Father Ricardo Fern�ndez stumbled as he hurried down the long aisle of Nuestra Se�ora de Montserrat.  Some fool�if fool he was, and not a DGI squad there to accost him again (Ricardo crossed himself unconsciously)�was pounding at the church�s large wooden doors and had startled the priest away from study (well, actually, a short nap) in his small office behind the chancel.
�Yes, yes, I�m coming!� he cried, fumbling with his keychain at the large, dark doors.  He was sufficiently irritated at the late interruption that he flung the door wide, and summoned all the gravitas he could manage to glare at the (surely drunk) miscreant.
His arms and jaw dropped when he saw the man reeling on the doorstep.  Even in the near-darkness he recognized the haggard face.  
Fern�ndez fairly leapt inside, pushing past his startled brother.  Ricardo stood for a moment, stunned, then followed, pushing the tall door closed.
�Jaime, what on earth are you doing here?  What has happened?� 
His brother whirled around.  �Don�t ask!  Don�t ever ask!�  He absently brushed back a shock of salt-and-pepper hair.  �Trust me, Rico, you do not want to know!�
Ricardo stared.  He thought he�d seen every possible emotion that could visit his brother�s face.  But the wild eyes and shaking visage before him might have belonged to a stranger.  �What�s happened?� he asked again.
Fern�ndez shook his head violently.  �No!  I told you�don�t ask!�  He staggered against the back of a pew, stopped, and raised his hands to his face.  He stared at them for a moment, then squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands into fists.  Finally, the shuddering stopped. He opened his eyes and looked at his brother.
Ricardo was still agape at the sight of him, his jaw almost slack against his tattered cassock.  Fern�ndez stared right back.  Only the white clerical collar below Rico�s chin looked clean, but below it�
Fern�ndez lurched forward and grabbed the item dangling from his brother�s neck by a long beaded chain. �Do you have another of these?� he demanded.
Completely nonplussed, Ricardo blurted out the first word that came to his mind. �Why?�
Fern�ndez shook his head again.  �No, no!  Don�t ask why!  Just tell me, do you have another?  I need it now!�
Ricardo studied his brother�s face for a long moment, and stepped back.  �Then you will have this one, Jaime.�  He reached behind his collar, lifted the chain over his head, folded it around the carved cross and placed it in Fern�ndez�s hand.
Fern�ndez gazed at the simple wooden totem, and muttered something Ricardo could not understand, even at this short distance.  He didn�t say, �not silver,� did he? Ricardo thought.
Fern�ndez�s head snapped up, and his eyes were pleading now.  �I think it will do, thank you, Rico, but� your blessing.  Give this your blessing!  Don�t ask why!�
With a look that blended wonderment and concern and something akin to shock, Ricardo complied, wrapping his hands around his brother�s and murmuring in Latin.  Finally he released his grip.
�May it help you find what you seek, Jaime.�
�May it help us all, Rico.�  He shook his head again.  �I have to go.  Now.  Thank you.  I will see you soon if I can.� 
Fern�ndez whipped around and bolted from the church before his brother could utter another word.
�The primary problem,� Famosa said, as they were ushered through the stone maze the next evening, �is to keep him alive until the third donation.  He is old, and sick, and weak.  If his heart fails before then, he will simply die.  And if that happens, so will we, in short order.
�I assume,� he continued, �given the state of anemia we anticipate in the patient, that you plan to conduct a transfusion immediately after the donation?�
�Certainly not,� Fern�ndez replied, striving to maintain a professional detachment.  �Direct transfusions as a treatment for anemia are essentially an old wives� tale.�  He disregarded Famosa�s insulted head-jerk and went on.  �The studies have shown them to be, if anything, deleterious, particularly in the elderly.  No, the treatment will be epoetin alfa to stimulate red cell production, B-12 compound to relieve deficiencies, one hundred percent oxygen inhalation, and a constant saline IV to maintain blood pressure and lessen dehydration.  I have brought all the necessary items with me.�
Castro and Lima were waiting for them in the large, gilt-walled antechamber.  The dictator�s face was drawn, but his eyes were hard. His knuckles, gripping the arms of the wheelchair, were white with strain, but whether he was holding so tightly out of fear or resolve, Fern�ndez could not say.  He seemed focused on the ordeal to come, and for once, did not speak.  Lima noted the wooden cross dangling outside of Fern�ndez�s lab coat, and the doctor thought for a moment that the colonel would berate him for not bringing a more ornate totem.  But the rebuke died unspoken.
Fern�ndez checked the old man�s vitals, replaced the saline bag, and then nodded when Lima asked, �Are you ready?� Lima nodded back, curtly.  �You take this,� he said, pointing at the IV rack, �and I will push the chair.  This is a good time to begin.  It is just dusk, and the thing should be sluggish for a little while.�
Feeling entirely unreal, Fern�ndez complied, and carried the aluminum rack alongside the wheelchair as Lima unlocked and opened the outer door, then squeezed in to the tiny man-trap while the colonel first locked them in and then opened the door to the dark cell.
The thing against the far wall did not look sluggish to Fern�ndez.  It was awake and staring at them when they entered its dingy room, with an expectant leer on its toothy face.  Almost at once it fixed its gaze on the seated Castro, and began to murmur in a low voice that almost would have been soft if not for the harsh consonants of its language.
Castro�s eyes widened and he began to push on the armrests, as if to rise.  �Not yet,� Lima said, holding Castro down with a hand on his shoulder.  �Stay in the chair for now.�  He turned his head to Fern�ndez.  �You should be safe enough with that on,� he nodded at the crucifix, �but don�t get within its grasp, all the same.�        
Fern�ndez nodded enthusiastically.  This time, he realized, he felt no compulsion at all to get any closer to the chained creature�very much the opposite, in fact.
He gritted his teeth and followed as Lima eased the wheelchair towards the waiting thing.  Lima stopped a meter away from the outstretched hands.  Its nails were long, and filthy, and looked very sharp.  
�Anything you need to do beforehand,� he said to Fern�ndez, his eyes fixed on the grinning jaws ahead, �do it right now.�
Fern�ndez checked the oxygen supply feeding an inhaler in Castro�s nose, opened up the valves on the saline drip, and fumbled in his own pocket for the syringe of epoetin alfa and B-12.  �The settings will do for now.  I will need to add this to the IV as soon as� as soon as it�s over.�
�Very well,� Lima replied.  He released Castro�s shoulder, and without stepping forward, pushed the wheelchair out to his arms� length.
When the chair stopped moving, Castro was within the span of the thing�s arms, looking up at its face with wide, staring eyes, his jaw slack. Ceaucescu�s insurance policy gazed back at him, and instead of reaching down, cooed in its soft, harsh, awful voice.
Castro obeyed the summons, rising slowly from his chair to meet the creature�s gaze.
The rictus smile grew ever-wider in anticipation as the thing leaned forward.  It sniffed obscenely at Castro�s cheek, then nudged the famous beard aside with its nose, and with a groan that was shared by both �subject� and �donor,� sank its fangs into the old man�s throat.
When it was over, Castro collapsed backwards into the chair.  The thing that had fed on him licked smeared blood from its lips lasciviously as Fern�ndez and Lima steadied the old man and hurriedly pulled the wheelchair back to the center of the room.  It smiled down at them and crooned contentedly while Fern�ndez jammed the syringe into the IV feed and checked Castro�s vitals.
�His pulse is weak, but steady.  He must be kept on the IV to maintain his blood pressure.�  He looked up at Lima.  �Let�s get him out of here, for God�s sake.�  The last generated a sharp hiss and a stream of invective from the monstrosity in chains.
After Lima closed the inner door of the man-trap, Fern�ndez asked, �Did that thing understand me just now?�
Lima hesitated, then said, �I�m not sure.  We don�t think it comprehends Spanish, but� � he trailed off.  �It has been here a long time, and it�s certainly intelligent.  And as you could see, it does not like to hear the words �dios� or �Jesus� spoken in its presence.�  Lima stroked his chin thoughtfully.  �I wonder how it would react to �Allah� or �Mohammed�?�
�Tell me later, if you ever find out,� Fern�ndez said.  �For now, please open up that door.�
Out in the gilt-walled antechamber, a hospital bed was waiting for the comandante.  He remained unconscious as two soldiers lifted him onto the sheets, but as Fern�ndez bandaged the punctures on his neck, the old man�s eyes flickered open.  He began to moan, and his limbs thrashed fitfully.
�Yes, I would imagine that�s painful,� Fern�ndez said.  �I will give you a local anesthetic near the wound,� he continued, and rummaged in his medical bag.
Ah, no!� Castro gasped.  �No, no!  Get me away�away from that!� He pointed a shaky hand towards the glittering wall.
�Away from the Subject?� Lima asked, more to Fern�ndez than to Castro.
�No, you fool!  Away from all that!� He gestured again at the shimmering silver icons and thrashed more energetically on the bed.
After exchanging a glance with Fern�ndez, Lima barked orders to open the outer door, and they pushed the wheeled bed out of the chamber and into the corridor beyond.  Once the door was closed behind them, Castro stopped his squirming with a sigh, and almost immediately fell unconscious again.
�I should have expected this,� Lima muttered, mostly to himself.  �It will make things more difficult, but there�s no helping it.�  He turned to the doctors.  �The sergeant will take you to an infirmary room.  I will stay here and deal with the situation.  Doctor Fern�ndez, we will resume this� operation in 72 hours.  In the meantime, you and Doctor Famosa are to monitor El Presidente�s condition at all times.  I suggest you work in shifts.�
He spun on his heel, rapped on the door, and pointedly ignored the physicians as they wheeled Castro away from the elaborate cell.
Famosa look his leave almost immediately after they reached the tiny infirmary.  A brusque, �You will take the night shift,� was his only comment once Fern�ndez reported that Castro remained unconscious but stable.  Unsurprised, Fern�ndez settled on a metal stool next to the gurney and alternated monitoring the old man�s status and reviewing his massive stack of medical records.
�What fool performed that surgery?� he murmured to himself at one point.  
�A fool who will not be performing any more,� came a whispered response from the patient.  Fern�ndez started, then stood and checked Castro�s vitals.  His blood pressure was, as expected, lower than normal, but the pulse was steady and his eyes clearing.
�How do you feel?� the doctor asked.
Castro humphed, assessing.  �Tired.  Weak.  Weak, but� getting stronger, I think.�  Now the old man smiled, and only a conscious effort of will prevented Fern�ndez from shuddering and stepping away from the bed.  His teeth� they can�t be longer, can they?
�Yes, stronger,� he repeated.  �And I will be stronger yet.�  The smile widened, and Castro even laughed quietly.  �Oh, I will surprise many with my strength, Doctor.�  Now Fern�ndez did shudder, and Castro noted his revulsion with a contented grin.
�It will not be so bad, Doctor, do not fret.  I will not miss the sunlight; I shall be kept quite warm enough in all the years to come.�
Castro shrugged his shoulders to sit more upright, his eyes now focused far beyond the white walls of the infirmary.  �How they will flock to me, to hail my miraculous recovery.�  He laughed again, and now Fern�ndez could feel the hairs rising on the back of his own neck.  
�Yes, the fools from Hollywood will come to pay homage, and we will talk deep into the night� and then I will dine on something much better than ice cream!�
The door to the infirmary quietly opened, and Lima entered.  Castro, lost in his anticipatory reverie, scarcely noticed.
His voice rose in pitch and volume.  �They will go back to el Norte, and spread my� gospel, ha ha ha!  And that will just be the beginning.�
Fern�ndez exchanged a quick look with Lima, whose face remained impassive.  Castro went on.
�Ah, Nicolae, you fool.  You never had the courage to face the Master.  You were content to rule your cold little prison.  If you only knew��
His voice trailed off at last, and after a harsh series of breaths, his eyes fluttered closed, and his head rolled slightly on the stacked pillows. Lima�s eyes widened now, but Fern�ndez gripped the old man�s wrist and quietly said, �It�s all right.  He�s just asleep.�        
Fern�ndez chuckled ruefully.  �Well, I suppose �all right� is a relative term.�
Lima didn�t seem to hear the last.  ��The Master,�� he murmured.  �It�s started already.�
�What do you mean?� Fern�ndez asked.
�That�s what the donors always call the Subject after the first bite,� Lima said.  �You�ve read the reports.  They fall more under its sway the longer they�ve been exposed.�
Fern�ndez started.  �But� why would he subject himself to that thing�s rule?�        
�Oh, he has no intention of being ruled,� Lima said with a gruff chuckle.  �I already have orders for dealing with that situation.�  Lima shook his head very slightly, and now his eyes were the ones focused on the future.  �After that, though� � 
The colonel recovered himself, and glanced sharply at Fern�ndez.  �After that,� he repeated, in a firmer tone, �we will do our duty, as always.  Carry on, Doctor,� he said as he turned to leave the room.  �I must be sure the cell complex has been� prepared� in time for the next donation.�
Three days later, Fern�ndez pushed Castro�s wheelchair back to the strange cell, but the outer chamber had changed in the interim. The dazzling wall of icons was gone, but the room was no longer uncrowded; a half-dozen stone-faced soldiers, each wearing a small but heavy crucifix, now stood guard, facing the door to the prisoner�s cell.  Fern�ndez started when he saw they did not carry machine guns or pistols. Each man bore a crossbow, black and gleaming with the sheen of modern composite materials; but the sharpened bolts in their quarrels were of heavy, unfinished wood.
The small room between chambers was also cleared of religious symbols.  This time, Castro could hardly be kept in this chair as Lima went through the ritual of locking and unlocking the doors.  
When they entered the cell, the thing within was wide awake and expectant.  This time it did not even speak (to Fern�ndez�s short-lived relief).  It merely gestured with one manacled hand, its fanged grin focused on the bearded old man.  Castro fairly leapt from the chair and lurched towards it, leaving Fern�ndez to stumble forward, scrabbling with the IV rack as he followed as far behind as he dared.
Castro�s head simply lolled back this time, and the thing fed.
Back in the infirmary, much to Fern�ndez�s surprise, Castro regained consciousness quickly.  The old man�s pulse was fast and thready, his breathing ragged, but his eyes, though sunken now in their sockets, were bright with life, almost as if lit from within by a pale flame.
�Soon!� he rasped, again and again.  �Soon my time comes!�  
The next two days and nights passed in a blur.  The constant saline IV improved Castro�s blood pressure, but his vital signs remained dangerously uneven.  Fern�ndez eyed the modern defibrillator at Castro�s bedside more than a few times.  He feared its use would be too much for the old man�s ravaged system, and he wrestled within his own heart as to whether that would be the best outcome after all.
Finally, in the dim early hours of the third day, Castro�s pulse and breathing stabilized, and he lapsed into a deep sleep.  The research indicated this was not unheard-of for late-stage �donors,� and after some coaxing, Famosa agreed to take the day�s shift, allowing Fern�ndez to escape into the light, into the city, and at last into his dingy one-room apartment.  He collapsed into the unmade bed fully clothed, and sleep took him.
Fern�ndez bolted awake, screaming.
He gazed wildly around the tiny room, his eyes wide.  The dream was still with him: dark shapes prowling the moonless streets of Centro Habana; muffled, gurgling screams; cold laughter from the top of the great citadel.  The night had long held many fears in Castro�s Cuba, but the leering figures in his mind�s eye needed no guns or chains or even cells to freeze his heart.  Teeth were enough.
He shuddered, checking the window again and again to confirm the strong daylight beaming through the dirty pane and tattered curtains. After some time, he thought to check his battered wristwatch: it was just past three P.M.
It will be tonight, he thought.  The last donation, the last gasp.  
What have I done?  Then, more urgently: What can I do?
It was too late to do anything.  Even if it were possible for him to run away, Lima would find a way to complete his awful assignment. Even a buffoon like Famosa could keep Castro alive for a few more hours.  Even Famosa could�
Fern�ndez snapped alert, the dream momentarily dashed from his mind.  His eyes locked onto the scuffed leather of his medical bag, tossed aside at the door and forgotten until that moment.
He started at the bag for a long while, then rose, grabbed its handles, and strode out of the dim apartment, into the sunlight.
Ricardo tried to maintain a light tone as he studied his brother�s haggard face.  �At least you didn�t wait until the middle of the night this time.�
Fern�ndez stared back evenly.  �I need your help again, Rico.�
The priest nodded.  �Yes, I believe that you do.  And of course, you�re not going to tell me why.�  Fern�ndez shook his head.
Ricardo grasped his brother�s shoulder and leaned in close.  �Jaime, why didn�t you leave?  Whatever they�re doing to you, you could have escaped it, long ago.  God knows you had enough chances.�
�This is a very old argument,� Fern�ndez breathed back.  �You know how it ends.�  He stared back into his younger brother�s eyes. �And you know why.�
Rico shook his head, �I never asked� � 
�No, you didn�t,� Fern�ndez said.  �And I would never ask it of you.�
A moment passed.  Rico broke the silence.  �Well, what is it you want of me?�
Fern�ndez smiled now, with a clean joy that surprised his brother far more than his previous drawn determination.  �Why, something that you do every day.�  He opened the medical bag, and when his brother looked within and cocked his head in puzzlement, he even found the strength to laugh.
Dusk brought the truck, and the soldiers, and the long ride into darkness.   He was led through the labyrinth again, to Lima and Famosa and the old man, who clung now to the arms of the wheelchair with long, yellowed nails.  Castro�s once-ruddy complexion was now nearly transparent.  A blue vein pulsed on his brow, and his lips were drawn and tight against white, white teeth.
Lima checked his watch and nodded grimly.  �It is time,� he said, and took a black crossbow from one of the soldiers.  He checked its heft, double-checked the nocked bolt, then pocketed two more before raising its heavy strap over one shoulder.
�Doctor, are you ready?� he asked in his most formal tone.
�I am, Comrade Colonel.�  Fern�ndez moved to push the wheelchair, then stopped.  �Oh, one moment, I should replace the intravenous,� and began pawing in his medical bag.
Lima nearly told him to forget it; what difference would it make now?  But long years of leading men reasserted themselves.  Let the doctor do his job.  He is a fine man who has performed admirably.  A shame he will have to be� Well, never mind that now.  He nodded curtly, and Fern�ndez finished the exchange.  Castro, his eyes locked on the door to the thing�s prison, scarcely noticed either of them.
Lima slung the crossbow across his back, then turned to repeat the rite of the keys and doors one last time.  Fern�ndez followed, holding the IV rack with two fingers as he pushed the rattling combination of rack, wheelchair and comandante through the entryway.
The thing was wide awake, and straining at its bonds.  Fern�ndez noted with horror but no real surprise that its hair was now a lustrous iron grey, and its features no longer sunken, but bright and almost plump with florid life.
Its eyes had not changed at all.  Nor had its speech, and it barked a sharp, discordant command at Castro.
The old man�s eyes flashed, and he nodded.  �Free him!� he demanded, glancing quickly at Lima before turning his gaze back on the imprisoned thing.  �Free the Master at once, Colonel!  That is an order!�
Lima shook his head grimly.  �No, Presidente.  That is an order I will not follow.  You left very specific instructions in this regard.�
The Subject rasped at Castro again, but Lima simply stared back at it.  �No, creature.  That will not happen.  Not today.�
Lima stood his ground, and at last the thing, after fixing the colonel with a baleful glare, turned back to Castro and began cooing in its dreadful voice.  Castro smiled like a child, and raised himself up from the chair.  He staggered toward the thing, and Fern�ndez, holding the trailing IV, followed.
At last, Castro managed to shamble within the creature�s grasp, and the ancient thing licked its pale lips in anticipation.
�Now,� Castro said, and his head lolled backwards.        
�Now,� the thing replied, in Spanish.  It bared its fangs, and plunged them into Castro�s withered throat.  Its eyes rolled back in ecstasy as it drew forth the first spurts of the old man�s remaining blood.
Now,� Fern�ndez murmured to himself, as he opened the valve on the IV, and squeezed the heavy plastic bag.
 For a long moment, nothing happened other than the thing sucking contentedly and Castro lolling against its putrid body.  Fern�ndez�s veins turned to ice as he thought, It didn�t work.  God help me, it didn�t work.
Then several things happened at once.
Castro�s eyes flew open, and he screamed against the thing�s face.  The creature�s eyes quickly refocused, first on Castro in puzzlement, then on Fern�ndez in rage and sudden agony.  After a struggle to free its jaws, it released its grasp on Castro, who shuddered briefly, then fell to the stone floor like a string-cropped marionette.  He lay at the thing�s feet, twitching.  Two tendrils of acrid smoke rose from the ragged puncture wounds in his neck.
The creature shrieked, and Fern�ndez and Lima both involuntarily stepped back.  Its long arms stretched out against the manacles, and it screamed again as black smoke began to pour from its open mouth.
It shuddered, convulsing, and to the amazement of Lima and satisfied triumph of Fern�ndez, its throat burst open with a gout of bright flame, and black ichor poured down its chest.
The thing shook now as if it were being electrocuted, its undead veins and arteries bursting as they were flooded with the simple saline solution it had ingested via Castro, the sterile, salty water that had been blessed by the hands of Ricardo Fern�ndez within the halls of Nuestra Se�ora de Montserrat just hours before.  On the floor, Castro convulsed as the holy water broke apart his own internal organs, the pure sanctified liquid destroying flesh that had been corrupted by the touch of the thing.
The creature screamed one last time, then collapsed, sagging against its restraints.  Its face was now truly a rictus, black and stripped of flesh by the fiery combination of holy water and unholy blood.  Its body held there for a moment, then collapsed into a pile of foul bones as its ancient sinews gave way.  Its putrescent remains fell onto the corpse of Castro, who lay gazing lifelessly at the stone ceiling.
Lima simply gaped at the scene for a long while, then turned to Fern�ndez.  �What� what did you do!?� he finally managed.
�I did what had to be done.  What you should have done the first time you laid eyes on that thing, Comrade Colonel.�  He returned Lima�s gaze fiercely.  �And you know it.�
Lima stared, his eyes almost perfect circles of shock.  One of his hands began reaching around for the crossbow, then stopped.  Duty and resignation warred briefly on his face.  The latter finally carried the day, and the colonel nodded, whispering, �You�re right.  It had to be done.  I did not have the courage.�  He shook his head.  �I did not have the courage.�
Fern�ndez brushed his hands together, as if ridding them of ash after cleaning a fireplace.  �Well, I believe we are finished here, Colonel. Shall we go?�
Lima gazed around the cell, wildly.  �But� what will we tell them?  El Presidente is dead, and the thing� � He stared again at the jumble of stinking bones settled against the body of the ex-tyrant.
�I do not know, Comrade Colonel.  I am a doctor, not a soldier or a political man, and so I will leave that up to you.�  He stopped and eyed Lima levelly.  �But if I were you, I would not tell Raul that you were helping his brother rule forever!�
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