Death, Ink, and the End of the World

Two things happened the day I turned 29. My grandfather died, and the world ended. I’ll get to the apocalypse. Not that it’s not important, but the death of a loved one can feel the same. The sudden cessation of life that’s marked a significant portion of your time on earth is similar to snuffing a candle. A little breath, a wisp of smoke, and the light goes out.

We’d gathered from across the country, flying in from snow, swamp, and sand, from stands of brackish water and white beaches, from homes bracketed by tall pines. We huddled in a small room smelling of antiseptic and blood and that vague sick smell that the old and infirm carry around with them like satchels of incense. The shine from white tile and fluorescents irritated the iris. The type of glare that digs into your brain, makes it impossible to get comfortable. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the person in the bed.

That person, my grandfather, lay beneath a thin white cotton blanket. Blue stripes ran horizontal in groups of three at the head and foot. Tubes and wires snaked from him, as if they’d built a human still, the medicines distilling his essence, his reality down to this tiny moment in time. A life of sixty-some years and here he lay, condensed into a single final drop of story.

Tattoos swirled up from his elbows, down to his wrists. They appeared as black whorls and lines in smudged relief through the thin hospital gown, half-seen representations of a life lived. They crawled down from his covered hips to his exposed ankles, black ink turned green with age and time; the lines raised scars beside varicose veins.

I looked to my grandmother, thin and frail, skin competing with the light for pale brittleness. My mother, hair just turning white in small threads of the black tapestry of her hair. My sister, young and strong, though sad around the eyes. Each held an object. Grandmother, a rag marked black by the years of wiping fresh tattoos, and a small pair of scissors. The blades glinted under the fluorescents. My mother, a pot of ink and a razor. The bottle of pigment sat dark and quiescent in her palm. My sister, Rea, a small needle gun like a kingfisher in her fist. They looked to me and smiled, each sad, each intense.

My grandfather, small in the bed. I remembered him a big man. Lean, with hard slabs of muscle beneath his thin work shirts. He kept a package of spearmint in the breast pocket, and he’d lean in when we came to him, pull it out, hand us a piece. We’d sit at his knee, the sun reaching jealous fingers through slits in the blinds, trying to anesthetize us with its warmth on a lazy Sunday.

We’d unwrap the gum, powder between the foil and the stick dusting fingertips, and pop it between our lips. That first bite, sweet and cool, waking us, filling our mouths with saliva. Then he’d speak. Stories of his tattoos, where they’d come from, what they meant. Different every time.

This one, a port in Malaysia. A beautiful woman from Kuala Lumpur had hammered it into him with a needle and a stick. Or was it in Maui, a man named Keno with a pin? That one, South Africa. He’d gotten drunk with a footballer. Two weeks later, a woman in Nebraska had talked him into it. Grandmother coughed politely at that story, and he switched tacks. This one, Boston. A Navy man by the name of Franklin gave it to him in the engine room of the U.S.S Anzio. No, wait. It was a child by the name of Dario in Italy.

Each a lie. Each superbly told.

I pulled a chair across the floor, the legs scraping the tile. I flopped into it, feet tired from the flight, from the long stand of vigil. My grandfather snorted in his sleep, opened bleary eyes. He looked around from bloodshot sclera, gaze flitting to each of us like a bee searching for pollen. They landed on me, and his lips, pale quivering things, lifted in recognition. He reached out a hand, so like a bird’s, the bones thin and frail, the skin parchment. He squeezed, and I returned it gently.

“How was the trip?” he asked.

“Fine,” I lied.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

I looked again to my family. They arrayed themselves around me, knelt on the floor, sister first, then mother. Grandmother to the left of Rea. They rolled the leg of my jeans up, and I heard the buzz of the needle begin, the coolness of a blade passed along the hair, the sharp ice of evaporating alcohol.

“It will hurt,” he said.

Would it hurt worse than this? Pulling a thread you’d thought woven so deeply into your life to undo one meant undoing all the tapestry.

I pushed the thoughts back and nodded.

Rea set needle to flesh, and I felt the burn begin.

*

Images poured into my head, a flash flood of names and horror sliding through my mind like a scalpel through tendon.

Mi-go, the Formless. First upon the void. Theirs was the name first spoken in the thick jungles that covered the earth. Once, they slithered and burbled across the face of the water, then through thick undergrowth that seethed with life. Where they touched, they devoured, and what they devoured, they left barren.

Blood and sweat trickled down my thigh as the ink rose close to my groin. My grandmother cut the fabric away as the needle climbed to speed the process, mother following with the razor. I watched the keen edge scrape hair away as easily a scythe harvests grain. Grandmother’s rag wiped my leg, fresh black making the fabric glisten, fresh oil making my skin shine.

The monitoring equipment jittered out a series of beeps, and for a moment, my grandfather’s grip slackened. Anxiety rose in my chest, flittered across the inside of my fingers. Outside, the clouds darkened, and far away, a crack sounded like a thousand trees snapping under their own weight. Then Rea lifted the needle, and it steadied, the alarms quieting. I glanced over at the old man, who had resumed his grip on my hand. His left leg lay clear, the skin unblemished. He breathed hard, pigeon chest rising like a small bellows. A small groan escaped his lips. My heart sent up a bright ache, like the lights above, a silver note of pain. I thought of him surrounded by sawdust and gnarled wood, the thing in his hands once rough, like the skin of his knuckles. He’d turn it over, and work another piece, and bit by bit it took shape. The patience of a stone, a gentle smile on his lips. Small moments of serenity, limned in sunlight.

Rea dipped the needle into the ink, a slight tremble between her hand and my mother’s. Then the gun buzzed again.

*

Yoth, the Cold. When the glaciers slid across the face of the world, she stalked as a wolf. Taller than even the redwoods that mark the west coast, where she walked, she left lakes. The men in those days, small and mean with the depredations of survival, gave up to her the lives of their weak. They took in her ways, and tasted the flesh of fellow men.

The gun buzzed across a kneecap, and I jumped. Beyond the horizon, a howl that sent needles of fear into my guts rippled across the sky. Cold sleet hammered into the panes, leaving an afterbirth of slush in the steel frame. My grandfather pursed his lips and squeezed my hand with a strength borne of pure will, eyes wide. He shook his head ever so slightly. The veins in his temples stood in stark contrast. I wondered if that’s how all life ended, in pain and fear. Feeling small as a child, spending a life building yourself into someone you knew the way water knows the earth, and watching the foundation wash away.

His lips turned up. A flicker of a smile, a reassurance, and I wondered at the strength in that gesture. I remembered hands weathered by decades of work, tough callouses from tilling field and splitting wood, and my wonder passed. The quiet patience as his family split, as time brought troubles. Scars on his hand, plain in the light. Here, a jagged line where a tractor had nearly taken his finger. There, a small nick on his palm where he’d caught himself with a kitchen knife. Scars on the heart, hidden in the dark. Those he never spoke of. Never once a complaint. I forced myself to relax as Rea’s work continued. If he could do this, under the black cloud of agony, wracked by time, so could I. Over the knee, into the tender places of the thigh. Bleed and wipe and sweat. And then that too ended. I saw the other ankle on the old man free of ink.

They cut the shirt from me, my pale skinny chest exposed. We had no fear of nurses or doctors entering. In the small hours between dark and dawn, even the hospital must sleep. The old man smiled again, reached out and patted my cheek. He took my hand.

“Almost,” he said.

Another dip of the gun into the ink. The buzzing, and my chest burned. Another flood of images.

*

Azatoth, the Liar. He’d been in the first men, lurking behind thoughts of food and lust and murder. Behind the walls of the mind, entrenched like a seedling taking root. He guided the hands of Cain and Pilate. The men who poisoned Alexander. The death of Caesar. He’d engineered the Fall, and in the dark, promised young mothers and brutal men the things they most desired. Lies are the black lattice of life–small and insidious. I’m fine. This will be fine. Nothing to worry about. Of course you’re beautiful. I love you. If only they did one thing, they could climb that lattice toward the light. A small untruth, a little unkindness.

More sweat. I felt light-headed, and wondered how much water a man could lose. I squeezed my grandfather’s hand, but he’d fallen asleep. No, not asleep. An alarm sounded from somewhere. I forced myself to concentrate, to look. My family with their heads down, lips moving. I wondered at what litany must pass their lips in the cold hours of the morning, what things they prayed for, who they made promises to. The buzz buzz buzz of the gun. Or had a fly entered the room? An alarm, shrill and insistent.

“Almost, almost,” Rea said.

“Almost, almost,” my family repeated.

“Almost, almost,” a voice in my head echoed.

A deep ache in my chest as the needle passed over, and the muscle twitched, traitor to my will. Rea’s hand slipped. The alarm continued to wail, soon joined by something outside. Sirens?

“Almost,” Rea said.

The buzzing rose to a wail, and I thought my mind would split with it. Across my chest, over shoulder and trapezius, down bicep and forearm. I felt the bones in my wrists grind as I tensed, the ache in my jaw. My teeth felt loose, jangling coins someone had pressed into the bone with no intention of affixing them there. Then it finished.

Done, and the silence nearly deafened me.

“How do you feel?”

Beside me, my grandfather cooled in his bed. A bundle of sticks and bones, the skin of his skull too close to his cheeks, his eyes like clouded marbles. His flesh paled at the end, lips that had spun stories and smelled of spearmint tinted blue. I looked to his throat, where the butterfly pulse of his heart fluttered no more. Where once I’d pressed my face as a child and felt warm stubble scratch my cheek.  His arms lay bare, marked with blue veins, but clear of ink. His fingers splayed open, clutching at nothing, that thin skein of life the fates allow us slipped from his grasp. Beneath the sheet, a smudge of ink. A single line beside a puckered nipple. His memory a nervous bird, perched on the branches of my mind, trembling with anticipation of fright. I held it as tightly as I could, cajoled it to stay.

“How do you feel?” they asked again.

Their voices choked on tears half-swallowed. This was important. More important than antiseptic and empty husks, more important than cold white sheets and the insistent alarm. More important than the legion of men and women who would soon enter the room in white coats and blue scrubs with cold latex on their hands. More important than machines still trying to feed him medicine, pumping cold saline and warm narcotics into a body that had no more use for them than another’s touch. The cold logic of science ignorant of the passing of spirit.

Mourning could come later. This was important. Important as the wail of siren. Important as fire that lit the horizon. Important as the bend of trees in a hot wind. This was the end of the world, or not.

“Fine,” I lied.

Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”

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.

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.

 

 

 

Jerry’s Meat Shack

Throg looked at the camera, the glowing red light on top staring at him like a basilisk eye. He grimaced. He hated the camera. He hated the way Jerry exploited him, like he was just a mascot, and not a breathing, thinking, feeling being. He hated the little director, Trent, sitting in his little director chair, with his little black beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Throg thought he could probably snap the little weasel’s neck with a minimum of effort. He thought he could probably have the little weasel’s teeth for a necklace, and his fingers for dinner. Trent smiled at him, and Throg managed his best in return, his stomach churning.

No greenskin should have to put up with this. He squirmed in the outfit they’d put him in, a too-tight vest, a tiny cowboy hat, and a pair of boots with stars embroidered on them. He’d give his left tusk to rip the guts out of the costumer.

“Throg, you okay buddy?”

Throg nodded. Of course he wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. He had a mortgage now. A Prius that hadn’t been paid off. A wife. He had to be Good Throg, Patron of the Bloodfist family, and not Throg the Bloody-Handed. They’d cancel his 401K for that.

“Is this really necessary?” Throg pulled at the vest. It felt like a prison.

“All part of the show, buddy. You only need to wear it for a half-hour, hour tops.”

The set lights were hot. Not like Crag, his home, but combined with the kitchen behind him and the Arizona sun, it had to be about a hundred-twenty degrees on set. A bead of sweat rolled from under the little hat, and he blinked it away. He let out a low growl.

“Are we ready yet?”

“Almost, buddy.”

Krog looked back to the kitchen. Gunter worked back there, his paper hat cocked to one side while he toiled over the deep fryers. Krog liked Gunter. Barely spoke a word of English, and was always happy to fry something. Once, he’d fried a toad for Throg. That was a good day.

“Quiet on the set!” Trent’s voice brought Throg back around. “Ready to roll, buddy?”

Throg nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good, just take it from the cue cards.”

Throg looked at the camera, and the cameraman hunched behind it.

“Are – are we on now?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Throg looked over at the cue cards. He started to read.

“Got a hankerin’ for a hunk o’ meat? C’mon down to Jerry’s Meat Shack! We got red meat, white meat, pink meat – brother, we can’t be BEAT!” Throg held up the club they’d given him to illustrate the point. Internally, he groaned. “You can get it deep-fried or baked, pan-seared or sauteed. Now, let me AXE you a question:” he held up a shining battleaxe. For a moment, the weight was good in his hands, a nice counterpoint to the pun.

“Do you like variety? Because this week only, we’ve got the Mega-Super-Deluxe Salad Bar, with five kinds of bacon, and seventeen cheese dipping sauces, all for only nine-ninety-five!”

“Bring the kids, and they can join our Junior Carnivore CLUB!” He held up the club again. Anger stirred in his belly. He was once the alpha, the Chieftain of the Black Legions, the Bringer of Sorrows. He looked over the cue cards. The last line lingered in his vision for a moment, red against white. Like blood in the snow. He took a breath, and steeled himself.

“It’s ORC-some!”

Rage filled him. He ripped off the vest, and threw the little cowboy hat at Jerry. He hefted the battle-axe, his breath coming in heaving bursts. He raised it, ready to begin the carnage. First, that infernal camera. Then, the others. Red crept in at the edge of his vision.

“CUT!”

Throg blinked, the word bringing reality crashing back in around him. The little red light on the camera went off, and Gunter was at his elbow with a paper bag. He handed it to the orc. Throg lowered his axe and peeked inside. Five toads, golden brown. He grinned a little.

“That’s a wrap, buddy. Good job.” Trent’s voice cut through his moment of peace.

Throg ignored him and popped a toad in his mouth. Succulent, with a hint of swamp mud. There would be no carnage today, at least. He’d keep his home. He’d keep his Prius. And for a time, he’d keep the bloodlust locked away. He thought of his wife, in her floral dresses and her tea cozies. Of the way she’d grab his tusks and scold him when he roared at the neighborhood kids. His heart swelled, and he grunted in approval.