When Dead Ain’t Dead Enough
Book 1 of The Dead Among Us
The dead should ever rest in peace, but when dead ain’t dead enough, the living should fear for their mortal souls.
J. L. Doty
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When Dead Ain’t Dead Enough, Book
1 of The Dead Among Us
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When Dead Ain’t Dead Enough
Book 1 of The Dead Among Us
The dead should ever rest in peace, but when dead ain’t dead enough, the living should fear for their mortal souls.
It was just a mirror, but when Paul looked into it a bat-like monster glared back at him with blood-red goat-slitted eyes. It screamed out a cry from hell, exposing a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. Then it reached out, its arm extending from the glass like the smooth surface of a still pond. It tried to seize him with a clawed hand, talons the length of his fingers grasping for his throat. And though it couldn’t reach him, and he wanted to run screaming like a child, he stood paralyzed, unable to utter a word or move a muscle.
Looking into its goat-slitted eyes had been a mistake, he now realized, for he felt an overwhelming compulsion to come to the monster, to step within its grasp and embrace it. It loved him, cherished him as no one else had since Suzanna, and all he needed to do was return that love, just walk toward the mirror and lose himself in its allure. And he was about to do so when something inside him snapped and he came to his senses. The vision in the mirror was a monster from hell, not a lover. So he lifted a foot to back step away from it, and the foot stepped forward of its own volition, and in the monster’s eyes he saw greedy satisfaction, the joyful knowledge that it would have him, that it would devour him, and that he was powerless to defy it.
Little by little he advanced across the room, each step an agonizing struggle, each step a failure as it drew him closer, a puppet ruled by the strings of those blood-red eyes. Then suddenly he was within its grasp and the hand gripped him painfully by the throat. It dug razor sharp talons into his larynx and pulled him toward the mirror. He thought his face would smash against the glass, but when his cheek touched the surface his face sank into it. And as he was drawn into the realm that spawned the monster he screamed—
Paul slammed awake and sat up in bed. “Fucking dream,” he growled, gasping for air, sitting there soaked in sweat. He switched on the light next to his bed and snarled, “Just a fucking dream.”
He told himself that, time and again, every time he woke from that nightmare—just a dream. But he knew this evil, this darkness that stalked him inside the mirror, and a piece of him feared he might be this evil, that it was some darkness in his own soul that stalked him. After all, the monster in his dream was his own reflection.
“Just a dream,” he said. “Just a dream.”
Suzanna’s ghost walked into the room. But it wasn’t a dream, she said, though no actual sound came from her mouth, but her lips moved and he knew what she said. It’s waiting for you, Paulie-boy. And I don’t think you can escape it.
Paul sat at the kitchen table watching Suzanna bustling about preparing dinner. It was his favorite time of day, to sit there at the end of the day with a glass of wine and chat with her while she put the finishing touches on their meal. It had been his favorite time of day back when she was alive, and he was so happy she’d come back to him, even if only as a ghostly specter.
Cloe bounced into the kitchen in her school uniform. Well, like Suzanna it wasn’t really Cloe, just Cloe’s ghost. Can I help with dinner?
Suzanna looked over her shoulder and winked at Paul as she said, Not until you finish your homework.
Oh please, mommy! Please, please, please! I hate homework! Homework’s so boooooring.
Paul decided to intervene. “Sorry, munchkin, it’s the rule. Homework before you get to help with dinner.”
Cloe bounced across the kitchen and stopped just a foot or so short of Paul. The real Cloe, the living Cloe, would’ve jumped into his lap, but they both knew that wouldn’t work for this Cloe. Daddy, homework’s too hard.
Suzanna turned toward them, a plate of steaming food in each hand. Well, since dinner’s ready anyway, sweetheart, tonight you get a reprieve.
He stood on the street in the gathering twilight, leaned casually against the brick front of the brownstone behind him, lowered his barriers and let his senses expand into the coming night. He was tall, thin, an older man with almost gaunt features, gray hair with hints that it had once been dark. Dressed nattily in a wool sport coat, slacks and a tie, distinguished was the word that came to mind, and after a casual glance one might, on a subconscious level, think he was a university professor of some kind.
He was getting closer, but working alone was a long, drawn-out process of slowly triangulating on the source. It helped that the idiot broadcast the conjuration on a regular time schedule: every morning and evening without fail; one might think breakfast and dinner. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t called in help, but, while the conjuration was powerful, and broadcasting it without wards and precautions was sloppy, the fool hadn’t done anything truly dangerous, at least not yet. And some of the old man’s colleagues didn’t feel the need to understand a situation before acting, tended to assume the worst and react quickly, might decide to kill the poor idiot before determining if he was truly dangerous. What was most frustrating was the idiot’s uncanny ability to snap the old man’s locator spell, to do so almost casually as if the act of cutting it was a mere afterthought. That took strength, and the kind of control of which few were capable. Well, maybe he wasn’t such an idiot after all.
This evening it followed the normal pattern, starting near sunset with a steady background that was some sort of spirit interaction. It wasn’t strong enough for him to pin down a precise direction, and certainly not strong enough to note distance. But, if the fellow was true to form, the material conjuration, when it came, would be powerful, distinct, and well defined. So he waited, eyes closed, sensing the vague, easterly direction of the source, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . .
There! A powerful conjuration, powerful and dangerous, dangerous beyond imagining. Maybe he should call in his colleagues, stop playing with misguided compassion, just kill the idiot and be done with it.
The conjuration hit Vasily Karpov like a slap and he started visibly. Vladimir, his cold-hearted, blond killer, noticed his reaction immediately, while Alexei, his dark, big, dumb bear, continued to lean on the lamp post, as always oblivious to anything short of a lightning bolt.
“Wake up, idiot,” Karpov snarled as he gave Alexei a shove.
Alexei stumbled, and he and Vladimir looked fearfully at Karpov, Vladimir clearly frightened he too might become the subject of Karpov’s wrath. It was unfair to treat them so. After all, they were just big, dumb muscle, and while both did have some arcane capacity, their capabilities were just too limited to be of any value in that respect, so Karpov kept them around purely for that muscle.
“Follow me, you idiots.”
Karpov marched down the street, heading west toward the conjuration. He needed to move speedily while some residue of the invocation remained. It was quickly dwindling, and the spell he’d cast to help him locate arcane activity was dissipating rapidly.
“Mr. Karpov,” Vladimir said in Russian.
“Shut up,” Karpov growled. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
Vladimir cringed and wisely remained silent.
Karpov led them two blocks west, then one north, and there, his ability to sense the conjuration’s direction dissipated completely. “Blast,” he shouted in frustration.
He turned to the two thugs. “We’re closer. And we’ll get closer tomorrow, and the next day. And when we find this wizard, we kill him, no hesitation, no questions asked.”
The big, dumb bear and the big, dumb Slav nodded vacantly and grinned.
Paul knew that sharing his apartment with the ghosts of his wife and daughter was anything but normal. He knew they didn’t really exist, knew they were just hallucinations, knew he should probably get help. But watching Suzanna cook, even the ghost of Suzanna, or watching Cloe sitting at the coffee table in her school uniform struggling with her homework, her little face scrunched up in confusion at some problem she couldn’t solve; even though they were both dead and buried, and all he had now were shadows of what they’d once been, he’d accept that if that’s all he could have.
Suzanna looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. She was translucent in a ghostly, apparition-like way, and he could see the stove and cupboards through her. Cloe skipped into the room carrying some toy, and like her mother was little more than a translucent specter.
He knew that seeing them had to be some sort of traumatic reaction to their deaths, one right after the other, Suzanna in a car accident, then a few months later Cloe in a hit-and-run. It had been a real one-two punch, and Paul had crashed hard, lost his job as an architect, stopped eating regularly, lost weight, bathed only a couple times a week, shaved even less frequently. At his worst he’d looked so scruffy a stranger on the street had offered him a few bucks.
And then a little more than a year after they’d been taken from him, he’d been sitting at the kitchen table one morning, drinking two-day-old coffee reheated in the microwave, thinking of how Suzanna used to cook breakfast before he went to work, and how that too had been one of his favorite times of day, to just sit there and watch her work while Cloe bounced around with the energy of a seven year old girl, trying to get ready for school.
That was the first time Suzanna had appeared, just walked into the kitchen as if she’d never been gone. She’d paused, looked at him, smiled lovingly and said something; at least her lips moved, though no sound emerged. But he knew she said, Bacon and eggs, Paulie-boy?
“Ya,” he’d said, and smiled back at her, putting down the two-day-old coffee. “That sounds great.”
She’d given him a wink and bathed him in that glorious smile of hers, turned to the stove and pulled a couple of pans out of the cupboard. She had brownish-blond hair cut chin length, and wore one of his T-shirts as she often did in the morning. Since she had small breasts she could get away without wearing a bra, and when she bent over he got a little enticing hint of bikini panties. She’d looked over her shoulder at him that first morning, grinned knowingly and said, Always the letch in the morning, eh Paulie-boy?
Cloe had then bounced into the room and said, Hi daddy. Well, like her mother, she was translucent and her lips moved and no sound came out, but he still knew what she said. She’d had on her school uniform, and his heart swelled that day to know they’d both come back.
He’d said, “Hi, munchkin.”
Cloe had tugged on the hem of her mother’s T-shirt, dancing from one foot to the other hopefully, expectantly. Suzanna had looked down at her and smiled with so much love. Don’t dawdle. You have to get ready for school.
But I don’t want to go to school. Can’t I be sick today?
But school’s good for you, darling. And you want your mom and dad to be proud of you, don’t you?
Yeeesssss . . .
Come on, off with you now. I have to finish your dad’s breakfast.
Paul knew then that he was hallucinating, knew now that he was hallucinating. But damn, the bacon and eggs were good.
High Chancellor Cadilus knelt before the Seelie throne and lowered his eyes to look at the stone floor. That it was cold, lifeless stone was a reflection of the ill humor of Magreth, the Summer Queen. Cadilus spoke softly, “You summoned me, Your Majesty?”
Her voice rang through his thoughts. “Rise, Cadilus, and look upon us.”
He stood and raised his eyes slowly, and only now realized the depths to which trouble had touched the heart of the Seelie Court. His queen’s eyes blazed with fire, the pupils no longer visible, while the shadows of undeveloped, primordial Sidhe spirits danced about her flame-red hair. “There’s a stirring on the Mortal Plane, Cadilus, a restlessness the like of which I’ve not sensed in centuries.”
“I too have sensed a certain disquiet, Your Majesty. And I believe it extends to the Netherworld as well.”
She stood, and the shadows of the ancient spirits scattered to the far corners of the room like a flock of starlings startled by a hawk. “Yes, the Netherworld is troubled, and it looks hungrily upon the Mortal Plane. It looks with greed and desire. I feel that in my heart.”
She tensed, and with a visible effort the flames in her eyes died. The emerald green pupils she turned on Cadilus bored deep into his soulless heart. “Come. Walk with me. We’ll discuss this in private.”
With no more than a whim, the walls of the Seelie palace disappeared, and she and Cadilus now strolled down a path in a sumptuous garden, ripe with spring blossoms. Magreth spoke without emotion, “Portents have manifested.”
Cadilus looked at her carefully. “Portents, Your Majesty?”
“Yes. The Morrigan has taken notice.”
Cadilus made no effort to hide his surprise. “That is indeed dire news, Your Majesty. Which aspect has the triple goddess assumed?”
“I fear she’s assumed all three: sovereignty, prophecy and war.”
“Indeed, a most auspicious portent. We must be facing a time of change.”
She stopped in her tracks and turned to face him. She’d taken on the aspect of a young Sidhe girl, a child with ancient and troubled eyes. And the shadows of the old Sidhe spirits had returned, perhaps drawn to her to seek comfort in some way. “After centuries of weakening, the pathways between the Three Realms have strengthened, and increased in number. And the Morrigan has roused the non-aligned fey from their complacency.”
Her eyes radiated her anger and frustration, and Cadilus stood beneath her gaze without flinching. “Unaroused, the non-aligned fey are at worst a nuisance, Your Majesty, with their little tricks and games. But aroused to a common cause by the Morrigan, they could be a danger to all of Faerie. Tell me she hasn’t given them common cause.”
“I cannot say one way or another, Cadilus. I cannot tell you why she’s stirred the non-aligned. So I bid you—I task you—keep a close eye on this most unusual of developments. Watch closely all three Realms, and tell me of any change.”
Cadilus bowed deeply. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
Old man Strath met him personally. “Paul, you’re looking good.” The surprise on his face was evident as he gripped both of Paul’s shoulders and held him at arm’s length. He looked him up and down with obvious joy. “You’ve gained back some weight.” Strath gave his shoulders a fatherly squeeze. “And you’ve put back on some of that muscle.”
“Ya,” Paul said. “I’m working out a bit, a little bit, and eating regular again—” He’d almost added, now that Suzanna’s cooking for me again, but he knew better than to say that. Strath wouldn’t understand.
“Come on in, Paul. Come on in.”
Paul followed Strath into his office. Strath offered him a seat on the couch he kept in the corner of his office and joined him there. “I gotta say, Paul. Last time I saw you—what, three months ago? You didn’t look too good. Looked like you needed a shave, and a bath, and you were damn near anemic. You had me really worried. But look at you now.”
“I just needed time. And it really helped that—” He bit back his words, clamped down on that thought viciously. He’d almost said, . . . that Suzanna and Cloe are back.
Strath missed the hesitation, looked him over again and grinned broadly. “Well whatever it took, I’m glad to see the old Paul’s back.”
“I’m not completely the old Paul, but close enough.”
Strath shook his head sadly. “Ya, nothing’ll ever bring back Suzanna and Cloe.”
“Ya, you can’t bring ’em back,” Paul lied. “You can’t bring ’em back.”
“So what can I do for you, son? What brings you here?”
“Well . . .” Paul hesitated. “I need to ask a favor. It took me a while, but I’m no longer buried under a mountain of self-pity. I still miss them, and it still hurts, but I’m functioning again, as you can see, and I need to go back to work, and I was hoping . . . well . . . that . . . maybe . . .”
As Paul spoke, the look on Strath’s face slowly morphed from happiness to concern, then an almost painful grimace. “You want your old job back, huh?” Paul could see it coming. “Damn, I’m sorry, son, but I’ve already replaced you, and we’re a small firm, so I can’t carry any fat.”
At the pain on Strath’s face Paul said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.” He started to stand.
Strath pushed him back down and said, “Wait a minute.” He stood and paced across the room, a thoughtful look on his face. “But, you know, I heard Carry’s looking for someone. And if not him, there’ll be someone else hiring. The industry’s picking up, and you’re a talented guy, and I can give you a great recommendation. I hate to see you go to the competition, but let me make some calls. I bet I’ve got something for you before you get home.”
They spent another half hour just chatting and catching up, though Paul was careful not to speak of Susanna and Cloe in the present tense. Then Paul took his leave.
Out on the street Paul decided to get a sandwich for lunch. He turned down Geary, and as he walked he scanned the street ahead for a place to eat, but that Suzanna-feeling came over him suddenly. It was hard to describe, but after Suzanna had died, whenever she came to him she brought with her an odd sense of comfort and a little tickle in the back of his soul, and he felt that now, on the street in broad daylight.
Stunned, he stopped and scanned the street again. A typical lunch-hour crowd jammed the San Francisco sidewalks with pedestrians, but up ahead near the corner he spotted a woman that, from behind, looked like she might be Suzanna. And as she turned the corner he caught a glimpse of her profile, and now he was almost certain it was her. He raced after her.
The Summer Knight of the Winter Court stood on the street corner impatiently. He wore a glamour that gave him the appearance of a young mortal dressed fashionably in a business suit. It wouldn’t do to have people wondering why an immortal Seelie Warrior with pointed ears stalked the streets of a mundane city in broad daylight.
The Morrigan, the triple goddess, the goddess of sovereignty, prophecy and war, had summoned Anogh in a dream, and he knew well that only a fool ignored such a demand. For some reason she’d wanted him on this street, on this corner, at this place and time, though, as is always the way of a goddess, she hadn’t enlightened him as to her reasons. It was a very ordinary day on a busy San Francisco street, and he stood there waiting, wondering what he was waiting for. And then the ghost of a pretty young woman walked past him, though ghosts didn’t ordinarily haunt city streets in the light of day. The apparition paused next to him, looked at him directly and smiled at him knowingly in the oddest way, then walked on.
Of course, he could see her only because he was a powerful Sidhe mage, and, until the young man bumped into him, he would’ve sworn that no one else on the street was aware of the specter walking in their midst. The young fellow apologized quickly and rushed on, chasing the ghost. Anogh knew the young man, or rather, had known him a long time ago but couldn’t recall how or when. And since a Sidhe mage never forgets such details, he knew the goddess was clouding his mind for some unknown godly reason. Anogh followed the fellow.
The ghost led the young man a merry chase. As he turned each street corner she was always a city block ahead of him, glimpsed for just an instant as she turned and vanished down another street. She was clearly guiding the young fellow to a destination of her choice, and only after he’d followed her for several city blocks did she turn into a store that sold expensive shoes to young mortal women.
Katherine McGowan paced back and forth in front of the mirror, admiring the new pair of Pradas. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford them. She wasn’t wealthy, but she had plenty of money, and she already had a closet full of nice shoes, though only a few pairs this expensive. One more pair was just an impractical extravagance, and if she bought them they’d constantly remind her of her ex-husband Eric, and how much he’d disapproved of her frivolous expenditures, even though it was her own money earned by her own efforts. She was a grown woman, and he’d never stopped treating her like a child.
“They look good on you, Dr. McGowan,” the clerk said. “They go nicely with that suit.”
Yes, they did look good, she thought, looking at her reflection in the mirror. The Pradas were a nice touch, and they complimented the Vera Wang suit. And it wasn’t as if she had anything else to spend her money on, especially since she no longer needed to support that deadbeat ex-husband of hers. Eric would’ve been quite angry to see her buy these, so she turned to the clerk and said, “I’ll take them. And the matching purse, too.”
The clerk smiled happily and turned to ring up the sale, and it was at that moment that the ghost walked through Katherine’s aura. She gasped as a sensation of cold yearning washed through her, reached out and clutched at a display table to keep from collapsing to the floor. The ghost wasn’t visible, but she could feel it hovering about her. She sensed its anticipation and realized it had sought her out purposefully.
“Is something wrong?” the clerk asked. “Are you ok?”
The moment passed, the ghost was gone and Katherine said, “Ya, I’m fine.” She made up a little lie, though it was actually the truth. “Just had one of those moments that felt like a ghost walked over my grave.”
“Oh, I get those all the time,” the clerk said. She leaned close and whispered, “With me it’s usually a PMS thing.”
“Ya, I know what you mean,” Katherine lied, but she thought, No, you don’t get them the way I do.
A tinkling bell drew her attention to the front door. A fellow about her own age walked in and let the door swing shut behind him. He was handsome and dressed well, and more out of reflex than anything else she glanced down at his left hand, noted with just a little satisfaction he wore no wedding ring. She looked into his eyes and liked what she saw so she smiled, and as he smiled back she caught herself involuntarily twirling a lock of her hair with her finger.
She pulled her eyes away from his and dropped her hand to her side, angry for reacting that way. She’d actually twirled a lock of her hair, acting like some horny little schoolgirl hoping for a Saturday night date with a cute guy. She wasn’t about to hit on some guy in a shoe store. Shoe stores and grocery stores were Eric’s style.
The clerk smiled at the fellow and said, “Feel free to look around, and I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done here.”
She looked at Katherine. “Will there be anything else, Dr. McGowan?”
“No,” Katherine said, “That’ll be all.” For some reason she couldn’t take her eyes off the young man, started to fantasize about him in her bed, had to clamp down on her thoughts to end that train of thought quickly.
He ignored the two women and scanned the store carefully with his eyes. He was obviously looking for something, and there was just a hint of desperation about him. Katherine suddenly realized he was looking for the ghost, and for the first time she paid attention to her arcane senses. Without doubt he too was a practitioner of the arcane, a strong one, and now she understood that he’d followed the ghost into the store.
He stepped further into the store, and when he was close enough Katherine whispered, “You don’t have to worry. It’s gone now.”
He started and looked at her, and his eyes narrowed with distrust. “She’s gone?” he asked warily.
She, Katherine thought, the ghost of some woman who’d probably meant something to this man.
“Yes,” she said. “She’s gone.”
He nodded, turned and walked toward the entrance, but paused there and looked back at Katherine. Their eyes met for a long moment, a moment that should’ve been uncomfortable for two strangers, but wasn’t for some reason. Then he turned and stepped out of the store without another word.
Katherine McGowan, Anogh thought, the Old Wizard’s daughter. Amazing!
Anogh had assumed a glamour of invisibility and slipped into the shop on the young man’s heels. And he might’ve completely missed the connection had not the clerk called her by name: Dr. McGowan. He knew the old man’s daughter was a mortal physician of some kind, and he’d heard a vague description: thirtyish, pretty, brunette, nice figure. But merely the name and a description would not have been enough. Her arcane scent branded her, for she reeked of the Old Wizard as only family would. And the ghost had led the young man straight to her, purposefully, with single-minded determination and without deviation.
The triple goddess had wanted Anogh to see this, the young man and the Old Wizard’s daughter. They were connected in some way, and since Anogh could easily find the young witch, he stayed close to this unknown young man as he left the shop, and he followed him all the way back to his apartment.
“Old man Strath was as good as his word,” Paul told Suzanna. He was sitting in the kitchen watching her prepare dinner, sipping on a glass of wine. “He called me on my cell before I got home. Carry is hiring, and he got me an interview. And he’s got calls into a couple of other firms, says he thinks he can get me interviews even if they’re not hiring right at the moment. You know, plant the seed for when they are.”
That’s wonderful, sweetheart, Suzanna said, looking over her shoulder, giving him that big smile of hers. She wore one of those lightweight summer dresses, more like a sleeveless T-shirt that extended to just below her knees. But unlike a T-shirt it was cut to hug her gorgeous figure, to emphasize it, and that made Paul long to touch her again, to hold her in his arms once more. But that could never be.
“I saw you on the street today,” he said again, and again she ignored him. That was the third time he’d tried that, and the third time he’d gotten no response. Any mention of her on the street, and he might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Maybe it hadn’t been her and he’d just imagined the whole thing. Certainly there was no reason for his Suzanna to lead him to a shoe store where that pretty young woman was trying on some sort of fancy shoes. He recalled that she was quite attractive, auburn hair down to her shoulders, wearing a smart business suit with a skirt cut just above the knees. The suit was quite conservative, though it certainly didn’t hide her figure, a nice figure, with nice legs ending in the fancy shoes.
Guilt washed over him as he thought of Suzanna, and he said, “Smells like you’re making Suzanna’s famous pot roast.”
And it’s ready right now. She popped open the over door, cringed back from the heat for a moment, pulled on big hot-pad mittens, lifted the steaming pan out of the oven, gave the oven door a quick tap with her heel to close it and laid the pan on the counter. She called out, Cloe, dinner’s ready.
She looked at Paul and smiled contentedly. It’s serve yourself, Paulie-boy, so grab a plate and dive in.
“Damn,” Paul said, “you make good pot roast.”
He had it, or at least close enough, direction and distance. Two blocks east, maybe one block south. The idiot had finished the conjuration so he wouldn’t find him tonight. But the fellow’s pattern was unwavering. He’d do it again around breakfast-time tomorrow morning, and the older man was reasonably confident that would be enough to narrow it down to a single building. If so, tomorrow night he’d have him, hopefully end this safely before the fellow hurt someone.
He considered that carefully for a moment. Best to bring in some backup, just in case.
“Stay hidden,” Karpov hissed as he watched the old fellow walk down the street.
“Yes, Mr. Karpov,” Alexei grumbled.
“And stay silent.”
“Yes, Mr. Kar . . .”
Standing in the shadows one block west of the old fellow, Karpov considered the situation carefully. “The Old Wizard is hunting the same prey. But he’s too soft. Probably find some excuse not to kill the fool. So we’ll take care of that for him. And we’ll let him do the work, let him find this rogue for us.”
Vladimir asked, “Do you want me to follow him?”
Vladimir and Alexei were pure muscle, couldn’t follow each other without being spotted. “No. We’ll bring in Mikhail for that.”
Paul used his fork to peel off a big slab of pot roast and shovel it onto his plate. He speared a couple of carrots and a big hunk of potato, its flesh having taken on that brownish cast that comes from simmering in the gravy for so long. Then he scooped gravy over everything, and it was a real balancing act to keep the gravy from drizzling onto the floor as he crossed the kitchen. He put the full plate down carefully on the dinner table and sat down. A moment later Suzanna and Cloe joined him, each carrying their own plate, though neither of them had been as piggish as Paul.
He speared a bite of potato, swirled it in the gravy and tossed it in his mouth, rolled it from cheek to cheek and sucked air to keep it from burning his tongue. “Great pot roast, honey.”
Both Suzanna and Cloe smiled at him. “Cloe,” he said. “Tell me what you did at school today.”
Anogh climbed the steps to the door at the front of Paul Conklin’s apartment building. The lock on the door meant nothing to a Sidhe mage; a few words and a gesture of power and the door popped open. Anogh stepped through it, closed it carefully and relocked it.
He’d waited patiently outside the building for the young man to leave, and when the fellow emerged in the early morning wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase, Anogh knew he’d be gone for several hours.
He took the lift to the fourth floor, and the door to Conklin’s apartment was no more trouble than that at the front of the building. Anogh didn’t know what he was looking for exactly and had been careful to avoid forming any expectations. He just wanted to know more about this young man who was in some way connected to the Old Wizard’s daughter. Such connections were never coincidental, and as far as the triple goddess was concerned, they certainly weren’t accidental. So he had no expectations as he stepped into Conklin’s apartment, and was struck by six hundred years of grief. He could never mistake the arcane scent that permeated the place, and he cringed and staggered across the room as that scent lifted the fog the triple goddess had woven through his thoughts.
He’d known grief for centuries, but not this grief. This pain was new, and yet it was old. The triple goddess had let him grieve in ignorance, and had chosen this moment to let him understand the true depth of his loss.
With tears streaming down his cheeks he turned and left the apartment, for there was no more to be learned there.
It had been a busy day, starting with the interview with Carry, which was early, so Paul had rushed there right after breakfast. Then there were two phone interviews with other firms, all thanks to old man Strath, and Paul had wanted to do his homework beforehand, check out the firms carefully so he could sound knowledgeable.
As he walked into the kitchen he wanted to tell Suzanna about the interview, but as had been happening recently she wasn’t there at first, and there was something in the way, something that prevented him from seeing her. He wasn’t concerned, however, because he’d quickly learned how to break through it. Nothing was going to stop him from seeing his Suzanna. He just had to push against it a little; not too hard, just a little, and then it popped like a soap bubble and went away.
Suzanna was there, waiting for him. It’s just sandwiches tonight, Paulie-boy.
Standing on the street outside the apartment building, the old man staggered and reached out to a streetlight, gripped it tightly for a moment until the vertigo passed. A nicely dressed, middle-aged woman passing by looked at him oddly, as if he was drunk, or something.
That had hurt. He should’ve known better than to try using the locator spell again. The idiot—no, he had to stop thinking of him as an idiot. He clearly wasn’t an idiot, just foolish, then. The fool had snapped his locator spell with no effort whatsoever, just casually shrugged it aside like someone brushing an annoying fly out of their face, and there were few, if any, who were capable of doing so with such little effort. But while the spell itself hadn’t located his quarry, the power the fellow had expended to break it had provided him with all he needed.
He let go of the streetlight, straightened and crossed the street. The front door of the building was locked, residents only. But a quick rune spell would take care of that. He looked up and down the street to ensure he’d be unobserved, then bent down and used his index finger to trace the rune carefully on the surface of the door lock. It was an elder rune, used by ancient wizards to seal tombs and grimoires and their arcane workshops. But here he traced it backwards, did so seven times, each time invoking his own power and spilling a bit into it. After the seventh pass the rune glowed momentarily and the lock clicked open.
He was now close enough that the low background of the spirit interaction was enough to guide him. He didn’t take the elevator because he didn’t yet know what floor, but he’d learn that as he got closer. He started up the stairs moving slowly. If this fool were as dangerous as he suspected, he didn’t want to alert the fellow to his presence inadvertently.
It wasn’t the second floor, or the third, but on the fourth the source of the broadcast was no longer above him, so he walked carefully down the hall, stopping at each apartment door and extending his arcane senses carefully into the apartment, then moving on to the next. When he found it there was no question. But only then, with just the wood of a single door separating them, only then did he sense the fellow had not summoned some sort of spirit, only then did he understand the true danger the poor fool had called into this life. He’d summoned a demon from the Netherworld, a succubus, and it was that that prompted the impulse to knock.
The knock on the door startled Paul. He hadn’t had any visitors in more than a year, the last being a steady stream of friends coming to console him for Suzanna’s death, and then two months later again for Cloe’s death—
No. Don’t think about that. That was the past, a past that didn’t exist anymore. They weren’t dead, not any more, not completely dead, not truly dead.
He looked up from his plate. Suzanna and Cloe had vanished and were no longer seated at the table. And gone too were their plates and utensils. In fact, the table in front of their seats was completely bare. Paul looked down at his own plate, stared for a moment at the half-finished ham and cheese sandwich Suzanna had made.
The doorbell rang, followed by a repeat of the knocking. He stood, hastily swallowing the bite of sandwich he’d taken before the first knock, dropped his napkin on the table and headed for the living room. At the front door he paused and peered through the peephole, was surprised to see an older man whom he didn’t recognize standing in the hall. He wasn’t a neighbor Paul had seen before, and he didn’t look like a salesman. But then perhaps he was a new neighbor who’d recently moved in.
At the first knock his sense of the demon vanished. He waited for several seconds, then rang the doorbell and knocked again. He could be patient now; his sense of urgency had fled with the demon. The lens of the peephole darkened as the occupant looked him over. Then the door opened slowly to reveal a young man looking at him inquisitively. “What can I do for you?” the young man asked politely.
The knock had been an impulse and the older man hesitated. The young man appeared to be in his mid-thirties, dressed in slacks and a nice shirt, handsome, well groomed with neatly trimmed brownish hair, broad shoulders and a trim waist—perhaps even a bit too trim, as if he’d lost weight recently. And he didn’t look like a fool, or an idiot, but he was a sorcerer—there was no doubt of that—and he was summoning demons without the proper protections. At a loss for words, the old man spoke haltingly. “I’m . . . Walter McGowan.”
The young man’s eyes narrowed. “And again, what can I do for you, Mr. McGowan?”
Walter didn’t know the young man’s name. “I . . . just wanted to . . . talk to you about . . .”
“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”
McGowan had to make this young fellow understand. “But what you were doing is dangerous, very dangerous.”
“What I was doing was having dinner with my family. And I don’t see how that’s dangerous, nor is it really any of your business. Now, forgive me, but I’m going to go back to that.” The young man closed the door carefully, almost softly.
On the way out, now that he knew the apartment number, McGowan stopped and checked the mailboxes: Conklin, something Conklin. At least he knew the young man’s name.
Paul returned to the dinner table and sat down. Suzanna and Cloe were gone. And they wouldn’t have just left, not vanished like that, not if they’d truly been there. It was a blatant reminder of what he already knew but sometimes forgot: he was nuts, bug-fuck nuts, and getting worse by the day.
He finished the ham and cheese sandwich, alone and in silence.
Mikhail stood in the shadows and almost held his breath as the Old Wizard walked out of the apartment building and up the street. Like a small animal in the presence of a dangerous predator, he remained still and motionless long after the old man had strolled out of sight. Mikhail knew his own limitations, and following the powerful old wizard was a dangerous undertaking. But the instructions he’d been given were quite specific, and it would be even more dangerous to fail to follow those orders.
After the street had been silent and empty for several minutes, he retrieved his cell phone and dialed a number he knew well. His boss answered the call. “Karpov here.”
Karpov had chosen to speak English, so Mikhail did the same in a thick Russian accent. “Mr. Karpov, it’s Mikhail. I followed the old man to an apartment building. He did exactly as you said, he appeared to be tracking something.”
“Ah,” Karpov said. “He’s done our work for us, found the rogue and led us to him. That was much faster than trying to track him ourselves.”
“Do you want me to go into the building, sniff out the rogue and kill him?”
“No, Mikhail. He’s probably out of your league, too dangerous to kill without preparation. Just remember the address and you can come in off the street. We’ll kill the rogue another night.”
The two guards standing at the entrance to the queen’s apartments were just ceremonial, for while Magreth walked the halls of the Seelie Court, none could hope to harm her. They both wore the ceremonial armor of their ancestral houses, layered scales of silver and topaz and lapis lazuli, with masked helms that hid their faces completely, swords made of the finest silver strapped to their sides. They had competed for the honor to stand guard at the Summer Queen’s residence.
Cadilus stopped between them, facing the tall doors to the residence. There was no need to knock, for Magreth and her attendants would know he awaited admittance. After only a heartbeat the doors opened slowly to reveal one of Magreth’s ladies-in-waiting, a pretty, young thing, probably no more than a hundred years old. Cadilus nodded politely and said, “Please tell Her Majesty I have news regarding developments on the Mortal Plane.”
She smiled warmly; she was still too young to have acquired the cold and hardened exterior of the more experienced Seelie. “She is already aware of your desire for audience. You may enter.”
The walls of the palace began to dissolve, to shift and shimmer, to change and realign in a different form. Beneath his feet he stood on a path of crushed, white gravel in a sumptuous garden of spring blossoms. He was now walking, and beside him walked Magreth.
“You have news?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, though no developments of great import. Merely bits of information that begin to form a picture, though, as yet, an incomplete one.”
“And?” she asked impatiently, her tone flat and hard.
“The Old Wizard is involved in some way, along with some of his colleagues. And it appears the unpleasant Russians are putting their fingers in the pie as well. They’re looking for someone, some sort of young wizard, and I think that when they find him they’re going to kill him.”
“Should we intervene?”
“I think not, Your Majesty. It’s a wholly mortal affair, probably only loosely connected to our concerns regarding the uneasiness in the Three Realms. And what’s one dead mortal wizard to us?”
As they strolled down the gravel strewn path she looked his way and flames danced in her eyes again. “Perhaps we should take this young wizard captive before they kill him. We might learn something.”
“That’s an option, Your Majesty. But first we must locate him, and I’m afraid the Old Wizard and those Russians are ahead of us there. It’s probably impossible to get to him before they kill him. They are, after all, more powerful in their own Realm, while we are weaker there.”
She stopped and turned to face him. “I understand. But see what you can do.”
He bowed lightly. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
The walls of the garden dissolved and he was now strolling away from the queen’s apartments.
Paul paused for a moment in the lobby of the office building on Market Street, looked at his reflection in one of the floor-to-ceiling windows separating him from the sidewalk outside. His tie was straight, suit neatly pressed; appropriate for an interview, though perhaps a bit more formal than day-to-day attire. But he didn’t know this Dayandalous fellow so he wanted to ere on the side of proper and conservative. He headed for the elevators, got one right away and pressed the button for the forty-fourth floor.
Dayandalous had called him yesterday, said he’d spoken with Strath; said Strath had given Paul an excellent recommendation. Paul had called Strath, and at first Strath claimed to have no knowledge of any Dayandalous, didn’t recall having had such a conversation.
“That’s odd,” Paul said. “I’m sure I got the name right: Dayandalous. Fellow said he spoke with you yesterday, spoke at some length.”
“Oh, yes, yes!” Strath said. “That’s right. We did talk. I just forgot, one of those senior moments. You know?”
What Paul knew was that Strath didn’t have senior moments. The old fellow was as sharp as a tack. Paul chalked it up to the fact that Strath was quite busy, and Paul’s job search wasn’t the highest priority on his list.
Like Paul, Strath had not previously heard of this Dayandalous fellow. He clearly wasn’t part of the local architectural community, and Paul had been unable to learn anything about him prior to this interview. Strange that, but nevertheless, an interview was better than no interview at all. He figured he could learn a bit about the fellow’s firm during the process.
Suite 4401, Dayandalous had told him. When the elevator doors opened it was obvious suite 4401 occupied the entire forty-fourth floor. There was no hallway leading to other suites; the elevator opened directly into a large and luxurious lobby for Dayandalous’ firm. Behind a darkly wooded desk sat a receptionist that could’ve made it into any modeling agency in the world. As Paul approached her she smiled.
“I’m Paul Conklin. I have an appointment with Mr. Dayandalous.”
Her smile widened. “Yes, Mr. Conklin. Dayandalous is expecting you. Please have a seat . . .” she waved her hand at a couch against one wall, “. . . and I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Paul sat down, picked up a magazine and started leafing through it, not really paying attention to anything in it. He didn’t have to wait more than a minute or two before a tall black man in a dark business suit approached him. Paul stood. “Paul Conklin?” the man asked politely, sticking out his hand. “I’m Dayandalous.” The fellow had the deep and resonant voice of a Shakespearean actor.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Dayandalous,” Paul said, shaking his hand. Dayandalous was tall, six-four, six-five, broad shouldered, trim waist, early middle age, wearing a suit that must’ve cost a month of Paul’s wages, probably Armani or something like that. And Dayandalous was black. Not the black of an African American man whose skin is actually brown, but real black, true black, carbon black. Paul looked into Dayandalous’ eyes, and for a moment he thought they were amber, like the eyes of a cat, with oddly shaped pupils. But when he blinked and looked again they were simple, ordinary blue, with normal round pupils. As Dayandalous ushered Paul into his office he thought, No hallucinations now, Paulie-boy. Save that for the privacy of your own home.
Dayandalous sat Paul in a comfortable chair facing a desk the size of an aircraft carrier, then sat down behind the desk. Dayandalous held up a couple of sheets of paper. “You’ve got a nice resume, Mr. Conklin.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dayandalous.”
“It’s just Dayandalous. No mister.”
“Certainly, sir.” Paul had a hundred questions, but interviews don’t go that way. The interviewer gets to ask questions first, and the interviewee answers, tries to be polite and make a good impression. If Paul did make a good impression, then he’d get a chance to ask some questions of his own, and if Dayandalous was truly interested, maybe a lot of questions.
Dayandalous questioned him rather thoroughly, though in a nice way. In addition to Paul’s architectural credentials he was quite interested in Suzanna and Cloe’s deaths, not asking for crude, impolite details, but focusing more on Paul’s reaction. And that was understandable, since everyone knew Paul had gone into a funk for an overly long time, and anyone would want some reassurance before hiring him. But at one point Dayandalous raised an eyebrow and said, “Well it’s good to know you’re not seeing things that aren’t there.”
It startled Paul so much that before he could stop he blurted out angrily, “What do you mean by that?”
Dayandalous’ expression turned stony, and again Paul had the impression of amber eyes with vertically slit pupils, but this time the pupils flared dark red instead of black. But when Paul looked again Dayandalous’ eyes were once again blue, simple blue with simple black pupils. Dayandalous smiled warmly.
Paul felt suddenly calm, couldn’t recall what had upset him so, and since Dayandalous seemed unconcerned he let it go.
Dayandalous stood. “Well thank you for coming in, Paul.”
Paul also stood, because that was what he was supposed to do. He was certain of it. Dayandalous escorted him back to the elevators, personally called an elevator for him, kept up a polite and charming banter while they waited for it. But in the back of Paul’s thoughts he kept thinking there was something he’d forgotten, and it wasn’t until he stepped into the lobby back on the ground floor that he realized he hadn’t learned anything about Dayandalous’ firm, hadn’t asked even one question.
He turned around, went back to the elevators and called one, thinking he could at least get a brochure or something from the receptionist. When the elevator arrived he stepped into it, and was going to press the button for the forty-fourth floor, but there was no such button. He stood there for a moment staring at the buttons, but they ended at thirty-eight. Perhaps one of the other elevators went all the way to the top. There were six elevators, and he patiently waited for each, but not one went beyond the thirty-eighth floor. He searched the lobby carefully, thinking he’d taken a wrong turn and there was another bank of elevators. But that wasn’t the case.
Paul asked the security guard in the lobby, “How do I get to the forty-fourth floor?”
The guard looked at him oddly and said, “There’s no forty-fourth floor in this building, sir. The top floor is thirty-eight.”
“But I was just on the forty-fourth floor.” Paul decided to mention the name of the firm and the man he’d just spoken to on the forty-fourth floor, but he couldn’t remember anything about either.
The guard’s expression changed to concern, perhaps wondering if he’d have to deal with a nut case, hopefully not a violent nut case. He spoke carefully, as if speaking to a child. “I said no forty-fourth floor. If you have business on the forty-fourth floor, then you got the wrong building.”
He ushered Paul out to the street. Paul stood there for a moment, then turned back to the building and looked at it carefully. It was like any of a dozen other buildings on Market Street, and for the life of him he couldn’t remember why he’d wasted his time coming here.
Baalthelmass had survived on this Mortal Plane and fed now for more than four hundred years. The occasional wizard or witch had sought to destroy It, but always It had evaded them, and occasionally devoured them, though practitioners of the arcane were far too dangerous to prey upon in anything but self-defense. But when necessity forced Its hand, they were truly the most delectable kill, so much more delicious than the ordinary cattle that walked the streets of mundane life.
Unlike lowly Tertius emergents, Baalthelmass had been exceedingly careful from the first moment of Its entry onto the Mortal Plane. After devouring the soul of the sorcerer that had summoned It, It had resisted the initial ravenous compulsion to feed blindly. A Tertius emergent would inevitably succumb to the urge to devour one life after another in a gluttonous orgy. Had Baalthelmass been so foolish, so lacking in control, a string of deaths like that would’ve alerted mortal sorcerers to Its presence and they would’ve hunted It. No, to submit to such foolish excess was a formula for discovery that would’ve resulted in Its own annihilation. Instead, while still unable to disguise Its true nature, It had cautiously consumed a soul here, another there, always choosing Its victims from among the poor and displaced, and never in the same location. And after each feeding It left their lifeless bodies with no signs of violence or foul play. The authorities always assumed natural causes.
Always moving cautiously, It had remained hidden until It had built Its strength to the point where It could cast a glamour and walk freely among the mortal cattle. And now, after centuries of feeding and building Its strength, It had gained enough power to control Its shape, to maintain actual human form, not just a glamour to fool the mortal eye, though that required constant feeding. It could now pass even among mortal wizards without detection, though It didn’t push Its luck in that regard.
But now a Lord-of-the-Unliving had appeared close at hand in Its own feeding grounds, and that frightened It more than any mere sorcerer, though It couldn’t resist a sense of excitement at the possibility of controlling such a Lord. Ordinarily It would hide, find a new city, a new continent, a new identity, and let the Lord live his life in ignorance of Its presence. But this Lord was ignorant of his own powers, and that was the most delicious of opportunities. He was vulnerable, helpless, defenseless, and might be overcome with ease. If so, he’d be the most luscious prey It had consumed throughout Its entire existence on this Mortal Plane.
Still, It wouldn’t seek him out personally, not yet. Better to use Its tame witch to help two minions cross over. Let a couple of ravenous emergents test this Lord. It was unlikely they were strong enough to actually consume him, though they need not know that. But they could test him, expose all his weaknesses so that Baalthelmass could triumph in the end.
Wearing the shape of a handsome, wealthy American aristocrat, It sat in the study of Its mansion, and with no more than a thought summoned Its most important thrall. She responded instantly, but the size of Its mansion was such that it took her several seconds to make her way to Its study. When the door opened a beautiful young woman stepped into the room. She had exotic eastern features, olive skin, luscious red lips, and when she lowered herself to her knees and bowed her head, a cascade of long, black tresses hid her face behind a curtain of untamed curls. She waited for Baalthelmass to speak.
“Belinda, my dear,” It said, gesturing casually with a hand. “Come. Join me.”
She rose, crossed the room and sat down on the floor at Its feet, placed her hands on Its knee and rested her chin there. She looked into Its eyes with unbridled desire.
“I have a task for you,” It said. “You must summon a couple of emergents to a certain young man’s apartment.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said happily.
“It should be an easy task,” It said. “He’s placed no Wards, is ignorant and completely unprotected.”
Yes, It would have this Lord. It would feed on him, though not consume him completely. Better to bend him to Its will, enslave him, for with a Lord-of-the-Unliving under Its dominion, nothing and no one could stop It. Ever!
Walter McGowan parked his car in the darkness between two streetlights more than a block away from Conklin’s apartment. As so often happened in San Francisco, a layer of cold mist had come in off the ocean, blanketing the city in a damp, hazy vapor, sucking all the warmth out of a September night.
He scanned the street carefully looking for the backup he’d called, glanced at his watch and mumbled, “Where is she?” He waited in his car for another ten minutes, but when he sensed the young man going into the early stages of his summons, he knew he had no choice but to go forward, alone if necessary.
He climbed out of the car, locked it and walked casually up the sidewalk. The mist that blanketed the city softened the shadows of the night, and while it wasn’t a heavy fog, the glow of the streetlights gave the impression that the world ended only a short distance up the street. He was only a few doors away from Conklin’s building when a voice out of the darkness stopped him in his tracks. “Valter,” it said in a thick Russian accent.
He cringed and turned toward the voice as Vasily Karpov, flanked by two of his thugs, emerged from the shadow of a nearby alley. Karpov was McGowan’s age, wore a coat and tie, a dark wool overcoat, and a cheap hat that looked like it belonged in some old private-eye movie. To either side of him stood Alexei and Vladimir, younger fellows dressed in cheap, black, heavy, wool business suits that looked like they’d started out as horse blankets. Both were large, physically-imposing men, Karpov’s muscle and always close at hand. Vladimir on the left had high, Slavic cheekbones pitted with acne scars, long, straight, greasy blond hair that hung lankly down to his shoulders. Alexei on the right had a square face, with bristly, dark hair and a heavy, black mustache. He reminded McGowan of a young Joseph Stalin, and had a reputation for being just as brutal.
McGowan asked, “What’re you doing here, Vasily?” Both thugs tensed at the apparent lack of respect in McGowan’s voice.
Karpov tilted his head to one side, smiled and said calmly, “Valter! I’m here for the same reason you are, to stop a rogue sorcerer, a dangerous undertaking for us both. The least you can do is accept my help graciously.”
When it came to manipulating the arcane they both knew McGowan was stronger than Karpov, could probably take the Russian in a fair fight, though he wouldn’t walk away from it unscathed. But while Alexei and Vladimir were both relatively weak practitioners, they were enough to tip the balance in Karpov’s favor. “Vasily, when you help, someone usually gets killed.”
Karpov’s smile disappeared. “He’s a rogue, summoning demons without the proper protections. If we don’t kill him first, many innocents could die.”
McGowan couldn’t hide his anger. “Since when do you care about innocents? And we don’t know what he is.”
Both thugs took a step forward, which, together with Karpov, now enclosed McGowan in a semicircle. They made no effort to hide the threat in their stances. “Valter, Valter, Valter! Why risk ourselves for some stupid, untried amateur? He’s a fool, dangerous, so we take no chances, kill him quickly and be done with it.”
McGowan looked carefully at Alexei, the more sociopathic of the two, gave him a hard angry look. Alexei didn’t back away, but his smug posture disappeared and he leaned slightly away from McGowan, an unconscious reaction to the older man’s superior arcane strength. McGowan turned slowly to Vladimir and gave him the same look. The ugly blond backed up a step, his right hand involuntarily lifting toward his coat. McGowan had no doubt he had a gun there, and narrowed his eyes in warning. Vladimir’s hand stopped well short of its goal.
To Karpov, McGowan said, “If we have to kill him, then we’ll kill him. But I won’t condone murder until I know it’s absolutely necessary.”
Karpov’s smile returned, but it was more of a challenge than a greeting between friends, and he was clearly ready to push this to the limit. He opened his mouth to say something, but a shadow stepped out of a shadow on McGowan’s left, and from the shadow a woman’s voice spoke in a thick Irish accent. “Well now, Vasily, I happen to agree with Walter.”
The Russians stiffened and turned carefully to look at the shadow that stood openly in the light of a streetlamp. Other than its slight stature, and the timbre of its voice, the shadow itself gave no hint as to its owner’s nature.
McGowan couldn’t hide his relief as he said, “Colleen!” His backup had just arrived and the odds had tipped heavily in his favor.
The shadow spoke again. “Vasily, please instruct your young men that should there be any uncalled-for violence, I will be most displeased.”
Karpov’s lips straightened into a thin line of displeasure, and he gave Colleen the smile of a man forced to chew on a lemon. “As you wish, Colleen.”
“Good,” she said. “Then we’ll let Walter call the shots.” It hadn’t been a question, but she waited for Karpov to acknowledge the statement.
He grimaced, the smile turned into a scowl and he grumbled an unhappy, “Of course.”
She said, “Then let’s go.”
Paul was content. Suzanna and Cloe were back, and the interviews were going well, and he was hoping to get a couple of offers next week. He sat at the dinner table, stomach full, watching his beautiful wife clean up the dishes while Cloe struggled over her homework in the living room. What more could a man want?
What more could a man want? And yet he knew full well what more he could want. He wanted Suzanna in his bed again. Not because he was horny, though he’d always loved the taste of her skin, the feel of her body pressed against his, and he certainly wouldn’t mind drowning in the passion they’d always shared. But his thoughts weren’t focused on a good roll-in-the-hay. He just wanted to hold her again, to have her lying beside him as he slept, to wake in the middle of the night and hear her soft, even breathing next to him, to wake in the morning and have her roll away from him, grumbling something unintelligible, frequently spiced with a bit of unconscious profanity, about not wanting to get up—she’d never been a morning person. And he wanted Cloe to bounce on his knee again, or to have her charge into the bedroom to wake him and Suzanna up on a Saturday morning. He wanted to lift her high over his head, hear her squeal with delight as he spun her around. He wanted to go for a Saturday walk in Golden Gate Park with the two of them, have a little picnic lunch in the shade of a tree. He wanted so many things, but he knew the only way he could have them was to allow his hallucinations to grow so powerful and intense that he lost all contact with reality.
Whenever he thought of that he always put it out of his mind, but tonight it kept coming back and he couldn’t put the thought aside. It was frustrating, because a part of him knew there was something else, a part of him buried so deep he could usually squash it back down into that place in his soul where he’d hidden it. But tonight it wouldn’t stay squashed.
Suzanna turned and looked at him, and his heart climbed up into his throat with such longing. I want it too, Paulie-boy, she said. We’re not complete without it. But what if we find what we desire? Will it be wrong? Will we regret it? And can it really be that easy?
Yes, Paul thought, it could be that easy. She could be real again, not some figment of his fucked-up imagination. All he had to do was want it enough, wish for it enough, long for it enough. All he had to do—
Cloe walked into the kitchen, her beautiful little face marred by fear. Daddy, there’s something in the living room.
Without consciously considering it he stood, and his legs were trembling so much he had to lean on the table for a second. “What? What is it?”
I don’t know. But something’s wrong.
“Wait here, both of you,” he said, and walked quickly into the living room.
Earlier he’d been opening and paying bills, and the checkbook, pen, letter-opener and an unorganized pile of envelopes where still scattered on the couch. Cloe had spread her homework on the coffee table in front of the couch, but other than that, the living room was empty, no sign of any trouble, no sign of an intruder. He breathed a sigh of relief, realizing he’d probably been the victim of a child’s vivid imagination. But then he recalled she’d said there was something, not someone, in the living room. Something’s wrong, she’d said, and he too could sense the wrongness of it.
Paulie-boy, what is it?
“Nothing,” he called. “Just wait there.” He scanned the room a second time, spotted his reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall above a little knick-knack table Suzanna had purchased. He was reminded of his dream. But he wasn’t dreaming now, and a piece of framed, silvered glass just didn’t induce that kind of fear in anything but a dream. Nevertheless, he looked at his reflection cautiously, noticed that the mirror appeared to be damaged, or perhaps just poorly made, because the glass distorted his image, made his face appear wavy and slightly misshapen. He crossed the room to look closely into the mirror, and as he watched, the face staring back at him began to distort further, a circular swirling as if someone had dropped a pebble into a mirror-smooth pond. It churned, began to twist into a spiral, as if his image was nothing but wet paint on a canvas with a child smearing it around.
The image in the mirror so engrossed Paul that when someone started pounding on the front door, it barely registered on his consciousness. It was not a polite knock but loud, incessant pounding, and yet to Paul it was a distant, remote sound that couldn’t draw his attention away from the mirror. A man’s voice came from the same distant place, shouting, “Let us in.” The voice carried real desperation, almost hysteria. “Now, please.”
Paul’s image in the mirror distorted even further and took on an almost reptilian cast. His skin darkened to near black, his nose elongated into a flat snout with gaping nostrils, his ears morphed into tall, spiked, leathery things more on the front of his head than on the sides. The pupils in its eyes slowly elongated until they were slit horizontally like those of a goat, and they glowed an angry blood-red. The monster in the mirror looked at him greedily, and he sensed its hunger and hatred as if it welled up from his own soul, as if he was himself the monster in the mirror.
Suddenly a hand emerged from the depths of the mirror. It was the black, clawed thing from his dreams, with knobby joints and knuckles. And just like in his dream it reached forth and gripped his throat viciously, snapping him out of the stupor that had possessed him. He grabbed at the monster’s wrist, praying that it was a dream, that he’d snap awake suddenly, lying in bed and bathed in sweat. But as he tried to pull the claws away from his throat there was no dislodging the vice-like grip.
The pounding on the door changed suddenly to a wall-shaking thud, as if someone large had thrown a shoulder against it.
The hand protruding from the mirror emerged farther, pushing Paul back a step and revealing a spindly arm with a web-like, leathery flap attaching it to a bony torso. The head emerged and it screeched at Paul with a sound like fingernails on chalkboard. With its other hand it gripped the frame of the mirror, thrashed about as if the glass were a viscous puddle of some thick fluid sucking at it and resisting its efforts to struggle free. And with blood pounding in his ears, terror clutching at his heart, Paul could do nothing as it shook him about like a child’s doll.
Bit-by-bit a bat-like being out of hell emerged completely into the room and stood in the middle of the floor, holding Paul at arm’s length. He struggled uselessly as it craned its neck and screamed out a cry of triumph and hunger. It looked at Paul with the hungry eyes of a starving predator and its blood-red goat-slitted pupils flared blindingly, a stream of ichorous drool dripping from its chin. It stepped forward with an ungainly shuffle, pushing Paul back until the back of his legs hit the coffee table. He tumbled backwards, pulling the monster down on top of him. He landed on the couch in a flurry of envelopes and bills and was almost impaled on the letter opener. A horrid smell of rotting meat washed over him as he shouted, “Suzanna, run.”
The monster clamped down on his throat, digging its talons into his neck, cutting off his air and any possibility of shouting another warning. Behind it another monster emerged from the mirror, born of the same hell as the first. The monster atop Paul looked over its shoulder at its companion, turning its head about as no human could. “Get the necro,” it growled in a snake-like hiss. Its companion nodded and darted into the kitchen with ungodly speed.
The monster turned back to Paul, and as it opened its mouth to reveal a bony ridge of razor sharp teeth, he thought of the letter opener still jabbing him in the back. Paul beat at the side of the monster’s head with his left fist, searching behind him with his right hand. He wasn’t a weak man, and the monster did nothing to defend itself, nothing to block his blows, nothing to avoid them, and yet they had no effect other than to momentarily snap its reptilian head from side to side. But Paul didn’t care. He only cared about Suzanna and Cloe, and the monster that had run into the kitchen after them. Let this monster do what it would, he cared only to stop the monster in the kitchen from harming those he loved. He could sense it hunting them, stalking them. He could sense its hunger, ravenous, uncontrolled, a blinding desire to rip them limb from limb. And while the monster on top of him beat at him, tore at him, choked him senseless, he concentrated on the beast in the kitchen, focused on it, and wished for only one thing, prayed, hoped, demanded it be gone from the here and now. And then something went pop, like a cork pulled from a bottle of wine.
The monster atop him flinched, looked momentarily toward the kitchen, then turned back to Paul and they locked eyes.
It was as if he was a little child terrified of the dark of his bedroom, and suddenly one of his parents walked in and flicked on the lights. At that moment all fear and terror fled. He looked into the creature’s eyes and felt it pulling on him, not pulling physically, but pulling on something through the contact between its clawed hand and his throat. It felt as if the creature were reaching deep into his heart, into his soul, pulling on the core of his being. And Paul wanted to give it everything it desired, for suddenly he loved and trusted it as he’d never loved anything before. But a small spark within him knew he must resist that pull.
As if his mind had split into two separate beings Paul yielded to the pull and embraced the desire he saw in the monster’s eyes, while that spark within him found the letter opener and gripped its handle. But it and his right hand were now pinned beneath his back. He tried to look away from the monster’s blood-red, goat-slitted eyes but couldn’t. The monster continued to pull through the physical contact with his throat and he was beginning to see sparkling motes of unconsciousness as he threw everything into resisting that pull. The monster snarled, cried out and reared its head back.
Paul got the letter opener free, swung it out in a roundhouse arc just as the monster’s claws tightened with crushing force about his throat, slammed the letter opener into the side of its head and buried it there.
The monster screamed, rolled off him in a snarling frenzy, its jaws snapping at empty air, hissing and spinning about like a maddened animal. Where the letter opener protruded from the side of its head the wound sputtered a greasy smoke as if the letter opener were a red-hot brand.
Paul staggered to his feet looking for another weapon, and then the door to his apartment exploded. The blast peppered Paul’s left side with splinters and knocked him to the floor. It blew the monster across the room and slammed it against the wall in a shower of splinters where it slumped to the floor.
Paul’s head reeled from the concussion of the explosion. He rolled onto his back, thinking he had to get to his feet no matter how much the room swayed. He got to his elbows but could go no further until the dizziness subsided. He was surprised to see the older fellow who’d knocked on his door last week stride purposefully across the room to the monster, a young version of Joseph Stalin a few steps behind him. The old fellow leaned over the monster, pulled a shiny, needle-shaped spike from his coat, plunged it into the monster’s chest, and held it there as the monster struggled and kicked. The old guy began chanting something in a language Paul didn’t recognize. Two more strangers, another old man and an ugly fellow with long, greasy, blond hair, rushed past the old fellow into the kitchen.
Joe Stalin looked up from whatever the old man was doing to the monster, looked at Paul and frowned angrily, then reached into his coat and pulled out a revolver the size of a howitzer. He crossed the room to Paul and stood over him, carefully aimed the muzzle of the cannon between Paul’s eyes, grinned menacingly and slowly pulled the pistol’s hammer back with his thumb.
Just as it clicked into place, in a flash, the mere blink of an eye, Suzanna and Cloe appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. Paul blinked again, and now Cloe straddled Joe Stalin’s back, her arms wrapped around his throat as she pulled with all her might, her face twisted with anger and fear. A real child, even such a small one, should’ve had more effect on Joe Stalin, should’ve at least made him stagger. As it was all he did was hesitate, frown and reach up with his left hand to touch his throat for just an instant, apparently completely unaware of the spectral child riding his back. But the instant ended in a blink and he lowered the gun back toward Paul’s face.
Suzanna wrapped her hands around Joe’s wrist, tugged at it and tried to pull the gun to one side. Again, a real grown woman should’ve had more effect. But Joe seemed no more aware of her than Cloe, though the gun did waver for a moment and shifted a few inches to one side just as he pulled the trigger.
The gun roared in Paul’s face with a deafening explosion that sent Paul’s senses reeling. He cringed, laid there for an instant with his ears ringing, blood pounding in his head, and it took him a second to realize his brains weren’t splattered all over the room.
Joe Stalin lowered the gun again toward Paul’s face, with Cloe still riding his back and Suzanna tugging on his wrist. He pulled the hammer back just as a middle-aged hippie-woman shot across the room and touched him with a lightning bolt of electricity. Joe staggered and Paul rolled to one side as the gun roared again, the muzzle flash only inches from his face. Paul tried to sit up, looked up at the hippie woman who stood over him in a dress that looked like she’d hung a bunch of scarves of all colors from her torso, covering her from neck to floor. She wore her bright red hair in a wild tangle, tussled and curly in that way of the classic redhead. In it were about a dozen, thin, braided strands into which had been woven small, silver trinkets.
The lightning bolt she’d hit Joe with had had considerable effect. He staggered about like a drunkard as she charged at him. The hippy struggled with him for a moment but he slapped her to the floor. He lifted the gun unsteadily, aimed it at Paul, the barrel waving about wildly as Joe continued to stagger and Suzanna continued to pull on his wrist. Paul rolled to one side as the cannon roared again. The bullet plowed into the floor where he’d been a moment ago, digging a furrow in the carpet and slapping his face and shoulders with an explosion of splinters. It was pure luck he didn’t lose an eye.
Paul got to his feet and staggered toward the shattered front door of his apartment, looked over his shoulder just as he reached it. Joe Stalin still tottered drunkenly, but the ugly, blond fellow appeared in the entrance to the kitchen carrying another howitzer. He aimed it at Paul, but the hippie-woman hit him with one of those lightning bolts just as he fired and the shot took out part of the doorjamb only inches from Paul’s head. Paul staggered out into the hall as Joe Stalin fired another shot, punching a hole through the apartment wall behind him.
Paul stumbled and half-rolled down the first flight of stairs, but a surge of adrenaline cleared his head and he managed to stagger down the next flight without falling. After that he took the stairs three at a time, was grateful he didn’t break his neck before he slammed out the front door of his building and tumbled into the street.
McGowan didn’t dare turn away from the demon until he finished destroying it, knew Colleen could handle the Russians. He continued releasing the spell he’d locked into the silver spike, and wisps of smoke began swirling up from the monster’s eyes and ears and mouth. It thrashed wildly, struggling, kicking, screaming out an ungodly, high-pitched cry, but McGowan refused to waver and held it pinned to the floor with the spike. And then suddenly the monster slumped back and lay motionless. Still, McGowan didn’t waver, held it pinned and continued the chant, relentlessly bringing the spell to its conclusion. Slowly the monster’s skin grew translucent, the beast shrank, and then it dissipated completely in a cloud of smoke and ash that dissolved into the air of the room
McGowan stood and turned to find Colleen blocking the door to the hallway, Karpov facing her angrily, no sign of his two thugs. “Enough,” McGowan shouted.
Karpov turned to face him.
“What did you think you were doing?” McGowan demanded. “We’re going to have half the city down on us any minute.”
Karpov opened his mouth to say something. A moment ago, with McGowan occupied by the emergent, he’d been willing to take on Colleen alone. But now that McGowan was free to back her, the Russian thought better of it. He raised his hands in a placating gesture, shrugged and said, “Valter, my two colleagues are young and inexperienced. Sometimes they act with a bit too much . . . enthusiasm. You will forgive them, of course.”
McGowan wanted to strangle the Russian bastard. “Call them back, now.”
Karpov frowned and shook his head. “They’re doing what needs to be done.”
McGowan took a step toward him. “Do you really want those two morons out there unsupervised? They’ll shoot up half the city.”
Karpov grimaced. “You do have a point, Valter.” He pulled out a cell phone, flipped it open and dialed a number, waited for a few seconds then said something in Russian. He closed the cell phone and said, “They’ll be here shortly.”
Paul stumbled as he hit the street, fell to the tarmac in a tumble, tearing his shirt and pants and badly scraping his hands and knees and elbows. He figured he had only seconds before Joe Stalin and his friend followed him and blew his brains out. At least a light mist had blanketed the street, which might help him hide.
“Come on, ye daft idiot,” someone snarled in his ear in a thick Irish accent. “You’ve no time to be a lying here enjoying the scenery.”
With his ears still ringing from the thunder of the gunshots Paul was surprised he could hear anything. He rolled over, struggled to his hands and knees and found himself nose to nose with a midget. The little fellow wore green leggings, a brown doublet over a purple shirt, with bright orange-red hair spilling out from a floppy, red-felt hat perched jauntily on his head. He was shorter than any midget Paul had ever seen, not even knee high. He sported large, mutton-chop whiskers, with a nose shaped like a ski jump that separated green eyes filled with disapproval.
He grabbed Paul’s arm, and with surprising strength, pushed and cajoled him to his feet. “Come on, ye fool,” he said as he turned and ran up the sidewalk. “This way, hurry.”
Paul ran after the little fellow in an uneven, limping gait, gained a little distance but each step was an excruciating exercise in futility. As he hobbled down the sidewalk he ran a hand down his thigh, could feel large wooden splinters protruding from his jeans. “Stop,” Paul cried after the midget. “I’m hurt. I can’t run.”
The midget dug in its heels, spun and raced back to Paul, took one look at his bloodied thigh and said, “Aye. Sure, I should’ve seen that.”
The midget grabbed his hand, tugged him off the sidewalk into the shadows of some shrubs. “Lay down, ye daft fool, and be still.”
Paul obeyed the little fellow. In his present condition hiding and hoping for the best was his only chance. He and the midget laid down side-by-side and watched the front of his building as Joe and his ugly, blond friend spilled onto the street, guns in hand. The Russians looked up and down the street, spoke hurriedly and gestured for a few seconds. Then the ugly blond started down the street away from Paul while Joe Stalin ran up the street toward him.
Paul knew his situation was hopeless. The shrubs weren’t that large and the shadows weren’t that deep, and the mist helped a little, but not enough. The midget apparently agreed with Paul’s assessment. He said, “This just won’t do. We’ll have to go someplace else.” He reached out and grabbed Paul’s hand and said, “Come with me, young fella.”
Paul wanted to protest, was about to say something about splinters in his leg and that he was in no shape to go anywhere. But before he could say anything the mist began to dissipate, and the night sky lightened toward a soft orange, as if the sun was rising prematurely. Little by little the horizon turned a dark pinkish-purple, a strange false dawn that was just plain wrong. He looked over his shoulder hoping to find a normal sun, hoping brush fires in the distant hills had laid down a cloud of smoke that filtered the sun’s light into this strange off-colored dawn.
The midget hissed, “Hold still, ye daft fool.”
The street in front of Paul’s apartment had grown indistinct, had become almost transparent, as if an image of it had been overlaid onto the more solid image of a strange, rolling countryside, though the midget was still solid and well defined. “Where are we?” Paul whispered.
The midget smiled knowingly. “Well now, we’re a little bit here, and a little bit there, and a little bit nowhere. And you should be still and quiet. Don’t move and don’t make a sound.”
Joe Stalin trotted up the street, and like everything else he was almost transparent, defined more by his edges than his substance. He carried the howitzer openly and looked to right and left as he ran right past Paul’s hiding place. He stopped at the corner, looked both ways and stood there for a moment of indecision.
Paul heard the refrains of some heavy-metal band, thought for a moment he might be hallucinating. He had splinters embedded in the side of his face, along his left arm and ribs, down his hip and leg, and they produced enough pain to make anyone hallucinate. But then Joe Stalin reached into his coat, pulled out a cell phone, and when he flipped it open the heavy-metal tune ended. He spoke some hurried words in what sounded like Russian, stuffed the phone back into his coat and ran back to Paul’s building.
“What happened to the other emergent?” McGowan demanded. “I sensed two cross over.”
Karpov gave him a smarmy smile. “We searched the apartment carefully. There was only the one. And you took care of it with admirable dispatch.”
The shadow that was Colleen left the doorway, drifted over to the ashes that remained of the demon, squatted down and nudged at the scorched and blackened letter opener. “Cheap letter opener,” she said. “But some silver plating, otherwise it would’ve had little effect on an emergent.”
Alexei appeared in the destroyed doorway breathing heavily, Vladimir behind him. He grumbled in a thick Russian accent. “We should get out of here. The cops are on their way. We can hear the sirens.”
Karpov turned to McGowan. “We will find this rogue, Valter. My men and I will find him and eliminate him.” He and his thugs made a quick exit.
Colleen had arrived in a cab so she joined McGowan in his car. Neither of them said anything until they’d put several blocks behind them, then Colleen broke the silence. “You were right. There were two emergents.”
“I know,” he said. “But what happened to the second one?”
He’d meant it as a rhetorical question, but she answered anyway. “I think something pushed it back into the Netherworld.”
“And that’s another thing,” McGowan continued. “How did two emergents cross over? Conklin’s summons wasn’t that strong, strong enough to attract a minor demon like that succubus, but for emergents to physically cross over—Conklin wasn’t using that kind of power and he didn’t even come close to a full summoning. This just doesn’t add up.”
“No,” Colleen said, her voice almost a dreamy, absent-minded sigh. “It doesn’t. And let’s not forget they were undoubtedly Tertius caste, new emergents, and yet they exercised restraint, didn’t feed blindly, didn’t simply go on a killing spree. That young man should’ve been dead within seconds of their emergence, unless something else helped them, controlled them. And it clearly was not that young man.”
McGowan looked at her sharply and was surprised to see she’d dropped her shadows. “You said something, not someone. You don’t mean to imply a nether-being summoned them?”
She shook her head. “No. We all know that’s not possible. But I sensed something else at work here, and I don’t know what that something was.”
“And let’s not forget the succubus,” he said, returning his attention to the street in front of his car. “Before the emergents showed up I sensed one, I’m certain of it.”
He could hear her breathing as she considered his words for a long moment. “Yes, there was something. For a few seconds it was right there in the room with us. I’m almost certain it tried to protect the young man from those Russian thugs. But it wasn’t a succubus. In fact, I don’t think it was a demon of any kind.”
“Then what was it?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “and that bothers me no end.”
This whole situation bothered McGowan. “We have to find young Conklin. And fast.”
“So you can kill him?” she asked, and he could hear the disapproval in her voice.
He’d known her too long to be anything but honest with her. “Maybe. I don’t know. We can’t allow him to summon demons without the proper protections. You know as well as I that one demon loose in this city could kill hundreds before we put it down. And if it was healthy, really healthy—unlike that wasted emergent I put down tonight—it could hide among us and feed off the population for years.”
She spoke hesitantly. “I felt no summons, just yearning. The young man was filled with pain and sorrow, and a lot of love and a deep longing. But he performed no summons.”
McGowan looked at her again, but she’d recalled her shadows so he looked back to the street ahead. When Colleen spoke her Irish accent had thickened considerably. “Old Wizard, do you think you could find it in your kind heart to offer an old woman a shot of good whiskey? Just a wee dram, purely for medicinal purposes, of course.”
He looked at her with a glint in his eyes. “Your place or mine, sweetheart?”
She breathed a deep, exasperated sigh. “Well now, old man, my place is six thousand miles from here, so it’ll have to be yours. But all I want from you is good whiskey and something to eat, and a good night’s sleep . . . by myself, you old pervert.”
“Sorry, my dear,” he said. “I can offer you the whiskey and food, but no sleep tonight. Karpov is resourceful, so we have to get to Conklin before he does.”
She nodded and asked, “Did you catch the background scent in the young man’s apartment?”
“Ya, Sidhe. Faint, but there, almost like a Sidhe nest.”
She continued nodding. “Yes, a Sidhe nest, vacated for some time now, but still a nest, and unquestionably Unseelie, Winter Court.”
After Joe Stalin ran back into Paul’s building the night sky lost its dark pinkish-purple hue, the otherworldly feeling that had overlaid Paul’s neighborhood dissipated and the street returned to normal, as if anything about this night could be normal. He and the midget picked themselves up and the midget led Paul up the street, staying in the shadows as much as possible. Paul moved slowly, limping and shuffling painfully. He felt guilty for abandoning Suzanna and Cloe, but he knew he was bug-fuck nuts, and they were just figments of his imagination. Come to think of it, the man-sized bat-thing that climbed out of his mirror had to be another hallucination. That meant his delusions were getting worse. And then there was the hippie woman throwing around lightning bolts. A police shrink would have a field day with him.
Paul managed to put three blocks between him and his building when a police car turned the corner two blocks up, sirens screaming and lights flashing. It came his way and he tried to flag it down but it roared past him, came to a stop in front of his apartment. Moments later two more squad cars joined it, all three parked at odd angles in front of the building, lights flashing and sirens now silent.
Paul considered turning back now that help was at hand, but if the cops were going to shoot it out with those thugs he didn’t want to end up in the middle of that. But walking hurt like hell and he could barely stay on his feet so he couldn’t go on. And as the sidewalk beneath his feet swayed like the deck of a ship he staggered to the steps leading up to someone’s front door, sat down clumsily on the lowest step and buried his face in his hands.
“Come on, ye fool,” the midget said. “You can’t stay here.”
The little fellow was right. Paul struggled to his feet and swayed drunkenly. “Lead the way.”
The midget ran ahead.
“Young man,” a deep male voice said. “Are you ill?”
Paul turned to find a tall stranger with unusually black skin standing next to him. “You’ve been hurt!” the man said, his voice filled with concern. “You’re bleeding. What happened?”
“Crazy people,” Paul said, unable to get the words out without slurring them. “Broke into my apartment and tried to kill me.”
“My god!” the man said. “What’s this neighborhood coming to? There’s a fire station just a few blocks from here, and I know they have an ambulance and paramedics. Let’s get you to some help.”
He gripped Paul’s arm on the uninjured side and the old fellow was surprisingly strong. Paul leaned on him heavily as they staggered down the street, the midget running well ahead of them. There was something vaguely familiar about the man. His coal-black skin plucked the chord of a memory hidden somewhere within Paul, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t recall it.
They turned a corner and the fire station loomed halfway down the block. As they staggered toward it Paul said, “Thank you, Dayandalous,” though he couldn’t remember where he’d heard that name.
The man stopped in his tracks and looked at Paul carefully. “Very good, Paul,” he said. “That you remember anything is a real testament to your possibilities.”
Paul looked into the man’s face, and the streetlight reflected blood-red from his eyes. “We shall meet again, Paul,” the man said.
Paul squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, and when he looked again the man was gone. He looked up the street, saw no sign of the fellow and decided he must’ve imagined the whole thing. He turned back toward the fire station and limped on, his left shoe making squishy noises, which seemed odd until he realized the shoe had filled with blood from the splinters in his leg.
As he approached the fire station the midget stepped into his path and stood blocking his way with his hands on his hips. “I’ll have to leave you now, young fellow. Just remember your mundane friends can’t be helping you in this. Oh, they can heal your wounds but they can’t heal your soul.”
Paul stepped around the little fellow, saying, “The last thing I need is riddles from some midget in a clown suit.”
“Midget!” the little fellow shouted. Somehow he’d gotten in front of Paul, though Paul hadn’t seen him move. He was just there, again with his hands on his hips. “Sure, I ain’t no midget, you daft fool. And I’ll have you know I prides meself on the cut of me attire, better than most. Few of the little people cuts a finer figure than Jim’Jiminie.”
Paul shook his head, decided the little fellow was another hallucination, stepped around him again and walked up to the front door of the fire station.
Katherine McGowan sat up groggily in bed, thinking it was still too early for the alarm, realized it was her phone ringing insistently. She had a full roster of patients due in the morning, and that was on her mind as she lifted the phone, put it to her ear and grumbled, “McGowan here.”
“Katherine,” her father said. She didn’t need him to say, “It’s your father.”
The clock showed a little past midnight, so she realized it must be something important. “Is something wrong? Are you hurt?”
“No! No! Well ya, something is wrong. But no, I’m not hurt. No one’s hurt. Well, there’s a young man I know, and I think he’s hurt, but Colleen and I are just fine.”
“Colleen’s in town?”
“Ya, she came to help me with something. And I need your help.”
If Colleen had come to town to help her father with something, it would be something arcane and very important. “What can I do to help?”
Her father spoke in a breathless rush. “A young friend of mine, name of Paul Conklin, we think he’s been hurt, probably assaulted. He’s probably going to wind up in an ER somewhere, either stagger into it on his own or riding in an ambulance. I’d like to know as soon as he shows up.”
“I don’t know that much about the city’s ERs.”
“But you’re a shrink. You know people.”
She’d tried for years to get him not to use the word shrink. But yes, as a psychiatrist, she did know people. She asked, “Where did this happen?”
“Far north end of Pacific Heights.”
She wracked her brains to dredge up what little she knew about ER locations. “Up at that end of town I think California Pacific and Saint Francis Memorial are the only facilities with twenty-four hour ERs, but I’ll have to confirm that. Let me make some calls. I can probably arrange to get a call if he checks into one of those facilities.”
“If you hear anything, call me right away.”
“I will, father.”
Katherine was well known at both hospitals. But it still took several phone calls to locate a neurology resident she knew at California Pacific, and a surgery resident she knew at Saint Francis, both of whom had pulled a night shift. They promised to spread the word to their ER staffs, so she went back to bed.
The windows on the second floor of the fire station were lit so someone must be up. Next to the giant garage doors for the big trucks was a normal sized house door. Paul leaned against it and pounded on it for a good two or three minutes, was still leaning against it when a large fellow opened it. Paul stumbled into his arms and collapsed.
“Carlyle, Baksh,” the fellow shouted, “get down here. This guy’s hurt.”
The fellow laid Paul gently down on a concrete floor as two of his station mates rushed up carrying large kits. They pulled on surgical gloves as they knelt down over him. “What happened, buddy?” the big guy asked.
As one of the paramedics started cutting away his shirt with scissors he grunted out, “Big guys, with guns . . . and accents . . . in my apartment.”
The other paramedic, who was busy attaching some sort of monitoring devices to Paul’s chest, looked up at the big guy and said, “Fucking home invasion.”
“Are you shot?”
Paul shook his head. “Not shot. Least I don’t think so. Blew the door off its hinges. Splinters . . . in my leg . . . my side.”
“Some in your face too. An inch higher and you’d’ a lost the eye.”
The big guy said, “Can’t believe it, fucking home invaders using explosives to blow doors now.”
“Not home invaders,” Paul said. “Russians . . . wizards . . . giant bat things . . . a hippie with lightening.”
A crowd of their station mates had gathered, and Paul caught several of them sharing sidelong looks and raised eyebrows. One of the paramedics grumbled, “Probably concussion,” and Paul realized he’d better shut up.
They wouldn’t listen to him after that, clearly figured he wasn’t lucid due to a head injury. They trussed him up rather thoroughly, and with his head and neck in some sort of brace one of them said, “Ok, let’s roll him, check for exit wounds.”
They rolled him onto his side, prodded him a bit, and there was general agreement he hadn’t been shot. They bundled him into an ambulance and Paul lay back as the lights of the city rushed past, the horn blaring, the ambulance jerking and swerving about.
At the ER someone asked, “Call said GSW?”
“Looks like maybe not,” one of the paramedics said, “but you should check him anyway. And he’s not lucid. Probably head trauma.”
The ER staff poked and prodded at him, asked him to count fingers and other tests for lucidity. By the time the cops arrived they’d given him a sedative and the pain began to ebb.
“Ya,” one of the cops said. “We got the call earlier. You should see his place. Looks like a navy seal team took it apart.”
“He said something about Russians.”
“Fucking Russian Mafia,” the cop said. “Ass holes must be going into home invasions now.”
The cop leaned into Paul’s field of view. “Sorry, buddy, but we’ll probably never find the bastards. But you are one lucky stiff. Those fuckers are stone-cold killers.”
He was too stoned to really feel anything as they plucked all the splinters and stitched him up. A doctor told him he didn’t have a concussion, but they still wanted to keep him overnight for observation. They finished bandaging him up, wheeled him through a maze of halls and up an elevator, then parked his bed in a large ward. He drifted off into a hazy, drug-induced slumber.
Baalthelmass had learned much this night. As expected Its two minions had failed to devour this Lord. But It had learned this Lord was weak, even weaker than It had believed. He hadn’t demonstrated any defensive powers, even against such weak underlings, had instead fled into the night while his mortal companions disposed of the emergents. And, in fact, they’d only annihilated one with the usual methods, while something unknown had sent the other back to the Netherworld. It was that unknown that gave It pause.
Another test was called for. Another minion, but this time not the wasted, half-living, ravenous creatures with no experience on the Mortal Plane. No, this time It would send Its protégé, one much stronger than the others, one capable of casting a powerful glamour, of using caution and finesse, one perhaps even capable of devouring this Lord-of-the-Unliving, if it was resourceful. It would be a shame if Baalthelmass missed out on such a sumptuous feast, but if this Lord proved more resourceful than anticipated, better to let something else suffer annihilation, if it came to that.
Katherine got the call around 4:00 AM. Paul Conklin had apparently been the victim of a home invasion, had suffered some nasty injuries but nothing life threatening. He’d been brought in by paramedics and was resting comfortably.
She called her father, but only got his voice mail so she left a message with the details. This young man was apparently quite important to her father, and she couldn’t confirm that he’d gotten her message, so she decided to start the day early and check on the fellow herself. She took a quick shower, put on her makeup and a not-too-conservative Donna Karan business suit with the skirt cut just above the knees. She finished it off with some Prada four-inch heels; she knew she looked good in heels. She could check in on this Conklin fellow, probably run into her father at the hospital, get a bite to eat somewhere and be in her office long before her first appointment.
She loved driving the Jaguar. It was an extravagance, but she didn’t care, and after she parked it in the reserved parking at the hospital, she patted it on the hood like a pet and said, “Don’t miss me too much, darling.”
The night receptionist greeted her with a friendly smile. “Dr. McGowan, you’re up rather early. Or is it late for you?”
“Early,” Katherine said. She didn’t recognize the woman, couldn’t remember her name. To locate Conklin she needed a teensy lie. “One of my patients was brought into the ER a little earlier, was checked in for the night, name of Paul Conklin.”
The receptionist consulted her computer and said, “He’s on the fourth floor. You’ll have to ask the floor supervisor exactly where.”
One of the nurses on the fourth floor recognized Katherine and she repeated the lie that he was one of her patients. Without asking, the nurse handed her his chart and led her to a ward with twelve beds. It was a long, rectangular room, with six beds lined up along the left wall and six along the right. Ten of the beds were unoccupied, while privacy curtains hid the remaining two, “He’s in the last bed on the right,” the nurse said, then marched back to her station.
The night receptionist looked up from her book as the three men stepped into the lobby, an older fellow flanked by two younger, larger men, all wearing cheap, dark suits. The older fellow wore an outdated hat that would’ve been stylish in the fifties. The younger fellow on his left was an ugly blond with pock-marked cheeks, while the big fellow on his right had a bushy mustache that almost hid his square face. The younger men radiated a badass attitude like the thugs that hung out with her junkie nephew, and she took an immediate dislike to them.
The older fellow in the middle spoke in a thick accent of some kind. “We’re looking for Paul Conklin. I believe he was brought into emergency earlier this evening.”
She wasn’t going to give these fellows anything. “Sorry. We don’t release information to anyone but relatives. And you’ll have to wait for visiting hours.”
“But I am a relative,” the old fellow said. “Here, my card.”
He held out a business card. She reached out and took it, and as it touched her fingers they tingled slightly. She didn’t really need to look at it, because of course he was a relative. Since she’d looked up Conklin’s records for Dr. McGowan only ten minutes earlier, she didn’t need to do so again. “Mr. Conklin’s on the fourth floor. But you’ll have to wait for visiting hours. Only medical staff allowed this time of night.”
“But I am medical staff,” the fellow said in his thick accent. “Look again at my card.”
She didn’t need to look at his card, which still tingled in her fingers. Of course he was medical staff. She pointed down the hall. “The elevator’s that way, doctor.”
“Thank you,” he said kindly, reaching out and retrieving his card.
As they walked away he said to the two younger men, “See what you can do with a little finesse.”
Some minutes later she wondered why she was just sitting there staring at her hands as if she was holding something. She must’ve zoned out, one of those senior moments they told her would happen as she got older.
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