Mercenary

This is the pilot for my Fiction Vortex series, Kharn. Thought I’d share it here, and get some eyes on it. We’re currently building a stable of authors, and a story bible is in the works. More to come.

Mercenary

“The gods are dead, Trapper.  Ain’t naught left but devils with the faces of men.”

Bharga stirred the embers of the fire with a long stick, the end charred and chipped to a point.  Sparks swirled up into the night, and Trapper followed their ascent, burning fireflies swirling in the dark.  He watched them mix with the stars, and wondered if it were true.  If the heavens were littered with the corpses of immortals.

Bharga poked him with the stick, the heat of the tip pulling Trapper from his thoughts.

“Check the wards.” Bharga said.

For the fourth or fifth time that night, he checked the wards around the fire.  The last thing they needed was imps in the campsite.  They looked intact.  He’d etched them on stone with the tip of his dagger.  It would take some time for them to erode.  The gods may have been dead, but the gods-damned devils weren’t.

Their mounts, great beasts with the bodies of wolves and bone-covered heads, snorted in the chill air.  Bharga tossed bones to them, pieces of the rabbits they’d snared earlier.  The beasts snatched them up, growling low in their chests while they snapped the bones, the blue fire in their eyes flashing.  Trapper listened to them eat and thought the cost of the barghests was well worth the protection they offered.

“Get some rest.”  Bharga said.

Trapper crawled into his bedroll and set his blade close to hand.  He listened for a moment while Bharga rolled into his own bedding and made himself comfortable.  After a few minutes, the big man was snoring.  Before long, the excited panting of the barghests quieted to a steady drone of breath, and Trapper knew he was the only one still aware in the dark.  He rolled onto his back and slipped his hands behind his head, staring up at the stars.  His gaze fell on the black tear in the sky, a void where no stars shone.  He wondered again about the gods.

***

The job had come to them through a friend of a friend.  Not that Trapper would call Kips a friend.  He was more like blood lichen – sure, he’d latch on to you and keep the annoyances away, but there were times when he couldn’t figure the difference between a bug and the hand that fed him.  Which explained the roadmap of scars on the man’s face.  Trapper knew from experience that Bharga had even put a couple of them there for him.  At the thought, his own itched, and he resisted the urge to scratch until the feeling had passed.

Kips had come to them with a letter, sealed in wax – that alone meant money – and a simpering expression.

“Hey, boys. Got a job.”

Bharga waved a hand.  “Bullshite. You’ve got naught but an itch to take more of my coin.”

“You’re not still sore over the Harenbull job, are you, Bharga?”  Kips wheedled.

Bharga just grunted.  Kips looked at him, then back to Trapper, and thrust the parchment into his hand.

“Big payday.” he said, a little lower.  “Plenty of coin to go around.”

Trapper cracked the seal and opened the letter.  Bits of wax fell to the floor like dead petals.  Trapper shook the remains off the paper and read.  After a moment, he walked it over to Bharga, and held it up.

“Good pay.” he said.

Bharga raised another hand, this time in a buzz off pest gesture.  Trapper knew he couldn’t read, but if the other man thought Trapper was treating him like he was stupid, he’d have bigger problems than just an annoyed Capo.  He took another tack.

“Someone wants us to get Greelo.”

Bharga slammed a hand down on the table.  “Fuck Greelo. Been looking for that little gobshite for months.  Do they know where he is?”

“In the wood.”

Bharga looked up, a suspicious expression on his face.  “Who knows this?  Who’s paying?”

Trapper looked at the letter.  “Viscount Grawl.”

Bharga appeared to chew the information over.  “How much?”

“40 crowns.”

Bharga snorted.  “I’d do it for 5.  We’ll leave tomorrow.”

“Finder’s fee?”  Kips asked in a small voice.

Trapper hushed him and ushered him over the threshold.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t push him any harder, or he’ll feed you to the hounds.”

Kips nodded and thanked Trapper, who shut the door in his face before it could get embarrassing.  He walked over to Bharga, the parchment still in his hands.  After a moment, he fed it into the hearth.  The paper crackled and blackened, the edges turning in.  Trapper could see the imps playing in the flames, and ran a hand over the stones of the fireplace.  He turned to Bharga.

“We’ll start tonight.”  The big man said.  “I don’t trust the little weasel to try to beat us to the punch.”

***

They found mounts just outside the city circle.  The merchant had set up shop just outside the walls, using an abandoned stables that had been left over from fair tournaments and better days.  Bharga haggled with the man over the cost of the barghests, but in the end had paid three-fourths of the price just to have something reliable to ride.  They would have preferred horses, but the last had been lost a generation ago.

They swept out of the inner walls and through the main causeway, past throngs of dirty refugees and what appeared to be a former cleric.  The cleric was holding a painted sign on a pole that read ALL ARE DEAD ALL IS LOST.  Trapper caught the man’s eyes as they passed, hollow and haunted, and then they were out of the gates and onto the plain.

The plain was sere and stony, the few crops the people had managed to plant into the inhospitable earth straggling up on brown stalks.  Fog gathered in hollows, and here and there a small creature scuttled by, its movements furtive.  To their left, what had once been a mighty river was little more than a muddy stream that fed into the sea.  Ahead, the plain opened up, and was bracketed by strands of woods.

They turned their mounts towards the woods, the barghests loping easily over the stony soil.  As the sun sank, they could hear the occasional howl of some hungry beast, but let it worry their minds little.  Barghests were swift, and fierce fighters when cornered.  The wind picked up, sweeping the howls away, and they hunkered down in their saddles and rode on.

***

They halted at the edge of the wood.  Trapper dismounted and ran a hand over the trunk of the nearest tree.  Overhead, the bare branches clattered together.  Someone had carved wards in the wood of the trunk.  He looked to the next tree, and the next.  It was the same on both sides of the path, deep into the wood.  There was something in the forest, and someone wanted to keep the road safe.

They remounted and entered, the path wide enough for them to ride side by side.  The barghests moved slower here, cautiously, as though they could smell whatever was waiting ahead.  They rode in silence for some time.

Bharga broke the silence.  “Should bring back an ear or somethin’.  The high and mighty aint gonna believe a couple of cutters if we just show and say we did it.”

Trapper just nodded.  Something was moving just at the edge of his sight, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.  He made a motion at Bharga.

“You see that?”

Bharga swiveled his head to the side, just enough to see what Trapper thought he did.  His eyes widened a bit.

“Forest daemon.” he whispered.

Trapper turned his head as well.  He saw it then, something mossy and hulking, with glowing green eyes and great antlers on its head.  It shambled along beside them in complete silence, the smell of rotting vegetation following it.  Their mounts didn’t react at all, a fact that unnerved Trapper.  They either knew what it was, or hadn’t noticed it.  Worse, they knew it, and were related somehow.  Barghests were forest and plain natives, after all.

They halted in the middle of the trail for a moment.  Trapper turned to Bharga.  “Do we turn back?”

Bharga looked up the trail, then down.  Up ahead, they could see a sqaut building between the trees.  It was weathered and worn, with moss and lichen growing in patches on the roof, and crooked windows.  He glanced over at Trapper.

“You think Greelo’s got himself wards up there?”

“Aye, probably.”

“What if he didn’t?”

Trapper thought about that.  A gap in the wards would mean the shambler could get in.  It might just do the work for them, and when it was done and gone, they could clean up after.  He drew his dagger, the small blade reassuring in his hand.

“Let’s get to work.”

They rode to the cabin cautiously.  When no shout of warning came, and no arrow tried to decorate their chests, they dismounted as quietly as possible and set to work cutting the sections of tree out where the wards had been carved.  It was hard work, since the runes had been etched deep, and the whole time they hacked away at the wood, the shambler watched from the perimeter, lurking, its eyes glowing that baleful green.

After an hour, they had a swath of the wards cut out.  They moved back to the barghests and waited.  The shambler approached the trees slowly, as though unsure.  As it drew closer, it seemed to sense the magic protecting that place was diminished, and suddenly charged through the gap.

It slammed into the cabin, shaking the building on its foundation.  From inside came a frightened shriek.  It slammed again, and the cabin trembled again, like a scared child.  There was the sound of breaking glass, and an arrow sailed from one of the windows, lodging in the shambler’s shoulder.  It roared and reared back, then hit the cabin one more time.  The wall collapsed in a cloud of dust.

For a moment, there was silence, then the thin form of Greelo emerged, clutching a longbow.  He sighted the beast, and then Bharga and Trapper.  Fury contorted his features, and he charged at them.

“Shite.” Bharga muttered.  Then, “Mount up,” as he saw that the shambler had given chase to Greelo.

They mounted as fast as they could, and before long, were charging along the forest floor, yards ahead of Greelo and the monster.  They spurred the barghests, and heard Greelo scream curses that changed into an ungodly shriek.  Trapper risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the shambler had caught up to Greelo.  The little man was now impaled and writhing on one antler, and still the beast came.

Ahead, the trail ended, widening out into the plain again, and they put on a final burst of speed to escape the trees.  Behind them, the shambler roared in frustration as it came to the end of its domain, the sound drowning out Greelo’s whimpers of agony.  They rode a few hundred meters past the entrance to be safe, then stopped and turned.  The shambler watched them for another minute with its balefire eyes, as though memorizing them.  Then it turned, and in a few seconds, had disappeared back into the forest.

“Shite!”  Bharga cursed.  “Fuckin’ Viscount aint gonna believe this.”

Trapper nodded.  He looked up at the sky, which was a deep purple.  Stars were starting to dot the firmament.

“C’mon.”  He said.  “Let’s camp here.  Maybe we can go back in the morning.”

“Fine.”

They made camp.

***

     Memory lifted from him, and Trapper looked over at the fire.  Bharga was still dead asleep, and the embers had burnt down to almost a flicker.  He took  a breath and carefully slipped from his bedroll, slipping his dagger from its sheath.  He inched to the fire, and with a good deal of care, pulled one of the wardstones from its edge.  The flames rekindled for a moment, as if acknowledging what he was doing.

He pricked his finger and let it drop into the fire, and there was another flare.  Bharga snorted and muttered in his sleep, then rolled over, his back to Trapper.  Trapper crept over, and thought of the words on the parchment Kips had handed him.  He acted quick, his blade slipping deep into Bharga’s back.  He wrenched on it and spun it in a circle, cutting a hole in the now dead man.  He reached inside and pulled out Bharga’s heart, holding it for a moment, still fresh.  He was surprised.  He thought it would be blacker.

He dropped the heart in the fire, and the barghests growled, the scent of cooking meat exciting their senses.  It did blacken, then, and when it was fully charred, Trapper pulled it from the fire, the hot flesh searing his hand.  He shoved it back into the hole he had made in Bharga’s back, then sat and waited.

After a time, the big man rolled over and sat up, his eyes blazing orange and red and yellow.  He smiled, and it was fiery.

“Yes.” he said.

Bharga was right.  The gods may have been dead, but there were sure as hell devils left, and they paid well.

Ferryman

Here’s an urban fantasy piece that might have gone somewhere, but I felt it was too weak. It’s an older bit, and kind of an exercise in character type and world-tinkering.

Ferryman

 

I drive the dead.  It’s a job.

 

If you were to ask how it started, I couldn’t answer.  The cab has always been there, just like the apartment on 34th, and the clients.  I’m always hard-pressed when I try to explain how or when it began, the gaps in my memory like dark chasms between neurons.  It’s the same black blank that comes to me when I try to make sense of the fact that I can see and speak with the dead, or that I should know the roads they travel.  After so many years, it just is, and I’ve learned to accept it.

 

Still, on some nights, when I’m sitting in the cab, and the meter’s off for a bit, in the silences that come between the drumming of rain on the roof, or the voice of a fare, I catch glimpses.  My mother, dressed in black, humming lullabies in a dim room, twilight filtering through.  My father, a hulking man, dark like mahogany, and depending on his mood, wearing either a fierce scowl, or a smile like moonlight.

 

It was one of those nights when she came to my cab.  Pale skin, the color of milk, and auburn hair that rippled and strayed in the wind.  She was wearing a knee-length dress, the kind of red that reminds you of dark roses, or wine.  She smiled through the window, her teeth straight and just white enough to let you know she’d lived, and got in.

 

My heart ached and let out a pang that let me know if she hadn’t already been gone, I would’ve never had a chance with her.

 

She got in, and closed the door behind her.  In the space of that second, I could hear the wind picking up, playing music on the concrete of the city while the rain increased its tempo against the roof of the cab, as though it wanted to go where she was.  More importantly, I could smell her.  Not in a creepy let-me-borrow-your-hair way, but in the way you notice someone when they pass by.

 

I could smell jasmine and vanilla, the wet musk of her hair, and the cloth of the dress that clung to her like a second skin.  I was trying not to stare in the rearview.  I reached for the meter, and stopped.

 

Her clothes were wet.

 

                You might think a thing like that shouldn’t surprise me.  The thing is, regular people, everyday people, with jobs and kids and mortgages, and most importantly, lives, don’t see the cab.  You only get a glimpse, a chance to ride if you’re already gone.  For this woman to get into my cab, she had to be very close, practically knocking on death’s door herself, and yet I saw only a healthy, rain-soaked lady.

 

I looked into the rearview again, and met her eyes.  They were the kind of dark green you only see on grass in the summer after a good rain.

 

“You sure you want this cab, miss?”  I looked for an excuse.  “I’m off-duty.  Should be another along in a few minutes.”

She smiled at my reflection.  “Yes, this is fine.  I’ll match half your fare if you can take me home.”

 

I thought about it.  I usually kept a pretty tight schedule, but it wasn’t like the dead were short on time.  I turned the heat up in the back a bit, and put the cab into gear.

 

“Where to?”

 

“42nd and Broadway.”  She said.

 

I eased into the street, traffic sparse that time of night.  The cab’s headlights cut the dark, revealed the edges of buildings, sidewalk, and asphalt, the white lines throwing back the light and glowing with a ghostlike quality.  Here and there pedestrians strolled beneath umbrellas, the glow of streetlamps making the black fabric glow in the night.

 

As I drove, I snuck quick glances into the rearview to check on the woman.  She stared out of the window, watching the city slip by.  Streetlight and neon lit her face in flashes as we passed.  She had begun to dry somewhat, though her hair still clung to her neck, and her clothing looked like it would be chilly if she stepped into the wind.

 

Despite her condition, her eyes had begun to droop, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before she was asleep.  I reached up and shut the meter off as quietly as possible, and heard her stir in the back.

 

I turned my attention back to the road, made a right, and drove on.

 

*

 

 

Bram Stoker once wrote that the dead travel fast.  Those dead had never come over the Jefferson Bridge at bar close.  I slowed the cab to a near halt, and waited for traffic to move along.  While I did, I kept an eye out for bicyclers who were crazy enough to still be riding this time of night and for the occasional case of road rage that might flare up and result in the cab being trashed.

 

What I said before – about the living not being able to see the cab.  It wasn’t exactly right.  The living can see the cab, in traffic, or in passing, but not when they’re looking for one.  They won’t go out of their way to hail me, or try to get in.  Most will even walk an extra few feet out of their way to avoid it.  To those people, the cab is dim, a shadow of a shadow in the waking world.  As a bonus, that instinct for the living to avoid it has kept my insurance premiums down.

 

I flicked a glance to the back of the cab.  The woman there slumped halfway between the seat and the window, her cheek pressed against the soft fabric.  I worried that she had passed, and I hadn’t noticed.  I watched for another moment, and saw her chest rise and fall, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat.  I turned back to the road, and crept forward with the traffic.

 

As we moved, traffic began to thin, revealing a small crowd of uniforms and flashing lights ahead.  Behind an officer directing traffic, was a group of about five others, police and EMTs, gathered around a twisted wreck.  Blood ran from the passenger door, either torn or cut off from the accident.  It pooled on the asphalt, shimmering in the flashing emergency lights, darker than the rain.

 

Between two officers, a black bag lay on the ground, zipped closed.  They stood over it, watching the scene with cool detachment.  Neither could see the middle-aged bespectacled man dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, staring at the bag.  As I approached the officer directing traffic, the man looked up.  He raised his hand, and waved.  I shook my head and gestured at the back, and he let his hand drop.  The look on his face went from hopeful to annoyed, and then, as though he realized he had plenty of time, he nodded, and waved me off.

 

Like I said before, the dead understand.  They have all the time in the world.

 

The officer waved the cab through, and I took the right, moving toward the upper side of town, and the young lady’s home.  I still didn’t understand how she had found my cab.

 

*

 

I pulled onto 30th and Jewel, at the lower end of the shopping district.  Markets and boutiques, small bakeries and specialty shops nestled against one another here.  Tasteful awnings and big plate windows declared the names of the shops, and showed off their merchandise.  Out of the heavier traffic, I relaxed, and slowed the cab a bit.

 

With the meter off, most cabbies would have hurried their fare to the destination, regardless of altruism.  One off, one on, equals more money.  Unlike most cabbies and their fares, I had plenty of time, and no real money to make.  To be honest, the meter was more of an affectation anyways.  Besides, I was enjoying the quiet time.  The rain on the roof of the cab beat out a steady hypnotic rhythm, the woman in the back was sleeping contentedly, and also, she smelled nice.

 

I turned up a side street, and a pair of headlights that had been behind me for some time separated from the stream of cars and followed at a discrete distance.  Probably just a late-night window-shopper, I thought.  My gut knotted, and I doubted the idea.  I took a couple of more turns at a leisurely pace, so as not to let on I had seen the car.

 

I can’t explain why the car behind me, a late-model grey sedan, bothered me so much.  It wouldn’t be the first time I was followed, and probably wouldn’t be the last.  With so many people around, you’re more than likely to share a destination with more than one of them.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not dead yet, and don’t plan to be any time soon, if I can help it.  So, when trouble rears its head, which it does from time to time, I do the only thing I’ve ever really known.  I drive.

 

When zigzagging through the streets didn’t work, I picked a block and circled it, hoping the car behind me would think I just had a window-shopper on board.  He followed, still at a discrete distance, though I got the impression that he didn’t so much as care about being seen as he did about how I’d react.  For the situation being unnerving, I thought I was reacting well.

 

Ten minutes of driving aimlessly hadn’t shaken the car behind me, and I watched in the rearview as it began to gain ground.  The action made my mind up.  I sped up, and pushed the cab around the nearest corner, and then again, making a quick left and a right.  The sedan kept up, and inched closer.  Again, I whipped into a turn and a turn, and the grey car kept up.  In the back, the woman in red stirred in her sleep and murmured, but didn’t wake.

 

Clive Barker once wrote that the dead have highways.  I weighed my options, and did the only thing I knew.  I drove them.

 

*

                I took a left, turning off from the circle I had been driving.  Ahead, the road diverged, splitting into left and right forks.  The fork hadn’t been planned by an engineer, nor laid in a pique brought on by a panic triggered by a lack of roadway.  It was a secret road, laid by a divine hand, and it led to one of a hundred thousand afterlives.

 

I pulled onto the fork while it wended and wound its way between and around buildings, over the river, and past factories and homes.  The road ahead shimmered with a pale haze, as though it had been baking in the sun all day.  The city began to drop away, buildings and utility poles replaced with trees, the lights replaced with stars.

 

I glanced in the rearview, and nearly drove the cab into a small pond that had sprung up beside the road.  The grey sedan was still behind me, a feat that should’ve been impossible for anyone else.  It was still gaining, as well, and I put the pedal down, hoping to at least keep them at distance.  An alarm bell was going off in my head, and I shifted my gaze to the woman in the back seat.

 

She was still sleeping in that easy slouch, though it looked as though she were dreaming now, her eyes dashing out Morse code behind her eyelids.  Whoever she was, and whatever her situation, the alarm in my head was screaming this woman was Trouble, capital T, and if I didn’t get her home soon, I might be better off kicking her out on the side of the road somewhere.

 

I rejected that idea out of hand.  I may deal with the dead, but that doesn’t make me immune to compassion for the living.  Besides, my shallow side said, she’s gorgeous.  She was, at that.  I flicked a glance back at her one more time, taking in her delicate cheekbones, the gentle curve of her neck, and her full lips.  I swallowed hard, and returned to the road.

 

Not wanting to dump a damsel in distress off in the middle of nowhere left me with one option.  Get her home in one piece.  I glanced again at the sedan behind me.  For the first time, I noticed the windows were tinted, and what would normally be chrome on a car was a black matte that seemed to drink in the light.  Something about that one detail, the black instead of chrome, made me uneasy, made my stomach clench for the second time that night.

 

Around the car, the landscape changed in bits and pieces, as though sets were being rolled on and off an enormous stage.  Copses of trees came and went with small ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks.  Grass was replaced by tall waving stalks of wheat, mountains and rivers in the distance.  Here and there, stone benches and homes dotted the fields, and the night slipped to day, the rain tapering off.  The sun shone, and the air took on the hazy yellow quality of a high summer afternoon.

 

Men and women and children walked among the wheat and sat on the low stone benches.  They were young and old, dressed in togas and Victorian garb and modern clothes.  They spoke and gestured and laughed, and the children played in the sunlight.  Idyllic.  A soft sigh escaped me, and the woman behind me echoed it.

 

I checked the rearview, and noticed the sedan still there.  It made sense, in a way that nothing else about it did.  Elysium wasn’t exactly a dangerous road.  They would have nothing to fear here, no reason not to try to catch up, to waylay us.  Even as I watched, the car sped up again, and closed ground.  Curiosity led me to stay the accelerator, and I let them get closer.

 

The sedan sped into a car length, and I got a good look.  In addition to the tinted windows and the matte replacing the chrome, the car wasn’t a true grey.  What I had mistaken for grey was a mottled steel color, blotches of paint spreading across the surface like diseased skin.  Its headlights, which the driver hadn’t bothered to shut off since coming out of the rain, were a pale yellow, and its tires seemed to bulge and ripple, as though they were living things.

 

The sun shone through the windshield, piercing the tint for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the driver.  A wide figure swathed in the interior shadows of the car, its head resembled that of a bat.  Pointed ears stuck up on either side of a face marked by small black eyes and a pug nose.  Then, we passed a copse of trees, and shadows filled the tinted glass again.  I turned back to the road and tried not to think too hard about what I’d seen.  Things like that only showed up on the deep trips, the ones where men and women with black souls went to burn.

 

I thought about the gun under the seat.  I didn’t keep it for the dead.  It wasn’t like a bullet was going to worsen their condition.  I wondered how it would affect the Neverborn, and hoped I wouldn’t need it.  I pressed the pedal down, and the cab leapt forward again.  Another thought entered my mind, and I wondered how long the engine would keep up.  The gas gauge still lay at three-quarters, and the tires still whispered against the asphalt with hardly a bump.

 

I looked around.  Elysium had always been my favorite destination, what I imagined true Paradise to look like.  The thing behind me didn’t belong here, and I had the feeling if I gave it the chance, it would stop, and wreak as much havoc as possible.  There were places it did belong, however, and I briefly weighed the safety of my passenger against the danger.  In the end, I decided the only safe route was through that danger.

 

Ahead, the road forked again, and I took it.

 

 

*

 

The road down is always quicker than the road up, though no easier.  We drove, and the blacktop began to show wear and cracks, small potholes and ridges in the asphalt.  The shimmer above the road took on a sinister reddish tint, and black clouds slipped over the sun.  Whoever designed the afterlife had a flair for theatrics.

 

As we drove, wheat and fields of grass and trees gave way to sere earth, cracks spreading through the dried sod.  Rivers and ponds became black and brown and brackish, and rocks and boulders replaced the smaller bushes and clusters of flowers.  Each feature of the landscape rolled in and out again, changing the face of the land as we drove, becoming more alien with distance.  Eventually, the cab rolled into a landscape dominated by grey spires of rock standing sentinel over black earth, the cracks glowing with a sullen red light.  Asphalt gave way to red rock, worn smooth over millenia.

 

The sedan behind us had begun to change as well, becoming a sleek grey thing, resembling a long spider with black legs and eyes, its driver a huge man-bat strapped to its back.  It scuttled and moved faster than its size indicated.  Even in the cab, I could hear the scuttle on the rock of the hooked bones that served as its feet.

 

I pushed the cab faster still, and she leapt forward one more time, though with a shuddering protest.  I knew any harder would kill her, and that would be the end.  Still, it wasn’t enough, and the scuttling of bone on rock became louder, the spider’s legs echoing in the landscape.  It reached one of its considerable legs up, throwing a shadow on the hood, and I juked the cab.

 

We zigged to the left, though not fast enough, and the leg came down.  Bone squealed against metal, making my eyes water.  It ripped a hole in the roof, and I tugged the wheel right, tearing free with another screech that set my teeth on edge.  Again it came, and again another hole was punched into the cab before I was able to shake free.  Through the opening above, I could hear the driver making wet grunting sounds in anticipation of the kill.

 

Ahead, the land dropped off, and the road narrowed.  I felt my pulse double as I realized the glow coming from below was fire – not lava, but true hellfire, and I realized where I had driven us.  Even as the cab approached the bridge, something huge and dark rose from the hellfire, wormlike, and slammed itself into the stone.  It turned toward us, its lower half disappearing into the depths, and its mouth opened, a nightmare of impossible angles and razor teeth.

 

A shadow fell across the hood again, and I did the only thing I could think of, a thing I had seen in Top Gun once.  I grabbed the emergency brake, while spinning the wheel.  The car slugged to a hard stop and began to spin.  I felt a weight slam into the seat behind me, and I prayed I hadn’t broken the woman’s nose.  I felt there was a very strong possibility that had she not been asleep, she would definitely be unconscious now.

 

When the cab hit a full one-eighty, I released the brake, and stomped the gas.  For a moment, it seemed the car was going to ignore my request and simply give up the ghost, and then the engine roared, and we shot in the other direction, and under the spider.

 

In the rearview, the spider had reached the bridge, but it was too late for the bat and the bug.  The thing on the bridge opened its mouth, and tentacles sprayed forward, wrapping around both, and pulling them in.  I drove on, with the screams of the damned echoing in my ears.

 

When the land had returned to trees and fields and lakes, I stopped the cab, and check on my passenger.  Still asleep, though a little askew in her seat.  I decided I didn’t want to wake her up quite yet, and started the engine.  We were almost there.

 

*

 

Country gave way to city, and city gave way to residential.  I pulled up to 42nd and Broadway, and cut the engine.  The rain had stopped, and I could see the stars through the holes in the roof.  Behind me, I heard a yawn, and looked in the rearview.

 

She stretched, and smiled back at me.  “Thank you so much for the ride.  How much do I owe you?”

 

She pulled out a wad of cash, and I waved it away.  “Don’t worry about it.  I ended up going a bit out of the way.  I’d hate to charge you for it.”

 

She smiled, shrugged, and put the money away.  A part of me was cursing over that.  The roof was going to cost an arm and a leg to repair.

 

She opened the door, and the wind caught her scent and swept it out of the cab.  It spread her hair, and moved her dress.  She walked to my window, and leaned in.  I could smell her – clean and sweet.  I wondered why they had wanted her, and consoled myself with the fact that you don’t always get answers out of life, poor consolation that it was.

 

She kissed me on the cheek, and walked to the entrance of her apartment, fishing the keys out of her purse.  When she had the door open, she turned one last time, and waved.  I returned it, and pulled out of the drive.

 

On Broadway, I took a right, back downtown, and toward an accident, and a middle-aged man in khaki.

 

After all, I drive the dead.

A Splinter in the Mind

Jan. 23

I’ll tell you how it starts. Maybe you’ll see. Maybe you’ll know.

It starts as an itch, a splinter in the mind. You can feel it, worming its way forward. The headaches are the worst. Feels like an ice pick lodged in your veins. Feels like someone taking a ball-peen hammer to the side of your head, and just when you’re ready to give in, to move on, and take a sabbatical – ideally, where there is no light and noise and scent – it stops. You breathe relief. Your skin relaxes. You didn’t know that your skin was tight, like someone was holding electrodes to your flesh and making it tighten involuntarily. Then, it’s in your eye. The feeling of something there that isn’t. A pulsing, throbbing, stabbing pain. You close your eye; rub it, thinking something is stuck inside. An eyelash, a crossbeam from the Empire State Building. Water flows from the ducts, but it doesn’t go away. You take a breath, and you think it’s going to burst from your skull, your eye a deflated sac, vitreous fluid streaming down your cheek. Then it stops, and you see. You see them. Them.

They’re shadows. I don’t know where they come from. Maybe some alternate universe where light is dark and dark is light and somewhere, Martha Stewart fucks Mitch McConnell on screen every night precisely at 5 pm. Maybe that’s all they are – shadows. It’s the reflection of a long-dead sun, or a star that burned out millions of years ago, and the spaces where they stood are just now hitting our irises. Maybe we broke something when CERN went online, and they’re something else entirely, swimming through higher dimensions the way birds drift on currents.  Maybe they’re devils, and we’re close to the end. Whatever. They’re there, and just because only a few of us can see them, means shit in the long run.

 

Feb. 3

Saw four of them, hanging around the bodega on Ninth. They drifted around the entrance, transparent. The way they move, I’m not sure they know much. Maybe they really are some sort of new species, just learning the ropes of their nascent life. Fuck, that’s a lot of maybes. Anyway, they just sort of hang out. They remind me of finches on a branch, waiting for seed to settle in the feeder. A woman came out, carrying a bag of groceries. The shades just fluttered around her for a moment, like startled mice. She walked on, and they settled by the door again. Part of me wondered if they could go inside, if they’d buy a burrito, maybe a pack of smokes. Maybe burritos and Marlboro are illegal where they come from, and they’re hoping for an adult to buy some.

I waited for an hour before the cops drove by, breaking up my surveillance. They’re not keen on strange men standing and staring too long at any one thing. I’m not keen on having my head broken. I moved on.

 

Feb. 5

More of them, in the park. They flitter among the children. The kids don’t know – they skip and run and shout, bright colors on their coats making ribboned blurs against the eye. The shadows just float there, watching. I wonder what they’d do if they saw a child skin his knee, or bloody their nose. I wonder if there are little shadows back home, Timmy and Sally Dim, maybe with their shadow dog, Sparky. I wonder if maybe they’re closer to animals. Do they eat their young?

Some kid loses his ball and it veers into the road, and he runs after it. I hold my breath. I want to scream out as the traffic on Fifth ripples past the light because he doesn’t see it. My heart skips a beat, and I hear tires squeal on the pavement. Someone’s shouting, but I can’t see who because I’ve closed my eyes. More shouting and I open them. Someone – an au pair, a mother – is carrying the kid back into the playground. My heart slows. The shadows watch.

 

Feb. 7

I keep thinking. What if? What if they’re refugees? Survivors of a dying sun, remnants of us, humanity, slipping back in time, people fleeing from some Xenu-like construct, and they can only get one foot in the door? If it were true, if more people knew, could see them, would we legislate their existence? Would we try to help? Could we? Would causes spring up around their existence, men with guns and men with signs? Would someone try to shoot one, to see what happens? Would someone try to feed them? How would they react?

My head won’t stop with the questions. They bore into me like beetles, doubt and conjecture. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all shadows and light, anyway.

 

Feb. 12

I met a man. Hiram, I think. He smoked, like a chimney, and watched the streets like they were filled with wolves. I bummed a smoke off him and stood with him, his scarf wrapped around his neck like a gorget, his eyes hollow. He told me about the shadows, the way they watched everyone. We were in the park, the sky threatening rain. The trees kept making clacking sounds as the branches banged together, and he told me about how he kept seeing those things everywhere, and how he was a raw nerve because they hadn’t done a damn thing yet. I listened and nodded, but couldn’t commiserate. Of course, I saw them. Of course. But they weren’t in my head yet, and I wasn’t letting them in. He left with wet eyes and a hack that told me the cigarettes were in his lungs. After, I watched the leaves on the trees shiver until the rain came.

 

Feb. 15

One of them is in my building. It hangs out in the hallway by Mrs. Kossakas’ apartment. Every now and then, it drifts down the hall and back, like it’s bored, or maybe looking for a way in. I don’t think they can go through walls or doors. This one must have slipped in behind a resident, or the UPS man. I skirted it and took the stairs by the laundry room. I keep my door locked, just in case. Just in case.

 

Feb. 17

I saw Hiram again today. He looked worse, pale, and skinny. Sweat collected on his forehead like dew in the spring. Purple bags rode under his eyes. We found a bench and talked a while, mostly about nothing – football, the local deli, the weather – neither of us followed it, but our mouths made the sounds. In a small copse of trees nearby, three of the shadows drifted. Hiram showed me the gun in his pocket, a little silver thing, and old. Looked like one of those revolvers they’d have on bad cop shows. He pulled it out and stuffed it away real quick, his hand doing a little jitter, like palsy was the thing on tap. He smoked and looked out at the woods, and I could see it in him. The internal math. Do I shoot them now? Does someone hear? What happens? What happens? In the end, he left again, his hand jammed in his pocket, a cigarette drooping from his lip. If the cigarettes and shadows don’t do anything, he’ll find a use for that pistol. I could almost see Damocles’ sword hanging by its thread. The shadows didn’t notice.

 

Feb. 19

I can’t find the thing from the hall. I’m not sure where it went, but I haven’t seen Ms. K in a while. I knocked, but no one answered. She was old. I’m sure she has family, has someone who knows where she is. I don’t know, I’m not her keeper. I thought of something, an idea that clung to me for a while, but when I dug out Hiram’s number, the phone only squealed and the voice on the other end did her little disconnect dance. Maybe he found the solution to his math.

 

Feb. 22

There’s more of them. Less people on the street. Is it Sunday? I only know the number. I only know there are less people on the street on Sunday. I think about them, crammed in their churches and synagogues and mosques, praying, genuflecting, singing. I wonder what they would make of this. Punishment? Angels? Demons? I wonder if I should stop by St. Anthony’s. I call information, but the phone only hums. That’s normal, right? Is Google down? If Google’s down, everything’s down.

I think about going to the library – they have computers there. They’d know. Then a shadow passes on the street, and I think about home. I check the sky, and it’s gray, like steel wool. I think about the way you could unravel it, set fire to the end, and watch the sparks climb the metal spindles like a burning ladder. I wonder if that’s what’s going on in my brain, if that’s why I’m seeing these things. I wonder if that’s how the world ends, a steady slow burn that leaves only black in its wake.

 

Feb. 24

Is it a leap year? I wonder briefly if that’s why this is happening. All those stolen seconds leeching into hours and days and years – are we breaking time? A nice lady picked up Hiram’s phone today. She said she didn’t know where he was, and wanted to know my name. Why would she need that? I hung up. I thought about disconnecting my phone, but what if one gets in here? I’d need to call for help. I could say I was having a panic attack, or I had fallen. Instead, I went to the park.

 

Feb. 24

They’re everywhere. I can’t – I thought I heard Hiram, hacking in the woods, and went to him. They were close enough to touch – I didn’t. I couldn’t. What about space AIDS, or possession, or melting my skin off? I slipped between them while they watched. His pistol was lying in the leaves. There was an empty shell in it. No sign of Hiram. Did he try to kill them? Did he do himself? I took the gun. He’ll want it back. They just watched. What did they see? I didn’t ask – couldn’t find my voice. Would they have answered?

 

Feb. 26

Why don’t they do anything? It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a cheesy burrito. Taco Bell would be fucking proud. They just stand around and watch. I don’t see many people outside, but it’s been raining for a day. People don’t like the rain. These things, it doesn’t bother. Nothing much bothers them. I doubt their humanity. I wonder at my own. Why can’t I say something to them? Am I afraid of the answers? I hold Hiram’s gun at night and think until my brain hurts. Until the headache throbs and my vision doubles. Nothing. Nothing.

 

Feb. 28

There’s another in my building. I couldn’t talk to it, but I waved the gun. It didn’t notice. Or pretended not to. My skin itches all the time now. I honestly can’t tell if it’s because I got too close in the park, or because anxiety is ramping my senses up to twenty. I almost left today. I called Hiram instead and listened to the dial tone for a while. I wonder if he’s somewhere safe – maybe the cops picked him up after he fired the gun. Maybe he ran off. I wonder if he’s got cigarettes, and my lungs ache for that old burn. I’m not leaving.

 

Feb. 28

Woke up by the sound of something scratching. Could be rats. This is an old building. Tried watching Kimmel. There’s an old girlie mag under my bed, but I’m not that kind of keyed up. Finally decided to open that bottle of Wild Turkey from under the sink. I brought my chair to the entry so I can watch the door. The whiskey burns, but it’s a comforting burn. I wonder when they’re going to do something. That’s what strangers do, right? They wait, and they watch, then they hit you when your nerves are high so you make a mistake. They give you a smile, and you relax, and then you give them your money. Or they slit your throat. I think of Hiram, pale and sweating. I feel the weight of the pistol in my lap and mentally count the bullets. Will it matter? They’ll do something soon. They have to, right? Will it matter? I count the bullets again. Will it matter? One of them will. One of them will.

Ancestry

cnn.com

WOMAN, 32 CHARGED WITH MURDER

As details of a grisly murder surface, questions arise

by David Rath

Alerted to the possibility of foul play, investigators were called to the home of Maria Rathbone, 32, of Howard’s Falls, Idaho on Wednesday. After speaking with the homeowner, one of the officers asked to see the inside of the home, alerted to something amiss by what he described as a ‘suspicious odor’. Ms. Rathbone was compliant, and led the officers on a tour of the home, culminating in a small den, the scene of which investigators said reminded them of a butcher shop.

Ms. Rathbone had murdered her father, Elias Rathbone, 72, and was attempting to connect his organs to the internal components of her desktop computer. Ms. Rathbone has not been forthcoming about her reasoning behind the murder, and investigators are currently awaiting the results of a psychological evaluation.

Sherriff Stephen Clarke of Howard County was unavailable for comment.

 

The Ones We Left Behind (excerpt)

by Amy Wong

Simon & Schuster

…and in the context of family, it’s the weight of a thousand years that drags us down. Our grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents’ grandparents all lead to an unbroken genetic chain that informs everything from our eye color to the things we fear. Can we look back on that chain, at the sacrifices and mistakes and lost loves and wonder what if? Can we truly say we are doing them proud, or that we have our own future generations’ lives and livelihoods at heart? What happens when we forget those things that build our heritage? Who lives for the ones who died? Who loves those? Is it all worth it, or would they find disappointment in their modern descendents? Is there any one thing we can do to bring them joy? Or are we only serving the memory of a life that simply doesn’t exist, a light that winks out when the void closes in, clinging to religion and belief and tradition like lichen to a stone? No one really knows, but I like to think there’s something there. Even if it’s only in our hearts and minds. My grandmother used to say There is only one life, but it goes on forever. In that, maybe we have all the answers we need.

 

honeydo.org

Seeking Mr. Wrong

Oh, SamMy, I KNOw you see me. PLEasE Call.

 

Sun-Valley Tribune  

Obituaries, May 9

Vera Sawyer, age 63, passed away today at Carrol Family Care. She was preceded in death by her husband, John Sawyer and her parents, Claude and Juliet Hopper (Baumann). Vera leaves behind a son, Samuel, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. The family has asked in lieu of flowers, a donation be made in her name to the Voight-Kampf Memorial Fund.

 

wechat.com

flowergurl has entered the room

dingdong97: Hey!

humpa: Hey!

samman: hey

[samman to you]: hey, you like flowers? what kind?

[flowergurl to samman]: Gardenias, lilacs.

[samman to you]: you like Georgia O’ Keeffe?

[flowergurl to samman]: Who?

[samman to you]: the vagina lady

[flowergurl to samman]: Shame on you, Sam! You were raised better!

flowergurl has disconnected

 

theguardian.co.uk

WORLDWIDE OUTAGE AFFECTS 75% OF USERS

Internet row could cost well into the trillions

by James Canon

On Tuesday, a massive outage affecting nearly the world’s entire Internet user base was attributed to solar flares. Experts in IT, commerce, and infrastructure are still reeling from the shutdown that affected commerce, transportation, and medical care.

Perhaps more interesting are reports that alongside the outage, many users experienced visual or auditory errors upon logging on, including the voices of people they knew, or files on their desktops they couldn’t remember saving.

When asked about the situation, one MP referenced the harsh new conditions the Tories wish to place on Internet in the UK.

 

abovetopsecret.com

[Mr. Higgles] Theory: The government not only knows about magic, but is keeping it secret. In 1997, they started building the largest database of death certificates in the world. You know who else manipulated the dead? Necromancers. I’m telling you man, they plan on using our dead relatives in a future conflict, most likely against their own people. Sure, a well-armed populace can stand up to their government, but how the hell do you fight ghosts?

Before you poo-poo me, take a look – there’s an entire database online. It’s like they’re not even trying to hide it. And they sort them all by Social Security Number. I keep telling you guys – pay to get that shit erased. Otherwise, you’ll be serving well into the next seven lifetimes.

[HubbleEyes] Have you filed an FOIA request?

[JFKWASNOTALONE] How do we know you’re not a Russian plant, man? Who says ‘poo-poo’? A quick Google search tells me that phrase isn’t US-based.

[MKULTRAHIGH] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necromancy

 

twitter.com

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Hello? Hello?

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Sammy? It’s dark in here.

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Sammy

 

cnn.com

COPYCAT MURDER BRINGS QUESTIONS

The second murder in a week, this one raises more questions

by David Rath

Alerted to the possibility of foul play, investigators were called to the home of Samuel Sawyer, 40, of White Plains, New York on Wednesday. A call was placed by neighbors who reported screams coming from the home of the White Plains lawyer.

Mr. Sawyer had murdered his wife, Celia Sawyer, 38, and in a scene similar to the previously reported murder was attempting to connect her organs to the internal components of his desktop computer. When questioned on the scene, Mr. Sawyer claimed his mother was ‘so, so lonely’.

Vera Sawyer passed away last month.

Lawyers for Mr. Sawyer declined to comment further on the case.

 

twitter.com

Celia @samwife

Sammy?

 

 

Idle Hands

Milosh wiped his hands on the rag, the blood already dried under his nails and up his wrists. He glanced at the broken body tied to the chair. For a little guy, he’d held on for a long time. Milosh tossed the rag to the side and stepped across the concrete floor of the basement, ducking as he passed under a particularly low rafter. The location wasn’t ideal, but it was convenient, and he didn’t think the old couple upstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Cottingham, would care. Not that they would care for anything much anymore. He regretted having to kill them. It would have been easier if he had been able to snatch up Parker in an industrial park, or the warehouse district, but you worked with what you could.

Regardless, he didn’t think anyone would notice. The house smelled like mothballs and Ben-Gay, and the furniture glistened with plastic covers that held barely a wrinkle. Milosh guessed they hadn’t had a visitor in some time. Now, they sat side by side on the couch, a small entry wound behind their ears. Boris had always made fun of him for the .22 he carried, but get close enough and it would pierce a skull as well as a .45, and with less mess. He grabbed Parker’s hair and lifted, the head lolling on a soft neck. The man’s eyes were still closed. He’d shut them when Milosh had brought the pistol out. There was no breath. Satisfied, Milosh dropped the man’s head and went upstairs, his boots thudding against the wooden steps.

He surveyed the kitchen, his stomach rumbling. Work always got his appetite up. The furniture was as old as the homeowners. Everything, including the table, was laminate and chrome. Two plates sat in the sink with congealing bacon grease and a fat fly buzzing around them. A fat fly circled a fork stained with egg yolk. A pan sat on the oven, a crust of egg white around the edges. He’d caught them just after breakfast.

Milosh opened the fridge and rummaged around, coming up with a carton of orange juice and half a chicken salad sandwich. He sat at the table and ate, the chicken salad crunchy with bits of celery and a pickle that sent a sour tang through his tongue. The taste of the pickle reminded him of solyanka, and he wished he had some vodka to wash it down. A sound echoed up from the basement, and Milosh paused, the sandwich halfway to his mouth. He set it down, a frown rippling his brow, and walked to the head of the stairs, head turned to hear better. It came again, rasping, like wood on wood. He drew his pistol and stepped down, slow.

The basement was as it had been, dim and quiet. Milosh looked around, checked the corners. Nothing moved, and the sound didn’t repeat. Probably just a rat, then. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The city was full of them. He holstered the pistol and walked back up to the kitchen. Everything was as he’d left it, a quarter of sandwich on the plate, open carton of orange juice. He took a breath, and his stomach rumbled. Trouble in paradise.

After a minute or two of wandering the house, he found a toilet on the first floor. He sat, his stomach still rumbling. The sound came again, drifting up though the vent in the floor. A rasping like before, and Milosh bore down, trying to clear his bowels. He hoped it was and wasn’t a rat. He’d read about them, coming up the sewer pipes, biting people on the ass. His mind conjured a picture of a fat rodent, gray, with its bare tail whipsawing behind it, narrow face and sharp teeth leading the way as it forced itself through pipe and foul water to be free of its prison. His bowels emptied and he wiped, practically leaping off the toilet when he was done. He flushed, the sound almost comforting in the near-silence, washing away his fears. He finished up, washing his hands, picking the blood from his fingernails, and then walked back to the kitchen.

He stood in the white and yellow linoleum nightmare and stared at the sandwich. With a frown, he picked it up and heaved it into the trash, plate and all. That sound came from the basement again, and he heaved a sigh. Rat or no, he had to finish. He needed to be in Baltimore by tomorrow. He took the stairs one at a time, pistol out again. No reason not to be cautious. At the bottom, the room was silent. Parker stared at the ceiling. Milosh’s skin crawled and he walked over to the corpse, shutting its eyes and tipping the head forward again.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? He’d been around plenty of dead bodies – a hazard of the work – and yes, sometimes they sat up. Sometimes they belched or farted or moaned, but they didn’t usually move. Did they? Boris could have told him. The man seemed to know everything about death. Regardless, it was errata. Milosh had a job to do. He holstered the pistol and grabbed a knife from the workbench built into the wall, then turned to the body.

“If only I had been a butcher, eh tovarich?”

Parker didn’t reply. Milosh had hoped he wouldn’t. He rounded the body and began cutting the ties holding it in place. The wrists and ankles were worn pretty hard – Parker had really struggled – deep bands of red cut in to the flesh. When he was done, he hefted Parker and dragged him to a tarp in the center of the floor, laying him spread-eagled. Milosh stepped back to make sure the body was centered – in order to catch as much of the gore as possible – and nodded when he was satisfied. He laid the knife back on the workbench and began to pull tools from his duffel bag, chattering as he did. Milosh liked to talk to the dead. He felt it eased their way out. Boris thought it eased his conscience, but Milosh wasn’t sure he had one after this long.

“You know, back in the old country, we would have just buried you somewhere. For this I am sorry. Cities – someone’s always finding a body. But, you dump them in the water, and poof. No one sees. Upstairs, that’s a home invasion. But add you…more suspicious.”

He pulled out a hacksaw. “I was eager to meet you , you know. Boris told me you were into weird shit.” He shook his head. “Tattoos. Not so weird. I have tattoos!” He rolled up a sleeve, showing a double-headed eagle clutching a hammer and sickle. Parker seemed unimpressed.

“Ah, here’s the thing. I feel bad. Every time. You guys, you get in some debt, maybe you flaunt the money we give you. No big deal. But when you start doing really stupid things – you slept with Ivanna, are you mad? Then, we have to do things like this. Then I get messy, and you get hurt. If only you could have kept the pecker in your pants, eh?” Milosh shook his head. “Vek zhivi, vek uchis. Live and learn, friend.”

He walked to the tarp and knelt, pressing the saw against Parker’s wrist. After a moment, he began to draw it back and forth, ripping at the flesh. It parted easily, as did the muscle. The bone was harder going, and it took Milosh a couple of minutes to get through, sweat beading on his forehead, his breath coming in small grunts. With a pop, the hand separated, blood seeping from the stump. He repeated the process – elbow, shoulder, then started on the other. After an hour, he had dismantled the man’s arms. Milosh stood and wiped an arm across his forehead. The blade was dull.

He walked back to the workbench and started to pull the saw apart, rummaging in the bag for a blade. Behind him, the tarp’s plastic crinkled. Milosh turned, squinting to keep the sweat from his eyes. A hand was missing. His heart sped up. Was there a rat in here after all? He sat the saw down and pulled the pistol free. Shelves stood in one corner, paint cans and solvents weighing down the shelves. He walked over, his guard up, and moved a few of the cans with the barrel of the gun. Nothing leapt out at him. He breathed a sigh of relief, and turned. Something tugged at his pant leg, and he jumped, letting out a curse.

Ty che blyad?!”

Milosh spun, the pistol leveled at the floor. He hated rats. His mind conjured up another image, of his grandmother after the famine, her stomach bloated. He and Boris had found her – they had been only six – round and rotting in her cottage. He remembered her stomach moving, squirming, crawling, and the thing that had come out of her, the size of a terrier, covered in gore and viscera.

Something grabbed the back of his thigh, and he squealed, firing off a shot. The bullet pinged off the concrete and lodged in the rafters. He brushed at his pants, but it was too slow, and the thing was crawling up him, on his back, his shoulder, his neck. He grasped for it, but it was too fast, and already grabbing his mouth. He could see it now, Parker’s hand, squeezing his chin, the severed stump oozing blood. Milosh staggered back and slapped at the fingers, but they felt nothing. He fired a shot into it, but it again, felt nothing. He smashed his head against the shelves and a paint can came down heavy, knocking him senseless. The lights went out.

*

The world faded back in, the dim gray of the basement trickling into his retinas like poison. He sat up and rubbed his head and his jaw, then looked over at the tarp. The hands were missing. He stood and picked up his pistol, then grabbed the hacksaw. He had less time now. The hands were missing. His stomach rumbled, and pain shot through his abdomen. Ice crawled up his spine.

Milosh lifted his shirt and saw the skin of his stomach, distended as though someone were pushing on it from the inside. The hands were missing. His stomach rippled like a bowl of Jell-O, and he vomited from the pain. The hands were missing. He dropped the saw and drew his pistol, and thought of his grandmother.

The hands were missing. There was a bullet in the chamber.

 

Dog Days

Mad was going to be sick.  It was gonna come up, hot and wretched – he could already feel his stomach knotting and threatening to fling its contents up onto the concrete like the world’s worst catapult.   He was gonna vomit, and it was gonna be Bluto’s fault.  Not that would stop the big bastard and his equally wall-like brother, Brick, from taking the piss out of him for it.

He could hear the saw, digging into flesh, wet and thick, like someone trying to cut through a ham shank with one of those old electric knives.  He could hear the sound of blood hitting the floor, and Bluto, cursing occasionally as the saw got hung up on a bit of bone or an extra tough tendon.   The funny thing was, it wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever seen.  He’d done wetwork before – every now and then someone needed to get dead, and Mad had never shied away from that.  But this – it just seemed like butchery.

There was a thud-squelch, and Mad’s stomach jumped.  It was the sound of a couple pounds of flesh hitting the floor and rolling a few inches.  He peeked around the big man’s back, and saw toes, still pink, pointing into the air like a fucked-up weathervane.  He leaned back and tried to breathe through his nose.

“You done yet?” he called out.

Bluto turned his head, the folds on his neck piling up like Oscar Meyer wieners.  His dark brow beetled, and he waved the gloved hand holding the saw in the air.

“This shit takes time.” he said.  “You want the cops to find her?”

Mad watched the saw drip gore on the floor and considered his answer.  He dug a cigarette out and lit it, blowing smoke into the air, and praying it would settle his stomach.

“Given the choice, I wish she’d never walked in.”

Bluto had turned back to his work; the saw digging away at what Mad could only guess was a thigh.  He shrugged.

“Shit happens, man.  What the hell was she doing this far south?  Nice clothes, pedicure -”

“Probably looking to score.”

“Yeah.  Maybe.  Maybe she was looking for something else.”

“Like?”

“Little rough trade?  Little strange.  Lots of tough men and swingin’ dicks down here.”

Mad grunted and reached under his chair, to where he’d tossed the girl’s purse.  He unsnapped the clasp and started digging things out.  Tampons, lipstick, compact.  Phone – he tinkered with it for a minute or two, flipping through texts and photos.  Damn shame.  She was pretty.  Sociable, too.  Someone was gonna miss her.  He dropped the phone in his pocket and kept digging.

Receipts, ticket stubs – he shook his head – purses were goddamn black holes.  He tossed things to the side as he found them, hoping to find something interesting.  Wallet – here we go, he thought. He opened it and found the usual credit cards and reward cards and ID cards.  Inside the middle flap, he found a grand in cash, which he took as well, and pocketed, then tossed the wallet to the side.

The purse was almost empty.  Mad shook it and heard something rattle around in the bottom.  He stuck a hand in and came out with two things – a bottle of some pill with no label, and a plastic baggie.  The baggie had a little bit of white residue in the corners – Columbian marching powder – he never touched the shit.  He tossed the baggie to the side and popped the top on the pill bottle.  Inside were two or three small yellow pills, embossed with a symbol he’d never seen before.  Probably some sort of Molly.  He threw it back in the bag and tossed the purse into the pile he’d made, and then added his cigarette butt.

Brick wandered in from the front hallway, Glock in his hand.  He’d earned the name for being wide as a wall and thick as his namesake.  Mad took a look at the pistol and shook his head.

“You had that out the whole time?”

Brick looked down at it, as if he were surprised it was there.  “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“What was your plan?”

Brick frowned.

“You know, if the cops showed up?”

Brick frowned again.

“Were you planning on shooting all of them?”

“Why?”

“Because they will start shooting when they see you with that.”

“Oh.”  He tucked the pistol into his waistband and trudged over to his brother, where he watched him work in silence for a bit.

Mad’s stomach finally settled.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t hearing the sounds of the saw or smelling the charnel-house stench anymore, it was just that some things you could get used to if you were around them long enough.  He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.  He could hear the saw, rhythmic, steady.  He drifted off.

***

He woke when something soft and heavy landed in his lap with a crinkle of plastic.  Still bleary, he looked down and saw a face staring back at him through the plastic, slightly distorted, like a drowning victim.  He screamed and tossed it off, and the room was filled with the booming sound of Bluto’s laughter.

“How – how -” the big man wheezed between laughs and sucked in a breath.  “How about a little head?”  He collapsed, laughing.

Mad stood, disgusted, and stalked to the far end of the room.  He thought of the pistol in its holster under his arm and thought maybe he should just blow the big dumb bastard’s brains out now.  Instead, he took a breath, counted to the requisite ten, and lit a smoke.  He let the nicotine calm him while Bluto recovered.  When the big man had quit laughing, he turned back to him and gestured to the bag.

“That the last of her?”  Mad asked.

“Yeah,”  Bluto said, wiping tears from his eyes.  “Brick’s out back tossing the rest in the dumpster.”

“Good.”

Mad dropped back into the chair, while Bluto went to find a hose to rinse the floor off.  For a while, there was only the sound of water against concrete and gurgling down the drain.  Mad looked at his watch.  He frowned.

“How far away is the dumpster?”

Bluto turned off the water.  “What?”

“Your brother’s been gone a while.  Did he get lost?”

Bluto shrugged, and pulled the apron and gloves off and stuffed them into another bag.  He tied it shut, and flicked off the light in that room.

“Got to get rid of these.  I’ll check on him.  Dumbass probably fell in the bin.”

He lumbered off toward the back hall that led to the alley, leaving Mad alone.  Water dripped from somewhere in the dark.  Mad checked his watch again after the sound of dripping water had driven him to near distraction.  Bluto had been gone a while.  Still no sign of Brick, either.  His stomach tightened, and he took a deep breath.

They’d probably just knocked off and took the car back to Shanahan’s.  It wasn’t unlike them, to leave him sitting.  Then again, they were supposed to do this job together.  They didn’t think they were gonna do it and take the commission themselves, did they?  He shook his head.  Nah.  They needed him to get past the alarms.  Then what?  He looked at the darkened room Bluto had left behind.  Probably sneaking up, pulling another bullshit prank.

He got up and snapped the light on.  It flooded the room in harsh fluorescence, lighting up pink puddles of water and cracked cream colored tiles.  The room was empty.  He turned back to the chair and sat.  Maybe they’d been nicked.  Cops could be sitting outside right now, waiting for him.  He pulled out his pistol and tapped it against his leg, trying to think.

They didn’t have anything on him.  Just a guy sitting in an old butcher plant with a mess on the floor.  He could probably walk right out after a few hours in the station.  Then again, if they looked in the dumpster, and they might – cops weren’t blind or stupid – he might just be seven different kinds of fucked.  He stood and started to pace.  He wondered if he could just stay in here and hide.  If Bluto and Brick were smart enough they wouldn’t mention him.  He rolled his eyes and knew that wasn’t going to fly.  If those two put their brains in one basket, they still wouldn’t be able to tie a shoe.

“You should totally turn yourself in.”

The voice was high and female, and Mad thought, a little pissy, which was a strange thing to think about a disembodied voice, but he was too busy trying not to piss himself when he heard it to worry about normal.

He snapped the gun down and level, and looked around.  “Who’s there?”

“Down here, dipshit.”

He looked.  The brothers had forgotten one bag – of course they had – the one with the head in it.  As Mad watched, the plastic writhed.

“Hey, fuck all for brains.  Pick me up.”

Mad screamed and fired a shot at the bag.  It went wide, digging a furrow in the concrete, and ricocheting down the hall.

“Really?”  The voice was acerbic, with a touch of Valley Girl.  “Already dead, you moron.  Put the gun away.”

Mad stood for a minute, trying to make sense of what was happening.  He thought maybe Bluto had pulled another prank – slipped him a funny cigarette – or, shit.  He’d touched those pills the girl had in her purse.  He put the pistol away and scrubbed his palms against his pants, then sat down heavily in the chair.  He was just gonna have to ride it out.

“Hello?”  It came out Hell-O.

“Shut up,”  Mad said.

“As if,” the head said.

God, stuck here with Tiffani from Omega Bitchy Theta.  He briefly considered sticking his pistol in his mouth.

“Pick me up.  I can’t see a fucking thing in this bag.”

Mad thought about punting the bag across the room.  A morbid part of him wondered instead what it might be like to talk to a severed head.  He wrestled with himself for a moment, and the morbid part won out.  He picked up the bag and tore open the plastic.  A trickle of gore slipped out, staining his pants, and he cursed.  The head rolled its eyes.

“It’s not like they were Boss.”

He sat down and set the head in his lap.  They stared at each other for a minute.  She had been blonde, though that was stained now with blood and spinal fluid, and matted down.  Mascara ran in rivulets from pretty blue eyes, and lipstick was smudged across one cheek from her lips, like tire tracks from a runaway car.  Her neck ended in a ragged stump that was black at the edges.  She was probably stunning before their unfortunate run-in.  Her lips curled into a smirk.

“Nice, at least you’re a DILF.”

Mad frowned.  “I should cut your tongue out.”

“Like I need it to talk.  Not even a voice box, genius, and yet words.  Totes amazing, right?”

“This is a guilt complex, right?  Some sort of goddamn subconscious reaction to touching those drugs.  This is what I get for not setting a watch on the door.  Could’ve avoided this entirely.”

“Oh my God.  Whine much?”

“Jesus, you’re a bitch.”

“And you’re a murderer.  Most people wouldn’t react this well to being killed.”

Mad opened his mouth to reply and was cut off by a bang in the back of the building.  He thought it sounded like the door slamming shut, and he breathed a sigh of relief.  Brick or Bluto must finally be done.

“Waiting on your bros, your brahs, your bromigos?” she asked, contempt in her voice.

“Something like that.”

There was a low wet sound from the back hallway, and something squished against the floor.  Mad put the girl’s head down and pulled his pistol.

“Brick?” he called.  “Bluto?”  No answer.

“Like OMG, what if it’s totes a monster?”

He turned to her, a scowl on his face.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

She opened her eyes wide, and her mouth made an O.  “OOOH, scary monster, don’t eat me!”  She giggled, like she had just seen something filthy on her phone.

Something squished-slid across the tile floor behind him, and he turned.  His stomach lurched when he saw the thing shambling toward him.  It was an amalgamation, some sort of hodgepodge of life that had crawled its way from the gutter of the world.  All of its parts were human, though bloody and ragged, and in the wrong order.  Block fleshy ropes grew from where the body parts ended in their ragged incisions and held the thing together in an angry, pulsating mass.

As he watched, it lurched forward with a plorp, and black tentacles quested out from a raw stump, searching.  He screamed and emptied the pistol’s clip into the thing, but it had as much effect as setting a fire on fire.

“See, you dumb sonovabitch?  Scary monster.”

The tentacles found the girl’s head and pulled it to its mass, wrapping around it and attaching as still more black ropes grew from the stump of her neck and sutured her to the flesh.  When it was done, it crawled toward him, its motion surer now that it was guided by the gift of vision.

Mad backed into a corner, tears welling in his eyes as it came on.   He threw the pistol at it and uttered a dismayed groan when it just bounced off.  He saw the blue of the girl’s eyes were black and deep and cold.  She opened her mouth.

“You are so. Totally. Fucked.”

Mad screamed until she stuffed black ropes down his throat, and though he wanted to retch, it was far too late.

 

 

 

Houses of the Holy

Kant sat on the steps of the House of the Faceless, the thing in his gut echoing his discomfort. He’d been waiting for three turns already, and the Kith was getting restless. He reminded it there wouldn’t be food unless he was paid, and he wasn’t getting paid until the shitting disciples finished their ritual. For what felt like the fortieth time that day, he shifted his weight and cursed his god, Salazine, and the disciples’ god as well. If he’d never trusted that death freak Damodred, he’s never have found himself in this position, and if he’d never trusted his god, he’d probably be a few scales poorer, but without the demon in his viscera and a constant deadline.

That was the problem with faith, he reckoned. Whole bunch of idiots running around for the sake of what – eternal life? Eternal reward? Power over their enemies? And the shitting deities couldn’t even be bothered to climb off their gilded thrones and throw their lackeys a bone. That was one advantage to Salazine. He helped those who helped themselves. Usually that help was in the form of a sturdy lockpick, or a sharp blade, but you took what you could, which was the first tenet and rule of the Golden Hand. What you couldn’t take probably wasn’t worth it anyway. Or too heavy to carry. There was little distinction between the two for Kant.

But these Deathless, the disciples of the Warden – Kant would rather lop off both pinkies and jam them up his own ass than work with them. Which is why he’d been royally pissed when Damodred had drugged his cup after a couple of rounds of ale, and Kant had woke with a blinding headache, six inches of Kith writhing in his intestines, and an urge to cut the face off the man who had put it there. Turns out they needed a favor. And rather than ask, like a normal and upstanding citizen, or better yet, pay good goddamn gold, they kidnapped the first cutter they saw and shit down his throat.

The Kith writhed again, and Kant cursed.

“For the love of fucking Lakrmos, I’d shit you if I could keep my insides inside.”

In response, the Kith tightened, and a sharp pain shot through Kant’s stomach. He groaned and spat a bloody clot onto the walkway. He hated the demon. It was a timebomb in his stomach, a way of keeping him in line. If Damodred said boo, the thing would rip its way out his body in any number of unpleasant and undoubtedly messy ways. There was an advantage though. The Kith bonded with a host’s system, and in return for nutrients (and it liked its nutrients – Kant ate twice as much as he’d used to now), it shat out compounds that increased reflexes and senses. That made it less than the horrid burden it could be, but you’d never catch Kant mentioning anything of the sort. As far as he was outwardly concerned, the sooner he could squat the thing into the nearest sewer, the better.

He turned his head and stared at the door to the House. It remained stubbornly closed, and he sighed, then checked the sun. Four turns now. He checked his memory, and tried to think of where they were in the ritual. He knew it by heart – he’d read the text Damodred had sent over before the last job.

On the fourth turn of midday, after the rituals of mortification and purity, a silver spike of not less than a handbreadth shall be passed through the heart. Then shall the Deathless carve the Sigils of Naming on the lips of the anointed, and the Sigils of Sight upon the eyes, and invoke the Name of the Warden, He Who is Everlasting. Should the anointed then rise as Avatar, the Deathless shall prostrate themselves and seek his blessing, which is life everlasting, and the death of death.

It sounded like horseshit to Kant, but no one had complained so far about the wasters he picked off the street, or the screams that came from the House this time of day. He suspected half of that was because the city at large was afraid of the Deathless, and the other half too involved in their own troubles to worry. Still, if he’d had his druthers, he wouldn’t have picked this for a job, money or no, demon or no. Something was wrong with these people.

As if on cue, the screaming began. High and sharp, it rippled through the air like a sail on the wind, and despite hearing it several times now, sent gooseflesh up Kant’s arms. It wavered as it peaked, like a diva in an aria, then curdled one more time before breaking off in sudden silence. Kant looked around to see if anyone had stopped to listen, but the truth was, very few trod the avenue the House of the Faceless stood on. Instead, the cherry trees and the chestnuts stood on their own against the blue of the sky, ignorant and mute to the sudden suffering. Somewhere deeper in the plaza, a bird called to its mate.

Kant blew out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and leaned back against the steps. A moment later, the door to the House opened, and Damodred’s shadow fell over him. He dropped a pouch beside Kant that clinked as it hit the stone.

“Another. Midnight. Same day next week. Make it clean.”

Kant picked up the pouch. It jingled merrily.

“Yes, master.”

He stood and walked away, not bothering to look at Damodred. He knew the other man would be wearing a frown. Kant didn’t know all the gifts the Warden might bestow on His disciples, but he hoped to gods the other man could hear him think, kiss my puckered arsehole. For once, the Kith didn’t punish him at the insubordination. Maybe it liked him after all.

*

Kant shoveled in the fried potatoes and sausage – it wasn’t steak and eggs, but it was cheap, and you could get a lot of it – and felt the Kith hum in pleasure. He washed the gob of food down with a swig of watered ale – the shitholes he was used to eating in didn’t really believe in serving it any other way for less than a full silver, and he wasn’t about to give up that kind of money just yet. He was doing his best to keep thoughts of his next deadline out of his head, but they insisted on creeping back in.

He needed to figure out how to end this. Maybe he needed a higher class of victim, the wasters and cripples he pulled off the street obviously not making the cut. Maybe the god of death was picky, like a man who has a choice between sausage and potatoes and shit, he picks the shit because he doesn’t like potatoes. It seemed an odd choice for a deity, but no one could really say why they made the choices they did. Ineffable and unknowable and grand poobahs that they were.

The way Kant saw it, he had two choices: one, he could go for a normal citizen, and hope no one raised the watch before he got them back to the House, or he could go for someone even more fucked up, like a leper. He didn’t think anyone other than Gruch would miss them. His skin crawled at the idea of the leper path, and he wondered if even the Warden would take one. He decided to risk the second choice and hope he didn’t end up with an overzealous guard’s blade in his fucking neck.

He sopped up the last of the grease with a crust of bread and emptied the tankard, then pushed his plate back and belched. The Kith continued to send out contentment, and he sighed, agreeing with it for once. Kant spared a glance out the window, where the shadows were growing long and sensible men and women were starting to find doorways and inns to lodge in. He judged the last of the light to be a few turns off yet. He still had time to get to the nicer districts. Then, he would see what he could see, and maybe finally get Damodred off his fucking back. He stood and dropped a quarter scale on the table, then sauntered out.

*

Kant stood outside the buildings and clean streets of the White District, and frowned. He hated this place. Too clean, too well-lit, and too well-patrolled. The shits that lived here were high on their own farts, smug bastards who kept homes and wives and children like others kept dinnerware and paintings. They kept their buildings clean and their streets free of the things that reminded them the world wasn’t all dinner parties and shining silver. It made him wonder what things they hid in their closets and under their sheets when the dark came down.

Footsteps approached, and he sank into an alley, blending with the shadows like tears in rain. A figure passed, trim in leggings and a velvet coat, the feather in his hat bobbing. Kant swallowed his gorge and crept to the edge of the too-clean alley. He waited until the man passed, then slipped from the shadows, a short prayer to Salazine on his lips. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet, and light was fading from the day, so Kant went unseen in the man’s wake. He drew a  thin blade from its sheath. The edge glistened wetly in the dusk. The poison had cost him a pretty penny, but was guaranteed to paralyze its victim without rigor, a boon he desperately needed in these instances. It was better than delivering some feckless moron with his brains smashed out to the House. He didn’t think they’d pay well for that.

He sped his pace, creeping behind the dandy, the breeze carrying the man’s rosewater scent to him. Kant flicked a glance around, and seeing no one, reached out to nick his victim with the dagger. The blade caught the light, and something in the street – a missed piece of rubbish, or maybe an impossible crack in the impossibly perfect walk – tripped him. He pitched forward, clattering against the stones. His prey caught sight, and panicked, began to run, screaming for the guards at the top of his lungs.

Kant took a moment to curse Salazine, the Warden, and even the Kith before gatehring himself and pelting back toward the entrance to the district. Somewhere nearby, he heard the pounding of running feet added to the sound of his own, and cursed a fourth time the magistrate that funded the numerous guard stations in the district.

“For fuck’s sake,” he growled, “wake up and save my ass you useless worm.”

The Kith seemed to finally take notice, shaking off its food stupor. It shot a spiteful barb of pain up Kant’s guts to let him know it wasn’t impressed with the insubordination, but already it was fading as it released the compounds in its blood. Kant’s pace quickened and his breathing came easier. He sped along for a few seconds before the twang of a bowstring send him ducking to the side. Not fast enough, though. The bolt thudded into his shoulder, the only thing stopping it from ripping out the other side the thick leather of his jerkin. He reached back and yanked it free even as the Kith released painkillers into his blood. The screaming pain of the wound died to a dull ache, and Kant tossed the bolt to the side, still running.

The sound came again as he reached the tunnel out of the district, and he was slower this time, despite the chemicals in his blood. Blood loss and stiffening muscle conspired against him, and the bolt hit him hard, ripping into his ribs, striking something vital. The Kith let out a scream in his head, and Kant ran until he was out of the district, trailing blood the whole way. He ducked into the first warren of alleys he saw, zigging and zagging until he was deep in the maze. Panting, he leaned against a wall and ripped the bolt free. Part of him said it was stupid. Part of him said it was reckless. Part of him just wanted the damned thing out. Blood gouted, and he threw the bolt away, then listened.

No footsteps sounded between the buildings. No shouts and sounds of pursuit. It seemed justice only prevailed as long as purses were full. After a turn, Kant made his way from the alley, his hand pressed to the wound. Blood seeped free, and his step was staggered, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other, the cobbles passing under. He paused every now and then, pain and blood loss making him light-headed. He wondered if the Kith had been wounded as well. He didn’t know, and at this point, didn’t care. He needed help. He paused at a building, the brick deep brown in the dark, and pulled a dagger. The last thing he needed was for some opportunistic cutter to catch him out, wounded and alone. He gathered his strength and moved on.

Turns passed, though he wasn’t sure how many. He found himself thinking of the potatoes and sausage he’d had earlier, and wondered if they were leaking out. It would be a terrible thing, only renting food. He laughed, and tripped up a set of stairs. He looked up, and found himself at the foot of the House of the Faceless. Kant opened his mouth to call for help, but only a squeak issued from his lips. He took a breath, deeper, though it shot pain in his stomach, and his fucking head was starting to ache. Had they poisoned the bolts? He didn’t know. The door opened above him, warm light spilling out. A pair of strong hands lifted him, and he heard Damodred’s voice in his ear.

“Oh, Kant. Just in time.”

The Deathless pulled him into the House and shut the door. Through slit eyes, Kant could make out a wide room, open arches marking the cardinal points, and a vaulted ceiling. An altar, marked brown by dried blood, stood in the center of the room in a slight depression. Damodred carried him over and helped him lie down. The Deathless opened Kant’s jerkin and gestured to the wings of the room. Others appeared from the shadows, bearing bowls of water and clean cloths. Kant’s vision began to fade, Damodred’s  voice a susurration of sound. Then, he knew little else as the dark crowded in.

*

He woke, naked and cold on the slab. Damodred hovered over him, a small hammer in one hand and a silver spike in the other. It glittered cold and sharp in the light. Damodred smiled and placed the spike over Kant’s heart. From somewhere inside, the Kith hummed pleasantly.

The hammer came down.