbed into the gloom outside the office. By the time Frank and Derek left, the warehouse was empty.

The car would attract too much attention, especially since they lifted it from the parking lot. The walk was long, but Derek insisted he could do it. Leaning heavily on a cane, he gritted his teeth against the pain, taking a swig of gin whenever it got to be too much to bear. They made it to the docks in little under twenty minutes. They never would have found Angel if not for the network of homeless men Frank had bullied into keeping an eye out. Frank and Derek finally caught up to Angel near Tompkins Square Park.

They could see a slim figure on the next block. Frank fingered the raw scratch over his eye, picturing the ways he'd make that bitch pay. Frank increased his pace, eager for the payoff, and Derek struggled to keep up. Angel stopped on E. 15th Street, nearly hidden in the dark between two streetlamps. Frank and Derek stopped on the opposite corner and crouched behind a dumpster. That bastard was scenting after his bitch like a dog in heat, and he led the cons right to her.

"This is gonna be too easy," Frank whispered to Derek.

Derek only nodded, but there was malicious anticipation in his eyes. They watched in silence as Angel emerged from the shadows and approached the building. He tried forcing the door, then turned abruptly away with something close to a growl, and melted into the shadows.

Frank grabbed Derek by the arm and jerked him to his feet, ignoring Derek's groan and his own pain. Nothing mattered except the payback. He could taste it in his mouth, bitter as bile.

"Comon," he hissed.

The street was empty and Frank trotted across, dragging his partner with him. Derek leaned against the building, breathing hard, but Frank ignored him. He put a hand to the knob; it was frozen in place. Narrowing his eyes and bending closer, Frank could see the separation between the door and the jamb. With a controlled shove, the door swung inward.

"Yeah, easy as pie," Frank rasped.

The street held no interest for Lina. There was nothing outside she wanted to see. That wasn't completely honest, but that's how she'd made it through the past week. Who am I trying to fool? she asked herself. She thought -- no, it was stronger than that -- hoped, just for a fleeting instant, the shadow had been Angel.

Disgusted at herself, Lina turned from the window, intent on a shower. With the water running and the stereo playing in the living room, sounds from the rest of the building were eerily muffled. The loud creak from below blended in with the singing pipes and the faint drone of music. Lina stepped from the shower to towel off, never realizing her home had been violated.

Derek pushed away from the wall and stumbled into the clinic, overturning a small lamp that stood on a shelf by the door. Frank was getting pissed off now. Derek and that bum leg were going to get them in trouble. Frank twisted his fist in the front of Derek's shirt and strong-armed him into the clinic, dropping him none too gently in a chair in the waiting room.

"Shit, Derek," Frank cursed in a prison whisper. "Just sit your ass down. Think you can do that?"

Senses dulled by pain, Derek merely nodded. His eyes closed only seconds later, the drugs in his system pulling him down into a fitful doze. Frank watched him for a minute, a scowl pulling his heavy brows into a solid line across his forehead. He turned away in aggravation.

"Goddamn crip," he groused to himself.

Frank made a quick search through the two exam rooms, looking for anything he could use to start a fire. That'd be the easiest way to get rid of this doctor bitch. With any luck, her old man would come running and they'd both kick off in the fire. At first, Frank was going to make her pay another way, but he got to thinking he was too good for her. A fire was cleaner. Left little evidence. All the firebugs swore by the thrill, too. Frank could do with some fun.

His search turned up a large supply of alcohol. Not the best accelerant, but it would do in a pinch if you used enough of it. Frank emptied a bin of towels and spread them around the waiting room. The terry cloth was absorbent and it hungrily drank the alcohol in. There were a lot of flammables around the room, too: curtains, upholstery, papers. Frank made sure everything was doused.

Derek was still asleep and Frank couldn't pry his ass out of the chair. He told the moron not to mix pills and booze. It was bad news; his old man went that way, the sorry bastard. Frank shrugged pragmatically. If he couldn't get Derek up, he'd just leave him to roast. No skin off his nose, and he wouldn't have to deal with a crip partner. Still, they had pulled off some great jobs and Frank felt he owed Derek a quick end. Grabbing Derek's head in a familiar grip, Frank wrenched it around until that satisfying snap told him Derek would never wake up again.

Frank relieved Derek of the bottle of gin that weighed his pocket down. Derek wouldn't be needing it anymore. Frank chuckled maliciously, then took a swig and saluted Derek with the bottle, saying his last good-byes. He tore off a piece of towel and stuffed it into the neck of the bottle, turning it over so the cloth absorbed some of the gin. Walking to the door, he dug into his pocket and pulled out a battered lighter. The flame lit his features in planes and angles, the anticipation of the kill stretching his skin taut over sharp bones.

The cloth caught fire quickly, the flame eating its way towards the gin. Frank casually tossed the makeshift bomb in the general direction of the floor. Fire leapt up and spread like lava, engulfing the waiting room in flames and smoke within minutes. Frank surveyed his handiwork with a wide grin. Those firebugs were sure right when they said this beats all. It was a thing of beauty.

"Burn, baby, burn," Frank quoted, laughing at his own humor.

Riana jerked upright in bed. That had definitely been a crash down below in the clinic. She rolled to the side and turned on the light. She'd been asleep barely an hour. An elusive whiff of something acrid came to her and she breathed deeply just as the loft smoke alarms went off in a blaring whine. The adrenaline surge forced her to action and she jumped out of bed. Fumbling for the phone, Lina dialed 911 and gave the operator the nature of the emergency, identifying herself as a doctor. She hurriedly pulled on a pair of thick socks and ran for the door.

Smoke had started climbing the stairwell. Lina could run up or run down. Up was a dead end. There were connecting roofs but none were the same height, and she didn't think she could climb or jump to reach them. Down seemed to be the only choice. Yes! Down, she told herself, remembering that this building had been designated a bomb shelter during World War II. Lina was amazed at her level head, but she knew panic would get her very dead and she very much wanted to live. As she reached the bottom riser, she heard the door slam shut and she knew this was no electrical fire. Someone had done this deliberately. There was no time to ask why or who. She'd have time later, if she got out of this alive.

Wracked by internal conflict, the vampire barely took notice of his surroundings. He walked along slowly, each step marginally easier than the last, and kept to the shadows as much as possible. The demon was under control, but just barely. Denied the kill, it pushed harder against the barriers that Angel had erected in the years since he regained his soul.

Sirens wailed in the distance, and there was a taste of smoke on the air. Angel turned back abruptly, retracing his steps to the clinic. A feeling, an instinctual fear, rose up within him. Unable to explain how he reached the conclusion that a fire raged out of control at the clinic, Angel found himself running back there at top speed, not caring if anyone noticed that he was a blur and his feet barely touched the ground. One thought occupied his mind: Lina.

Frank was thinking about taking up a new line. Shee-it, it was so easy, like laying a whore. Accelerant, a match, a whoosh of flame and everything was burning. It was efficient and quiet. Yeah. Frank liked it a lot. You could see your handiwork from way off, too, even though Frank was just on the opposite corner. The only thing he missed was seeing that bitch's face as she tried to get out. He'd jimmied the door good and she wouldn't be going anywhere soon.

Frank looked around and frowned. That bastard should be back already. Unless he didn't care for the little twist. Frank didn't believe that. He'd seen the looks between the two of them. He knew when a woman had it bad. And her old man was the real protective type; Frank made book on that fact.

The ground floor of the loft was filled with choking smoke and ash. Lina's eyes were immediately awash with tears, and she blinked to clear the precipitants away. A coughing fit doubled her over and Lina stayed down, remembering a fire safety video she had seen in the Children's Wing at the hospital. She knew she had to protect her lungs or she'd suffer from smoke inhalation, so Lina pulled her nightshirt up to cover her nose and mouth, sucking in air through the thick material. That maneuver wouldn't protect her for very long. She had to get into the shelter, but she thought she saw a figure in the waiting room.

Making her way cautiously but quickly, Lina approached the door to the outer room. The flames were intense but she could see a vague shape slumped in a chair. Avoiding the burning piles of material was difficult and more than once Lina felt the sting of heat against her bare legs. After a minute that seemed like an eternity, she found herself at the chair. Her doctor's instincts told her the man was dead, but she made a perfunctory check to be sure.

I'd better get my butt out of here before I join him, Lina scolded herself with just a hint of panic.

She eyed the front door with a critical eye. As she decided to dash through the flames, the large window to the right of the door exploded outward. Shards of glass shot out in all directions. Fresh air fed the flames and they danced brighter and higher, licking up the walls to set the ceiling on fire. Wishful hearing brought her name to her, called with Angel's voice, but Lina couldn't see anything through the smoky haze. Beat back by the heat and the deadly fire, Lina stumbled away from the waiting room, just as the ceiling detonated and collapsed, a large beam crashing down to block the door, and safety.

Angel rounded the corner full-tilt. A smug smile grew on Frank's face. He knew her old man wouldn't let her burn. Go ahead, Frank urged silently, get closer.

The flames were intense and, as Angel stepped up to the door, the front window exploded outward in a shower of glass and deadly wood splinters. Throwing his hands up to shield his face and heart, Angel moved closer, calling out to Lina. He could barely see through the flames and the smoke, but he thought he spied movement in the waiting room. Ignoring the danger, Angel pushed against the door and used his supernatural strength when the door wouldn't open. The entire front room of the office was encompassed by hungry orange flame and the demon railed within him, screeching for escape. Angel could stop himself from running but he couldn't keep the demon locked within. His features morphed between one human heartbeat and the next, and he growled his frustration and anger at the flames through razor-sharp fangs.

The demon was the only thing that kept him alive. That moment's hesitation as Angel struggled against the blackness inside of him, kept him at the door for one crucial instant. Time seemed to stop as he spotted Lina crouched beside a chair. The ceiling erupted into a spectacular display of fire and a huge timber, burning wildly, crashed to the floor. White-hot embers shot across the room, deadly bullets of flame and wood; double jeopardy for a vampire. Angel careened against the jamb, still trying to reach Lina while avoiding the lethal projectiles. His heart turned cold as he watched the beam descend in slow-motion, headed right for her. Angel's roar of despair split the night.

The show was just too good to be standing across the street. Frank had to get in closer before the NYFD spoiled his fun. By the sound of the sirens they were over on the FDR Drive, probably stuck behind some old guy in a Dodge Dart doing 20 MPH. Frank cackled heartlessly. He was sure getting his money's worth. But the best seats were up front.

The knife cleared his belt sheathe with a whisper of steel against leather, like a snake slipping through the grass and just as deadly. Frank liked that almost-sound, and this knife was like his brother. He'd sliced up plenty with it, from the Viet Cong soldier boys to anyone who got in his way when he came home. It was thirsty and Frank had a mind to feed it some fresh blood.

Frank had no idea.

Angel stumbled through the door, still screaming and cursing. He beat his fists against the facade and the brick crumbled. Flames shot out and Angel forced himself to fling the door closed. It felt like the lid of her coffin. Tears fell unheeded from eyes that appeared cold and uncaring, lit as they were with a malevolent fire all their own.

A small sound caught his attention and the vampire whirled around to face its source. A man, barrel-chested and tall, stood there with a large knife in one meaty fist. His hungry expression matched Angel's.

There was blame to be ascribed and by the look on this man's face, Angel knew he was guilty. The demon urged him to kill. Here was a man -- no, an animal -- with a conscience blacker than Angel's, deserving of any and all punishment. Angel wanted justice, the demon wanted a life. The two desires coincided and the demon was ready to oblige their united purpose. Angel was way past the point of caring whether the demon was out, and out of control. It was thirsty and wanted fresh blood. For once, Angel didn't want to deny it.

In an instant, the man's face registered and Angel leapt on him with a growl. Stunned by the realization that Ian had been right all along, Frank froze in indecision. It was only the reptile part of his mind, recognizing a threat from a predator, that forced Frank into motion.

He was fast for his size, but not fast enough. Angel was a blur. A roundhouse kick knocked the knife out of Frank's hand even as the mortal raised it in defense. It clattered to the sidewalk. Frank's attempt to retrieve the blade was abruptly halted. Angel twisted his fist in the front of his opponent's jacket, lifting his feet off the ground. He could smell the fear rolling off the man struggling ineffectually in his grasp. It excited the demon.

"You burned her to death, you bastard!" Angel growled, barely able to speak through the red haze of madness.

Frank knew he was a dead man, but he couldn't give up; that wasn't his way. In the back of his mind was his old man's advice: always get'em angry, boy, they'll trip themselves up every time. "Ooooh! You're getting me juiced. Tell me more."

The vampire was incensed. He spun Frank around so his back was pressed against Angel's chest, a forearm brutally stretching Frank's head to the side. The carotid pulsed rapidly, counting out the seconds of Frank's life. The blood was right there, so close, ready to be tapped. The vampire's fangs were fully extended and his jaw ached with need, the need for blood and the greater need for vengeance.

Do it, the demon urged. Drink. Kill.

The twin points of his fangs dimpled the flesh of Frank's neck, but still Angel resisted. He clung to the last dregs of his sanity. Lina's face, her voice, were sharp in his memory. Killing this way, letting the demon win, even to avenge her murder, would be a poor tribute to a woman who had come to mean so much to him in so short a time.

He wrenched his mouth from the murderer's neck with a groan of anguish and loss. Shifting his grip, Angel wrapped his hands around Frank's throat and squeezed until his victim's heartbeat was slow, lethargic. Although Frank was heavy, Angel lifted him with ease and flung him through the window. Feeding him to a fire of his own making was fitting retribution, though Angel felt little satisfaction.

As the fire engines roared around the corner, Angel took to the shadows, casting one long look back at a house that had been, if only for a moment, a haven from a long storm.

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